Small Wars Journal

The Blood-Dimmed Tide: Technology and the Dangerous New “Improvised Everything” International Security Environment

Sat, 12/12/2015 - 5:40pm

The Blood-Dimmed Tide: Technology and the Dangerous New “Improvised Everything” International Security Environment

David G. Smith and Allan Steinhardt                                             

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

– W.B. Yeats, 1921[1]

W. B. Yeats’ eulogy for Edwardianism presciently describes today’s world.  Terrorism has unleashed its “blood-dimmed tide.” Innocence is drowned by violence.  Democracies temporize, lacking conviction, while radicals exude “passionate intensity.”  The worldwide defense establishment is confronting a dramatic sea change in national and global security.   New forms of terrorism and warfare threaten long-established operational concepts and strategic philosophies.  The ramifications affect both research and development (R&D) and acquisition programs, and jeopardize longstanding missions to protect populations and national interests.   

A technological tsunami is enabling this shift.  It is defined less by super-secret, bleeding-edge military development than by the convergence of today’s advanced, widely accessible technologies.  The Improvised Explosive Device (IED) was a forerunner of these new, technologically enabled asymmetric military capabilities. We call this new environment “improvised everything” to indicate the very wide range of technological capabilities empowering terrorists and non-state actors – even as these same technologies transform our world.

From a security perspective, the military manifestation of “improvised everything” means that an entire suite of military capabilities – on land, and in air and sea – can be “improvised,” at least partially, using widely available technology. In many cases, this technology is commercial; in others it includes military equipment or technology widely available to non-state actors through sponsors, anti-status quo nations, or the black market.  Sometimes these technologies are also supplemented by very simple “improvised” equipment or practices.[2]  Meanwhile, the beneficial expressions of “improvised everything” cover the plethora of commercial applications that these same technologies enable. 

We seek to warn of the scale, growth, ubiquity, and consequences of this trend.  The same enablers behind the deadly manifestations of this trend have helped create some of the most innovative advances of our time. 

Today’s metamorphosis in the security environment has occurred as computing power has exploded.  Moore’s Law, an observed principle rather than a fixed phenomenon, states that the density of computing elements on a microchip doubles every eighteen months to two years.[3] Regardless of whether this process is slowing, the practical result has been that the raw computing potential on the same-sized silicon microchip increases sixty-four times in just twelve years.   These chips are ubiquitous in modern life.  Command, control, and communications (C3), surveillance, precision weaponry, guidance for drones and unmanned vehicles, and a host of other military applications depend on them.  So do the commercial and even household electronics appropriated by terrorists as sensors, triggers, and communication devices.  We will focus on one prosaic but stunning example:  the power of today’s smartphone technology to enable a wide range of innovative applications, both commercial and military.    

Terrorists and irregular warfighters use widely available microelectronics, software, and Internet resources to collect intelligence, plan missions, and commit attacks.   They document results for training, process improvement, propaganda, and recruitment.  Even conventional “dumb” attacks with vehicle killing RPGs, commercial and military-grade explosives, and automatic weapons such as the AK-47, have become much more effective as a result.[4]

The US Army has also identified this trend, stating that adversaries “will continue to apply advanced as well as simple and dual use technologies (such as improvised explosive devices).”  These “potential threats emulate U.S. military capabilities to …limit U.S. freedom of action [emphasis in original].”[5]  What the US Army calls “emulation,” we call “improvisation.”

Some scholars argue that “failure to anticipate” and “failure to adapt” to change are two principal contributors to military failure.[6]  Complacency about past dramatic shifts in military capability has been unaffordable in the past; it may be even more so in the future, as the pace of technology develop surges.  This increase is occurring as the bipolar world led by the United States and the Soviet Union, predicted by Alexis de Tocqueville as early as 1835, has fractured.  So, in many cases, has loyalty to nation states themselves.  The “centre” is ceasing to “hold.”[7]

Because of the pace of technological change, failing to recognize today’s shifting security environment is perhaps understandable.  Still, a dramatic transformation in warfare is occurring now, due to the worldwide proliferation of advanced technologies that can be exploited for military or terrorist purposes.  Technology development occurs worldwide.  Today’s non-state combatants find, fix, kill, and maim, aided by technologically advanced commercial technologies (some of which spun off from military research).  In some cases, military-specific technology and equipment is also available.  Rogue states and non-state actors improvise a broad range of military or terror capabilities in this new environment.  This improvisation may be crude and very approximate, but nonetheless impressive.  Technologies that cost the United States billions to develop – precision weapons, satellites, advanced communications, etc. – can now be appropriated, or at least crudely replicated, by terrorists, their sponsors, or anti-status quo nations.  These new technology threats in turn open up new tactics and techniques.  Often, as the Defense Science Board has pointed out, these improvisations are inexpensive and yet can threaten extremely costly Western platforms.[8]

A conventional modern military is divided into at three Services, an army, a navy, an air force, with specialties such as intelligence, training, and recruitment.  Key aspects of all of these can be improvised.  The first of these transformed areas we will examine involves amassing forces for engaging in land combat, primarily for offense.

“Improvised Army”

Martial improvisation has a long, desperate history.  In the Middle Ages, hard-pressed defenders poured boiling water or heated sand on assailants scaling castle walls (oil generally was considered too valuable to use).[9] Their besiegers improvised biological warfare by catapulting the corpses of plague victims over the walls.  In the American Revolution, a militia made of men “ready at a minute’s notice” challenged the world’s most powerful army.  They could rarely stand up to British troops in direct combat, but excelled at harassing them asymmetrically.  In the Vietnam War, abundant local materials such as bamboo were combined with widely available munitions, such as grenades and rifle bullets, to make cunning booby traps.  In the 1980s and 1990s, terrorists developed ammonium nitrate bombs from fertilizer, employing vehicles as delivery devices.  Even before 9/11, the willingness to improvise should have been apparent.

“Improvised armies” consist of groups of willing fighters, available weapons, and often leadership with some degree of command and control.  For our purposes, these improvised army capabilities can be employed by small teams or larger groups.  In today’s world, advanced technology makes it easier to summon individuals for demonstrations or for mayhem. Examples of flash mobs assembled using texting, Twitter, and other social media are too numerous to mention.  The revolts of the Arab Spring, where texting was combined with the use of Facebook, Twitter, and broadcasts on non-national TV stations such as Al-Jazeera, are perhaps the most notable examples of this manner of mobilization.[10]  (It’s worth acknowledging, however, the continued role of word of mouth, as many young Arabs did not have Internet connections or smartphones, but knew someone who did).  The threat if flash mobs turn violent is so ubiquitous that many major cities plan to jam communications in city centers or at transit stations to prevent such demonstrations.[11]

These flash mobs are similar to the discontented crowds that seemingly appeared out of nowhere during the French Revolution, summoned by word of mouth according to plans laid in taverns which the King’s agents could not penetrate.  There ardent plotters “lit the flame” and “talked of revolution” according to musical Les Misérables, which shows these same techniques being used in a failed 1832 revolt.[12]

The world’s leading powers can often intercept or jam communications, however, limiting communications in the improvised army.  Asymmetric adversaries can augment simple missives – sometimes using  pencil and paper and bicycle messengers – with preexisting instructions.  A simple rule, used by demonstrators, could be “Let’s go downtown at 6 PM every night during the unrest and see what is happening.”  Some theorize that Iraqi insurgents used simple rules to expand the scope and intensity of firefights in 2003, instructing young men:  “If you hear firing, grab your gun and head toward it, and start shooting Americans.”[13] This combination of widely available weapons, technology, and simple rules creates a 21st century version of colonial minutemen.  That militia’s effectiveness depended on early warning, swift horses, and rapid communications.  These enabled the colonists to move inside the Redcoat decision cycle in key early crises, as the British often had to send to London for a decision.

In addition to foot soldiers, today’s improvised armies improvise artillery.  Mortars seem almost ubiquitous on today’s asymmetric battlefields, but non-state actors can even create ordnance.  In the 2006 war in Lebanon, Hezbollah rained thousands of rockets on northern Israel.  Some were second-hand rockets supplied by rogue states, but Hezbollah also created their own by sawing up lampposts and stuffing them with propellant and explosive.   Crude and very inaccurate, nonetheless Israel was powerless to stop them. 

These rockets could be fired remotely, by using widely-available electronics, lessening the risk from counter-battery fire.  Missile parts were often transported across the desert by unaccompanied donkeys trained to follow a route – sort of an improvised unmanned logistics vehicle.   One Israeli official complained, “[T]he only way to knock out the threat would be to kill every donkey” in Lebanon.[14]  Rocket fire from Gaza and Lebanon still vexes Israel, as shown by the recent 2014 conflict between Israel and Hamas.  In a future war, the rockets will be even more numerous.  

Irregular forces also devise their own unmanned vehicles, often based on remote control toys.  Toy helicopters have been equipped with cameras for “over the hill” surveillance, and Libyan rebels reportedly weaponized Power Wheels ATVs with small cannon and toy trucks with machine guns.  Guided by a long wire, these improvised unmanned combat vehicles could lay down fire with reduced risk to the operator.[15]  Easily available unmanned aerial systems such as small quadcopters can also be used for surveillance and flown to Global Positioning System (GPS) waypoints. 

Today’s “improvised armies” even have precision capabilities.   An IED is a precision weapon, whether it is detonated by a pressure plate, lawn accessories, or by an observer with a mobile phone or radio. IEDs were an asymmetric weapon of choice during the recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Over half of the coalition casualties were attributable to IEDs – 3000 dead and 33,000 wounded for the US alone.[16] A suicide bomber or car bomb is another such “poor man’s precision weapon.”  In any case, the one who employs the bomb seeks to position and detonate it in precisely the right circumstances for maximum effect. 

Lately, these precision weapons have become deadlier.  Fighters for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) use captured armored vehicles as destructive megabombs.  The vehicles are larger and stronger than a station wagon or truck, so they build up a much larger pressure wave.  After one such attack, an observer compared the effect to a small nuclear bomb.  In Ramadi, ISIS used 27 vehicle borne IEDs over three days to destroy whole neighborhoods, with one attack including six such bombs.  When the US developed precision weapons, one motivation was to reduce collateral damage.  Today’s irregular and asymmetric adversaries choose to maximize casualties, not minimize them.[17]

In short, through commercial technologies like smartphones, the Internet, and GPS, combined with rocket propelled grenades (RPGs), AK-47s, and other rockets and explosives, it will is possible to assemble an “improvised army” with notable capabilities.  The Mumbai attackers in 2008 spread havoc and devastation using conventional hand grenades and submachine guns, as did those at the Nairobi mall in 2013.  Some asymmetric adversaries may even acquire shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles.[18]  An “improvised army” may not be a true match for a conventional army in a toe-to-toe battle.  Neither were the American minutemen.  If this army is being assembled, however, for a terror attack, an ambush, or to try and overwhelm a remote outpost or supply convoy, it may not need to be.

Improvised armies of terrorists or irregulars acting alone are concerning enough.  But many groups are backed by anti-status quo powers, and can be used as proxies to wage irregular warfare, or to augment a conventional war (a practice known as hybrid warfare).  The use of proxies complicates attributing responsibility to a traditional power, making it harder to determine whether treaty obligations (such as NATO’s Article 5) exist.  David Richards and Greg Mills have commented, “Why should [a state] risk everything in a conventional attack, if they can instead achieve their aims through the use of proxies, or through economic subterfuge and cyber warfare?”[19]  Some proxies have been openly supplied advanced arms by their sponsors. For others, the world of “improvised everything” has given them access to virtually everything they need. 

“Improvised Navy”

Navies and air forces are considered to be the primary power projection services, with capability of striking deep into enemy territory from standoff distances.  Perhaps surprisingly, the blood-dimmed tide of “improvised everything” reaches into even these spheres.  In the naval arena, terrorists and asymmetric adversaries have been able to use the sea to transport people and contraband, project power, and launch attacks.  Widely available and increasingly capable technologies make these tactics notably more effective than two decades ago.

US warships are significant prestige targets, and Al-Qaeda planned several attacks on them, striking even before 9/11.  The attack on the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen in 2000 nearly sank the ship, cost 17 lives and $250 million in repairs, and took a $2B warship out of commission for over a year.  Al-Qaeda had also planned to attack US naval vessels in the Straits of Hormuz before failing to intercept them several times and switching to the 2002 attack on the French tanker Limburg.  The organization had also planned to attack tankers and naval vessels in the Straits of Gibraltar.  Al-Qaeda remains interested in striking oil infrastructure targets, and plans for attacks on oil tankers were in Osama Bin Laden’s files when he was killed.[20]   Other terror groups and rogue states have specialized in Zephyr-type speedboat attacks to outrun naval vessels or to overwhelm naval defenses through swarming.  Before its elimination, Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers used speedboats for raids or transport.  One expert recently called Iran’s speedboats an “improvised mosquito fleet.”  In 2008, five Iranian speedboats engaged in a dangerous game of cat and mouse with a US cruiser, destroyer, and frigate, simulating attacks and dropping floating objects in the ships’ paths. The next time, these boats could be suicide craft laden with explosives, like the dinghy that attacked the Cole, or the floating objects could be sea mines.[21] An irregular anti-ship attack launched simultaneously with an unfriendly state’s conventional one could be particularly dangerous. [22]

The reach of the “Improvised Navy” also extends beneath the waves.  The last decade saw the development of semi-submersibles - and now fully submersible narcosubmarines - to run drugs across the Caribbean.  These “improvised submarines” can carry up to ten tons of contraband cargo. With their low radar cross section, they are difficult to detect and intercept. This particular “improvised” solution is not cheap – the drug running submersibles cost about $2M each, and take up to a year to build – but the profits from their contraband cargo can reach $100M.  It is lucrative enough that narcotics traffickers are willing to risk it.  The use of submersibles is likely to continue, and a terrorist or criminal organization could possess a fully functional submarine in the near future.  Likely one day unmanned versions will be used.  “Narco torpedoes” are also being deployed.  Non-powered, they are pulled behind a fishing boat.  If an interception is made, the torpedo can be jettisoned.  It then releases a buoy (disguised as a log) with an antenna which will encrypt and radio its coordinates several times a day – all designed to ensure that the very lucrative narcotics cargo can be retrieved.[23]

Terrorists also exploit the global shipping network to transport supplies and individuals.  In 2001, a terrorist, with airport identity credentials, was caught living in a container during shipment. Cargo ships can also function as offshore bases for terrorist attacks.  The most notable example was the attack on Mumbai, India, in 2008.  In this “improvised invasion,” ten terrorists infiltrated the coast using commercially available inflatable speedboats launched from offshore.  As Andrew Kubik stated, these terrorists used Google Maps to plan the attack, GPS to guide their movements, and cell phones for communication. Using explosives and readily available grenades and semiautomatic rifles, they attacked twelve different locations and killed 164 individuals.  The ability to precisely navigate was a key enabler: they were recognizably unusual and might have been stopped had they needed to search for locations after landing.[24]

“Improvised Air Force”

One of the most profoundly unsettling threats in the new security environment is the “improvised air force.” Al-Qaeda terrorists successfully destroyed the World Trade Centers with airborne attacks after they had failed using a truck bomb.[25]  Fortunately, the intervening years have not seen a repeat of the terrible airborne terror attacks of 9/11. Vigilant countermeasures have prevented similar attacks from happening, although several bombing attempts have come perilously close to blowing up airline flights domestically and may have succeeded overseas. 

The threat is not just centered on large planes, however. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and drones are proliferating; combined with the navigation capabilities of GPS, the threat from the air is escalating.  Hezbollah has penetrated Israeli airspace dozens of times with small UAVs, some of which have been transported across the desert by donkeys, like the rockets of the “improvised army.”  Small, slow unmanned aerial vehicles are not the typical threat Cold War air defense networks were designed to thwart.  In this case, “small is the poor man’s stealth.”

Even smaller radio-controlled aircraft (RC) could pose a threat for specific purposes.  Today’s RC aircraft have impressive capabilities. They have been modified to allow GPS navigation and flown non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean, duplicating the accomplishments of Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart.  In 2001, al-Qaeda planned to attack a G-8 meeting with explosives-laden radio-controlled aircraft.[26]  According to the press, several different plots to use RC aircraft to attack domestic and foreign targets have been thwarted.[27]

The Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, ruthlessly eliminated in 2009, were reputed to be the only terrorist, irregular warfare group with all three military services:  army, navy, and air force.  Their aircraft could mount small bombs, and, in at least one reported attack, missiles.  In the future, more groups will have an airborne capability, and the development of low cost, small warhead but precision rockets could make light aircraft and helicopters pose an even greater threat.[28]

Improvised WMD

Improvisers can fashion threats from even rudimentary capabilities in biological, chemical, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons of mass destruction (WMD).  As the latest US Army Operating Concept states, “WMD proliferation to diverse state and nonstate actors… poses an increased threat to U.S. and international security.”  Shortly after 9/11, Congressmen were discussing “suitcase bombs,” and crude nuclear designs were found in terrorist training camps.  The capability of nuclear weapons to be miniaturized is known, even if not easy.  During the 1950s, the United States made tactical nuclear weapons so small that one could fit on a recoilless rifle. In today’s world, radiological weapons (“dirty bombs”) may be more likely than nuclear bombs, but the effects could be dire regardless of which form of CBRN is used.  Lately, ISIS overran former chemical weapons storage sites in Iraq, and have also seized “nearly 90 pounds (approx. 40kg) of low enriched uranium from scientific institutions at the Mosul University in Iraq.” This material could not be made into a bomb without substantial additional processing, but could become part of a dirty bomb.[29]   

Improvised Support: Planning, Intelligence, Logistics, and Recruitment and Training

These naval, air, and ground capabilities are impressive.  But an effective military requires support functions as well.  This is the less glamorous “tail” of the “tooth to tail ratio.” Traditionally, an effective organization has been required to supply, train, and advise a strike force on targets, threats and opportunities.  All of these functions are made far easier for extremists, however, through exploiting the Internet, GPS, smartphone apps, and commercially available satellite imagery such as Google Earth.  The Internet allows dispersed organizations to coordinate.  It introduces vulnerabilities, however, so again, simple direction is often combined with autonomy and decentralized authority.  Some terrorists will only have limited access to leadership during planning, rehearsal or attack, but with a clear sense of the general objectives and authority to make changes where needed, they can still move forward.[30]  Of late terror groups like al-Qaeda have been encouraging “lone wolf” attacks, leaving individuals or small groups to attack targets of their choosing.  Access to weapons and technologies with military relevance makes such decentralization effective.

Intelligence is one area where significant capabilities can be achieved through commercially available technologies.  Terrorists have access to satellite imagery through Google Earth, maps through MapQuest or Google Maps, and precise real-time location data through GPS.  The terrorists who attacked Mumbai and many irregulars and insurgents in Iraq used Google Earth images and GPS.[31]

It cost billions for the US to launch intelligence satellites in space, develop imagery techniques and analytical organizations to exploit their output, and to put up the GPS and its forerunners.  Now terrorists can leverage similar capabilities for nothing – not as good of course, but useful –from their smartphone or computer and the Internet. With the advent of large scale low earth orbit commercial systems like Google’s Skybox, Planet Labs’ Doves, and One Web’s global wireless internet constellations, these capabilities could become even more widely available.[32]

One remarkable example of exploiting “improvised intelligence” occurred in 2003, when enthusiasts known as “plane spotters” were able to “out” the CIA’s top secret rendition program for suspected terrorists.  Simply recording aircraft tail numbers in a collaborative Internet database allowed them to aggregate plane arrivals and departures worldwide, and identify planes likely landing for military or intelligence purposes.  This was accomplished by simply combining the actions of a lot of people with a particular interest – we might call them “plane nerds.” Another on-line database catalogs the location of every known UAV strike in Pakistan.  Information that would have remained closely held and deniable previously can now be integrated and analyzed via crowdsourcing on the Internet.[33]

Logistically, the proliferation of arms and advanced technology worldwide has created an opportunity for terrorists to gain access to the weapons they need.  So has new, less traceable forms of monetary exchange.  Some groups are flush with cash, and with the crackdown on terrorist finance due to 9/11, many increasingly exchange funds on the Internet in artificial worlds (i.e. Second Life) or using virtual currency such as Bitcoin, Open Coin, or Amazon Coins.[34]  Bitcoin burst into the news several years ago because of efforts of speculators to “corner the market,” and exploit its artificial scarcity, but terrorists have used it for years.[35]  These virtual currencies or “improvised money” can be converted into real money when needed. Virtual cash can enable access to real weapons.

Terrorist groups also use Internet blogs and websites to recruit and train new members.  ISIS uses twitter accounts to recruit and propagandize.  A plethora of terror videos and bomb-making manuals aid this effort.  On-line training lowers the cost and effort to learn, and lessens the risks entailed by face-to-face meetings.  On-line, glossy journals such as Al Qaeda’s Inspire or ISIS’s Dabiq motivate and teach followers.  The Boston bombers, the Tsarnaev brothers, learned bomb-making from Inspire’s infamous “How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom” article.

Expanding “Improvised Everything:” Cyber and Space

As available technology advances, so do the asymmetric possibilities.  In the cyber arena, hackers use expertise and trial and error to break into sensitive systems worldwide.  A cyberattack could shut down vital networks and imperil services.  Here we again see a combination of advanced but widely available technology combined with brute force and swarm techniques. Some attempts based overseas involve veritable armies of smart, available hackers. Often only one has to succeed for the attack to be effective.  Cyber is the perfect environment for “improvised” attacks. Labor is cheap, often free.  Incentive often comes from the resulting prestige, sometimes augmented by a prize or payment.   The expertise needed is rapidly expanding worldwide. A commercially valuable attribute, software skills, can be wielded nefariously.

Space is also becoming accessible, and not just for wealthy spacecraft developers and future commercial spaceplane passengers.  Lower cost space flight and miniaturized space components can have more practical benefits than cosmic joyriding.  Students from various colleges and even one Virginia high school have sent satellites into space.[36]  Now, constellations of inexpensive commercial satellites could provide both global coverage and frequent “revisits” of specific locations, up to four times daily.  That is more frequent than current national intelligence systems.[37]

Particularly noteworthy from an “improvised everything" standpoint are the efforts of Skybox and Planet Labs, developers of two small satellite constellation concepts.  According to Pete Klupar, the director of engineering at NASA Ames Research Center, those companies’ satellites are using open source software and components from video games, cellphones, automobiles, medical devices, dental tools, photography, and movie making.  Klupar continues, “instead of developing their own hardware from scratch, they’re taking the fruits of the commercial world’s labor and applying them to space.”  Other companies are forgoing satellites and just attaching earth-imaging telescopes and sensors to the International Space Station.[38]

 “Improvised Everything” for the Rest of Us

The worldwide proliferation of advanced technology, especially computing power, has not only helped terrorists and our asymmetric adversaries; it has spurred a flowering of innovation worldwide, creating vast opportunities for good as well as ill.  For example, the GPS system that guides you to a new restaurant has also been used to study weather and climate, to guide tractors, track stolen objects ranging from hay bales to addictive prescription drugs, locate ocean monitors and sensors,  track sharks and endangered manta rays, and find, locate, and document invasive species.[39] For example, researchers have exploited what was originally a flaw in the GPS system – the tendency for signals to become slightly distorted by atmospheric conditions – into a new source of information.  The degree of distortion, a phenomenon known as radio occultation, indicates how much moisture is in the atmosphere, so GPS signals can be used to help predict weather or study climate.[40]

Software “mashups” fuse inputs from a wide variety of sources to present information in powerful new, rapidly understandable ways.  Mashups that combine physical locations with images and information can be used by intelligence agencies, scientists, or police departments.  Russian scientists pulled together information from “crowdsourcing” amateur and surveillance video, Google Earth, and acoustic sensors to estimate the size of the asteroid that exploded over Chelyabinsk in February 2013.[41]

The Brilliant Phone:  Improvised Everything in Your Hand

To experience an example of “improvised everything,” one does not have to travel to the scene of a terror attack or a war zone, but only to dip a hand into their pocket or purse.  The smartphone, perhaps better labeled a “brilliant phone,” is easily configurable into an amazing number of custom variations.  It’s called, “we have an app for that.”

These devices are incredibly versatile.  Cross-border migrants use smartphones to gather and crowdsource information about location, routes, arrests, and food and lodging, and to communicate with family and friends.[42]  In the health field, smartphones can be used to record blood sugar readings; monitor heart rates; fight infectious and chronic diseases; and more.  A photograph of a medical sample can be emailed to a lab, or, by using treated strips similar to litmus strips, up to 20 diseases can be diagnosed from a urine sample.  Start up Eko Devices produces a digital stethoscope that records heart sounds and ports them to an iPhone app. Algorithms are also being developed to diagnose heart conditions.  In some cases, it could replace expensive echocardiograms.[43]

Smartphones can also be used for high performance computing.  One technologist stated, “What the commercial consumer knows as a smartphone is really a very powerful multi-core mini-computer that is made in high volume at very low cost.”[44] Smartphones are an example of the vast capability and flexibility bestowed by fusing a powerful processor with a communications device, a camera, and an almost infinite variety of software.  Because of Moore’s Law, as well as the development of high frequency semiconductors in silicon, silicon germanium, and gallium arsenide, today’s smartphones perform 1000 times better than a 1970’s Cray supercomputer (measured in floating point operations per second).  Samsung Android phones are thirteen times faster than IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer, which defeated the world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997.  Supercomputers used to be massive, liquid cooled, and custom made, but now scientists are even experimenting with how smartphones or Sony PlayStations could be combined into supercomputers.[45]

Improved robots with much more sensitive and lifelike touch have been created using smartphone electronics.  Even space has become an arena of the smartphone.  NASA put three smartphone satellites in orbit to take and transmit photographs to earth, and inspired today’s commercial small satellite race.  Apple iPhone fans will be disappointed – these nanosatellites were Android. There is no mention of whether a two-year service contract was required.

Chris Boushizen, one of the leaders of that smartphone satellite project, has taken it a step further with the Planet Labs Doves concept. The initial network is 28 earth imaging satellites, each no larger than a shoe box.  With small size comes the ability to (relatively) inexpensively replace a defective satellite.  Planet Labs could be changing the way that both we and developing nations think about satellites – and it all came from essentially a smartphone prototype.[46]

The smartphone also enables what might be called “improvised journalism,” the ability of participants or bystanders to record an event and then, if compelling enough, see it broadcast around the world.  Celebrities and public figures are often cautioned to remember that with smartphones, there can always be a video camera on.  Not remembering this has gotten police officers, football players, baristas, dog groomers, overnight delivery personnel, and park rangers fired.  It also may have cost Mitt Romney the presidency in 2012.  After a major event, there are often calls for smartphone video, by news organizations and by local authorities.

While the greatest innovations are coming in the commercial world, innovative military applications for smartphones are also developing.  The relatively low cost of today’s smartphones, and recruits’ familiarity with them, make them excellent choices for battlefield communicationsFor nearly 20 years, the military has tried laptops, early tablet computers and PDAs (such as the Apple Newton) to provide, receive, and interact with real time data for situational awareness on the battlefield.  Now they may have found their ideal device:  the smartphone.  A recent Stars and Stripes article called the smartphone a “most powerful weapon” for soldiers deploying to Afghanistan in the waning months of that conflict.  Using a Samsung Galaxy II, attached to a military radio, soldiers will be able to access “photographs, maps, and other mission-critical information about enemy fighters, roadside bombs, and friendly forces that they can share and update in real time.”  Military radio also makes the phones more versatile, as it eliminates reliance on a conventional cell phone tower.  Smartphones and tablets have also been used to control UAVs.  NATO allies are developing similar systems.[47]

The innovative Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has its own smartphone program called “Transformative Apps” to address disaster recovery and humanitarian relief, C3, mission planning, and logistics tracking.  This and a similar Navy initiative will also reduce the need for expensive proprietary software.  [48]  

Unfortunately, the rogue states have realized this potential as well.  A recent prisoner from the Syrian Air Force revealed how the Syrians were using iPads as an improvised version of World War II’s Norden bombsight.  The iPad was used to calculate “wind speed, aircraft speed, and their distance from the target to ensure accurate bombing results.”  The payload was “barrel bombs,” filled with explosives or chlorine gas.[49]  Will our adversaries leverage the potential of “improvised everything” before we do?

Leveraging the Power of “Improvised Everything”

How can the US and its allies increasingly exploit the power of “improvised everything”?  One way is to ensure that we are thinking about how rapidly evolving technologies can create new threat capabilities (called “red teaming”).  Related to this is the need for the military to be closely connected to, and aware of, innovations from the commercial world, even before they emerge.  If we know the new capabilities being brought forward, we can leverage them – or defend against them – better than our adversaries.

One way to spur innovative thinking among individuals and groups who do not typically work for the Department of Defense is through using R&D prizes.  Prizes have a distinguished lineage, employed historically by both parsimonious governments and wealthy private benefactors.  In fact, much of early aviation research worldwide, including Lindbergh’s flight, was incentivized by races and prizes.[50]  More recently, the establishment of performance benchmarks for computer workstations in the 1980s or technology roadmaps in the 1990s spurred innovation as companies tried to excel against them.

Prizes and competitions are not always optimal, but one of the advantages of the prize model is that it can incentivize multiple research efforts, yet the sponsor only pays for the successful result.  This is in stark contrast to much of today’s government R&D and procurement, where one, two, or three competitors may be chosen, then costs often balloon and expected performance diminishes. 

Prizes can be on a large scale, as with the X Prize for commercial space launch.  Conversely, they can be virtual and relatively small scale, as with the contests administered by companies such as Innocentive, IdeaConnection, and NineSigma.  Here a prize might be as little as $25,000.  (Full Disclosure:  Booz Allen has a strategic relationship with Innocentive).  Commercial companies are also adopting this model directly: algorithm development is one area where innovation, even from outsiders, can have a big payoff.  Amazon and Netflix have invited the “crowd in the cloud” to develop better algorithms for making recommendations to consumers regarding what other products they might like.  A small improvement here can make a big difference to the bottom line. The disproportionate success of Google is largely due to the fact that its algorithms performed a little better at finding information on the World Wide Web just as the Internet started experiencing exponential growth.

Even mining companies are crowd-sourcing the discovery of ore.  Goldcorp Inc. made all of its mining data back to 1948 available to prize competitors and offered $575.000 for help finding 6 million ounces of gold.  First, they ask interested “finders” to pick out the most promising locations from images where the company knew where the ore deposits were, then to predict new locations in the company’s holdings.  Drilling at the top four locations identified by the prize winners struck gold ore in each case.  [51]

Another approach to leverage “improvised everything” is repurposing.  In repurposing, you to take an object developed for one application and use it for something else.  The uses for smartphones described above can be used as non-military examples – who ever thought of a smartphone being used as a satellite, a heart rate monitor, a disease detector, or a chemical analyzer?  Who could have thought of using GPS to predict weather? During the Cold War, military equipment became more specialized, and less tied the commercial world – with perhaps predictable results in costs.  Now, with so much computing power being available in video game graphic chips or smartphones, this “improvised everything” philosophy may point a way to our future.  Certainly our adversaries think so.  They will continue to exploit the convergence of inexpensive computing power, software, and near ubiquitous communications with available weapons and explosives.   Will we respond with equal agility and innovation to reverse the blood-dimmed tide? 

End Notes

[1] The authors wish to acknowledge the help of Joe Mancusi, Joe Guerci, Art Fritzson, Rebecca P. Lucas, Charles P. Zuhoski, and Lance Acree.  All opinions expressed and all errors belong solely to the authors.

[2] For example, see Mitchell Prothero, “Lebanon’s AK-47 index may be pointing to war,” The National, February 3, 2010.

[3] See Gordon Moore, "Cramming More Components onto Integrated Circuits," Electronics Magazine Vol. 38, No. 8 (April 19, 1965) and "Progress in Digital Integrated Electronics" IEEE, IEDM Tech Digest (1975) pp.11-13.

[4] Max Boot, Invisible Armies (Liveright, 2013), p. xviii.

[5] U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), “The US Army Operating Concept:  Win in a Complex World, 2020-2040,” 31 October 2014, p. 10.

[6] Eliot Cohen and John Gooch, Military Misfortune, (New York:  Free Press, 1990), pp. 26-32. 

[7] Eliot Cohen and John Gooch, Military Misfortune, (New York:  Free Press, 1990), pp. 26-32.  Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America,

[8] Defense Science Board, Technology and Innovation Enablers for Superiority in 2030, October 2013, p. xi.

[9] We are indebted to Peter Taylor for imparting his knowledge of the expedients used in medieval sieges. See also Jonny Wilkes, “Did Defenders of castles really pour boiling oil down on attackers?” History Revealed,

[10] T. J. Waters, “Social Media and the Arab Spring,” November 14, 2012; David Faggard, “Social Swarming:  Asymmetric Effects on Public Discourse in Future Conflict,” Military Review, March-April 2013.  Ekterina Stepanova, “The Role of Information Technologies in the ‘Arab Spring,’ PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No 159, May 2011,

[11] Blake Hounshell, “The Revolution will be Tweeted,” FP Blog, July/August 2011,  "G8-G20 wireless signal blockers unlikely to leave cell phone users in a jam". CFTR (AM) (680News). The Canadian Press. 2010-06-09. Retrieved 2010-06-20 (cited by Wikipedia “2010 G-20 Toronto Summit”); Patrik Johnson, “To defuse ‘flash’ protest, BART cuts riders’ cell service.  Is that legal?,” Christian Science Monitor, August 12, 2011,

[12] C.M. Schonberg, A.A. Boubill, and H. Kretzmer, “Empty Chairs, Empty Tables,” Les Misérables [musical], accessed at Metro

[13] Bing West, No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle of Fallujah (Random House, 2006).

[14] Karby Leggett, “Key Issue in Lebanon Fighting:  How to Stop Hezbollah Rockets,” Wall Street Journal, July 17, 2006.  Karby Leggett and Jay Solomon, “Why Hezbollah is Proving So Tough on the Battlefield,” Wall Street Journal, August 3, 2006.  Jay Price, “Drone cargo helicopters prove worth in Afghanistan, leading way to civilian uses,” McClatchy, May 6, 2013,

[15] “Libyan Rebels Weaponize PowerWheels Toys,” Slashdot, June 15, 2011,

[16] Greg Zoroya, “How the IED changed the U.S. military,” USA Today, December 19, 2013.

[17] Margaret Coker, “How Islamic State’s Win in Ramadi Reveals New Weapons, Tactical Sophistication,” Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2015,  Ernest Sipes, “Islamic State turns U.S. vehicles into bombs,” Washington Times, September 7, 2015, p. A1.

[18] Max Boot makes a similar point regarding automatic weapons, RPGs, and MANPADS, but does not tie it in with the proliferation of communication, navigation, and computing devices.  Max Boot, Invisible Armies, p. xvii.

[19] David Richards and Greg Mills, “Introduction in idem,” Victory among People, I, cited in Evans, “Forking Paths.”

[20] Gal Luft and Anne Korin, “Terrorism Goes to Sea,” Foreign Affairs, November-December 2004,  See also Rohan Gunaratna, “The Threat to the Maritime Domain:  How Real is the Terrorist Theat,” in R.M. Lloyd, ed., William B. Ruger Chair of Economic Studies, no. 2, (Newport, RI: Naval War College, 2006), pp. 80-81.  E. Sullivan and M Apuzzo, “Bin laden Files Reveal Plans to Hijack and Blow Up Oil Tankers,” Huffington Post,  May 21, 2011,

[21] Thom Shanker, “Iran Encounter Grimly Echoes ’02 Game,” New York Times, January 12, 2008; Noah Schachtman, “How Iran Attacks at Sea,” Danger Room blog, (January 8, 2008).

[22] David Crist, “What Obama Should Learn from Reagan’s War with Iran,” Politico, May 3, 2015.  Andrew Krepinevich, “The Pentagon’s Wasting Assets,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2009,

[23] “Narco-submarine,” Wikipedia,; Jeremy Bender, “Cartels are using these narco-submarines to move tens of thousands of drugs at once,” Business Insider, April 6, 2015,

[24] Nina, Eaglin, “On the Waterfront,” 60 Minutes, July 25, 2003, “2008 Mumbai Attacks,” Wikipedia,  Andrew Kubik, “Swarming:  The Art of 21st Century Warfare,” Small Wars Journal,

[25] We are indebted to the late Rick Rescorla for this insight.  Michael Grunwald, “A Tower of Courage,” Washington Post, October 28, 2001, p. F1.

[26] “Media Reports of Terrorist Attempts to Employ UAVs,”; Paul Thompson, “The Failure to Defend the Skies on 9/11,”

[27] Brad Knickerbocker, “Plot to bomb Capitol with explosive-laden model plane foiled, FBI says,” Christian Science Monitor, September 28, 2011,; Jeevan Vasagar, “Students ‘planned terror attack using remote controlled planes,’”  The Telegraph (UK), 25 June 2013.; Anthony Kimery, “The Threat of Small, Manned, Unmanned Aircraft in Washington Airspace Has Long Been Known,”  The Kimery Report, April 30, 2015.

[28] Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE),; Wikipedia, “Air Tigers” [LTTE],; “Cheap Smart Weapons:  Rockets Galore,” Economist, September 29, 2012

[29] TRADOC, “US Army Operating Concept,” p. 11. Jennifer Hesterman, The Terrorist Criminal Nexus, (Boca Raton:  CRC Press, 2013), p. 290.  Graham Allison, Nuclear Terrorism (New York:  Times Books, 2004).  Chris Zappone, “ISIL Seizes Saddam Hussein’s former chemical weapons plant,” Sydney Morning Herald, June 20, 2014,  “Could ISIL go nuclear?, NATO Review (2015),

[30] Eric Schmitt and Ben Bubbard, “ISIS Leader takes steps to ensure group’s survival:  Power is parceled out,” New York Times, July 21, 2015, A1. Much has been written on the decentralized nature of terrorist organizations; a basic text remains Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom, The Starfish and the Spider (Portfolio, 2006).

[31] Thomas Harding, “Terrorists use ‘Google maps to hit UK troops’,” Telegraph, 13 January 2007,

[32] “9 Earth-Imaging Start-Ups to Watch,” IEEE Spectrum, 28 March 2014,

[33] Dana Priest, “Jet is an Open Secret in Terror War,” Washington Post, December 27, 2004, p. A1.  Gerard Seenan and Giles Tremlett, “How plane spotters turned into the scourge of the CIA,” The Guardian, December 9, 2005.  “Get the data:  drone wars,” The Bureau for Investigative Journalism,   Similar datasets have been compiled and analyzed at the Long War Journal, the Washington Post, ,and the geographic imaginings web site. 

[34] Angela S M Irwin and Jill Slay, “Detecting Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing Activity in Second Life and the World of Warcraft,” 2010 Cyber Resilience Conference; Dr. Jason J. Campbell, “Bitcoin and Cryptocurrency: Advantages and Disadvantages,”

[35] See, for example, “Mining Digital Gold” and “A New Specie,” Economist, April 13, 2013; Nathaniel Popper and Peter Lattman, “Never Mind Facebook:  The Winklevoss Twins Rule in Digital Money,” New York Times, April 11, 2013, A1; Anthony Faiola and T. W. Farnam, “The Rise of the bitcoin:  Virtual gold or cyber-bubble?”, Washington Post, April 4, 2013.

[36] “CubeSat,” Wikipedia; Robinson Meyer, “Some High Schoolers Built a Satellite and NASA Just Sent it to Space,” Atlantic, November 20, 2013. 

[37] Jean Kumaigi, “9 Earth-Imaging Start-Ups to Watch,” IEEE Spectrum, 28 March 2014.

[38] Kumaigi, “9 Earth-Imaging Start-Ups,”

[39] “GPS Radio Occultation,” Gene Zaleski, “Farmers Embrace GPS,” May 16, 2013, Quad City Times (, reprinted from Orangeburg (SC) Times and Democrat; Patrick J. Kiger, “10 Unconventional Uses for GPS,” 30 July 2015, How Stuff (http:\ stuff; “Curious and Unconventional Applications of GPS Tracking Systems,” 5 June 2012, T. Adriaens, et. al., (2015) “Trying to engage the crowd in recording invasive alien species in Europe: experiences from two smartphone applications in northwest Europe.” Management of Biological Invasions 6(2), 215-225,

[40] “GPS Radio Occultation,”

[41] Henry Fountain, “A Clearer View of the Space Bullet that Grazed Russia [Asteroid’s Aftermath:  A Sign of Relief]” New York Times, March 25, 2013, D3.

[42] Matthew Brunwasser, “A 21-st Century Migrant’s Essentials:  Food, Shelter, Smartphone,” New York Times, August 26, 2015, p. A1. 

[43] “Innovative Smartphone App Tests Your Urine for Medical Issues,” 28 February 2013  Matt McFarland, “Digital Stethoscope sets new beat for heart monitoring,” Washington Post, September 7, 2015. 

[44] Robert McMillan, “One Man’s Dream to Build a Supercomputer from Cellphone Chips,” WIRED, November 15, 2013; Lisa Zyga, “US Air Force Connects 1,760 Playstation 3s to Build Supercomputer,”; Seth Robson, “Smartphone upgrade keeps troops plugged in on the battlefield,” Stars and Stripes, April 12, 2013.

[45] Andrew Purcell, “Smartphone Grids – The Future of Distributed Computing,” ISGTW:  International Science Grid This Week [On-Line],

[46] “Great photos of the earth from the world’s smallest satellites,” CNN,

[47] Robson, “Smartphone upgrade”

[48] John Keller, “DARPA to create app store of military mobile apps that run on rugged smartphones and tablets,” Military and Aerospace Electronics, April 29, 2013; “Northrop to demo DARPA navigation system on Android,” Washington Business Journal, April 23, 2013.  John Keller, “Navy considers bomb-disposal applications that run on tablet computers or smart phones,” Military and Aerospace Electronics, April 8, 2013.

[49] Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Dropping a Barrel Bomb?  Apparently there is an app for that,” Washington Post, July 13, 2015.

[50] Dana Sobel, Longitude (New York:  Walker and Company, 1995); Ron Dick, “The Schneider Trophy,” Air & Space Magazine, May 31, 1988, available at

[51] Linda Tischler, “He Struck Gold on the Net (Really), Fast Company, June 2002,  Jesse Roy Wilson, “GoldCorp Crowdsourcing:  An Industry Best Practice for the Intelligence Community?”  JFQ [Joint Forces Quarterly], 2nd Quarter 2013, pp. 20 – 24.


About the Author(s)

David G. Smith is a lead associate at Booz Allen Hamilton and has worked for 23 years supporting Department of Defense and Homeland Security technology clients.  He has a doctorate in American History from Penn State University and a certificate in Terrorism Studies from the University of St. Andrews.

Allan O. Steinhardt is a fellow and executive advisor at Booz Allen Hamilton and leads teams providing technological advice and problem-solving to clients at multiple government agencies.  He has a doctorate in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Colorado at Boulder, has published over 200 articles in academic and defense strategy journals, and co-authored a book on adaptive radar. He is an Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers for his contributions to radar and radar processing.