All posts by Dave Blair

MoneyJet: DEF Innovation Competition 3rd Prize

On Sunday, 26 October, the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum hosted an innovation competition sponsored by the United States Naval Institute. $5,000 in prizes were awarded after the eight contestants made their pitches. This is the third prize winner posted originally at the DEF Whiteboard.


Contestant: Dave Blair, US Air Force Officer

MoneyJet: Harnessing Big Data to Build Better Pilots

BLUF: ‘Moneyball’ for flying. Track flight recorder and simulator ‘Big Data’ throughout an aviator’s flying career. Structure and store these data so that aviators can continually improve their performance and maximize training efficiency for their students.


High-fidelity data exists for flights and simulators in an aviator’s career. However, these data are not structured as ‘big data’ for training and proficiency – we track these statistics by airframe, and not aircrew, unless there is an incident. Therefore, we rely on flawed heuristics and self-fulfilling prophecies about ‘fit’ when we could be using rich data. Solution. Simple changes in data retrieval and storage make a ‘big data’ solution feasible. By making these datasets available to aircrew, individuals can observe their own trends and how they compare to their own and other flying populations. Instructors can tailor flights to student-specific needs. Commanders can identify ‘diamonds in the rough’ (good flyers with one or two key problems) who might otherwise be dismissed, and ‘hidden treasure’ (quiet flyers with excellent skills) who might otherwise be overlooked. Like in ‘Moneyball,’ the ability to build a winning team at minimum cost using stats is needed in this time of fiscal austerity.


Rich Data environment for objective assessments.

o Self-Improvement, Squadron Competitions, Counterbalance Halo/Horns effect

o Whole-force shaping, Global trend assessments, Optimize training syllabi

o Maximize by giving aircrew autonomy in configuring metrics.

Costs: Contingent on aircrew seeing program as a benefit or a burden.

o Logistics: Low implementation cost, data already exist, just need to re-structure.

o Culture: Potential high resistance if seen as ‘big brother’ rather than a tool.

o Minimize by treating as non-punitive ‘safety data’ not ‘checkride data’


Partial foundation for training/ops/tactics rich data ecosystem.

o Build culture of ‘Tactical Sabermetrics’ – stats-smart organizational learning

o Amplify thru Weapons School use of force stats, large-n sim experiments


Over-reliance on statistics to the expense of traditional aircrew judgment

o If used for promotion, rankings, could lead to gaming & stats obsession

o Mitigate by ensuring good stats only replace bad stats, not judgment Implementation. First, we build a secure repository for all flight-performance-relevant data.

All data is structured by aviators, not airframes. This data is stored at the FOUO level for accessibility (w/secure annex for wartime data.) Second, we incorporate data retrieval and downloading into post-flight/sim maintenance checklists. Finally, we present data in an intuitive form, with metrics optimized to mission set. For individuals, we provide stats and percentiles for events such as touchdown point/speed, fuel burn, and WEZ positioning. For groups, we provide trend data and cross-unit comparison with anonymized names.

Post-Prohibition Rum Running

The following is a dissertation sample provided as part of Border Control week.
The case of American Prohibition is often deployed in the rancorous debates that surround counter-narcotics policy.  Unfortunately, it is generally deployed (to my thought, abused) without an adequate understanding of what Prohibition actually looked like.  This is especially true of rum-running, which is generally retold something along these lines:

Phase 1)  Bill McCoy founds Rum Row.
Phase 2)  ?
Phase 3)  Repeal! (and rum smuggling magically ends.)

The actual Rum War at Sea was a story of two dueling adaptive networks.  Until 1924, the Prohibition Bureau ran their own ‘Dry Navy’ of a handful of sub-chasers – this whole enterprise was entirely a disaster, due to poor personnel polices, wholly inadequate imagination, and total ineptitude at sea.  In 1924, the Coast Guard (somewhat unhappily) took on the task.  They managed to field a substantial, aggressive, and most importantly highly adaptive force built of everything from speedboats to destroyers.  Within a few months, they shuttered Rum Row.  Soon after, they chased the rum-running networks down to Florida (1925-1927) and then across to the Great Lakes (1928-1930.)  The Coast Guard fought the remnants of the rum-fleet to a stalemate through the early thirties, even after their budgets were cut.  The rum trade came back in force one year after repeal, and a recapitalized Coast Guard fleet ended organized alcohol smuggling in 1936.

In the course of this chase, Captain Charles Root founded US Coast Guard Intelligence, established HUMINT networks in Canada, Cuba, and a score of other rum ports, hired the legendary codebreaker Elisebeth Friedman, designed and fielded the first American SIGINT trawler.  The Coast Guard chief engineer Hunnewell filled the coasts with two hundred patrol ships within less than a year, and then proceeded to reverse engineer the fastest of the rum-runners and field them too.  Commandant Billard founded interagency and international task forces, which ultimately resulted in full tactical integration with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, including positive hand-offs and radio intelligence cross-cue.  By the end of the case, the Coast Guard could fix a rum-runner by their radio transmission, send a patrol aircraft along the bearing line, visually acquire the craft and orbit overhead until the a boarding ship could make the intercept.

The Rum War built the Coast Guard, founded only a few years prior from the Revenue Cutter Service and the Lifesaving Service.  It also advanced technologies critical to the Second World War – small craft (PT Boats – basically rum-runners with torpedoes, Higgins Boats – crewed by both Coastguardsmen and ex-rumrunners), codebreaking (Friedman’s USCG cell broke the Japanese merchant codes prior to the war) and radio direction finding.  This case deserves more study, both as a maritime border control campaign, but also as a contest between two highly adaptive flat network.  The Coast Guard achieved an enviable victory over bureaucracy at the outset, which allowed them to keep pace with their well-funded adversaries.

As a teaser, I submit the following account of the post-repeal suppression campaign, excerpted from my forthcoming dissertation.
I also include two animated infographics of capture records and intel reports, respectively.  I hope that it will challenge standard conceptions of the Rum War, and entice the reader to read further.  For further reading, I recommend the standard Coast Guard account, Rum War at Sea, by CDR Malcolm Willoughby.

All Captures GIS – Medium

New Animation – Medium

Repeal, 1933.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected on a platform that included the repeal of that act.  He delivered on this promise in the early part of 1933 – the 18th Amendment prohibited ‘intoxicating liquors,’ while the Volstead Act defined ‘intoxicating liquors’ as anything 0.5% Alcohol by Volume.  As the 21st Amendment worked its way through the system, the Cullen-Harrison Act reset the Volstead definition to 3.2% ABV and thereby legalized light beers.  This saw a brief drop in liquor traffic, though the trade rebounded quickly.  Rum-running had almost returned to 1932 levels, at least off of New York, when the 21st Amendment drove rum-running to an absolute low during the case.  This lasted for about six months.

An period newspaper article entitled “Rum Runners Want Repeal, U.S. Informed,”[2] explains the rumrunners’ optimism toward their post-repeal prospects.  Both Canada and Finland attempted their own forms of Prohibition, and both experienced major smuggling problems following repeal.  Rumrunners expected the same to be true of the United States, due to a combination of high expected liquor taxes, reduced enforcement expenditures and diminished legal leverage following repeal.

The country would want a ‘peace dividend,’ which meant less money going to the Coast Guard.  Additionally, the Coast Guard would now need to establish the origin of alcohol, rather than just its presence, in order to arrest a rumrunner in US waters.  Once the liquor was ashore, it now became far easier to transport.  Therefore, that rum-runners no longer needed to concentrate at urban centers close to the point of demand, and the Coast Guard would need a “less concentrated and more wide-flung patrol of the coasts.”[3]  These reduced the opportunity cost of smuggling, and so long as there was enough of a margin in the liquor taxes to make money, there was no reason to stop running.

The Coast Guard attempted to calculate this margin.  Shortly following repeal, Gorman estimated that imported liquor in the New England area cost $9.90/gal, $9.30 of which was composed of State, Internal Revenue and Customs taxes.[4]  The smuggler, paying the same price for liquor, could land liquor for $1.10/gal.  The price they would expect to receive on the beach was $1.90/gal in Maine, $2.50/gal in Massachusetts, and $3.25/gal in New York.  This yields a margin of more than two dollars per gallon.  A September 1934 calculation found legal liquor selling for $8/gal, with bootleg at $6/gal.  Even with this premium for licit drink, the rumrunner still had margin of about one and a half dollars per gallon.[5]

Profits were lower than during Prohibition, but the risk was lower as well due to diminished enforcement leverage.  Making matters worse, Americans thirsted for aged whiskey, and none would be available domestically for quite some time.  Since the rumrunner bases at St. Pierre had a great deal of capital tied up in smuggling, there was no sense in dismantling the industry quite yet.

‘Peace Dividend.’  Even before repeal, the Intelligence Office noted in 1933 that:

Vessels formerly in the rum running traffic, which had been laid up for months and in some cases years, are now being outfitted and rushed back into the illicit traffic.  Recent official reports from Canadian sources indicate during the past month a resumption of activity comparable only to the situation which existed several years ago before the Coast Guard was organized to effectively combat smuggling.  International rum syndicates are quite evidently under the impression that law enforcement will be more lax than formerly; that penalties meted out for violations of the Customs laws will be much lighter and that in general there will be less risk and more profit in liquor running…

It therefore appears to this office from a study of smuggling conditions in foreign countries and from knowledge of the present activities of the rum-smuggling rings, that there can be no curtailment of Coast Guard anti-smuggling operations until the international smuggling organizations now operating are put out of existence, and it can be said almost with certainty that this will not occur within the next two years.[6]

Institutional militaries try to minimize the inevitable drawdown that follows the end of a war, and these gloomy predictions must have sounded like that familiar chord.  Policy analysts from early think tanks broadly agreed, estimating $50 Million per year lost per year to liquor smuggling.[7]  This was more than 10% of the expected alcohol excise tax income.  Still, increasing enforcement of liquor laws during the Depression in the immediate wake of Prohibition was too politically difficult.  From a 1934 account, “repeated requests of the Coast Guard for funds, necessary to carry out its duties, particularly to control smuggling, and to protect the revenue of the Government, have been denied.”[8]  The Coast Guard would draw down.

Destroyers departed the force entirely, with the last of them returned to the Navy by 1934.  The ‘six-bitters’ took a major hit, dropping from 58 in 1934 from 203 in 1931.[9]  The cruising cutters, and larger patrol boats retained most of their force.  Picket boats were halved from 195 to 109.  The number of lifesaving stations remained stable, but the suppression-oriented section bases fell from nineteen to three.  Aircraft inventory and the number of 165-foot patrol boats continued to grow through July 1934.  These two types of craft partially offset the patrolling vacuum left by the destroyers.  The patrol craft and bases were not offset at all.

The manning situation was worse.  According to a 1934 memo, “Not only has the Coast Guard felt these losses of men and units, but the drastic, quick retrenchment occasioned thereby, has been a serious blow to the morale and, therefore, the efficiency of the remaining force… funds for the payment of enlisted personnel for the current year are inadequate, and unless the situation is relieved, it will be necessary to discharge or disrate, or furlough without pay, additional men.”[10]  The memo’s author, likely the Commandant, asserts “such a step would be a serious reflection upon the Federal Government in breaking faith with men of long and faithful service to their country… a breach of implied contract on the part of the Government.”[11]  This was a disheartening time for the service.

In some cold solace, the dour predictions of resurgent smuggling proved correct.  By the summer of 1934, there were as many boats hovering off of New York as in 1928 and climbing fast.  An estimated $30 Million of revenue was lost in 1934, and if unchecked, 1935 promised to double that number at least.  Since the Canadians had been losing something in the range of $30-45 Million per year under similar conditions, this should not have been a surprise.[12] The form of this smuggling was familiar – the trade picked up where it left off with the same radio-linked swift stealth ships.

Rebuilding.  Given that the Coast Guard ‘peace dividend’ was only $10 Million per year, the government began to see the reduction in forces as a bad investment.  The half-sized, demoralized force could be swarmed and defeated, especially without its scouting destroyers or an adequate number of replacements.  The second half of 1934 saw a reversal of the decline and a re-capitalization of Coast Guard forces.  This buildup registered primarily in the new large patrol boats and in Aviation, and it allowed the Coast Guard to complete a restructuring it began in 1930.

Admiral Billard launched a service reorganization project during his last year as Commandant.[13]  Admiral Hamlet carried it through to completion as the drawdown set in, doing away with the various overlapping lifesaving, patrol and cruising forces and consolidating regional divisions under single commanders.  Henry Morgenthau, the new Secretary of the Treasury, asked Coast Guard to take the lead of all Treasury organizations in these districts – having one clear commander who curated diverse capabilities aided interagency coordination.

The divisional structure also worked well with the growing intelligence and aviation capacities, provided the relationships within these divisions were as flat as the Commandant’s guidance intended.  Notably, when these organizations were run hierarchically, these special units did not do as well.  Commanders that directed actions from the top, yet lacked the technical knowledge to grasp these capabilities, failed to make effective use of these cells.  Case in point – Wheeler and the aforementioned breakdown with his Intelligence Lieutenant in the California Division.[14]  In general, though, this structure allowed the diverse technical capabilities developed over the course of the campaign to be smoothly brought to bear at the front lines.

The return of funding put substance on the divisional framework.  By the beginning of 1935, 18 Thetis-class 165’ patrol ships were operational.  This was up from nine half a year prior, and six as of 1932.  These were Wheeler’s replacement for the Destroyers – six knots faster than the ‘buck-and-a-quarters’ and designed with a tight turning radius, they could stay with the new generation of fast rum ships at a fraction the cost of a Destroyer.  They performed this task well, and along with the still-new Lake-class fast cutters, the remaining half of the patrol fleet, and the still-rapidly-advancing SIGINT capabilities.

The Secretary of the Treasury built a seven-fold plan for the renewed campaign.  From a 1935 memo recounting the strategy, “the measures undertaken included:

a)           Provision of funds to permit of increased activity by the Coast Guard and stimulation of effort on its part as the marine patrol agency.  [NB: Support.]

b)          Determination of the sources of supply of contraband and negotiations to obtain the assistance of other governments in checking the illicit traffic.  [Diplomacy.]

c)           Coordination of the efforts of all Treasury Department law-enforcement agencies having any connection with the problem by means of regional coordinators and the establishment of a ‘law-enforcement’ council or committee at Washington, composed of representatives of the various agencies.  Frequent conferences at Washington and in the field contributed to this coordination.  [Interagency Fusion.]

d)          A study of the legal deficiencies hampering effective efforts against the smugglers and the drafting of a bill strengthening enforcement powers, for presentation to Congress.  [Legal, Anti-Smuggling Act of 1935.]

e)           Stimulation of sources of information to permit of intelligent action being taken.  [Intelligence.]

f)            Vigorous prosecutions where cases could be made.  [Courts, a major prior deficiency.]

g)           Close cooperation with agencies of the Canadian Government, which has a problem of like character.  [NB: International Fusion.][15]

These were all the result of costly lessons learned.  With this strategy in place, the last major campaign began.



The combination of a recapitalized patrol fleet, robust intelligence capabilities, and a burgeoning air fleet formed the final model of the rum war.  The Commandant explained this fusion of sea, air and intelligence in a 1934 tactics bulletin:

The Intelligence boat (or any unit suitably equipped) detects black radio traffic and obtains a radio bearing.  The air station of plane (standing by) is notified of the bearing of the “black.”  The plane takes the air and flies to the position of the patrol boat and passes over her on the course (corrected navigationally) corresponding to the bearing.  Upon reaching the black the radio-equipped plane circles overhead and calls for radio bearings from all direction-finder units… The bearings are transmitted by units taking them together with the latter’s positions to a designated patrol unit, and the plot places of the position of the “black” which can then be sought and trailed.

If the rumrunners abandoned their radios, the aircraft could still search for them.  There was no way to outrun or hide from an aircraft, other than inclement weather.  And the circling aircraft could call a cutter at its convenience.  This rumrunner-hunting model offered no ready counter.

Remarkably, this model parallels the “Find-Fix-Finish” approach of counter-terror fame.[1]  In order to beat this approach, the rumrunners would have had to re-boot their entire business model.  This would have been costly.  Social support had begun to turn against them following repeal – no longer romantic outlaws, legal alcohol had made the rumrunners just outlaws.  From an intelligence memo in 1935:

Unmentioned previously herein is the effect of a changed public attitude following Repeal.  This has been very helpful in contributing to control.  Many who were hostile to enforcement efforts during Prohibition are today either indifferent or openly favorable.[2]

Therefore, they could no longer recoup losses or recapitalize the way they once had.  A reboot was impossible, and the end of the large-scale illicit liquor trade was just a matter of time.

Only $6.5 Million was lost from the treasury due to liquor smuggling in 1935, around 20% of the 1934 number.  The last spike of the rum trade was in the early summer of 1935, and it fell precipitously from there.  From the same 1935 report:

As a result of the cumulative effect of the efforts expended by the Government the organizations and individuals promoting smuggling have suffered a severe blow.  Efforts are being exerted by them to develop new methods of supply such as chartering vessels to transport cargoes from Europe for delivery on the high seas to smaller vessels or to run directly into large ports where maritime traffic is great and there is the possibility of slipping in as a legitimate vessel not subject to routine inspection.  This is an effort on the part of those to whom ‘easy money’ has been the fondest recollection of the heyday of the smuggling traffic.  There will always be smuggling in some form and amount but liquor and alcohol smuggling as evidenced during the last fiscal year is declining as a major problem under the pressure exerted by the Government.[3]

What little of the trade remained had fizzled out by 1936, with the liquor ships melting back into the Nova Scotia fishing fleet, or in a few cases, hardening into opium or migrant smugglers.  Coast Guard Intelligence ceased tracking suspected Rumrunners entirely on account of irrelevance by 1939.  Operational life returned to traditional lifesaving missions and routine law-enforcement by 1936 with the end of organized rum-running.


[1] Charles Faint and Michael Harris, “F3EAD: Ops/Intel Fusion ‘Feeds’ The SOF Targeting Process,” Small Wars Journal, 2012,

[2] Parker (?) memo.  RG 26, NARA.

[3] Ibid. 


[1] Bruce Yandle, “Bootleggers and Baptists-The Education of a Regulatory Economists,” Regulation 7 (1983): 12.

[2] Unidentified Clipping.  RG 26, NARA.

[3] Gorman Memo.  RG 26, NARA.

[4] Cost Calculation Memo.  RG 26, NARA.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Intelligence Memo.  RG 26, NARA.

[7] Newspaper Clippings.  RG 26, NARA.

[8] Memo.  RG 26, NARA.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Lawlor, Rum-Running.  93.  ‘The customs revenue went down between $70 and $90M in two years’ – it is unclear whether this is per year or total, but I assumed the former.  Since the 1930 US Dollar was 2.07 Canadian dollars, dividing by two accounts for the currency conversion.  Depending on the estimate, this could be cut in half once more if the $75-90M was an aggregate number.  Either way, there was some non-trivial sum of smuggling losses.

[13] Billard Memo.  RG 26, NARA.

[14] Wheeler CA memo, 1934 (?).  RG 26, NARA.

[15] Parker(?) 1935 Memo.  Reflected verbatim in Waesche 1938 Memo. RG 26, NARA.

The Diplomat and the DeLorean

“The past isn’t dead.  It isn’t even past.”  – William Faulkner. 

The crisis in Ukraine highlights a shortcoming in materialist theories, and a derivative shortcoming in our foreign policy process: the rhetorical battle between Russia and Ukraine is presently jumping across eleven hundred years of history, invoking symbols and identities from at least five different eras simultaneously into the present.  Our policy-making ‘now’ is the last election, while the Russians and Ukrainians are all drawing on a millennium-long ‘now’ in their argument with each other.  We are missing most of what is being said with our myopic lens, and much of what ‘power’ means hinges on these identity questions. 

First, two ideas from academic literature help explain what’s happening. 

      ‘Master Cleavage’ – Stathis Kalyvas describes how local leaders invoke larger narratives to address local issues during civil wars.  What is presently happening is a dynamic, inside-out version of that process.  There are any of a number of potential historical cleavages, depending on which pieces of the past are more present at any given time.  For instance, to energize Ukrainian nationalists, the Red-and-Black flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) speaks of fierce resistance to both Soviets and Fascists during the Second World War.  However, the UPA treated Poles brutally between Ukraine and Poland, so the Ukrainians would greatly prefer to decouple the UPA from their framing with Poland, and instead situate that relationship within the era of Soviet Occupation.  What era is present, and with whom, is a key aspect of the current struggle.  Whoever builds a better pastiche of history gets to choose the identity frame.

      ‘Polychronic’ Cultures – The ability to navigate this space hinges on a culture’s mode of interacting with the past.  Hall, in his work on culture, describes two broad views of time – monochronic, where a culture experiences the flow of time as a linear progression of events, and polychronic, where a culture experiences multiple timeframes in parallel.  In a monochronic culture, the past is ‘how we got here,’ but it’s not ‘here.’   In a polychronic culture, the past is ‘here’ in different ways for different things.  The United States foreign policy process is explicitly monochronic.  While many of those who inhabit that process are polychronic, ideas from these frames rarely last long in institutions to whom they are foreign.  This is a problem when trying to understand polychronic identity struggles. 

Second, since history is a battlefield of this present crisis, here’s a quick and semi-humorous video crash course on Russian history.  There are at least five eras currently in play – these are horribly over-simplified, and I highly recommend reading a proper history on them.

First, the Kievan Rus’is the most fundamental identity dispute between Russia and Ukraine. The Rus’ was first identifiable state of the Eastern Slavs (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus,) the Kievan Rus’ was founded by Vikings in the 9th Century AD, and lasted until the 13th Century, when it was destroyed by the Mongols.  During this time, the Rus’ converted to Christianity and aligned themselves with Constantinople.  This was a golden age of sorts, at least in memory, and both Russia and Ukraine claim the mantle of the Kievan Rus’. Russia’s claim derives from being the strongest successor state to the Rus’, and from an influx of immigration following the Mongol conquest. In this version, Moscow leads the eventual resistance to the Mongols, and evolves as a Eurasian state.  In the course of this evolution, strength and autocracy become necessary defenses; the consolidation of power under the Czars and the concomitant management of rebels is the natural state of play.

Ukraine’s claim derives from geography – Kiev was the leading city of the Rus.’ In this, the Rus’ provided a source for deep Ukrainian national identity – in the 1990s, the Ukrainian state shifted toward the hrivna currency, the same name as that of the Rus’, and the Trident symbol was a royal seal of the leaders of the Rus’.  Soviet historiography declared the Kievan Rus as a feudal state, in order to fit a dialectical materialist model of history, while Ukrainian historians generally see the Rus’ as a proto-republic, proto-capitalist confederation. From this retelling, Moscow served as tax collectors to the Mongols, and the increasingly powerful city-state drifted toward autocracy.  Therefore, the corruption of Yanukovych hearkens to the Mongol yoke, and the natural orientation of the Rus’ is toward Europe.

A second frame is the 16th to 18th Century Cossacks, and their conflicts with both the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth and the Russian Czars.  This was a tremendously tumultuous period for all parties involved, and too complicated to meaningful recount here.   In present memory, the Cossack culture of freedom and their Hetman leaders provide identity markers for Ukraine, and a basis for the rejection of autocracy.  Conversely, this was a ‘time of troubles’ for Moscow, and the Russians the Cossacks more as raiders and bandits.  What this period means for modern interpretations of Ukrainian identity vis-à-vis their neighbors depends greatly on the interpretation of this time – the Cossacks alternatively supported and fought almost all of their neighbors during this period.

The Second World War provides the third frame for this argument.  As described before, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army’s (UPA) red-and-black banner was a common sight in EuroMaidan – this is a direct challenge to the Russian leadership, who transpose onto the Soviet Union in this frame.  The Soviets were deeply invested in framing the UPA as Fascist collaborators; while it is difficult to capture the entirety of a guerilla movement, the UPA described themselves as at war with both Soviets and Nazis.  In the current struggle, Putin continues using the Soviet frame, with Russia Today describing the Ukrainians as neo-Nazis.  (This echoes a refrain from Yugoslavia – the preferred anti-Croatian slur referred to a WWII collaborationist government.)  The general Ukrainian framing takes the UPA at its word and sees it as a nationalist movement.  Interestingly, in present memory, the UPA’s symbols have become more inclusive than the UPA itself likely was.  The UPA’s hallmark phrase, ‘Slava Ukraini, Heroyam Slava,’ (Glory to Ukraine, Glory to her heroes,) is now being applied to the protestors killed in Kyiv’s Independence Square during the recent protests – East and West Ukrainian alike.

The Communist domination of Eastern Europe, in particular the Soviet interventions into Prague and Budapest, provides the most useful frame for the Ukrainian to reach out to their immediate Western neighbors.  Framing the Soviet invasion of the Crimea in these terms invokes these memories amongst the Poles, Bulgarians and Romanians.  For obvious reasons, the Russian government has little to gain from invoking this era, and their narratives steer clear of it.

Finally, the most recent memory frame is the chronological present and the contrast between the European Union and the Russian-led Eurasian Union.  This is the frame best understood by our policy process, but it is misleading to view the previous eras as prologue rather than present.  Note that the flags from these eras fly alongside each other – these symbols are all invoked in parallel.  To some extent, all nations use parallel symbols, but what is particularly fascinating here is that the Ukrainians are making multiple identity bids to different eras all at once. 

How does all of this matter?  First, in this case, materialist approaches actually turn on identity.  Russia obviously overmatches Ukraine in any sort of a tank-count.  But it is a quite different overmatch if the Russians pin the Ukranians in the 17th Century as the rebellious Zaporozhian Cossacks fighting the Tsar than if Kiev traps the Putin in the 10th Century by claiming the mantle of the Kyivskaya Rus’ against the Mongol thralls of Muscovy.  If this is the story of the Ukrainian language against the dominion of Greater Russia, then East Ukraine is properly on the Russian side of the struggle; in this story, the Ukrainians would be fighting on Russian turf until they reached Kyiv, and defections of Russophone units should be common.  Conversely, if this is about the idea that the greater Rus’ is by its nature both European and free, then command and control becomes far easier for Kyiv, and Russian supply lines in Donetsk or Khar’kov would find themselves under partisan attack.  The realist tank-count turns on the remarkably fluid identity contest.

Second, we cannot interpret many of the actions of either side without access to these texts and without the understanding that they run in parallel.  Most dramatically, the battle over the mantle of the Kievan Rus’ has profound implications over the significance of the outcome of this crisis.  If the Ukrainians can sustain the argument that descendants of the Rus’ aren’t inherently predisposed to autocracy, this immediately links to Belarus and even Russia itself.  If the Ukrainians can do so in a way that fully incorporates East Ukraine in the project, then Putin’s irredentist strategies turn back on him, and Russophone Ukrainians become a visible threat to the narrative he is advancing.

To this point, the hub of Ukrainian nationalism, Lviv, spontaneously chose to speak Russian for a day a few days ago in a show of solidarity with East Ukraine.  Donetsk, the easternmost major city in Ukraine, reciprocated by speaking Ukrainian for a day.   The now-famous Colonel Mamchur of the Ukrainian Air Force, who marched his unit back onto their base, similarly demurred from ethnic chauvinism:

“It makes no sense. I can’t even say whether I am Ukrainian or Russian – it’s not a choice any of us can really make. My wife’s Belarusian, her mother is Russian. We’ve all got relatives on both sides,” said Col Mamchur. “When all this started we got calls from friends in Moscow who were simply in shock.” “Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine are really one Slavic people,” said the Colonel. “The divisions are only formalities. Whoever gave the order for this operation set brother against brother. It’s a crazy situation.”

This is potentially far more important than naval bases and the Black Sea fleet.

Note that in the Euromaidan protests, the previous Belarusian flag flew alongside the Ukrainian flag and the EU flag, and the Ukrainians are using a Belarusian protest rock song from as an anthem.  (The lyrics are hardly ‘Winds of Change’ – the chorus goes, roughly, “Warriors of the Light.”  The band actually played for EuroMaidan last December.)  Moreover, the phrase ‘Slava Ukraina, Zhivye Belarus’ pops up fairly often in the comments section of viral videos from EuroMaidan supporters – “Glory to Ukraine, Long Live Belarus’.”  These phrases and symbols are attempting to harmonize these different eras, all in the present – a spray painted trizub symbol [photo] speaks to this idea.  At least in part, the identity challenge is intertwined with the strategic challenge; ‘who are we’ is as much a battleground as ‘what do we want.’ 

Our monochronic, rationalist, materialist foreign policy process deals well with answering the latter question.  We have a deep problem, especially when dealing with peoples adept at harmonizing polychronic time rather than sequencing monochronic moves, in dealing with the former question.  Recalling the painful market transitions of the 1990s, along with the technical economic issues, nations that synthesized liberal reforms into their national identity found the social capital to continue through difficult times.  Poland was ideologically committed to reform, and was able to persist in part because of this.  These reforms were generally presented as ‘Western,’ in contrast to a ‘traditional’ model in Russia.  Mining the past would have perhaps provided deeper national connections to these projects – it is always easier to rediscover your golden age (even if you have to update it a bit) than to accept someone else’s vision of who you should be.  Doing so requires skill and knowledge, but not a tremendous amount of cost.

Similarly, in the counter-terror world, we generally took al-Qaeda’s word for what the Caliphate looked like.  Bin Laden was no Salah ad-Din, and Zawahiri is laughably distant from an Averroes or an Avicenna.  The Caliphate was, in many ways, a customs union and an empire of trade; through this lens, Dubai is a more legitimate successor to the Caliphate than anything that al-Qaeda built in the mountains of Afghanistan.  We should have contested the past rather than agreeing to our adversary’s framing by presenting the future in its stead.  

While mastering the mechanics of polychronic time requires far more than a simple transpose, we cannot afford to be blind to the present memory of history nor deaf to the symbols through which that history is contested.  We certainly cannot afford to do so in this conflict, where history is so present in the present.  At least amongst the Rus’, the past is hardly past.

Dave Blair is an active duty officer in the United States Air Force and a PhD student at Georgetown University. The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Air Force, the DoD or the U.S. government.

Remote Aviation Technology – What are We Actually Talking About?

This is the first article of our “Drone Week”, which has been slightly truncated by the Crimean Crisis.

In most ‘drone’ conferences, there comes an awkward moment when a panelist realizes that the category ‘drone’ has very little to do with the question that they’re asking.  To quote the Renaissance philosopher Inigo Montoya, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.”  In order to improve the remote aviation technology discussion, we need to be clear what we’re actually talking about. 

What we should be talking about is ‘remote aviation technology,’ which is simply a fusion of the air and cyber domains through the ubiquitous technologies of datalinks, autopilots, and performance airframes.  The fundamental tension is not between risk and responsibility, the two things over which the pop-sci-strat ‘drone’ debate obsesses, but between latency and performance.  To the risk point, a military has a moral obligation to reduce risk to its warfighters, so reducing risk through tech is not new; to the responsibility point, professionalism and integrity are the roots for the warfighter’s seriousness about their duties, not risk.  We find that we’ve actually been dealing with these questions for a while – so we have some pretty effective models already, which we can use as soon as we get the definitions straight. 

First, we must take all the conceptual rocks out of the ‘drones’ rucksack.  We can say definitively what we aren’t talking about.  We are looking only for questions that are new or fundamentally altered by remote aviation technology: any discussion that can be understood through extant tech or literature probably should be.  What is not changed by the advent of remote aviation technology?

  • The ethics of airstrikes and targeting – kinetics are no more intrinsic to remote aviation than they are to manned aircraft.  The same weapons deployed from Reapers are also launched from Apaches and F-16s.  The idea of ‘drone strikes’ as distinct from ‘air strikes’ is a distraction.  The choice to apply force comes from a chain of command, not from a circuit board.
  • The effectiveness of air campaigns – calling persistent airpower a ‘drone campaign’ is as reductionist as calling landpower a ‘carbine campaign.’  Certainly, long-dwell sensor-shooter remote aircraft have greatly expanded the possibilities for persistent airpower, but AC-47 gunships conducted a major persistent air campaign over the Ho Chi Minh trail – we would do better to remember this historical precedent rather than treat the capability as new, strange, or different.    
  • The nature of sovereignty in the modern international system – There is some very difficult homework that remains to be done about how best to deal with the export of violence from ungoverned or poorly governed spaces, and about the conduct of conflict against global, networked non-state actors.  Though some answers to these Westphalian questions involve persistent remote air platforms, these questions are themselves not a function of the technology. For instance, the British used airpower in these ways well before the Second World War. 
  •  The cultural issues and experience of remote killing.  These questions are foregrounded by remote aviation technology, but they are not intrinsic to this technology.  Artillerists, SWOs and manned airmen similarly wrestle with these sorts of questions – this issue is as old as arrows and siege engines. 

With these big rocks removed, we find two things left in this analytical rucksack of ‘drones.’  At the bottom of the pack, there’s a pile of emotional sediment in the shape of scary killer robots, and autonomous, invincible sci-fi nightmares that make war risk-free at the cost of our humanity.  Using these fictions to reason about actual remote aircraft is much like using the Easter Bunny to think about the role of rabbits in ecosystems.  Since these tropes and this misguided inter-subjectivity drives much of the public pop-discourse, we are certainly not talking about this ontological flotsam.

This leaves only the aircraft themselves, which is precisely what we want.  We’ve argued in other works that, for most discussions, we should consider Predators, Reapers, Global Hawks, UCLASS and so on the same way we consider any other aircraft – by mission, not by control system.  E.g., for almost all intents and purposes, Reapers are persistent reconnaissance-attack aircraft.  Similarly, we generally don’t consider the F-16 and the C-17 as ‘the same thing’ because they both have fly-by-wire systems.  But sometimes it matters that they have fly-by-wire systems vice electro-hydraulic control cables – e.g., for example, during an EMP event.  And sometimes, it matters that a ‘fly-by-wireless’ control system drives the Predator, Reaper, Global Hawk, the BQ-8 (Modified B-24),  the SAGE F-106, the Sukhoi-15TM, and so on.

How, then, does a ‘fly-by-wireless’ system matter?  The presumed tension for this technology is risk vs. responsibility – long-range datalinks reduce risk to the pilot, and since the pilot has ‘no skin in the game,’ they are presumed to be less invested in their choices.  This is deeply problematic – a military has a moral imperative to reduce risk to its warfighters.  Secretary Gates’ continually and rightly obsessed over body armor, MEDEVAC, and other risk mitigation technologies – this was a testament to his integrity.

While it is certainly true that increasing distance reduces risk, this does not inherently change warrior’s perception of his or her own responsibility to the mission and to comrades.  A lack of responsibility about killing results from a lack of professionalism or integrity, poor training, or other personnel problems.  SSBN crews isolate their weapons from risk through technology, and are similarly distant from their potential acts of killing.  I trust that our submarine community sees their duties with the deadly seriousness that they deserve.  Risk reduction through technology is ubiquitous, and these reductions do not undermine warfighter responsibilities: this is not truly a tension.

Similarly, advocates of ‘supply-side war control’ cite this risk point – the theory being that, without having to put constituents at risk, policymakers will be more willing to go to war.  If the risk vs. responsibility logic plays out on a strategic level (and if this is so, it is due to the political construct of ‘drone warfare’ rather than the technology itself), this tension is better answered through accountability for strategic choices rather than by inducing risk on our warfighters.  Just as Creighton Abrams’ attempt to downgrade the Special Operations community did little to keep the United States out of small wars, this approach is unlikely to deter policymakers.  For jus ad bellum questions, it is far better to focus on the pen of policymakers than on the red button of warfighters; better to locate risk at the ballot-box than in than soldiers’ lives.     

These points are covered at length by BJ Strawser and his co-authors in Killing by Remote Control: air warfare has no special moral problems inherent to the technology.   So we will have to look further to understand how and why the tech matters. 

What, then, is the actual tension of remote aviation technology?  Latency versus performance.  On one hand, a ‘fly-by-wireless’ control system allows the aircraft to keep weighty, expensive and risky components of the aircraft on the ground, where the performance constraints are far less pressing.  Accordingly, without the limitations of a human body and without cost of life support systems, designs that would otherwise be impossible can be fielded.  This performance can be cashed out as:

  • Persistence: A long-dwell design, such as the Predator or the Reaper, allows for sorties much longer than crew rest would normally allow – these designs focus on optimizing persistence, typically at the expense of survivability in high-threat environments.  These aircraft share bloodlines with persistent sensor-shooter craft such as the Gunship. 
  • Survivability:  A survivable design, such as the Taranis, makes use of small size, stealth and high maneuverability.  Without the size requirements for human habitation, these craft have new tactical options that pair well with advanced tactical aircraft.  They are cousins to F-22 fifth generation fighters. 
  • Affordability:  A low-cost design best fits the traditional definition of ‘drone’ – like the Firebee, a semi-disposable aircraft intended for ‘dull, dirty and dangerous’ jobs.  Quad-copters and the proposed Amazon delivery ‘drones’ fit this category well – these generally perform simple tasks and are not economical to remotely pilot in the traditional direct sense.  Swarming adds a new twist to these ‘drones’ – distributed capabilities makes a flock of these vehicles capable in its own right as air players.  Notably, the risk-reduction logic applies best to these craft – a survivable or a persistent aircraft will generally be too costly to be used as disposable assets, but if a design is built to be cheap from the outset, then it can be used in these ways.  (The same logic applies to missiles, which could be themselves considered ‘drones.’) 

The downside is latency.  For ‘fly-by-wireless’ control systems to work, there must be a way to port human control and judgment to the craft.  In a manned aircraft, where the crew builds situational awareness in an expanding ‘bubble’ around the craft; in a remote craft, the crew must ‘drill’ from their control station, through a web of datalinks, into their craft.  The negative result of this process is that the remote aircraft will typically be slower than an equivalent manned aircraft; this is offset by the ease with which a remote aircraft can link to offboard assets for situational awareness.  Still, the fundamental problem of the link remains.  There are two approaches to solving this problem:

  • Physics: Increasing gain and decreasing distance both increase the strength of the link between the remote operator and the aircraft.  Conversely, a contested Electronic Warfare environment seeks to degrade this link.  Accordingly, in the ‘physics’ solution, we anticipate a world with airborne RPA pilots, who fly their craft from aboard a ‘mothership’ craft.  Such a world hearkens back to the idea of an interlocking B-17 ‘Combat Box’ formation.
  • Automation:  The second approach ‘bottles’ human judgment and agency into an algorithm, and sends the remote craft on its way with these instructions.  When the craft can no longer maintain link, it executes these algorithms, performs its mission, and returns to base (if possible.)  This is essentially what already happens with advanced missiles.  The difficulty of this approach is the risk of ‘complex failure,’ if the craft is asked to perform a task whose complexity exceeds these algorithms.  For precisely scripted missions, this approach works well; for ‘improvisational’ missions such as CAS, it falters. 

If latency vs. performance is the fundamental tension of this technology, then much of the contemporary debate misses the mark.  For example, ‘optionally manned’ aircraft are touted to bridge the gap between manned and remote craft.  From a risk-vs-responsibility frame, this makes perfect sense – if you want to send the craft on a high-risk mission, leave the pilot at home.  But from a latency-vs-performance frame, it recalls the old joke about Washington, DC: a town with Southern efficiency and Northern charm.  Since one cannot cash back in the weight of life support systems and the like when they leave the pilot on the ground, optionally manned aircraft have the latency of an RPA and the performance of a manned aircraft – the worst of both worlds.

‘Complement,’ as described by my friend and classmate Rich Ganske, is a much better answer.  If humans excel at judgment, and robots excel at math, then when the robots can do more math, it frees up the humans to do more judgment.  The partnership between humans and hardware – both onboard and offboard hardware – is, and long has been, the key to dominating the battlespace.  The natural contours of remotely-piloted aviation tech complement well the natural contours of directly-piloted aviation tech – they are each strong where the other is weak, and together are better than either is alone.  How does this look, in practice?  For two non-exhaustive examples: 

  • Aerial Dominance Campaign:  In this world, low-cost autonomous craft, much like the TACIT RAINBOW or countermeasures would complicate an adversary’s air defense tasks, while high-end survivable craft linked as ‘loyal wingmen’ to similarly survivable manned craft.   In this war, every aircraft is a squadron, and every pilot a combat squadron commander.  Accordingly, the art of socio-technical systems command begins to take precedence over technical tasks for the future aviator. 
  • Vertical Dominance Campaign: A persistent air campaign team would use both remote and manned aircraft jointly to vertically dominate a battlespace from a persistent air environment.  The manned and remote aircraft that inhabit this space sacrifice maneuverability and speed for endurance and payload.   The craft we most often associate with remote technology inhabit this world, but we do the discussion a disservice by assuming the vulnerabilities of persistent aircraft are inherent to the design of remote aircraft. 

We’ve described a number of things that are only orthogonally related to remote aviation technology: air strikes, air campaigns, sovereignty and remote killing.  Once we removed those rocks from our rucksack, we were left with ‘fly-by-wireless’ control system technology.  We wrestled with the supposed primary tension of the technology – risk vs. responsibility, which we reject.  Our proposed primary alternate tension is – latency vs. performance.  There are three ways to gain improved performance from a remote control system: persistence, survivability and affordability; each of these has strengths and weaknesses in different environments, and are generally in tension with each other.  There are two ways to solve the remote latency problem: physics, which may involve partnering manned aircraft, and automation, which has problems dealing with complexity.  Ultimately, we argue that the best answers pair manned and remotely piloted aircraft together. Remote aircraft add tremendous performance to the team, while manned aircraft provide essential situational awareness and judgment to complex combat. 

Dave Blair is an active duty officer in the United States Air Force and a PhD student at Georgetown University.