162. Winning Future Wars through Developing the Intellectual Component of Fighting Power: The Australian Army’s Approach to Professional Military Education

[Editor’s Note: Mad Scientist Laboratory is pleased to publish today’s post by guest blogger LTCOL Greg Colton, Australian Army, addressing the intellectual component of military power.  In our current drive to modernize the U.S. Army into a Multi-Domain Operations (MDO)-Capable Force by 2028 and set the conditions for fielding an MDO-Ready Force in 2035, we must not forget the lessons learned from our last major transformation in the 1980s.  The tactical and operational excellence that enabled us to completely rout Iraqi ground forces in 100 hours was not only the result of effective doctrine and the acquisition of the “Big 5” weapon systems, but also due to the development of our Combat Training Centers (CTCs) and Leader Development platforms like the Non-Commissioned Officer Education System and the School of Advanced Military Studies. Read on to learn how one of our key allies is approaching their Army’s Professional Military Education.]

LTGEN Rick Burr, Australian Chief of Army

We must push ourselves to think in creative and unconstrained ways to ensure our warfighting philosophy is appropriate and informs our future capabilities” — LTGEN Rick Burr, Australian Chief of Army, in Accelerated Warfare

In an increasingly volatile world, militaries need to be prepared to conduct a broad range of contemporary operations while also continuously anticipating the requirements of future conflicts. As the Australian Chief of Army so succinctly puts it, “Preparedness is dynamic. It requires us to be ready now, while concurrently becoming future ready.” Key to this is the development of the intellectual component of fighting power, both of individuals and of the Army as an organisation, so that the Army is able to adapt to changes in circumstances quickly enough to win future conflicts.

Yet, as the Institute for Defense Analyses points out, “military institutions recognize the need for leaders who can adapt, but struggle with exactly how to teach or train them to do so.” Within the Australian Army, Professional Military Education (PME) is an important component of a wider approach that blends training, education, and experience to develop a workforce able to cope with the demands of war in an ever-changing environment.

The Army’s approach to PME

Source: https://www.army.gov.au/our-work/publications/key-publications/professional-military-education-strategy

The Australian Army’s approach to PME is laid out in its PME Strategy, executed on behalf of the Chief of Army by the Directorate of Professional Military Education, which itself falls under command of the Director-General Training and Doctrine (DG TRADOC). The Directorate uses two broad approaches to enhance the intellectual component of fighting power. First, using the principle of connectivism it seeks to connect those who can impart specialist knowledge to the workforce. Secondly, it seeks to develop organisational adaptability through promoting a contest of ideas. It delivers these approaches through a number of different mechanisms which allows content to be tailored to the target audience. These mechanisms include its online portal, The Cove, unit PME packages, webinars, and conferences.


Trialing a UGV during Exercise Talisman Sabre 2019 with the U.S. / Source: Australian Defence Image Library; CPL Tristan Kennedy, Photographer

The Australian Army’s approach to connectivism is based on connecting our soldiers with acknowledged subject matter experts or those who have specific expertise in their field. A good example of the former is TX Hammes who gave a CoveTalk on the development of artificial intelligence in unmanned platforms, while an example of the latter is this article by a military workshop manager on improving the efficiency of his workshop’s layout and processes. Regardless of the source, connectivism enables the Army to link both experts and expertise with the wider workforce to develop the intellectual component of fighting power within our individual soldiers and officers. In doing so, it promotes the dissemination of best practice across the force.

Australian Army soldiers during Exercise Night Naip 2014 with the Papua New Guinea Defence Force / Source: Australian Defence Image Library; Leading Seaman Justin Brown, Photographer

However, this approach only provides half of the solution. For argument’s sake, let’s take as a given that warfare is an ever-evolving phenomenon. As such, best practice in and of itself cannot be enough, as the very term indicates the pre-determination of an optimal solution derived within a static set of variables. The uniqueness of each theatre, campaign, battlefield, or individual soldier’s field of fire will mean that the variables on which best practice has been developed will never exactly replicate. Consequently, tactical solutions to complex problems will rarely (if ever) be found using a cookie cutter template. Instead, we need an Army that is institutionally flexible enough to recognise and incorporate emerging practice to solve unique problem sets. In other words, if best practice provides the theoretical foundations required to understand the tactical problem, emerging practice provides the intellectual adaptability to actually solve it.

A contest of ideas

This leads us to the second approach we use to enhance the intellectual component of fighting power:  promoting a contest of ideas.  Fostering a culture of contesting ideas has two benefits. Firstly, it gives our people the confidence to analyse the unique problem set they are faced with and recommend bespoke solutions to a hierarchy that is often one or two steps removed from the ground truth. Secondly, and just as importantly, it inculcates an organisational culture within the Army that is willing to recognise, and accept, emerging practice (i.e., the recommendations from those trying to solve the current problem) rather than always insisting on best practice (i.e., what we have always done in similar circumstances). This is essential if we are to win future wars.

Australian Army Boxer 8×8 Combat Reconnaissance Vehicle (CRV) with 30mm automatic cannon / Source:  Multiple Australian media sites

A good example of how the Australian Army promotes a contest of ideas is The Cove’s recent Army 2030 Competition, in which readers were invited to submit a ‘script’ of no more than 100 words on what they thought the Army of 2030 should look like. Run over the period of a calendar month, it generated 48 entries from a broad range of authors, from front-line practitioners to life-long academics. Collectively, these scripts were viewed over 93,000 times in 31 days and were the genesis for numerous comments on our website, within units and messes across the country, and on social media. At the end of the competition, the entries and online discussion were captured and passed on to the Australian Army’s Directorate of Future Land Warfare to inform its work.

This ‘crowd sourcing’ of ideas doesn’t just support the work of those tasked with thinking about the future structures and capabilities of the Army. It also encourages the Army’s people to think about the future of warfare, encourages debate on how the organisation can best meet the challenges of the future, and gives our people the confidence to contribute to that debate.

A complementary approach

The Australian Army’s Combat Training Centre – Jungle Training Wing (CTC-JTW) in Tully, Queensland / Source:  www.army.gov.au

Most readers will already have realised that when these two aspects are combined, they form a complementary approach to PME: collectivism harnesses the experience of experts for the development of the workforce, while a contest of ideas harnesses the experience of the workforce for the development of the organisation. If the Army is to be truly adaptive, one cannot exist without the other. An organisation which always insists on best practice, rather than emerging practice, is risking ruin through imposing dogmatic solutions to complex problems, while an army that automatically reacts to instantaneous suggestions from the workforce, ungrounded in theoretical understanding, risks repeating the mistakes of the past.

Thus, contributions need to be sought from a broad range of viewpoints if the Army is to be ready for future conflict. As Kevin O’Leary from Shark Tank is at pains to point out:  “Nobody has a monopoly on good ideas.” This is particularly important to remember within hierarchical organisations such as the military. It can be all too easy for generals, staff officers, or senior public servants to fall into the trap of believing that experience alone is the foundation of hard-earned knowledge, and that new ideas from juniors that challenge doctrine, the status quo, or the strategic narrative are unnecessarily subversive.

Soldiers from the 7th Combat Signal Regiment (7 CSR) / Source:  www.army.gov.au

Yet, when the next war comes it will not be the desk officers or policy experts that do the fighting, or the dying, in foreign fields. It is the young military practitioner who, regardless of rank, will find themselves trying to solve a unique problem set in the most testing of circumstances. In the words of Nassim Taleb, it is they who have ‘skin in the game.’ As such, we owe that young soldier or officer not only the very best foundational professional military education we can give them, but also an organisation willing and able to adapt to bespoke solutions based on ground truth. As an Army, we must set the conditions such that our people challenging the status quo and contesting ideas is our organisation’s comfort zone.

This requires a complementary approach to PME, developed and delivered now, so that we may enhance the intellectual component of fighting power in time for the Army to fight, and win, the next war. It is an approach that the team at The Cove is dedicated to delivering for the Australian Army.

If you enjoyed this post, please read:


– Setting the Army for the Future (Parts I, II, and III)

Mad Scientist also invites you to mark your calendars and plan on joining the TRADOC G-2’s Distinguished Speaker Series on-line next Tuesday, 23 July 2019, from 1430-1600 EDT, to participate virtually in Dr. Tuomas Sandholm‘s presentation on Superhuman AI for Strategic (=Game – Theoretic) Reasoning for the DoD –  Beyond Machine Learning.  To whet your appetite, please see Army game-theory research better allocates military resources, fight cancerIt’s Hard To Win At Poker Against An Opponent With No Tell; and A Poker-Playing Robot Goes to Work for the Pentagon.

LTCOL Greg Colton is an infantry officer with 18 years’ experience in both the British and Australian armies, including operational service in Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Pacific. Greg has had a range of regimental, instructional, and staff postings and recently took a years’ sabbatical to accept a Research Fellowship at the Lowy Institute, Australia’s leading international policy think-tank. While at the Lowy Institute, he ran a Defence funded project examining drivers of instability in the Pacific. On his return to the Army, Greg assumed his current position as SO1 Professional Military Education at Forces Command. He is also Director of The Cove.

Disclaimer:  The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.  This piece is meant to be thought-provoking and does not reflect the current position of the U.S. Army.  Readers should also note that this article does not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Australian Department of Defence, or the Australian Government.

161. “Second/Third Order, and Evil Effects” – The Dark Side of Technology (Part I)

[Editor’s Note: Mad Scientist Laboratory is pleased to publish the first of a two-part series by returning guest blogger, Dr. Nick Marsella, addressing the duty we have to examine our assumptions about emergent warfighting technologies / capabilities and their associated implications to identify potential second / third order and evil effects.  This critical, yet too frequently neglected responsibility enables us to identify and mitigate any associated vulnerabilities or undesirable effects, precluding them from being exploited by our competitors and adversaries — Enjoy!]

As the resident red teamer for a large military organization, I have long advocated for military planners and those involved in modernization to examine their assumptions and to identify the potential second/third order and “evil” effects in their plans, programs, and efforts. While the common use of the word “evil” means “profoundly immoral and wicked,” I use the term more broadly.  “Evil,” in my usage for this essay, implies the unexpected and profound implications of a policy or adaptation of a technology – often with negative (but not necessarily always immoral) significant consequences.

While many professionals in and out of the military would agree that we should examine our assumptions and potentially harmful implications – specifically in developing or adopting technologies or capabilities – I am frequently disappointed in how often we actually do it and the extent to which we drill down and examine the details associated with technology implications.  Like doctors, staffs have a responsibility to do no harm; they should identify assumptions and the 2nd/3rd/evil order effects, inform decision-makers, and incorporate these considerations into their estimates of the costs/benefits and risk estimates.


I am comforted however by the increasing recognition of the importance of challenging our thinking and moving from solely focusing on the “perceived” benefits of a technology to considering the dark or evil potential effects.

In his commencement address to the Class of 2019 at Stanford University last June, Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, offered the following thoughts:

– “Technology magnifies who we are, the good and the bad.

– “If you want credit for the good, take responsibility for the bad” – highlighting the fact that Silicon Valley’s revolutionary inventions connecting people around the world have also enabled data breaches, privacy violations, hate speech, and fake news.

– “Too many seem to think that good intentions excuse harmful outcomes.”

Succinctly, Mr. Cook offered, “Taking responsibility means having the courage to think things through.”1  His remarks are worthy of our consideration.


While I am sure that Mr. Cook wouldn’t have us throw out our iPhones and Macs, neither am I recommending disregarding the advantages of modernity by returning to manual typewriters in lieu of laptops or returning to less sophisticated medical procedures (e.g., refuting the benefits of applying machine learning to CT scans, X-rays, and other procedures).2

However, as we incorporate automation, machine learning, elements of artificial intelligence, data analytics, the concept of the Internet of Things (IoT), and robotics into society and military operations, we should do it with our eyes wide open and with a sense of humility in our ability to foresee future implications.

Two examples amplify this point.

Many of us remember the first fielding of GPS devices in the 1990s, which enabled leaders to accurately and instantly determine their location. The advantages of this capability are many, but some of the costs included a dependency on technology to navigate from point to point; reduction in Soldiers’ proficiency in map reading; and perhaps the loss of an appreciation and understanding of terrain.  Now expand this increased dependency on technology and the network across the Army and Joint force – have we truly fully identified their implications and do we have workarounds in place?3

Even simple uses of technology, such as student computer usage in the college classroom, have implications. Increasingly, faculty banish the use of personal laptops and other electronic devices in their classrooms due to their distractive nature. Rather than listening to a lecture or participating fully in a discussion or workshop, students are distracted by their laptops – connecting to friends via social media or engaging in other on-line activities. Secondly, recent studies would indicate that “pen and paper” notetaking enhances learning.

In one formal study of the use of technology in the classroom and its effects on learning, researchers examined a sophomore introductory economics class at the United States Military Academy. The researchers divided the course sections into three random groups:  in some sections, electronics were banned; in others, the use of laptops and other devices were allowed; while the remaining sections were only allowed to use tablets, provided that they were laid flat so professors could observe their use. All sections underwent the same instruction and testing; however, the students in those sections where electronics were allowed scored significantly lower on tests.4   Other studies and commentary backup this study.5

In summary, while we should pursue and field technology that helps us accomplish our mission and improve lives, we must recognize the 2nd/3rd order effects. As I’ve highlighted before in this blog – “every new capability begets a new vulnerability.” As a caveat to this rule and as noted historian Murray Williamson observed, “capabilities create dependencies, and dependencies create vulnerabilities.”6  We need to find and identify these effects and vulnerabilities before others do, while insuring we are keeping an open mind to the potential “evil” effects.

If you enjoyed this post, please see Dr. Marsella’s other posts:

– Some Thoughts on Futures Work for the Military Professional (Parts I and II)

First Salvo on “Learning in 2050” – Continuity and Change

Dr. Nick Marsella is a retired Army Colonel and is currently a Department of the Army civilian serving as the Devil’s Advocate/Red Team for the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command.

Disclaimer:  The views expressed in this article do not imply endorsement by the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.  This piece is meant to be thought-provoking and does not reflect the current position of the U.S. Army.

1 Cook, Tim. (2019 June 16). 2019 Commencement Address by Apple CEO Tim Cook to Stanford’s 128th Commencement. Retrieved from: https://news.stanford.edu/2019/-6/16/remarks-tim-cook-2019-stanford-commencement.

2 Retrieved from: cs231n.stanford.edu/reports/2017/pdfs/527.pdf

3 TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-8. U.S. Army Concept: Multi-Domain Combined Arms Operations at Echelons Above Brigade 2025-2045, pgs. 73-74. The Army concept lists four major general risks to the implementation of the 100 page concept in a page and a half – namely: the future Army communications network may not fully support the EABC; overreliance on technological capabilities; semi–fixed formations provide a false illusion of permanency; and imprudent application of the mission command philosophy.

4 Dynarski, Susan M. (2017, August 10). For better learning in college lectures, lay down the laptop and pick up a pen. Brookings Report.   Retrieved from: https://www.brookings.edu/research/for-better-learning-in-college-lectures-lay-down-the-laptop-and-pick-up-a-pen/

5 Lombrozo T. (2016, July 11). Is it time to ban computers from classrooms? NPR.  Retrieved from: http://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2016/07/11/485490818/is-it-time-to-ban-computers-from-classrooms. Also see: May, C. (2017, July 11). Students are Better Off without a Laptop in the Classroom. Scientific American. Retrieved from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/students-are-better-off-without-a-laptop-in-the-classroom/

6 Williamson, Murray. (2017). America and the Future of War: The Past as Prologue.  Stanford, CA: Hoover Institute Press, p. 177.


160. The Trouble with Talent: Why We’re Struggling to Recruit and Retain Our Workforce

[Editor’s Note:  Mad Scientist Laboratory is pleased to publish today’s post by guest blogger Sarah L. Sladek, addressing how many industries and government organizations remain enmeshed within Twentieth Century hierarchical management constructs, despite the Nation having moved on to become a Talent Economy. Recent challenges in attracting cyber-talent is a weak signal to our Army regarding recruiting, developing, and retaining the right mix of talent necessary to achieve the Multi-Domain Operations (MDO)-Capable Force by 2028 and set the conditions for fielding an MDO-Ready Force in 2035. Read Ms. Sladek’s prescription for successfully generating, recruiting, and retaining our next generations of talent — Enjoy!]

The year was 2000. The startup that launched in 1998 had outgrown the garage, relocating to a nondescript building in an office park a couple of miles off the highway.

Outside that building, on an asphalt parking lot, employees played roller hockey. The games were full contact. Employees wore pads and would come back inside drenched in sweat and sometimes bloodied and bruised.

Inside the building, the game was twice as tough. Yes, there was free food for all employees and a massage therapist. The tough part was the company’s founder, who would often provoke arguments with the staff over business and product decisions. He pushed his employees to develop their visions of future technologies.

A few years after the idea of ranking web pages by their inbound links came to Larry Page in a dream, the founder of Google wrote down his five rules for management. He was in his twenties at the time. The list of rules included:

– Don’t get in the way if you’re not adding value;

– Ideas are more important than age; and

The worst thing you can do is say no. If you say no, you have to help find a better way to get it done.

Somewhere at the tail end of the 20th century—perhaps right in that asphalt parking lot where the first Google employees played roller hockey—a radical change occurred and the Talent Economy emerged. Unlike other eras that have come before, this one is almost entirely powered by innovation and ideas.

Prior to this shift work was just a job, leadership was the equivalent of power, and the prioritization of talent didn’t really exist. Consider this timeline:

1910:  Natural resources were a company’s most valuable assets. America’s leading companies grew large by spending increasing amounts of capital to acquire and exploit oil, mineral deposits, forests, water, and land.

1946:  Post-World War II, companies took a lesson from the military and applied systems to everything for increased efficiency, predictability, and productivity. This move resulted in a command-and-control leadership style Baby Boomers (1946-1964) were raised knowing.

1955:  An insatiable appetite for American-made cars spurred the manufacturing industry. Companies needed labor, but mainly for routine-intensive jobs. When turnover occurred, those jobs were easy to fill, and individual workers had little bargaining power.

1963:  A relatively new breed of corporation made the list of largest companies: IBM. This company was wasn’t reliant on automation or natural resources. Rather, scientists, engineers, marketers, and salespeople were at the heart of IBM’s competitive advantage.

1965:  Business growth dominated the economy and more jobs began to require creativity, as well as independent judgment and decision-making skills. The concept of talent (utilizing skills, knowledge, and ideas) began to emerge.

1998:  Google was founded by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, ages 25 and 24 respectively, ushering in an era of rule-breaking and innovation among people who would have once been regarded as too young to lead or influence.

2016:  Topping the largest companies list were Apple, Microsoft, and Google, all talent-dependent companies. People under the age of 35 were starting more companies, managing bigger staffs, and realizing higher profits than any of their predecessors.

Clearly, change has happened. We’ve moved into a Talent Economy and the focus is on human capital. The irony is while most organizations are now prioritizing the recruitment and retention of talent, few have actually been successful at it. In fact, employee turnover has become a major concern. Gallup reports that young professional turnover alone costs U.S. companies an estimated $30.5 billion per year.

Why? Because there’s a gap in our workforce.

In the past, organizations were built for scalable efficiency. Jobs were well-defined and organized to support processes and forecasts. Workers were trained to protect information and any collaboration with those outside of the organization was highly monitored or even discouraged.

Now we’ve moved into the 21st century—the Talent Economy—and the generations born into this era have little to no memory of the last century’s methodologies. They struggle to comprehend why decisions can’t be made on the fly, why they can’t have a seat at the decision-making table, and why it’s always been done ‘that way.’ They’ve been raised in an era fueled by collaboration, globalization, mobility, flexibility, transparency, and creativity. Anything else seems foreign and irrelevant to them.

Hence, we have a problem: an ever-widening gap between the 20th century-managed organizations, and the 21st century-raised workforce. This gap has widespread effects, including employee turnover, disengagement, and challenges finding talent. This means that every organization – including the military – needs to seriously reconsider how to find and keep talent.

Industrial versus Cyber Age Workspaces:  Rigid mid-Twentieth Century office pool contrasted with collaborative Twenty-first Century workspace / Source: Google Dublin’s interior

This situation is likely to get worse before it gets better largely because Baby Boomer retirements are escalating. Take the Army for instance. In 2018, the Army started out its fiscal year with an ambitious task: To bring in 80,000 new active duty soldiers. The military branch fell short of its goal partly due to a large number of senior personnel retirements. The Army Times reported that retention had “stopped the bleeding of missed recruiting goals,” but the balance isn’t sustainable in the long-term because the Army “could end up with more leaders than soldiers to lead.”

Turnover, decline, and uncertainty about the future doesn’t have to be the reality for any organization. I’ve spent several years researching generational behaviors and the employee engagement practices common among the most successful organizations in existence today. In brief, here are six of my key findings, which I also outline in my latest book, Talent Generation (2018).


If you want to engage the next generation of talent, this is exactly what you must do:

Put Ego Aside
In the 20th century, leadership was often the equivalent of power, fueled by a top down, ‘do-it-because-I-said-so’ approach to management. Today, the organizations boasting the highest employee engagement are led by leaders who exhibit a strong sense of passion, humility, and urgency. They are willing to learn from others and take risks. Unlike their 20th-century predecessors, these leaders are visionary, collaborative, and swift, never losing sight of their organization’s core purpose or wavering in their desire for change.

Practice Acceptance
The organizations boasting high employee engagement are those that spend a considerable amount of time thinking about change and preparing for it. They also spend a considerable amount of time thinking about how to hire the best and build the best teams. The fact is, employee engagement is an impossible feat in the midst of distrust, stereotypes, and hierarchies. Today’s most successful organizations are accepting of new ideas and new people and intentional about building relationships.

Put People First
Being truly talent-focused means prioritizing your people above all else. In a talent-focused organization, the entire team is empowered and encouraged, always part of the discussion, and there’s an effort to incorporate young talent into everything.

Stay Future Focused!
It’s imperative that all organizations ask: How do we rebuild around what we need to be next, rather than what we used to be? Organizations boasting high employee engagement are focused on creating the future, not responding to it. They pay attention to trends, set aside time to contemplate their futures, and dialogue often with younger generations.

Innovation naturally happens through and exists within collaboration. And the best organizations harness innovation from their employees and outsiders—especially those from younger generations. True collaboration isn’t limited to doing one project every once in a while; it’s a sustained strategy which maximizes individual contribution while leveraging the collective intelligence of everyone involved.

Build a Better Future
We have moved rapidly into a global, technologically advanced, knowledge-based economy. Presently, our schools are preparing students for a world we can’t even imagine, and they’re struggling to adapt and make the school-to-work connection. Many of today’s leading organizations have aligned with student-focused initiatives, and it’s critical that representatives of military, business, and industry find a way to get involved in school programming, outreach, partnering, and education. New research indicates that students hone in on a career path as early as sixth grade, so the connection must start before a student’s junior or senior year in high school.

As we move from the computer age into the cyber-age, the workforce crisis will become even more apparent as new industries, jobs, and skills emerge. The real issue is no longer talent management; it’s talent generation. It’s imperative that organizations engage younger generations of talent, and help train and prepare future talent.

Talent is our nation’s greatest asset. Talent is the heart and soul of every organization, and developing that talent has become more urgent and important than ever.

We cannot become a nation that relies on others to manufacture, create, and innovate. We cannot sit back and wait for someone else to solve this problem. If we do, we continue to fail.

We cannot be apathetic towards our future, thinking it will be someone else’s problem to solve. If we do, we continue to fail.

Without talent, we have much to lose. Without talent, we have no purpose, no future, and no hope. Without talent, society fails. So let’s put an end to the workforce crisis and seek to innovate, embrace change, and move our organizations into this next century. Let’s make work work again.

In the post above, Ms. Sladek shared her insights for successfully generating, recruiting, and retaining human capital, the sine quo non of innovation.  Mad Scientist wants to hear your thoughts on The Operational Environment: What Will Change and What Will Drive It – Today to 2035?  Learn more about our current crowdsourcing exercise here and be sure to get your submissions in NLT 1700 EDT Next Monday — 15 July 2019!

If you enjoyed this post, please also see:


Old Human vs. New Human

BrAIn Gain > BrAIn Drain: Strategic Competition for Intellect

Setting the Army (Part III)

Sarah L. Sladek is the founder and CEO of XYZ University, LLC, a future-focused management consulting firm. In addition, she is the author of five books and several research papers on generations, membership and employee engagement, and the future of work. Her latest book is Talent Generation: How Visionary Organizations Are Redefining Work and Achieving Greater Success. Twitter: @SarahSladek. Web: www.xyzuniversity.com

159. Climate Change Laid Bare: Why We Need To Act Now

[Editor’s Note: Mad Scientist Laboratory is pleased to publish this morning’s piece by guest blogger Ms. Sage Miller, addressing the geopolitical implications of climate change, specifically its role as a catalyst for instability.  Read on to learn why this matters to the U.S. Army!]

Science dictates that climate change is happening.1 The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, a naturally occurring greenhouse gas, is rising at an alarming rate, allowing less heat to escape into space. The average surface temperature of the Earth is rising, causing glaciers to melt and global sea levels to rise. These changes to water resources, food supply, and regional weather patterns all hold implications for human security and geopolitics.2

Climate change is most often discussed in terms of its ecological and environmental impacts; rarely is it touched upon as a direct national security threat. The DoD has formally recognized the severity of climate change with references to it as a “threat multiplier.”3 However, climate change not only intensifies other threats, but creates threats in its own right. To ignore environmental factors in tracing the causes of conflicts and other global events would be missing a key piece of the puzzle.

Climate change will have several significant strategic impacts affecting the Army, the DoD, and the future geopolitical landscape.

1. Expanding zones of competition. The melting of the polar ice caps is opening up the Arctic as a new ocean – and thus, a new sphere of competition. Easier access to these waters increases tourism, shipping, resource exploration and extraction, and military activities.4 The wealth of Arctic natural resources promises significant economic gains, as does the potential access to new shipping lanes. Most importantly, the opening of the Arctic connects two important potential theaters of engagement, the Indo-Pacific and Europe, to the homeland.5

The 2019 DoD Arctic Strategy explicitly expresses our desire to maintain supremacy in the region and counter Russian and Chinese incursions.6 With multiple Arctic nations remaining proactive when it comes to climate change, American inaction will only grant these states the opportunity to insert themselves and gain a foothold, enabling them to climb to regional hegemony. Neglecting this national security issue plays into the hands of our competitors, setting a dangerous precedent.

2. The health of our troops is far from guaranteed. A number of infectious diseases, such as malaria, West Nile virus, cholera, and Lyme disease, are expected to worsen as climate change continues to raise global temperatures and cause more extreme weather.7 Higher temperatures and precipitation will increase the life expectancy and range for vectors such as mosquitos, ticks, and rodents.8 Poor global health infrastructure will only amplify the spread of these and other diseases, as increasing global connectivity and changing environmental conditions change the geographic distribution of pathogens and their hosts.9 With a significant number of U.S. troops stationed abroad, the spread of vector-borne diseases is only going to grow more likely.

Melting permafrost in the Arctic is releasing diseases that we have not encountered in hundreds or even thousands of years.10 Permafrost acts as an excellent preserver of bacteria and viruses due to the lack of oxygen and light, and global warming is slowly exposing older layers of permafrost.11 With climate change accelerating these changing disease vectors, the very security and health of our troops is threatened. In 2016, thawing permafrost in northern Siberia melted to reveal a reindeer carcass that had been infected with anthrax, leading to dozens of hospitalizations and the death of a 12-year-old boy, as well as over 2,300 reindeer.12 The warming climate, facilitating the release of old diseases and expanding the ranges of disease vectors, portends a deadly future.

3. Installations worldwide are increasingly endangered.  Melting of the polar ice caps is causing the sea to rise at an alarming rate. These climate-driven changes are causing major harm to U.S. military bases both at home and abroad.13 In 2018 alone, extreme weather events damaged one Marine Corps base and two Air Force bases, and necessitated over $8 billion in repairs.14 Coastal installations are most at risk from flooding, storms, and other shifts in weather patterns. At Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Norfolk, Virginia, sea level rise has caused nine major floods in the last 10 years.15 An analysis conducted by a team of experts from the Union of Concerned Scientists found that eight bases may lose a quarter to half of their land by the end of the century, and that “Four installations – Naval Air Station Key West, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Dam Neck Annex, and Parris Island – are at risk of losing between 75 and 95 percent of their land.”16 Damaged installations may compromise material and logistic support, and training could be sacrificed in favor of rebuilding.17

In the Indian Ocean, Diego Garcia is home to a joint U.K.-U.S. military base that provides support for “a range of critical war-fighting operations in the region, including as a staging area for special operations forces, submarine support for those special operations, and long-range bomber flights into Afghanistan.”18 Unfortunately, Diego Garcia is a “low-lying atoll whose natural barriers to accelerating sea level rise and storm surge (coral reefs) are being significantly degraded by climate change.”19

Installations at risk from climate change-induced threats such as sea-level rise and coastal erosion will impact all aspects of U.S. military strategy. Potential risks range from loss of mission capabilities to increased potential for loss of life.20  The Army’s ability to project forces globally will be challenged as these installations are further degraded due to climate change.

4. Climate change impacts will lead to mass migration. A report by the World Bank found that climate change increases migration through various existing drivers, such as “depressing rural wages, raising agricultural prices, shaping exposure to hazards, and stressing ecosystems.”21 Warming, drought, rising sea levels, natural disasters, and resource scarcity are all drivers of migration caused by climate change. This trend, in combination with steep population growth in many regions, points towards a rising number of climate refugees.

The World Bank’s report focuses on three regions: Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. The report projects that by 2050, more than 143 million people across these regions could be forced to move within their own countries to escape the impacts of climate change.22 This massive amount of migration will only further compound resource scarcity and aggravate the potential for civil unrest.

Most importantly, rural to urban migration will only continue to increase as population growth and resource scarcity compel more and more people to seek a better life in cities.23 Urbanization itself has significant military implications. Large masses of disillusioned, economically disadvantaged people vulnerable to disease and unrest will gather in dense urban areas. As more and more people migrate to urban areas, the likelihood that the Army will conduct operations in a dense urban environment increases.

5. Regional instability will only grow. Climate change is inherently global; as such, different regions will be impacted differently. For instance, while the Arctic is melting rapidly, causing sea-level rise and heavy storms in the Asia-Pacific, the Middle East is experiencing extreme drought and desertification.24

As these events increase in intensity and commonality, they could cause mass panic and upheaval. Climate change is already sparking events around the world that lead to violence and conflict, such as:

a. The Arab Spring. With an event as complex as the Arab Spring, drawing precise causal arrows is virtually impossible. However, vulnerability of the Middle East and North Africa region to various climate-impacted phenomena show that security is directly linked to stability. The failure of governments to meet the basic needs of citizens by responding to climatic issues such as drought, desertification, and food shortages is what drove many to take part in the series of political uprisings.25 With climate change increasingly impacting human security, events such as the Arab Spring will only continue to follow.

b. The Syrian civil war. Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the brutal civil war raging in Syria is a prime example of the kind of climate change-induced conflicts that the U.S. may have to respond to militarily. A ten-year drought in the region led Syrians to flock to cities unable to adequately meet the demand for resources, leading the Syrians to revolt due to the government’s inability to support them.26

c. Boko Haram. Climate change has been found to be linked to political violence in Nigeria. Poor responses to climate change have increased risks of conflict, such as low economic opportunity and negative relations between the government and its citizens.27 Reports show that chronic drought around Lake Chad, whose water levels have fallen by 95% since the 1960s, has helped Boko Haram maintain its stronghold on the region due to the erosion of trust in the government and the subsequent ease of recruiting extremist soldiers.28

These are only a few of the geopolitical implications that climate change brings. New and existing threats will only grow more pressing and more relevant to the Army. Climate change has and will continue to act as an accelerant for instability, which will threaten not only developing nations, but developed liberal democracies as well. As climate change worsens, the military will soon be most challenged by an enemy it cannot truly fight.

If you enjoyed this post, please read:

Future Threats: Climate Change and Islamic Terror, by Mr. Matthew Ader

Emergent Global Trends Impacting on the Future Operational Environment

Our Arctic—The World’s Pink Flamingo and Black Swan Bird Sanctuary, by Mr. Frank Prautzsch

Ms. Sage Miller is a rising junior participating in the Joint Degree Programme with the College of William & Mary in Virginia and the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, studying International Relations. She is currently interning at Headquarters, US Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) with the Mad Scientist Initiative.

1 “Climate Change: How Do We Know?” NASA, 20 June 2019, https://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/.

2 “Climate Change Impacts,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of Commerce, Feb. 2019, www.noaa.gov/education/resource-collections/climate-education-resources/climate-change-impacts.

3 “National Security Implications of Climate-Related Risks and A Changing Climate,” Department of Defense, 23 July 2015, p. 8.

4 Ibid, p. 3.

5 “The Arctic Institute’s Reaction to the 2019 Department of Defense (DoD) Arctic Strategy,” The Arctic Institute, 7 June 2019, https://www.thearcticinstitute.org/the-arctic-institute-reaction-2019-department-defense-dod-arctic-strategy/.

6 “Report to Congress: Department of Defense Arctic Strategy,” Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Department of Defense, June 2019.

7 Renee Cho, “How Climate Change Is Exacerbating the Spread of Disease,” State of the Planet, Earth Institute, Columbia University, 4 September 2014, https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2014/09/04/how-climate-change-is-exacerbating-the-spread-of-disease/.

8 Ibid.

9 “Trends Transforming the Global Landscape,” Global Trends, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, https://www.dni.gov/index.php/global-trends/trends-transforming-the-global-landscape.

10 Stephanie Pappas, “5 Deadly Diseases Emerging from Global Warming,” LiveScience, 3 August 2016, https://www.livescience.com/55632-deadly-diseases-emerge-from-global-warming.html.

11 Jasmin Fox-Skelly, “There are diseases hidden in the ice, and they are waking up,” BBC Earth, BBC, 4 May 2017, http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170504-there-are-diseases-hidden-in-ice-and-they-are-waking-up.

12 Ibid.

13 Caitlin Werrell, et al. “A ‘Responsibility to Prepare’: A Strategy for Presidential Leadership on the Security Risks of Climate Change,” War on the Rocks, 14 June 2019, https://warontherocks.com/2019/06/a-responsibility-to-prepare-a-strategy-for-presidential-leadership-on-the-security-risks-of-climate-change/.

14 Ibid.

15 Nicholas Kusnetz, “Rising seas threaten Norfolk Naval Shipyard, raising fears of ‘catastrophic damage’,” InsideClimate News, NBC, 19 November 2018, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/rising-seas-threaten-norfolk-naval-shipyard-raising-fears-catastrophic-damage-n937396.

16 Erika Spanger-Siegfried, et al., “The US Military on the Front Lines of Rising Seas,” Union of Concerned Scientists, August 2016, https://www.ucsusa.org/global-warming/science-and-impacts/impacts/sea-level-rise-flooding-us-military-bases.

17 Nicole Gauette, et al., “Hearing on climate change and national security becomes an angry partisan clash,” CNN, 9 April 2019, https://edition.cnn.com/2019/04/09/politics/house-climate-natsec-hearing/index.html.

18 Gen. Ronald Keys, et al., “Military Expert Panel Report: Sea Level Rise and the U.S. Military’s Mission,” The Center for Climate and Security, September 2016, p. 21.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid, p. 6.

21Kanta Kumari Rigaud, et al., “Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration,” World Bank, 19 March 2018, p. 23

22 Ibid.

23“Cities on the Frontline,” Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, Accessed: 25 June 2019, https://ciff.org/impact/cities-frontline/.

24 “The National Security Implications of Climate Change,” Environmental and Energy Study Institute, 5 June 2017, https://www.eesi.org/briefings/view/060517security.

25 Werrell, Caitlin E., and Francesco Femia, eds. The Arab Spring and climate change: a climate and security correlations series. Center for American Progress, 2013, p. 3, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/security/reports/2013/02/28/54579/the-arab-spring-and-climate-change/.

26 Nicole Gauette, et al., “Hearing on climate change and national security becomes an angry partisan clash,” CNN, 9 April 2019, https://www.edition.cnn.com/2019/04/09/politics/house-climate-natsec-hearing/index.html.

27 Tom Sarsfield, “How Climate Change Affects African Security,” War Room, United States Army War College, 13 June 2019, https://warroom.armywarcollege.edu/articles/climate-change-african-security/.

28 Megan Darby. “Boko Haram Terrorists Thriving on Climate Crisis: Report,” Climate Home News, Climate Home, 19 April 2017, www.climatechangenews.com/2017/04/20/boko-haram-terrorists-thriving-climate-crisis-report/.


158. In the Cognitive War – The Weapon is You!

[Editor’s Note:  Mad Scientist Laboratory is pleased to publish today’s post by guest blogger Dr. Zac Rogers, addressing the on-going cognitive war (i.e., what COL Steve Banach describes in as Virtual War — see his blog posts Parts I & II]). In the race to achieve a cognitive edge, Dr. Rogers cautions the West about hidden assumptions that may prove to be cognitive vulnerabilities — Enjoy!]

A growing portion of the national security, intelligence, and defense (NSID) communities in the US, UK, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere are exploring the concept of cognitive war. The idea is basically that irregular and unconventional methods and means, which increasingly include non-kinetic and non-lethal delivery and effects leveraging digital connectivity, have shifted the center of gravity of political conflict from a violent clash of arms on the conventional battlefield to a narrative contest among the population. In the process, traditional concepts within the art and science of violent political conflict associated with boundaries, thresholds, levels, and phases are all deeply disrupted.

While many in the NSID community are willing to accept we are fighting a cognitive war, few are willing to recognize the extent to which it is being lost. Losing the cognitive war raises another fashionable topic emerging lately – strategic surprise. This is not the fight we thought we would get; it is not the fight we’ve invested in; nor is it the fight we wanted. But it is the fight we’ve got. The radical shifts in how society is organized and how warfare is conducted have exposed the NSID community to strategic surprise.

Losing without fighting

Cognitive warfare is not only an attack on what we think. It is an attack on our way of thinking. Not only about the conduct of warfare but about whole-of-nation security and prosperity. And one of its unique properties is the extent to which we do it to ourselves. We participate. The adversary, in the age of hyper-connectivity, need only show up, inject, nudge, exploit, and disappear. The concept of ‘below the threshold’ conflict becomes meaningless when we prove ourselves capable of losing without fighting. The threshold of what?

The target of this type of warfare is obvious enough. It is the fabric of trust which underpins and enables the most basic functionality of open society. Trust that extends beyond heredity and beyond the purely transactional is the fabric that supports every aspect of the nation’s strategic strength. Instead of investing in the true strengths of open society after the Cold War, we have left it to atrophy in the hubristic belief that the open way of life was universalizing.

Gamers will get gamed

Auguste Comte:  Father of Positivism and inventor of the term sociology

Easy to overlook often goes hand-in-hand with difficult to measure. Scientists really hate talking about this, but part of the reason for that overlooking is the resurgence of Positivism. Without always understanding it, and often without stating it, the majority of research and development in defence science and technology inherits both its epistemology and its methodology from Positivism. And R&D into the cluster of technologies associated with AI proceeds under many of the assumptions of Behaviourism.


These are currents in the historical drift of European thought – not arrows to truth. They are ‘ways of thinking’. The unresolved controversies in these Occidental thought trajectories are many. The discomfort, if not outright dismissal, of the assumptions they accommodate by the scientific community amount to cognitive vulnerabilities. The heavy reliance on these communities by the NSID community means people in the latter should, at a minimum, be aware of the assumptions which so often go unstated by people in the former.

When Occidentalism and Positivism combine in the race for the next false dawn in technological supremacy, blind spots are produced. Believers in an ‘AI race’ should be wary. We in the West see this as an S&T contest, while largely ignoring its socio-political implications. For the Chinese, AI is politics, politics, politics. Is there something about non-Occidental cultural orientations that makes AI applicable to human affairs in ways not amenable to us? It’s an important strategic question. Positivism, by masking the salience of cultural orientation, is an exploitable weakness of our epistemic communities in need of addressing.

Proceed with caution

When ‘behavioural scientists’ get excited about manipulating people, either for benign or malign ends, what is the effect on the fabric of trust open society depends on? Military organizations now scrambling to incorporate ‘the cognitive’ into their operational concepts face a steep curve and many roadblocks. Friction is not always a bad thing. Hubristic behavioural interventions into complex anthropological systems involving AI should be approached with great caution. Hidden assumptions are cognitive vulnerabilities, and what appears to be a branch of S&T competition could turn out to be a strategic cul de sac we might want to back out of later.

It’s one thing to know thy enemy. In the cognitive war, it’s more important than ever to know thyself.

If you enjoyed this post, please also see:

An Appropriate Level of Trust…

Man-Machine Rules, by Dr. Nir Buras

The Death of Authenticity: New Era Information Warfare

Dr. Zac Rogers PhD is Research Lead at the Jeff Bleich Centre for the US Alliance in Digital Technology, Security, and Governance at Flinders University of South Australia. Research interests combining national security, intelligence, and defence with social cybersecurity, digital anthropology, and democratic resilience.

157. The Democratization of Dual Use Technology

[Editor’s Note: Mad Scientist Laboratory is pleased to publish today’s post, exploring how the democratization of current benign technologies may present our Leaders with potentially devastating dual use applications.  How do we address the emergence of these and other dual use technologies so that we do not fall victim to a failure of imagination?]

Dual use technology has yielded significant breakthroughs for military applications, including Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and nuclear power. However, with the broad democratization of advanced technology, we may now see an increase in seemingly benign solutions that could be weaponized. Average citizens now have access to an expansive array of powerful technologies that would have been considered cutting-edge only a few years ago – e.g., artificial intelligence, machine learning, computer vision, and robotics. These are all technologies that have real and direct military implications, even if they were initially created for civilian or consumer use.

This problem extends across all military domains. For example, space is cluttered as there are close to 18,000 artificial objects orbiting Earth and 300,000 more pieces of “space junk” further congesting the domain. A single speck of paint, traveling at thousands of miles per hour, could cause serious damage to orbiting satellites.1

Space broom using laser to de-orbit debris / Source: Wikimedia Commons, concept art by Fulvio314

Researchers at China’s Air Force Engineering University proposed building a laser-armed satellite to act as a “broom” to clean up rogue debris by burning off part of its mass, thus destabilizing its orbital path and sending it back into the Earth’s atmosphere, where it would quickly burn up.2 The scientists successfully proposed a solution to a potentially hazardous problem.  On the surface this is true, and therein lies the dilemma. How could a nefarious actor use a space-based laser weapon other than for clearing unwanted pieces of refuse? Technology has no allegiance, but its users do, and the weaponization of such technology could be problematic.

Lion fish / Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the maritime domain, a non-profit called Robots in Service of the Environment (RSE) created their Guardian unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) whose purpose is to control lion fish, an invasive and destructive species introduced into the Caribbean with no natural predators to control its propagation.3 The robot costs around $1000 and includes an auto-pilot feature that can identify, stun, and capture the fish without the assistance of a human in the loop (though the option is there). Using computer vision, the UUV can discern the lion fish’s appearance from other species, deliver a stun charge, and subsequently suck the creature into a holding cell aboard the small vessel. The implication here is clear: an autonomous vehicle can positively identify something and deliver an intended effect without human intervention. In this case, the effect is a simple stun.

Crown of Thorns Starfish / Source: NOAA

Taking it a step further, a roboticist from Queensland University of Technology has developed a UUV to that behaves similarly to the RSE bot. However, instead of stunning its prey (reef-destroying sea stars), it delivers a single injection with a lethal dose of bile salts. Dubbed the RangerBot, this UUV can identify its prey with a 99.4 percent success rate and autonomously deliver the kill shot.4 The identification is so accurate that it even ignored the 3D-printed decoys and only engaged with its intended target. Another advantage of the RangerBot is that it can operate successfully when humans are unable to – at night, in tumultuous weather, and in high currents. While its targets are sea stars, this vehicle could be quickly and easily manipulated to positively identify a human target and deliver a lethal effect; identify strategically-placed communications cables in the sea and sever specific ones; or even seek out specific naval vessels and then affix explosive charges, undetected. An autonomous entity using computer vision could be taught to positively identify nearly any target and execute nearly any action as a consequence.

The technology to make this a reality exists today. It is being developed to clean our oceans, to de-clutter Low Earth Orbit, and to make our world a more livable place. It also has the potential to surprise with military applications. While we’re well aware of the RangerBot, is our Navy worried about an autonomous UUV patrolling the Great Barrier Reef? More importantly, can they detect one? Is there a cost effective solution to defend against small, cheap, and expendable devices? Regulation can help control potentially dangerous materials – e.g., chemical, nuclear, radiological, or biological, but is it possible to regulate technology that poses no apparent threat? Does the Army have a strategy for dealing with benign technology that could be weaponized quickly? Technology will continue to advance at a rapid pace, and will compound as time goes on. What emergent dual use technology (or convergence of technologies) could surprise our future Army?

If you enjoyed this post, please see the following about other dual use technologies:

Some Thoughts on Futures Work (Part I) , by Dr. Nick Marsella, informing us on how we can to avoid being surprised by the future.

LikeWar — The Weaponization of Social Media, our review of proclaimed Mad Scientist P.W. Singer and co-author Emerson T. Brooking’s same titled book.

Dead Deer, and Mad Cows, and Humans (?) … Oh My!  by proclaimed Mad Scientists LtCol Jennifer Snow and Dr. James Giordano, and returning guest blogger Joseph DeFranco, addressing how medical research on Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSEs) could be misapplied to create novel biological warfare agents.

What’s in a Touch? Lessons from the Edge of Electronic Interface, by Dr. Brian Holmes, addressing how prosthetics R&D could provide a sense of touch to realize more lifelike lethal autonomous weapons systems.

1 https://www.popsci.com/china-space-laser/

2 Ibid.

3 https://www.technologyreview.com/f/613623/meet-the-robot-submarine-that-acts-as-a-lionfish-terminator/

4 https://www.hakaimagazine.com/news/rangerbot-programmed-to-kill/

156. What is the Threshold? Assessing Kinetic Responses to Cyber-Attacks

[Editor’s Note: Mad Scientist Laboratory is pleased to publish the latest post by proclaimed Mad Scientist and returning blogger Marie Murphy.  In the future operational environment, armed conflict in the traditional sense may be less prevalent, while competition may be the driving force behind national oppositions. On the cusp between these two lies crisis.  In the following post, Ms. Murphy examines the threshold for responding to cyber-attacks with kinetic strikes during crises — Enjoy! (Note:  Some of the embedded links in this post are best accessed using non-DoD networks.)]

Cyber-attacks are quickly manifesting as a ubiquitous feature of modern warfare. However, the consequences of launching a cyber-attack are becoming more unpredictable and dependent on the individual case. Due to the rapid progression of cyber capabilities worldwide; codified laws, ethics, and norms have not yet caught up for every situation. Clarified by recent events between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the threshold for using kinetic weapons against a cyber-threat or in response to a cyber-attack appears to be when, not if, it is appropriate to cross domains. The U.S. Army needs leaders who are capable of operating in ill-defined spaces which necessitate a decision between engaging in physical violence in response to a cyber-attack and retaliating in the same domain.

There is a small window of opportunity, aptly called the “crisis phase,” to deescalate rising competition-based tensions before the outbreak of all-out conflict in the present cycle oscillating between the two. Whereas it is more easily determined what actions are appropriate in the competition and conflict phases, the crisis phase is a delicate balance of communication, interpretation, analysis, and assumption. Cyber-attacks in general are features of all three stages; however, cyber-attacks which are followed by kinetic responses may more commonly fall into the crisis phase because there’s the possibility for escalation to physical violence – or not, if the violence serves as an effective deterrent or the initial attacker does not have the capabilities to escalate in the physical domain.

Source: IDF

On May 5, 2019 Israel responded to an attempted cyber-attack from Hamas by destroying the building which housed Hamas’ cyber operations.i There was concern in the international community that this action had changed the rules of the game by permitting a state to respond with kinetic force to a cyber-attack which had no direct physical ramifications. The significance of Israel’s decision lies in that it is the first openly-acknowledged, immediate kinetic strike in response to a cyber-attack.ii The U.S. was the first state to use physical force in response to cyber activities in an airstrike targeting Junaid Hussain, an ISIS hacker, in 2015. However, this strike was planned months in advance, while the Israeli response to Hamas appeared to be in real-time.iii  Appearances can be deceiving. There are several factors that lie under the initial shock of Israel’s retaliation:

– First, the kinetic response was not launched in the middle of a cyber-attack; it was initiated after the attack had already been neutralized.iv

– Second, it is probable that the Israelis had already collected intelligence on this target. The speed of the attack does not necessarily reflect the speed of the Israeli’s ISR technology and analysis.

– Third, Israel’s response could be viewed as a psychological operation as well, reminding the Palestinians that one side possesses overwhelming capabilities and has the will to use them.v

– Finally, this attack must be viewed within the context of wider, ongoing conflict and the power dynamic already established between the parties.

This last point is crucial. While Israel’s response was an unprecedented, even historical step, it occurred within the ongoing continuum of Palestinian/Israeli kinetic strikes and counter-strikes in Gaza. It was not an isolated incident and is not necessarily indicative of future offensive cyber actions being met with physical violence on a global scale. In the multi-domain operations conducted by actors around the world, it is to be expected that domains will begin to be crossed in a single exchange. As the character of warfare changes to become more digitally integrated and more technologically advanced (leading to increased C4ISR capabilities) the context of actions will factor in more greatly to decision-making. This means that standard, “play-book” responses may not apply to every future situation. Dynamism in all phases of conflict, specifically the crisis phase, is critical to avoid misinterpretations with global repercussions.

Cyber-attacks occur on a daily basis worldwide, but very few bleed out into the physical domain or create outbreaks of new conflict.vi There is little evidence to support a claim that cyber-warfare operations alone are likely to escalate into physical violence; responses are usually proportional to and in the same domain as the provocation.vii However, when there is a background of preexisting physical violence, like between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the chance of cross-domain operations increases. Israel’s response did change the status quo to a certain degree as kinetic measures were rapidly deployed instead of a “hack-back” response.viii There is an argument for a slightly disproportional response as a deterrent and show of force, but knowing where to draw the line is also critical.ix Israel’s actions also helped to clarify an ethical quandary about the role of hackers. The debate as to whether they are combatants seems settled: hackers are a viable target if they attack a government or military.x This leads back to the original question about defining the threshold: when to use a kinetic response?

The complexity and relative anonymity of cyber-threats makes them harder to define, but generally speaking today, the rules and norms for acceptable uses of cyber capabilities are determined by the context of the conflict they’re deployed in, what the power dynamic between the relevant parties is, and what the alternative or escalatory options are for each party involved. Every state also interprets cyber norms differently in accordance to what best suits their strategic interests. The U.S. “prefers an effects- or consequences-based interpretation of “force” or “armed attack” with respect to cyber-attacks.” Essentially, the U.S. does not want to “draw boundaries too tight” to the point where its own rules begin to interfere with its own cyber operations.xi There have been international conversations about legislating cyberspace, especially for the purposes of defining warfare and conflict-inducing activities, but nothing has been codified or ratified.xii

Source:  U.S. Navy photo / MCS 3rd Class Erwin Miciano

The U.S. Department of Defense has long maintained that it reserves the right to use any response, including a kinetic response, against a cyber-attack. The target of the cyber-attack would most likely determine the response: an attack on the U.S. economy, government, or military could warrant both a digital and a kinetic response. The decision rests on the cost-benefit analysis of action versus inaction, if there was a strong likelihood that physical retaliation could spiral into the outbreak of violent conflict, and if the cyber-attack can be positively attributed.xiii

An example of near-war cyber tactics in which the crisis is closer to the competition phase is the EternalBlue attack on Baltimore City. Hackers used this malware to hold city computers and systems hostage.  Although no official U.S. Government statement has been made, multiple press outlets, including The New York Times, allege that the program was initially an NSA asset that the organization lost control of in 2017, having utilized it for five years. The vulnerability has since been patched by Microsoft, but hundreds of thousands of computers are allegedly still at risk. This attack hits America at its most susceptible sector– its “aging digital infrastructure.”xiv It also demonstrates how the majority of cyber-attacks are not responded to with physical violence, either because the attack cannot be positively attributed or the parties involved are unwilling or unable to escalate.

Cyber-attacks are becoming normalized facets of the competition, crisis, and conflict cycle. Whether or not using physical violence in response to a cyber-attack crosses legal or ethical lines depends on the context of the relationship between the attacker and the retaliator and prior conflict. With or without established norms and standardized accepted levels of response, cyber-attacks will continue to proliferate in all phases of military interactions. In a future of multi-domain operations, decisions about conflict escalation will likely depend on actions taken that are unseen by the public, so determining what is acceptable and what is escalatory is extremely difficult without understanding the full picture. But for now, there is a precedent for kinetic responses to be acceptable in the context of ongoing conflict. The threshold for using kinetic weapons does not appear to be if, but when, and just as importantly, when not to.

In the post above, Ms. Murphy shared her insights regarding one aspect of the future operational environment.  Mad Scientist wants to hear your thoughts on The Operational Environment: What Will Change and What Will Drive It – Today to 2035?  Learn more about our current crowdsourcing exercise here and get your submissions in NLT 1700 EDT, 15 July 2019!

If you enjoyed this post, please also see:

– CAPT L. R. Bremseth‘s Emerging Technologies as Threats in Non-Kinetic Engagements

– COL Stefan Banach‘s Virtual War – A Revolution in Human Affairs (Parts 1 & 2)

– Ms. Murphy‘s previous posts:

Trouble in Paradise: The Technological Upheaval of Modern Political and Economic Systems

The Final Frontier: Directed Energy Applications in Outer Space

Star Wars 2050

Virtual Nations: An Emerging Supranational Cyber Trend

Proclaimed Mad Scientist Marie Murphy is a rising senior at The College of William and Mary in Virginia, studying International Relations and Arabic. She is a regular contributor to the Mad Scientist Laboratory, interned at Headquarters, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) with the Mad Scientist Initiative last summer, and has returned as a consultant this summer.  She was a Research Fellow for William and Mary’s Project on International Peace and Security.

Disclaimer:  The views expressed in this article do not imply endorsement by the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.  This piece is meant to be thought-provoking and does not reflect the current position of the U.S. Army.

i Borghard, Erica D., Jacquelyn Schneider. “Israel Responded to a Hamas Cyberattack with an Airstrike. That’s Not Such a Big Deal.” Washington Post, May 9, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/05/09/israel-responded-hamas-cyberattack-with-an-airstrike-thats-big-deal/?utm_term=.f51d1c1c3da0

ii O’Flaherty, Kate. “Israel Retaliates to a Cyber-Attack With Immediate Physical Action in a World First.” Forbes, May 6, 2019. https://www.forbes.com/sites/kateoflahertyuk/2019/05/06/israel-retaliates-to-a-cyber-attack-with-immediate-physical-action-in-a-world-first/#627141e5f895

iii Newman, Lily Hay. “What Israel’s Strike on Hamas Hackers Means for Cyberwar.” Wired, May 6, 2019. https://www.wired.com/story/israel-hamas-cyberattack-air-strike-cyberwar/

iv Gross, Elias. “The Future Is Here, and It Features Hackers Getting Bombed.” Foreign Policy, May 6, 2019. https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/05/06/the-future-is-here-and-it-features-hackers-getting-bombed/

v O’Flaherty, Kate. “Israel Retaliates to a Cyber-Attack With Immediate Physical Action in a World First.” Forbes, May 6, 2019. https://www.forbes.com/sites/kateoflahertyuk/2019/05/06/israel-retaliates-to-a-cyber-attack-with-immediate-physical-action-in-a-world-first/#627141e5f895

vi Newman, Lily Hay. “What Israel’s Strike on Hamas Hackers Means for Cyberwar.” Wired, May 6, 2019. https://www.wired.com/story/israel-hamas-cyberattack-air-strike-cyberwar/

vii Borghard, Erica D., Jacquelyn Schneider. “Israel Responded to a Hamas Cyberattack with an Airstrike. That’s Not Such a Big Deal.” Washington Post, May 9, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/05/09/israel-responded-hamas-cyberattack-with-an-airstrike-thats-big-deal/?utm_term=.f51d1c1c3da0

viii Cimpanu, Catalin. “In a First, Israel Responds to Hamas Hackers with an Airstrike.” ZDNet, May 5, 2019. https://www.zdnet.com/article/in-a-first-israel-responds-to-hamas-hackers-with-an-air-strike/

ix Baker, Stewart. “Four Principles to Guide the US Response to Cyberattacks.” Fifthdomain.com, February 7, 2019. https://www.fifthdomain.com/thought-leadership/2019/02/07/four-principles-to-guide-the-us-response-to-cyberattacks/

x Gross, Elias. “The Future Is Here, and It Features Hackers Getting Bombed.” Foreign Policy, May 6, 2019. https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/05/06/the-future-is-here-and-it-features-hackers-getting-bombed/

xi Waxman, Matthew C. “Cyber-Attacks and the Use of Force: Back to the Future of Article 2(4).” Yale Journal of International Law, Vol. 36, 2011. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1674565

xii O’Flaherty, Kate. “Israel Retaliates to a Cyber-Attack With Immediate Physical Action in a World First.” Forbes, May 6, 2019. https://www.forbes.com/sites/kateoflahertyuk/2019/05/06/israel-retaliates-to-a-cyber-attack-with-immediate-physical-action-in-a-world-first/#627141e5f895

xiii Alexander, David. “U.S. Reserves the Right to Meet Cyber Attack with Force.” Reuters, November 15, 2011. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-defense-cybersecurity/u-s-reserves-right-to-meet-cyber-attack-with-force-idUSTRE7AF02Y20111116

xiv Perlroth, Nicole, Scott Shane. “In Baltimore and Beyond, a Stolen N.S.A. Tool Wreaks Havoc.” The New York Times, May 25, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/25/us/nsa-hacking-tool-baltimore.html

155. “The Queue”

[Editor’s Note: Mad Scientist Laboratory is pleased to present our latest edition of “The Queue” – a monthly post listing the most compelling articles, books, podcasts, videos, and/or movies that the U.S. Army’s Mad Scientist Initiative has come across during the previous month. In this anthology, we address how each of these works either informs or challenges our understanding of the Future Operational Environment (OE). We hope that you will add “The Queue” to your essential reading, listening, or watching each month!]

1. Boston Dynamics prepares to launch its first commercial robot: Spot,” by James Vincent, The Verge, 5 June 2019.

Day by Day Armageddon: Ghost Road, by J.L. Bourne, Gallery Books, 2016, 241 pages.

Metalhead,” written by Charlie Brooker / directed by David Slade, Black Mirror, Netflix, Series 4, Episode 5.

Spot the Robot / Source: Boston Dynamics

Boston Dynamics, progenitors of a wide range of autonomous devices is now poised to retail its first robotic system — during an interview with The Verge at Amazon’s re:MARS Conference, Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert announced that “Spot the robot will go on sale later this year.” Spot is “a nimble robot that handles objects, climbs stairs, and will operate in offices, homes and outdoors.” Its “robot arm is a prime example of Boston Dynamics’ ambitious plans for Spot. Rather than selling the robot as a single-use tool, it’s positioning it as a “mobility platform” that can be customized by users to complete a range of tasks.” Given its inherent versatility, Mr. Raibert likens Spotto … the Android [phone] of Androids,” with the market developing a gamut of apps, facilitating new and innovative adaptations.

But what about the tactical applications of such a device in the Future OE? Two works of fiction explore this capability through storytelling, with disparate visions of the future….

In the his fourth installment of the Day By Day Armageddon series, J. L. Bourne imagines one man’s trek across a ravaged America in search of the cure to a zombie apocalypse, and effectively explores the versatility of a Spot-like quadrupedal robot. Stumbling across the remains of a special operator, his protagonist Kil discovers the tablet and wrist band controls for a Ground Assault Reconnaissance & Mobilization Robot (GARMR) that, across the passage of the novel, ultimately anthropomorphizes into his “dog” named Checkers. After mastering the device’s capabilities via a tutorial on the tablet, Kil programs and employs Checkers as a roving ISR platform, effectively empowering him as a one-man Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) “bubble.” Conducting both perimeter and long-range patrols, it tirelessly detects and alerts Kil to potential threats using its machine vision, audio, and video sensor feeds. Bourne’s versatile GARMR, however, is dependent on man-in-the-loop input and though capable of executing pre-programmed autonomous operations, Checkers remains compliant with current DoD policy regarding autonomy.

Netflix’s Black Mirror Metalhead episode, however, imagines its eponymous quadruped robot as a lethal autonomous system run amok, relentlessly hunting down humanity’s remnants in a post-apocalyptic Britain. Operating in wolf packs, these man-out-of-the-loop devices sit passively until a human target is acquired, whom they then tirelessly track, run to ground, and kill. The Metalhead episode riffs on the Skynet trope with another defense program gone rogue, this time an armed and deadly next-gen Spot. U.S. defense policy-makers would be wise to reconsider and plan accordingly for the coming commercialization and inevitable democratization of quadrupedal lethal autonomy – in light of recent drone attacks in Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen – a new killer genie is about to be unleashed from its bottle!

2.Small Businesses Aren’t Rushing Into AI,” by Sara Castellanos and Agam Shah, The Wall Street Journal, 9 June 2019.

While sixty-five percent of firms with more than 5,000 workers are using Artificial Intelligence (AI) or planning on it, only twenty-one percent of small businesses have similar plans. The upfront costs of AI tools, data architecture improvements, and the scarcity of people capable of implementing AI tools outpace the ability of small businesses. While the U.S. Army is not a small business, it faces many similar obstacles.

First, the U.S. Army is not “AI Ready.” While Google and Microsoft are working on AI tools that are not overly reliant on large data sets, today’s tools are trained and fueled by access to reliant big data. Key to enabling AI and the Army realizing the advantages of speed and improved decision-making is access to our own data. The Army is a data rich organization with information from previous training events, combat operations, and readiness status, but data rich does not mean data ready. Much of the Army’s data would be characterized as “dark data” — sitting in a silo, accessible for limited single-use purposes. To get the Army AI Ready, we need to implement a Service-wide effort to break down the silos and import all of the Army’s data into an open-source architecture that is accessible by a range of AI tools.

Second, the size and dispersed nature of the Army exasperates our ability to acquire and retain a high number of people capable of implementing AI tools. This AI defined future requires the creation of new jobs and skillsets to overcome the coming skills mismatch. The Army is learning as it builds out a cyber capable force and these lessons are probably applicable to what we will need to do to support an AI-enabled force. At a minimum, we must address a new form of tech literacy to lead these future formations.

While Google and Microsoft work to reduce the reliance on big data for training AI and lessen the need for AI coding, the Army should begin to improve its “AI Readiness” by implementing new data strategies, exploring new skillsets, and improving force tech literacy.

3.Have Strategists Drunk the ‘AI Race’ Kool-Aid?” by Zac Rogers, War on the Rocks, 4 June 2019.

When technological change is driven more by hubris and ideology than by scientific understanding, the institutions that traditionally moderate these forces, such as democratic oversight and the rule of law, can be eroded in pursuit of the next false dawn.”

In this article, Dr. Zac Rogers cautions those who are willing to leap headfirst into the technological abyss. Rogers provides a countering narrative to balance out the tech entrepreneurs who are ready to go full steam ahead with the so-called AI race, breaking down the competition and producing a robust analysis of the unintended effects of the digital age. The full implications of advancing AI offer a sobering reality, replete with warning of the potential breakdown of sociopolitical stability and of Western societies themselves. While countries continue to invest billions in AI development and innovation, Rogers reminds us that beneath the high-tech veneer of the 21st century we are still “human beings in social systems – to which all the usual caveats apply.” As asserted by Mr. Ian Sullivan,  our world is driven largely by thoughts, ideals, and beliefs, despite the increasing global connectivity we experience every day. To forget that we are, as put by Dr. Rogers, “always human” would be to lose touch with the very reality we are augmenting.

Rogers cautions against “idealized cybernetic systems” and implores those spearheading the foray into the technological unknown to take pause and remember what, ultimately, we stand to gain from these developments – and what we stand to lose.

4.For the good of humanity, AI needs to know when it’s incompetent,” by Nicole Kobie, Wired, 15 June 2019

Prowler.io is an AI platform for generalized decision-making for businesses aiming to augment human work with machine learning. Prowler.io considers four questions as it sets up the platform:  1) when does the AI know for certain that it’s right; 2) when does it know it’s wrong; 3) when does it know that it’s about to go wrong — timing is key, so humans in the loop have time to react; and 4) “how are we even sure the AI is asking the right questions.” For Prowler.io, keeping humans-in-the-loop is necessary due to the current lack of trust in machine-based decision-making.

The article points out that understanding why your AI-driven fund manager lost money is less useful than preventing bad buys in the first place. Explainable AI is not enough, you have to have trusted AI – and for that to happen, you need to have human decision-making in the loop.” One failing of AI is that it doesn’t inherently understand its own competency. For example, if a human worker needs help, they can ask for it. The dilemma is how will “understanding of personal limitations [be] built into code?” A worst case example of this was two deadly 737 Max crashes — “In both crashes, the commonality was that the autopilot did not understand its own incompetence.”

Correct and timely decisions are paramount for the Army and military applications of AI on the battlefield, now and in the future. “Even if there’s a human-in-the-loop that has oversight, how valuable is the human if they don’t understand what’s going on?” One disconnect is that the military and code writers equally have a blind spot in how they think about technological progress toward the future. That blind spot is thinking about AI largely disconnected from humans and the human brain. Rather than thinking about AI-enabled systems as connected to humans, we think about them as parallel processes. We talk about human-in-the-loop or human-on-the-loop largely in terms of the control over autonomous systems, rather than a comprehensive connection to and interaction with those systems. Having the idea that a human always has to overrule or an algorithm always has to overrule is not the right strategy. It really has to be focusing on what the human is good at and what the algorithm is good at, and combining those two things together. And that will actually make decision-making better, fairer, and more transparent.”

5.Garbage In, Garbage Out,” by Clare Garvie, Georgetown Law Center on Privacy & Technology, 16 May 2019.

A system relies on the information it is given. Feed it poor or questionable data and you will get poor or questionable results, hence the phrase, “garbage in, garbage out.” With facial recognition software becoming an increasingly common tool, law enforcement agencies are relying more heavily on a process that many experts admit is more art than science. Further, they’re stretching the bounds of the software when trying to identify potential suspects – feeding the system celebrity photos, composite sketches, and altered images in an attempt to “help” the system find the right person. However, studies by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Michigan State University concluded that composite sketches produced a positive match between 4.1 and 6.7 percent of the time. Despite, these figures relaying dubious or questionable results, some agencies are still following this process. As the Army becomes a more data-centric organization, it will be imperative to understand that “data” itself does not necessarily mean “good data.” If the Army feeds poor data into the system it will get poor results that may lead to unnecessary resource expenditure or even loss of life. Modernization will rely on accurate forecasting underpinned by a robust data set. How can the Army ensure it has the right data it needs? What processes need to be put in place now, to avoid potentially disastrous shortcuts?

6.Deepfakes, social media, and the 2020 election,” by John Villasenor, Brookings TechTank, 3 June 2019.

“…deepfakes are the inevitable next step in attacking the truth.”

The point of deepfakes is not necessarily to convince people that public figures said something that they did not. They’re designed to introduce doubt and confusion into people’s minds, wreaking havoc on the information-saturated environment Americans are accustomed to operating in. As this type of digital deception becomes more refined, social media platforms will face greater technological and logistical challenges in identifying and removing false information, not to mention walking the fine legal line of subjective content monitoring.

BuzzFeed released a video illustrating the power of deepfakes, showing the image of former US President Barack Obama uttering words voiced by director and actor Jordan Peele / Source: Jordan Peele, BuzzFeed, and Monkeypaw Productions

Deepfakes are also of concern outside of the social media arena: our strategic competitors can use this tool to manipulate information, delegitimizing or mischaracterizing American military actions and operations in the views of local actors in conflict zones and the wider global population. In addition to the weaponization of information by state actors, any individual with basic technological skill and access to a computer and the internet can create a video that drastically alters the perceptions of millions. So, that leads us to wonder: what happens when we can no longer trust the information right in front of our eyes? How can we make decisions when we have to question all of our evidence?

7.Space Exploration and the Age of the Anthropocosmos,” by Joi Ito, Wired, 30 May 2019.

Space is the final frontier – and it’s here. Joi Ito likens the current utopian, free-for-all stage of human/space interactions with the initial years of publicly-accessible internet. To encapsulate this era, Ito coins a new term, anthropocosmos, for this phase of human development in which people have a measurable impact on non-terrestrial environments. However, he cautions that if expansion into and use of space is left unchecked, then a “tragedy of the commons” situation will begin to arise. Moribah Jah alluded to the tragedy of the commons regarding orbital “space debris” congestion by suggesting that this phenomenon is already occurring in Earth’s orbital pathways. Ito continues his comparison by highlighting that, much like the internet, space in the future will be used for all sorts of purposes unimaginable to us today. He envisions a world where space becomes increasingly commercialized, monitored, and restricted by various actors trying to secure their own domains (such as governments) or turn a profit. Space can be a cooperative arena, but if it’s not, people on Earth and beyond the planet will feel the negative consequences of exploiting this newly-accessible environment.

8.Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World,” by General Stanley McChrystal, Tantum Collins, David Silverman, and Chris Fussell, Penguin Random House, 12 May 2015.

This 2015 book on leadership, engagement, and teamwork primarily authored by retired General and JSOC Commander Stan McChrystal addresses the tension point between how military teams (and teams in the workforce in general) are traditionally organized and led and the emerging digital age and info/data-centric character of modern warfare.

The book highlights the need for conventional and special forces to transform their centralized and largely rigid ways of warfare into something more adaptive, fluid, and agile to counter the growing insurgency in Iraq in 2004. As forces in Iraq tackled a boiling sectarian civil war in hot spots like Fallujah, McChrystal’s Joint Special Operations Command morphed into a team of teams that efficiently leveraged intelligence experts, informant networks, interagency task forces, special operators, and a host of support personnel to kill, capture, and disrupt what had become al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). This network built to defeat a network saw their efforts and metamorphosis culminate in the June 2006 airstrike on AQI leader and most wanted man in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

The lessons gleaned from this book are not only applicable to special operations forces involved in manhunts or even to military operations as a whole, but to teams across the globe in all areas of business, academia, and service. The rapid nature of changing circumstances, enormity of big data, and pervasiveness of hyper-connectivity mean that organizations must shift away from being executive-centric, hierarchical, and rigid and become cross-functional, openly communicating, and mutually respecting teams of teams. The growing integration of artificial intelligence and machine learning in the workplace (that will likely include levels of, or assistance to, decision-making) will exacerbate the need for cross collaboration and a better top-to-bottom understanding of how the team of teams functions as a whole.

If you read, watch, or listen to something this month that you think has the potential to inform or challenge our understanding of the Future OE, please forward it (along with a brief description of why its potential ramifications are noteworthy to the greater Mad Scientist Community of Action) to our attention at: usarmy.jble.tradoc.mbx.army-mad-scientist@mail.mil — we may select it for inclusion in our next edition of “The Queue”!

154. Takeaways from the Mad Scientist Science Fiction Writing Contest 2019

[Editor’s Note: At the conclusion of another successful Mad Scientist Science Fiction Writing Contest, we had received over 75 highly imaginative short stories. In addition to listing and linking you to the contest’s winning submission (as well as those of our finalists), today’s post reports back on the major cross-cutting themes we were able to distill from your collective creativity and provides effective writing tips from Dr. David Brin, our contest’s senior judge and multiple award-winning science fiction author. Enjoy!]

The U.S. Army finds itself at a historical inflection point, where disparate, yet related elements of an increasingly complex Operational Environment (OE) are converging, creating a situation where fast moving trends are rapidly transforming the nature of all aspects of society and human life – including the character of warfare. It is important to take a creative approach to projecting and anticipating both the transformational and enduring trends that will lend themselves to the depiction of the future. In this vein, the Army’s Mad Scientist Initiative sought out the creativity, unique ideas, and intellect of the nation (and beyond!) to describe a battlefield that does not yet exist.

Mad Scientist launched this science fiction writing contest with the following prompt:

On March 17th, 2030, the country of Donovia, after months of strained relations and covert hostilities, invades neighboring country Otso. Donovia is a wealthy nation that is a near-peer competitor to the United States. Like the United States, Donovia has invested heavily in disruptive technologies such as robotics, AI, autonomy, quantum information sciences, bio enhancements and gene editing, space-based weapons and communications, drones, nanotechnology, and directed energy weapons. The United States is a close ally of Otso and is compelled to intervene due to treaty obligations and historical ties. The United States is about to engage Donovia in its first battle with a near-peer competitor in over 80 years…

In this venture, we received over 75 submissions from an incredibly diverse audience — ranging from programmers to school teachers to career military officers. The submissions were incredibly rich and Mad Scientist was able to glean a great many lessons learned from all of them.

Our contest winner and finalists’ submissions were published by our colleagues at the Modern War Institute at West Point:


AN41, by COL Jasper Jeffers


Starfire, by Mary Madigan

Uncle Sam Takes a R.E.S.T., by Melanie Page

Jonathan Roper, Traveling Consultant, by Hal Wilson

An additional number of submissions were published by our colleagues at Small Wars Journal.

Five cross-cutting themes emerged from across the collective submissions:

1) Machine Speed Information / Processing / Assessment and Real-time Connectivity and Reaction – Actions and reactions are occurring in such a truncated timeline that human operators have difficulty in comprehending or keeping up with these dynamic interactions.

2) Mixed or eXtended Reality (MR/XR) – Augmented, virtual, and synthetic realities are prevalent not only on the battlefield but throughout life. They enhance our warfighters’ situational understanding and play a critical part in how humans work together and collaborate, not only with themselves but with the machines with whom they relate. The pervasiveness of this technology is analogous to the intuitive familiarity people have today with the countless data interface screens encountered in contemporary living.

3) Human-machine Interface and/or Interconnectivity – Humans and machines not only teamed, but melded or wholly integrated at certain points in all of the stories. There comes a certain point where humans and robots (or their respective actions) cannot be distinguished from one another.

4) Disruptive Technologies – There were many novel and disruptive technologies featured in the stories (e.g., anti-tank drones, exoskeletons, active camouflage, nanite capsules, micro-drones, space vehicles, quantum cryptography, and quadruped bots), as well as seemingly innocuous technologies manipulated and repurposed for nefarious activities (e.g., farming robots used for surveillance).

5) Artificial Intelligence – AI is prevalent across the stories, not only as an aid in decision-making and a driver of autonomy, but also as an overlay of the social and political environment. It is often presented as a double-edged sword that both informs, guides, and aids humans, but is also prone to contextual misunderstandings or overreliance on data.

The collective body of submissions presented us with a myriad of lessons learned. These will help the Army to frame and ultimately shift the paradigm of how we think about the Future OE. We are extremely grateful to all of our participants and encourage everyone to continue to go boldly into the future!

While writing science fiction can be a fun and thoughtful endeavor, it can also prove challenging. Here are some great insights from Dr. David Brin (Nebula, Hugo, Locus, and Campbell award winning science fiction author) who served as our contest’s senior judge. Many thanks for the tips, Dr. Brin!

    • By far the most important pages are the first ones, when you hook the reader. And you need a great first paragraph to get them to read the first page. Starting with the Point of View’s name is certainly okay… even Heinlein did it now and then. But it would be better to start with an italicized internal thought, or an ironic observation or spoken words or actions. (See the example below)
    • Many readers are hard on writers who give info dumps from the narrator’s point of view. It’s better to reveal info as efficiently as possible via conversation, action, and the point of view character’s internal thoughts.
    • Many readers hate “repeatitis” where a word gets repeated a lot. English is so rich with synonyms and alternate ways of saying the same thing that you can usually avoid it, unless repetition is a deliberate poetical device. This stricture has no strong reason for it, and indeed, authors like Hemingway violated it a lot. But most professionals cater to this common reader irritation and hence, you’ll pick up a habit of minimizing even too many close repeats of “the.”
    • A more important habit to acquire, with stronger reason, is to feel uncomfortable with “was” and “had.”  Oh, sure — “had”, “were” and “was” are permitted and sometimes necessary, but always regrettable… each time should cause a wee bit of pain!  Because ‘had’ – and to a lesser extent “was” – often indicate the narrator, instead of the point of view character (POV), is telling instead of showing. If you look at my books, you’ll find I include lots of ideas and background of past events, but I pace them in with movement, action, conversation…
    • POV (point of view) is the hardest thing for a new writer to master. It gives your characters a “voice” and presence, and offers the reader a sense of vesting in the protagonist’s feelings and needs and will. This is all destroyed by authorial data-dumps that make you feel lectured-to by a narrator.
    • Prologues can be nice. But often they serve as crutches.


Lieutenant Jade Mahelona hated the noise and confusion of crowds, yet now she was stuck on crowd control in a busy tunnel-street of Deep Indianapolis while her carrier ship was in airdock for repairs. She’d joined Solar Defense Force to get away from Earth cities, and she’d loved every minute of her month of relative quiet on pirate patrol in the asteroids.

Try this instead:

Damn I hate crowd control duty. Over the tunnel noise and throng confusion of Deep Indianapolis, Jade could barely hear her sergeant growl in agreement, as if reading her mind.

“How long till the ship is fixed, lieutenant? I didn’t join SDF for this shit.”

Of course it was a coincidence – Mulcraft didn’t have her electric-empath sense… “Belay that,” She snapped. “We’ll be back out there on comfy pirate patrol in no time.”

Do you see how I dumped in far more information via internal (italicized) thoughts, sensory input, and conversation, without once using “had” or even “was”?  Now throw in some action… someone in the crowd throws something, and you’ve started rolling along, supplying lots of background info without an intruding narrator dump!

    • Find a dozen openings of novels you greatly admire and RE-TYPE THEM! Just re-reading them will not work.  I guarantee you will only understand how those authors did it if you retype the opening scene. And you’ll grasp that establishing POV early while minimizing data-dumping is the hardest thing for neos to learn, and absolutely essential to learn. No matter how wonderful your ideas are, they are useless unless you master how to hook.

Talk this over with your colleagues. Read aloud together and critique the first 5 paragraphs of lots of writers. Do nothing else in your workshop, till you all understand how to establish both the scene/situation and POV laced into conversation, action, and internal thoughts.

Alas, that’s all I have time for. But I hope it’s useful. Remember to read carefully my “advice article.” And above all keep at it! That’s the key to success.

If you enjoyed this post, please also see Ground Warfare in 2050: How It Might Look, by Dr. Alexander Kott…

… the following imaginative blog posts about warfare in the Future OE:

Demons in the Tall Grass, by Mr. Mike Matson

Biostorm: A Story of Future War, by Mr. Anthony DeCapite

Omega, by Mr. August Cole and Mr. Amir Husain…

… and previous submissions from our 2017 Science Fiction Writing Contest at Science Fiction: Visioning the Future of Warfare 2030-2050.

153. Critical Projection: Insights from China’s Science Fiction

We can talk quite glibly about ‘cognitive domains’ – but understanding contexts, especially social and cultural, is vital to discern motivation or intent’ Air Marshal Stringer, Director General Joint Force Development

[Editor’s Note: Per the author of today’s post, Lt Col Dave Calder, British Army, “This post looks at how science fiction (SF) can provide some critical utility to militaries. My first article looked broadly at where it can help us see the world differently; making parts of it seem strange so to highlight how it can be changed.  For this piece, I wanted to push the boundaries of where I believe SF can give us an intellectual edge. By assuming its critical utility is universal, I have tried use SF to gaze into the cultures of others to draw out insight that might shape, temper, or aid our decision making. By looking at China’s canon, I believe it is possible to get a sense of the scale of their ambition, the challenges to its rise as a global power, and understand Beijing’s view of the West. Enjoy Lt Col Calder’s post!]

Cixin Liu is a nine-time winner of the Galaxy Award, winner of the 2015 Hugo Award and the 2017 Locus Award as well as a nominee for the Nebula Award / Source: Wikimedia Commons

Today, Chinese SF enjoys a global audience, mainly thanks to the popularity of Cixin Liu’s Hugo Award-Winning Three Body Problem and the recent release of The Wandering Earth – China’s highest grossing SF film. This exposure, while welcome, eclipses a rich and well-established tradition which is over 100 years old. Writers like Lu Xun, for example, use SF as a means of political commentary and paint a dark picture of the Late Qing period and colonialism. Scholars of Chinese SF draw clear links between early works, like Huangjiang Diasou’s Tales of the Moon Colony, and the so-called ‘New-Wave’ of writing which has appeared over the past decade. One of their sharpest observations relates to how power can be derived from commoditising and rationing scientific knowledge. Where the colonial powers (and Jesuits before them) effectively influenced and subjugated China through the control of specific technologies, China today may be practising learned behaviours.1 Its overt (and covert) hoarding of intellectual property and desire to dominate disruptive technologies like AI and quantum computing might be seen as an attempt to assure its rise to a position of global leadership. Whether intentional or not, the tools of colonial modernity are today being played back on the West to China’s potential benefit.

The Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (aka Chang’e Project), is an ongoing series of robotic Moon missions by the China National Space Administration. / Source: Wikipedia

The nature of ‘New-Wave’ SF very much reflects China’s complexity and its future aspirations. Hopes and fears are intertwined and framed by a sense of destiny. Over the past 12 years, the themes of China’s SF canon have moved away from concerns of everyday life to far loftier, and literally celestial, aspirations. Cixin Liu’s short story, The Sun of China,2 captures a sense of a nation capable of realising its own goals rather than have its place in the world determined by others.3 This resonates with a national vision which has been expressed in terms of Jintao’s ‘Chinese Dream’, the more philosophical aspects of Xi Jinping‘s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative, and the Chang’e lunar programme. China casts itself as an agent in its future and seems to have the ideological and financial capital to realise its visions.

Conversely, SF is such that the aspirational can never be divorced from the critical. Margaret Atwood once remarked that “utopia and dystopia are essentially flip-sides of the same form, and that every utopia has a dystopia concealed within it.4  There is a growing realisation that the ‘Chinese Dream’ is distinct from its American predecessor and arouses a “nightmarish unconscious of a dream that does not necessarily belong to an individual but rather to a collective entity.”5 This increasing sense of alarm is starkly reflected in China’s SF:  Zhang Ran’s Ether, for example, is a blunt attack on the increasing ubiquity of surveillance in China and is a clear protest against censorship.6   Equally, Han Song’s My Fatherland Does not Dream is deeply critical of the Chinese Government’s inability to recognise where the limits of central government control and privacy lie and suggest its aspirations will fail to materialise unless such concerns are addressed.7 Permitting the publication of such subversive notions in what we take to be an oppressive society, keen to minimise dissent, is interesting in itself.

The relationship between the Chinese SF scene and the state is complex. Chinese authors enjoy relative immunity from censorship as SF is seen as a means to address China’s creativity deficit. China’s top SF magazine Science Fiction World is widely available, and many of the genre’s literary conventions are state-sponsored. Party officials wish to move China from being a state which replicates the World’s technology to one which invents it.8 At the same time, SF’s comparative obscurity as a literary genre means it lacks the popularity which would have it classed as ‘protest literature’. This willingness to balance subversion against economic reward arguably highlights the risk China is willing to take to mitigate deep concerns over its ability to meet the aspirations of the ‘Chinese Dream’. It also demonstrates the premium China places on innovation as a recipe for fueling future growth.

‘New-Wave’ SF also provides the West with a mirror which can be used to look back at ourselves through Chinese eyes. In works like Han Song’s 2066: Red Star over America, the U.S. (and by implication the West) appears morally intransigent and unwilling to compromise on those issues which might affect how power and influence are wielded in the international system. We come across as protective and very much defined as status quo-seeking powers. While we share common values, the natures of our imagined utopias are fundamentally different. Ours is driven by individual rather than societal happiness. This point of divergence represents a key factor which must be addressed to avoid future confrontation and conflict.

In conclusion, China’s SF has the potential to yield interesting social insights which might drive external behaviours. Like any state, China’s history remains relevant in framing its actions today. SF gives us a lens to appreciate such dynamics and compare them to what is happening today: the commoditization of scientific and technical knowledge and using it to exert influence is a learned rather than invented technique. This does not excuse China’s apparent disregard for intellectual property norms, but it helps explain it and put our reactions in context. In looking at today’s SF, we find a complex mix of aspirational themes and subversive undercurrents. Both help us understand China a little more. The ‘New-Wave’ allows us to weigh their ‘destiny’ in one hand, and their challenges in another. Lastly, SF’s objectivity allows us to stare back at ourselves through the lens of Chinese literature. Knowing how we are seen should influence our decision making, just as much as our characterisation of China does. This also allows us to compare ourselves to one another at a philosophical level. While we share some common values, we are currently moving down two different paths towards fundamentally different conceptions of utopia. At some point, we must re-converge if we are to avoid confrontation and conflict. That said, a clash is not inevitable. Understanding one another is the first step to accommodation: SF can play a role here to complement our more traditional methods of assessing strategic culture and deciphering Bejing’s intentions. It will not provide all the answers, but it might help find some.

If you enjoyed this post, please also read:

Lt Col Calder‘s first post, Science Fiction’s Hidden Codes

– Proclaimed Mad Scientist Elsa Kania‘s post, Quantum Surprise on the Battlefield? as well as China’s Drive for Innovation Dominance, drawn from her presentation at the Mad Scientist Bio Convergence and Soldier 2050 Conference at SRI International, Menlo Park, 8-9 March 2018.  Her podcast from this event, China’s Quest for Enhanced Military Technology, is hosted by Modern War Institute.

Ms. Cindy Hurst‘s post, A Closer Look at China’s Strategies for Innovation: Questioning True Intent

Lt Col David Calder is currently studying on the UK’s Advanced and Command Staff Course and is a Chief of Defence Staff Scholar. He is also undertaking a Masters by Research in Defence Studies with King’s College London; this is exploring how science fiction can be used to change military perspectives. He is an armoured engineer and has deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and Estonia in recent years. (Twitter @drjcalder81)

1 Nathaniel Isaacson. “Science Fiction for the Nation: Tales of the Moon Colony and the Birth of Modern Chinese Science Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies 40, no. 1 (2013): 33-35.

2 This is a tale of a lowly window cleaner that is assigned to maintaining a solar shield (which is designed to reduce the effects of global warming) but succeeds in transforming it into a solar sail, enabling him to explore the stars.

3 Cixin, Liu. “Chinese Science Fiction and Chinese Reality.” Clarkesworld, no. 110 (2015).

4 Atwood, Margret, interview by David Barr Kirtley. Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy Podcast #94 (December 2013).

5 Song, Mingwei, and Theodore Huters, The Reincarnated Giant: An Anthology of Twenty-First-Century Chinese Science Fiction. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. Introduction.

6 Ran, Zhang. “Ether.” Edited by trans. Clarkesworld (trans. Carmen Yiling Yan, Ken Liu) 100 (Jan 2015). Here omnipotent surveillance in a near-future China leads to the language being reduced to a limited and utilitarian vocabulary and the development of a complex and subversive method of communication using messages written on people’s hands.

7 Rojas, Carlos and Andrea Bachner. The Oxford Handbook of Modern Chinese Literatures. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. 551-553. My Fatherland was banned until 2007. It depicts a population of an authoritarian state which has been using drugs to optimise production and erase memories of past atrocities. The state’s sleepwalking population are unknowingly manipulated into delivering the state’s economic revolution but do not share in the benefits this advancement generates for an ‘un-sleeping’ elite.

8 Neil Gaiman. “The Genre of Pornography, or the Pornography of Genre.” In The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction. London: HarperCollins, 2017.