Every Citizen a Sensor
Our experience with counterinsurgency is not done, David Petraeus once said, because insurgents are not done. Some of those recently have been state-sponsored and Russian-speaking, but those highly empowered and malevolent insurgents have been wreaking havoc around the world with the tools of "Democratized Destruction”. Two can play that game, but in reverse. After all, those Little Green Men are using tactics that NATO’s troops spent some recent years learning to counter. Several countries around the alliance have great advantages in personal and networked information technology—think first of Estonia—and can leverage those to make "every citizen a sensor”.
Armies talk a lot about how every soldier can be a sensor, but can every citizen be at least node? Apple has a similar concept already for civil preparedness. Bud Tribble, the company’s vice president of software technology, recently suggested to Terry Halvorsen, the Defense Department’s CIO, that wireless phones could be adapted to communicate in massive, self-healing, peer-to-peer networks during emergencies. "It would [have been] unimaginable 50 years ago, Tribble argued, "to talk about a situation where every citizen [had] a UHF transceiver in their pocket, but that's what we have today and we should think out of the box in how to leverage that in emergency situations." Or perhaps on the battlefield, so that troops on the move don't need to worry about the availability and security of their satellite links.
Thus while these threats are serious, they are also manageable. As one of my colleagues put it recently, Russian tactics are “Weapons of the Weak”—a poor hand played very well. Prospects for higher spending may be low, but member states can spend on “tiny technologies” more relevant to the current threats. Estonian firm Defendec is already making wirelessly networked motion-sensing cameras for guarding borders against (Russian) incursions. Jam the signals? Russian electronic warfare capabilities are pretty good, but we’ll at least know that something’s up. Polish firm WB Electronics is working to give every platoon its own reconnoitering quadcopter. Even cash-strapped Ukraine is building its own killer drones. Yesterday on War On The Rocks, Joe Byerly wrote of “harnessing social media for military power”. Here’s a more kinetic idea. To further Tribble’s point, most citizens in most NATO countries are walking around every day with the 1960s equivalents of supercomputers in their purses and pockets—with video cameras and precision navigation systems, too. Those must be useful for something.
As Defense News editor Vago Muradian reminded us at the Wroclaw Global Forum, adversaries and enemies from China to Iran to ISIS to Russia are investing in asymmetric means to systemically offset Western war fighting advantages, and to impose prohibitive costs in return. The United States, for example, once enjoyed a monopoly on night vision, but now anyone can buy an inexpensive infrared iPhone attachment. So why not start issuing them? The blue side, after all, must think more strategically about exploitably opportunities for imposing costs on competitors, and massively distributed defensive capabilities would be a start.
James Hasik is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.