A few weeks ago I attended a very stimulating meeting, the Highlands Forum. The Forum is sponsored by the Office of the US Secretary of Defense to explore new ideas and emerging trends that will help support high-level Department of Defense (DoD) policy and strategy, especially as they relate to information and information technologies.
The Highlands Forum was organized in 1994 by retired US Navy captain Dick O'Neill. It is chaired by the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Networks and Information Integration, a position currently held by Dr. Linton Wells. Each meeting is centered on a specific topic. Around 25 experts from government, industry, academia, the arts and the professions are invited to discuss their ideas on the subject - to be part a kind of strategic conversation. Past topics have ranged from "Protection of Critical Infrastructures" to "Innovation and Complex Organizations" to "The Mind, the Brain and Computing."
The theme of our March Forum was "The Emerging Web." Over three days or so, we heard a number of presentations and held extensive discussions in a variety of sessions with names like "Harnessing the Group Mind"; "Beyond Keyword Search"; "Visualizing Networks"; "Spectrum, Scarcity and Innovation's Promise"; and "How Safe is it Going to Be?" The overall objective was to see if we could reach consensus on a Big Bet: "What are the big changes that might become reality in 5 - 10 years, - especially those related to the Web - that might affect DoD?”
While our discussions were generally technology-based, you cannot ponder how IT, the Web and related technologies could impact DoD without also thinking hard about the global environment that DoD, and society in general will face over the next decade and beyond.
DoD's primary task is “to deter conflict - but should deterrence fail, to fight and win the nation's wars.” There is an underlying assumption behind that core task that by war we mean military hostilities between specific combatants, usually countries. Think of World Wars I and II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, as well as the Cold War. In asymmetric conflicts like Vietnam, where combatant have unequal power and pursue markedly different strategies, the weaker combatant tends to fight by becoming more "diffused," and integrating with the local civilian population. With Afghanistan and Iraq, there is a realization that while our armed forces quickly won the classic part of the war, the conflicts we now find ourselves in are much more complex and sophisticated.
Then there is the War on Terror, which DoD has started to refer to as the Long War, a term that I first heard at the Forum. It seems very appropriate to describe the overall conflict in which we now find ourselves. This is a truly global conflict with a variety of enemies spread around the world, enemies who are organized into small groups, distributed and very local - that is, living among civilian populations - but who coordinate, recruit and fund their actions around the world in a whole set of new ways.
As we sadly know, soldiers and civilians continue to die every day, but the conflicts we are now in have much more of the feel of a battle of civilizations or cultures trying to destroy our very way of life and impose their own. Thus, the Long War is perhaps as much about winning the hearts and minds of people and nations, as it is about defeating, or at least containing an enemy that is often hard to find. While one absolutely needs the weapons and military training to win the classic, hot conflicts, the soft or cultural aspects of the conflict are at least as important.
The Long War feels to me totally global, fast changing and unpredictable; with a need to focus on people, cultures and civilizations not just on weapons; information-based in nature - requiring the ability to bring together and analyze accurate, real time intelligence about opponents, operational information about friendly forces, as well as lots of additional information about everything else going on around us provided by a diverse set of partners; and, needless to say - very, very long.
So, how do you prepare for and fight the Long War. There will always be rogue leaders like Kim Jong-Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as well as caudillos like Hugo Chavez and my very own Fidel Castro who thrive on creating conflict. We will always continue to need a strong military that hopefully serves mostly as a deterrent, but that can quickly be deployed and win whatever hot wars and skirmishes arise around the world.
This is absolutely necessary - but no longer sufficient. As a nation, we need to go up the stack and pay attention to the so-called soft aspects of the Long War, because these are the ones that over time could undermine the democratic principles, free markets and standard of living that we cherish. I strongly believe that our secret weapons in this 21st Century Long War are precisely these same democratic principles, free markets and standard of living - with all that they imply and all the organization, institutions and shared national beliefs that we have built in the last two hundred years that have made them possible. We need to make sure that these secret weapons of ours are more global in scope than ever and that absolutely everyone around the world can actually partner and collaborate with us as appropriate.
How do we do it? What should our weapon system be to help us fight such a global, complex, information-intensive and unpredictable long war? In a word, or perhaps two - the Internet and the Web.
Let's remember that DoD's Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) started the ARPANET project, which later became the Internet. They began it in the 1960s in order to develop a highly robust and survivable information network. We are all pretty familiar with the history of the Internet and what that initial project led to. As we well know, in the early 1990s (Sir) Tim Berners-Lee, an English computer scientist developed the World Wide Web while at CERN in Geneva; American-born Marc Andreessen developed the Mosaic web browser at NCSA at the University of Illinois; and Linus Torvalds, a Finnish computer scientist developed Linux while a student at the University of Helsinki.
The fact that the Internet, started by DoD for very legitimate defense purposes, has become the world's platform for communication, information and innovation, with contributions from people and institutions from around the world, is precisely the point. Many of us believe that a key part of our strategy for the Long War should be to make it easier and easier for people around the world to communicate, share information, and self-organize into communities of innovation. Therefore, we should strive to make the Internet and the Web even better global platforms on which we can all work together and learn from each other.
As we discussed in the Highlands Forum, the opportunities are huge, but so are the complexities of the task ahead. There are all kinds of new technologies for interacting with people and information in much more intelligent and visual ways. The issues around security and privacy are daunting. So are the challenges for integrating the billions of new devices, along with a variety of networking schemes that are becoming part of the Internet.
While industry will greatly benefit from these advances, as it has from the investments in the original Internet, the costs involved and the long-term commitments required are beyond the scope of the private sector, especially in today's highly competitive and short-term-oriented financial environment.
Universities need to play a major role in any such efforts, but universities and key research funding agencies like the National Science Foundation are much better at managing and conducting large numbers of relatively small projects, rather than very large, mission-oriented ones.
Who can do it? DoD assumed the leadership mantle in the development of the original Internet, justifying its investments as a part of the nation's defense as well as for its own internal use. Perhaps DoD should once again take on a lead role, this time in supporting research and pilot programs that will accelerate the development of some of the most complex and critical applications and emerging technologies that are driving the evolution of the Web for the very different requirements of the 21st Century.
Let me give a few examples. As perhaps the institution with some of the most complex people-oriented, market facing applications in the world - e.g., healthcare and logistics systems - DoD should support research in CAD/CAM-like, collaborative tools, processes and standards for the design development and management of these kinds of applications, including the extensive use of engineering methods like visualization and simulation. Another important area is the use of information semantic capabilities in real-time, sophisticated decision-based applications. Finally, given the huge importance of learning and training for our armed forces, DoD should pioneer the use of innovative applications based on the highly visual, interactive capabilities in wide use in advanced game consoles and massively multiplayer online games.
I would justify the investments as a part of our efforts to prepare for and fight the Long War, as well as to help our armed forces become even more highly skilled, collaborative, information-based organizations. We should all view as a very big plus the fact that such an effort will also be of huge value to the private sector, universities, research communities, health care institutions and many government agencies, not just in the US but around the world. Fostering economic progress, increased productivity, scientific and medical innovation and rising standards of living around the world play an important part in the Long War.
I think that a major part of the Long War is to get as many people and countries around the world to be part of and benefit from our increasingly interconnected economies. We need to help them see a potentially promising future for them and their families, and give them hope that their children can have a higher standard of living by getting a good education and a good job.
Helping people around the world achieve their own version of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness may very well be our biggest bet of all in the Long War ahead.