The Naval Postgraduate School’s CORE Lab eschews theory for real-world pragmatism
A map of the world covers a wall in John Arquilla’s office at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS). On that map, Arquilla, chair of the Defense Analysis Department, tracks the state of war around the globe.
“I know there are about 32 [wars] underway today around the world,” he said, pointing to the map. “I also know that not one looks like World War II or Operation Desert Storm. Every last war is irregular, and so I ask, ‘Why do we still call it irregular warfare if the only thing out there is these wars?’”
He has asked this question on the Monterey, Calif., campus for 22 years, since he and Gordon McCormick, a professor of defense analysis, migrated from the RAND Corporation to teach Guerrilla Warfare in 1992 to a class of 13 Navy SEALs.
The class spawned the Defense Analysis Department (DA) after a pioneering student helped Arquilla and McCormick write a curriculum and secure funding from the Navy. That student, who also wrote a thesis titled “Spec Ops,” would eventually become the commander of USSOCOM—now retired Adm. William McRaven.
Since that initial class, DA has granted Master of Science degrees in special operations and irregular warfare to more than 1,000 graduates, including 197 international students from 50 countries. It has also seen its curriculum diversify and in 2007 added the Common Operational Research Environment (CORE) Laboratory to study social networks and develop geospatial analysis tools via capstone projects and student theses.
Driven by the proliferation of social media and the need for human intelligence in regions where so-called “dark networks” operate, CORE Lab was established as a research arm to develop ways to apply geospatial solutions to complex data. CORE’s curriculum grew out of a social media analysis course taught by Nancy Roberts, one of the lab’s first co-directors alongside Doug Borer.
“One of my students had just come from [Washington] and said, ‘I don’t know social network analysis,’” Roberts recalled. “He said, ‘I don’t know geospatial analysis.’ He would go on to tell stories about being in Afghanistan and said, ‘We need a way to understand these networks. We need a way to geospatially locate what’s going on.’”
The CORE Lab’s mission was formed from such conversations. While Borer worked on logistics, Roberts developed curriculum.
“I listened to students,” Roberts said. “I asked them: ‘Tell me what you need in the field. Tell me what some of the problems are that you are confronting. Tell me what bugs you.’ We started with the bugs list. … By the time I was finished talking, I knew it was a lot more complicated than just teaching people how to track and disrupt dark networks.”
A visual analytics course was created to provide an overview of data collection and use, while Roberts’ social media analysis course was split to become “Tracking and Disrupting Dark Networks” and “Geographical and Temporal Dimensions of Dark Networks.” A network design course—taught by Roberts—explores how to establish and operate within such networks.
And a Big Data course is planned for introduction next spring.
CORE’s scope is practical, with researchers creating tools to solve real-world problems they experienced in the field before arriving at the NPS campus.
Evolution Through Flexibility
“Every time I teach the class, so much is changing,” said Kristin Tsolis of the geographical and temporal course.
Unlike most graduate schools, the courses and students’ research are less about theory and more about problem solving and critical thinking.
“When they come here, they often know what they want to research,” Tsolis said of the students, who typically hold multiple combat deployments. “At first, it wasn’t always clear to me why they wanted [to study] a topic, but then it became clear that it was because their friends had been killed in war. That’s a lot of motivation.”
New faculty members quickly learn DA and CORE Lab students have experience that trumps most theory. This requires a pragmatic approach to teaching.
“A guy can’t just come in here and say ‘I have this theory,’” said retired Army Special Forces Col. Greg Wilson, CORE Lab’s first military co-director and a former DA USSOCOM representative appointed by Adm. McRaven to teach and oversee curriculum development. “Students [have been downrange and] can say, ‘This is what the reality is.’ It can’t be smoke and mirrors here.”
Students apply their research to the real-world operational problems they have experienced. CORE Lab developed an app called Lighthouse in 2009 to help warfighters perform geospatial and other analysis of social networks by organizing data from a variety of entry platforms. Tested in village stability operations around Kandahar, Afghanistan, “Lighthouse put us on the map,” Wilson said of CORE Lab’s growing reputation. “But now, we’re adding other products.”
Many of those products come from student projects. The Improvised Explosive Device Network Analysis (IEDNA) web application was developed from Lighthouse for Explosive Ordinance Disposal technicians to compile key information about IEDs into a streamlined and accessible database. In addition to research in Iraq and Afghanistan, CORE personnel have traveled to Thailand at the request of its government to do more IED research.
CORE’s Sensitive Site Exploitation (CORE SSE) application uses geospatial elements for forensic analyses of tactical objectives, replacing a pen-and-paper approach. And then there’s COREnet where students seek to influence psychological operations doctrine through social network analysis. The same dynamic Twitter network analysis applied during the Arab Spring is currently being used to monitor Twitter activity in Syria.
After serving as a fellow at the school, Army Col. Guy LeMire, the current DA USSOCOM representative, came away so impressed he later called upon an NPS graduate to help plan the transition of U.S. Special Operations initiatives to Afghani counterparts.
“I said, ‘You’re going to be the planner for the task force commander in transitioning the Afghan partner unit in two years to the lead of night raid operations. And, oh by the way, you’re briefing a three-star about it in two weeks.’”
It was a lot to throw at an officer just out of graduate school, and the problem became more complicated when the transition timeline was reduced from two years to six months.
“I knew this guy would understand the problem set, put something together that would be flexible, and have a lot of contingencies,” said LeMire. “These guys never look at problems the same way when they get out of here. Never.”
Featured image: Professor John Arquilla has taught at the Naval Postgraduate School for 22 years.