November 27, 2022

The Defense Information Pipeline

A couple months ago, I wrote up a critique of an EA organization's take on the risks of nuclear war, focusing mostly on their analysis of how much of America's and Russia's arsenals would survive a first strike by the other side. There were a lot of issues, most of which boiled down to the author not having a good grasp of the broader defense world, and thus not knowing what questions to ask.

This ship's pipeline distributes oil, not information, but illustrations are hard.

But I can't really blame the author for doing a bad job. How would someone whose background is in evaluating the cost-effectiveness of various charitable interventions know to ask how much time an SSBN spends deployed? More broadly, there's a major gap in public communications about the defense world. There's a lot of stuff talking about things like systems and capabilities, but there's very little, particularly online, that systematically equips people to think about it well. Books are somewhat better, but even there, there seems to be surprisingly little focus on deliberately bridging the information gap.1 But in general, the people who are interested for whatever reason just pick it up by reading a bunch of books, while the people who aren't continue to be confused by the articles they read, most of which are not written by people who have crossed the gap.

This seems starkly in contrast with most other fields I'm familiar with. For instance, I read several "basics of spaceflight" books in high school, all of which did a decent job of explaining things like elementary orbital mechanics and how rockets work. And there's plenty of that kind of material online for rocketry. The biggest reason is probably that "rocket science" is a much narrower and much clearer field than "defense", and if we look at narrow and clear subfields of defense, there is plenty of coverage. In particular, the quite clear subfields of history and equipment tend to have by far the best coverage, with most works focusing on a narrow slice of one subfield or the other.2 I suspect that a lot of this is economic. The questions "what happened during battle X?" or "what is thing Y like?" are generally fairly easy to answer as an author3 and easy for the audience to understand when they're considering buying your book. So the book on battle X or ship Y is easier to write than the book on the deeper aspects of logistics and defense procurement, and it will probably sell better, too.

But why would potential authors have to go their own way in explaining the underlying fundamentals of the defense world? Shouldn't the military have spent decades figuring out how to explain this to new recruits? Can't we just hand out basic military manuals or maybe a ROTC textbook?

In response to this, I will point you to TRADOC PAM 600-4, the handbook the Army gives to new soldiers at the start of basic training.4 It contains only the information that matters to someone who has just joined the Army, and the Army basically cares that they know how to march, who to salute, what to wear and how not to get hurt. The military trains people to do their current job, no more and no less. A new soldier doesn't need to know that the Navy exists, and the only mention of that service in the document is about where to go if you're in trouble.5 Nor is this limited to enlisted men. Yes, officers do receive slightly broader training, but it's still very focused on their job, which is usually a combination of junior manager over a bunch of 19-year-olds and some technical task like building roads or not hitting things with a ship. Very few people in the military actually need to have a broad-based understanding of the defense world, something very apparent when reading veterans writing about defense topics outside their area of experience.

But why can't we look at how those few are taught, and use their textbooks? The problem there is that the war colleges, which is where this training takes place, are built around teaching people who have been in the defense field for a decade or more. These people are generally mid-grade officers, and far from a random sample of even that population, which puts them at a great remove from the general public. They're going to have a lot of the background that the general public doesn't, and they're going to have spent enough time around the Pentagon that their thoughts have five sides. Handing someone off the street a book of five-sided thought will be both painful and not particularly informative.

This, I think, is where the defense world varies most sharply from most fields. Most subjects have a massive edifice of people who have spent decades or centuries figuring out how to teach a bunch of 18-year-olds who previously knew nothing about their field. I strongly suspect that the methods and framework they develop are vital for broader public engagement with these subjects. Yes, Kerbal Space Program has exposed an order of magnitude more people to rocket science than college classes do, but it probably would never have existed without readable textbooks of rocket science for the devs to work from.6

But that then raises the question of why military studies lack the academic support that sustains most fields. An obvious explanation is anti-military bias in academia, but there wasn't much academic engagement with contemporary military studies (as opposed to military history) even in the decades before that trend solidified. Some of this may be because during much of the 19th century, the line between military history and current military practice was less sharply drawn than it is today. But I think some of it is down to the structure of the field, as discussed above. The military generally trains its own, so there was no particular reason for colleges to study military affairs as job training. There are some narrow exceptions to this, mostly in the elite government and policy schools, but those serve a pretty narrow audience that will need five-sided thoughts and is concerned a lot more with grand strategy than how to keep an infantry battalion fed. There's also a stream of autodidacts in the field, who probably bridge some of the gap. All this means no demand for classes, which obviously turns universities off from the field.

The funding structure around defense undoubtedly contributes to all of this. Fundamentally, there's a lot of money in the field, which means that there are more jobs than there are enthusiasts, and the jobs generally pay pretty well. This is in stark contrast to fields like politics and sports, where there are a lot more people who want seats than there are places at the table, with the overflow jostling to get the seats in the observer's boxes of journalism and academia. Even the tiny number who really want to do defense journalism are likely to end up at specialist outlets like Jane's and AvLeak that provide information to the industry, not the mass media, because those are the outlets which really care about having good reporters. Mass media is generally left to people who are specialists in journalism instead of military matters, with predictable results.

But does any of this really matter? After all, the professionals seem to know what they need to, and isn't that what matters? Unfortunately, the problem is that the ultimate bosses in the US (and the West more broadly) are amateurs in the form of voters and their representatives.7 And this in turn leads to bad decision-making, whether it be buying stupid and pointless ships or unfairly criticizing programs that are working through their problems.

I don't really have any answers to this problem. I've done what I can here to fight this kind of ignorance, but it's on a case-by-case basis, and I'm not in a position to really attack the problem on a deeper level. Two decades of marinating in the field has left me pretty familiar with these problems, but not well-equipped to explain them simply to outsiders. Maybe someday I'll have more insights and can publish them somewhere more prominent, but that's probably a long ways off.

1 The only book I can think of that really tries to do this is How to Make War, by James Dunnigan. It does a decent job, but even the latest edition is almost 20 years old, and I don't think I ever encountered it in a fairly extensive look through the military sections of libraries shortly after it came out. The other books that work really well on an introductory level are Tom Clancy's nonfiction series, which did make it into lots of libraries, but all of which predate 9/11.

2 And of course there is the intersection of history and equipment, which brings us into the domain of Osprey and its ten thousand standard paperbacks.

3 This isn't always the case, particularly if you're in an area the evidence is really thin or contradictory. But for the majority of books you'll find in a typical library or bookstore, it's a telling of a story that has already been largely worked out by other people. I can speak from personal experience that it is far easier to work from a narrative that other people have created than it is to forge one myself from a bunch of loose facts.

4 Selected because the Army is by far the best at putting its documents online. I've looked at a lot of these over the years from all services, and this is quite typical of the genre.

5 This is also not new. The 2003 edition only mentions the Navy in an aside about the Civil War.

6 My thinking on this is heavily influenced by the ACOUP post How your history gets made, and the case made there for the importance of academic history in popular history.

7 Yes, the US currently has 91 veterans in Congress. As noted above, simple veteran status doesn't mean that someone actually understands this stuff, and it can even be badly distorting. The vast majority of Congresscritters were either far too junior or in the wrong fields to have much expertise answering the questions usually put to them.


  1. November 28, 2022Johan Larson said...

    Sounds like you've identified a real gap in the literature. Could you fill it, at least in principle?

  2. November 28, 2022bean said...

    I'm not sure. This isn't a simple gap in the literature of the sort where I go "there's no good introductory history of the battleship". That's relatively simple to fill, and I am indeed trying to fill it. In this case, I just know that there's a gap. I'm not sure how to describe it in less than a few hundred words, and even then, the boundaries are hazy to me, which makes filling it in rather difficult. If I was a professor in a related area, I could try to teach a class on it or something and iterate from there. Because I definitely don't think this problem can be solved in one fell swoop. It's going to take time and repeated efforts to figure out what works well.

  3. November 28, 2022Emilio said...

    Typo: "which means that there are more jobs than their are enthusiasts"?

    Probably their should be there.

  4. November 28, 2022John Schilling said...

    By analogy with "Kerbal Space Program", maybe we need "Kerbal: Battle and War"? You correctly note Jim Dunnigan's "How to Make War" as one of the few good entry-level texts, and Dunnigan spent the first half of his career as counter-and-map wargame designer. Before the decline and fall of that hobby, it was a reasonable path to basic understanding of military affairs by dedicated amateurs.

    With some problems, like the inability to realistically model logistics in a tabletop game (no, we're not going to count "Campaign for North Africa"). That's the sort of thing a well-designed computer game could do better. Or maybe several such games with different scale and emphasis, e.g. tactical vs operational vs strategic land warfare. Getting the right balance between playability, simulation accuracy, and visibility into the "nuts and bolts" aspects of logistics and morale would be tricky.

  5. November 28, 2022bean said...




    Yeah, pretty much. I think morale would be the biggest problem, simply because it's a very human phenomenon and hard to model with numbers. As for the logistics side, that would be hard to make fun. Aurora springs to mind as somewhere it's been pushed pretty far, but even it has some gaps.

  6. November 28, 2022Johan Larson said...

    Perhaps it would pay to start by assembling a set of sources that already exist and cover some parts of the topic. In addition to "How to Make War," we might consider "War," by Gwynne Dyer, "Why Arabs Lose Wars," and the USMC's book of lessons from interventions in South and Central America, "Small Wars." No doubt there are more.

  7. November 28, said...

    So what you're saying is we need someone to write Zapp Brannigan's big book of war?

  8. November 28, 2022Johan Larson said...

    It's a trilogy.

    An Introduction to War: Part 1: Enough to Make You Dangerous

    An Introduction to War: Part 2: Enough to Make You Dangerous to Others

    An Introduction to War: Part 3: Subtitle Pending

  9. November 29, 2022quanticle said...

    Tanner Greer writes about this gap as well, in his post, Requiem for the Strategy Sphere. During the middle to latter half of the Iraq War, there were a bunch of blogs, such as Abu Muqawama, Small Wars Journal, The Strategy Bridge, and several others which would host often fierce debates about military strategy. More importantly, these blogs exposed that debate to the outside world, allowing people from outside the field to see that a debate was taking place, and that the military wasn't (as is so often stereotyped) a group of single-minded combat droids.

    Unfortunately, it seems like that world has died out. Although publications like Small Wars Journal and The Strategy Bridge still exist, they're much more like standard academic journals today. They still publish articles (and, as someone who still reads The Strategy Bridge from time to time) I think the articles are still generally quite good. What's missing is the debate. Tanner Greer thinks that the debate on the blogs died out because the authors who were posting on the blogs moved up into the establishment, and thus publishing on these blogs became an establishment-approved activity, rather than something that one did on one's own time, as a passion project. I'm not sure I agree. I think, for better or worse (mostly worse), a lot of the debate and discussion in those comment threads moved on to Twitter. I still see some of that same energy that I saw in debates over counterinsurgency strategy in blog comment threads take place in Twitter comment threads regarding the Ukraine conflict. However, in my opinion, the limitations of the medium make the quality of the discourse worse.

  10. November 29, 2022quanticle said...

    @Johan Larson

    I would also recommend Gen. Barno and Nora Bensahel's Adaptation Under Fire: How Militaries Change During Wartime. I would swap out Why Arab's Lose Wars for Caitlin Tallmadge's The Dictator's Army: Battlefield Effectiveness in Authoritarian Regimes. The latter, I think, addresses the general case whilst Why Arabs Lose Wars addresses a specific instance.

  11. December 01, 2022Basil Marte said...

    How does this relate to the acoup Helm's Gate series (particularly parts 3 and 8) and the discussions in the "sabotaging Elbonia" series, e.g. ?

  12. December 01, 2022muddywaters said...

    @Basil Marte: if you're looking for information on earlier time periods, ACOUP has series on both army command, explicitly contrasting the reality to its portrayal in games and other media, and logistics.

  13. December 01, 2022Basil Marte said...

    @muddywaters: yes, I read those; that's not the question I was asking.

    The acoup post says "an operation which achieves something that isn’t a strategic goal accomplishes nothing". While there is no direct quote there that I remember, there is an obvious parallel to the effect of "a piece of equipment, training, organization, etc. that provides a capability that the military (given the co-solution with diplomacy) has decided it doesn't need is a waste" (the reverse is more obvious, that diplomacy drawing on a missing ability is not a good omen). And this frame needs to be the context for the innumerable low-level details -- from the lack of armor-piercing weapons (btw, also for the Unsullied and the Lannisters), to the Elbonia examples of maintenance, spare parts, ammo, fuels, bridges, and so forth.

    At the risk of saying foolish things: this reminds me of transportation (and its mutualism with "land use" or "population/commercial geography"). There are bog-standard failures, such as amateurs and professionals alike planning at the level of their favored/employing mode or organization. Expensive projects ("concrete-pouring" or rolling stock purchases) for no or negligible service benefits (but the politicians get to cut some ribbons). High-speed services that run e.g. once a day. And there are colorful failures, such as my ~~friendly~~ local state railway company (MÁV) (in addition to the above) persistently mismanaging its rolling stock to the extent that they had to cut services or pull retired vehicles from the nostalgia fleet into daily revenue service, misunderstanding the concept of travel class (many long-distance trains have four classes, two 1st classes and two 2nd classes, because MÁV doctrine says that "Intercity" is both a description of a stopping pattern sparser than and of amenities better than "fast train"), and pretending that their in-house maintenance facility can manufacture first-line rolling stock.

  14. December 03, 2022inc said...

    Maybe part of the problem is that this isn't really one area of specialty, it's like 100 interconnected ones.

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