DIY Insurgency: Emerging Technologies Threaten the SOF Mission
It started innocuously enough. The prime minister-for-life never missed the annual “Liberation Day” parade. With the drums and platoons thundering, nobody noticed as the quadcopter, barely larger than a sparrow, floated down toward the dais, its faint whirr drowned out by the industrial machinery rolling by in formation.
It was at once a child’s birthday present and the summation of millennia of military science. A flying machine postulated long ago by Michelangelo, now equipped with a vial of biological toxin, a GPS chip, microprocessors, and facial recognition software.
The attackers had uploaded the prime minister’s face to the quadcopter’s onboard processor, given it a rough search grid where they expected the target to be located, and then let it loose. The drone found its target, quickly zoomed within a few inches of the man’s face, deployed its payload, and self-destructed. The prime minister and his coterie were dead within the hour.
His remaining lieutenants were at each other’s throats by the end of the day. Their respective clans lobbed accusations at one another on social media, live-streamed protests, and employed smartphone-wielding teenagers as spotters.
By week’s end the country was awash in blood, thrown into a full-scale civil war. Community centers equipped by aid organizations with 3D printers quickly turned into weapons-printing armories. An enterprising college student, sent away to the University of London by her urban middle-class parents, translated a copy of the U.S. Army’s Ranger Handbook into the local dialect and uploaded it to a well-known file-sharing website clandestinely built by locals on top of Wikipedia.
Cryptocurrency donations flowed in from diaspora communities in Europe, funding ad hoc logistics networks ferrying supplies by the pound across the border. It was a 21st-century Berlin Airlift of apocalyptic know-how. Thumb drives with videos describing how to mix explosives from household goods were passed around like candy. Mobile phone-towers, once symbols of modernity (and, to the discerning observer, the reach of domestic and foreign intelligence services) were quickly destroyed. In their place, ad hoc wireless mesh networks popped up around the country built with old 802.11n routers strung up to the sides of buildings, operating without the need for satellite connectivity.
Back in the United States, at the urging of members of the Congress whose districts had similar ethnic constituencies, the American president huddled his advisors. Eight days later, he gave a widely lauded speech announcing critical aid for key ethnic groups simply defending themselves against attempts at cleansing. Help would arrive in just a few short weeks. In the meantime, the Theater Special Operations Command was directed to mobilize a small “advise and assist” team. Its partner on the ground was unknown. By the time this team actually arrived 96 hours later, the war was nearly over. The government-in-exile, operating for years over private chat servers in Europe, had traveled into the country clandestinely via micro-submarine and quickly established a new government in the mineral-rich northern region.
What happens when the capabilities that we give to special operators can instead be deployed by amateurs? How will the special operations community respond?
We propose the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) initiate a formal, biannual training event that invites competition between cutting-edge special operations forces and creative members of the public. By allowing technologists to compete against and alongside premier special operators in closed training exercises, we can begin to draw tactics, techniques, technologies, and procedures currently in development in the academic and private sectors into premier special operations units in the U.S. military.
To complete its missions in an increasingly chaotic world, U.S. special operations forces (SOF) must learn to rapidly adopt technologies that may only be months old. Just as machine intelligence transformed the professional chess circuit — today’s top chess teams are human-machine hybrids — so too must SOF evolve and drive emerging capabilities more deeply into its operational elements.
Fortunately for those involved in planning, training, and executing sensitive and special operations, no nuanced actor has yet synthesized all of these new tools into a precise instrument. But there are signs of experimentation by America’s potential adversaries, most notably in the special operations campaign run by the Russian government during its annexation of Ukraine.
Why are current SOCOM operational constructs considered “special,” and how can we ensure they remain so in the future? Portions of the SOF mandate are about asymmetrically denying the enemy operational access to technology. The converse is true, too. SOCOM’s dominance relies on its ability to asymmetrically use technology to achieve traditional political and military aims faster and more efficiently. One need look no further than CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology or other special mission units supporting SOCOM. Colonel John Boyd explained that the ability to cycle through the process of observation-orientation-decision-action faster than the other side often leads to military victory. In many cases, the speed of that loop is increased with technology.
For years we’ve been seeing an exponential increase in computer and communication capabilities. Exponential growth looks linear until it hits an inflection point. Are we there? Perhaps. The iPad 2, released in 2011, was more powerful than the 1985 Cray-2 Supercomputer, which cost $35 million in today’s dollars.
This comparison illustrates the commoditization of so-called “national technical means.” What was once the sole provenance of nation states can now be purchased at the corner store, and the downward price pressure on these capabilities is not limited to the digital spectrum. Unmanned aerial vehicles with cutting-edge optics, built and used by nation states for over half a century, are now available for the cost of a meal at a modest restaurant.
Combining sensors, actuators, transducers, and other analog and digital components hereto unknown provide a potential generational leap in asymmetric capability by non-state actors and non-elite units of potential competitor nations. How can we continue to man, train, and equip the best special operations forces in the world when the same capabilities they employ, which cost us billions of dollars to acquire and train up, are available to a weekend hobbyist for a few hundred dollars?
For SOF, this logically leads to the relatively unexplored frontier of human-machine capabilities. The way we interact with computers today bears no practical difference from the way a person interacted with a computer in 1985, when the Cray-2 was the gold standard. Is it possible to learn new ways to take advantage of the best humans have to offer and combine it with the best that machines can offer?
Gary Kasparov thinks so. In an article titled “The Chess Master and the Computer,” he writes about “freestyle” chess competition where players were allowed to work with computers for a substantial prize:
The teams of human plus machine dominated even the strongest computers. The chess machine Hydra, which is a chess-specific supercomputer like Deep Blue, was no match for a strong human player using a relatively weak laptop. Human strategic guidance combined with the tactical acuity of a computer was overwhelming.
The lesson here is that human and machine, working in concert, are much more powerful than either, alone:
The surprise came at the conclusion of the event. The winner was revealed to be not a grandmaster with a state-of-the-art PC but a pair of amateur American chess players using three computers at the same time. Their skill at manipulating and “coaching” their computers to look very deeply into positions effectively counteracted the superior chess understanding of their grandmaster opponents and the greater computational power of other participants. Weak human + machine + better process was superior to a strong computer alone and, more remarkably, superior to a strong human + machine + inferior process.
Kasparov had elite training in chess, yet lost to Deep Blue in 1997 because computer could calculate millions of potential outcomes in real time. But when Kasparov worked together with a great computer, he regained the advantage. Today’s SOF are Kasparov’s peers — elite warriors. SOCOM must now leapfrog the potential loss to “Deep Blue” by examining how it can drive technology more deeply into the fabric of SOF operating structures. Do current SOF have the best process of interacting with computers? How would they know until it’s too late? What are the ramifications of losing to some poorly funded, poorly trained terrorists who stumble on a much better process?
Our proposed biannual “freestyle” SOF competition would award significant prizes to the winners, and would initially be held in the San Francisco Bay area, where many avant-garde engineering and technology minds hang their hats at the major companies and smaller startups pushing the envelope. Our idea is to draw elite and the amateur technologists into a competition of technologies and wits against U.S. Special Operations Forces in a training environment as unconstrained as modern battlefields. Over the course of 72 hours, the teams will compete to complete various tasks and then debrief each other on the tactics, technologies, and procedures employed. At the end of each competition, we will issue write-ups of who won and why — a 21st century corollary to Admiral Sims’ continuous-aim fire exercises that promulgated best practices throughout the Navy. Finally, while the long weekend will prove to be both challenging and rewarding, we also hope it will be fun.
Technology has always dictated the way in which nations prepare their soldiers for war. In ancient times, the combat tools (horses, infantry formations, trebuchets) dictated how militaries trained for battlefield efficiency. The industrial age of war changed these dynamics to focus on unit efficiency and dispersed coordination. The digital age ought to drive a similar revolution.
Isn’t it time we start?
Joshua Steinman is a former member of the Chief of Naval Operations’ Rapid Innovation Cell, and recently left active duty to join ThinAir, a digital security startup in Palo Alto, California. He is a reservist with the Defense Innovation Unit, and a Senior Visiting Research Fellow at National Defense University
Joshua Kvavle is a former member of the Chief of Naval Operations’ Rapid Innovation Cell, and a research scientist at SPAWAR Systems Center Pacific, soon to be embedded at the Office of Naval Research Global, where he specializes in next-generation optical technologies, including augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality. He holds a PhD from Brigham Young University in Electrical Engineering.
These views are those of the authors alone and do not represent the positions of any part of the U.S. government.
Image: Adapted from Daniel Zedda, CC