The Man who led the Syrian Train-and-Equip Effort Wants A Cultural Translation App
The complex, delicate missions of today and tomorrow need a better way to bring fused intelligence to operators.
Sometimes the full story of a tragedy doesn’t come out until the people involved ask for tech solutions to help them avoid past mistakes. Take the train-and-quip program that aimed to create a moderate opposition force for Syria. Led by Lt. Gen Michael Nagata, the program is roundly seen as a failure, having consumed a half billion dollars while producing only 54 of a promised 1,500 fighters. President Obama canceled the effort in 2015, but the cause of the failure remains a matter of analysis and debate.
On Tuesday, Nagata shed some new light on the failed mission in the form of a wish list presented to industry at NDIA’s recent SO/LIC conference. Among his requests: build an app to provide instant expertise on local, cultural and political conditions — something like a Wikipedia for special operators.
“Our deployed elements are still highly dependent on contractor translators, globally provided escorts and the like,” Nagata said. “Could these … human-dependent capabilities be replaced by automated, field-available, language-translation and societal-navigation interpreters? Could we create a field-available Wikipedia-like service that is available to the individual operator without adding 70 pounds to his rucksack?”
The ultimate product would provide Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, and other special operators information on “the context of foreign environments, foreign customs, foreign cultures above and beyond the individual interaction we are having with an indigenous element.”
Nagata’s request speaks volumes about the challenge he faced: training a small army of Syrian civilians to take back their country from established fighting forces.
Nagata also said his operators were hindered by a lack of information-sharing on the battlefield. He longed for a better fusion of traditional human intelligence and simple open-source intel, presented to the operator in a way that doesn’t distract him or her from nearby dangers or the job at hand. The information should help troops better know the effect of actions they take before they take them and commanders better know what missions will fail before those missions are launched.
“Could industry help the SOF element with anticipating consequences?” Nagata asked. “Here's what I mean by that, anticipating correctly the consequences of the operations and the activities we undertake is often the trickiest and yet in some ways the most important part of our planning efforts, whether tactical or strategic. Too often the consequences we imagine in the planning bay do not play out in real life, it's the old adage no plan survives execution. Because the conditions we encounter in operating environment, we move into are not what we had assumed.”
Data doesn’t create understanding. And that’s what both planners and operators need more of before someone dreams up another train-and-equip mission.