The Devolution of War

4 April 2011


The Biology Online dictionary defines “devolution” as “a continuing process of degeneration or breaking down, in contrast to evolution.” We know the term from ordinary language primarily by way of its contrast with “evolution,” just as we think of “dystopia” as the antithesis of “utopia.” The term “devolution” does not appear in any of my specialist dictionaries of biology, and I checked out the indices of a few books on the philosophy of biology and found nothing. But clearly our instinctive response to “devolution” is that of decline, decadence, and retrograde movement — the biological counterpart of apocalypticism.

If you are reading this and have read anything else that I have written, you may know that I have a particular distaste for apocalypticism, but that doesn’t mean that I am incapable of recognizing decline and reversal of development wherever it may occur in fact (in contrast to reading decadence into ambiguous tea leaves). And so, in this spirit of documentable, quantifiable, verifiable retrograde development of historical processes, I will consider a couple of recent (i.e., within the last sixty years or so) strategic developments of the greatest interest.

Part III, Chapter XXVII of T. N. Dupuy’s The Evolution of Weapons and Warfare is titled “War Under the Nuclear Umbrella; Korea, Viet Nam, and the Middle East 1950-1973.” This title seems to me to aptly sum up an important development: war under the nuclear umbrella is different. In other words, the creation and proliferation of nuclear weapons did not result in the initiation of a period of human history marked by a series of nuclear wars. Rather, it initiated a period of sub-nuclear wars, in which combat was carefully moderated and incrementally managed to keep it below the nuclear threshold, or indeed below the (admittedly ambiguous) threshold of nuclear provocation. Flirting with this threshold came to be known as “brinkmanship.”

This development of consciously keeping conflict below the nuclear threshold is closely parallel to something that I have discussed in several posts, which I call the weaponization of eliminationism, in which rapacious leaders seek to keep their depredations just below the threshold of atrocity in order to avoid the consequences that follow from attracting the attention of the international community (or, rather, the international press corps).

The development of war under the nuclear umbrella began immediately following the Second World War and the first use of nuclear weapons in theater. As world leaders, despots, and warlords struggled to find their footing on this unfamiliar terrain, conventions, expectations, and traditions slowly emerged from the changed conditions of war foisted upon us by the dawning of the Nuclear Age.

The dawning of the nuclear age essentially meant the following:

1. some nation-states effectively had, and continue to have, the power to eliminate other nation-states as functioning political entities.

2. Some (most) nation-states did not and do not have this power, and therefore were and are entirely at the mercy of those that do have this power.

3. The nation-states that first acquired nuclear weapons chose not to unilaterally employ nuclear weapons to annihilate adversaries.

4. Following the initial phase of nuclear restraint, nuclear powers were restrained by MAD — mutually assured destruction, had they used their nuclear arsenal to annihilate an adversary, or the client state of an adversary.

Given the looming possibility of nuclear war and the need to avoid the escalation of nuclear triggers, war under the nuclear umbrella proceeded to develop as though nuclear weapons did not exist, and international efforts were undertaken by the few nation-states that possessed nuclear weapons to deny them to other nation-states. We did not see the rapid development and deployment of tactical nukes and therefore a fundamental change in the battlespace; nuclear weapons after their first use became exclusively strategic weapons and have remained so to this day.

The tradition of non-use of nuclear weapons and the ongoing development of non-nuclear weapons systems brought rapid technological development to bear on tactical assets, and those nation-states with the most advanced industrial infrastructure and expertise quickly pulled ahead of other nation-states in establishing air superiority in the battlespace. Recently I mentioned in Settling for Second Best how the US designed and built a fifth generation air superiority fighter more than a decade before any peer or near-peer competitor had anything even approximating the capabilities of the F-22.

In the last decade of the twentieth century up to the present (i.e., the last twenty years), the ceiling of the nuclear umbrella has been brought even nearer to earth by the now conventionally enforceable possibility of overwhelming air superiority. The enforcement of “no fly” zones in Northern Iraq during the last years of the Saddam Hussein regime, and the current “no fly” zone being enforced over Libya, demonstrates that the handful of global powers with advanced air superiority fighters can more or less take another nation-state at random which does not possess this capability and assert control over the skies of that country.

The enforcement of a “no fly” zone means that state-owned air assets cannot be employed in the battlespace, and as a result conflict under the “no fly” umbrella assumes the character of a ground war prior to the emergence of airpower.

Many of the principles that held for the advent of the Nuclear Age also hold, mutatis mutandis, for the Age of Airpower — not so much airpower from its earliest beginnings as for the overwhelming airpower as it is now maintained by a handful of global powers:

1. Some nation-states effectively have the power to arbitrarily assert control over the airspace of another nation-state.

2. Some (most) nation-states did not and do not have this power, and therefore were and are entirely at the mercy of those that do have this power.

3. After an initial period of near-parity among the nation-states of the world with respect to primitive air power and its earliest technological iterations, later air superiority came to be predicated upon industrial and technological infrastructure and expertise, so that this power could only be effectively implemented by a handful of global powers.

4. The nation-states that developed overwhelming air superiority have only sparingly employed it against their adversaries, rather than simply eliminating their adversaries as functioning nation-states.

Thus war under the nuclear umbrella involved a devolution of war from total and absolute war, including the use of nuclear weapons, to conventional war, using all means short of nuclear weapons, and exercising restraint with these means in order to avoid triggering a nuclear strike. Next, war under the “no fly” umbrella of imposed air superiority involved a devolution of war from everything that has happened since Douhet’s The Command of the Air was published, to a state of combat prior to Douhet’s deadly vision. War under the “no fly” umbrella means war limited to ground combat, almost as though the age of air power had never been known.

What comes next in the devolution of war? Another great strategic development of our time is the development of precision weapons systems. It would be reasonable to extrapolate the devolution of war to precision weapons systems, especially in view of the fact that the same industrial and technological superiority that made overwhelming air superiority possible for some nation-states while denying it to others will also make the best precision weapons systems available to some nation-states while denying them to others. Moreover, the full panoply of precision weapons systems includes advanced radar systems in ships and airplanes, satellites in orbit, and advanced computer systems to tie these assets together into a robust platform.

To a certain extent, then, the devolution of war in regard to precision weapons system has already begun, and it seems to be following a development similar to that of airpower. However, I do no think that the devolution of war in regard to precision weapons systems will follow the same trajectory that it has followed with contemporary airpower. This is because precision munitions will probably be more like computers and cell phones (with which they will share a technological heritage) than nuclear weapons and air assets.

While, as I said above, the full panoply of precision weapons systems requires an infrastructure extending into space, and is therefore tied to air superiority and a robust industrial-technological infrastructure, one need not embark on an enterprise of this magnitude in order to benefit from the innovations of precision weapons systems. Some precision munitions will not be tied to an extensive technological infrastructure. A perfect example of this is the XM25, which I recently discussed in Precisification of Small Arms Fire.

We can expect to see, over the coming decades, high technology, suitably miniaturized, incorporated into the kind of small arms that are routinely retailed around the world by arms dealers. Think of an AK-47 with smart bullets and you start to get a picture of the possibilities. Such arms will be as portable as a battery powered radio, as robust as any portable arms in the field, and potentially more deadly, especially in regard to the precision targeting of high-value targets.

There will always be the contemporary equivalent of Comancheros who will sell the latest guns and ammunition to the “Indians” as long as the price is right. We should expect this, and not be surprised by it.

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