The State of the Art in Contemporary CWMD Thinking

By Ms. Amy Frumin, Major Tracy Moss, USAF (ret.), and Dr. David C. Ellis. PRISM Volume 7, no.3

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Ms. Amy Frumin and Major Tracy Moss, USAF (ret.) are faculty in the College of Special Operations at Joint Special Operations University (JSOU). Dr. David C. Ellis is a Resident Senior Fellow with the Center for Strategic Studies at JSOU.
In September 2011, the crew of the USS New York, upper right, man the rails and present honors while passing the National 9/11 Memorial.  On board are family members of victims and first responders from 9/11 and Marines from Camp Lejeune. The ship was built with steel recovered from Ground Zero.
In September 2011, the crew of the USS New York, upper right, man the rails and present honors while passing the National 9/11 Memorial. On board are family members of victims and first responders from 9/11 and Marines from Camp Lejeune. The ship was built with steel recovered from Ground Zero. (U.S. Marine Corps/Randall A. Clinton)
In September 2011, the crew of the USS New York, upper right, man the rails and present honors while passing the National 9/11 Memorial.  On board are family members of victims and first responders from 9/11 and Marines from Camp Lejeune. The ship was built with steel recovered from Ground Zero.
USS New York Passes 9/11 Memorial
In September 2011, the crew of the USS New York, upper right, man the rails and present honors while passing the National 9/11 Memorial. On board are family members of victims and first responders from 9/11 and Marines from Camp Lejeune. The ship was built with steel recovered from Ground Zero. (U.S. Marine Corps/Randall A. Clinton)

The public revelation in 2004 of A.Q. Khan’s nuclear proliferation network created an immediate and serious crisis for the counter–weapons of mass destruction (WMD) community.1 Traditional reductionist intelligence analysis, searching for evidence of nations developing WMD along known and well-trodden technical avenues, failed to identify the extent of Khan’s proliferation activities. This intelligence failure was not a result of insufficient resources or effort but was instead a failure in imagination and approach. The Khan network exemplified the new WMD operating environment. The continued failure of counter–WMD (CWMD) policy, planning, and intelligence to recognize and adapt to the new, network-centric proliferation environment will persist until new, more imaginative ways of thinking and behaving are embraced.

This is not to say the United States Government (USG) has not made adaptive efforts, but they have been largely incomplete because transformational efforts typically consist of limited reorganization, and fail to address the cognitive and behavioral changes that must drive reorganization attempts. This article advocates an alternative way of thinking and behaving that inherently necessitates organizational change and is better-suited to the contemporary operating environment. The state of the art in CWMD thinking and interagency behavior is captured in two interrelated concepts: Design and Opportunity Analysis (OA).2 This article does not attempt to explain Design as an approach or process; rather the article advocates Design as a cognitive, organizational, and behavioral approach to address complex challenges such as WMD proliferation.3 OA is an organizational framework that allows the USG to bring myriad and otherwise disconnected CWMD stakeholder agencies together to design and coordinate more effective CWMD interventions by collectively leveraging their resources, authorities, and other mission enablers.

In a brief historical segment, we begin by highlighting key differences between the Cold War era and the 21st century proliferation environments that necessitate different approaches to effectively counter–WMD proliferation. The crucial change in the environment was that WMD development and weaponization, which had once been a closed system involving relatively few, easily identified actors, had now become an unbounded, open system of witting and unwitting contributors. This means the traditional analytic techniques practiced by intelligence analysts that worked reasonably well in a bound, closed system are now entirely inadequate among the unbound, open systems Khan exploited and exposed. CWMD analysts need to move beyond traditionally reactive, reductionist analysis to proactive, synthesis-oriented systems thinking.4

This article advocates two interrelated ideas that will improve the USG’s ability to more effectively address the complex challenge of WMD proliferation. Design and OA are, respectively, the cognitive adaptations and the framework or forum through which those adaptations can be implemented. Together, Design and Opportunity Analysis constitute the state of the art in CWMD thinking. This article explains the change in the operating environment, the differences between reductionist systematic analysis and systems thinking, and problems associated with a sector-based interagency, with a view to explain why Design and OA are needed. The article concludes by explaining, for the first time to the broader CWMD community of interest and those interested in creating a more functional interagency, how OA is executed.

Inflection Point: From Complicated to Complex

Order and Predictability in a Complex Era (1900s)

The six factors seen in Figure 1 are often targeted in countering WMD: people, infrastructure, money, material, information, and lines of communication.5 During the mid-20th century, creating and delivering nuclear weapons required high levels of specialized education (people), extraordinary electrical energy capacity and research facilities (infrastructure), obtaining scarce specialty alloys (materials), precision manufacturing and technical knowledge (information), substantial levels of funding (money), and the ability to both acquire and transfer all of the above (lines of communication). Some of these factors, as well as some different ones, also pertained to large-scale development of biological and chemical weapons. During the Cold War era these factors could only be generated by states. By the end of the 1960s, only a few states were able to harness the required resources. This was especially true relative to nuclear weapons, but also held true for chemical and biological weapons.6 As a result, for a period of time, there was a specific avenue states had to follow in order to develop and weaponize WMD.

Factors of WMD Development and Weaponization including people, material, infrastructure, money, information, and lines of communication (LOCS).
Figure 1: Factors of WMD Development and Weaponization.
Factors of WMD Development and Weaponization including people, material, infrastructure, money, information, and lines of communication (LOCS).
Frumin Figure 1
Figure 1: Factors of WMD Development and Weaponization.

International organizations and treaties, such as the establishment of the International Atomic Energy Agency (1957) and the entry into force of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) (1968), tried to balance the needs of disseminating the civilian, developmental benefits of nuclear technology while regulating its military applications.7,8 The NPT attempted to limit nuclear weapons systems to the five nuclear armed powers—United States, United Kingdom, France, China, and the former Soviet Union—and to reduce the number of weapons those powers possessed. While the effectiveness of the control regimes is debatable, these treaties and organizations did attempt to bound the WMD system by reducing the number of actors and regulating their interactions to prevent the proliferation of dangerous technology.

The combination of limited avenues to achieving WMD weaponization and the formation of international organizations and treaties created the appearance of a relatively ordered, predictable, closed WMD system. There were a few state actors each with independent, internal networks, and some cooperation among them, but not an integrated, global technical or commercial system. Systematic intelligence analysis could credibly function in this operating environment since the range of actors, relationships, and behaviors were relatively knowable. Good detective work could develop a credible picture of an adversary’s activities and developments.

The Inflection to Unpredictability and Complexity in the Post–Cold War Era

The A.Q. Khan case illustrates the complexity in the WMD proliferation systems that began in 1970s with the convergence of a variety of factors. Figure 2 illustrates the inflection point from a relatively closed WMD research and weaponization system to an open one. By the late 1960s, international education opportunities in the hard sciences began disseminating expertise that could be diverted to develop WMD. For example, Dr. Khan, a native of Pakistan, received his Ph.D in metallurgy from Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium after having studied in Germany and the Netherlands.9 In the 1980s, computing power revolutionized scientists’ ability to learn about and model complex physical reactions while the globalization of trade and finance made previously scarce technology and materials accessible to developing states. The end of the Cold War struggle between East and West precipitated the collapse of governments, the expansion of trade in illicit goods, and a race for former-Soviet scientific expertise. By the 1990s, licit trade connected once isolated countries, like China, Russia, and India to the rest of the world. In addition, production chains became more diverse. Several newly independent states with nuclear infrastructure, especially the former-Soviet republics, were now engaged in global trade, creating opportunity for the intentional or unintentional loss of control of nuclear materials of concern. Even as regulations on nuclear-related technologies tightened following the disclosure of Iraq’s program under Saddam Hussein, these communication and global trade advancements enabled state and non-state actors to move further up the supply chain to procure unregulated and dual-use components, materials, and commodities needed to indigenously develop previously inaccessible infrastructure, materials, and components.10

Meanwhile in the 1990s, extraordinary advances in global telecommunications and the commercialization of the internet transformed access to information, knowledge, expertise, and trade. All of the actors were further connected through social media by 2000, first in the form of chat rooms and later by apps specifically designed to link together similarly interested and like-minded individuals.

Figure 2 illustrates the complexity in the WMD proliferation systems that began in the 1970s with the convergence of a multiple factors.
Figure 2: The Inflection from a Complicated CWMD Operating Environment to a Complex One.
Figure 2 illustrates the complexity in the WMD proliferation systems that began in the 1970s with the convergence of a multiple factors.
Frumin Figure 2
Figure 2: The Inflection from a Complicated CWMD Operating Environment to a Complex One.

The A.Q. Khan network presented the first undeniable evidence of new tactics in the procurement and development of WMD. Khan did not feel bound by the system created by the various international regulations. Motivated by patriotism to arm his home country with a nuclear weapon to counter India’s nuclear capability, Khan leveraged a series of personal, professional, and commercial networks to support an indigenous Pakistani nuclear weapons program despite the restrictions on his government imposed by international control treaties.11 For example, he stole nearly every centrifuge design of his former-employer, the Dutch nuclear fuel company URENCO.12 While many of the components for WMD development were on international control regime lists, Khan thought systemically, or holistically, about the various systems required to make WMD. He was able to licitly procure precursor materials for the components on the global market. With a global supply network in place, Khan had the knowledge and materials to create the infrastructure for a nuclear weapon. It was Khan’s willingness to sell his knowledge and network to any interested party that facilitated nuclear proliferation and the technical capacity in countries like Libya, North Korea, and Iran. According to Gordon Corera, the author of Shopping for Bombs, Nuclear Proliferation, Global Insecurity and the Rise and Fall of the A.Q. Khan Network, “Thanks to the Khan network, much of the equipment and knowledge for developing nuclear technology is no longer controlled by the state—it is in the marketplace.”14

Effectively, nuclear aspirants no longer had to work with or through states to obtain components for a nuclear weapon. Khan introduced new actors into the system, to include witting and unwitting non-state actors. Many of the licit businesses from which Khan procured components were unaware of the end use of their products.15 The international community now had to be concerned with a whole new array of possible, less definable, less regulated avenues to develop a nuclear weapon. This increase in numbers and types of actors, coupled with the advancements in communications and financial technology, effectively broke the relatively closed WMD operating environment into an open, unordered, and largely unpredictable system of interrelated systems.

September 11, 2001 vividly illustrated the complexity of the new system and just how open it had become.16 An actor wishing to do America harm no longer required a chemical, biological, or nuclear weapon of mass destruction, massive infrastructure, or immense financial resources. Rather, actors with the intent to attack the United States could spend $400–500,000 to use a civilian airliner as a weapon to kill thousands of civilians.17 The number of avenues to this type of mass destruction is limited only by one’s imagination and intent, two factors that gained increasing importance to CWMD professionals. By the end of the 2000s, advances in materials engineering, additive manufacturing (3-D printing), and access to information and encryption technologies continued to add further complexity to the system.

In 2015 Josh Kerbel, a former Chief Analytic Methodologist at the Defense Intelligence Agency, suggested the global system is now

effectively defined by fluid, heterogeneous, widely distributed, nonhierarchical networks—in contrast to the comparatively static, homogenous (state-centric) and dichotomous hierarchies (East–West; Warsaw Pact–NATO; United States–former Soviet Union) that dominated the Cold War strategic environment.18

The WMD environment steadily evolved while the USG’s traditional, systematic analytical approach remained static and state-focused.19 The implication of these changes in the environment described by Kerbel is that the issue of countering–WMD has gone from being a complicated problem to a complex one.

Complicated and Complex in the Contemporary Environment

While they are often used interchangeably, the terms complicated and complex have specific characteristics and therefore call for different approaches to thinking and acting. The sense-making model or Cynefin Framework found in Figure 3 is useful in helping to conceptualize how complicated and complex are different and therefore require different approaches to solving problems in each of the domains.20 On the right side of the Cynefin Framework, systems are closed, ordered, and cause and effect relationships can be predicted and repeated. In ordered domains, the past is instructive for determining the future, and systematic analysis is appropriate.21 Some challenges might be complicated in that experts are required to determine the cause and effect relationships, but they can be systematically analyzed and known.

The Cynefin Framwork is used to conceptualize how complicated and complex are different and therefore require different approaches to solving problems.  On the right side of the Cynefin Framework, systems are closed, ordered, and cause and effect relationships can be predicted and repeated. On the left side, systems are open and unordered. The relationship between cause and effect is no longer evident or knowable.
Figure 3: The Cynefin Framework.
The Cynefin Framwork is used to conceptualize how complicated and complex are different and therefore require different approaches to solving problems.  On the right side of the Cynefin Framework, systems are closed, ordered, and cause and effect relationships can be predicted and repeated. On the left side, systems are open and unordered. The relationship between cause and effect is no longer evident or knowable.
Frumin Figure 3
Figure 3: The Cynefin Framework.

On the left side, systems are open and unordered. The relationship between cause and effect is no longer evident or knowable. This is because the number of actors or systems increases as well as the speed at which they interact. Thus, the number of interactions overwhelms the analyst’s ability to grasp the result of each interaction and how it impacts the broader system. The emerging impact on the system of systems of these myriad interactions is not knowable, does not repeat, and is non-linear.22 The system is therefore considered open. Emergence is unpredictable, although patterns can be perceived. Challenges in this regard are often dubbed complex because behavior is emergent and adaptive based on circumstances, unpredictable, and limited only by imagination or unrealized relationships. Systematic analysis fails in complexity because the past does not necessarily predict the future in the unordered domain. Actors operating in complex environments first probe the system for opportunities, then sense how the system reacts, and finally respond to amplify or dampen the emergent behavior commensurate with their interests.23 Referring again to Figure 2, the inflection point illustrates the radical increase in the opportunity for emergent behavior following the inflection period of the 1980–90s.

Based on the characteristics of the environments laid out above, it is fair to say that the Cold War era was complicated while the Post–Cold War era is complex. This is not to diminish the difficulty of the problems faced by Cold War warriors, or is it to ignore the reality that all social systems are inherently open. Rather it is to juxtapose the challenges of the Cold War era in countering–WMD to the modern landscape and to highlight the inadequacies of the reductionist, retrospective, investigative approaches to which the USG bureaucracies default.

From Reductionist Analysis to Systems Thought and Behavior

Why Reductionist Systemic Analysis Worked in the Cold War Era

Reductionist, systematic (not systemic) analysis, in which the system might reasonably be appreciated by understanding its component parts, could credibly function in the Cold War era, complicated, operating environment. Additionally, reductionism has been built into Western thinking since the Age of Reason and the Age of Enlightenment and is certainly taught to U.S. intelligence professionals.24 The science of WMD, rooted in chemistry and physics, lent itself to the idea that the linear, reductionist, scientific approach would be sufficient for tracking WMD research and development activity. The USG’s bureaucracy has built reductionism into its infrastructure by assigning different agencies or departments authorities and permissions over different, discreet aspects of the research, development, and weaponization processes.

It is not only the USG infrastructure that reveals a penchant toward reductionism. The culture of the military, which prizes efficiency, order and clarity, also lends itself to reductionist thinking. The military’s use of systematic analysis, like the Joint Planning Process and PMESII, common tools used to understand an environment, are examples of the reductionist approach within the Department of Defense (DOD). PMESII, for instance, calls for an analysis of political, military, economic, social, infrastructure, and information dynamics. This type of systematic analysis can be useful, especially in a large and geographically dispersed bureaucracy. Forwarding PMESII-templated information into a headquarters that is studying an entire region is useful to create continuity across hundreds or thousands of personnel and a wide range of ages, experiences, and skills. Unfortunately, reducing the elements into functional sectors focuses attention on the pieces almost as an inert snapshot in time instead of how they dynamically interact to shape the future. Clearly economics will impact politics and social components of society, as an example.

In recounting the development of the Khan network, Corera raised the question whether United States and allied intelligence agencies should have identified the new proliferation threat. While Western intelligence agencies knew of the network’s main actors, they focused only on its contribution to one state, Pakistan, and allowed the network to continue functioning in order to track Pakistan’s progress. He concluded, “Yet, initially they never watched these individuals closely enough to realize that Khan was doing much more than simply importing into Pakistan; he had also begun selling the equipment onwards to other countries.”25 In other words, the Intelligence Community’s expectations of what they should see made them focus so intently that they were unaware of what they could see.26

Why Systems Thinking and Behaving is Necessary for the Future

The inflection from a closed to an open WMD environment forced a change in the emphasis from a reactive, retrospective investigation of states’ activities, toward a proactive, intent-oriented, futures-based, state and non-state actor perspective. In complex systems, behavior is emergent and patterns unordered because relationships are constantly changing and dynamic.27 Thus, the number of interactions overwhelms a CWMD analyst’s ability to know and understand the result of each interaction and how it impacts the broader system. Starting with Khan and growing exponentially since then with the world wide web, the number of players, types of players, and their interactions are too numerous to fully appreciate.

The prevailing reductionist focus on network nodes (the pieces and parts), drastically reduces the utility of taking a network approach. A systems thinking approach to networks changes the focus from nodes to the relationships connecting them.
Figure 4: Notional Network Analysis with Emphasis on the Nodes.
The prevailing reductionist focus on network nodes (the pieces and parts), drastically reduces the utility of taking a network approach. A systems thinking approach to networks changes the focus from nodes to the relationships connecting them.
Frumin Figure4
Figure 4: Notional Network Analysis with Emphasis on the Nodes.

During the past decade, network analysis has emerged as the intelligence function’s response to the increasingly complex environment. As a systems thinking approach, a network perspective is extremely useful. The prevailing reductionist focus on network nodes (the pieces and parts), however, drastically reduces the utility of taking a network approach in the first place as seen in Figure 4. A systems thinking approach to networks changes the focus from nodes to the relationships connecting them. This is not to say nodes are irrelevant. On the contrary it is critical to understand the nodes so an analyst might derive meaning and opportunity from the relationships. To focus on the nodes exclusively though, without regard to the relationships connecting them, is to drastically limit not only understanding, but the ability to recognize and leverage opportunities in the system.

Viewing Figure 4 from a systems perspective, the cross-section of any network relationship—the lines or pipelines connecting nodes to one another—can be characterized according to the same six factors in Figure 1: people, infrastructure, money, material, information, and lines of communication. Figure 5 illustrates that any given relationship between nodes can be analyzed to determine which of the six factors constitute the critical characteristics of the relationship. Different relationships are comprised of different proportions of the six factors, which presents unique vulnerabilities along the series of relationships that constitute the system. It is important to note that the Moss Network Relationship Cross-Section Model in Figure 5 is not a traditional targeting model focused on network nodes. It is a systemic targeting potential model focused on the relationships between nodes at the structural level of a proliferation system, i.e. a network. If an analyst only looks at the nodes and characterizes each node as one of the six factors, she misses the possibility that each relationship connecting the nodes to one another may be comprised of all six factors thereby providing countless intervention opportunities that might otherwise be missed as a result of the blinders created by a nodal focus in network targeting.

The Moss Network Relationship Cross Section Model is not a traditional targeting model focused on network nodes. It is a systemic targeting potential model focused on the relationships between nodes at the structural level of a proliferation system, i.e. a network.
Figure 5: The Moss Network Relationship Cross-Section (NCRCS) Model View of Network Relationships that Transform Links into Multi-Factor Pipelines.
The Moss Network Relationship Cross Section Model is not a traditional targeting model focused on network nodes. It is a systemic targeting potential model focused on the relationships between nodes at the structural level of a proliferation system, i.e. a network.
Frumin Figure 5.
Figure 5: The Moss Network Relationship Cross-Section (NCRCS) Model View of Network Relationships that Transform Links into Multi-Factor Pipelines.

The modern CWMD operating environment requires thinking in systemic or holistic terms instead of using reductionist, systematic analysis. It is about the imagination and intent of threat actors and how they might creatively use the new, dense, interwoven nodes of WMD precursors to work around the anti-proliferation enforcement mechanisms impeding them. Corera notes

It has been estimated that at least two-thirds of the Khan network was entirely legitimate, breaking no law. With the lack of a comprehensive multilateral export regime, it is easy for proliferators to find new gaps as quickly as countries try to plug existing holes.28

Systematic analysis is consequently insufficient in the first instance because it cannot possibly intervene in the potential avenues of WMD development until they have already been exploited because of the retrospective focus of systematic analysis. Systems thinking, on the other hand, is precisely about appreciating the interaction of the whole in order to discern opportunities for emergent and adaptive relationships and, consequently, for intervening against WMD contributors in the future.

From Sectors to Systems: Inducing a Reductionist Interagency to Act Cohesively

In the aftermath of 9/11, the USG gathered experts together in various commissions to identify how the Intelligence Community (IC) failed to recognize such a grave threat. According to the 9/11 Commission, “The most important failure was one of imagination.”29 The report went on to recommend a governmental reorganization to modernize the bureaucracy that was “designed a half a century ago to win the Cold War.”30 The 9/11 Commission called for the IC to reorganize under one umbrella—the Office of the Director of National Intelligence—in the hope that the dots would be connected across the various intelligence agencies in the future.31

In similar fashion, in October 2001 the Office of Homeland Security was established to “coordinate the implementation of a comprehensive national strategy to secure the United States from terrorist threats or attacks.”32 By November 2002, the Office was upgraded to the Department of Homeland Security, subsuming 22 agencies in the largest reorganization of the USG since the establishment of DOD in 1947.

The question remains today, did these reorganizations of the USG address the underlying failure of imagination? Or, did the USG simply create larger, broader sector specific silos? Is the USG prepared for the complexity of the world today? Or will it continue to miss dynamic, systemic trends as it defaults to expert, yet paradigmatically constrained, opinions in various sectors? Is the USG thinking and acting in terms of sectors or systems?

Systems Not Sectors

The difficulties associated with transitioning to a systems thinking approach from a sector-based, systematic analysis approach can be seen easily in the medical profession. In the ultimate reductionist enterprise, the scientific community realized through its project to map the human genome that breaking the gene down to its component parts does not provide the full picture. At the molecular level there are thousands of interactions creating a complex network response resulting in living organisms. The interactions and relationships among the molecules are as important for understanding how the body’s system functions as the molecules themselves.33 Unsurprisingly, there is a tension between molecular biologists (who engage in reductionist analysis) and systems biologists (who advocate for a systemic approach). However, as Johns Hopkins University oncology professor Dr. Bert Vogelstein notes, “We’ll need new theories and models, as well as advances in molecular biology, to understand biological complexity.”34

As is the proclivity of the USG, the CWMD problem set has been broken down into various component parts resulting in a vast and disparate interagency network. A list of the types of activities interagency partners undertake is illustrative: intelligence gathering, treaty enforcement, export control enforcement, threat detection and analysis, global health security, bio surveillance, building partner capacity, contingency planning, medical countermeasures development, physical countermeasures, render safe activities, disruption of proliferation network activities, hazard modeling and prediction, medical and forensic response, missile defense, protection of the force, WMD attack attribution, separated plutonium reduction, chemical material security, counter nuclear smuggling, contamination control, and deterring WMD use.

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency has developed a CWMD directory for the express purpose of increasing awareness across the CWMD community regarding each organization’s roles, responsibilities, authorities, and capabilities. The directory provides a breakout from the executive department-level to the bureau or office-level with as many as 188 offices across the USG working in the CWMD or related mission areas. Many of the interagency partners are ones with which DOD would seldom otherwise interact, such as Health and Human Services or the Center for Disease Control. There are numerous coordinating interagency bodies that attempt to bring some coherence to the CWMD efforts. However, there is no single entity or agency that is in charge, nor is there any entity or agency that has the preponderance of the authorities, capabilities, access, placement, and resources to address the myriad WMD threats the country faces. To suggest that one agency should be in charge or that there should be a widespread and profound reorganization of the CWMD community is not the point. The point here is that the diversity and breadth of the CWMD community merit a more effective systemic approach to collaborate, coordinate, and cooperate towards the common goal of preventing and mitigating WMD threats.

Organizing for Emergence in the System of Malign Actors

A key weakness in the USG approach is that the entire interagency CWMD engagement model is based on the concept of a coalition-of-the-willing among co-equal executive agencies. Even the recent unified command plan (UCP) change identifying U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) as the coordinating authority for DOD for all CWMD activities has some intrinsic limitations. While USSOCOM is responsible for coordinating the CWMD efforts of DOD offices, its role as coordinating authority does not allow the Command to do much more than compel entities to participate (an important task for a variety of reasons, but not a far-reaching authority). USSOCOM cannot direct action beyond the specialized CWMD tasks performed by Special Operations Forces (SOF). In regards to interagency partners, the best USSOCOM can do is request that partners attend meetings.

So how might the USG coherently address the complex problem of WMD when it is rooted in an outmoded, large, lumbering bureaucracy with a collection of tools spread among a variety of co-equal agencies? The beehive offers some interesting lessons. Bees operate as a distributed network, but with unity of purpose. They are interdependent but each bee has clear and complementary roles.35 They swarm to threats coherently as needed, but the collective thrives based on distributed roles during periods of normalcy.

To effectively counter–WMD networks, the USG must bring to bear its full arsenal of capabilities, authorities, and permissions in a coordinated manner. As A.Q. Khan’s story and September 11 demonstrate, exclusive use of the old tools—analysis, planning, functionally organized, sector-based agencies—in a complex environment has proven not only inadequate, but dangerous. The CWMD community does not need more experts to do more analysis, rather it needs a different way of thinking and behaving in a changed environment. USSOCOM has taken on this no-fail CWMD mission and is fostering a way of thinking and acting that can facilitate the productive engagement of the interagency for cohesive action through Design and Opportunity Analysis.

The State of the Art: Design and Opportunity Analysis

For the interagency coalition-of-the-willing to function effectively in this mission space, the group has to have a common appreciation of the problem, a common purpose, and a clear sense of each agency’s distinct role in addressing that problem. General Stanley McChrystal’s book Team of Teams tells the story of how Task Force–714 managed to change its own organizational culture in order to more effectively address the complexities of al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2004. Shared consciousness and empowered execution were essential elements of the new organizational paradigm. However, neither of these conditions happened organically in the military, especially in a war zone. The book identifies three behaviors as central to enabling empowered execution and shared consciousness: extreme transparency throughout the organization (including the leadership), establishing trust and common purpose among disparate stakeholders (internal sub-organizations and external organizations), and an unprecedented delegation of authority.36 These are all behaviors rooted in Design and entirely counter-intuitive to military and government culture firmly rooted in a linear, reductionist, systematic analysis paradigm.37

Why Design?

Design is a holistic way of thinking about and creating novel approaches to address complex issues.38 It is above all an attitude and ethic for accepting and promoting

  • future-oriented thinking;
  • imagination and innovation for navigating through an unpredictable future;
  • divergent perspectives to appreciate the context across a range of experiences to promote imagination;
  • empathy for other perspectives and experiences;
  • perpetual, deliberate learning unconstrained by personal and organizational paradigms and standard operating procedures;
  • iterative learning to consistently update appreciation of the context as circumstances evolve; and
  • nonlinear dynamics in social systems, such that past experiences do not necessarily predict future paths.39

Cognitively, Design is a reflective practice that enables CWMD professionals to think about the environment holistically and derive meaning at the systemic level by synthesizing the interagency’s diverse perspectives.40 When each agency looks at the issue from its own perspective, it is common practice to mirror image comfortable organizational and cognitive models onto the intentions and behaviors of other state and non-state actors, leading to an incomplete and often inaccurate depiction of reality.41 Because the USG is functionally organized, each agency tends to rely on cognitive tools that also categorize, like the military’s popular PMESII model. Unfortunately, these types of categorization models ignore the relationships and dynamic interactions among the categorized factors, severely limiting both the community’s appreciation of the context and its ability to recognize potential opportunities to proactively intervene and move the system in a direction commensurate with national security interests.

Functionally, Design enables CWMD professionals to take the time and space necessary to appreciate a complex environment before attempting to intervene. As a way of thinking that consistently updates and informs planning and execution, Design empowers not only iterative learning, but proactive, iterative engagement with the operating environment in order to probe and gauge the system’s response much as threat actors do. This is to say Design, planning, and execution are all continuous and simultaneous activities over time.42 This is very different from the USG’s current linear, end-state reliant approach, and for good reason. Global, complex challenges have no end state, they only have future beginnings.43 An emergent system requires an emergent practice like Design.44

Rigorous, continuous framing, reframing, and synthesis of different perspectives, scopes, scales, and self-reflection are essential to the creativity required to imagine possible futures.45 In fact, according to a trade paper from Hollywood, in October 2001 the U.S. Army, having recognized its own lack of creativity in imagining the 9/11 scenario, convened a meeting with Hollywood movie screenwriters and directors to get some original ideas of potential future terrorist activity.46 It is exactly this kind of injection of new and divergent ideas that forces the participants in a Design inquiry to think about challenges in new and creative ways. Incorporating interagency, international, and multinational partners’ perspectives not only facilitates self-awareness and more robust understanding of the issue, it also facilitates “shared consciousness.”47

Why Opportunity Analysis Helps

Team of Teams emphasizes the importance of changing the way interagency teams organize themselves and behave in addition to the way they think. In order to develop shared consciousness and empowered execution, it required a fundamental change in the way Task Force–714 was organized. This is not to say every line and block on the organization’s chart changed, but the organization’s social behavior was altered by changing the way in which people interacted with each other. For example, the Operations and Intelligence brief was created as an organizational venue to bridge the communication and cultural gaps between the operations and intelligence branches within the Task Force’s own organization, but also the gaps that existed between the Task Force and other outside organizations critical to the unit’s mission.48 The counterproliferation community of action has developed a similar concept called Opportunity Analysis (OA).

OA is the framework that enables the disparate, often unconnected CWMD community of action to practice the cognitive and behavioral changes required of a design approach. In order to impact the complex system the USG needs not only to think systemically, but also must act as a coordinated system. The goal of OA is to bring to bear all of the resources across the USG in cooperative and coordinated action. At the heart of OA is the responsibility, influence, capability, capacity, authority, awareness, access, placement, and policy (RICCAAAPP) framework used to identify, combine, and sequence the CWMD community of action’s enablers toward a common end with a CWMD effect. Each member of the CWMD community of action has RICCAAAPP. Identifying these enablers alone is insufficient. CWMD professionals also need an organizational construct, trust, and transparency to enable development of “shared consciousness” and “empowered execution.” The OA framework allows the CWMD community to do this both organizationally and cognitively in a fashion more appropriately suited to complexity than the legacy bureaucracy can achieve in its current form. The OA framework facilitates proactive, willful organization and relationship-building among stakeholder enablers using iterative Design principles in a common forum, toward a common positive effect in the CWMD space.

Organizationally, the OA framework serves as a bridging mechanism between agency stovepipes aimed at generating a shared CWMD community of action workspace, both virtually and physically. Like an evolved Task Force model, or a beehive, the OA participants function as a distributed network, loosely facilitated by a core OA team who guide them through a Design process, managing and producing process artifacts or documentation. The first iteration of the Design process as a whole, culminates in a broadly attended event bringing together the distributed network of community stakeholders. The purpose of this event is three-fold. First, to develop common appreciation of the issue at hand; second, for stakeholders to educate the group on their mission enablers (RICCAAAPP opportunities); and third, to ideate and record possible opportunities to affect the system of concern uninhibited by one’s own organizational constraints.49 The resulting ideas are then organized and prioritized in accordance with the unique design created for the specific challenge at hand and distributed to all participants in an OA report.

This is as far as the formal process has evolved giving rise to the dominant criticism of OA as an incomplete means to overcome our own organizational challenges in this complex mission space. What critics fail to acknowledge are the enduring changes in participants’ thinking and behavior resulting from the continued evolution, expansion, and repetition of OA endeavors. So far, four different WMD proliferation concerns have been tackled using the OA framework, each sponsored by a USG or partner nation organization with specific WMD concerns, and three more OAs are in the design or planning stages. The four topics OA has addressed thus far are a legacy chemical weapons program in the Central Command’s area of responsibility, proliferation implications of additive manufacturing, and two adversary ballistic missile programs. As more USG stakeholders see the value and potential of the approach at work with each successive OA, more want to see it work and do what they can to create the changes necessary to make it work as a matter of national interest. Continually practicing these concepts in real-world mission areas contributes to their refinement and maturity as an adaptive approach, capable of creating meaningful intervention in an increasingly dangerous and active global proliferation system.

Conclusion

Security challenges like WMD proliferation, terrorism, countering violent extremism, or human trafficking are fundamentally complex phenomena in an age of networks.50 Although these challenges existed during the Cold War era, they were manageable at the national level using the functionally-oriented, sector-based federal organizations and agencies. In our current era, however, networked organizations with little bureaucracy are becoming increasingly problematic, and they often adapt more rapidly to the environment than the USG owing to the sheer size of the bureaucracy. The USG can no longer rely on tools and organizational structures based in Cold War era industrial management theory to guide the way it thinks and behaves in a new world.

Design and OA constitute just one way to address a complex open system when hamstrung by a closed reductionist infrastructure. Together they have been informing planning and operations for years, though there is still room for growth. They form the state of the art in CWMD thinking precisely because they take into account the changes in the operating environment. WMD proliferation now occurs in an open system, requires CWMD professionals to think systemically about possible relationships and networks, demands proactive engagement with the system, and relies on the aggregate effect of widely distributed authorities and permissions. Design and Opportunity Analysis currently offer the best solutions to this increasingly complex reality. Prism

Notes

1 “A hero at Home, a Villain Abroad,” The Economist, June 19, 2008, available at <www.economist.com/node/11585265>.

2 LDCR Mike Scott, U.S. Navy (ret.) is often credited as the innovator behind Opportunity Analysis.

3 For an excellent introduction to Design in open systems see H.G. Nelson and E. Stolterman, The Design Way: Intentional Change in an Unpredictable World, Second Edition, (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2012). For further reading on Design Thinking see David C. Ellis and Charles N. Black, Complexity, Organizational Blinders, and the SOCOM Design Way, (Tampa: Joint Special Operations University Press: forthcoming).

4 Systematic analysis reduces a phenomena to its most basic variables in the search for cause and effect, but relies on past interactions in the hope of predicting future events. Systemic thinking is an approach that emphasizes the relationships between variables and how they mutually influence and provide new, unanticipated opportunities for interaction in the future.

5 For the purpose of this model, lines of communication are defined as the means of physical connectivity between network nodes such as roads, sea lanes, telephone lines, internet cables, train tracks, etc., and are not limited to a military context.

6 For the purposes of this article the focus will be on nuclear weapons as this case is the most illustrative.

7 International Atomic Energy Agency, Statute of the International Atomic Energy Agency, available at <https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/statute.pdf>.

8 United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, available at <https://www.un.org/disarmament/wmd/nuclear/npt/text>.

9 Gordon Corera, Shopping for Bombs: Nuclear Proliferation, Global Insecurity and the Rise and Fall of the A.Q. Khan Network, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 5–8; William Langewiesche, The Atomic Bazaar: Dispatches from the Underground World of Nuclear Trafficking, (New York: Farar, Strong, and Giroux, 2008), 82–84.

10 Langewiesche, The Atomic Bazaar, 144-45; Langewiesche, The Atomic Bazaar, 16, 24–25, 146–49.

11 William Langewiesche, “The Wrath of Khan: How A. Q. Khan made Pakistan a nuclear power—and showed that the spread of atomic weapons can't be stopped,” The Atlantic, (November 2005), available at <https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/11/the-wrath-of-khan/304333/>.

12 Corera, Shopping for Bombs, 14.

13 Corera, Shopping for Bombs, 108–09.

14 Corera, Shopping for Bombs, xvi.

15 Corera, Shopping for Bombs, 111–17.

16 Strictly defined, September 11 was not a WMD event.

17 National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, “The 9/11 Commission Report,” (August, 2004), 169, available at <https://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf>.

18 Josh Kerbel, “The Complexity Challenge: The U.S. Government’s Struggle to Keep up with the Times,” National Interest, (August 26, 2015), available at <http://nationalinterest.org/feature/the-complexity-challenge-the-us-governments-struggle-keep-13698>.

19 Corera, Shopping for Bombs, 111–13.

20 The Cynefin Framework as adapted from Greg Broughman. The Cynefin Mini-Book: An Introduction to Complexity and the Cynefin Framework. Middletown: InfoQ.com, 2015. This adaptation first appeared in the article by David C. Ellis, Charles N. Black, and Mary Ann Nobles on “Thinking Dangerously—Imagining SOCOM in a Post-CT World,” PRISM 6, no.3 (Washington D.C.: National Defense University, 2016).

21 C.F. Kurtz and D.J. Snowden, “The New Dynamics of Strategy: Sense-making in a Complex and Complicated World,” IBM Systems Journal, 42, no. 3 (2003), 468.

22 Kurtz and Snowden, “The New Dynamics of Strategy,” 469.

23 David Snowden and Mary E. Boone, “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making,” Harvard Business Review, (November 2007), 74, available at <https://hbr.org/2007/11/a-leaders-framework-for-decision-making>; Kurtz and Snowden, “The New Dynamics of Strategy,” 468–69.

24 David C. Ellis and Charles N. Black, Complexity, Organizational Blinders, and the SOCOM Design Way, (Tampa: Joint Special Operations University Press: forthcoming); Hank Prunckun, Handbook of Scientific Methods of Inquiry for Intelligence Analysis, (Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2010), 43-52; Richards J. Heuer, Jr., Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, (Central Intelligence Agency, 1999), 43–48, 85–110; Richards J. Heuer, Jr. and Randolph H. Pherson, Structured Analytical Techniques for Intelligence Analysis, (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2011).

25 Corera, Shopping for Bombs, 113.

26 Similarly, Langewiesche notes that Iraq’s nuclear weapons program followed an “obsolete,” but entirely viable, calutron technology shelved and declassified by the United States in 1949, but analysts were unaware of it because no one thought to look for evidence of its existence. Langewiesche, The Atomic Bazaar, 144; Heuer warns of this proclivity in the IC, see Heuer, Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, 65–66.

27 A recent exemplar on intelligence analysis recognizing these dynamics is Wayne Michael Hall and Gary Citrenbaum, Intelligence Analysis: How to Think in Complex Environment, (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2010), especially Chapter 10.

28 Corera, Shopping for Bombs, 118.

29 National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, “The 9/11 Commission Report: Executive Summary,” (August 2004), 9, available at <https://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report_Exec.pdf>.

30 “The 9/11 Commission Report: Executive Summary,” 20.

31 “The 9/11 Commission Report: Executive Summary,” 20–26.

32 U.S. Office of Homeland Security, "National Strategy for Homeland Security,” (July 2002), available at <https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/nat-strat-hls-2002.pdf>.

33 Henry H.O. Heng, Ph.D, “The Conflict Between Complex Systems and Reductionism,” Journal of the American Medical Association (2008), 300, no. 13, 1580–81.

34 Robert Longrin, “An Integrated Approach: Systems Biology Seeks Order in Complexity,” JNCI: Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 97, no. 7, (April 2005), 478.

35 Michael J. Kwon, “Optimizing the CWMD Enterprise, Across the Interagency,” Interagency Journal, 8, no. 2, (2014), 45.

36 Stanley McChrystal, Tantum Collins, David Silverman, and Chris Fussell, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, (New York: Portfolio, 2015), 6–7.

37 McChrystal et al, 68–71.

38 This is not to say innovation should occur for innovation’s sake. Novel approaches are required because repeatability is not a characteristic of complexity despite the very real manifestation of patterns and trends in open systems. Every complex challenge is unique, and the moment the analyst interprets the appearance of trends or patterns in complex systems as indicative of “how the system works” is the moment the analyst begins to lose the appreciation of complexity.

39 Nelson et al, The Design Way, 12, 16–23.

40 D.A. Schön, Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions, First Edition, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1987), 44.

41 Heuer, Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, 9–16, 70–71.

42 Richard Newton, Tracy Moss, Charles N. Black, and Chris Phelps, “Design Thinking for the SOF Enterprise,” United States Special Operations Command White Paper, January 29, 2016, 1–3.

43 Ellis and Black, Complexity: Chapter 5.

44 In contrast to retrospective deductive and inductive analysis, design leverages futures-oriented abductive inference, see C. Jotin Khisty. “Can Wicked Problems Be Tackled Through Abductive Inferencing?” Journal of Urban Planning and Development 126, no. 3 (2000), 104–105. Abductive inference is not common in IC products, though Heuer hints at the practice and even some design ethics, see Heuer, Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, 71–72, 75–78; Smith also introduces abductive inference as an aside, but reduces it to a traditional systematic analytic tool in Timothy J. Smith, “Predictive Warning: Teams, Networks, and Scientific Method,” Analyzing Intelligence: Origins, Obstacles, and Innovations, Roger Z. George and James B. Bruce (editors), (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2008), 272.

45 Nelson and Stolterman, The Design Way, 12.

46 “Army Turns to Hollywood for Advice,” BBC News, 8 October 2001, available at <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/1586468.stm>.

47 McChrystal et al, 163.

48 McChrystal et al, 164–69.

49 The OA framework is best used to address a scoped WMD system of concern within the global context. There are no hard and fast rules for scoping. The scope is typically initiated by the OA client and is further refined during the appreciation phase of the design process (often labeled the Information Support Package process in OA parlance.) In practice thus far, application of the OA framework has been sponsored by organizational clients such as geographic commandant commands, government departments and ministries, or special operations organizations in an effort to leverage the entire CWMD community of action in this mission space.

50 J.C. Ramo, The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks, (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2016), 104–105.


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