Zefra

A friend sent me a copy of the book Crisis in Zefra, a fictional story about a future peacekeeping/counterinsurgency deployment, intended as a longer-term scenario planning document.

It was written by Karl Schroeder and can be downloaded from his site here. The book was commissioned by the Canadian military to help think through the shape of future missions. It is set, notionally, in about 2025.

The book covers a short period of time in the run-up to elections in a sub-Saharan city, beginning with an apparently normal day, during which counterinsurgents mount a major attack.

The book attempts to extrapolate technologies that are in use today to the 20-year-out timeframe — with varying degrees of success. Overall the book is interesting and worth reading for anyone who’s interested in asymmetric warfare and associated technologies.

As with most scenarios, the most interesting aspects are the blind spots. There are, of course, endless possibilities for how particular technologies might develop and so there are many potential arguments about whether this or that technology will be usable in that time frame. But there seem to me to be a couple of more strategic issues:

  1. Although there is a strong awareness of data analysis and knowledge discovery as important technologies, they are regarded as analyst tools to be invoked for a specific purpose when something attracts an analyst’s attention. For example, the technology to go back through satellite imagery and track back the trajectories of trucks and other vehicles is imagined. However, there is not sufficient awareness that these technologies can be used in a less-supervised way: by analysing such data constantly and reporting anything that appears anomalous, for example. In fact, these technologies are often most effective when they are used in a symbiotic way, with analyst and analysis software working in a tightly-coupled way, in which both sides develop their “understanding” and “techniques”.
  2. As I’ve commented before, when talking about sensemaking, most asymmetric and counterinsurgency settings should be regarded as complex systems, not complicated ones (in the Cynefin sensemaking sense). This difference is not appreciated in the analysis — the underlying attitude is that understanding the threats of the city is a big, messy problem, but one that could be fully dealt with, given enough time and resources. There’s not enough awareness of the unexpected, and broad planning for contingencies (“unknown unknowns” in the late-lamented phrase).
  3. Granted the existence of the level of technology in the story, not enough attention is paid to its prophylactic use. For example, it’s assumed that each patrol is proceeded by chemical sniffers that are able to detect the presence of explosives (the presumed solution to today’s huge problem of IEDs). However, given this technology, it would make sense to deploy it to provide barriers across which it would be difficult to take explosives at all — making it hard to get explosives into the city in the first place. Even if it is not practical to put a complete ring around the city, there are lots of benefits (as I’ve suggested in earlier discussions of defence in depth) to putting a border in place and looking hard at who tries to sneak around it.
  4. The one place where the technology extrapolation seems to be badly off is the assumption that the counterinsurgents will have biological weapons that can target anyone not a long-term inhabitant of the city because of their bone composition. This, it turns out, depends on what’s in the water that people drink over time. The technology to make these kind of assessments exists — there have been stories about police using them to determine where a body has come from; and no doubt we’ll see an episode of Bones that depends on this soon. But it’s a huge step from being able to detect such things in the lab, and being able to develop a biological vector that could be based on them. Not only is this probably too big a step for 20 years, but it’s also probably always going to be a bad idea because of the probability of unintended consequences.
  5. Maybe this is a blind spot for me, but the book assumes that patrols will continue to be an essential part of a deployment. And this in a world of semiautonomous devices that are at least as well equipped as an infantryman. I continue to be puzzled about the point of sending out patrols as a routine thing in Afghanistan. I can’t see any point to them in a city environment. Obviously, there are reasons for the military to go outside the perimeter of a secure area, but I don’t see the point of doing so to “show the flag” or any other diffuse goals.

These are not meant as criticisms of the book, which is an interesting and thought-provoking read.

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