They might not build $150-million F-22 stealth fighters, but in other ways insurgents and terrorists are amazingly tech savvy. For one, they’re hip to using grungy, bare-bones websites to spread tactics and ideology across the planet on the cheap, transforming once-isolated local and regional conflicts into genuine threats to global stability. Author John Robb calls this “open-source warfare,” and believes it’s the most important force shaping the 21st century.
If so, we’re screwed. Seven years after the launch of Wikipedia — the user-edited online encyclopedia that brought the “open source” concept to the masses — the U.S. Army is still playing catch-up. The Army’s idea of harnessing the ‘net is to launch isolated websites, put generals in charge and lock everything behind passwords, while banning popular open-source civilian websites. Colonel James Galvin, head of the Army’s “Battle Command Knowledge System,” openly admits that when it comes to the collaborative internet, the bad guys have a “niche advantage.”
It didn’t have to be this way. Around four years ago there was a grass-roots explosion of informal web-based tools for soldiers. Four captains at West Point founded companycommand.com as a forum for junior officers to swap battlefield lessons. And the 1st Cavalry Division launched CAVNET to sponge up and spread patrol tactics in Iraq. Both were victims of their own successes.
Galvin’s office, located at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, was set up to institutionalize these forums and others. To the Army, that meant hiding them all behind the password-protected Army Knowledge Online web portal, and assigning trained moderators and high-ranking “sponsors” to each site. The result is forums that are less accessible, less nimble, less innovative and less effective than their counterparts in the shadowy world of terrorists and insurgents. Oh, and there still aren’t any official Army wikis.
Besides adhering to strict security standards, Galvin stresses that the Army must also balance “both hierarchy and networking.” “If you’ve got hierarchy, you’ve got direction — and if you bring in networking, you’ve got direction and collaboration.” But limiting collaboration to AKO password-holders artificially shrinks the network, and makes the whole process perhaps too insular to be truly innovative. I’m not saying that Army forums should be totally unprotected from insurgent snoopers. But they should be expanded, and loosened, to allow students, academics, journalists and, yes, even members of the general public to participate on some level. That’s risky, sure, but worth it.
Galvin advises patience. “Our leaders are getting comfortable working in that [collaborative] environment,” he says. And that means Army wikis aren’t far off. But even if they arrived tomorrow, they’d still be seven years late.