- Coolest dudes on the planet, no matter whose pond they’re wading in. (Image: U.S. Navy SEALs)
Back in March, I wrote that Texas wasn’t being invaded in exercise Jade Helm 2015. The exercise isn’t about confiscating guns, and it won’t involve violations of Posse Comitatus.
I’ve updated information as it has come along on the exercise: when Texas Governor Greg Abbott decided to have the Guard monitor it (which I support), and when it became clear that the exercise is to be spread geographically further across Texas than originally briefed (which bears watching).
Now it’s time to take on a theme that has taken off over the last month. The Jade Helm exercise motto is “Master the Human Domain,” which has been a head-scratcher for many. The expression “human domain” comes from a Department of Defense effort, dating from the mid-2000s, to codify and plan for the environment of human activity in which the military has to operate during non-traditional missions.
- There are three things to say up front. One, it does matter that this was chosen as the motto of the exercise. It’s not just a cute slogan; it means the exercise is focused on “mastering the human domain.”
- Two, almost all of the speculation I’ve seen out there on what “mastering the human domain” is about appears to be profoundly mistaken. It’s not about eugenics, for example. Nor do attempts to break down the words “Jade” and “Helm” as acronyms lead to anything validly connected to the DOD human domain effort.*
- Three, the human domain aspect does illuminate some things for us, and it does suggest a particular area of concern, especially for an exercise series that is supposed to be held among the communities of the American people.
(If you’re already convinced about the DOD programmatic origins of the human domain concept – a number of websites have provided discussions of it – and if you understand that it is very much about information technology and intelligence, you can skip to the segments on “application to Jade Helm,” below.)
The “human domain”
The need for a “human domain” effort became clear as the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq unfolded. Counterinsurgency, with its aspects of embeddedness and pervasive contact across all segments of society, just isn’t the same thing as the more conventional model of rolling in hot, blasting military targets to bits, and forcing a political settlement on a recognized authority in a capital city somewhere.
But information connectedness is also a key to understanding the idea of the human domain. Modern insurgents and other disruptive elements make tremendous use of information technology (IT) – and that in turn means that DOD wants to find ways to use it even smarter than the bad guys do. Instead of detection and intelligence systems being stovepiped and specialized, a modern military needs to move and breathe in a pulsating environment of smart data on the human domain, if it’s to be the most agile, fastest-moving actor in the conflict problem. The smart data can cover everything from local social customs and economic activities to alerts gleaned from social media and the “meta-patterns” of cell phone use.
For obvious reasons, special forces – the ones whose disciplines are being exercised in Jade Helm 15 – find the human domain to be an especially big deal. Because of the tasks they are assigned, the human domain is particularly likely to be relevant to their operations. And the link between the human domain push in DOD, and the human domain motto of Jade Helm 15, has left a traceable paper trail.
When DOD issued the first strategic guidance for the “human domain” of warfare in 2010, the military services hopped on board with their individual program lines to do R&D and develop doctrine in their respective warfighting spheres. Figure 1, from an Air Force presentation on human domain factors modeling, shows a snapshot of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps players from 2011. The focus on irregular warfare is clear (although the effort still lacked programmatic specificity at that point.)
The broad extent of the human domain effort can be seen in figure 2, from the Defense Technical Information Center. It depicts several years’ worth of related studies and projects contracted by DOD entities – both the DOD staff and the services – through a DOD program launched in 2008 called the Minerva Initiative. The high-level interest in the human domain as a focus of warfighting was affirmed in a white paper from the Army, Marine Corps, and Special Operations Command in 2013.
The thread we are most interested in is the one that runs through the Army, whose special forces command, USASOC (U.S. Army Special Operations Command), has been on point to the public for Jade Helm. The Army was already on the trail of human domain warfighting at the time DOD adopted it as an official line of effort. By 2007, the Army had cobbled together an Army Human Terrain System (official website here), which deployed Human Terrain Teams to try to operationalize insights from anthropology and related disciplines to improve operational methods and outcomes in Afghanistan. The project has, admittedly, come in for intense criticism from multiple vectors (e.g., here, here, and here).
But Army doctrine authorities remain committed to human domain programming (i.e., training for it, developing systems for it, having doctrine for it). And Army special operations forces are building their plan for the future force around it, as laid out in the ARSOF 2022 planning document.
In doing this, ARSOF planners draw their authority partly from the joint Special Operations Command (SOCOM), whose vision for a force in 2020 is cited on page 7 of the ARSOF 2022 document:
“SOCOM must not only continue to pursue terrorists wherever we may find them, we must rebalance the force and tenaciously embrace indirect operations in the Human Domain — the totality of the physical, cultural and social environments that influence human behavior in a population-centric conflict.” …
“While SOF is designed to contribute to or support efforts in every domain of warfare, the vast majority of SOF expertise lies in the Human Domain of competition, conflict and war. The Human Domain is about developing understanding of, and nurturing influence among critical populaces. Operating in the Human Domain is a core competency for SOF and we are uniquely suited for successful operations or campaigns to win population-centric conflicts.”
It would require too much space here to discuss all the elements taken into account in “population-centric conflicts.” For further reading, I recommend a study updated for USASOC in 2013 called Human Factors Considerations of Undergrounds in Insurgencies.
The SOF emphasis on the human domain is significant because Jade Helm is a SOF exercise. But it’s also significant because Jade Helm is designed to feature interoperation between special forces and conventional forces. That point has been emphasized in the public briefs on the exercise, and Jade Helm makes so much of it because of a recent trend in thinking about such interoperability in the Department of Defense, both within the SOF community and at the higher levels of command that subsume all warfare communities.
See background links within the text of my March post on Jade Helm – but also see here: an Army War College paper from 2013 on “Interdependence between U.S. Army Special Operations Force and Conventional Forces.” This paper has been broadly cited in community discussions of the needs and future of SOF, and it too places a significant emphasis on the human domain.
Unquestionably, the capstone SOF exercise of a generation – which is what Jade Helm 2015 is – will be about operating in the human domain. The motto “Master the Human Domain” reflects that.
Application to Jade Helm: Cultural understanding
But what does that mean for the exercise this summer? A lot of websites out there are trying to make this about population control of some kind (i.e., through deception, subversion, detention), up to and including a eugenics push. (Just do a search on “Jade Helm” and “eugenics” and you’ll come right to the websites.) It is, however, nothing of the sort.
For one thing, nothing in the background material on the human domain effort can legitimately be read in that light. The essential premise of the military’s human domain concept is quite clearly that populations and their cultures and routine activities take moral and political precedence over military tasks. The military posture will be one of adapting – working within the constraints of local norms – and, if possible (as mission-appropriate), influencing and persuading. Whether SOF or conventional forces, the U.S. military expects to operate frequently in an environment dictated by local human conditions – not to dictate those things to the local people.
The strategic utility of this mindset, and whether America ought to be sending forces out to operate in this way, are topics for another time. (I don’t dispute that it’s legitimate to question using military force in this way.) The point here is that mastering the human domain is predicated on it, and the exercise play in Jade Helm will be too.
This point underlies one of two key aspects of Jade Helm that we can extract from the emphasis on “mastering the human domain.” I’ll address the second aspect in the segment below on “intelligence operations.”
Regarding the first aspect, which I refer to generally as “cultural understanding”: we know that Jade Helm is an unconventional warfare exercise, meaning that it’s about the irregular warfare discipline of supporting foreign insurgencies against hostile governments (again, see my March post). There are two big clues as to what that means for the exercise.
One clue was embedded in the USASOC brief shopped around Texas in March and April. Slide 7 of that brief explained why Texas was chosen for the live-play terrain:
The United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) has conducted numerous exercises in Texas because Texans are historically supportive of efforts to prepare our soldiers, airmen, marines and sailors to fight the enemies of the United States.
The second bullet on that slide provides a good compilation of operating requirements that are common to SOF and all human domain warfighting:
To hone advanced skills, the military and interagency require large areas of undeveloped land with low population densities with access to towns. The proposed areas offer the conditions conducive to quality training because of real obstacles to challenge joint and IA personnel during planning and execution of their tasks. These challenges include:
– Operating outside the normal support mechanisms
– Adapting to unfamiliar terrain, social and economic conditions
– Operating in and around communities where anything out the ordinary will be spotted and reported (locals are the first to notice something out of place)
– The opportunity to work with civilians to gain their trust and understanding of the issues
In an interview with blogger Aaron Wilson, the Army spokesman for Jade Helm, LTC Mark Lastoria, added some depth to that earlier clue:
Q: [Wilson] What is this “blending in” that you talked about in Bastrop [TX]?
A: [Lastoria] We want to get the Midwest mindset going, it is an adaptive technique, a subtly [sic] we need to master, quite different than Atlantic Coast style.
What Lastoria is talking about is learning and adapting to cultural cues in the human domain. He points out (elliptically, but you know this if you know where ARSOF regularly conduct exercises) that the cultural conditions in Texas will be somewhat different from those on the Atlantic Coast. (Primarily North Carolina.) That’s a desirable feature for a robust training evolution.
But put that together with the original point from the briefing: that Texas was chosen because of the traditional friendliness of the population. That characteristic fits well with the population profile SOF would expect if it deployed abroad for unconventional warfare. The U.S. would deploy SOF to link up with friendly elements of local populations for an unconventional warfare mission.
Putting it all together now: we might know going in that these foreign populations were friendly (like Texas) in the sense of sharing a political goal with us. But SOF would still need to understand their local norms to operate among them successfully. That, in sum, is the live-play proposition of Jade Helm.
The other big clue to this “cultural understanding” aspect of the human domain in Jade Helm is also from Lastoria’s interview with Aaron Wilson. It’s this brief passage:
Q: What does the wooden clog symbolize in your logo center between the crossed arrows and dagger?
A: It relates to N. European resistance to tyranny going back some 70 years and a reuniting with a democratic form of governance.
Frankly, although I didn’t key on the clog, I immediately thought of the U.S. connection with European resistance movements when I first saw the original briefing back in March, and connected it with the meaning of “unconventional warfare.” The main example that occurred to me was the French resistance in World War II. The clog would symbolize equally the resistance movements in the Netherlands and Belgium. (Although Lastoria refers to “northern Europe,” other examples from the same period would be the resistance movements in Greece and the Balkans.)
Jade Helm, in other words, really is about practicing the skills needed to embed with a resistance movement in a foreign population, where the government is hostile. “Mastering the human domain” relates to the requirements and skills for that mission.
I don’t believe the exercise scenario designates the state government of Texas as a hostile entity. There is no indication of that. Given the fact that straightforward conclusions about Jade Helm make sense based on DOD policy, and on what has actually been said about the exercise, there appears to be no reason to speculate fancifully on this head.
“Hostile,” where it is played live in these exercises, is typically played by a separate force drawn from the designated agency or service participants, and organized to act independently. In this case that would include DOD entities and players from other agencies, such as homeland security and the FBI. (If you’d like a concurring opinion on that from another vet, I can recommend the very sensible post here.)
Application to Jade Helm: Intelligence operations
That said, the second key aspect of Jade Helm should be of concern to us. And the validity of this concern is revealed most clearly by filtering the Jade Helm event through the prism of the “human domain.”
To put it briefly: from the perspective of American citizens, collecting and processing intelligence for human domain operations is likely to be intrusive and unacceptable in the IT realm.
Almost nothing has been said in public about the IT element in human domain operations, as it relates to Jade Helm. But if you investigate human domain theory, IT figures hugely in it. Much of operationalizing the human domain concept is about leveraging – wait for it – “Big Data”: that universe of data now floating around on people and events.
An example that would probably apply to an exercise like Jade Helm is monitoring the routine communications of the local population, whether by scooping in data from social media or by some means of watching patterns in communications metadata (e.g., big spikes in cell-phone calls just before major events, or just after something unique has been detected by the locals). These are simplified examples, meant to suggest the categories of phenomena that human domain intelligence would be looking for.
But the Big Data aspect of the approach is what’s most important. (Hang in there with me; I promise you, this all matters.) The concept of human domain intelligence explicitly says that the old-style collection of data – against designated targets, and once those targets are thought to be meaningful – is inadequate. See figure 3 for a representation of this old-style mode of collection.
What human domain intelligence envisions is using the Big Data construct of persistent surveillance, meaning that the types of activity from which you can sometimes need to draw conclusions should be collected constantly and comprehensively, and then stored, and “pulled” from – data-mined – at the moment of need. (See figures 4 and 5.)
If this sounds like the description of NSA’s notorious database – the trillions and trillions of bits of unfiltered metadata being collected and stored on Americans’ IT activities over the past decade – that’s because it is. The chirpy tone in which DOD briefers and contractors discuss the need for a persistent, Big Data approach indicates how routine and accepted the concept is today in government planning.
(For additional perspective, see the entire brief here from which figure 5 is an excerpt, and note the proposed application for emergency management and law enforcement use in slides 30-32. The vision for using Big Data involves massive and persistent “mapping” of human activity. In DOD’s human domain approach, Big Data is focused through the lens of an analytical rubric called Activity Based Intelligence, or ABI, which is discussed in the slide presentations linked above as well as here and here.)
Now, constant collection is a very fine thing against foreign targets. If our special forces deploy into foreign territory to assist an insurgency we support against a hostile government, I hope the military is collecting the living snot out of the whole environment, IT included, as persistently and intrusively as we can manage.
But if an exercise is being held in the state of Texas – whose IT environment is being persistently collected against, to simulate the conditions special forces need for mastering the human domain? What are they doing with the data? What happens to the data afterward? Is this something the citizens of Texas would approve?
Interestingly, in spite of the cloak of secrecy that always attends special operations, I’ve seen one reference to IT surveillance in reporting on Jade Helm, from this Gawker post by William M. Arkin in May:
Jade Helm is particularly focused on what’s called intelligence preparation of the battlespace (IPB), and the skills of surveillance and cellphone interception—targeting—that goes on in the Middle East and Africa.
Arkin doesn’t say what the source of this factual assertion is, but it does fit in with the common focal points of special operations and human domain operations. And Arkin gets some other things right, like his allusion to “Phase Zero” as the earliest preparing-the-battlespace phase of a campaign’s life cycle. We can assume with confidence that he’s correct here.
Concerns about Jade Helm 2015
That’s why I conclude this post with a reiteration of concern about Jade Helm. The more we know, the better defined our concerns can be. Initially, my main issue was that Americans should not simply accept being conditioned to having military exercises unfold in the midst of our communities. We need not imagine that anyone has bad intentions, to recognize that that is still a bad idea. It opens a door to misuse, down the road, of inherently dangerous activities we’ve become complacent about.
The other concern is what exactly will be going on with the IT-oriented, persistent-surveillance-plus-Big-Data aspect of Jade Helm and its human domain focus. Someone in Texas – ideally, starting with the governor – should know what’s being done in that regard.
In fact, a condition of holding this kind of exercise in a state should be that the governor can select some people to be read into the requisite defense programs, and watch what’s being done in real time.
Senators and congressmen certainly have the right to inquire into this on behalf of their constituents. There’s a valid need for operational secrecy, but if the American people are being collected on by any agency of the government, they have the right to critical, skeptical, even adversarial representation. Ideally, more than one branch or level of government should be looking out for their interests. One of the purposes of checks and balances is to ensure against just such a situation as unchecked presumptions being made in favor of the executive branch.
Government collecting Big Data on the American people, for general purposes, is a whole separate question, and I won’t get into it here. But the necessity of doing it for a military exercise – assuming that is in fact what’s being planned – is a distinct question in and of itself. The line protecting Americans’ rights becomes very shaky if military exercises start treating the citizens as if we are foreign collection targets, just because that can be done undetectably, without citizens being aware of it.
* A number of websites are repeating a theme that “Jade” stands for Joint Assistant for Deployment and Execution, and that this planning software is connected somehow to the human domain aspect of the exercise. This is incorrect (indeed, rather laughably so).
The Air Force commissioned a DARPA project in 1997 to produce a computerized tool that would help build a fearsome deployment-planning database known to harassed mid-grade officers as the TPFDD (“tip-fid,” or Time-Phased Force Deployment Data). The project ran through 2001, and was reported out here. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the human domain effort.
The word Helm, meanwhile, is not an acronym for “Homeland Eradication (or Elimination) of Local Militants.”