All posts by Lino Miani

Green Beret, Author, Entrepreneur...Worldwide. CEO, Navisio Global

Asian Aspirations: NATO Looks East

As NATO’s mission in Afghanistan completes its transition from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to the non-combatant Resolute Support Mission (RSM), the question on the minds of senior Allied leaders is how to maintain Alliance cohesion without the massive political-military gravity of the war to keep the Nations engaged with one another. Cohesion may seem like an odd thing to worry about after 70 years of Allied success but what is not apparent to many is that for the last 14 years, the war in Afghanistan has given NATO tremendous energy and unity of purpose. Now, even with events in the Ukraine giving the Alliance renewed vigor, NATO finds itself adrift, searching for a purpose that all 28 member states can agree on even as Europe is beset on all sides by complex and serious challenges to its security.

The Ukraine crisis aside, NATO’s answer to this dangerous environment is to look outside its borders. With compound threats from transnational terrorism, illicit drugs, human trafficking, and seemingly endless instability on Europe’s southern flank, it is very easy to see why this strategy makes sense. While the Alliance has a growing number of legal vehicles at its disposal for reaching out, it was adoption of the Berlin Partnership Policy in 2011 –specifically the creation of the Individual Partnership Cooperation Plan (IPCP)– that truly opened doors to military cooperation beyond Europe and North America. Since that time, Japan, South Korea, Iraq, New Zealand, Sweden, Mongolia, and Australia have finalized IPCPs with NATO.

Measuring Asian Engagement

While all the military diplomacy sounds very promising, in real terms it has not yet amounted to much. The Nations all agree that military cooperation with non-NATO partners is important but other than to support RSM or Operation Ocean Shield, an ongoing operation in the Gulf of Aden, NATO forces have not ventured beyond Europe since the 2011 Foreign Ministers meeting that led to the Berlin Policy. While it would be a good first step to have Asian forces participating in NATO exercises, military cooperation will need to occur on partner nation territory to meet the goals of the Allied strategy. This is no small matter. Funding, organizing, supplying, and controlling multinational exercises is a complex and expensive endeavor; even with 70 years of procedure to guide the planning. IPCPs lack the administrative backbone necessary to run a large-scale NATO exercise outside its borders and a notable exercise failure could make such cooperation very unpopular very quickly. In this sensitive space at the intersection of politics, military action, diplomacy, and fiscal restraint, the utility of one tool rises above all the others: Special Operations Forces or SOF.

Reliable, rapidly deployable, relatively inexpensive, and capable of secrecy and discretion, SOF has long been a favorite tool of nations for building new relationships of this type. In Asia in particular, Special Operations Forces have broader utility than naval or air units for the simple reason that while not all potential Asian partners have viable navies or air forces, most have credible SOF. Paradoxically, when it comes to Special Operations, limitations on engagement lay with NATO partners which rarely share their SOF capabilities with the Alliance. Even those member states that maintain robust relationships with Asian SOF units (the United States and the United Kingdom, and to a lesser degree, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Portugal), rarely commit their special forces to NATO missions. But as Asia grows in economic, social, and political importance, there are many reasons why Allied nations may be more likely to share their SOF in the future.

Asian SOF Sniper
Credible SOF partners: Cold weather training of ROK Army Special Forces snipers in 2014

Asia is a Big Deal

The rough numbers behind Asia’s rise are no mystery to readers of The Affiliate Network: 60% of the planet’s population is Asian, their defense budgets comprise 25% of the world’s total, and their economies represent 30% of global gross domestic product; but relationships between NATO SOF units and their Asian counterparts are underdeveloped. It is therefore important to remember some things about SOF in Asia: with the exception of Thailand, Asian security services from India to Indonesia to North Korea trace their roots directly to the Japanese Imperial Army or to Allied efforts to counter it. During the Second World War, Japanese graduates of the intelligence school at Nakano mobilized the political and military leadership of occupied areas to maximize contributions to the greater Japanese economy.[1] This fact ties modern Asian security services to politics in ways that have been remarkably consistent over the last 70 years. Secondly, though Asian governments generally maintain active relationships with their former colonial sponsors, these relationships are not proprietary, nor have they been constant. The result is that with few exceptions, European SOF have very little experience in what is rapidly becoming the world’s most important geopolitical arena. Today, as NATO and its member states wake up to the opportunities and risks inherent in South and East Asia, this lack of experience collides squarely with a desire to build relationships there and to operationalize the Berlin Partnership Policy in a way that can provide a springboard to larger and more regular interactions.

Addressing this capability gap begins at home. European SOF seeking to operate in Asia will find themselves in a bewildering cultural and linguistic landscape where modern politics intersects 5000 years of history and religion in confounding ways. While vital cultural awareness is next to impossible to build in a classroom, language capabilities can and should be developed this way despite the time and money required to maximize these skills. Secondly, many Asian (especially Southeast Asian) top-tier SOF capabilities reside in national police forces whereas European SOF units are overwhelmingly military. This presents an obstacle for many European nations that maintain strict legal prohibitions on military relations with police forces. NATO nations interested in undertaking Alliance SOF missions in the region must take steps to eliminate these regulatory barriers before they cause a problem. Thirdly, European SOF forces lack strategic mobility. While military transport aircraft are available, even large powers France and Germany struggle with lift capacity. European SOF will need to develop a familiarity with the nuances of projecting power via global shipping, something that is often particularly tricky in situations involving weapons, narcotic medicines, and sensitive technologies. Lastly, European SOF will need to sort through a host of details required for success in Asia; from having contracting support and flexible funding for logistics, to having 220-volt power tools on hand, to coming to terms with murky associations between some Asian SOF units and national political parties, human rights issues, and wide variations in quality of their counterparts.

Engaging militarily in Asia will in some ways be a difficult undertaking for NATO, especially in light of growing threats close to the continent, but armed with the right knowledge and preparation, SOF will be a key tool in expanding partnerships in fulfillment of NATO’s Strategic Concept.  Whether this provides the cohesion Allied leaders seek remains to be seen.


[1] The founders of many post-war SE Asian governments and militaries were trained by the Japanese and later switched sides. Examples are Ne Win and Aung San (Burma), Subas Chandra Bose (India), Sukarno and Zulkifli Lubis (Indonesia), Bảo Đại (Vietnam), and others.

Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. 

The Social Media Myth

If you are reading this article you are probably a user of social media.  If you have been using it for a while, you may even realize the power of social media to inform, shape perceptions, create communities, and of course, to misinform.  There is no doubt we can learn a tremendous amount of things from reading Twitter for example but we often overlook the potential of social media to provide understanding.  There is a myth in military circles, a social media myth, that if we look hard enough, we will find some golden tidbit that will tell us how to win.  No one makes this mistake more often or more decisively than senior military officers seeking accurate intelligence to drive operations.  While most avoid social media themselves, they know it makes available a tremendous amount of information, and to a greater or lesser degree they all give lip service to its importance.  But the disappointing fact is that the vast majority of senior military officers have no idea whatsoever how to maximize social media to benefit their intelligence and operations processes.  Worse, these officers are learning exactly the wrong lessons about social media from faulty training simulations entrenched in military exercise programs.

https://medium.com/i-data/israel-gaza-war-data-a54969aeb23e
A network graph of the 2014 UNWRA School bombing. Note the easily visible relationships between communities of pro-Palestinians (green), pro-Israelis (light blue), journalists (grey), and American conservatives (dark blue). Communities that share more connections appear closer together.

The Social Media Problem

Why do I pick on senior military officers?  Because although they accept social media is important, they almost uniformly resist using it. Their reasons range from concerns about privacy and security, to perceptions that social media is a venue for teenage nonsense rather than the serious business of military commanders.  This lack of engagement and experience with the tool deprives them of understanding and leads to misperceptions.  A perfect example of this is a recent story about a successful air strike in Syria against a command post of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). According to a statement from the commander of US Air Combat Command (ACC), their targeting staff derived the location of the headquarters from an ill-advised post by a Twitter-happy ISIL fighter.  While this sounds like a terrific victory, combing through tweets for actionable intelligence is probably a waste of time and misses the real value of social media sites that are more useful as a source of big data than of targeting data.

Take Twitter as an example.  Twitter averages about 500 million “tweets” per day.  Just to put that into perspective, that’s 6000 tweets per second.  Even with automated tools, finding one tweet that contains useful information is an enormous effort to say the least and it’s only the beginning.  Interpreting the accuracy and reliability of a single tweet will be very difficult indeed.  Here’s why: a tweet is 140 characters of data with extra allowances for hyperlinks, pictures, and location data.  There’s not a lot to go on there and while a tweet is attributable to the person that generated it, that person’s identity can never really be verified.  Let’s ponder for a moment the fact that according to ACC, a military officer somewhere made a decision to drop ordnance based on the digital equivalent of an address scribbled on a piece of paper by an unknown individual and posted on a bulletin board with millions, no, billions of other similar notes. That’s an incredibly low standard by which to make such decisions and the possibility is extremely high that there is more to the story than is available in the tweet. Though we have to assume there were other sources of intelligence applied to verify this target, this is not what ACC’s statement suggested and it does not change the fact that they must have spent an enormous amount of man hours and computing power to find and interpret that tweet. The question is: was it worth it?  ISIL will undoubtedly tighten up its operational security, making this kind of targeting even more rare than it already is.  Worse, ISIL will learn from this. What’s to stop them from falsifying targets, wasting coalition resources or luring it to drop bombs that will cause civilian casualties or worse?  When that happens, and it will happen, the use of single-source data from unverifiable individuals will come into serious question as a basis for targeting decisions.

Reinforcing Bad Habits

Surely the intelligent and well-trained staff officers of the United States Military have figured this out.  But they have not figured it out, or at least the most senior leaders among them haven’t.  Senior military officers that range in age from the late-30s to the mid-60s simply did not grow up with social media as a part of their lives. Some have started to use it but are bucking a military culture that is social media-skeptical.  Secondly, although American officers are generally well-trained, they are trained in the wrong techniques when it comes to social media.  To illustrate, consider one aspect of the synthetic social media environment used in exercises at NATO’s Joint Warfare Center (JWC).

JWC replicates Twitter with a system called “Chatter”.  Chatter is very similar to Twitter in that a “chatt” is a short text message that allows attachment of photos and similar files.  Hyperlinks are not used because Chatter is only available on NATO classified computer networks to prevent leakage of exercise information into the real world.  This is not a trivial point.  Leakage of scenario graphics from a US military exercise in 2015 caused an uproar in Texas when citizens discovered the Pentagon had labelled their state “hostile” for exercise Jade Helm.  Keeping Chatter on classified networks limits its scope to a ridiculously small sample; on average, the volume of chatts in an exercise might reach 300 a week.  While the vast majority of that volume is useless “white noise”, some chatts inject useful information into the exercise to cause a specific response by the training audience.  Needless to say, in an information environment that tops out at 300 inputs a week, intelligence staffs stand a good, yet thoroughly unrealistic chance of finding the needle in the very small haystack.  This sends two very strong and misleading messages about social media to Allied commanders. One is that they can and should expect to find useful bits of actionable intelligence hidden amongst social media posts. Secondly, even if commanders are thinking about analyzing trends and relationships between communities, Chatter is completely incapable of providing the volume of data required to do so.  The system simply discourages commanders from understanding what is arguably the most valuable characteristic of social media, which is that big data can reveal broad truths about an environment.  [For an example of how this can support understanding and decision making, see this fascinating Wired Magazine article.]

Big Data, Not Targeting Data

Continuing to perpetuate the social media myth will further entrench the wrong lessons in the minds of our commanders and ensure that using social media for targeting is the enemy of using it for understanding. Making social media sites like Twitter a useful or reliable source of information will require too much in the way of resources and will produce too few positive results and indeed increasingly negative ones as the enemy adapts.  Western militaries simply must change their approach to social media as a tool, viewing it not as a source of targeting data but as a gateway to big data. Training aides like Chatter must replicate big data but doing so will require involvement of the public. While this is not easy and carries significant risk, it is manageable risk.

Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. 

Power Project: China’s New Strategy

Taking a page from the Pentagon’s playbook, China last month publicly revealed a new military strategy; a first ever move that advertises how Beijing intends to implement its growing foreign policy in the coming years. Released on May 26th just days ahead of the 2015 Shangri-La Dialogues, the strategy supports China’s three national priorities (safeguarding national unification, maintaining territorial integrity, and developing its economy), and describes a shift away from land power in favor of the air and maritime domains. But the new strategy is about much more than a simple change in emphasis, it embraces joint operations and offensive warfare, particularly in the maritime domain, and introduces security cooperation as a key element of national policy. These are sophisticated concepts associated with power projection and though this may cause concern in some western military circles, they are a recognition of a strategic reality that has been evident for some time already: specifically that China simply must project power if it wants to sustain its increasing importance in the global economy.

Admiral Sun of the PLA Navy at the 2015 Shangri-La Dialogues
Admiral Sun of the PLA Navy at the 2015 Shangri-La Dialogues

The emergence of the air and maritime domains (and by extension the space domain) in Chinese strategic thinking is a natural outgrowth of the country’s new economy. In the 1950s when China set the foundations on its previous strategic concept, the country was an inward-facing rural agrarian society that largely provided all the resource needs of its own economy. Territorial integrity and population resource control within mainland China were the overarching preoccupations of Beijing. An independent, centralized economy and a closed society were basic tools to maintain this control and support the limited foreign policy of the Chinese Communist Party.

The Chinese Dream

Needless to say, that has been changing at an ever-quickening pace since Deng Xiaoping suggested that to be rich is glorious. Since then, China has become an integral player in the modern globalized economy. It joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 and now provides labor and infrastructure for an enormous percentage of the world’s simple manufacturing; in effect, China has subordinated its foreign policy to its economy much as western nations have been doing for hundreds of years. In this regard, the new Chinese strategy is a sensible adjustment to globalization.

Thus, power projection has become the unifying principle of Chinese military development affecting all branches of its armed forces. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), traditionally a defensive force, is transitioning “from theater defense to trans-theater mobility”.  It is adapting itself to tasks in different regions of the world and for different purposes. The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) will take on offensive missions including air strike, airborne operations, and strategic projection. This last bit was clearly on the minds of generals and politicians in Beijing during the search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370 which featured PLAAF air and logistical units operating deep in the Indian Ocean from forward bases for extended periods. Though the operation revealed weaknesses in air-sea integration, intelligence fusion, and planning, it was a necessary first step and undoubtedly provided many important lessons. The PLA Navy (PLAN), which in the past more closely resembled a coast guard than a true navy, is making the most visible transition, developing carrier aviation, ballistic missile submarines, and possibly even anti-ship ballistic missiles. Like the PLA Air Force, the PLAN is already experimenting with power projection, operating a national counter-piracy operation in the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Aden since 2008 and influencing construction of dual-use port facilities in the Maldives, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Notably, PLAN also pioneered integration with Chinese paramilitary units of the Coast Guard and Fisheries Service that are on the forefront of defending territorial claims in the East and South China Seas.

A PLAN J-15 Fighter Takes Off from the Deck of China's First Carrier, the Liaoning
A PLAN J-15 fighter takes off from the deck of China’s first carrier, the Liaoning

Non-Traditional Security

While China’s military evolution is observable and measurable, other aspects of its drive to project power are less so. Chinese cyber units have been attacking American military and commercial activities for years with the latest incident, according to two US Senators, taking place last week when hackers stole security background information of up to 4 million US Government officials. In the realm of security cooperation, Chinese Special Operations Forces (SOF) are also becoming more active and more aggressive. There were credible reports in June 2014 that Chinese SOF helped evacuate their nationals from Iraq as that country came under threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Similar operations took place more recently in Yemen. Chinese naval commandos are known to operate with PLAN task groups in the Gulf of Aden, and other Chinese SOF are busy engaging counterparts around the world.  By early 2012, this activity had accelerated so much that US Intelligence grew concerned this was a systematic attempt to directly counter American influence in Southeast Asia. They had determined that Chinese SOF were engaging Southeast Asian units hot on the heels of similar visits by US SOF teams. While the timing and the targets of these exchanges is impossible to dispute, these patterns probably had more to do with host nation priorities for which units would benefit from the training. Whatever the real motivation, the point is that Chinese SOF are engaging regional neighbors in the exact same manner as US SOF and reportedly with much more flexible rules for investing in their hosts. And while SOF is the most versatile and reliable of China’s tools for security cooperation, it is hardly the biggest or most important. China maintains robust relations through training exchanges in Africa and Latin America and routinely conducts combined exercises with Russia under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The new strategy reinforces these interactions but also specifically recommends increasing military ties with Europe in unspecified ways.

For observers and practitioners familiar with the strategic culture of China in the last ten years, there is a noticeable if hesitant emergence of the Chinese military from the shadows of secrecy and a defensive mindset. While western nations may be very happy to accept China into the global economy, they are less comfortable with the corresponding increase in Chinese military engagement. Western discussions on the management of China’s rise are overwhelmingly presented in economic terms, leaving us to ponder whether the purpose of the newly released strategy is to remind us that we must also consider the rise of China’s military if we hope to keep peace in Asia.

Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.