With respect to the threat of global war in the current world, I once heard a retired US military leader say that we’re not really close to war now, and we’ve been much closer in the past, but the world has never been as complicated, connected, and dangerous as it is now. The events of the last year, but especially the last few months, have reinforced this point with respect to the complexity and fluidity of the homeland security threat space. Consider spy balloons that most of us had not even considered until recently, mass shootings so frequent that they almost disappear in a single news cycle, multiple ongoing regional conflicts with the very real threat of miscalculation and escalation, questions about the fragility of our banking systems when the whole system relies on trust and notquestioning its stability, and synthetic drugs which are cheap, easy to make, very concentrated and hence small, able to evade detection and maybe even laws, and don’t even need to cross a border in their final form if at all.
To borrow the imagery used by that same military leader cited above, the world is a spikey ball – push one spike in and two appear elsewhere. In this spikey ball of a world, reactive approaches won’t cut it. This is why, in addition to working on the problems that are front and center, the DHS Centers of Excellence also work on the problems that few people are thinking about and even fewer working on. As the CINA center evaluates possible projects submitted against our recent RFP, we try to strike a balance between solving tactical near term problems while also investing in over-the-horizon solutions, sometimes for problems that we don’t even fully understand yet. Some of these “reach” projects are trying to model aspects of that spikey ball so we’re not surprised when new spikes appear, or to get further “left of boom” as the saying goes, to understand the drivers and generators and early stages of some of these problems. To put such an approach in a real world context, it’s the difference between trying to stop the illicit drug trade by busting street dealers or users, versus walking back to the production and shipping activities where large quantities can be intercepted, or even back to the forces facilitating production and demand in the first place.
I recently attended a workshop focused on the disruption of illicit supply networks, a subject squarely in the DHS and CINA wheelhouses, and the discussions left me with mixed feelings. I was worried because of the group’s consensus that criminal organizations are more flexible, dynamic, and responsive than ever, and despondent because of the group’s inability to articulate much in the way of recent success stories. On the other hand, I met and interacted with a group of very smart, pragmatic, creative, and experienced people utterly committed to solving this class of problem. The attendees came from around the world, had varying backgrounds, and included academia, industry, law enforcement, and government. Motivations differed, but the common plan was clear: work the problem, make a difference, then work the problem some more. This is how hard problems are solved – not with a silver bullet or secret weapon, but with people bringing their best to bear to make incremental progress in pursuit of a common goal. We are proud to be a part of that ecosystem, we thank all of those who work these problems, often in obscurity, and we look forward to working the problem, making an difference, then working it some more.