Civil Aviation: A Case Study in Systems Disruption

I recently finished “Brave New War,” a 2006 book by asymmetric warfare specialist John Robb. He argued that the primary goal of al Qaeda’s terrorism was to provoke the U.S. leadership into pursuing the very policies it has been pursuing, and to instigate the very changes in American society that have actually taken place.

Bin Laden’s 2004 assessment of the 9-11 attacks estimated $500 billion in economic damage to the U.S. economy.  Given the $500,000 cost of the operation, that was a million-to-one payoff. Al Qaeda’s subsequent attacks have amounted largely to baiting: Trying to goad the U.S. government into doing stupid things that cost them money and impose inefficiency costs on the economy. Bin Laden called it the “bleed-until-bankruptcy plan.”

According to Robb (“Open Source Jihad”, Global Guerrillas, Nov. 21), al Qaeda’s literature openly describes its strategy as based not on inflicting maximum human casualties, but on maximizing Return on Investment (ROI) in terms of economic damage to the West achieved by a given terror attack compared to the cost of launching it. Low-cost, low-risk attacks, al Qaeda’s leadership explicitly states, can achieve a million-to-one return on the cost of conducting them.

By that standard, the Underwear Bomber was an overwhelming success. Public disgruntlement over the new passenger inspection regime instituted by TSA will, in all likelihood, wind up reducing the volume of air travel by at least ten percent. And according to Inspire, a slick popular magazine published by al Qaeda, the goal of the recent parcel bomb attempt (which cost only $4,000) was to “inflict maximum damage on the American economy.”

Al Qaeda’s main consideration in staging such attempts is the response it intends to provoke from TSA, and the resulting long-term effects on the American economy. And the most important effect, from al Qaeda’s perspective, is long-term systems disruption.

Corporate capitalism is overwhelmingly dependent on centralized transportation, communication and financial infrastructures that are extremely vulnerable to disruption. To render a centralized system inoperable, it’s not necessary to incapacitate most of its physical infrastructure — a small number of its most vulnerable nodes will do.  A $2,000 attack on a few key nodes of the oil pipeline system can cost hundreds of millions in oil revenues and lost economic production for want of fuel.

What’s more, these centralized systems actively cooperate in their own disruption, thanks to the stupidity of the folks in charge of them. Every time their security is challenged, they respond by becoming even more centralized, authoritarian, and brittle.

And the more authoritarian the centralized infrastructures become in reaction to terror attacks, the less functional they become. Increased surveillance simply generates more false positives in a system already paralyzed by the volume of raw intelligence, while increased authoritarianism makes the system less agile. Every knee-jerk reaction to the previous attack not only makes the system less effective for its primary purpose (supporting economic activity), but renders it less capable of preventing further attacks.

What’s more, increasing authoritarianism leads to public grumbling, and hurts the government’s image in domestic and world opinion.

The more authoritarian and unpleasant the centralized infrastructure becomes to use, the more ineffectual its security measures are shown to be, and the less reliable its services become, the more likely it is that the volume of use will decline. Users will shift, in increasing numbers, to decentralized alternatives.

As the electrical system becomes increasingly plagued by rolling brownouts, and the financial system paralyzed by panics, the public will increasingly respond by decentralizing and hardening: Obtaining more and more of their needs through resilient local economies, using relocalized supply chains, and using reliable power generated close to the point of consumption.

The recent public reaction to full-body scans, along with increased handling costs from the parcel bomb, together probably constitute the tipping point beyond which air travel and air shipping will shrink steadily in economic significance. The combination of body-scans and “enhanced patdowns” will almost certainly result in a major shrinkage of the air travel market. And the inevitable next step — smuggling bombs in body cavities — will make the “security” process unpleasant beyond imagining (in addition to drastically increasing the perceived risk of air travel itself).

The final outcome will be that whenever air travel can be replaced (as by teleconferencing) it will, and we will fairly quickly relocalize the portion of supply chains that have become dependent on air transportation since WWII.

We’ve reached a point in the war between networks and hierarchies where hierarchies can simply no longer cope.  Either the hierarchies themselves will become more network-like in the face of necessity by decentralizing and hardening their functions, or they will be defeated and supplanted by enemy networks, or the general public will shift to meeting its needs by new networked alternatives.

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