Archive for February, 2011

Now that Captain Honors has been kind enough to post his fitness reports as an exhibit in the court of public opinion it might be helpful to have a chat on how an officer in the Navy is selected to command.

Now, in order to properly define the discussion space, this is limited to ONLY the selection for Command at Sea. Which in turn limits the discussion, almost exclusively, to officers in the Unrestricted Line. While there are many, many more commands out there that are not either Command at Sea, or limited to the Unrestricted Line, each community has its own particular method of selecting officers for command. And in some cases there are commands which have no particular selection process.

So, we’re basically talking about ships, aircraft squadrons, submarines, aircraft wings, amphibious squadrons, destroyer squadrons, and submarine squadrons. Those are in turn subdivided, loosely, into Commander and Major Commands (Early Command of PCs and minesweepers are also slightly different and not necessarily part of this discussion).

Selection for Commander Command is predicated upon a single thing – performance as a Department Head. At sea. In a submarine, ship, or aircraft squadron. Said performance being documented in an officer’s fitness reports. That’s it.

There are all sorts of other “nice to haves” that might help a record be selected , but in the end, it’s the documented performance in the fitness report that is the clear differentiator. And, to take it even further, it is the level to which an officer is ranked against his peers that counts. Almost all of the verbiage on the back of a report, no matter how flowing, colorful, evocative, or even pathetic will make the difference for an officer who is ranked ahead of his departmental peers. The officer who gets ranked 1 of 2, 1 of 3, 1 of 4 and so on is the officer most likely to have his record selected in a selection board. Those at the 2 of 3, 2 of 4 and so on are where verbiage and “tie breakers” like masters degrees, shore tours, subspecialty codes and the like come into play.

That’s what works for Commander Command (and there is a good discussion in a Navy Personnel Command brief on pages 22, 23, 24 that provides more detail). For Major Command, the only thing that really matters is performance in Commander Command. It’s essentially a “career reset” the day an officer takes command. Every fitness report earned before that is garnish – the meat is those one, two, or three reports earned in Commander Command. A 1 of 2 or 1 of 3 almost guarantees selection to Major Command. 3 of 3 in a competitive report without another competitive report that is a 1 of “something other than 1” does not preclude eventual selection, but all those 1 of 2 or 1 of 3 officers will most likely be selected first.

The basic process by which a board selects a record is the same for command selection boards (screen boards) and promotion (statutory boards). The laws that the boards are governed under are the same. The differences lie in the information within the official record that is considered by the board to be important enough to warrant selection and the number of officers that can be selected. For more detail, look at this brief on statutory board procedures.

Within the “tank” the board is presented records for voting. The most common screen projected to the members is the “Officer Performance Summary Record (PSR)” which provides the most basic information for a fitness report: Reporting Senior, Command, Duration, Individual Trait Grades, breakout against the competitive group for that report, comparison against the reporting seniors previous reports, and promotion recommendation. And that’s it. Individual fitness reports are not normally read or reviewed by the board when voting. The record is reviewed, in its entirety, by a board member known as the “briefer”. This board member reads the fitness report, any letters to the board, and reviews any other information contiained within the record. The briefer makes annotations on the PSR to show trends or important distinction within the fitness reports…but what is annotated is entirely up to the briefer.

When voting there is a small period for discussion (in many boards it can be less than two minutes). During that discussion any question can be asked about the record that is being presented. Any officer with personal knowledge of positive or complimentary information may introduce that information at this time. Adverse information that is NOT contained within the official record cannot, by law and regulation, be presented to the board. No stories of “I heard that ship ran aground” or “Wow…why isn’t that DUI showing up” or “Odd, I don’t see the results of that IG investigation”. If it’s not in the record, basically, it doesn’t exist…didn’t happpen…can’t be discussed. Which is why the common phrase is “boards pick records, not people” exists.

Now, there are a couple of other idiosyncrasies in a few places. Most Surface Warfare command positions (and all operational aviation squadrons) use what is called “Fleet Up”. An officer is selected for command, but spends the first half of the command tour serving as Executive Officer (or sometimes Deputy Commander). There are other selections that have a longer track towards command – Aviation Major Command of an Aircraft Carrier (the aviation community refers to it as Major Sea Command (Nuclear Power Pipeline) )is one. In that case, the officer is selected for major command but serves first as Executive Officer of an aircraft carrier followed by Commanding Officer of a large surface ship (nicknamed “Deep Draft Command”). Once that officer has a fitness report in command of that large surface ship, he is then placed into a pool of officers who’s records are considered by the Major Command Selection board for assignment to command an aircraft carrier (Sequential Command at Sea). The selection rate from Nuclear Power Pipeline to Sequential Command at Sea is very, very high…on the Fiscal Year 11 (sometimes also called the FY 12 board) board there was a 1:1 correlation between the two categories. On the FY 10 board it was a 2:3 correlation. The tyranny of small numbers makes any larger percentage comparison over time suspect. However, it is realistic to surmise that absent an inability to complete Nuclear Power School, or a career ending action that results in either an “adverse fitness report” or a “detachment for cause” proceeding the officer selected for the Nuclear Power Pipeline is most likely to select for Sequential Command at Sea.

So, let’s look at this through the lens of two recent and well documented cases – Captain Holly Graf and Captain OP Honors.

In Captain Graf’s case she was selected for Major Command of a surface ship in 2006 on her 2nd look. That look was based entirely on her documented performance in Commander Command. Since she was not a first look select one can infer that her record in command was not flawless. But, her record was sufficient to be selected for Major Command.

For Captain Honors, based upon his statement to investigators he was selected for Major Command in 2004 on his first look. He subsequently went to Nuke School and had successive tours in Enterprise as XO, then Mount Whitney as CO, and then back to Enterprise as CO. He was already selected for and promoted to Captain when he served as XO in Enterprise. His command tours in Mount Whitney and back again to Enterprise were already predetermined while he was XO in Enterprise. They were only his to lose, not gain, from his performance as XO.

Same as it ever was.

Somehow during his tenure as SOUTHCOM commander, current EUCOM commander and Supreme Allied Commander Europe Admiral James G. Stavridis, found time to pen a 292 page book on the United States’ relationship with Central America (except Mexico), South America, and the Caribbean. The book was just published by NDU press and is available for free on their website.

Stavridis’ book, Partnership For The Americas, is not your typical command memoir; rather it reads more like a manifesto on the potential of soft power in US-South relations. His main takeaway point: “We are all in this together”.

The book covers a range of topics, from counter-narcotics operations to innovation in the Department of Defense, but of particular interest to me is the Admiral’s chapter on health engagement. Specifically, the role he argues medical diplomacy can play in a combatant command:

“It may seem at first incongruous for a combatant command, even one which strives to be as interagency-oriented and forward-leaning as U.S. Southern Command, to be engaged in efforts to improve public health. And perhaps it is, particularly if that is how our engagement efforts are expressed or viewed. If, however, we restructure our strategic approach and message to convey that we subscribe to the understanding that “public health” plays a vitally important role in maintaining long-term stability, then we can restate our strategic objectives more along the lines of removing and/or reducing health issues as a potential factor to increased likelihood of conflict. Thus, our continuing commitment to engaging in what some have termed “medical diplomacy” becomes inherently synchronized with our previously stated strategic goals to promote security, enhance stability, and allow for economic prosperity.” (Stavridis 2010, 140)

This is not something you would expect to read from a man occupying the same office as Eisenhower and Ridgway. However, Stavridis is absolutely correct. While the core competency of the American military will always be combat operations, there are a growing number areas where United States interests and goodwill can best be secured through soft power, including health diplomacy. In an ideal world these tasks would be the responsibility of USAID and the Department of State, but, to adapt a phrase from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: you advance US interests with the agencies you have, not the agencies you want. And if you can do so with hospital ships instead of gunboats, all the better.

The LCS is one of the most misunderstood ships in the history of the Navy. Why? Because it is an entirely new type of combat vessel. Not only is it new, we are not exactly sure how it will finally operate in the fleet. But here is what I have to tell you. There is a requirement for a ship that can go into littoral waters, which means it has to have a shallow draft; and it must be able to hunt mines; and it must be hunt diesel submarines; and it must be able to beat off swarm boats. Those are threats that exist today.

Now, the Navy made what I consider to be a momentous decision. It is essentially going to replace our patrol coastal craft which support our special ops; that’s a 350 ton vessel. It replaces the Osprey which is a 950 ton vessel, which is the old MHC, and it is replacing the old Avenger class which is about a 1,400 ton ship; and it is replacing the Fig7 – which is about a 4,000 ton ship.

What the Navy decided to do, they said we need these three missions, and we are going to try to do it in a single hull with mission packages. It was a bold decision to make, and I am confident – I am confident – that it will prove out to be a smart decision.

– The Honorable Robert Work, USNI/AFCEA WEST, January 26, 2011

In his January 2011 Proceedings article The Wrong Ship at the Wrong Time, CDR John Patch opens his argument with his opinion “it is clear that the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program cannot live up to expectations.” I consider CDR John Patch a friend of mine, and I strongly believe my friend CDR John Patch is wrong. The only expectations the Littoral Combat Ship program isn’t living up to today are the expectations of those who believe the Littoral Combat Ship is a failed frigate design. In his article CDR John Patch lists 11 criticisms – below are my direct responses to his criticisms.

Unaffordable. The near tripling of the expected hull price tag and unrealistic Navy cost estimates are well documented in current literature, but they become a stark program stigma amid current Department of Defense fiscal austerity. Life-cycle costs of the two “orphaned” LCS hulls after the down-select decision are also a factor.

The cost of building navy ships is always important, but I think the details of the dual-select caught everyone, and admittedly me as well, by surprise. Based on the contract details as released by the Navy, the hull prices for the Littoral Combat Ships come in at around $440 million per ship, but when we factor in all costs including the amortized cost of all 64 modules the Navy intends to buy, the cost for ship and module total package is around $530 million per. The pricing for these ships falls well below the escalated average Congressional cost cap of $538 million, and the number used by Congress is for hull only.

If we go back to the history of the Littoral Combat Ship, we know certain numbers. The original hull cost estimate was $220 million, a number I think all of us believed was ridiculously low in the first place. The mission module estimate was $180 million, which turned out to be ridiculously high. It was the combination of the two numbers that got everyone to $400 million. $400 million was also a derivative though, because if you recall the Navy had to build three Littoral Combat Ships for the cost of one DDG-51 at the time – which cost $1.2 billion. Bottom line, the cost estimate history of the Littoral Combat Ship more likely came from the Bermuda triangle than it did from a professional program management process at the Pentagon, and yet the LCS program has had to live with these numbers anyway.

The first in class ships were expensive, no question. By my math they were at least 300% over the original unrealistic estimate cost of $220 million. How does that stack up with history? Well, of the nine previous ships, four had overruns of greater than 100% (MCM-1, MHC 51, DDG 51, LPD-17), three had overruns between 40-60% (FFG 7, CG 47, LSD 41), and only two had overruns less than 20% (LHD 1 and VA 774/75). NONE came in lower than expected. But I think everyone agrees first in class are prototypes – indeed the Navy paid for the first LCS with R&D budget money. The key in new ship classes is always whether the Navy learns and improves over time.

Admiral Clark may have been guesstimating costs for the LCS program but his guesses were good, because the US Navy got fixed cost contracts that insure the Navy can buy 3 Littoral Combat Ships for well below the cost of a single DDG-51 today, and by percentage the cost growth of the entire Littoral Combat Ship package estimate of $400 million was only 33% higher for what is today a much more capable ship than the $400 million commercial design Admiral Clark envisioned.

Too complex. All the higher-end, multi-mission capabilities not only increase costs, but also could make the crews’ tasks unmanageable.

Each ship is broken down into three crews. Core crew = ship. Module crew = module. Aviation crew = Helo det. When I visited USS Freedom (LCS 1) last week Commander Edwards made explicitly clear that when a module crew comes on his ship, they are part of his crew. During RIMPAC several of the module crew earned certifications in areas outside their speciality. Operationally there are no signs that the Navy is running into complexity operating a single mission ship during any single period of time. It might look complex for folks looking outside in, but when they are speaking about LCS from an inside perspective there really isn’t a lot of complexity there.

Excessive technical risk. Incomplete designs at production start exacerbated risk. Some LCS components are also technically unproven or exhibited problems during acceptance trials, such as water-jet tunnel pitting and corrosion and the need for additional buoyancy tanks.

Yep, and first in class ships are prototypes. There is trial and error taking place all over the Navy on first in class ships. Since none of us can go back in time, the question is whether there is evidence that lessons learned from the first in class ships are being incorporated into future designs for a better class of ship throughout the block. Again, talking to Commander Edwards last week one thing that became very clear is how lessons have been and still are being folded into LCS 3, and LCS 5+. The process seems good on the Navy side, and I think the contracts suggest the industry side is comfortable enough with the process they are willing to commit to fixed cost contracts.

Impractical. Expectations of seamless integration of the many mission modules, unmanned vehicles, core hull systems (57-mm gun, radars, etc.) and net-centric capabilities were exceedingly unrealistic.

I think expectations of ‘seamless integration’ of many moving parts is indeed impractical, but I am not sure where that expectation was evident in the Navy. Since I first stayed on USS Freedom (LCS 1) for two nights back in November 2008 there was a clear understanding that interfaces between ship and systems was going to be a challenge with lessons learned through experimentation. Most of the engineering has been good, but as expected, there have been lessons learned. The integration of the platform and the systems is by no means an “exceedingly unrealistic” objective, it is the legitimate goal of the LCS package in sum – as it should be.

Impractical, in my opinion, would be to ignore the benefits networks contribute to our naval capabilities and not purposely designing our ships with networks in mind. I completely reject the premise of the “impractical” criticism, because developing naval vessels with the intent to support networks that integrate unmanned systems with combat systems in a hull specifically built to support those capabilities should be the objective of every new ship class the US Navy builds in the 21st century.

A lot of people want to keep on keeping on in the guided missile era of naval warfare with traditional designs and nominal evolutions, but new technologies are emerging and a networked battlespace is being developed by potential adversaries. The US Navy is well positioned today to take the existing advanced generation guided missile combat fleet, network that fleet, then expand the network with next generation unmanned technologies deployed by platforms like submarines and LCS. In my opinion, what is being criticized as the impractical integration of LCS parts to form a whole is actually the evolution from where the Navy is today towards the networked integration of emerging capabilities and existing combat power.

Inefficient. The failure of the Coast Guard and Navy to conduct a combined effort to design a new cutter/corvette-sized vessel remains perplexing.

The Coast Guard and the Navy have different requirements. I spoke to RADM Blore many times on the subject when he was Assistant Commandant for Acquisition and Chief Acquisition Officer for the United States Coast Guard, and he told me the Coast Guard had looked at both designs. Since there is still no medium endurance cutter replacement selection today, perhaps the US Coast Guard still may pick one of the designs. As modern designs in production, I have no doubt that a version of a Littoral Combat Ship hull more aligned with the requirements of the Coast Guard could be designed, but as far as I am concerned, I believe the Coast Guard needs to pick the vessel most suited to their requirements – LCS or not.

Vulnerable. Many experts argue that the vaunted speed factor will not protect LCS from littoral antiship-missile or torpedo threats.

I would hope every expert would argue that the “vaunted speed factor” of LCS will not protect the LCS from anti-ship missiles, or they aren’t much of an expert in my book. The vulnerability criticism of LCS is made in the latest DOT&E report on LCS, and I have a separate post for that discussion.

Poor endurance. Both LCS versions rapidly deplete fuel stores—especially at the higher speeds envisioned for anti-access missions and with heavy MH-60R/S helicopter operations—requiring frequent bunkering in port or replenishment at sea.

From the letter from CBO to the Honorable Jeff Sessions (PDF):

The moderate-fuel case—which CBO considers the most likely of the three scenarios—assumes that the LCS-1 operates at 30 or more knots for about 5 percent of the time, at 14 knots to 16 knots 42 percent of the time (a range that might be typical when the ship was traveling from its home port to a deployment location), and at less than 12 knots for the rest of its time under way. In that scenario, O&S costs total 34 percent of the ship’s life-cycle cost: 15 percent for personnel, 11 percent for fuel, and 8 percent for other O&S costs. The moderate speed profile would result in fuel usage of about 35,000 barrels per year, slightly less than the 37,600 barrels that the Navy assumed in formulating its 2011 budget request.4 By comparison, the FFG-7 class frigates consumed about 31,000 barrels of fuel per ship in 2009.

I had an opportunity to talk to the folks on the ship about this, and there are some interesting things here. First, there is already a design change specific to a fuel improvement adjustment from LCS 1 to LCS 3 of 14% efficiency, and CBO used estimates from LCS 1. Lets do the math. 35,000 x .14 = 4,900. 35,000 – 4,900 = 30,100 which is less fuel than “the FFG-7 class frigates consumed” of “31,000 barrels of fuel per ship in 2009.”

In the same document, CBO outlines a low fuel case that LCS does very well in and a high fuel case which the LCS performs very poorly. It should also be noted that the CBO letter to the Honorable Jeff Sessions came before RIMPAC, which I think was a very important test for LCS 1. What they are finding is that the fuel use for the Lockheed Martin version of the LCS, during high operational tempos like RIMPAC when they are being asked to do a bunch of things just for the sake of trying new things, the LCS uses a greater delta of fuel than other surface warships normally do between refueling. For example, if a ship typically refuels at 50%, the LCS might refuel at 30%, but then again RIMPAC was all about making the LCS do things it may or may never actually do because it is the first time it has ever been ordered to do anything.

There is a lot of operational development taking place, and CONOP isn’t defined yet, so I think it is still too early to tell. What we do know is that LCS is very, very efficient at slower speeds (and LCS 2 even more so), and comes with bursts of very high speeds. As systems come online with modules how all of this comes together will be something that will be developed through experimentation, and something folks should keep an eye on. I am not discouraged yet.

Readers of my blog know I have been discussing mothership operational concepts in the 21st century for years, so in my mind the CONOP of a mothership is one of a station ship platform that is constantly providing surveillance in spaces with deployed systems. Now granted, I always thought motherships should be big, but what happens when multiple Littoral Combat Ships are operating together at 200nm spaces able to use the extended range of platforms for ISR over a collectively broader region. Keep in mind the LCS is capable of reacting with speed when physical presence is required, so a 200nm dash is like a 4 hour run. When you go down that road there are a lot of questions, and only with more ships will this stuff work out.

The worst case scenario is this: the LCS contracts the Navy signed are so good that Navy was able to put 3 T-AO(X) ships into FY14, FY15, and FY16 respectively to replace the Henry J. Kaiser class replenishment ships, so if the Littoral Combat Ships of the first block have serious fuel issues, at least they will have three shiny new oilers to fill em up.

Unstable. Excessive high-end requirements have driven up hull machinery and combat system weight, negatively affecting displacement and stability.

The first in class USS Freedom (LCS 1) has had to be adjusted, but after speaking directly to the folks on USS Freedom (LCS 1) about this, I’m not convinced this is as big a deal as it has been made. The Navy-industry team has done a very good job incorporating this issue into design changes for LCS 3, LCS 5+, etc… and I imagine the same process is at work on USS Independence (LCS 2). What is interesting to note is how everyone discusses how there is no smoother ride on the seas than when USS Freedom (LCS 1) gets going at high speed, and if we presume this is the speed the ships will have during combat, stability might actually be a tactical advantage for weapons delivery LCS has over everything else.

Logistics-heavy. Staging of the mission modules and associated personnel requires a forward sea base or shore facilities.

The Navy plans 55 ships and 64 modules, so I am unsure how much swapping is going to be taking place outside of normal crew rotations – which will take place at known, existing facilities anyway. Personally, I like having a Navy forward deployed and closer to theater, but that’s another discussion.

Imprudent. Insufficient analysis before program design and acquisition resulted in spiraling costs to address unanticipated problems.

I don’t think anyone disagrees there is a period early in the Littoral Combat Ship program where there was a lot of fail. I don’t think that accurately measures where the LCS program is today though.

Insufficient hotel services. Berthing and support requirements for expanding aircraft, unmanned vehicles, and module detachments have exceeded ship capacity.

I’m not convinced that’s true, and I base that on conversations with the folks on USS Freedom (LCS 1) last week. The ship was designed for 40 crew. That number may or may not change. It may be the LCS requires additional technology to support 40 crew, or the ship may need more than 40 crew, or the ship may require both new technology and more crew members – that still hasn’t been decided. I think everyone around the problem believes the number is going to be somewhere around 40, maybe a little higher, but not by much. There will be some hotel services added in LCS 3, LCS 5+ etc as this works itself out, and these services will be put into LCS 1 during the ships first major availability. Keep in mind these decisions will be made very soon, and getting the all the crew issues right has been an issue the Navy has been working on.

There doesn’t seem to be any concerns with the hotel services for the aviation detachment, that has all been worked out.

However, the modules are more interesting. We know the Navy is going to develop an attachment for the third mission zone on LCS 1 that can support hotel services for additional ‘customers’ for VBSS, and for the ASuW module that space can support that function as part of the baseline module. LCS 2 has a much larger mission bay zone so space isn’t even an issue there. In my opinion, if we are talking about additional crew for specific modules only, then modular addition of services is how it should be.

My contention for years has been the Littoral Combat Ship represents, by design, an unmanned system mothership. In those same writings on my blog, I have also been encouraging the Navy that the ASuW module should also be a manned mothership capability. In the ungoverned shadow zones of the sea where piracy and other illicit maritime activities are present and naval forces are not, even if we had the capability today to fly around with a UAV and blow stuff up with a Hellfire – that isn’t the RoE. Ultimately, it takes sailors to be the peacemaker at the point of contact in the shadow zone. So in my opinion, adding a modular capability to the ASuW module that includes Navy/Marine/CG detachment hotel service support for various levels of boarding operations is a natural evolution of what a Littoral Combat Ship manned mothership capability should be, and that is working itself out on schedule according to RADM Frank Pandolfe’s very excellent SNA brief.

That really is the beauty of a ship with a ton of space like LCS; if you are insufficient in some capability, with a modular design one can simply develop a plug-n-play the solution somewhere and when it is ready, bring it on the ship and get to work.

Photograph by Raymond Pritchett, January 26, 2011

Posted by galrahn in Proceedings | 149 Comments

One of the more interesting comments that kept coming up in both plenary and side-bar discussions last week at AFCEA/USNI West 2011 was a concern that the USN simply does not do enough experimentation. The reasons why are many, but here are two that came up the most; one materiel and one psychological.

1. Our Fleet is too small. Our OPTEMPO and internal churn gives us too few platforms to experiment with. While we have a few examples out there, we don’t have the “white space” on the scheduler’s XLS to put into putting ideas into the Fleet and “see what they can do with it.”

I understand that perspective and think that does have a lot to do with it, but I don’t think that explains the whole problem.

2. We Demonstrate, We Don’t Experiment. There is a distinct difference between a demonstration and an experiment. Demonstrations have as a goal “success.” There is very little risk involved. Success and a green up arrow on the PPT is the expected outcome. The downside is that something that is known and mature also tends to be by its nature to have little risk and little new, novel, or or hmmmmmmable.

An experiment though has failure as an option – and in many cases a failure is just as good as a success, as with failures you learn and can refine. With new concepts experimented on proven platforms, you isolate technology risk such that if the experiment shows promise, the path to demonstration then deployment is short. Also, a splendid idea once experimented properly could turn out to such an unworkable concept that it is halted before more effort is wasted trying to operationalize it. You also avoid embracing the happy-talk and rosy-scenario so much that you put too much experimentation in new platforms – spiking technology risk – and as a result making ships that do too little for too much money. Huge aggregated developmental costs – little operational use.

Experiment – Demonstrate – Deploy.” Much better than “Deploy – Cancel – Replace – Fix – Feed Money – Spin – Deal With It

Using what we learned in PSYCH101, I think our apparent bias against experimentation is easy to trace to it’s source. We are soaked in a culture that encourages happy-talk and self-esteem based intellectual fluffery. Look how we write out FITREPS. Look how the “Every Child Gets A Trophy” mentality has turned the NAM into simply an item on the PCS out-processing checklist.

We are very bad at both giving or taking anything less than perfect. Every Sailor is above average, every system must be transformational. Every program, concept, or process must be sold as, “Never before has .…. ”

What is a possible secondary effect of this lack of experimentation? Simple; as stated earlier – compounded technology risk in our programs.

New and immature systems almost always have growing pains. These pains cause timelines to shift to the right and for costs to increase. If you pack too much in one platform, the natural challenges with new systems compound. They compound. One delay costs another which then drives up costs downstream – rinse, repeat.

How do we re-invigorate experimentation? Well, we aren’t going to have a larger fleet, so we have to address the intellectual bias against experimentation. That will take leadership that supports creating a climate that can see failure as part of learning how to win. Culture. Money too – but money follows priorities. Leadership sets priorities.

We failed, but this is what we learned” should be rewarded and not seen as a waste. Not having everything on a stop-light chart would help too.

Do we experiment enough or not? Do the numbers back up this recurring theme – or is this just a feeling people have? In a climate of shrinking budgets – how much do we protect experimentation?

The relative decline of the United States in the 21st century is a popular topic, but I would argue as long as nerds from Google can do stuff like this over a weekend fueled by American products like red bull and candy bars, perhaps the same American ingenuity that fueled the United States through World War II is still alive and well today.

Like many people we’ve been glued to the news unfolding in Egypt and thinking of what we could do to help people on the ground. Over the weekend we came up with the idea of a speak-to-tweet service—the ability for anyone to tweet using just a voice connection.

We worked with a small team of engineers from Twitter, Google and SayNow, a company we acquired last week, to make this idea a reality. It’s already live and anyone can tweet by simply leaving a voicemail on one of these international phone numbers (+16504194196 or +390662207294 or +97316199855) and the service will instantly tweet the message using the hashtag #egypt. No Internet connection is required. People can listen to the messages by dialing the same phone numbers or going to

We hope that this will go some way to helping people in Egypt stay connected at this very difficult time. Our thoughts are with everyone there.

Posted by Ujjwal Singh, CoFounder of SayNow and AbdelKarim Mardini, Product Manager, Middle East & North Africa

We must think clearly about what we are seeing here, even if it is not popular to do so. Obviously America is a techno-centric culture, so it is easy to see how this type of technology would immediately be appealing to modern, young Americans and as it becomes more well known in Egypt – likely appealing to them as well. I originally learned about this technology from an American sailor who was organizing volunteers on Twitter to act as interpreters (and having success btw) for this service. Due primarily to the viral nature of social media and by leveraging the global popularity of Google, it is only a matter of time until the youth in Egypt become aware of the technology available.

How does it work? Well, someone inside Egypt calls one of the numbers listed, leaves a message, and the message gets recorded and Tweeted to this Twitter feed where a recording of the voice mail is made available to everyone to listen. The retweets by others in the feed are interpretations of the feed into English from a specific voice recording. This is a very clever technology intended to directly circumvent the Egyptian government policies that are attempting to reduce information access. Is there impact associated with the technology? Surely not yet, but the tech itself is less than 24 hours old and most people unlikely realize what they have. The options are many, and for me, I’ll admit the first time I listened to a few messages on SayNow’s website I was immediately reminded of the BBC radio broadcasts to the Maquis in 1944 France…

If we are going to give serious analysis to what is happening here, we must examine the complicated issues responsibly and ask the difficult questions.

What do we make of an American corporation (Google was ranked #102 by Fortune in 2010) basically declaring war on the government policies of a strategic partner of the United States by inventing a new technology and offering free services to the political opposition of the Egyptian government? Whether one agrees or disagrees with what Google is doing – when you remove the morality element of Google’s action that can easily impact ones opinion – we are left with a few American corporations actively supporting a revolution as a free service against the current government of a strategic partner of the United States.

Think about that for a second…

Google is waging war leveraging bandwidth as a weapon. Think about how silly our international treaties governing broadcast communications look when a handful of companies like Google, SayNow, and Twitter can turn a single node like a cell phone into a voice broadcast to the entire globe as a weekend project. Make no mistake, bandwidth is most definitely a weapon, and the DoD needs to be thinking carefully about how this weapon might be used against our enemies. For example, North Korea would likely see broad access to bandwidth as a very dangerous weapon worth going kinetic over, meaning carefully considered rules of engagement for bandwidth as a weapon are necessary when bandwidth is used as a weapon.

That thought should trouble those who give serious geopolitical strategic thought to the issue, because in most cases a corporation like Google can use the bandwidth of the entire internet more effectively than an organization like the DoD can use the bandwidth of their entire network, and yet, somehow I doubt corporations carefully consider the rules of engagement when using bandwidth as a weapon.

At some level, one might describe this as the Wikileaks issue in reverse. Wikileaks leverages bandwidth and cloud technology to insure continuous access to information in support of broadcasting government information to the entire world. Google and partners are leveraging cell phone technologies to insure continuous access to information in support of broadcasting anti-government information to the entire world. The United States government has not, in my opinion, handled Wikileaks very well. When one considers the geopolitical ramifications, not to mention the strategic ramifications, of American technology corporations like Google and Twitter waging a private war on the government of Egypt – one might begin to ask what this box looks like in 5 years that good ole’ Pandora is opening?

Is what Google, SayNow, and Twitter doing wrong or illegal? Is it the harmless stuff of weekend armchair warriors? On one hand I readily admit to being very proud that a bunch of American nerds would come up with a clever piece of technology to support a democratic movement against a dictatorship, and on the other hand I know I am seeing modern methods of non-state cyber warfare applied towards a political purpose against a state – leveraging the cyber medium where warfare is often difficult to identify or visualize until it is far too late. Bandwidth is a powerful weapon, and while it is unclear how powerful Speak-to-Tweet is or will ever be, it is important for us to note it here as a sort of genesis, or prototype capability in the development of bandwidth technologies that can and almost certainly will be used in future 21st century state and non-state level information warfare.

Posted by galrahn in Cyber, Innovation | 16 Comments
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