Wicked Harsh

By Jason Sherman / October 2, 2009 at 5:00 AM

“Wicked” -- that favorite adjective of New Englanders from certain neighborhoods -- should be accorded a place in the most serious precincts of U.S. national security debate and used to categorize the most difficult set of defense challenges.

That is a central recommendation of the Defense Science Board, which, in a report made public yesterday, calls for the Pentagon to form a new shop -- the Capability, Assessment, Warning and Response Office -- dedicated to wrestling with what it calls “wicked problems”

Are these evil, morally wrong problems? Not exactly. “Wicked problems” are complex and multivariable and do not have set solutions, according an essay on the concept attached to the report in an appendix.

The “wicked problems” construct was set forth in 1973 by U.C. Berkley professors Horst Wittel and Melvin Webber to describe challenges that are entwined in other problems and contain contractions or incomplete information, the essay states.

Wicked problems involve many stakeholders with competing viewpoints and goals. Attempts to deal with these problems impact other issues that can paradoxically produce negative and positive results, according to the DSB report on capability surprise.

Their potential to produce that surprise, according to the DSB, warrants a staff dedicated to focusing full-time on such challenges.

For many decades, the DOD has sustained an aggressive combination of technology, operations and policy initiatives to keep the nation secure. These expanding threats and limited resources demand that the department be managed with a combination of the best possible intelligence, the most aggressive technology programs, and inventive operational applications. There is benefit in an explicit methodology to highlight opportunities for interdiction and/or misdirection.

One option is to have a high-level, centralized organization be responsible for preventing or mitigating surprise... A central organization could ensure a reasonably exhaustive, capability-by-capability evaluation of the likelihood that an adversary will achieve a symmetric capability at parity with, or beyond our own; and the likelihood that an adversary can counter/deny us a critical capability. A central organization can have all the access required to understand present and future military capabilities while still ensuring the secrecy and sanctity of our development and operation of critical capabilities. An organization that stands above the individual capability developers and maintainers can bridge across them and consider alternative courses of action that might hedge a capability in one modality with a capability or basket of capability across other modalities. And, an organization so-placed can actually manage the hedging process.