Saturday, February 27, 2010

Another Riddle

This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.

David E. Sanger of the NY Times recently wrote an intriguing piece on the latest twist in the ongoing saga of Iran’s nuclear program. In yet another enigmatic move, at least to Western observers, the Iranians have moved their entire stockpile of low-enriched nuclear fuel to an above-ground location. This comes some five months after the US released details of a secret enrichment plant at a military base close to Qom. The Iranians claimed the underground facility was necessary given a hostile international reception to their attempts to build a peaceful nuclear program. So why the change?

The move has prompted a lot of discussion but little in the way of definitive answers. Sanger posits three of the most likely hypotheses. In the first, Iran, and in particular the Revolutionary Guard Corps, is tempting Israel into a first strike. In the other, they are leveraging for further negotiations and then concessions from the West. The third, and seemingly most benign, envisions Iran having simply run short of storage containers for radioactive fuel.

The first option seems to be the most irrational because there are more unknowns. When would Israel commit a first strike, if ever? And what would the result be in terms of the nuclear program? Viewing it as irrational may be a case of mirror imaging, however, especially considering the leaders of the Revolution may perceive their grip on power as slipping. Desperate situations have induced desperate actions before. The second seems more likely, as Kenneth Pollack points out in the article, but the third option is the one which the Obama administration is ostensibly touting. Only the answer to the riddle will tell, but until then, let the theorizing continue.

Friday, February 26, 2010

E-Day In Iraq

Tom Ricks’ perspective on Iraq’s future is enough to make anyone need a Prozac. As he noted in his recent lecture at the University of Kentucky, none of the major issues underlying tensions in Iraq have been resolved. There is no oil law. There is a scary sectarianism that threatens to tear apart a very fragile societal fabric. In his perspective, the upcoming (March 7, 2010) Iraqi elections are possibly the catalyst that will undo whatever “progress” the U.S. has made over the last few years. What’s more, in his mind, if Iraq’s major problems are not solved (and he thinks they won’t be) AND the U.S. pulls its troops out on schedule, Iraq is likely in for a civil war that could spawn a regional bloodbath. Goodbye “stable” functioning Iraqi democracy, hello massive death tolls and---- $10.00 gasoline----- and (maybe just maybe) a new Great Depression.

Need that Prozac?

There is no question that Ricks’ ideas should be taken very, very, seriously (also see his blog). Few people have his level of experience, access, and insight. However, there are reasons to give your psychiatrist pause over his prescription pad.

For example, Mr. Ricks, to his extreme credit, recently had Nir Rosen write a guest post for his blog on Mr. Rosen paints a considerably rosier picture of Iraq. In his post, Rosen notes that he has little to no use for the hysterics in the international media (or lack of) about an unraveling in Iraq. After an extended stay in Iraq, in which he traveled widely and (ohmygawd!) at night, Mr. Rosen returned and could only complain about his time spent in traffic. In his estimation, Iraqis appear to have no stomach for sectarianism or hyper religious political parties. Critically (and interestingly), he found widespread support and praise for the Iraqi Security Forces among the Iraqi populace no matter how far flung or “shitty” the village he traveled to.

Besides Mr. Rosen’s anecdotes, there are other bits of evidence that, together, begin to make a compelling case against medicating yourself over Iraq’s problems. The New York Times recently published a series of fascinating reports about Iraqi grassroots democracy. One piece reported a political debate held in an East Baghdad barber shop. The folks inside (Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd, mind you) were debating exactly how George W. Bush should be remembered. They went on to bicker over who is best suited to be the next Prime Minister. No consensus emerged, but one fellow insisted it should be Ahmed Chalabi because he wanted someone with a strong grasp of economics.

Another piece reported that political campaign classes have sprouted up across the country to teach people the basics of running a campaign. The report suggests that up to 40% of the candidates registered for the upcoming elections have participated. Amusingly, most candidates are having a hard time grasping the unpleasantness of mudslinging.

They’ll understand when they’re (democratically) older.

Clearly these points are mere anecdotes. However, they each (and many others like them) convey the sense that Iraqis want change they can believe in. As Tom Friedman recently noted, time will tell if the Iraqis can surprise us. My money says these folks are headed for a brighter future than Tom Ricks believes. The upcoming elections are nothing to fear.

Hold the Prozac.

Tanker pushing 50: gas passing not as easy as it used to be

I hoped to save this blog for later when it would be far more relevant to the class. This administration has been sitting on the issue for more than a year now so they could have waited a bit longer but seeing as how Air Force acquisitions has no concept of our syllabus, I feel obligated at this time to comment on the coverage of this topic.

The coverage is boring. I would not expect you to expect anything more from the media on this topic because the topic is the KC-135 tanker replacement. It is a big hunk of flying metal. No matter how snazzy the contractors will try to make it, it will still be a big plane that carries fuel…and does not really do anything cool—(I had something perverse to say about the refueling process but reconsidered since this is on the record and for class—the picture should be enough).

I admit that federal contracts are pretty boring, especially the legal part. I would compare it to the making of legislation which has been compared to sausage making. But this acquisition process reads like a telenovela and the press is just dulling it down (even Danger Room). Jail, suicide, tawdry relationships and the gossip…oh the gossip.

The fed has been trying to get a new tanker for nine years. Now the acquisitions process is long, but this is ridiculous. It started getting ridiculous when Darleen Druyun of Air Force acquisitions recommended the Air Force lease new tankers from Boeing, as opposed to buying them flat out. Boeing has long been the favorite child of USAF (the reason for which will be obvious in a few lines) but this was going to cost the DoD millions more than if they were to have brand new tankers built.

Someone got wise and an investigation was launched. Funny thing, Druyun retired from her Air Force post and immediately became a new VP at…Boeing of all places. The contract was frozen and Darleen did jail time for this felony as did her new CFO (she threw him under the bus).

A new RFP (request for proposal) was issued for which Boeing and Northrop Grumman (with EADS--European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company) were the primary respondents. The turf war between Boeing and NGC goes way back (NGC has often lost contracts to Boeing but they have the B2, a personal favorite, and all the aircraft carriers DoD could want, so there), however, this time there would be hair pulling.

I should clarify how the RFP process works. Government office decides they need something and writes up an RFP specifying exactly what and how many. The RFP is posted to a database where all potential competitors would be interested. Contractor business development people work through the RFP with a fine tooth comb. Then each contractor has an opportunity to Q&A with the requestor. This time around NCG did, and Boeing apparently did not ask the right questions.

Northrop Grumman had a novel idea, very 21st century of them, to make the tanker multi-purpose. It would be a tanker, as the Air Force requested, but would double for cargo and personnel transportation. They came up with this novel idea through the Q&A portion of the RFP. So Boeing responded to the RFP with a technologically updated but like-the-old-one tanker and NGC with the “more bang for your DoD buck”, three-in-one. Guess who won. Contrary to popular sentiment, DoD likes a good bargain.

Boeing’s reaction was the standard “hey, that’s not fair”. GAO’s initial response was “too bad”….and then someone wrote their congressman. Well, a hundred or so somebody’s to be more accurate. Most of those letter-writing somebodies lived in the Seattle area where Boeing would have manufactured their tanker.

I mentioned earlier that Northrop Grumman was working with EADS. They are European and the bid was based on the use of Airbus (which as most of us know, is subsidized). This is where the issue became a political one (in case you don’t consider corruption in federal acquisitions political). Boeing launched a propaganda campaign through local media and successfully spun the coverage to highlight the apparent “outsourcing” of the all-American-tanker to the French. Joke is on them: the NGC-EADS tanker was to be built in Mobile, Alabama. But, tell one person in Congress that the French are taking jobs from their constituents and see what happens. Congress got in a tizzy and GAO launched an investigation (on the fairness of the RFP, but driven by the political agenda), once again freezing the bid process.

Meanwhile, elections…inauguration…we have a new President. A year plus goes by…Yesterday a new RFP for the same tanker.

Here is the thing: not only does Boeing know exactly what Northrop Grumman is going to bid, the new RFP was written to favor Boeing and exclude NGCs multi-purpose aspects from the competition (unless there is a deadlock in choosing) because it was “not fair” that NGC was so creative at meeting their customer’s needs. NGC is debating dropping the bid rather than wasting more money on R&D for a contract which is clearly already in Boeing’s pocket due to congressional meddling.

It would seem that, at least in defense procurement, protectionism is making a comeback. As if there is not enough pork in the budget after Congress is done with it, now political agendas are screwing with the competition of the market—more importantly, as it relates to national security (the old tankers are pushing 50, nickel and diming the Pentagon). Unsuccessfully trying to put my bias aside, the NGC model is better for the needs of the US military (but I am no defense expert).

Don’t ever underestimate when someone tells you to “write your congressman.”

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Diabetes is no Laughing Matter

The United States is parceling out its services in strange ways selling arms to both India and Pakistan. The U.S. claims neutrality in the conflict between the nuclear neighbors possibly enabling a defense of equal opportunity arms distribution. The Washington Post reports that to Pakistan, the U.S. is selling 18 F-16 fighter jets at a cost of $3 billion; to India 10 C-17 cargo planes, 8 Poseidon Long-Range Reconnaissance Planes, and 145 M777 Light-Weight Howitzers all totaled at $4.7 billion.
The trade deal predictably provoked protests from both countries, India going so far as to enact a legislative appeal to halt the transaction with Pakistan. This hardly registered with the DOD who is facilitating the deals. While India pays out of pocket for these arms, Pakistan is using U.S. approved grants which they receive as aid to finance the F-16's. It's supposed that most of the aid which the U.S. doubles to Pakistan next year will arrive back in U.S. hands in the form of defense contracts.
Besides making money, the United States appears to be attempting to deter conventional warfare between the countries by helping to beef up their defenses making any kind of aggression seem more costly. You might hardly be able to tell though when the U.S. is supporting two of its companies, Lockheed and Boeing, in bid for a $10 billion, 145 fighter jet contract to India. The U.S. is looking to supplant Russia, who is in bid for the contract, as the main arms supplier to India (India's 1000+ piece air force is almost completely Russian). In facilitating closer ties to India the U.S. hopes to create a buffer ally against the growing Chinese military. While deepening economic ties between China, India, and the U.S. will looks to stabilize regional relationships, the mess of military cooperation, defense contracts (to India and Taiwan), and conflict history (between India and China in the 60's) will ensure results akin to the infinite improbability drive.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

F-35 program shows promise under Defense Secretary Gates

Over the last year, one of the major and more controversial decisions the Defense Department made has been to scrap the F-22 fighter jet program in favor of F-35s. Cost and functionality seemed to underlie the decision: the F-22s are extremely expensive ($350 million each) and most suitable for aerial dogfights while the F-35s are less expensive ($122 million each) and focus more on attacking ground targets. The decision also represented a shift in military procurement from seeking to build today for projected future needs to a greater preparedness for today’s wars.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter represents the Pentagon’s largest military procurement program. An estimated 2,456 planes will be produced at costs expected to total $300 billion over the next 25 years. The planes will be used by Air Force, the Navy, and the Marines, with modest design alterations for the individual branches. The F-35 will essentially replace the Air Force’s F-16 and A-10, along with the Navy’s F-18, as they are phased in over the next several years.

In light of the projections of the F-35 program, there is not going to be a major reduction in military spending as some analysts predicted under Obama’s democratic administration, but rather a more targeted approach with a greater emphasis on contractor accountability. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, one of the few holdovers from the Bush administration, has shown his unwillingness to accept the status quo on completion delays and cost overruns. He recently fired Maj. Gen. David Heinz of the Marine Corps, the general in charge of the program, and announced $614 million in performance fees would be withheld from Lockheed Martin. It is expected that Vice Admiral David Venlet of the Naval Air Systems Command will be assigned to run the program in the future.

While some F-35s must reach our military servicemen in the immediate future, Gates has added a year to the F-35 development phase to allow Lockheed extensive time for flight testing and troubleshooting software systems. This should reduce cost overruns in the future. For its part, Lockheed, the nation’s largest military contractor, has also agreed to absorb part of future cost overruns, should they occur.

It appears that with the F-35 program, the Defense Department and Secretary Gates has made a realist assessment of resources and budget, selected a versatile aircraft expected to assist in modern conflicts, and has imposed effective oversight on our military contractors.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

When your mom told you it didn't matter what others think about you, she was wrong.

I have had this thought on several occasions in reaction to the plethora of bad news streaming our way regarding both current US offensives. However, The Defense of Jisr Al-Doreaa has really driven this opinion home. Why is it that our soldiers are not getting any kind of cultural training prior to deployment? In this I am not implying that we have to send sensitive multi-lingual soldiers into combat as this would require not only a strategic change in military training but also a change at the very core of the American education system—and that is a battle which will far outlast any military engagement in which this country could find itself. We should, however, give our soldiers the basic knowledge needed to avoid cultural faux pas which will inevitably acquire them more enemies.

I propose the incorporation of cultural sensitivity and language training into any pre-deployment program, especially given the COIN doctrine. If a soldier will interact with the locals of their “host country” (which means all infantry given COIN), the lesson that the left hand is considered impure should be as standard as weapons instruction. There has been some element of this in past US military endeavors, most recently for those who served in Bosnia. For whatever reason, this “customs and language” aspect of pre-deployment training is absent from the repertoire of most serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have come across documentation displaying some remnant of this idea implemented in certain divisions by a select leadership, but nothing system wide.

If the situations described through dreams in The Defense of Jisr Al-Doreaa are any kind of accurate representation of the real issues experienced by troops combating insurgency, a very basic understanding of the local language and customs can go a long way in averting complications like those experienced by Second Lieutenant Phil Connors’ Red Platoon. The difficulties faced in each dream were caused (and in later dreams) or at least complicated by the general lack of understanding (of the people and the language) by 2nd LT Connors and his men.

Some might hesitate as to the additional time customs and language training would add to a soldier’s pre-deployment checklist. Two weeks of part-time classroom training would be sufficient. Fluency or the ability to communicate making a translator obsolete is not the objective. Rather the goal is the ability to pick up on key words and extend greetings without offending the sensibility of those locals with whom one might interact on the ground. On more than one occasion, as a student traveling to a developing country, I received just a week of intensive customs and phrase training (granted I was not traveling to such a hostile situation). The few niceties I had learned allowed me to gain the respect of those with whom I interacted as they were often impressed that I was interested enough in their culture to stumble through my poorly annunciated phrases.

True insurgents will not lay down their weapons because one day at the market a US soldier asks him how he and his family are doing. However after that insurgent leaves, the man in the market stall may just let that soldier know to whom exactly he was talking. Learning the basics of a host culture is a way we, as an occupying force, can earn the trust and respect of the most valuable assets in counterinsurgency: the people.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Fast Times at Mujahideen High

As part of their Afghanistan exit strategy, the United States is strongly considering transforming a Mujahideen training course into one suited for the Taliban. The offer would see current Talibani fighters given an 8 week training course to enter into the Afghan Army. But the offer would only extend to Taliban with a little 't' which General McKiernan described as those fighters not ideologically motivated, i.e. accidental guerillas. The program resembles a current effort by the U.S. to beef up the Afghan Officer Corps with experienced personnel from the Soviet raised Afghan military of the '80s.
Should the deal be announced and negotiations actually occur, the Afghan army could see more seasoned fighters entering into the ranks. It would create less resistance in battle hardened areas and help ease up on security concerns. The latter would be more important in the long run as when NATO forces leave a town to Afghan security forces who need to be trusted as able.
Currently, NATO forces are engaged in Marjah located in Helmand Province. The offensive is hoped to last no more than 30 days according to British Commander of NATO forces Nick Carter, but more than 3 months could be needed to assess the security situation in the aftermath. NATO forces hope to continue a six month long sweep eastward toward Kandahar after the push through Marjah is completed. All of this is seen optimistically as the beginning of the end of securing Afghanistan; throw in a recruitment program for the Taliban and the odds of secure and stable Afghanistan could increase. Could.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Yes I Am Being A Realist

Ok. I am going to be honest here – the joys of anonymity for our blogs right. I want to talk about this recent discussion over potential civil war in Iraq and leaving 30,000ish troops. Maybe I am alone on this, but I have never thought we would pull all the troops out. Sorry. And I do not mean simply the support aspects. There is too much at stake. Iraq is not Vietnam – there are resources.

Granted, the troop levels have just now gone below 100,000 since 2003, but the current withdraw plan will not have all the troops out until the end of 2011. Basically two years away. You can read it yourself but the schedule is to keep 98,000 until after the elections, have only 50,000 remaining by August 31, and all out by the end of the 2011. Can we just say wiggle room is abundant?

The elections are already getting dirty. Sunnis banned, killed, continued Iranian influence, etc… Yes yes I know some of the Sunnis are back in the running now due to an appeal, and maybe some of them should be banned (Go read Duelfer again). That is not really my point. Clearly there is a strong case for a disintegration of the fragile stability if all the troops are pulled out. Then again I would argue that even if things were fairly stable arguments can still be made for leaving bases in Iraq.

Nevertheless, correlating the civil war theory with the long-and-loose withdraw schedule, I think there is ample room for Obama to continue hammering withdraw without hurting domestic polling and safeguarding for alternate scenarios. Why should he admit that there are other stakes on the table right now when he can show progress in withdraw and divert attention elsewhere? Do I think Obama wants to leave troops in Iraq? No. Do I think we will end up leaving a contingent for ‘peacekeeping’? Yes. It is just too vital a geopolitical location not to. I am even willing to argue that a strong strategic-diplomatic policy could have Arab states supporting continued US presence in Iraq for regional stability, based on the fact Iran is pushing its regional influence. Feel free to disagree but, like I said, I have never envisioned an Iraq without US ‘bases’ since the 2003 invasion. Not to say I agreed with the invasion, but the geopolitical moves just seemed apparent. After all, we have already built the largest US embassy there.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

COIN in Iraq: Strategy or Operation?

In this week’s readings for Defense Statecraft, Gian P. Gentile laments the US military’s emphasis on population-centric COIN for placing tactics ahead of strategy, and fears it will lead to even more “never-ending campaigns of nation-building and attempts to change entire societies in places like Afghanistan.” If one listens to Tom Ricks, as my fellow Patterson students should have last night, it becomes apparent that this is not the real problem, especially in Iraq. I would suggest that Gentile confuses strategic failures with the absence of strategy entirely.

Afghanistan represents the war the US should have fought following 9/11. That we did not follow up our initial routing of the Taliban with earnest nation building was a tremendous failure that allowed the Taliban to regain footholds throughout the country. This failure, coupled with the loss of resources to the Iraq quagmire made Afghanistan a conflict whose future is very much in doubt.

This week’s offensive on Marjah represents the way the US should have fought the war in Afghanistan following our early successes and the creation of the provisional government. A unified assault by Coalition and Afghan security forces on a Taliban stronghold designed to minimize civilian casualties and secure and hold the population center represents the apotheosis of the Army’s field manual on COIN (FM 3-24). Such efforts at the outset might have forged a stronger government, preventing the suffering endured by Afghanis at the hands of the Taliban and their own corrupt state. But for Gentile, Marjah represents only the latest localized application of an overall COIN grand strategy.

If Gentile is to be believed, this one-size-fits-all strategy has been laid over both Iraq and Afghanistan, despite their significant differences, and will be used again in future. It seems to have already failed in Iraq. Ricks believes that a force of about 35,000 American troops will have to remain in Iraq indefinitely to prevent the country from devolving into civil war. Officials within the State Department and various intelligence agencies have even less optimism, and feel that an Iraqi civil war is inevitable. Either way, it seems that COIN in Iraq is broken, whether our troops remain or not. If the Surge can be seen as the last wave of COIN, it has been broken upon the Iraqi rocks. COIN has failed in that conflict, and its future success in Afghanistan is uncertain at best.

Gentile’s worst fears seem to be confirmed. But is it really true that the US has subordinated its other military concerns in favor of a global COIN strategy? Gentile’s concerns seem to be overblown. He is worried that conventional capabilities are being subordinated or treated as less complex than COIN. This does not seem to be the case. The US military needs to be more versatile than ever before, and for the present conflicts population-centric COIN (for better or worse) has been seen as the ideal operation for the task at hand. If the QDR is actually indicative of military strategy, the move from a “two-war doctrine” to a more flexible system of response for a wide variety of contingencies demonstrates this point. Prior to 2001 the US military was prepared for large conventional conflicts that were unlikely to come. Failures in Iraq and Afghanistan led to the swing in favor of COIN as we awoke to the fact that our conventional war machine was ill suited to the present conditions and opponents. But this does not suggest that a present emphasis on COIN comes at the expense of other levels of military effectiveness.

For one, COIN has not even been the sole strategy employed in the amorphous “War on Terror.” For example our recent love affair with drone attacks has little to do with population centers and it certainly does nothing to “win hearts and minds.” As Gentile suggests the British did in the nineteenth century, American commanders indeed see our current war making as a “means to an end,” and not a tactic run amok over policy. American strategy is one of nation building and providing security for Iraqis and Afghanis while seeking to destroy the fundamentalist terrorists and insurgents who would target Americans and our allies in the Middle East. One can certainly take issues with the means we have selected, but there are certainly desirable ends.

The real problem is, at least with Iraq, that it was the wrong war. Based upon false pretenses, with minimal analysis of what would happen after the initial fighting, Iraq II has been marked by its lack of clear objectives and strategy. This has left us to pick up the pieces and figure it out as we went along. Clearly this has not gone well. Gentile confuses the military’s embrace of COIN with the larger failures of strategy during our conflicts in the Middle East.

It is difficult to make a coherent strategy when our initial objectives in Iraq were ambiguous. Seeking to shutdown (ultimately nonexistent) WMD programs through pre-emptive war was a strategy without precedent. Without even the WMD to justify the conflict in hindsight, the Bush Administration made the issue “Iraqi Freedom.” The viable, democratic Iraq so beloved by Cheney and company has yet to arise from the blood and rubble, and it is unlikely it ever will. Most Americans would agree that a war to provide democracy to Iraqis would not have been worth the significant expense and bloodletting of both sides.

Gentile’s inability to find a coherent strategy or set of objectives for the American misadventure in Iraq is not due to our being COIN-happy, but the fact there was nothing of interest to the US there other than the contained despot Saddam Hussein and his phantom weapons programs. When Iraqi democracy became our incomprehensible objective, things unraveled because Iraq is an arbitrarily delineated, artificial state encompassing three ethnic groups that hate each other. The US should not be in the habit of remaking authoritarian states as some sort of humanitarian gesture. Sadly, an authoritarian dictator or significant military force is necessary to hold such a state together, and the US refuses to allow the former and lacks the will to provide the latter.

In the meantime, recent developments suggest the US hasn’t completely lost sight of larger, if not “conventional” conflicts. Recent investments in cyber security and ABM systems—one failed, one successful, with lasers no less!—demonstrate concern about threats beyond terrorism, particularly a possible showdown with China. Gentile is right that COIN should be seen as a tool in our military toolbox, but is wrong to believe that it has ascended anywhere beyond that. He seizes upon COIN being the official strategy, because our initial objectives and strategies were incomprehensible in Iraq and initially ineffective in Afghanistan.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The End of LORAN-C

Once again the U.S. has made itself more vulnerable by increasing its dependence on exposed technology systems. February 8 marked the termination of LORAN-C (Long Range Navigation) signals, a navigation system that uses multiple radio transmitters to determine location and speed. Due to the development of modern satelittes and GPS, LORAN has become an antiquated system that the transportation sector and military no longer rely on. However, LORAN has been a cheap and effective backup to GPS and could continue to fulfill that role with minimal funding.

LORAN’s funding was cut by Congress, but that cut in funding was conditional on certification from the Secretary of Homeland Security that the LORAN system is not needed as a backup to GPS. Nobody likes redundancy and wasteful spending, but LORAN was a technically different system from GPS that provided the U.S. an alternative accurate navigation system.

In the event of a disruption to GPS the U.S. would be vulnerable to potentially huge economic damage and our increasingly technology-dependent military would be less effective. Relying on a single exposed system makes our transportation and military sectors more vulnerable. Widespread GPS failure caused by enemy jammers, cyber attackers, a solar storm, software malfunction, electromagnetic pulse, satellite loss, or a natural reversal of the polarity of the earth’s magnetic field could leave the U.S. literally “flying blind.”

Friday, February 05, 2010

Military Effectiveness – now for pwning noobs! 1337!

Recently, much has been made of the convergence of consumer electronics and the world’s militaries. The iPod is an increasingly common part of the kit a soldier must lug around, acting as translator, weapons training, and perhaps occasionally, a form of entertainment. Xbox controllers have been modified to control UAVs. Recognizing the collusion between military and consumer industries yields benefits both in the fields and in budgetary spreadsheets, the recent 2010 QDR calls for the Department of Defense to “broaden and deepen relationships with other nations and private firms to create mutually beneficial partnerships to share capabilities, systems, technology, and personnel, while ensuring that we also protect sensitive sources and methods.”

This focus on harnessing the innovative power of the private sector is not unique to the DoD. To ease the burden of refocusing our nation’s space program, NASA is to have greater cooperation with private rocket developers. I hear our nuclear stockpile is need of modernization, perhaps we can get some private firms on that too, while we’re at it.

And yet little has been made of some basic elements of military effectiveness working their way back into consumer culture. Specifically, the current generation of war-themed video games has required players to—at least subconsciously—take into consideration the elements key to military effectiveness in order to succeed. Players, primarily males aged 12-30, are passively learning what is necessary for a successful military engagement by nights spent on games like Modern Warfare 2 or MAG.

Scenarios in war games are moving further and further away from simple “run n’ gun” deathmatch action in favor of more objective-based game types where players must work together to hold points, plant explosives, or establish a headquarters. Clans—teams that practice and play competitively against other clans together online—tend to work out specific roles for each player in order to operate more efficiently in securing objective. War games ever since Counter-Strike have required a team to balance themselves with different weapons and capabilities to improve their chances of victory. Snipers and machine gunners lay down suppressive fire so that light infantry may advance. Players with riot shields may take the place of armor, punching through enemy lines and providing cover for an advance of infantry. A well-balanced team thus replicates the technical skills and weapons handling necessary for success in the real field.

But things have become even more complex. With the advent of headsets (by no means a recent occurrence), information sharing has made the dominance of teams even greater. With the ability to identify and communicate the state of targets or the placement of enemy weapons and personnel, the cohesive team will make short work of casual gamers paired with strangers. Unit cohesion is key, as those that move systematically together on a target are the most likely to take it. In most games, players in close proximity will make recorded announcements that they are throwing a flashbang, reloading, or have taken down an enemy. Elements of the heads up display (HUD) such as radar showing target, enemy, and friendly locations, a running scoreboard, and the amount of ammunition available are a vital source of (albeit unrealistic) information for players. Anyone who has suffered an enemy EMP in Modern Warfare 2 can attest to what an impact the loss of this information can have on players.

Games have been seeking greater integration of different weapons systems, with the ability to call in airstrikes, use UAV missiles, or even call in a game-ending tactical nuke. The more arcade-style Battlefield series allows players to hop from airplane to landing craft to tank to anti-aircraft gun. The integration of these weapons systems has proven unrealistic and rather clumsy, often as a reward for success in the field. Similarly, the ranks players earn through taking checkpoints or killing opponents have had little relevance in the actual heat of battle.

But that appears to be changing. The new Playstation 3 game MAG allows battles of up to 256 players on massive online maps. There are objectives to be held, but other strong points such as pillboxes must be held or destroyed in order to make victory possible. To manage this mass of digital humanity, the game’s designers have made tactical leadership central to the game. Before each match, players interested in an officer’s position may enter their name in the running. Units of eight are each assigned an officer who decides what targets the unit should go after, and based on unit performance may earn the right to call in air strikes or other support. Though it may seem that players would quickly ignore their officer’s commands those that stay close to their leader get benefits such as faster reloading and greater accuracy, providing an incentive for greater tactical play.

As the games support ever larger fields of players, it seems that this sort of tactical leadership will have to be expanded, perhaps to the level of actual generalship where a few players get to decide the overall strategy the lower officers must pursue. Whether this will prove enticing to casual gamers such as myself remains to be seen. Nevertheless, it is interesting that both game developers and players are quickly realizing that basic rules of military effectiveness—unit cohesion, information management, tactical leadership, and perhaps even one day generalship—are just as vital to victory in the virtual world as they are on our modern battlefields. Perhaps greater cooperation between industry and the military will prove better for all involved (it is worth noting that the Navy SEALS have provided technical advice to both the Modern Warfare and SOCOM series). Let’s just hope no one in the field decides a tactical nuke after a twenty-five kill streak is actually a good idea.