“I’ve got bad news,” said the General, somberly, “It ain’t popular.”
The General is dressed in civilian clothes. We’re at a nice DC restaurant, one of those places with the sharp edged lines and soft lighting. He’s trying to fit in. Nonetheless, everything about him says military. He’s a man in his late 50s, experienced at both war and the politics of war. I know the man well, and his wrinkled face and serious eyes are delivering one message, ‘The Project is dead and I’m covering my ass.’
He has his civilian bosses to answer to, and I have mine. The Project may be dead, and he may need to tell me that, but I have an obligation to put up a decent defense.
“It is an effective project, Jim,” I answer.
“It is,” he concedes, “But people think you’re mercenaries.”
“They always would,” I said, “But why should they care. Look at where we were. The Islamist forces had found their winning formula. When Israel designed systems that could stop $50 incoming rockets at $150K apiece, the die was set. When we basically shut down our airports to stop the occasional bomber, the die was set. Our defenses cost so much more than their attacks that they could simply spend us into submission.”
The General rolls his whiskey glass in his fingers. He’s not a man you make uncomfortable, but he is not enjoying the conversation. And he knows where it is going and he knows where it will end. In the meantime, he’ll fidget with his whiskey.
“So you,” I continue, “Came up with an innovative solution. The Paramonetary Theater Management Group. You would pay private organizations to fight and protect civilians in target areas. If they were successful and highly-rated in civilian satisfaction surveys, then they would get a huge payout. But every civilian casualty – whether a victim of terrorism or collateral damage – would incur significant penalties for the company. The death of soldiers, subcontracted to these organizations but also paid a bonus for success, would result in significant penalties. You brought profit to war in order to combat crippling costs, and the results were fantastic. They weren’t immediate of course. But the private groups massively accelerated the pace of innovation. Chorus Series Hybrids were rolled out to reduce the logistical costs of fuel convoys without incurring the strategic risks of rare-earth systems. Remotely controlled robots were engaged for neighborhood pacification in particularly dangerous areas. But they were also used for outreach. In addition to carrying arms, the robots could knock on doors and connect the civilians inside to trained outreach coordinators who didn’t have to be in the war zone to do their jobs. We developed risk-calculating projectile defenses that only fired if the financial risks mandated it. We developed harmless cold viruses that turned deadly if they infected a high-value target. We developed universal battery systems and battlefield data-processing systems that enhanced every soldier’s understanding of the battlespace. And we did it all quickly and cheaply. And it was done on our own dime to get results that we could quantify.
“So, I have to ask,” I conclude, “Why is it unpopular?”
“People don’t like paying for war,” said the General, “It rubs everyone the wrong way. The civilian leadership knows the program has been successful. So they want to take the technology and dispose of the program.”
“And stop development?” I ask.
“Not stop it,” responds the General, “Just return it to the old price-structure and timelines of the past.”
“Why?” I ask, “There is so much more we can do. Why kill this?”
“You know why,” says the General, “They object to paying for war.”
“Even if they pay less?”
“Even if they pay less. And you know what Bob, they reject the whole premise we’re working from. They reject the idea that we put a dollar value on a civilian’s life.”
“Jim,” I answer, “You know that’s the best part of the program. Civilians know we value their lives. The enemy knows it must kill civilians to stop us. This is exactly the same as it was before. Except it isn’t. Why not? Because now, it is totally and undeniably, in the open. Civilians know we care. They know we want to win and then stay. And they know the enemy wants to kill them. Sure, the policy has brought a few protests, but mainly it has brought us widespread civilian support. We look like cynics, but our enemies look like murderers.”
“You can argue, Bob,” says the General, “But they are still going to kill it. The fact is, the optics are bad and the politicians think a wide-open, money-no-object, approach will overwhelm the enemy while making our allies a whole lot more comfortable.”
“Is it a done deal?” I ask.
“No,” said the General, “Nothing’s done until it is signed by the President. But it is as close as you can otherwise get. The good news is that there are at least some parts they want to keep.”
“Like the intelligence market. Apparently the flood of freelancers seeking high prices for their knowledge has really undermined enemy cells. They know intelligence is getting out, but they don’t know who’s selling. And the rating system has done a remarkable job of weeding out false flags.”
“Okay,” I said, “We can expand our intelligence ops. If we have the authority to ‘work’ locals.”
“No can do,” says the General, “You guys are going to be totally cut out. They don’t like you.”
“No way out?” I ask.
“No way out,” confirms the General.
He’s telling the truth. He always does.
As we finish our drinks, I plot my next step. We’ll ramp down our operations. And then we’ll wait.
The fact is, they need us.
Given some time, they’ll realize that’s still true.