Thursday, August 12, 2010

Global Counterinsurgency, Complex Systems, Phoenix Program, F3EA

Counterinsurgency: M-Form Corporations vs. Networked Systems

Think-tankers and other policy analysts are in general agreement that the “Global War on Terror” is better conceived as a long-term, international counterinsurgency campaign (punctuated by occasional direct action counterterrorist operations) than as a single, large-scale counterterrorist operation. Because counterinsurgency (COIN) involves a multidisciplinary mix of “soft” (development economics) and “hard” (kinetic) capabilities, COIN theorists and practitioners look to many different sources of expertise in order to find new tools.

An impediment to effective counterinsurgency work is the adoption of the wrong model for the enemy’s organizational architecture, since the counterinsurgency team’s understanding of the organizational chart will probably drive mission planning and target sets. Perhaps the most dramatic question in this regard is whether or not an organization like Al-Qaeda conforms to a fixed, tiered architecture, with an executive suite that functions as the brain and clearly defined hierarchies and communications channels through which the executives can issue orders to subordinate units. This type of organization is exemplified by the multidivisional or "M-form" corporation model that was pioneered by DuPont and now commonly used as a template in business schools.

Psychological studies of why the M-form is so popular among politicos and high-ranking military officials suggest that the M-form reinforces a public official’s self-importance and provides a satisfying validation of the assumption that senior management teams play a critical role in organizational performance. Those who have long pursued leadership ambitions themselves may already lean towards the belief that leaderless, non-hierarchical structures are not particularly formidable, so they have a natural bias against decentralized systems and towards hierarchies. Anxious to avoid cognitive dissonance and to perpetuate notions of the importance of grand, integrated strategic campaigning as the best policy response to a global insurgency, senior politico-military leaders may tend to believe that behind any effective enemy organization *must* be a small enclave of high-level, Dr. Evil-type planners. Good operatic melodrama frequently makes use of the device of the grand duel: by creating a satisfying protagonist-antagonist dynamic, the elevation of the enemy’s leadership apparatus serves to also give the senior politico-military official a reflected, heroic vision of himself.

(archetypal M-form organizational chart)

Modeling Al-Qaeda using the M-form was popular a few years ago, and several books were written that spoke of a unified command structure---a “Jihad, Inc.” or “AQ, Inc.”--- in which Osama bin Laden served as a kind of malevolent CEO. More recently, however, this description has been replaced by one in which AQ is viewed as a network, an essentially leaderless organizational form that surfs the edge of chaos.

The network model of AQ depicts disparate individuals and small groups that have become radicalized and who may act from common grievances. In contrast to the corporate model, the network approach sees no central planner, no one in charge. Rather than being a CEO-led not-for-profit corporation that produces terrorist acts, Al-Qaeda is modeled as a kind of violent psychotherapy and social-networking movement, with "members" who share similar grievances, real or imagined, and find a transcendent shared purpose in performing acts that are usually otherwise incoherent. Viewed through the systems prism, Al-Qaeda is a meme, a leaderless mental virus that can hijack the operating systems of those who are united psychologically by common grievances.

For example, under the network model we can readily imagine that a graduate student who spent most of his life in, say, Hoboken could take it upon himself to set off a nail bomb in Times Square as an act of revenge against Americans for US military operations in Afghanistan. He could commit a terrorist act despite having no real connection to those who were killed, no leader who ordered him to execute the bombing, and no scheme for how his actions could benefit the purported AQ policy target of a sharia-led caliphate spanning the Middle East and parts of Europe.

Networks are simultaneously both simple and incredibly complicated. Their special properties are best described by the multidisciplinary field of Complexity science, or more specifically by the study of Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS). As we have discussed here before, CAS includes some very interesting and important research into how free markets find clearing prices and allocate scarce resources much more efficiently than command economies are able to.

(social network analysis of Al-Qaeda---open-source, unclassified)

A key to understanding networked systems is the realization that they can appear to be operating from a blueprint or design, when in fact the apparent sense of a larger, coherent purpose is a mirage. As individual elements of the system interact with one another, the result can be “emergent” behavior that creates the illusion of a greater, top-down design.

Supermissions, Manhunts, and Hot Pursuit

From the perspective of the operator tasked with capturing or killing enemy personnel, the network model brings with it a host of headaches. If the enemy fits the M-form paradigm, the art of war becomes a fairly straightforward one of maneuver: exhausting attrition-style warfare is avoided and efforts are focused on destroying the leadership, on decapitating the snake. Once the executive suite has been neutralized, the assumption is that the enemy organization will begin to implode due to the “strategic vacuum” at the top. Demoralized, disillusioned worker bees may continue to fight on in isolated pockets, but the time of major, coordinated enemy operations will be over.

Thus, a key difference between a network/systems model of enemy organization and a more traditional TO&E (Table of Organization & Equipment)-based approach is the way that target packets are constructed. As stated, the traditional model looks at enemy forces by fitting them into a coherent, tiered architecture, with orders generated from some kind of headquarters brain trust and then executed by maneuver elements. This is a set-piece strategic paradigm, like chess or football, and the goal is to achieve checkmate or sack the quarterback or kill the Hitler figure.

The most efficient application of force against a finite threat of the Al-Qaeda, Inc. type would probably be a supermission, a decisive raid that used "surgical" assets, preferably launched from an offshore location, to assassinate key enemy leaders. Talented shooters from the special operations community, as well as other instruments that promised the necessary levels of precision and agility (UAVs, etc.), could be tasked with these missions, which may go by a number of sterile, almost benign names ("target interdictions"). The forces involved would hopefully be given the opportunity to plan, rehearse, and equip at secure facilities in the United States. On a parallel track, very high-level intelligence-collection assets would be deployed to locate the enemy high-value targets (HVTs).

When a window of opportunity presented itself, the designated shooters would be immediately deployed to take the target(s) out, one way or another, and then they would return to a secure facility for de-briefing and so on. Any prisoners taken would be forwarded to interrogation specialists and processed according to whatever current policy was in place for dealing with such individuals.

The network model requires a politically riskier and messier approach, because it depends on the generation of momentum across numerous smaller, less decisive missions, and on the ability to swiftly capitalize on lucky breakthroughs. Rather than attempting to target high-value leadership personalities, the network approach assumes that the enemy organization is functioning without macro-level command and control. Disparate cells of enemy combatants may share the same grievances and tactics, but they will be connected by only the most tenuous of linkages. The network is set up to have redundancies in place, so the neutralization of any one cell will not compromise other elements.

When attacking a network, local information is prized. The enemy is confronted using grass-roots campaigns, with the understanding among friendly forces that occasionally a prize---a highly networked individual whose capture leads to information about other cells---will turn up. When this occurs, forces must be able to act on this prize immediately.

Where the M-form model consists of finding senior leadership personnel and taking them out, the network model of counterinsurgency warfare is consumed with the idea of jumping from cell to cell when information is uncovered. To do this, the network approach must mimic the decentralized structure of the enemy’s organization, and therein lies one of the major problems that theU.S. national command authority must confront.

Consider the aftermath of two successful raids, one following the M-form assumption and one following a network-centric campaign. The forces that conducted the supermissions would be expected to return to their training facility, and would turn over captured enemy personnel, if any, and intelligence materials over to a centralized processing mechanism. Details of the raid and the information that was uncovered would be carefully considered and discussed by senior political and military leaders. If another target became available as a result of this process, the raiding team might be tasked with a new operation, and a new mission planning/rehearsal cycle could be initiated.

The network approach operates from the assumption that any intelligence collected by the first raid must be acted on immediately (delays would allow the Complex Adaptive System to effectively quarantine the captured or neutralized cell). Rather than bringing his team home, the team leader would make the decision to move to the next target without hesitation, pausing only to send a quick, fragmented report up the chain of command. In pursuing elements of a global counterinsurgency, the team might not confine itself to any one theater of operations. Enormous authority would be vested in a small group of relatively junior operators who had to be trusted to make these kinds of decisions under field conditions.

Tipping Points, VIP Bad Guys, and "Persons of National Interest"

In his popular book The Tipping Point, journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell describes some of the features of a human social system. The need to create a vocabulary that distinguished between the senior leadership VIP targets that are the preferred menu item for supermission planners and the motley collection of networked individuals that can expose insurgency connections led three U.S. military officers---Majors Steve Marks, Tom Meer, and Matt Nilson---to formally make this distinction in a Naval Postgraduate School dissertation on the subject of manhunting

(interested readers may want to download the pdf from , and perhaps also to download the Joint Special Operations University monograph "Manhunting" by George Crawford from )

Marks, Meer,and Nilson describe network-targeting policy with this statement:

The asymmetrical threats that challenge U.S. national policies are not large standing armies, but rather individuals who seek to usurp and coerce U.S. national interests. The nature of today’s threats call for the U.S. military to change from finding,fixing, and destroying the enemy’s forces to identifying, locating and capturing rogue individuals in order to destroy networks. To counter such threats, the USG will have to quickly and efficiently identify and find these targets globally.

Unfortunately, no military doctrine,framework or process currently exists for finding and apprehending these Persons of National Interest (PONIs). Since military planners and intelligence analysts are neither educated nor trained in the methods or procedures necessary to find and capture PONIs, this thesis will propose a methodology to do so.

Going further to describe the problem and prescribing a solution (a national manhunting capability), the authors state that:

The clandestine and decentralized nature of terrorist cellular networks has made it difficult for military units and intelligence agencies to identify and locate known terrorists... Identifying the fugitive’s clandestine network of support may be very difficult because relationships that develop within “small world” networks are not usually transparent to outside observers…Not only are the tasks associated with apprehending fugitives different, but the decision making process to capture fugitives may also be distinct from traditional military operations.

Historical Precedents: Phoenix Program and UNODIR SEALs

While the Son Tay Raid may present the quintessential example of the supermission concept (and its vulnerability to the rapid-obsolescence of intelligence) during the Vietnam War, versions of the decentralized, network-targeting approach to counterinsurgency were also prevalent in Vietnam. Network-centric warfare was particularly nested within the Civilian Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS), a counter-insurgency program that used development economics initiatives in rural areas of South Vietnam to attempt to win over local communities and erode the popular base of insurgent movements.

The fangs and claws of CORDS were provided by Intelligence Collection and Exploitation (ICEX), later re-named the Phoenix Program. Phoenix was a CIA-designed effort that employed various operational assets, including indigenous forces and Navy SEALs and Army Special Forces personnel assigned as advisers, to neutralize insurgent targets and act rapidly on intelligence (i.e., to attack the enemy network). There is evidence (much of it from former NVA officials speaking after the war) that CORDS and Phoenix were the most effective programs that the U.S. ran in the Southeast Asian conflict, and Phoenix has recently been reassessed by the Insurgency Group of the think-tank RAND Corporation.

Part of the success of these programs was the license that the operational elements were given to engaged in aggressive trendfollowing: if a mission happened to lead to actionable intelligence (which is always time-sensitive in nature), a follow-on mission was immediately launched to maintain the initiative, keep the element of surprise, and exploit the information (Johnson-Freese uses the term "information arbitrage" to describe this process of chasing down targets based on a truncated, decentralized information-decision-action cycle).

This practice may also have been one of the major contributors to the success of Naval Special Warfare units in Vietnam. Just after BUD/S, I and the three other U.S. officers in my class attended a very interesting mission planning course at the Naval Special Warfare Center. The course was set in the classroom and presented an opportunity to study a formal planning process that had been developed by SOCOM, and to gain insights into practical problems by being briefed by veterans of various combat operations.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the course, to me, was a briefing given by a retired mustang SEAL officer named Phillip "Moki" Martin. Martin, who had seen seven deployments to Vietnam between 1964 and 1974, was confined to a wheelchair and had to be wheeled into the classroom by his friend and assistant (ironically, the terrible injury was not combat-related: Moki Martin had been involved in the early growth of triathlon events in the San Diego area and became a quadriplegic after getting into some kind of insanely violent head-on collision with a car while he was bicycling down the Silver Strand in Coronado).

(Phillip "Moki" Martin)

As was typical for me during that time, my ability to concentrate on work was often compromised by my dedication to the more hedonistic aspects of the San Diego lifestyle (i.e., lack of sleep plus a continuous/residual blood-alcohol content level that was relatively high), but a few salient points from Martin's brief still stand out.

(swashbuckling and autonomous, Vietnam-era SEALs often had their own intelligence networks and aggressive, self-directed operational tempos. Short, sharp nature of hunting missions and typical "L ambush" mission profile led to tremendous offensive capabilities being cultivated relative to small unit size: an 8-man squad might patrol the riverine environment of the Rung Sat Special Zone---the infamous "Forest of Assassins"---with five or six belt-fed weapons. A common squad load-out might feature two M60s and three or four Stoner 63 light machine guns, as well as the more-anticipated shotgun(s), assault carbines, and grenade launchers)

Martin credited much of Naval Special Warfare’s success in Vietnam to four major precepts: 1) the largely autonomous, self-contained combination of a SEAL platoon with its own dedicated transportation assets (normally Sea Wolf UH-1 helicopters and riverine craft, both assigned with the SEAL component as a single package and available to the platoon commander on a near-continuous basis, and supplemented with fixed-wing support from long-loiter "Black Pony" OV-10A Broncos); 2) the heavy use of local intelligence networks to inform mission concepts (rather than intelligence provided from third-parties); 3) a bias towards prisoner-snatch missions and straightforward ambushes where possible; 4) an aggressive “UNODIR” policy.

Items one through three are self-explanatory---operators would uncover leads from their own intel sources and could mount missions using assets that were right there. The UNODIR is a bit more exotic and I think it serves to demonstrate how counternetwork operations empower the men in the field at the (perhaps uncomfortable for many) cost to centralized authority. UNODIR is an acronym for “Unless Otherwise Directed”, and defines a situation in which a field commander tasks his own unit with missions and then sends updates to higher headquarters stating that, “UNless Otherwise DIRected”, the unit will be conducting the mission in question according to some date-time schedule.

As one can imagine, UNODIR authority results in a tremendous decrease in the lag time between the uncovering of intelligence about a target and the launching of a mission to exploit this intelligence. In situations of fleeting windows of opportunity and elusive targets, UNODIR authority could be paired with direct access to unfiltered intelligence and organic transportation and fire support assets to create the fastest possible cycle time between information, tasking, planning, and execution of missions.

Next: Phoenix Reborn---the F3EA Model


  1. I agree with your thoughts that the decentralized nature of the conflict with AQ requires a decentralized counter by our centralized government. Such decentralization capability can be present in large pyramidal M-form organizations, but as specialist function squeezes out generalist function that capability is progressively lost. Please see the brief paper entitled “Generalist Function in Intelligence Analysis” .
    After I wrote this paper I came to realize that what I had described as the four functional characteristics of the successful generalist closely parallel the four steps of John Boyd’s OODA loop.
    Thanks for a great article,
    Matt Mihelic

  2. Matt, thank you very much for the response; looking forward to reading your paper!

  3. Matt, I am getting a site authentication warning when I try to download your pdf article from the linked site...just wanted to check with you and make sure the specified link was the correct one before I went ahead.

  4. Seb,
    That web site for the 2005 International Conference on Intelligence Analysis ( )has always done that but I'm not sure why. If you click on the "Continue to this website" link you'll get in.

  5. Matt, I really enjoyed the reminded me a bit of Phil Tetlock's study of "hedgehogs" and "foxes"---specialists and generalists, borrowing from Stephen Jay Gould---and political forecasting.