SemText #1: Can defence technology make us strategically stupid?

This SemText discusses how defence technology may impair strategic intuition.

It’s August and it’s time for the Asia-Pacific Programme for Senior Military Officers (APPSMO)! Granted that I’m still a civilian, it’s a great privilege for me to actually be able to attend this event (albeit only the morning seminars). There are supposed to be 3 talks today, but I missed the first one because it took me 2 hours to get to the venue which was located at the east coast of Singapore (I live at the west coast) and the second one was already half-way through. So I decided to just pay attention to the third and final talk delivered by Prof. Pascal Vennesson about how defence technology can make military planners become strategically stupid. His emphasis was on how technology influences strategic decision-making.

Prof. Pascal highlights two case studies in his talk. The first is the case of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 led by Gen. Franks, with the Blue Force tracking system [HTML] at centre point. He then contrasts it with the MacArthur’s landing in Incheon [HTML] during the 1950 Korean War, when the U.S. was still trying to decide whether or not to send troops to aid the South Koreans. Comparing the two cases, Prof. Pascal asserts three pitfalls that modern communications technology might have for the strategist:

  1. Technology may disrupt sense-making for military leaders.
  2. It limits how commanders search for data.
  3. It weakens mental models.

Franks and MacArthur


A soldier operating a Blue Force display (Defence Industry Daily)


In 2003, Operation Iraqi Freedom was underway. The US were trying out the Blue Force tracking system, a series of displays showing the position of US and Iraqi units. One day, the system did not show any Iraqi units near V Corps, while V Corps were shown as being idle on the map. Seeing that V Corps wasn’t moving despite the absence of an enemy, General Franks then got angry at the land commander. However, what the map did not show was that there was a battle unfolding, perhaps one of the most important ones in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The map was at the wrong “level of sight”.

In the 1950s, the US were deciding whether to intervene in Korea or not. The North Koreans had invaded and the US were worried about the security of South Korea. General MacArthur decided to fly to South Korea, effectively “descending” to the tactical level, to make some sense about the situation in the country. MacArthur found that the South Koreans could not fend off the North Koreans.

Disruption, limitation, and weakening

I know you technophiles would all go like “But we need more technology to improve and advance our defences!” I get it. I’m one of those guys too. I really like the application of robotics in warfare. I just think robots are cool. However, there’s a certain point where the use of robots have the potential to entirely change what we know about war.

The same goes for information and communications technology (ICT). When used in a practical, real-life situation, ICT has benefits and also its pitfalls. The three which Prof. Pascal identified were that of disruption, limitation, and weakening.

First, ICT may disrupt how a strategist/commander makes sense of the world. Looking at a display is not the same as being right there in the field. Often times, displays do not show the right “scale” of the battlefield that you need to be operating at, resulting in a distorted view of the battlefield, which in turn, disrupts the sense-making process of the general. Such was the problem, as Prof. Pascal identified, with Blue Force. Gen. Franks could not make out the situation on the ground and just assumed that V Corps were being lazy. However, it was quite the contrary; V Corps were fighting. In a sense, ICT dulls a strategist’s strategic intuition, or the ability to make sense of the battlefield.

Second, ICT may limit how commanders search for data or information. ICT positions the user in a “passive” mode, where the tedious task of sorting and categorizing tens of terabytes of raw data from surveillance drones is done automatically by the computer. But a computer cannot interpret patterns; it can only show them. Another part of being a strategist is being able to filter out necessary information and finding the right cues. When a commander relies too much on the computer, the commander tends to become more passive and it further dulls their abilities.

Third, ICT may weaken mental models. I still do not have a clear idea as to what Prof. Pascal meant by “mental models” and how ICT weakens them specifically. However, deducting from the information provided, I would say a “mental model” relates to a commander’s strategic intuition. Since ICT automatically sorts data into pre-defined categories, then when confronted with an anomaly, the system might not be able to recognize it. It then falls on the commander to recognize this and make sense of it. Through experience, a commander’s abilities sharpen, whereas ICT needs to constantly be updated. In the heat of war, we wouldn’t have the leisure time needed to update Windows every day or so.

Time for lunch… and open questions

To conclude, Prof. Pascal does believe that more advanced ICT in wars may cause certain strategic faculties to decline. Or in simple terms, there might be a possibility that the use of ICT would have adverse effects on strategists. “Make them strategically stupid”, if I were to be blunt.

I would tend to agree with Prof. Pascal, yet I do disagree with him on some fronts. Sure, increased reliance on ICT would dull the mind. However, I believe that the battlefields of tomorrow would require soldiers that are not only adept at shooting rifles, but also making the full use out of the technology they have. This does require soldiers to undergo more rigorous training, especially the field commanders and high-level officers, who have to make split-second decisions based on information fed by a computer. In the end, a commander/strategist should always keep their wits about them.

Prof. Pascal ended his talk with a series of open questions:

  • How would such technological advancements (and its pitfalls) apply to defence/security in the Southeast Asia region?
  • How could the pitfalls of over-reliance on ICT be mitigated?
  • How can we make defence technology that doesn’t dominate a strategist’s decision-making process, rather complement it and brings out the best of it?

Date of seminar: 6 August 2016

Featured picture credit: Ghost Recon: Future Soldier (c) Ubisoft

SemText is where I write about the seminars (hence the “Sem” prefix) that I attend. Mostly summaries of speakers’ points, sometimes added with my personal judgment/opinion.

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