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ACG ‘Future of War’ Think-Fest produces many sparks, no fires

ACG ‘Future of War’ Think-Fest produces many sparks, no fires

Will women’s rights groups fall in the battle against religious extremism? Will “geezers” monitor battlefields remotely, freeing younger people for other tasks? Will blogs fragment the opinions of conventional media? International consortiums form their own armies to protect their properties? And will online banking become a primary source of virtual money laundering?

These and other informal questions and insights about the world’s future were scrawled on whiteboards or spoken aloud in a two-day gathering of 49 visionaries with exceptionally varied outlooks, gathered from across the country into the marginally spartan, windowless quarters of Sandia’s Advanced Concept Group (ACG) in mid-September. The ACG periodically invites outside experts to “think-fests” that investigate long-range problems that could impact national or global security.

The creative thinkers, with their distinguished resumes, were there to brainstorm the future of war and peace. There were people from Special Forces and from conciliation groups, social and political and educational theorists, and people who know how to blow things up. There were people on third careers after spending decades in the military, and people just starting out with degrees from Harvard. Eighteen were Sandians.

‘The collective brain’

“I want you to operate as a collective brain,” said ACG leader and Sandia VP and Principal Scientist Gerry Yonas (7000), as he introduced the “Future of War” Think-Fest at a dinner at the National Atomic Museum Sept. 19. “What we’d like to take out of this is one great idea.”

Wendell Jones (7000), who led the ACG exercise, preferred the concept of a farming exercise: “We want to plant as many seeds as possible. Some won’t germinate, others will grow.”

Karl Braithwaite (7000), whose background includes helping write many environmental laws (Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Superfund, and others), and serving as Dean of the Edmund S. Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine, told the Lab News, “My colleagues [elsewhere] found it unusual that a nuclear weapons lab in New Mexico would have such far-reaching discussions.”

Look widely, Grasshopper

Wendell opened the meeting by showing two pictures of the same tiger, one with perception points recorded by Chinese students and the other as seen by Americans (images at top right). The Americans looked directly at the tiger — teeth, head, shoulders, haunches. The Chinese looked first at the tiger, and then at the rocks and trees surrounding it. They wanted context.

To gain new viewpoints, therefore, said Wendell, “The first few sessions will consist of putting the future of war in context, rather than doing what American engineers are most comfortable at: brainstorming a particular problem and coming up with an immediate solution.”

The approach involved creating four versions of the world as it might exist in 2025: inclusive globalization, pernicious globalization, regional competition, and a post-polar world where everyone works together. While no one conclusion emerged, there were many flashes of light that might merit further thought.

Among them:

• While in the past the US had resisted becoming dependent on a single supplier for strategic goods, it is now strategically dependent on China for consumer goods and credit.

• The military will increasingly be concerned with peacekeeping and peacemaking; it will need a negotiating capacity and a capacity to rebuild.

• There will be “a rise in American humility, an acceptance that we can’t do everything and be everywhere.”

• Get in, get out, with no boots on the ground.

• “We want the world to love us more, while getting all the things we got by being mean.”

• Chinese military R&D funding is smaller than the US but its researchers are paid only 1/50 as much, so the research achieved may not be as disproportionate as it may seem.

• Worldwide business consortiums may build their own armies to protect their investments.

• Headline: “OPEC crashes; Muslims, anti-green terrorists blame US, China, EU [because of fast rise of ‘green’ energy].

• A continental state will be formed of Canada, the US, and Mexico, ending our border problems.

• Adding anthropologists and sociologists to the mix of lawyers and military people who currently make most military decisions will provide more insight into what the US will face in places like Iraq.

Criticisms of session

Participant Alan William objected, “[Most of] these assumptions are that the US won’t be the dominant military power in 2025. It’s my job to see that it remains so, and I believe that it will.” Williams, an engineer, leads the Georgia Tech Research Institute’s Future Threat Initiative.

Gerry Yonas expressed disappointment that he “came out with what I went in with,” and “did not get that big idea.”

“We already knew that the military will not provide the solution to the ideological wars of the future,” he told the Lab News. “The meeting agreed. Little came out that said war does anything for you in these fundamentally ideological wars. If there is no superpower to confront, and Islam is having a war of ideas within itself, trying to find its way, then we have to rethink the role of the military and the tools it needs. Instead of the ‘Big Army’ solution, what we may need is the small forces approach we used in Afghanistan. Preventing conflict in advance of future disputes may be the most effective approach.

“Rather than ‘walk softly and carry a big stick,’ the meeting concluded it’s better to listen to your enemies carefully and carry a small stick, or maybe lots of small very precise sticks,” Gerry continued. “If the future is Special Forces and low-intensity conflict, the technology that is critical is predictive awareness: a persistent, ubiquitous network of smart sensors. This may need to be coupled to precision strike and precision understanding of the strike.”

The program also took criticism from some participants who disagreed with the choice of context.

Stewart Brand, compiler of the Whole Earth Catalog and a former infantry lieutenant, e-mailed after the meeting’s conclusion, “Most of our recommendations seemed appropriate [only] for an audience of the Joint Chiefs and a bipartisan Congressional commission, since they had to do mostly with reorganizing the nation’s military intelligence apparatus.”

Former Naval Special Warfare Officer Kevin Baugh, now associate director of the Office of Government and industry liaison for the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, e-mailed that he “was very pleased with what I got out of the [conference but] . . . I was especially disheartened by the fact that we did not exercise a truly difficult scenario (perhaps something like a ‘post nuclear war in the Mideast world’) where much of the world’s oil supply becomes contaminated unexpectedly and the US must suddenly cope with real shortages in petroleum products in a highly competitive world.”

‘Way out of comfort zone’

Of the alternative scenarios posed, Wendell said, “That’s the point of the diversity of the group. Some participants were way out of their comfort zone and others thought we weren’t way out there enough.

“We wanted plenty of people in this crowd — like the Grummans and the Boeings and the military services — prejudiced to want some potent technology that could prevail in the future. Then we wanted social science people who would

contend for more artful, sophisticated influence. Interestingly, we didn’t have knockdown fights between social scientists and military folks.

Everybody came out and said we have to get much smarter in understanding cultures and influencing ideas, and gain technology to influence people’s motives and intentions.

“It was a disconcerting conclusion,” Wendell continued. “Many of the folk there would have been happy to have a mission come rolling out [to take the technology and make it overwhelming for the US], but that’s not what came out from any group, despite the military/DOE presence.

The Fest seemed to say, wow, maybe the future of national security is all around these other features.

“We’re still discussing [in the ACG] what that means for Sandia’s future.”