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Sunday Book Review: Arms and Innovation

[ 9 ] May 25, 2014 |

Note: My new project involves examining how intellectual property law affects the spread of military technology across the international system.  Accordingly, I’m now plowing into the literature on military procurement and the defense industry.  I’ll grant that this literature can be a touch less sexy than the history of airpower thought, but there’s still a lot of interest. Consequently, some of the next few waves of book reviews will focus on books about the arms trade and the defense industry.

Big Firm, Small Firm

What chance do small firms have in the defense market?  Small firms generally struggle to compete with the big defense conglomerates, but civilian technology often outpaces military tech, especially on price. James Hasik’s Arms and Innovation examines how small firms form alliances with large firms in order to sell to the Defense Department. Hasik concludes that under certain conditions, alliances between large and small firms can work, but that these conditions are often fleeting.  Nevertheless, these alliances have produced some of the most important innovations in military technology of the last fifteen years.

Alliances and Innovation

The problems of integrating small firms into the military-industrial complex substantially predate the coining of the term “military industrial complex.”  When weapon systems became too expensive and risky for firms to simply produce and sell them “off the shelf” to governments, pre-emptive collaboration between the state and a select number of large firms became inevitable.  This necessitated the development of long term relationships, with the consequence that small, non-traditional defense providers had trouble breaking into the market.

There’s a lot of debate on how the Pentagon approaches small firms.  For at least the last fifteen years, DoD has tried to encourage small firms to pursue military contracts.  Don Rumsfeld, among others, believed that small, nimble, private firms could innovate more quickly and more cheaply than the large, state-dependent defense conglomerates. Especially in the tech sector, small firms (and non-defense firms more generally) seem to produce more advanced, lower cost equipment than their larger counterparts.

The problem is that it’s still extremely difficult for small firms to claw their way into the door, as Pete Dombrowski and Eugene Gholz detailed in their book Buying Military Transformation. The rules on securing procurement contracts from DoD are so arcane that only large firms that already have substantial experience with the Pentagon can hope to have much chance.The big defense firms are also far more likely to maintain personal contacts with the Pentagon through the hiring of retired military and civilian personnel, although this too depends on an arcane set of rules determining eligibility for employment.

There are also (as I have discussed in other places) significant issues with intellectual property protection.  Small firms depend on patents and trade secrets to protect themselves from larger defense companies, but such protection depends on the willingness of the Pentagon to rein the larger companies in.

Hasik discusses this problem in terms of skill vs. capital intensive production, maturation of requirements, information “leakiness” and “shakedown potential.” Small firms do well with skill-intensive projects, and are flexible enough to take advantage of opportunities provided by immature technologies and shifting state requirements. Small firms and large firms can work together if the information requirements are right; if large firms can simply steal the trade secrets of small firms, or if the small firms lack sufficient legal protection for their ideas and techniques, then there’s little incentive for the latter to engage in alliances.  Arms length relationships make more sense.

Hasik examines the Predator drone, the MRAP, the Littoral Combat Ship, the JDAM, and several other systems that have resulted from alliances between large and small firms. In some of these cases the small firms are remarkably successful; in others, they maintain success for a period before either a) the market for their product collapses, or b) a larger firm cuts into their market share. However, he makes clear that small firms have played an important role in the development of some of the most widely known technologies of the 21st century.

Pulling it Together

Hasik’s account of the relationship between the state and the private firm in the defense sector is necessarily incomplete, but a broader theoretical framework might have allowed him to frame the insights of this research in a way that could have problematized the entire public-private sector relationship.   In short, the issue of the state’s relationship with private firms is much larger, and goes back much farther, than he suggests.

What Hasik doesn’t offer, and what I’m really interested in, is the comparative aspect; how do other countries stucture their defense industries in terms of allowing small firms a chance to win contracts?  The way that small firms, large firms, and the state relate with one another are embedded in broader socio-economic frameworks, and we can expect that different structures will generate much different patterns of innovation.  This is especially interesting as part of a comparison with the great command economies of the Cold War, but we probably should also expect that defense tech innovation will happen differently in Europe, where “national champions” tend to dominate defense contracting.

Nevertheless, there’s plenty of interest here, both on the theoretical and empirical sides.  The cases are well-chosen on “interesting” criteria, and readers who want a short primer on how the JDAM or MRAP came about should find much to their liking. And Hasik provides a valuable window into how the defense industry works, and into how small firms can find a way to break through.

Foreign Entanglements: Pacifying the Pacific

[ 4 ] May 24, 2014 |

On this week’s episode of Foreign Entanglements, I spoke with Sam Roggeveen of the Lowy Institute about happenings around the Pacific Rim:

Save the Dervish!

[ 16 ] May 24, 2014 |

The Onion shows Duffel Blog how it’s done:

The 70-ton tactical battle tank commonly known as the Dervish, which reportedly has a price tag of $95 million per vehicle and is said to begin emitting volatile, combustible fumes and sending off a dangerous fountain of sparks immediately after it is started, has been called a vital asset to national security by top congressmen on both sides of the aisle. While detractors have attempted to defund the project over the years due to its ballooning cost and the loss of every vehicle so far deployed, advocates have been able to preserve the program from cuts, hailing the tank’s rightward-only movement and propensity to ignite in a towering fireball as the centerpiece of America’s war effort.

“At a time when protecting United States interests at home and abroad has never been more important, we simply cannot afford to compromise our military’s ability to drive a tank repeatedly in a circle as gigantic flames shoot out of every opening on its surface,” said House Armed Services Committee Chair Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA), an outspoken proponent for continued funding of the program, which has consumed over 81 billion taxpayer dollars since its inception. “Cutting production of the Dervish merely because it is able to do nothing more than leave circular treadmarks and a smoking crater where it once stood would not only be irresponsible, it would leave the nation unequipped for the armed conflicts of tomorrow and put every citizen of this country at risk.”

“Frankly, it’s indicative of the diminished role in international leadership the White House sees for America that they are even willing to consider sacrificing such a critical piece of defense technology,” McKeon continued. “Do we really want the 1,800 U.S. servicemen who have so far died while using this piece of technology to have given their lives in vain? That seems to be what the president wants.”


[ 33 ] May 22, 2014 |

This is the first of a two part post at the Diplomat on “legitimate espionage:”

Greenwald’s use of this example has evoked some debate among diplomatic and intelligence analysts, as it strays far from the central themes of the Snowden Project, which involve mass data collection and global public surveillance. Along with the recent indictment of five PLA officers on charges of cyber espionage, it drags the focus onto the question of how nations spy on one another, and where the appropriate boundaries for “legitimate” espionage lie.

The F-35B and the Pacific Rim

[ 24 ] May 20, 2014 |

Some thoughts at Lowy’s Interpreter blog on the F-35B in the Pacific:

With Prime Minister Tony Abbott implying recently that Australia could buy the F-35B ‘jump jet’ version of the Joint Strike Fighter (a suggestion reinforced this week by Defence Minister David Johnston), this is a good time to ask: what relevance could the F-35B have for the Asia Pacific? Designed as a STOVL (short take off and vertical landing) aircraft that can operate from amphibious warships and small carriers, the F-35B remains the most enigmatic element of the troubled Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program.

The Military in Politics: Complications of Counting

[ 0 ] May 20, 2014 |

The following guest post is by Jonathan Powell, an Assistant Professor at Nazarbayev University, soon moving to warmer climates at the University of Central Florida.

The Military in Politics: Time for a Post-Mortem?

Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz (KT&F) recently took a fascinating look at authoritarian politics, specifically regarding the means by which autocrats leave office. They focus on the waning of coups d’état and the rise of popular revolts, as well as the potential implications that each form of regime change has for democratization. KT&F suggest that the increase of popular revolts relative to coups has potentially positive effects for democratic transition.

An increasing number of accounts, see here, here, and here, for example, and this most recent effort by KT&F in the Washington Quarterly, supports this interpretation. Coups are a less

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frequent means of exit in the contemporary world. However, I’d like to add two very important distinctions before beginning a post-mortem on the coup phenomenon.

Read more…

Somebody Find Tom Joad, Lexington Needs Him

[ 13 ] May 20, 2014 |

Never have I been made aware of a more dire injustice:

For the first time in decades stores and restaurants across Kentucky will be able to sell alcohol on Election Day, while the polls are open. But because of an preexisting ordinance businesses in Lexington will not be joining them.

Last year Senate Bill 13 changed a number of Kentucky’s alcohol policies, including the statewide ban on selling alcohol while the voting polls were open.

“But removing it from the state didn’t remove any local ordinances that may or may not have passed,” said Roger Leasor, the director of community relations for Liquor Barn. “Not every city had one.”

But Lexington did. While the state law did away with the ban, it also said any city could pass a new ban and any existing bans were still in place.

“I think everybody assumed that the state law took care of it for Lexington, and no one really thought to look to see if there was a local ordinance on the books,” Leasor said.

By the time that ordinance was discovered it was too late to get it removed in time for this election.

Democracy, I think we can all agree, has failed. Time to hand the whole show over to Putin.

Sunday Book Review: The Way of the Knife

[ 33 ] May 18, 2014 |

Mark Mazzetti’s Way of the Knife tracks the development of the dual Joint Special Operations Command and Central Intelligence Agency campaign against Al Qaeda. Mazzetti tells of how the War on Terror changed both organizations, making each more lethal while at the same time compromising substantial elements of their original missions. Mazzetti’s book, one of many that describes the development of the SOF and drone campaigns, focuses not only on the organizational competition, but also on a variety of “colorful” personalities in and around the war.

The Pointy End of the State

This is essentially an organizational history of the SOF and UAV components of the War on Terror, and of how the demands of fighting an unconventional adversary transformed two organs of the US national security state. After 9/11, the Bush administration and the rest of the “deep state” grasped for means to strike back against Al Qaeda. The invasions of Afghanistan and later Iraq constituted one prong of this response, but these invasions were clumsy tools for solving the much more narrow problem of targeting and defeating the Al Qaeda network itself. Invading Afghanistan could force Al Qaeda to move, and invading Iraq (in the fantasies of the neocons) could set fire to a series of cultural and political changes in the Arab world that would make Al Qaeda impossible, but neither could destroy the network as it then existed.

The government responded in two ways. First, the CIA militarized existing capabilities, breaking a series of norms and taboos that had held since the 1970s. Effectively, the CIA got back into the business of killing people, only now with makeshift drones and highly trained operatives. But Donald Rumsfeld was unsatisfied with an outcome that left the CIA in control of the sharpest parts of the war against Al Qaeda. Rumsfeld and the neocons around him had, since the 1970s, harbored a distrust of the CIA. Rumsfeld also sought to bring killing capacity directly under his own control at DoD. They didn’t believe that the CIA was culturally equipped to fight Al Qaeda, and in any case knew that DoD could draw on far greater resources.

This resulted in a significant boom for Special Operations Forces, which received substantial resources and bureaucratic attention. Under Stanley McChrystal, JSOC became nearly autonomous from the rest of DoD, with its own intelligence collection capabilities, procurement system, and command structure. McChrystal believed this was necessary in order to develop an organization as quick and as flexible as the terrorist groups it was fighting. JSOC required organic assets and autonomy in order to operate effectively in conditions of minimal and quickly shifting intelligence.

This lack of coordination created problems with the rest of occupation forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan. JSOC would conduct raids in the middle of long-term pacification operations without notifying local forces, which severely disrupted the ability of other units to build rapport with the local population. However, it also gave JSOC the agility to fight AQ networks in both theaters of operation.

It goes without saying that Rumsfeld was less interested in civilian control as an abstract principle than in having them under his direct control. As it detached itself from the enormous Pentagon bureaucracy, JSOC became more like the CIA. However, JSOC operated outside the conventional (albeit limited) means for maintaining executive and Congressional oversight of the intelligence community.

Over time, the CIA responded to the increased effectiveness and assertiveness of JSOC by increasing its own degree of militarization. Before 2001, killing people was not the primary mission of the CIA. Today it is, both because of the demands of civilian policymakers and because of competition with DoD. The two organizations eventually developed cooperative arrangements, such that JSOC could loan assets to the CIA when legal concerns prevented the former from operating. The raid that killed Osama Bin Laden involved just such an arrangement. Private contractors also played a role, with both JSOC and the CIA taking advantage of relationships with private firms and individuals associated with the broader intelligence community.

Drones, SOF, and Obama

There’s no question that there have been organizational payoffs. Both JSOC and the CIA are better at killing people than there were in 2001, and probably better at identifying the appropriate targets. It’s altogether less than obvious that the CIA is good at anything else. Mazzetti suggests that the CIA’s militarization makes it less capable in carrying out traditional intelligence tasks. He doesn’t write very much about the NSA, but it’s possible that part of the explanation for the NSA’s growing mission set lies in the reduced capacity of the CIA to carry out its traditional tasks.

Although this structure emerged from roots in the Bush administration, it really came into its own under Obama, as it became clear that the administration would (eventually) prefer a smaller footprint in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The CIA could offer Obama an alternative to two problems. First, killing people eliminated the pesky need for putting them in prison. Dead terrorists could tell fewer tales, but neither did they need to go to Gitmo. Second, the CIA and JSOC gave Obama ways to fight terrorists (and ward off domestic critics) without retaining large scale forces abroad. Accordingly, Obama and Panetta were more than willing to allow JSOC and the CIA to continue and expand their campaigns.


From an institutional point of view, both the development of modern JSOC and the militarization of the CIA are interesting stories, with potentially important lessons. With respect to the former, 9/11 and the support of Rumsfeld offered Stan McChrystal the opportunity to fashion something radical and new; an organization that could take advantage of the combination of very high human capital (the extremely talented and skilled members of US special operations forces) with the latest technological and intelligence advances. Shorn of much of the Pentagon bureaucracy but still maintaining access to its enormous resources, the new JSOC could do truly remarkable things when set loose. Whether those things comported with a broader, long-term view of American grand strategy is a different question.

With respect to the CIA, I think that it would have been more helpful to approach the question from a factional point of view than a generational. Obviously, the two are related; factions often map imperfectly onto generations, as was the case with fighter and bomber factions in the USAF. With the CIA, it seems that the shift happened too quickly to suggest that the organization was simply responding to outside pressures. Rather, I imagine that factions within the CIA were entirely comfortable with a more militarized posture, and that the combination of the failure to predict 9/11 and the competition from JSOC gave these factions the ammunition they needed to push the organization in the way they wanted.

There’s also the question of how this matters for the flexibility of US airpower institutions. Debate over whether drone strikes remain more appropriately in the DoD or the CIA continue. It’s less than obvious that the DoD is better than the CIA at drone strikes, at least in terms of collateral damage. Putting DoD fully in charge of drones is attractive from an international law point of view, as it drags the campaign from the shadowy intelligence world into the much more visible defense world. However, some of the most recent evidence suggests that CIA does a better job of conducting due diligence with respect to developing intelligence prior to strikes, and to conducting the strikes themselves. It’s surely interesting that the United States is undertaking what amounts to a strategic air campaign without making the traditional Air Force (or Navy) its focus.


This isn’t the only book on the development and growth of the SOF and drone campaigns during the War on Terror, but it’s a good one. Mazzetti maintains a respectful distance from his material, but while he’s clearly impressed with how effective

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JSOC and the CIA have become, he’s obviously less committed to the idea that this has served the strategic interests of the United States well. This comes through effectively in his portraits of the various private contractors who’ve become associated with the intelligence community. But Mazzetti’s account also suggests concern with how both campaigns have escaped effective civilian oversight, both through bureaucratic means and through Congressional disinterest. It’s worth your time.

Worst Defeat Since Poltava?

[ 41 ] May 18, 2014 |

Tonight, Stockholm will be in flames:

Swiss voters rejected a 3.1 billion- franc ($3.5 billion) order for Gripen fighter jets, a setback to Swedish defense company Saab AB.

The 22-plane contract, which Switzerland awarded 2 1/2 years ago, was opposed by 53.4 percent of voters, the government in Bern said on its website today. That’s in line with the latest survey ahead of the vote, which showed some 51 percent of people polled opposed the transaction.

“The people have spoken,” said Susanne Leutenegger Oberholzer, a Social Democrat member of parliament. “We surely don’t have the money for such unnecessary acquisitions.”

Here was Bill Sweetman singing the praises of the Gripen E a few weeks ago:

The conundrum facing fighter planners is that, however smart your engineering, these aircraft are expensive to design and build and have a cradle-to-grave product life that is far beyond either the political or technological horizon.

The reason that the

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JAS 39E may earn a Gen 6 tag is that it has been designed with these issues in mind. Software comes first: The new hardware runs Mission System 21 software, the latest roughly biennial release in the series that started with the JAS 39A/B. Long life requires adaptability, both across missions and through-life. Like Ed Heinemann’s A-4 Skyhawk, the Gripen was designed as a small aircraft with a relatively large payload. And by porting most of the software to the new version, the idea is that all C/D weapons and capabilities, and then some, are ready to go on the E…

However, what should qualify the JAS 39E for a Gen 6 tag is what suits it most for a post-Cold War environment. It is not the world’s fastest, most agile or stealthiest fighter. That is not a bug, it is a feature. The requirements were deliberately constrained because the JAS 39E is intended to cost less to develop, build and operate than the JAS 39C, despite doing almost everything better. As one engineer says: “The Swedish air force could not afford to do this the traditional way”—and neither can many others.

It’s an ambitious goal, and it is the first time that Sweden has undertaken such a project in the international spotlight. But if it is successful, it will teach lessons that nobody can afford not to learn.

Apparently the Swiss can afford not to learn it, at least for the time being.

Given the relatively close vote, it should be noted that it’s not impossible (if not necessarily likely) that Wikileaks vigorous campaign against the Gripen may have had a decisive impact. Wikileaks is, of course, deeply concerned with all corruption associated with any defense contracts that aren’t tendered by Rosoboronexport. The failure of the referendum means that Switzerland will continue to make due with its F/A-18 Hornets, which will make Boeing happy the next time the frame comes up for upgrade. It’ll also mean that Boeing, Eurofighter, Dassault will fight hard for the next potential Swiss contract.


[ 15 ] May 17, 2014 |

For your Saturday evening Soviet naval aviation needs:


[ 8 ] May 15, 2014 |

My latest at the Diplomat:

As long as the PLAN focused on anti-access rather than expeditionary deployments, it didn’t need to overthink the ASW problem (although it did begin developing some platforms in the 1990s)  But now China has big ships, and American, Japanese, Australian, and Vietnamese subs might want to try to sink them someday.  Consequently, the PLAN now needs to focus on ASW, and to develop the tools necessary for defeating and deterring foreign subs.  Over the past several years the PLAN has fielded several systems designed to do just this, including the Type 056 Corvette, and the Y-8 maritime patrol aircraft.  Most recently, China has developed a system of fixed underwater acoustic sensors. However, most of these systems (including the relatively small Type 056) still depend on proximity to Chinese bases for effectiveness.

Intel Collection

[ 281 ] May 13, 2014 |

With due respect to Charles Pierce… 

There is no better mainstream reporter on this stuff than Charlie Savage, my old colleague at The Boston Globe who now writes for the Times. (Hell, there’s no better reporter on any beat anywhere.) He’s read Greenwald’s book and, putting silly personality quibbles aside, has mined it for some fascinating details.

The American ambassador to the United Nations, Susan E. Rice, asked the National Security Agency for help “so that she could develop a strategy,” a leaked agency document shows. The N.S.A. swiftly went to work, developing the paperwork to obtain legal approval for spying on diplomats from four Security Council members – Bosnia, Gabon, Nigeria and Uganda – whose embassies and missions were not already under surveillance. The following month, 12 members of the 15-seat Security Council voted to approve new sanctions, with Lebanon abstaining and only Brazil and Turkey voting against.

You’d have to be blind and/or foolish not to recognize that an informed citizenry might benefit one day from the knowledge that our spying may have queered the diplomatic pitch around the world — Gee, I sure hope, say, Nigeria isn’t too offended that we bugged its embassy. It seems to be in the news a lot these days. — and that the information would be central to the decision to elect, or to re-elect, a president of the United States. None of this has anything to do with whether or not you’d invite Glenn Greenwald to tea, or where Snowden ended up. These are things we needed to know. The truth is supposed to make you free, not comfortable.


  1. “Might benefit one day” is different than “benefit right now,” and given that the question of sanctions against Iran continues to touch upon US national interests, I think we’re still comfortably within “right now.”
  2. In this case, it does not appear that spying “may have queered the pitch;” rather, it seems that public revelation of spying may someday “queer the pitch.”
  3. It strikes me as exceedingly unlikely that anything more than a vanishingly small proportion of the US electorate will be moved to change its voting behavior by news that the United States spies on the diplomatic communications of various members of the United Nations Security Council.
  4.  It’s not obvious to me that revealing that the United States intercepts the diplomatic communications of other countries “makes me free” in any meaningful sense.

I’m not convinced that “we needed to know” is even the right frame for comprehending the fact that the United States intercepts the diplomatic communications of other countries in an effort to improve its bargaining position in international fora. “We” already knew, and by that “we” I mean more than the small community of people who intensively studies military and intelligence affairs.  Conducting intelligence gathering operations against the diplomatic services of other countries is something that I expect my intelligence services to do.  I expect foreign intelligence agencies (even those of our allies!) to conduct similar operations against the United States.  The precise nature of these operations, including targets and methods, seems to fall very comfortably within the concept of “legitimate secrecy,” in which public knowledge of an otherwise sensible intelligence gathering effort makes that effort impossible.  Legitimate secrecy shouldn’t provide a cloak for intelligence services and executives to do anything that they want, but intelligence collection in the service of developing targeted appeals for members of the UNSC isn’t even close to the line.

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