Scribbles from the Ivory Tower


Strategic studies

Le’ Notes #32: Intelligence, the basics

This post covers the basics of intelligence: what it is, why it’s important, and how it works.

What is intelligence?


When the word “intelligence” is brought up, you might have vivid images of a savvy English spy, drinking a martini (“Shaken, not stirred”) and conversing with a drop-dead beauty while surreptitiously listening in to the big bad mob boss on the other side of the club. Most likely, the word is associated with espionage and sabotage, the work of CIA spooks in third world countries like Jason Bourne (Bourne series) or Michael Westen (Burn Notice). But that is often the exception, rather than the norm. Most of the time, intelligence analysts are quietly sitting behind a computer and staring at a screen, occasionally yawning and adjusting his buttocks, waiting for a ping to come up. Covert action, like depicted in Hollywood movies, are also included in the activities of intelligence, but they arguably make up a very small piece of the overall pie.

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Le’ Notes #28: Why is it so hard to buy military transformation?

This post discusses the factors that make buying military transformation so difficult.

Why doesn’t the military get with the program? Why does the government seem so reluctant to buy those shiny new Gen-5 planes and ships? These are some of the questions I had when I was a snot-nosed undergrad aspiring to solve all of the country’s defence problems. I thought we could buy our way out of being a big country with a meagre defence force. I thought the government was stupid because it didn’t (or was too slow) to embrace the technological marvels that were on sale. The truth is, defence acquisition may be one of the most convoluted processes within the government, aside from implementing neoliberal macroeconomic policies.

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Le’ Notes #25: Challenges in studying terrorism

This post discusses the conceptual, methodological, and moral issues in studying terrorism.

Despite being a popular area of study, the study of terrorism itself has encountered many conceptual, methodological, and even moral issues. For starters, there are as many as 100 definitions of terrorism which differ from scholar to scholar or even institution to institution. It’s one of those problems that everybody knows what it is, but can’t agree on the exact details. The same goes for the terrorism “spin-offs”, such as radicalisation, violent extremism, non-violent extremism, etc. Aside from conceptual problems, the field also faces a number of methodological problems. There are many frameworks abound, but we still can’t pinpoint a near-exact formula of what leads to terrorism and what doesn’t. The same goes for the “spin-offs”. Furthermore, there is also a moral problem regarding the entire field. By studying terrorism and trying to explain it, are we not also morally implicated in condoning the acts?

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Le’ Notes #24: Models of the Revolution in Military Affairs

Continuing from the previous post (Note #23), this post introduces the major models of the RMA.

The previous post discussed the historical origins and the definitions of the revolution in military affairs. Now, let us take a look at the major models that seek to explain the RMA. The theories introduced range from Alvin and Heidi Tofflers’ “Wave theory” to the business-as-usual model.

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Le’ Notes #23: Introducing the revolution in military affairs

This post introduces the origins of the revolution in military affairs.

We are said to be in the middle of a self-conscious revolution in military affairs, or RMA for short. This assumption is grounded in the breakneck pace of technological advancement that’s happening almost on a daily basis. Every now and then, someone in Silicon Valley or DARPA or some whiz kid somewhere comes up with a new thing that promises to shake up or “disrupt” the entire world as we know it. Tesla Motors, for example, is trying out driverless cars. The South Korean military showcased their LEXO exoskeleton systems, which they had been developing since 2013. Suidobashi Heavy Industries have already marketed their Kurata robot, which was unveiled in 2012. The robot, which is basically just a bigger and capable exoskeleton, can be fitted with rapid-firing weapons. Although Suidobashi claims the Kurata only comes with BB guns, in the future, that may change to live ammo. However, the RMA is not just about technology. In the US.


Hell yeah, future warfare


However, the RMA is not just about technology. In the US, the Department of Defence has been constantly trying to implement their Third Offset Strategy, which (at the risk of oversimplifying) basically wants to use a combination of technology and operational art to gain an edge over America’s adversaries and maintain their alliances. With President Trump in office, America might just be great again, although the alliances part might not be.

Sure, the future looks amazing. And bleak at the same time, considering we’re developing weapons of war. But, let’s step back for a moment and reflect on this RMA phenomenon. What is it? How did it start? How did we get here?

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Le’ Notes #22: A toolkit for approaching counterterrorism studies

This post is mostly a summary — with additional commentary — of Rohan Gunaratna’s talk in his first session of the Terrorism, Intelligence, and Homeland Security module at RSIS.

The first thing that we need to distinguish is that there is the threat of terrorism and the response to terrorism. Like any good strategist, we need to know what exactly the threat is before issuing a response. It’s the same like answering a question. If we don’t know what the question is or what it wants from us, we can never arrive at an answer. This was exemplified correctly and hilariously in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when the pan-dimensional beings created Deep Thought to calculate the ultimate answer to the ultimate question of life and the universe. But it turns out that the beings gave Deep Thought the wrong question, which resulted in the answer “42”.

So, we need to know what we’re facing and the responses that we have in our toolkit.

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Le’ Notes #21: The Rubicon theory of war

This post discusses the Rubicon theory of war — where leaders fully commit to war after crossing the Rubicon River as Caesar did.

In role-playing games, it’s known as the “point of no return“, where you can no longer save your progress and have to fully commit to battling the game’s final boss, either in sequence like Kefka’s epic finale in Final Fantasy VI or alone, like Izanami no Ookami’s true ending battle in Persona 4. The fact that you can no longer save or go back to finish your unfinished business in the game world triggers this mindset that sorta goes “Since I can’t go back, might as well get this over with”.

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Le’ Notes #17: Rational choice theory, part 2

This post continues the discussion on rational choice theory from Note #16. Now, I explore the core assumptions of rational choice theory and their application in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

Previously, we’ve seen an application of game theory in assessing a wartime decision and a bit of the debate surrounding the rational choice theory school. Now, let’s dive in deeper into the rationalistic school and explore the core assumptions, which include bargaining theory, brinkmanship, and miscalculations/misperception.

Of course, this means borrowing a lot from behavioural economics, so we’ll have names such as Von Neumann and Thomas Schelling.

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Le’ Notes #16: Rational choice theory, part 1

This post discusses the rationalistic approach to war decisions and application of game theory in Napoleon’s Battle of Waterloo.

Why do people go to war?

There are a number of approaches that attempt to explain how people, especially political and military leaders, make decisions. I focus on wartime decisions: the decisions to start, wage, and end wars.

In the study of war decisions, the first we stumble upon is rational choice theory. This theory assumes that when making decisions, humans are completely rational. Of course, there are certain caveats. A person can only be rational so far as the amount of information they have at a given point in time. Remember, hindsight is always 20/20.

I present the views of Fearon and Kirshner in regards to the rationalistic approach of war. We’d see that the rationalistic approach does have its merits and drawbacks in assessing war decisions. And to cap it all, I’ll present Mongin’s application of game theory in assessing the feasibility of Napoleon’s decision in the Battle of Waterloo.

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