Tag Archives: ArmsControlWonk

Pollack rethinks deterrence theory

PublicOrgTheory favorite Joshua Pollack gets it right on nuclear deterrence, the financial crisis, and, inadvertently, organizational diagnosis:

What the idea of efficient markets has to do with the non-use of nuclear weapons is actually pretty straightforward, since deterrence is traditionally modeled on bargaining and risk-taking. And indeed, back in 1974, Alexander George and Richard Smoke detected a similar problem in deterrence theory. The theory, they warned, was primarily “abstract-deductive” in origin, based upon ideas about what states ought to do rather than evidence about what states actually have done.

Organizational diagnosis is likely to be most comprehensive when it draws on theories that are both normative-predictive and historical-explanatory.  In practice, it’s usually one or the other–if that–with many practical interventions carried out in ignorance of which type of theory is informing the practice.

In theory, history ought to provide some insight about both patterns and variance.  In practice, we often treat organizations as fungible.  That’s a mistake we too often make, and according to Pollack, we are in good company.


What does “intel failure” actually mean?

North Korea’s nuclear test about a week ago and its handful of missile tests in the days since have provoked a lot of discussion about what the DPRK’s intentions might be.  An underlying question raised by the apparent surprise around the world is:  was this an intelligence failure?

Joshua Pollack doesn’t think so, at least not in terms of the intelligence services neglecting to collect and analyze the right information:

There is an option C) as well: the intel collectors saw all the signs, but the higher-ups failed to draw the proper conclusions.

There was a scattering of leaks in the days ahead of the test, possibly from South Korean intelligence. And afterward, we learned that the IC was watching the preparations intently:

The official said that U.S. intelligence agencies monitoring the test facility had witnessed significant activity in the days before the explosion. The United States had positioned an array of high-tech equipment to monitor the test, including Pentagon aircraft equipped to collect atmospheric samples of any nuclear plume.

Pollack’s observation raises the question of what intel failure actually means.  While it’s usually intended to mean a failure to collect or properly analyze diplomatically and militarily sensitive information, that definition neglects the role of intel’s ultimate customers. The point of intel is to enable decisions; intel without a decision is as pointless as decisions without intel.  To understand success or failure in intel, we must expand the scope beyond producers to consumers.

Information and analysis provided by the IC to its customers enters a decision-making process fraught with competing agendas and priorities.  Pollack’s Option C raises the possibility–and we’ll likely never know for sure–that the administration muffed the decision.  If true, one consequence could have been a failure to act early to build global support for opposition to the tests; fortuntately, that support appears to have emerged.  Assuming the IC were on top of events in North Korea, one might assume that the administration executed a very savvy campaign or got very lucky.

Regardless of whether balls were dropped in the lead-up to March 25, there is an opportunity here to understand how decisions were or were not made, and to make them differently next time.  Alas, there is also opportunity for the more powerful decision-makers to shift blame to the IC when convenient, and it has been very convenient in the past.

ArmsControlWonk: Organizational reform in nuclear enterprise shows nascent signs of progress

James Acton at ArmsControlWonk writes about the findings of the Task Force on Nuclear Weapons Management:

All this talk of the “degradation of the authority, standards of excellence and technical competence”, “systemic weaknesses” and “structural, procedural and cultural problems” must have been hard reading for the Air Force. But, it’s spot on.

And if it is hard reading, who better to take it head-on than a military that prides itself on being tough and proactive?  As I wrote earlier, there are structural, procedural, and governance fixes that could alleviate some of the more worrisome deficiencies.  The cultural problems, as always, will be the more difficult ones to address.

Experience and anecdotal evidence suggests that few outside of (and perhaps many inside) organization studies understand what organizational culture actually is.  Here’s the complete definition from Huczynski and Buchanan’s Organizational Behaviour (sixth edition):

Organizational culture [is] the collection of relatively uniform and enduring values, beliefs, customs, traditions, and practices that are shared by an organization’s members, learned by new recruits, and transmitted from one generation of employees to the next.

I sometimes just say “values and norms” to keep it concise, but this is what organizational culture is.  Now take that definition and try to envision how each of these elements must change for the USAF to correct the findings of the task force.  Imagine what the process might be for creating that movement, and how long it might take.  This is not easy stuff to realize.  Very easy to say, but possible only with consistent drive to change and the removal of the many barriers to change, and all this over a very long time–several years, most likely.

Additionally, if the aims of arms control are realized, would that not imply a somewhat diminished view of the job of those people responsible for stewardship of the nuclear arsenal?  This could result in either a diminished self-image or a residual culture of relative importance of the roles in direct contrast with the direction of the arsenal.  Either way, there are implications for the ability and inclination of those personnel to support comprehensive reform.  Paradoxically, the success of arms control might very well contribute to a more dangerous arsenal.

When organizations from the CIA to NASA are handed findings of a dysfunctional culture, the typical response is some firings and some movement of boxes on org charts.  It’s trite to say it, but culture change is hard.  It deserves to be taken seriously.