The technologies that are increasingly shaping our world have some obvious flaws: they’re changing our brains and allow large private and secretive companies to gather tremendous amounts of information about our habits. They’ve also changed the way the world works, allowing companies to exchange information much faster than in the past and (maybe) increasing productivity. Like many institutions, the military has also been working on their digitalization and apparently runs into the same problems as the rest of society.

The Global War on Terror (GWT) has wore down the large Western armies. They’ve fought against an invisible enemy using low cost equipment, a job usually performed by police and counter terrorism units. Their inability to declare victory in a war among the people is reminiscent of the Vietnam War, and carried the same financial strains on military and civilian budgets. Despite massive technological and material upgrades, training has been decreased and losses and turnover have seen the departure of precious experiences. In addition, the conventional war training seems to have been replaced with a focus on counter insurgencies.

As a result, the Western armies have become slow-moving and hyper-protected, capable for tremendous firepower but still vulnerable to low technology weapons and tactics. In 2 articles below, the lack of basic skills such as navigation both on sea and land is highlighted as a direct consequence of the GWT and reliance on technologies. Even if updates about new tactics and weapons used in battlefields from Ukraine to Syria can be given to officers, the lack of quality training time means that the theory cannot be translated into practice.

In a conference we attended last year, a former French general gave a damning picture of the current state of the various European armies, squeezed between budget cuts and increased operational involvement. Domestic terrorist attacks only add up to the overseas burden. At the same time, Russia, China and other large regional powers have been quietly focusing on building their forces to achieve their specific strategic goals. It is likely that in their respective regions, these powers will be able to defeat Western armies and impose their political solutions. Even though a conflict is unlikely, this fact alone is a powerful deterrent and confidence booster for the regional powers.

High technologies can be used to gain the advantage over technologically backward opponents, but it remains to see how they will perform against technologically savvy opponents. In fact, the Russian and Chinese states have been investing in asymmetric capabilities that could incapacitate Western armies by targeting their communication & control equipment (from radio jamming to blinding satellites), transforming the ‘smart armies’ reliance on technology into its weakness.

These scenario may be far stretched, but they are definitely on the mind of military planners and civilian governments. Given the high number of priorities of Western governments and their budget constraints, it is difficult to pinpoint specific areas on which to focus and bring meaningful improvements on their fighting capacities. The slow decrease of their capabilities relative to other powers is expected to continue, meaning that Western countries will have less ability to shape the world to its will.

Science, General Knowledge & Environment

The Vegetables of Truth – Adam Curtis. This is a post from 2014 that we missed, but turns out to be incredibly important. Modern science has shifted its role from building a better future to preventing disasters. As a result, we spend our time monitoring ourselves and focus on ‘healthy habits’ to avoid dying earlier, even if early death is more likely to result from your social status than your daily habits.

How to reduce the risk of cognitive decline with age – Short answer: live a good, active and social life, sleep well, and have sex. This is simple, but if we draw on the conclusions from the article above, we would argue that people at the higher end of the social class tend to do all the things above on a more regular basis (on average) than the lower social class.

Why a dumb phone is a smart move – Software and apps companies are designing tricks to make us spend more time on our phones, wasting precious time and making us addicted: they call it ‘brain hacking’.

Facebook Figured Out My Family Secrets, And It Won’t Tell Me How – Facebook suggested a friend to a woman who turns out to be her great aunt from the part of a family that she has no contact with. All the intermediaries didn’t use Facebook and they saw each other only once (and exchanged email). Facebook apparently buys data from data brokers, which may be how the connection was made.

The age of AI surveillance is here – AI is being trained to recognize faces of people, with quite impressive results. Pilot projects have been rolled out in airports (France, USA, Japan), police databases, and there are plans to use it as a way to login for events.

The great digital media culling of 2017 – An increasing number of papers are firing journalists and focusing on the production of video, a desperate move of an industry already under tremendous pressure. Meanwhile Facebook and Google have achieved total domination of the online advertising market.

History & Geopolitics

Retired General: ‘Our Bases and Stations on the Coast Are Going Underwater’ – Global warming will lead to sea level rises that will flood US military bases with increased regularity. Flooding in the USA are becoming more frequent and threaten large cities, yet some of its citizens refuse to look at the reality and its huge costs.

Maybe today’s Navy is just not very good at driving ships – After 2 deadly collisions with commercial tankers in Asia, some US Navy veterans share their experience and view on the lack of training and changing culture of the Navy. Under-trained officers are propped up through the ranks by focusing on qualifying exams rather on actually knowing how to master a ship, while the US ground wars have drained away precious human resources.

Army study raises questions about readiness of crack unit in Europe – (Hat tip Yu Chuan) – US airborne troops stationed in Europe and acting as the first line of defense against a potential Russian aggression are underfunded, under-equipped and under-trained for conventional warfare. Once again, the Global War on Terror is at the root of the problem.

Doklam: Who won? – We don’t like this fixation on who ‘won’ the standoff on top of the world between 2 nuclear armed countries, as this make it look like a zero sum game. However this article highlights that India essentially manage to stop China’s operations in a contested area despite numerous and aggressive threats. This fact will not be lost on China’s other neighbors, who will be inclined to resist Chinese rhetoric. Yet we worry that Chinese politicians venting out empty threats may eventually have to back their words with deeds in order to save face.

When did protest against the Assad government turn to war in Syria? – Short answer: when Western powers and their Middle Eastern allies refused to intervene but supplied large amounts of weapons to an opposition that soon turned violent and radical.

Picture of the week: MOPP

About Carlito Riego

"Great perfection may appear imperfect, but its usefulness is inexhaustible. Great abundance may appear empty, but its usefulness cannot be exhausted. Great correctness may appear twisted, great skills appear crude, great eloquence appear awkward. Activity conquers cold; inactivity conquers heat. Clear serenity governs the world." - Lao Zi