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Syria: Finding the Lost Cause in China

Welcome to America’s Syria Policy, the China round. Having made the public announcement of support to the rebels, only two feasible policy options remain for the United States; these examples arise from two moments in history, existing together on a razor’s edge of success in a smorgasbord of disaster. We either take a page from the Kuomintang-Maoist balance during the invasion by Imperial Japan or from America’s opening of China in the 1970′s.

Option 1: Beyond the Syrian Sub-Plot

To much of the leadership of the Maoists (CCP) and the Kuomintang (KMT), both members of the Second “United Front”, the invasion by Japan was merely a precarious backdrop to the continued struggle for the face of China’s independent future. In the words of their leadership:

The photographer cropped out the knives behind their backs.
The photographer cropped out the knives behind their backs.

“70 percent self-expansion, 20 percent temporization and 10 percent fighting the Japanese.”
-Mao Zedong

“The Japanese are a disease of the skin, the communists are a disease of the heart.”
-Chiang Kai Shek

Even while the battle with Japan raged, Chiang-Kai Shek and Mao’s soldiers exchanged fire behind the lines of control. The conflict was partially a vessel by which the KMT and CCP collected foreign aid and built local influence/human resources for the final battle between the United Front’s membership. The limits of treachery within the Chinese alliance were often what each party felt able to get away with. China’s fate, not the rejection of an interloper, was the main prize.

The Syrian civil war has become such a major sub-plot; the two major parties, the Assad regime and the rebellion, are dominated by equally bad options: an extremist authoritarian backed by Hezbollah and Iran, and extremist Islamists backed by Al-Qaeda. Syria is beyond her “Libya Moment” when moderates and technocrats were still strong enough to out-influence extremist elements in stand-up combat with the regime. Like the KMT or CCP, the United States must now concentrate on the survival of what little faction of sanity exists within the war, as opposed to the war itself.

To concentrate on the “Rebel-Regime” narrative now is a mistake; for the United States, the only real narrative is the survival of moderate freedom fighters.  U.S. policy must concentrate on the perspectives of Mao and Chiang: the survival of the preferred eventual party, not the defeat of the temporal enemy.  Both extremist parties must lose; enclaves of moderates must be armed and pushed to defend themselves from both regime and rebels if need be. If such an operation is feasible, the moderate enclave could be made strong enough to sweep up and put together the pieces after extremist regime and extremist rebel have sufficiently weakened each other. The authoritarian regime is a disease of the skin, extremism is a disease of the heart.


Option 2: Trees for the Forest

America’s sudden opening with China was a calculated move to create a counter-balance to the conventional perception that the world was going the Soviet Union’s way. In that vein, sacrifices had to be made:

“I told the Prime Minister that no American personnel … will give any encouragement or support in any way to the Taiwan Independence Movement. … What we cannot do is use our forces to suppress the movement on Taiwan if it develops without our support.”
Henry Kissinger

Eventually, America went so far as to switch official diplomatic recognition from their Taiwanese allies to the PRC. Some question whether the balancing program started by the Nixon administration’s efforts generated tangible results. Such is the risk of trading policy for intangible influence. However, the election of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran has given the United States the chance to trade her potential quagmire in Syria for a brighter future for and with Iran.

Up until the recent election, policymakers had called Iran for the conservatives. Now, a moderate (note: moderate does not mean reformer) has been elected on a rather explicit platform:

I thank God that once again rationality and moderation has shone on Iran… This victory is a victory for wisdom, moderation and maturity… over extremism.
President Rouhani

Your government … will follow up national goals … in the path of saving the country’s economy, revive ethics and constructive interaction with the world through moderation.
President Rouhani

Like the PRC, President Rouhani is far from lock-step with western powers, but offers a great chance to shift the internal Iranian power balance to a more palatable place for United States policy. In the China scenario, the opponent was the Soviet Union and the offering was neutrality in the major PRC territorial concern: Taiwan. In this scenario, the Soviet player is the internal conservative element in Iran that prefers antagonism as a path to regional power. Although not a direct regional concern, Syria is nonetheless a part of Iran’s sphere of influence and a key part of Iran’s core interest to be the regional power. Offering to scale our Syrian direct involvement back to containment could give the new Iranian president the necessary trophies to allay conservatives and giving Rouhani the juice to convince the real powers Iran to throttle back on the nation’s own ill-advised plans for further involvement in Syria. No doubt he would like to make room for his original platform of diplomatic reform and internal growth. A trophy from the West in hand, he may gain the legitimacy to further push a more conciliatory approach with the west in regards to even nuclear policy. This would encourage greater region-wide stability through decreased Iranian antagonism. Unlike a direct Syria strategy, this vector suppresses a regional instigator of extremism, rather than attacking one particular instance.

The Pitfalls:

Option 1: Death Spiral

The direct Syria strategy potentially drags the United States into a military quagmire where her legitimacy of policy has been indirectly hung upon forces with which she considers herself at war. It may also force potential political fellow travelers in Iran to abandon their hopes of conciliation with the West as we become further associated with direct attacks on what Iranian strategists consider a sphere of influence supporting their core interests. Further pushing Iranian knee-jerk involvement in Syria, the United States either gets sucked in with her incredibly unpleasant bedfellows or must publicly divest herself of a major policy to great embarrassment. While fighting in China, General “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell once said, “We must get arms to the communists, who will fight,” missing the greater oncoming historical narrative. A direct strategy in Syria may accidentally force us into a conflict with no right sides and no exit; no matter the choice, we may foul the over-arching narrative of moderation and humanity in the face of extremism.

Option 2: Three Steps Back

While getting us out of a potential quagmire, we may sacrifice our public support of a legitimately beleaguered people for what may be little to no political advantage. There are no guarantees that trading direct involvement for containment will have any traction in the cloistered government halls of Iran. The U.S. abandonment of the anti-government elements during Desert Storm reverberated painfully. Can the United States afford to create a pattern of supporting and flipping rebels for political convenience if a chance still exists in Syria? While the political and military initiative of the moderate movement in Syria may be gone and the vacuum filled by monsters, the regular people behind that moderation are still there. As said by one of the philosophical forebears of the Republic, “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

A Painful Choice:

Posing a series of ideas without taking a stand is the equivalent to cheating. Unfortunately, we arguably lost in both historical scenarios. The KMT was eventually defeated by the CCP and our later sacrifices in opening China may have been unnecessary, as the PRC may have already been girding themselves to take such actions.

Our hesitation has painted us into a corner where, heartbreakingly, we may only make things worse.
As heartbreaking as it is, our hesitation painted us into a corner where we have no real palatable options inside Syria. “Helping” may only arm monsters. Unfortunately, wishes and hindsight cannot change the present. Progress must be found elsewhere.

As much as it pains me to leave behind the besieged people of Syria, that conflict appears to the amateur to be too far gone. The West’s chance to out-influence the extremists was lost last year. When the drowning people of Syria reached out their hand, the only ones to grab ahold were our enemies while we looked on. Our involvement would suck us into a cycle of escalation in a conflict with no side we wish to favor. If Assad and his allied extremists wish to exchange with AQ and their extremists associates, both our enemies lose. No scenario exists, without Western boots on the ground, which does not lead to more mass death.Victory for either side will leave a long and bloody shadow. The better hope lies in the long view that a sustained positive relationship with Iran may serve as a conduit for increased moderation now and internal reform later. As for Syria, we must merely pray that the innocent can escape.

At the time we may have sacrificed too much in our opening to China, but its end result was increased reforms. No one would argue that the China of today is anywhere close to Mao’s terrifying schizophrenic state. Our opportunity with Iran is not as primed as the position potentially under-played by Nixon and Kissinger. Syria is enough of a mess and the Iranian opportunity great enough that a shift is worth the risk. If Iran can be encouraged to give via moderation the West the political space to open sanctions, economics rather than militancy could become the face of Iranian influence in the region. This could lead to greater stability, prosperity, and opportunity for everyone both outside and inside Iran.

(Editor’s Note 30/3/15, MRH – Well, so much for that.)

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy.  The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity.  They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Thinking Weapons are Closer Than We Think

This piece also at USNI News.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has constructed a neuromorphic device—the functioning structure of a mammalian brain—out of artificial materials. DARPA’s project, SyNAPSE (Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics) signals a new level for biomimicry in engineering. The project team included IBM, HRL, and their subcontracted universities.

Biomimicry is not new. The most recent example is the undulating “robojelly” developed by the Universirty of Texas at Dallas and Virginia Tech. This new drone swims through the sea like a jellyfish, collecting energy from the oxygen in the water, as does any breathing organism. There is also the graceful Pesto SmartBird, an aerial drone that mimics the shape and physical flight of birds. A knockoff was found crashed in Pakistan. If not the shape, at least the actions are often mimicked, as shown by UPenn’s quadrotors being programmed to use crane claws like predatory birds rather than construction cranes. However, these examples of biomimicry only cover the external actions of an animal. SyNAPSE goes deeper, building a synthetic version of the mind that develops these actions.

In the quest for autonomous machines, the suggestions have been either-or: machines programmed to be like brains or the integration of biological processors to provide that processing flexibility. DARPA has found the “middle path” in constructing a series of synthetic synapses out of nano-scale wire. This takes the physical form of those biological processors and constructs them from the base material of conventional computers. According to James Gimzewski at UCLA, the device manages information through a method of self-organization, a key trait of autonomous action and learning, “Rather than move information from memory to processor, like conventional computers, this device processes information in a totally new way.” Moving past the surface mimicking of physical shape and function, SyNAPSE will mimic living organisms’ basic way of processing information.

However, as the possibility for real autonomy approaches, the legal challenge becomes more urgent. An article in Defense News summarizes the catalogue of problems quite well, from accidental breaches of airspace/territorial waters, to breaches in navigational rules, to accidental deaths all caused by machines not having a direct operator to hold responsible. However, as the director of naval intelligence Vice Admiral Kendall Card noted, “Unmanned systems are not a luxury; they are absolutely imperative to the future of our Navy.” Like the CIA’s armed predator program, someone will eventually open Pandora’s box and take responsibility for their new machines to gain the operational edge. DARPA’s SyNAPSE project is that next step toward an autonomous reality.

A DARPA scale of the make-up of a neuromorphic circuit and their biological equivalents.
A DARPA scale of the make-up of a neuromorphic circuit and their biological equivalents.

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy.  The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity.  They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Lasers: Not So Fast

She blinded me with science: the LaWS installed on the USS DEWEY.

We may not have servant robots or flying cars, but it America is finally ready to deploy functional lasers. Next year, the USS PONCE will receive the military’s first field-ready Laser Weapon System (LaWS).  The navy, and nation, are justifiably excited to finally embrace military laser technology. However, it is important for us to realize the tactical and technological limitations of our new system before rushing too quickly to rely on them too often. Lasers still face great challenges from the weather, ability to detect hits, and power demands.

Red Sky in Morning:  

Lasers are nothing more than light: deadly, deadly light. Like all light, lasers as at the mercy of the atmospheric conditions they encounter. In particular, lasers are at the mercy of refraction and scattering. Refraction changes the angle that occurs as light moves through an atmosphere of varying density and makeup. As lasers are designed for longer ranges, or short range lasers encounter areas of differing conditions, the trajectory will change. This could pose challenges as targets move through areas of varying range and atmospheric density over long ranges.

Fog and house music, LaWS’ greatest enemy.

Laser light weakens over distance. Navigation types know this as “nominal range,” the range at which light can be seen in perfect conditions. A military laser’s effective destructive range is shorter, but the concepts are the same. “Luminous range” is the actual range of light due to atmospheric conditions. That range can be shortened by scattering caused by atmospheric conditions or precipitation. Lasers will be affected by such conditions as well, their effectiveness ranges shrinking in fog, rain, snow, etc… Depending how far the navy is willing to rely on laser technology, this could pose significant challenges to a fleet more beholden to the weather than before.

Eyes on Target:

Unlike kinetic rounds, lasers cannot be tracked en route to their target. An SM-2 explosion can be detected, the 76MM’s MK 98 tracks each splash and can be corrected by operators, and the CIWS system tracks each CIWS round for automatic ballistic correction. The refraction and scattering effects, combined with the time needed for LaWS to be effective, make judging effectiveness particularly important. The laser is not powerful enough to cause immediate destruction of target detectable by radar. If atmospheric interference prevents an IR tracker from detecting the laser heat signature on target, there is no way to verify trajectory and correct. This imposes, at times, a dangerous “wait and see” aspect to the use of LaWS. If a ship is engaging multiple C-802’s, and a LaWS has (hypothetically) range of 6nm, 37 seconds is not a long time for a ship to worry if its measures are effective.

Not Enough Potatoes in the World:

Enough power for a small city… or an array of space-age weaponry.

Missiles and guns come with the kinetic energy stored either in fuel or a charge; 100% of a laser’s power is drawn from the ship’s power supply. This means greater demands from the ship’s grid, as well as a greater scope of variation on grid demand as a laser powers up and down. This pumping of massive demand could cause problems for EOOW’s trying to maintain plant stability. Lasers will naturally require either vast changes in plant layout to support greater power production, or a collection of either batteries or capacitors to act as a buffer for the fluctuations in power demands. There is also the possibility of adding nuclear-powered defensive laser batteries to our mostly defenseless carriers, especially if they were allowed to increase their power output. What some are starting to call the “most expensive fleet auxiliary” will gain a invaluable punch for self-defense and defense of ships in company. For lasers to be effective, the projected power “magazine depth” under real combat conditions will need to be determined and supported.

Proper Room Clearance:

Pirates: When “arrrr” becomes “ahhhh!”

As Peter A. Morrision, program officer for ONR’s Sold-State Laser Technology Maturation Program has said, “the future is here.” Before calling the, “all clear,” on this future, the navy should properly clear the room. Laser technology has amazing cost savings and lethal possibilities, but still has serious weaknesses in weather susceptibility, verification of hits, and power demands that need solving. Other shadowy possibilities exist, such as enemies employing laser-reflective coatings that would require lasers to change wavelength to increase effectiveness. As the technology stands now, it is a worthy display of American technological supremacy that saves money on CIWS rounds and SM-2’s for limited instances. For the technology to truly carry the battles, it must be far more powerful and far better supported by ship-board systems.

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy. 

Surviving the Invisible Commons

This article originally featured at the USNI Blog

In his piece, “Imminent Domain,” ADM Greenert suggests that the EM and Cyber spectrums need now be considered a stand-alone domain of conflict. Respectfully, we’re already there. The electronic environment, wired and unwired, is an obsession for defense planners. In CYBERCOM, the EM-Cyber spectrum practically has its own unified command. The navy’s component of CYBERCOM, the “10th Fleet,” in name harkens back to ADM Greenert’s example of the rise of sub-surface warfare. From the military’s fears over an assassin’s mace style EMP attack to the public’s obsession in movies like Live Free, Die Hard and games like Black Ops 2, the awareness is more than there. While we may have recognized this new environment, ADM Greenert is right in that we have not taken this challenge to heart.  If forces are going to operate as if the EM-Cyber spectrum is a domain of warfare, they must act as they would in the physical battlefield on the tactical level, not just the strategic: take cover, stay organized, and interrupt the enemy’s OODA loop.




In a battlefield, soldiers take cover to avoid detection and enemy fire. In the EM-cyber realm, we’ve made a habit of unnecessarily exposing ourselves to vulnerability. The US Navy has created an entire web of centralized databases that require not just mere control of the EM environment, but also a stability that often doesn’t exist at sea.

The Ordnance Information System-Retail (OIS-R) is the perfect example of unnecessary exposure to EM spectrum weakness. The system, designed to manage all ordnance administration, accounting, and inventory, requires a command to sign in to a shore-side database requiring uninterrupted connection through a Java interface. To access a ship’s ordnance data, one MUST have a functional internet connection either hard-wired or satellite. If account problems exist, troubleshooting must be done through other wireless means (phone, email, etc…) with land-based facilities. Each step requires a series of exposures to a very particular type of EM-Cyber connection to operate effectively.

The old system, Retail Ordnance Logistics Management System (ROLMS) was a stand-alone database that would update parallel shore-side databases through message traffic. The old system, while potentially harder for a single entity to manage, didn’t open the whole system to multiple weaknesses by environmental interference, enemy interference both kinetic and cyber, and equipment errors shore-side that a ship cannot trouble-shoot. It might be easier to keep all your ordnance (admin) in a huge pile, but to require warfighters to make a run through the open plains of TRON to get it is not a good idea.




The drive to create centralized databases is often driven by a lack of organization on the part of the end-user. Properly organized supplies (data) minimize loss and the need to reach back into the logistical chain for material already packed. If the networks on ships are any indication, the average sailor enters the EM battlefield with absolutely no organization whatsoever. Sign in to a ship’s NIPR network and one will likely find  decade old files, repeated, in over a dozen similarly named folders: Operations Department, Ops, Operations, Ops Dept, OS1’s Folder, etc… Perhaps, those folders will have subfolders of the same name down 20 deep in series. Poor organization leads to inefficiency; inefficiency requires time, bandwidth, and exposure that should go towards the survival of the force and the success of operations. Ships need to treat their networks as they do their home desktops, organizing their material in a sensible way and deleting wrong, obsolete, or useless files.

Organization becomes the key to minimizing the need to go off-ship: well organized tech pubs, updated instructions in intuitive places, and personnel willing to spend the minute to search . A badly organized NIPR network is a reflection of how the navy treats the rest of its data: sloppily. We have seventeen sources pinging a ship for the same information that is held in 8 PowerPoint trackers, 2 messages, at least one call over the voice circuits, and 30 emails. Today, we expect every sailor to be at least an LS1 of the data-GSK, without giving them the tools or support to be so. One could drastically decrease the need to go off-ship for information by teaching sailors how to do a proper “ctrl-f” search or assigning an IT2 to deleting the ¾ of the network dedicated to obsolete files, animated .gifs, and 12 years of sea-and-anchor PowerPoints. Better training must exist not only in how to use data and of what kind, but how to properly disseminate/find it as well.

The battlefield equivalent of how we treat our data is sending soldiers into combat with a dozen different weapons from over the past century, but hiding them, their magazines, and their ammunition randomly throughout the base in mis-labeled boxes.  Like a poorly organized supply system, perceived “lost items” that are merely hidden end up wasting bandwidth on downloads, emails, and voice traffic as sailors work to solve the problems whose answers are merely in the 20th sub-folder down or in the inbox of the department head who doesn’t read his email. We must worry almost as much about the organization of our data as we do our organization of physical objects.




Survival often depends on an ability to use the enemy’s expectations of your methods against them. Some have suggested the navy embrace a wider range of bandwidths for communication; while true, more drastic measures are necessary to navigate the EM-cyber commons. In 2002, LtGen Paul Van Riper became famous for sinking the American fleet in a day during the Millennium Challenge exercise; he did so by veiling his intentions in a variety of wireless communications. We assume wireless to mean the transfer of data through the air via radio signals, but lights, hand signals, motorcycle couriers, and the like are all equally wireless.  These paleo-wireless concepts are just what we need for flexibility and security in the EM environment.

Combot vulnerabilities to wireless hacks are of particular concern to warfighters. Data connections to operators or potential connections between combots and ships serve as a way for enemies to detect, destroy, or even hijack our assets.  While autonomy is the first step in solving the vulnerability of operator connections, combots in the future must work as communicating teams. Fewer opportunities should be provided for subversion by cutting the long link back to the operator while maintaining the versatility of a small internally-communicating team. However, data communication between combots could still be vulnerable. Therefore, combots must learn from LtGen Van Riper and move to the wireless communications of the past. Just as ships at sea communicate by flags and lights when running silent or soldiers might whisper or motion to one another before breaching a doorway, combots can communicate via light, movement, or sound.

Unlike a tired Junior Officer of the Deck with a NATO code-book propped open, computers can almost instantly process simple data. If given the capability, a series of blinking lights, sounds, or even informative light data-transmissions  could allow combots of the future to coordinate their actions in the battlefield without significantly revealing their position. Combots would be able to detect and recognize the originator of signals, duly ignoring signals not coming from the combot group. With the speed and variation of their communications, compressed as allowed by their processing power, combots can move through the streets and skies with little more disruption than a cricket, lightening bug, or light breeze. High- and low-pitch sounds and infrared light would allow for communications undetectable to the average soldier or an enemy EW platform.

One must also accelerate faster than the enemy’s OODA loop can process. In the cyber realm, the enemy is often software long-ago released by its human creators. Like the missile warfare that inspired AEGIS, cyber warfare is both too vast and too fast for human reaction. Capital investment would concentrate more money in autonomous and innovative defensive programs: 10th Fleet’s AEGIS. Proactive patrol and detection can be done with greater advancements in adaptive self-modifying programs; programs that can learn or understand context are far more appropriate.  Recent developments in computing systems point to organic systems that could “live” in the systems they defend. Biological processors and organic computing allow for hardware that thinks and learns independently, potentially giving defensive networks the added advantage of an instinct and suspicion. Imagine the vast new horizons in the OODA loop of defensive cyber systems with hubs sporting the defensive animal instinct and the ability to re-wire their own hardwareQuantum computing also hovers over the horizon, with not only vast consequences for computing speed, but he whole cryptological offense-defense equation. The image painted is dramatic and far-off, but modest investment and staged introduction would serve as a better model than the dangerous possibility of a “human wave” mode of thinking. With fluid cyber-defense systems guarding more disciplined communicators, the US Navy can crush ambushes in the invisible commons.




We will never be able to completely control the invisible commons; it is too heavily populated and easily influenced. Those conflicts held within vision are often confusing enough; the invisible becomes infinitely harder to master. However, if we minimize unnecessary exposure, organize ourselves well, and move with aggressive speed and unpredictability, our convoys of data will survive their long mili-second journey across the EM-cyber sea. ADM Greenert is right in saying the EM-Cyber world is a new field upon which battle must be done. However, while we may have realized it, we must start acting like it.

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy.  The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity.  They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.