Belmont Club

The Cornucopia

National Defense Magazine describes the situation many of us find ourselves in. The US military is now collecting so much sensor data on the battlefield that it is literally being overwhelmed by it.  Moreover, it finds itself constipated by legacy rules and regulations which prevent the information from being provided to combatants who need it. In an article entitled “Military ‘Swimming In Sensors and Drowning in Data’”, Stew Magnuson writes:


Synthesizing all these collection disciplines and disseminating them quickly is the challenge facing the military. If intelligence is the “coin of the realm,” as Clapper and other senior leaders said at the GEO-Int conference here, then the military may soon have more cash than it can spend.

“We’re going to find ourselves in the not too distant future swimming in sensors and drowning in data,” said Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

The problem started when a sharp increase in the quantity and quality of sensors began to outpace the analysis capabilities of the Air Force. One increased according to Moore’s Law while the other increased linearly, if at all. For example, new capabilities on the MQ-9 Reaper alone will increase the video feeds in a 24 hour period from that platform from 39 to more than 3,000. Who’s going to watch that feed? The Air Force has decided that whoever it is, it ain’t gonna be people. Automated systems are the planned upgrade path.

“Okay, I have got 27 targets to look at now. Does that mean I have to put 27 guys … on the shift that day?”

Industry now has to come up with the smart technology, machine-to-machine interfaces, that can help sort through all the data. There are 332,000 airmen in the Air Force, Heithold said. And they’re “really busy.” …

Whatever the solution is to sorting through all this data, it will not be more analysts.

“The answer isn’t throwing more manpower at it because in DoD, we don’t have it … It’s easier for me to get money than it is to get manpower,” he said. “We’re going to have to use technology, smart systems that cipher through the intelligence,” he added.


An increase in intelligence capability now translates to an increase in operational capability. Today it is not bullets or missiles that kill — they do in the sense that a triggerman pulls the trigger — but intelligence is the mastermind of the whole process. Destroying something on the ground has become the easy part of the US operational cycle. Knowing what to destroy, putting the cross hairs on something — that is the hardest part. The article cited the hunt for Zarqawi as an example. “Predator unmanned aerial vehicles flew 24 hours a day, seven days a week for a total of 600 hours to pinpoint Zarqawi’s location. Once that was done, it took only six minutes for two nearby F-16s to deliver the bombs that killed him.”

Operations at the same level as the information gathering may have real time capability. But for those who must work lower down in the chain getting intelligence can be hampered by the simple inability to internally deliver it. “’No matter what anybody says, it’s pathetic,’ Maj. Gen. John M. Custer, commanding general of Fort Huachuca, Ariz., and the Army intelligence center, said of the information sharing environment.”

Part of the problem is the changing economics of information. Only ten years ago sensor data was relatively scarce and held back to create power. It was, as the National Defense Magazine article observed, the “coin of the realm”. Today the information flows are literally a thousand times greater. Information is coming in by the truckload into a system designed to deal it out by the troy ounce.


The situation facing the Air Force has some points of similarity to the crisis which is now gripping the traditional media, but also key differences. The digital revolution significantly undermined the MSM’s monopoly on news gathering but it completely destroyed its hold over the distribution process. In the case of the USAF it still retains a monopoly over the sensor data acquisition but now finds that it is largely useless unless it can destroy its own self-created monopolies over distribution. It will have to do it somehow and whether it delegates to machine systems or to people it will still have to widen its distrubtion channel somehow. The only question is which mode to choose.

The revolution in the economics of information is forcing a revaluation of many tasks in the knowledge industry which would have been considered stable only a decade ago. The only constant is the law of supply and demand. Bottlenecks in the information system will largely determine which information processing tasks are the most valuable. They must in order for resources to flow into the bottleneck and eliminate them. Since the location of those bottlenecks is dynamically changing, these must be continuously found through a market process or self-reflection. The re-alignments in the news business are bound to reflect a market process, however it may be resisted by the likes of Dan Rather and his pleas for government support. But for the USAF, the price of information processing has to be determined either through internal markets or self-reflection. One thing is for sure: the economics of information in 2009 is no longer what it was in 1999. And it is unlikely to remain stable out to 2019.


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