CB 350

12 December 2023
Partner – Proxy – Glitch
Vertical Coalitions and the Question of Sovereignty in Networks
by Zac Rogers
Zac Rogers
Zac Rogers is an academic from Adelaide, South Australia. His research combines a traditional grounding in national security, intelligence, and defence with emerging fields of social cybersecurity, digital anthropology, and democratic resilience, working closely with industry and government partners across multiple projects. Parasitoid is his first book.

The conflict in Ukraine offers unexpected insight into a military construct which has previously been mostly theoretical. The scenario of Ukrainian ground forces fighting beneath an information domain dominated almost exclusively by American intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, while no US forces fight in the conflict, is what 1990s military theorists and strategists described as a ‘vertical coalition’. They conceived of it as the future of American warfare, during a brief period in which violent ground-based conflict among powerful states was believed by some to be vanishing from the world. The correlating concept of sovereign identity, as the founding principle of nation-statehood, was likewise considered by these vanguard thinkers to be malleable, or changing in historically unprecedented ways. Tracing the brief history of vertical coalitions reveals the unravelling of an entire way of seeing the world, even as they make their first appearance in the most unexpected war of the twenty-first century. They offer a live study in how truth and reality trade blows under modern conditions. 

Historical attempts to describe human beings and their affairs in reductionist, mechanical terms have acquired, over time, a spurious sense of the force of nature about them. Some contemporaries even find argumentative utility in placing these trends along something as absurdly modern as an arc of history. The truth is more banal. Much of the force in question can be explained by a repeating series of misappropriations. Context-dependent insights from the natural sciences get recursively generalised into the social and political sciences for contingent and partisan reasons. In other words, conventional political struggles for advantage play out behind the storied veil of epistemology. But the fact that patterns found here don’t necessarily apply over there has become something of a modern heresy in the age of statistical inference. Grand visions and historical arcs need only be invoked for the purposes of mythmaking; therein, perhaps, lies the rub. 

Post-war cybernetics and the cauldron of military affairs nonetheless supplied the impetus and an array of rhetorical language games – the implications of which continue to reverberate today – for the positivist and romanticist legacies, which interweave the meaning and role of the natural sciences in military and societal affairs to continue vying for advantage. Little distance, in fact, has been traversed beyond the French and German dichotomies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Twenty-first-century enlistments of nature’s irrefutable general laws as applied to war and society are in fact a pitiable muddle of positivist and romanticist humanisms. Little wonder at all that it feels befuddling to be alive right now. Both are stumbling recursions of Platonic and Monotheistic tales about the mysterious nature of truth and likewise its mysterious unfolding in human time. Neither copes well with the uncertainty that frames and penetrates human reality – indeed, the uncertainty that represents genuine insights from advances in science. Western modernity, in this sense, has demolished itself. Science discovers and explains – people recoil and retreat from what it finds. It has always been so. It is unscientific to believe otherwise, yet our culture continues to valorise the iconoclast’s hammer. For this reason alone, small worlds will soon rule the political landscape again. 

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So too have the critics of these importations and enlistments pointed beyond discrete instances of promiscuous agency to bigger things. Jessica Riskin, in her book The Restless Clock, explained the forcefulness of a passive mechanistic depiction of nature in scientific history as an attempt to preserve a God-shaped explanatory void. If nature was passively machine-like, how could it emerge autonomously without recourse to the divine? Likewise, in post-war cybernetics, the ability to describe the human element of machinic feedback requires the reduction of human features to a mechanisable and thus computable ontology. The tail wags the dog in the same way that the tool uses the user. Raising the machinic to the comparatively human, as seen in the current discursive on the sentience of statistical inference software, is evidently to stretch the silliness a little too far. It appears much easier to get humans to think and act mechanically – to downgrade their sentience to a Bayesian system-of-systems that few laypersons can critically evaluate. It’s difficult to judge whether the positivists or the romanticists would be more disappointed, as such cartoonishly commercial incentives have displaced the great questions of knowing. Nevertheless, the stubbornly reflexive human animal remains the primary glitch in the science and pseudoscience of control. Ironically, when we are talking about emergence in complex systems, the forces favouring ontological monism seem to invoke their own opposition. Some of this undoubtedly prefigures the contemporary significance of the politics of identity. 

Vertical Coalitions

Informed by several such enlistments, in the 1990s much of the conversation within the US national security and strategy communities focused on what advantages could be expected from the future of networked digital information technologies. As owner and administrator, the US stood peerless atop this new regime of technology. No other nation approached the American military’s capacity to sense – and with the revolution in precision-guidance, no one doubted its ability to shoot at what it sensed. For a time, this regime was referred to as dominant battlespace knowledge (DBK). But how to translate DBK into military and strategic outcomes? Serious heads, such as the late Andrew Marshall and his pupil Andrew Krepinevich, frequently counselled on the need for technological innovations to be culturally and organisationally materialised for advantage to accrue, lest their value be squandered. One answer spanning the gamut from tactics to strategy was the concept of vertical coalitions.Vertical coalitions supposedly offered a US military enterprise wielding DBK the prospect of greater strategic value, at lower operational cost and reduced political risk.

Vertical coalitions were a military adaptation of the vertical alliance concept originating in corporate business. There, the term describes a business-level strategic relationship between a firm and its suppliers or distributors, aimed at improving competitive advantage. Vertical alliances deepen relationships between the firm and its suppliers and distributors, through the exchange of knowledge and commercial intelligence, to mutual benefit. When a supplier or distributor agrees to work exclusively with a firm, it can bring about a ‘lock out’ dynamic that further enhances the firm’s competitive advantage by denying valuable commercial intelligence to rivals. Suppliers benefit by becoming actively involved in product design and distribution arrangements. A supplier might only agree to being ‘locked in’ if it sees for itself a strategic advantage in doing so, for example the prospect of a powerful market position or, better yet, a monopoly. Indeed, choosing the right partner is an important factor in the success of the strategy, making common intentions and compatible business visions a must. In the business world, actors considering a vertical alliance analyse each other’s corporate cultures to map learning opportunities and avert communication problems. It’s easy to see why military thinkers considering the implications of the digital networked age would be attracted.

One of the chief thinkers on vertical coalitions for the military was Martin Libicki. Libicki used the term to describe the way in which US air power and expeditionary forces were used commonly in the past, in combination with a beleaguered ally on the ground who was expected to provide the bulk of ground forces. In contrast to ‘horizontal coalitions’, which involved two or more brigades fighting side-by-side in combined operations, Libicki anticipated that future military coalitions would be decidedly more vertical, and that the emerging reality of DBK would be the critical enabler. In sum, it was a vision of how the United States would fight and win in the future. Libicki wrote in 1995, 

We would supply overall intelligence on the whereabouts and movements of distant echelons. Our overhead systems (both space and air breathing) would permit pinpointing of enemy platforms. Our distributed sensor systems would be put in place to operate, analyze, and convert data into fire-control solutions. This would permit friendly forces to take precise measure of the enemy, providing them with real-time one-shot, one-kill capability. We might even control the targeting once they have fielded the weapon. In some cases, the United States might be able to tilt the contest to one side without unambiguous proof that we had intervened at all. The use of stand-off sensors as a substitute for forces also frees us from the necessity of overseas bases; they permit more operations to be planned and conducted from international waters.

– Martin Libicki

Critically, vertical coalitions offered junior partner states a quid pro quo. As the predominant actor in the information domain, the US was able to provide its partner states with access to otherwise unavailable information needed to manage their spatial environments. In this way,the DBK regime was scalable. This arrangement did not apply only to the contingencies of high-intensity warfare. The US could provide a variety of information, includingenvironmental degradation, law enforcement (particularly in the maritime domain), transportation, transnational crime, disaster relief and so forth. In return, US sensor systems would be granted access to such entities as open skies, extant monitors and databases, supply lines and logistics. Sensing the underlying political tension, Libicki thought that such an arrangement was contingent on the provision of information at such a level of detail that the US could not be accused of only granting access to information supporting its own objectives.

Nonetheless, the US’ owner and administrator status would have a subtle but pervasive effect on what partners saw when they plugged into the system. It guarded US sensitivities, emphasised strengths and acted as a powerful moderator of adventurism, given that all participants were acutely aware of their own transparency. Broadly speaking, Libicki enunciated a vision of the ‘illumination’ of the battle space and the proprietary ‘unbundling’ of that illumination to include allies and partners with the potential to keep alliances and coalitions together, drive down risk and mistrust caused by opacity, and increase cooperation on the back of common goods.

Notwithstanding its political and identarian vulnerabilities, this expansive vision had a technical Achilles heel. How would vertical coalitions turn out in a world where cyber vulnerability had become the defining condition of anything relying heavily on use of the EMS? Further, was it a realistic prospect when politics among nations returned to its historical norm, after a brief and hubristic hiatus post-Cold War? Either way, few military analysts anticipated that we would get the chance to see a vertical coalition in action, let alone in a hot war with the Russian Federation this shallow into the twenty-first century. The fate of junior nation-states in vertical coalitions with the US should now be front of mind in every capital in which the digital age of networked everything is already a fait accompli, because we are watching the construct operate in the furnace of battle.  

Sovereign identity in networks

Tear-lines and NOFORN classifications have long been a reality of coalition warfare. The political and technical logistics of information sharing carries a rather tortured legacy in military operations, even among the closest of allies. Today, governments frequently espouse their commitment to the importance of knowledge and concurrence regarding the use of national military forces, platforms, personnel and territory. A closer look reveals moving hands. The technological functionality of information systems under networked warfare may have been a chief focus of critique over the past three decades since Libicki’s writing,precisely because it is easier to point out the vulnerabilities in cyberspace than it is to tackle the question of sovereign accountability within networks. Knowledge and concurrence is understood by the layperson to be more than a matter of administrative confidence in the systems in question. It’s still about what the system spits out, and why. People under sovereign government care about why their government acts. 

Several features of the war in Ukraine raise questions not prefigured in the discourse on vertical coalitions of the 1990s. For example, few envisioned the senior partner supplying all the armaments. US dominance in exquisite high-end weaponry was not expected to be accompanied by the massive drain on basic artillery stocks witnessed in Ukraine. In addition, the truly vertical nature of the coalition may be questioned, when the dispersed geographical footprint of the digital stack which drives digitised warfare is properly understood. A targeting system ingesting data and developing fire-control solutions for the frontline is part of the military kill chain, is thus a legitimate target in war, and is operating outside local territory. Vertical coalitions create horizontal risks.

Crucially, the increasing use of statistical inference software for intelligence products and decision making within US-led coalition environments introduces another whole species of political questions. Beyond tear lines and NOFORN, the inscrutable nature of statistical inference products buries issues of knowledge and concurrence for sovereign governments even more deeply. The commercial private sector entanglement of such products enjoins a sprawling commercial ecosystem of digital stakeholders, vulnerabilities, and influences of interest to governments sending forces into battle over which they have little provenance. Indeed, the inscrutable nature of vanguard automated data science may present the greatest challenge to sovereignty within coalitions that we have seen to date. To return to Libicki’s sense of the political tension, in the age of statistical inference via Bayesian reasoning, the system administrator may be unaware of the origins of certain features of an intelligence output, let alone able to present it as transparent. In other words, the way that the intelligence might support parochial interests is buried too. If it arrived via a neural network of Bayesian probabilities, who would know? Don’t ask the data scientists, because they cannot tell you. 

One thing is known. The disciplines of security studies and international relations are not yet in possession of the explanatory tools to grapple with these issues. Until they are, our understanding of politics among sovereign nation-states – allies, partners, and enemies –during and outside of wartime remains mired in an opaque interregnum. Political leadership can only be downstream from this, democratic accountability even further. This is dangerous because sovereign people will demand that their government acts in ways that do not violate their political identity. Sooner or later. If governments can’t say why they acted, because the reason was a probabilistic inference spawned from the fusion of poisoned and leaking data, the absence of an answer to that question is not an answer. Not when lives, and the meaning of those lives as political actants, are at stake. 

As Margaret MacMillan reminded us on the eve of its hundred-year anniversary, we still do not really know why World War I happened. Cartoonish enlistment of trends in pop science, and the unwillingness to confront actual learnings from those enlistments gone awry, may have been politically ignorable in the brief holiday from history from which we have recently been returned. It would be a historical anomaly if such hubris did not come at great cost now that the holiday is adjourned.   


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