3 November 2013
Often when I write about emerging strategic trends I consider the long term future and make a particular effort to stress that little of the trend will be glimpsed in our lifetime, but at present I will consider the development of a strategic trend that is likely to be realized in the near- to mid-term future, i.e., a strategically significant technology that may develop into maturity or near-maturity within the lifetime of those now living. The technology is precision munitions and weaponry, and the strategic capability that mature precision weaponry will make possible is what I will call qualitative strikes. Before I come to qualitative strikes proper, I want to review the military and strategic context out of which the possibility of qualitative strikes has emerged.
In the early stages of the Cold War when nuclear weapons were primarily ballistic missiles and ballistic missiles were the most accurate of nuclear delivery vehicles, the nightmare scenario (featured in many films of the era) was a NORAD alert that hundreds of thousands of Soviet Missiles were already launched and were on their way over the pole to targets in North America. The US would then have less than thirty minutes to decide whether or not to launch a massive retaliatory strike of its own, and it could not wait until the missiles actually landed and nuclear strikes were confirmed because that would be too late. This was the Atomic Age parallel to the First World War dilemma of putting troops on trains that could not be recalled because the scheduling of transportation was so precise. Once the missiles flew, there was no calling them back. If you launched, MAD was initiated, so you needed to be sure you were responding to the real thing.
The essence of Cold War MAD doctrine was this massive nuclear exchange. Cold War targeting lists were almost indiscriminate in their presumption of mass annihilation; many major cities had a dozen or more warheads targeted for them, as though the intention were simply to “make the rubble jump,” as Churchill said of the Nazi bombardment of London. A massive nuclear exchange involved mutually assured destruction for the powers involved in the exchange, and since MAD was understood to be a guarantor of Cold War peace — since it would literally be madness to allow a massive nuclear exchange to take place — the very idea of either anti-ICBM “counter-force” targeting or of developing a “second strike” capability was interpreted as a hostile act of one power against the other.
We think of the end of these developments in nuclear warfighting strategy as a consequence of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, but this phase of nuclear strategy would be ended anyway, regardless of the fate of the Cold War. If the Soviet Union were still in existence today, we would no longer be talking about MAD — or, if we were, it would only be because traditionalists were clinging to a doctrine that no longer had strategic relevance. While many nation-states have land-based ICBMs, these weapons systems are already relics. They belong to a age of indiscriminate and massive attacks that emerged from the strategic bombing of the Second World War. If the bombers of the Second World War had had the capability to execute precision strikes, they would have done so. But this technology was not yet available. As the next best strategy, the only possible strategy, “area bombing” for the purpose of “de-housing” enemy populations became the norm. Once planners, strategists, air crews, and populations became inured to the routine of leveling entire cities, the atomic bomb was simply a cheaper, quicker, more efficient way to do the same thing.
The only subtlety at the stage of nuclear strategy brought to maturity during the Cold War — if it could even be called a subtlety — was whether any nuclear capacity would remain on either side to deliver a second strike after the initial massive exchange (a “second strike” capability). Cold War strike capacity did not lie exclusively in ICBMs. In addition to ICBMs, there was the Strategic Air Command (SAC) under Curtis LeMay, who learned his trade during the Second World War. While LeMay was perhaps the most renown American advocate of strategic air power, it was Arthur “Bomber” Harris of the RAF who presided over the strategic bombing of Germany, with the mantra that, “The bomber will always get through.” Again, the Second World War was the template for what followed.
The ultimate guarantor of second strike capability was the ballistic missile submarine. With dozens of submarines submerged deep in the world’s oceans, each submarine with a dozen missiles or more, and each missile with a MIRV with a dozen or so warheads, a single surviving submarine had the capacity to deliver a devastating second strike. Moreover, a submarine could sneak up close to the coast of an enemy’s territory and let loose its ballistic missiles from short range, leaving the enemy with only minutes to respond — and no real assets that could respond to a strike less than 15 minutes away. The traditional “triad” of Cold War deterrence consisted of land-based ICBMs, strategic bombers, and missile boats, but all of this took time to develop; it was not until the early 1960s that both the US and the USSR had a fleet of operational missile boats. When both sides in the Cold War possessed the nuclear triad, and therefore a second strike capability, the MAD equation continued to hold good.
In the strategic context of MAD, nuclear strikes were quantitative strikes, and each side in the Cold War was motivated by the competition to assemble the quantitatively largest arsenal in order to deter the other side. The Cold War was a numbers game — cf. Kennedy’s “Missile Gap” — and this numbers game escalated with predictable results: tens of thousands of nuclear warheads perpetually maintained in readiness. The agreements to limit nuclear weapons only institutionalized the overkill of MAD doctrines.
From this point, it would have been difficult to escalate any further, except for technologies that were viewed as inherently destabilizing because they might shift the balance and make one side or the other believe that they were no longer subject to the MAD calculation. It is of the essence to understand that global Cold War stability depended centrally on the inescapability of MAD. The Reagan-era “Star Wars” missile defense initiative was just such a destabilizing factor, but by this time the Soviet Union was already in terminal decline. Anti-missile defense systems had been designed and built prior to this, but clearly the initiative still law with the offense; the technology simply did not yet exist to bring down an ICBM.
Soviet decline coupled with the emergence of technologies that would make missile defense a viable possibility led to the end of the Soviet Union and MAD and the Cold War. Not only are these Cold War ideas dated by subsequent political developments, they are also dated by subsequent technological developments. Even if the Soviet Union had survived intact to the present day, the nightmare MAD scenario of Cold War planners would no longer be relevant because weapons systems have moved on.
One of the greatest of the revolutions in military affairs (RMA) has been the introduction of precision-guided munitions, and the eventual issue of converting to a “smart” arsenal means a transition from quantitative strikes to qualitative strikes. The shift in emphasis from nuclear to conventional armaments with the end of the Cold War facilitated the speed of this transition. Nuclear strategy suddenly went from being a top priority to barely making the list of priorities, and defense dollars began to flow into conventional weapons, and here there were opportunities for improvement that were not understood to be politically destabilizing.
The idea of qualitative strikes is not at all new. One could say that qualitative strikes have always been the telos of military operations. The air forces of the Second World War aspired to precision bombing, but this was not yet possible. During the Cold War, some missiles were targeted according to a “counter-force” strategy, i.e., they were targeted at enemy ballistic missile silos, but this only played into the MAD calculation, because it meant that to wait meant to lose one’s primary strike capability. If you could completely wipe out your enemy’s ballistic missile silos in a age when ICBMs were the primary nuclear deterrent, you would leave your enemy with the uncomfortable choice of retaliating massively on civilian population centers or accepting defeat. A successful counter-force attack would constitute a qualitative strike, and qualitative strikes pose political dilemmas such as that outlined. This is why such ideas were considered inherently destabilizing. But this level of technology was not practicable during the time when ICBMs were the primary nuclear deterrent.
Although the press today reports civilian casualties as if they were disproportionately high, in historic terms both civilian and military casualties are at the lowest levels ever. With the industrialization of war the technologies of warfighting experience an initial exponential growth in lethality, but as precision begins to outpace sheer quantitative destructive power, the warfare of industrial-technological civilization passes The Lethality Peak and casualties fall as strikes converge upon qualitative precision. In other words, the rapid emergence of precision guided munitions in the battlespace has been effective. They work. And they’re getting better all the time. The efficacy of precision guided munitions suggests the possibility of a complete shift away from quantitative destruction to qualitative strikes, i.e., strikes that selectively pick out a certain kind of target, or a certain class of targets. This is already a reality to a limited extent, but it will take time before it is fully translated into policy and doctrine.
In A Glimpse at the Near Future of Combat I mentioned a Norwegian satellite that will track all ships (over 300 gross tons) in Norwegian coastal waters. Most ships have transponders, indicating basic identification information for the vessel. In the near future of autonomous vehicles, it is likely that most vehicles will have transponders on them. Most individuals carry cell phones, which are essentially transponders, and we know the the Snowden leaks about the NSA surveillance program how thoroughly “big data” applications can track the world’s cellular phone calls. Fixed assets like cities and industrial facilities are even easier to map and track than mobile assets like ships, planes, vehicles, and people.
What we are looking at here is the possibility of computer systems sufficiently sophisticated that almost everything on the surface of the earth can the identified and tracked. To have a total system of identification and tracking is to have a targeting computer. Couple a targeting computer with precision guided munitions that can pick out small targets in a crowd and be assured of destroying these targets with a near-total absence of collateral damage, and you have the possibility of a military strike that does not depend in the least upon quantitative destruction, but rather upon picking out just the right selection of targets to have just the right effect (political or military, keeping in mind Clausewitz’s dictum that war is the pursuit of politics by other means). This is a qualitative strike.
None of these developments will go unchallenged. The dependency of qualitative warfare upon computer systems points to the centrality of cyberwarfare in the integrated battlespace. If you can confuse the targeting computer of the weapons’ guidance systems, you can defeat the system, but systems can in turn be hardened and made redundant. Other measures and counter-measures will be developed, and escalation will be an escalation in precision and the possibility of qualitative warfare (since those who attack precision warfighting infrastructure will need to be equally precision in their attempt to defeat a precision weapons system) in contradistinction to the escalation of quantitative warfare that defined the twentieth century.
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14 October 2013
The Escalation of Integration
in Combined Arms Operations
In separate posts that made no attempt at a comprehensive treatment I have written about the past, present, and possible future military use of swarms, drones, and decoys. I realize now that a tactical doctrine that could integrate swarm, drone, and decoy weapons systems and their tactics would be a powerful conceptual tool for future combat scenarios, and possibly also would point the way to an extended conception of combined arms operations that transcends that concept as it is known today.
If the reader is familiar with some of my other posts, you may be aware that I have some interest in what I call extended conceptions and have written about them on several occasions, most specifically in relation to an extended conception of ecology that I call metaphysical ecology and an extended conception of history that I call metaphysical history. You can readily understand, then, the intrinsic interest that I find in an extended conception of combined arms operations. From a philosophical point of view, we have an intellectual obligation to push our ideas to the very limit of their coherency and applicability to order to explore their outermost possibilities. That is what I have suggested (or attempted to suggest) in relation to ecology and history, and that is what I am suggesting here. But even a sketch of an extended conception of warfare — call it metaphysical warfare, if you like — would be beyond the parameters of a blog post, so at the present moment I will confine myself to mostly practical consequences for combined arms operations in the light of an extended conception of warfare, but I hope to return to this topic in more detail later. In fact, I hope someday to literally write the book on metaphysical warfare, but that remains a project for the future.
One of the distinctive aspects of combined arms operations is to recognize both the individual strengths and weaknesses of a given weapons system and its particular doctrine of employment in the battlespace and to integrate individual weapons systems in their doctrinal context with other weapons systems that can, in combination, uniquely facilitate the strengths of a given weapons system while compensating (to the degree possible) for the weaknesses of the same. This is a principle that admits of generalization both to smaller scales and to larger scales. It brings a certain unity to our conception of combined arms warfare when we can see this single principle expressed at different orders of magnitude in space and time.
An illustration of what I mean by combined arms warfare “expressed at different orders of magnitude in space and time” (and, I might add, integrated within and across different orders of magnitude, diachronically and synchronically) can be seen at the microscopic level with the trend toward integrated avionics in the F-22 and F-35A, which seamlessly bring together mission systems and vehicle systems in a tightly integrated package — this is combined arms (better, integrated arms) within a single weapons system. At the macroscopic level, combined arms warfare goes beyond the integration of many distinct weapons systems and naturally seeks the integration of distinct forces — this is usually called “inter-operability” — so that inter-service rivalries and differences in training, doctrine, and tactics among the services of one nation-state (in the case of the US, this means Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and the Coast Guard) and among multi-national forces do not become obstacles to unity of command and clarity of the objective.
Neil Warner provides a clear definition of inter-operability that illustrates this macroscopic sale of combined arms that converges on the interoperability of distinct forces:
“Interoperability can be defined as the ability of systems, units or forces to provide to and accept services from other systems, units or forces and to use the services so exchanged to enable them to operate effectively together. Interoperability cannot solely be thought of on an information system level, but must include doctrine, people, procedures and training.”
Neil Warner, ADI Limited, Interoperability – An Australian View, 7th International Command and Control Research and Technology Symposium
Given the realities of interservice rivalries and the disproportionate control that each service may have over particular classes of weapons systems (e.g., the Air Force has more jets than the Navy, but the Navy still does have jets), ideal interoperability must not only integrate the forces of distinct nation-states but also the various forces of a single nation-state.
Between the polar extremes of microscopic integration of individual weapons systems and the macroscopic integration of entire armed forces there lies the middle ground, which is what most people mean when they talk about combined arms operations — the integration of soldiers on the ground with man-portable systems, mobile fire, armored assets, air assets and so on in a single battleplan in which all act in concert under a unified command to achieve a clearly defined objective.
Combined arms operations are as old as warfare, which is in turn as old as civilization. The most famous examples of combined arms operations were those of mobile mechanized units with close air support that came of age during the Second World War and which are still the basis of military doctrine in our time. Rapid technological advances in weapons systems in recent decades, however, points toward a new era of combined arms operations.
In terms of air power, we are all aware of the rapid success of drones both for surveillance and combat roles, there have been many recent discussions of swarm warfare (something I have attempted to contribute to myself in The Swarming Attack), and decoys are, like combined arms operations, as old as war itself. I think that these three elements — swarms, drones, and decoys — will come together in a very power way in future military operations. Drones are more effective when sent out in swarms and accompanied by decoys to increase the numbers of the swarm; decoys are more effective when accompanied by drones and flying in a swarm; swarms are more effective when they combine drones and delays into an indistinguishable whole that descends upon an enemy like a plague of locusts.
Already we have seen the utility of drones, and many have forecast that the F-35 will be the last generation of human-piloted fighter aircraft. Just recently, an F-16 was fitted out as a drone and was flown without a pilot. It ought be possible, in theory, to do exactly the same thing with an F-22 or an F-35. Drone warfare is not something that is coming soon; it is here now. But drones are vulnerable (as are all pieces of hardware), and the best drones are expensive and complex pieces of equipment. It would make sense to deploy a few expensive drones with offensive capabilities with a much larger number of cheaper drones that would be indistinguishable from the drones with offensive capabilities. A few combat capable drones together with a much larger number of decoys would constitute a swarm of drones and decoys, and a swarm has combat advantages of its own that would make this combined arms weapons system of drones and decoys all the more powerful.
Combined arms operations of swarms, drones, and decoys need not be limited to air assets. Most of the considerations above I mentioned in relation to aerial swarms, drones, and decoys are equally true for naval swarms, drones, and decoys — something that I discussed in Small Boat Swarms: Strategic or Tactical? and Flying Boat Swarms? Recent reports have also discussed the DARPA’s Maximum Mobility and Manipulation program, which includes a variety of distinct robots for land-based warfare (cf. Pentagon-funded Atlas robot refuses to be knocked over by Matthew Wall, Technology reporter, BBC News) including both two- and four-legged robots, some built to carry heavy loads and others built for speed. Land-based robots could also be deployed according to the combined arms principles of swarms, drones, and decoys.
While the robotization of warfare — drone aircraft, drone naval vessels (both surface and subsurface), self-driving vehicles, robots on two legs and four legs — presents significant opportunities for the most technologically advanced nation-states, their deployment would require a highly robust control architecture, without which unity of command would be impossible. The growing acronyms to describe the kind of control architecture necessary to automated combined arms operations have gone from command and control to command, control, and computers to C4 to C4I to C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance). What this culminates in is now called the networked battlespace or netcentric warfare (something that I discussed in Epistemological Warfare).
Future wars will always be parallel wars, with one war being prosecuted in the actual battlespace and another war being prosecuted in parallel in the virtual battlespace (i.e., cyberwarfare or netcentric warfare). There has always been a parallel prosecution of wars on the homefront and on the front line, with the homefront being a war of propaganda, information, and ideology, while the front line is a war of men and machines thrown up against each other.
The opening of a virtual front is closely analogous to the advent of air power, which added the need for command of the air to the already familiar need of command of the ground and command of the seas. Douhet’s visionary treatise, The Command of the Air, set this out in astonishing prescience. It is impossible for me to read Douhet without being impressed by his clarity of vision of the future. This is a rare ability. And yet we know that by the time of the Second War War (and even more so today) the command of the air is not merely another front: command of the air is central to warfare as we know it today.
The fact that I wrote that it would be the virtual battlespace that hosts a parallel fight betrays my now-archaic point of view: the primary battle may well be in the virtual battlespace, while the actual combat in the actual battlespace is that which is fought in parallel. A first strike could come in the virtual battlespace; an ambush could come in the virtual battlespace; a war of attrition could be fought in the virtual battlespace. Command of cyberspace may prove to be as central to future warfare as command of the air is to contemporary warfare. This introduces yet another conception of integrated warfare: the integration of actual and virtual battlespaces.
Each party to a conflict will see to secure its own C4ISR capabilities while compromising the C4ISR capabilities of its adversary or adversaries. Each will develop its own strategies, tactics, and doctrines for this new front, and it is to be expected that in the attempt to overwhelm the enemy’s computer and communications systems that we will see that electronic equivalent of B. H. Liddel-Hart’s “expanding torrent” in cyberspace seeking the disruption of enemy computer networks.
It may be taken as axiomatic that computing power is finite. Although the upper bound of computing systems is not known, and may not be known, the fact that there is an upper limit is known. (I will observe that this is a non-constructive assertion, which demonstrates that non-constructivist thought is not abstruse but often has a direct applicability to experience.) A finite computing system can be overwhelmed. If a system is 99% effect, a swarm of a total of 100 drones and decoys may result in one getting through; if a system is 99.9 % effective, a swarm of 1,000 may result in getting through, etc. If you know the limitations of your enemy’s targeting computers, you can defeat them numerically.
In many cases, the operational parameters of a computerized targeting system may be known, or can be estimated with a high degree of accuracy. Continuous improvements in technology will continuously augment the parameters of updated or newly designed computerized targeting systems, but even the latest and greatest technology will remain finite. This finitude is a vulnerability that can be exploited. In fact, Leibniz defined metaphysical evil in terms of finitude. We can to better than a definition, however: we can quantify the metaphysical evil (i.e., the finitude) of a weapons system. More importantly — and this is one of those rare cases in which comparative concepts may be more significant than quantitative concepts — we can introduce comparative measures of finitude. If one party to a conflict can simply get the better of its adversary in a comparative measure of computing finitude, they will win the C4ISR battle, though that does not yet guarantee a win on parallel fronts, much less winning the war.
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21 April 2013
How long does a weapons system last?
Recently I had a comment on my post The End of the Age of the Aircraft Carrier which started me thinking about the life span of weapons system. This is a surprisingly interesting way to think about weapons systems, which contextualizes them within the civilizations that design and build weapons systems.
I have approached this contextualization of weapons systems previously in several posts, as in The Nature of Viking Power Projection and The Byzantine Superweapon. A great many technological innovations and ideological assumptions are built into sophisticated weapons systems, and the most sophisticated among them require an entire civilization to design, build, and field them.
Contextualization can be take diachronically of synchroncially. If we contextualize a weapons system diachronically, we understand it in terms of its historical ancestors and successors, thinking in terms of the evolution of the weapons system in parallel to the socioeconomic system that makes it possible. If we contextualize a weapons system synchronically, we understand it in terms of the infrastructure and institutions (the technological and doctrinal context) that jointly make that weapons system possible, and make it what it is when brought to bear in armed conflict.
The life span of a weapons system is thus a diachronic historical inquiry, but it is only through a synchronic understanding that we see how the elements of a contemporary weapons system stands in relation not only to military function it is supposed to serve, but also in relation to the wider society and designs, builds, and operates the weapons system in question. As in all historical inquiry, the diachronic and synchronic perspectives are bound up in each other. Moreover, there is a parallel synchronic inquiry that would concern itself with the scope of application of a weapons system. This is a crucial and often-overlooked question, which we find we must asked ourselves when a political entity possesses a weapons system that it does not use when engaged in armed conflict. This is another sense of the “lifespan” of a weapons system.
To clarify our terminology we need to indulge in a little informal philosophical logic, since in this context the generality of our assertions will make an important difference. We have to be able to distinguish not only between weapons systems but also the fine gradations in the generations of weapons systems. The F-16 block 60 fighter aircraft operated by the UAE are a more advanced fighter aircraft than the F-16 block 50/52 operated by most USAF squadrons, but we would only distinguish them in a very fine-grained account of weapons systems.
The various “block” upgrades I will count as the “same” weapons systems, even when they have different capabilities, while I will count fourth generation fighter aircraft and fifth generation fighter aircraft as distinct weapons systems. Therefore the F-16 and the F-22 will count as different weapons systems. However, at a higher level of generality, the F-16 and the F-22, as both being supersonic fighter jets are, in a sense, the “same” weapons system. At an even higher level of generality, all fighter aircraft, from the Sopwith Camel to the F-22 are essentially the same weapons system: an aircraft mounting missile weapons to be employed in air-to-air or air-to-ground combat.
All of these distinctions are useful, and we have to keep them in mind so that we avoid comparing apples to oranges and therefore avoid vitiating our point. Furthermore, we need to distinction between what I will call perennial weapons systems, sempiternal weapons systems, and properties of weapons systems.
● perennial weapons systems are weapons systems based on perennial technologies. A knife is a perennial weapons system. There will always be knives, pistols, and rifles. These are now perennial weapons systems. Similarly, there will always be missile weapons of some type, but this is already a move to a higher level of generality, since “missile weapons of some type” include pistols and rifles (and knives, too, when thrown). It is at least arguable that a perennial weapon is not really a weapons system, since perennial weapons in their stark simplicity may be found in isolation from a doctrinal or technological context, but in this case I don’t think that this distinction matters all that much, so I will allow myself the leeway to call perennial weapons “perennial weapons systems.” (Also note that the generalization of a the idea of a weapons system is distinct from the idea of perennial weapons systems.)
● sempiternal weapons systems are weapons systems that in their complexity transcend the simplicity and directness of perennial weapons systems. There is no clear dividing line between perennial weapons systems and sempiternal weapons systems, but I introduce the term “sempiternal” to imply that they are clearly invented at some point in time and, once invented, they are here to stay. It would be difficult to say at what time knives were invented, so knives are clearly perennial weapons systems — it is possible that a knife was the first stone tool produced by human ancestors. I count general categories of weapons systems (the highest level of generality mentioned above, that conflates the Sopwith Camel and the F-22) as sempiternal weapons systems: ships purpose-built for warfare, fixed wing fighter aircraft, helicopters, tanks, and so on. Once the idea of fighting from a flying platform was implemented, it is going to be with us as long as our civilization lasts. That makes such ideas and their implementations (which change radically over time) sempiternal.
● properties of weapons systems are distinct from general kinds of weapons systems, as in sempiternal weapons systems. Under a sufficiently general conception of a weapons system, Hittite chariot archers, Mongol horse archers, main battle tanks, aircraft carriers, and helicopter gunships all count as mobile fire weapons systems. Yet mobile fire is not itself a weapons system, but a property of some weapons system, a property that might be possessed to a greater or a lesser degree. An aircraft carrier is a mobile fire weapons system, but is much less mobile and much less maneuverable than a helicopter gunship. An arrow, a spear, and a knife when thrown are all examples of missile weapons; any of these missile weapons when employed from a mobile platform constitute mobile fire weapons systems, just as an Apache helicopter gunship constitutes a mobile fire weapons system, but all of these weapons systems are profoundly different each from the other.
Given these distinctions, it should be obvious that perennial weapons systems, sempiternal weapons systems, and properties of weapons systems have no life span: once they are introduced, they are with us forever. If some treaty establishes their abolition, we will still have the idea that such a thing is possible, and if it becomes seen as militarily necessary, they will be built regardless of treaties or abolition.
This is not true, however, at lower levels of generality than that contemplated by the bare idea of sempiternal weapons systems. There will always be missile weapons, but this is a highly general concept of a weapons system. In the same way that there will always be missile weapons, there will always be ships and submersibles, and there will always be aircraft. While there will always be fighter aircraft, particular generations of fighter aircraft become obsolete. No one would build a Sopwith Camel today for combat, although they might build one as a project of historical reconstruction (i.e., as an exercise in experimental archaeology).
What applies to generations of fighter aircraft also applies to generations of naval technologies. To take one example, no more ships of the line are built for contemporary navies (except to train cadets). In other words, the ship of the line, with multiple decks and multiple masts, optimized to fire the greatest number of cannon as broadsides against other ships of the line, is obsolete, were it was once the state of the art in naval architecture. The ship of the line had a definite life span, and that life span came to an end more than a century ago.
This post began as a response to my post on The End of the Age of the Aircraft Carrier, in which I speculated on the lifespan of fixed wing aircraft carriers and explicitly stated that no weapons systems will last forever; the aircraft carrier will eventually go the way of the ship of the line, but not until something better comes along. A comment was recently made that aircraft carriers may last another hundred years on the earth’s oceans, and I do not dispute this. Nevertheless, it is still a matter of time.
With the above distinctions in mind, I will revise this a bit, and assert instead that the aircraft carrier simpliciter is a sempiternal weapons system, and I acknowledged this implicitly in my earlier post when I stated that there will be helicopter carriers in the future, which are a kind of aircraft carrier, but once fixed wing hypersonic aircraft become a reality, and it is cheaper and more effective to base fighter aircraft deep within the home territory of a nation-state, given that hypersonic aircraft could show up anywhere in the world in less than an hour, then fixed wing aircraft carriers will become obsolete. But helicopters will continued to be needed on the battlefield, and they cannot be made hypersonic, so there will be a need for helicopter carriers beyond the time when fixed wing aircraft carriers have become obsolete. Also, since I have predicted that helicopter gunships have not yet been fully exploited on the battlefield, the future of helicopter carriers is bright; helicopters will be needed more than ever on the future battlefield.
The fixed wing aircraft carrier is not the only high technology weapons system the obsolescence of which can be projected. It could be argued that the life span of the land-based ICBM is essentially expired, given that precision weapons system and guidance systems have effectively rendered ICBM silos vulnerable. Even if no nation-state has chosen to build nuclear-tipped hypersonic precision-guided cruise missiles with the intent of neutralizing a ground-based ICBM threat, this is nevertheless clearly a weapons system that is within the capability of the advanced industrialized nation-states to build at the present time. (We have the idea of such a weapons system, and the idea cannot be banned or “unthought.”) Effective obsolescence, then, may be distinguished from obsolescence in fact.
On a level of greater generality — greater even than the generalization of all weapons systems — and therefore of even greater potential theoretical interest, it may be that in our own time that symmetrical conflict between peer or near-peer military powers has become obsolete. I don’t assert this with any dogmatic degree of confidence, and the coming century may yet see a peer-to-peer conflict in the Pacific if China is able to tool its industrial plant to the point of producing a rival carrier fleet to that of the US. Nevertheless, it is at least possible that peer-to-peer conflict has disappeared from the world, to be replaced by chronic, low-level insurgency and asymmetrical operations.
If we rigorously limited ourselves to a single level of generality (again, avoiding the comparison and apples and oranges) we could probably calculate for a given weapons system an average lifespan. If we could do this (i.e., if someone took the time to do this in a rigorous way) I will make a prediction about the lifespan of weapons systems:
Prediction: even as perennial weapons systems endure in their usefulness, the lifespan of large, technologically sophisticated weapons systems will gradually shrink in length unless industrial-technological civilization reaches a (near-)permanent plateau of development, spelling the end of the technological innovation that drives weapons systems development.
The ship of the line arguably endured for centuries as a viable weapons system. The ICBM seems to have lasted only about 50 years as a viable weapons system. Some high technology weapons system seem to be obsolete as soon as they are designed and being prepared for actual use. The most notorious examples of this would include the XM2001 Crusader self-propelled howitzer and the M247 Sergeant York self-propelled anti-aircraft gun.
The same forces that drive industrial-technological civilization forward — science creating technology engineered into industries creating new tools for science — also drive industrialized warfare forward, and as technology improves exponentially, weapons systems must also improve exponentially. This means shorter lifespans for the most advanced technological weapons systems, even as perennial weapons systems retain their efficacy in ongoing asymmetrical conflicts in which the full force of industrialized warfare cannot be brought to bear in any meaningful way.
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16 April 2013
The Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China has just released a white paper on China’s military posture, which can be read in its entirety online: The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces. This document is remarkable not for its insights into Chinese strategic thinking or its application of Sun Tzu’s philosophy of war or even “strategy with Chinese characteristics” but only for its resemblance to military white papers from western nation-states, which idiom (and acronyms) it has thoroughly adopted.
This use of the idiom of contemporary western military professionalism is doubly interesting, since public statements of the Chinese government often continue to be jargon-laden pieces of communist theory — sometimes to the point of impenetrability. Some time ago in What is Strategic Trust? I mentioned an article in Foreign Policy by Isaac Stone Fish, Hu Jintao on China losing the culture wars, which very effectively poked fun at the irony of the Chinese leader’s formulaic use of communist nostrums in the attempt to urge his fellow Chinese to improve the quality of their cultural production.
It is precisely this absurd communist jargon that is missing from the just released report The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces. Instead, the report indulges in the western parallel to this: the absurd jargon of western bureaucratic military jargon and acronyms. There is a pattern here of rigidly formulaic thinking. Of course, such patterns are to be found in the official documents of all nation-states, but the question is whether it is believed by those who use this language, or whether such language is used merely out of a misplaced sense of bureaucratic necessity.
It was interesting to note that the report mentions the “three evil forces” which have been a talking point for the members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and I recall when I last wrote about this I remarked on how the press releases of the SCO read like those of any western military exercise. And while the report mentions the three evil forces of “terrorism, separatism and extremism,” Tibet and Xinjiang, where the Chinese are most likely to encounter these forces, are only mentioned peripherally in this report (in relation to rivers and schools in the section titled “Participating in National Development”), as the Diaoyu Islands (which Japan calls the Senkaku Islands) are mentioned only once.
At the same time that the Chinese were releasing their official version of China’s military posture, Focus Taiwan published a short piece, China yet to deploy 094 sub, JL-2 & DF-41 missiles: security head, mostly about China’s failures to fulfill its military ambitions for weapons systems commensurate with the technologically advanced weapons systems of western nation-states. The article was concerned with the trouble China continues to have with their latest submarines and ICBMs.
It is easy to focus on Chinese ambitions to join the club of nation-states operating aircraft carriers or fifth generation fighters, but it is also important to recall that China has had difficulty in tooling its industries to design and build world-class weapons systems. The Chinese have long had difficulty building missile boats (as with the above-noted difficulties with the 094 Jin-Class submarine and the JL-2 ballistic missile), for example.
The Chinese still buy the jet engines for the most sophisticated fighter jets from Russia, which despite its decrepit communist economy was able to create and sustain an industrial plant nearly equal to that of western powers during the Cold War (including supersonic jet turbines and missile boats). This came at a price for the Soviet Union, of course, and it would come at a price for China. So is it the case that the Chinese are unwilling to pay the price for a world-class defense industry, or that they would be willing be to pay the price, but are simply unable, as yet, to design and build the hardware? It would take a China specialist to give a definitive answer to this question, but it is a crucial question, because to answer this question would be to determine whether China’s military posture is voluntary or involuntary.
If China’s present military posture really is voluntary, that means that China’s leadership really does believe in their own “peaceful rise” and in “strategic trust.” If, however, China’s present military posture is involuntary, forced upon it by circumstances beyond the control of China’s leadership, then that means that “peaceful rise” and “strategic trust” really are the formulaic platitudes that they appear to be. We must be prepared to entertain either of these hypotheses, as, at present, they are empirically equivalent theories.
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23 March 2013
In Synchronic and Diachronic Approaches to Civilization and Axes of Historiography I discussed the differences between synchronic and diachronic approaches to historiographical analysis (and in much greater detail in Ecological Temporality and the Axes of Historiography). The synchronic/diachronic distinction can also be useful in futurism, and in fact we can readily distinguish between what I will call synchronic extrapolation and diachronic extrapolation.
If we understand synchrony as, “the present construed broadly enough to admit of short term historical interaction” (as I formulated it in Axes of Historiography), then synchronic extrapolation is the extrapolation of a broadly construed present across its interactions. This may not sound very enlightening, but you’ll understand immediately what I mean when I relate it to chaos and complexity. Recent interest in chaos theory and what is known as the “butterfly effect” has led some to think in terms of synchronic extrapolation since the idea of the is of a small event the interactions of which cascade to produce significant consequences.
As a form of futurism, synchronic extrapolation is not familiar (probably because it doesn’t take us very far forward into the future), but we need to keep it in mind in order to contrast it with diachronic extrapolation. Diachronic extrapolation is one of the most familiar forms of futurism today, especially as embodied in Ray Kurzweil’s love of exponential growth curves, which are usually diachronic extrapolations. One of the reasons that I remain so skeptical about the claims of Kurzweil and other singulatarians (even though I have learned a lot about them recently and have a less negative picture overall than initially) is the heavy reliance on diachronic extrapolation in their futurism. I frequently cite specific examples of failed exponential growth curves or technologies (like chemical rockets) that seem to be stuck in a technological rut (what I have called a stalled technology), experiencing little or no development (and certainly not exponential development), and I do this because readers usually find specific, particular examples persuasive.
I have discovered over the course of many conversations that most people tune out extended theoretical expositions, and only sort of wake up and pay attention when you give a concrete example. So I do this, to the best of my ability. But really, the dispute with diachronic extrapolation (and particular schools of futurist thought that employ diachronic extrapolation to the exclusion of other methods, such as the singulatarians) is theoretical, and all the examples in the world aren’t going to get to the nub of the problem, which must be given the theoretical exposition that it deserves. And the nub of the problem is simply that diachrony over significant periods of time cannot be pursued in isolation, since any diachronic extrapolation will interact with changed conditions over time, and this interaction will eventually come to constitute the consequences as must as the original trend diachronically extrapolated.
Diachronic extrapolation may be derailed by historical singularities, but it is far more frequent that nothing so discontinuous as a singularity need happen in order for a straight-forward extrapolation of present trends fail to be be realized. I specifically single out diachronic extrapolation in isolation, because the most frequent form of failed futurism is to take a trend in the present and to project it into the future, but any futurism worthy of the name must understand events in both their synchronic and diachronic context; isolation from succession in time is just as invidious as isolation from interaction across time. This simultaneous synchrony and diachrony resembles a chain reaction of ever-growing consequences from the initial point of departure.
In my two immediately previous posts — Addendum on Automation and the Human Future and Bertrand Russell as Futurist — I dealt obliquely with the problems of diachronic extrapolation. Predicting technogenic unemployment on the basis of contemporary automation, or predicting a bifurcation between annihilation or world government, is a paradigm case of diachronic extrapolation that fails to sufficiently take into account future interactions that will become as important or more important than the diachronically extrapolated trend.
This was the point that I was trying to make in Addendum on Automation and the Human Future when I wrote:
I am willing to admit without hesitation that, 250 years from now, we may well have realized a near-automated economy, and that this automation of the economy will have truly profound and far-reaching socioeconomic consequences. However, the original problem then becomes a different problem, because so many other things, unanticipated and unprecedented things, have changed in the intervening years that the problem of labor and employment is likely to look completely different at this future date.
In other words, a diachronic extrapolation of current employment trends — technogenic unemployment, new jobs created by new industries, and perennial problems of unemployment and underemployment — is helpful in so far as it goes, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough in capturing the different world that the future will be.
Similar concerns hold for Russell’s failed futurism that I reviewed in Bertrand Russell as Futurist: Russell took several trends operating at present — war, nuclear weapons, anarchic competition among nation-states — and extrapolated them into the future as though nothing else would happen in history except these closely related group of strategically significant trends.
In my post on Russell’s futurism I cited his essay “The Future of Man”, but Russell made the same point innumerable. times. In his first essay on the atomic bomb, “The Bomb and Civilization,” he wrote:
Either war or civilization must end, and if it is to be war that ends, there must be an international authority with the sole power to make the new bombs. All supplies of uranium must be placed under the control of the international authority, which shall have the right to safeguard the ore by armed forces. As soon as such an authority has been created, all existing atomic bombs, and all plants for their manufacture, must be handed over. And of course the international authority must have sufficient armed forces to protect whatever has been handed over to it. If this system were once established, the international authority would be irresistible, and wars would cease. At worst, there might be occasional brief revolts that would be easily quelled.
And in his book-length study of the same question, Has Man a Future? Russell made the same point again:
“So long as armed forces are under the command of single nations, or groups of nations, not strong enough to have unquestioned control over the whole world — so long it is almost certain that sooner or later there will be war, and, so long as scientific technique persists, war will grow more and more deadly.”
Bertrand Russell, Has Man a Future? New York: Simon & Schuster, 1962, p. 69
We have seen that armed forces continue to be under the command of individual nation-states, and in fact they continue to go to war with each other. Moreover, scientific technique has markedly improved, and while the construction of weapons of mass destruction remains today a topic of considerable political comment, the availability of improved weapons of mass destruction did not automatically or inevitably lead to global nuclear war and human extinction.
In the same book Russell went on to say:
“…it seems indubitable that scientific man cannot long survive unless all the major weapons of war, and all the means of mass destruction, are in the hands of a single authority, which, in consequence of its monopoly, would have irresistible power and, if challenged to war, could wipe out any rebellion within a few days without much damage except to the rebels.”
Bertrand Russell, Has Man a Future? New York: Simon & Schuster, 1962, p. 70
In writing these comments, we can now see in hindsight that one of the major strategic trends of the second half of the twentieth century that Russell missed was the rise in the efficacy of asymmetrical resistance to irresistible power. Russell does not seem to have recognized that authorities in possession of de facto irresistible power might choose not to annihilate a weaker power because of global opinion and the hit that such an actor would take to its soft power if it simply wiped out a rebellion. Moreover, the wide distribution of automatic weapons — not weapons of mass destruction — proved to be a disruptive force in global political affairs by providing just enough friction to the military operations of great powers that rebellions could not be wiped out within a few days.
The rise of twentieth century guerrilla resistance and rebellion was an important development in global affairs, and a development not acknowledged until it was already a fait accompli, but I don’t think that it constituted an historical singularity — as it is part of a devolution of warfare rather than a breakthrough to a new order of magnitude of war (which seems to have been what Russell feared would come about).
It has been said (by L. P. Hartley, a contemporary of Russell) that the past is a foreign country. This is true. It is also true that the future is a foreign country. (Logically, these two claims are identical; every present is the future to some past.) We ought to make no pretense to false familiarity with the future, since they do things differently there.
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5 October 2012
In the film Apocalypse Now the protagonist, Captain Benjamin L. Willard, is sent up the Mekong to Cambodia to kill Colonel Kurtz, who has gone rogue and is leading a group of native combatants who follow him unquestioningly. There is a scene on the boat going upriver when Willard is reading Col. Kurtz’s dossier, including a report that Kurtz is supposed to have written to the Pentagon after an early tour in Vietnam. The report is called “Commitment and Counterinsurgency” and it includes the following:
“As long as our officers and troups (sic) perform tours of duty limited to one year, they will remain dilletantes in war and tourists in Vietnam. As long as cold beer, hot food, rock and roll and all the other amenities remain the expected norm, our conduct of the war will gain only impotence. The wholesale and indiscriminate use of firepower will only increase the effectiveness of the enemy and strengthen their resolve to prove the superiority of an agrarian culture against the world’s greatest technocracy… The central tragedy of our effort in this conflict has been the confusion of a sophisticated technology with human commitment. Our bombs may in time destroy the geography, but they will never win the war… We need fewer men, and better; if they were committed, this war could be won with a fourth of our present force…”
Everyone knows that Apocalypse now was loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I think it would probably be better to say that Apocalypse Now was inspired by Heart of Darkness — or we could use more contemporary terminology and say that Apocalypse Now is a re-imagining of Heart of Darkness.
Vietnam, Apocalypse Now, and counterinsurgency have all become eerily relevant again as the US seeks to disengage from Central Asia after a ground war that has stretched over more than a decade with no resolution consistent with original aims seeming to be in sight. I’ve written about counterinsurgency, or COIN, several times recently as a result of these all-too-familiar events.
Despite the firm intentions of both US military and civilian leadership that the US not be involved in another unwinnable counterinsurgency operation in a distant part of the world, this is exactly what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. The fact that history repeated itself in this way, despite the conscious efforts of military and civilian leaders to avoid such a repetition, says much more about the international system and the imperatives of contemporary political organization than it says about the US.
I would argue that any global hegemon at the present moment in history — whether that global hegemon happened to be the US, Russia, China, Brazil, or the British Empire — would find itself more or less forced by circumstances to engage in counterinsurgency operations in widely disparate parts of the globe. Such interventions are systemic rather than opportunistic and episodic.
In the past week US and NATO efforts in Afghanistan have come under scrutiny again after the death toll of US soldiers passed 2,000 as widely-reported “insider attacks,” also called “green on blue” attacks, continue to take the lives of US soldiers.
We quantify wars in terms of deaths, injuries, damage, and dollars. It is a dissatisfying measure to all involved — to the families of dead soldiers a single digit in a statistic scarcely captures the loss, to the families of dead civilians, and those whose lives have been disrupted beyond salvaging, similar considerations hold, while for the war planner the commitment in blood and treasure to the fight does not accurately represent the ultimate effort that was made under adverse circumstances.
Nevertheless, there must be some measure, and certainly blood and treasure constitute the fundamental calculus of commitment in war, apart from that intangible commitment that the fictional Col. Kurtz attempted to communicate to his superiors. It may well be that this intangible commitment of — what? — is precisely that unmeasurable element of the equation that results in victory or defeat, but until we have a theory to account for it, and a language in which we can formulate it, we cannot say anything coherent about it.
It is admittedly difficult even to speak coherently of quantifiable measures like blood and treasure because estimates of death in war are always contested, and because they are contested the numbers employed are almost always the result of a political decision. Some will argue for higher numbers and other will argue for lower numbers. In a war like the Second World War, when entire cities were destroyed and millions were buried under the rubble, estimates on casualties may be off by millions, and at very least off by hundreds of thousands.
In long-term counterinsurgencies like the US in Vietnam, the USSR in Afghanistan, or the US in Afghanistan, estimating civilian deaths is difficult not so much for the absolute numbers involved but because in such conflict it will be inherently controversial who is and who is not a civilian, as it will be controversial as to who is blame for atrocities carried out far beyond the reach of investigating authorities, and for which each side blames the other.
Casualty counts, then, are inherently controversial, but estimates are made; each estimate represents a particular methodology, and each methodology embodies certain assumptions. Despite all the hazards involved, I am going to give some numbers comparing three different wars — World War Two, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. In all cases I have picked the high estimates, even when these estimates have been contested. Dates, and rates derived from dates, are also numbers that can be contested. So what follows is very rough, but still indicative of a trend.
The Second World War — not in any sense a counterinsurgency — lasted about six (6) years and resulted in about 25 million military deaths and 52 million civilian deaths. This occurred in a total global population of 2,300 million, so that the war consumed about 3.3 percent of world population. This isn’t much compared to a demographic event like the Black Death when it first swept across Europe in 1348-1349, but it is still a very high number for deaths from war. The military casualties of more than four (4) million per year work out to about 475 per hour for each hour of the war, while civilian casualties of more than eight (8) million per year work out to about 988 per hour for every hour of the war.
The involvement of the US in the Vietnam War, a classic counterinsurgency, lasted about ten (10) years from 1965 to 1975, with 58,220 US military deaths and as many as 2,500,000 civilian deaths spread across Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. This works out to 5,822 military deaths per year, or 0.055 US military deaths for every hour of the war, and 250,000 civilian deaths per year or 2.3766 civilian deaths every hour for the duration of the US involvement in Vietnam (I am here choosing not to include the ten years of French involvement from 1955-1965, although the civilian casualty numbers include at least part of this period — as I wrote above, I took high numbers, and the numbers themselves are inherently controversial).
The involvement of the US in Afghanistan, another counterinsurgency, has lasted almost eleven (11) years from 2001 to 2012 with 2,000 US military casualties. I found it rather difficult to come by estimates of civilian casualties, which varied widely, but, again, taking the high numbers, I found about 34,008 civilian casualties, or about 3,092 per year, which works out to 0.029 per hour for every hour of the war. US military deaths averaged 182 per year or 0.0017 per hour for every hour of the war.
It is interesting to note that during the Vietnam War global population increased by almost a billion persons from 3,345 million to 4,086 million, and during the Afghan War global population again grew by almost a billion, from roughly 6 billion to 7 billion. With these much higher total global population figures, and the far lower casualty totals, whether military or civilian or both, the war deaths from these protracted conflicts don’t even register as a demographic rounding error.
These “big picture” statistics of course hide a lot of details, but they are still the big picture and they tell us something. They tell us that both military and civilian casualties of war are at historic lows, which is something I wrote about in the early history of this blog in The Lethality Peak. Another way to look at the lethality peak is to understand it as societies investing far less in armed conflict than was the case even in the recent past, i.e., there is a lower level of commitment in terms of blood; a lot more statistical analysis would be required to reveal the relative expenditure of treasure.
Yet another way to interpret these numbers is that the great infringements upon human life and human society in our time do not come about from wars and from outright deaths caused by war, but from what I have called non-atrocites, that is to say, depredations upon human populations and human communities that are maintained below the threshold of atrocity.
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6 June 2012
A week or so ago the New York Times published at article about the split at West Point between those who see value in counter-insurgency (COIN) doctrines and those who see no value in these doctrines, West Point Is Divided on a War Doctrine’s Fate, by Elisabeth Bumiller. At West Point the doctrinal dialectic is being played out between Col. Gian P. Gentile, COIN skeptic, and Col. Michael J. Meese, COIN defender. Now George Friedman of Strategic Forecasting has published The End of Counterinsurgency and the Scalable Force on the Stratfor website (this is one of Stratfor’s free offerings, so you can read this if you don’t have a subscription), giving his perspective on the COIN debate. Not surprisingly, with a portentous title like “The End of Counterinsurgency,” Friedman’s position is not very enthusiastic about COIN.
I discussed some of Gentile’s views in Maintaining the Distinction Between Strategy and Tactics, where I reviewed Jason Fritz’s take on Gentile’s slogan that, “COIN is a strategy of tactics” (or SoT) and I said that this view entailed the idea that, “COIN has no true strategic content, and that a military force that makes COIN its central doctrine is a force essentially without a strategy.” But there is a missing distinction here. COIN certainly can be approached as a mere SoT, blind to larger concerns, or it can be formulated precisely to avoid a muddled collection of tactics that may well be at cross purposes to each other. History affords examples of both.
In regard to the NYT article, Thomas E. Ricks noted on the Foreign Policy magazine website that another obvious distinction should be made:
“…contrary to what the reporter seems to think, one can easily believe a) we should not have gone to war in Iraq, b) that COIN worked, and c) but that nothing was gained in that war.”
This isn’t the only distinction that should be observed. There is an obvious distinction to be made between the fact of COIN operations, which are often the result of historical accident piled upon historical accident — in other words, stumbling into COIN, not making an explicit strategic choice to pursue COIN over other alternatives — and a military doctrine that makes COIN operations central. The NYT article includes this:
“Colonel Meese’s opposing argument is that warfare cannot be divorced from its political, economic and psychological dimensions — the view advanced in the bible of counterinsurgents, the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual that was revised under General Petraeus in 2006. Hailed as a new way of warfare (although drawing on counterinsurgencies fought by the United States in Vietnam in the 1960s and the Philippines from 1899 to 1902, among others), the manual promoted the protection of civilian populations, reconstruction and development aid.”
Clearly, to re-write a central document of military doctrine as though counterinsurgency were a new way of warfare that is to be the wave of the future is to make a strategic decision that this new way of warfare is of crucial importance now, will continue to be a crucial importance, and needs to be the focus of ongoing efforts. This is something very different from being caught in an insurgency being forced to fight it.
There are certainly good reasons for believing that COIN is the wave of the future, or, at very least, part of the wave of the future. I noted in The Security Paradox that “military operations other than war” (MOOTW) of necessity now play an increasing role in military thought and practice because of the reduced opportunities for peer-to-peer conflict.
George Friedman takes up the COIN debate in relation to peer-to-peer conflict in several points in his recent piece:
“…many within the military have long opposed counterinsurgency operations. Others see counterinsurgency as the unavoidable future of U.S. warfare. The debate is between those who believe the purpose of a conventional military force is to defeat another conventional military force and those who believe conventional military conflicts increasingly will be replaced by conflicts more akin to recent counterinsurgency operations.
If MOOTW come to predominate over peer-to-peer conflict, then COIN certainly will be part of the unavoidable future of U.S. warfare. That means that if a military force is built for conventional military conflicts, it will be underutilized while non-conventional conflicts go unaddressed because there is no force available to fight them. It is often said that, “The enemy gets a vote.” This unavoidability of non-conventional conflict is a result of the enemy’s voice. Regardless of the kind of military establishment that the U.S. builds, it does not get to choose its enemies unless is launches a preemptive or preventative war. And, as we have seen, even a preemptive or a preventative war can be transformed into unconventional, asymmetric warfare.
George Friedman addresses the growing role of asymmetric warfare indirectly, by denying that COIN is a type of warfare:
“Understanding this debate requires the understanding that counterinsurgency is not a type of warfare; it is one strategy by which a disproportionately powerful conventional force approaches asymmetric warfare.”
To assert that “counterinsurgency is not a type of warfare” is to cut the Gordian Knot; moreover, it is not very helpful. The unique position of the U.S. in the contemporary international system — like the unique position of Rome in classical antiquity — means that the U.S. is held to different standards than other nation-states and very different standards than non-state actors. The unavoidable Clausewitzean equation of war and politics means that wars become political and politics sometimes forces a nation-state into wars against its better judgment. These realities cannot be wished away.
Similarly, the complexity of war (including mission creep) cannot be wished away. Friedman envisions a light, mobile, flexible force of Marines who can suddenly descend upon hostiles in a violently effective surgical strike, only to disappear as the sun begins to peek over the horizon. There are many who would like see this as the central scenario of U.S. conflict involvement. I will avoid arguing the obviously cheap shot that, “commando raids are not a type of warfare; they are one strategy by which a disproportionately powerful conventional force approaches asymmetric warfare.”
After ten years plus involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, military thought in the U.S. is being affected by a psychological attrition that is not at all unlike what happened after ten years plus of involvement in Viet Nam. This fatigue also affects the security professionals who study the same problems and think about the same dilemmas day in and day out, year in and year out. Military and security professionals know that military casualties are at historic lows, but the deaths affect them personally even if they come at lower rates than in any other previous conflict (less than a tenth of the deaths in Viet Nam, to take the obvious comparison). This phenomenon has a precise analogy in the civilian sphere. The reporters know that civilian casualties are at historic lows, but competition for dramatic photographs and interviews drives every story of civilian casualties onto the front page and gives the impression that the deaths are disproportionately high when they are in fact disproportionately low.
In short, almost everyone has lost their objectivity, and the quality of thought and judgment is wavering or seriously compromised as a result. It is probably not possible for any democratic society to wage quasi-imperial wars, even with the best of intentions, without suffering cognitive dissonance at a level proportionate to the length of the conflict. And the erosion of thought and objectivity is a side-effect of this cognitive dissonance. Give the US another twenty years to engage in soul-searching, hand-wringing, and much-publicized recriminations, and the spirit of reckless adventurism will return, for better or worse. This, too, is the result of a decline in the clarity and objectivity of thought. We can only hope that, in the long term future, counter-cyclical forces will emerge that will temper both the highs of adventurism and the lows of defeatism.
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Note added 08 June 2012: On the same day that I posted the above, Thomas E. Ricks posted a longer and much more detailed piece on COIN, No matter what Gentile and others wish, counterinsurgency just isn’t going away, by Col. Robert Killebrew. I agree with almost all of this.
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22 May 2012
The Pacific Ocean is the largest unified geographical area on the surface of the planet. Covering more than a quarter of the globe, it is, “almost equal to the total land area of the world” (according to the CIA Factbook), and is twice as large as the Atlantic Ocean. This vast realm of water has recently been the object of elevated strategic interest since a “strategic pivot” toward Asia was announced by the current US administration, perhaps heralding the first signs of a shift toward a Pacific-centered world order.
The strategic pivot to Asia has been accompanied by admirably clear strategic guidance for the current US Pacific Command (Pacom) commander. The admirably succinct (3 page) UNITED STATES PACIFIC COMMAND STRATEGIC GUIDANCE, authored (or at least signed by) outgoing Pacom Admiral Robert F. Willard, mirrors the January 2012 strategic planning document, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense (almost as succinct as the former at 16 pages, including several title pages and introductory material, which narrows the content to a mere 8 pages).
There was an interesting story on the DOD website from the American Forces Press Service about the United States Pacific Command incoming Pacom Commander Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III — Locklear: Pacom’s Priorities Reflect New Strategic Guidance (which I previously wrote about on Tumblr). Admiral Locklear was quoted as saying, “…the president and the secretary of defense have given me through their strategic guidance clear direction on what they want [and] what they expect to see.” Every commander should be so fortunate.
This strategy is as much a political strategy as a military strategy, though in the present case implemented by the military forces of the US (as no Clausewitzean would be surprised to hear, given the fungibility of political and the military exertion). Both the strategic guidance referenced above and Admiral Locklear himself (as quoted in the above-linked article) prominently discussed developing military-to-military cooperation between the US and Korea, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia, and Singapore. The Pacom website has an article and many pictures from recent joint Royal Thai Navy and US Navy exercises. China, of course, gets a section of its own in the strategic guidance. Here is what the UNITED STATES PACIFIC COMMAND STRATEGIC GUIDANCE says about China:
2. Mature the U.S.-China Military-to-Military Relationship
i. Sustain a consistent military-to-military relationship to prevent miscommunication and miscalculation.
ii. Pursue opportunities for increased military cooperation in areas of mutual interest.
iii. Monitor China’s military modernization program and prepare accordingly.
Some time ago on Tumblr I wrote in The Pacific Theater, Then and Now that, “It would be difficult to imagine the US and Japanese military forces gathering in the late 1930s for defense consultative talks.” The US and China, however, have held Defense Consultative Talks. Of the DCT gathering in Beijing in 2011 I wrote:
“One cannot but wonder at the feeling and atmosphere of the room at such meetings. It has become a parlor game among strategists to play off the US and China in a confrontation, with the US being the world’s only superpower and China being the superpower presumptive, however far it is from actual superpower status. Also, much can happen in the period of time that need to elapse for China to bring its military forces even roughly to par with those of the US.”
It is certainly a good thing that these two powers are at least talking to each other, however little comes from such meetings. These two powers — the two largest economies in the world — face each other across the North Pacific, and they are vulnerable to what the strategic guidance document diplomatically calls “miscommunication and miscalculation.”
As the two largest economies on the planet, and the two great powers on the Pacific, the US and China will have interests in common (“areas of mutual interest”) and interests in conflict. This is inevitable. Great powers have a bias to stability, and while China’s “peaceful rise” as a “responsible stakeholder” in the global community is actually a form of instability in the international system, it is an instability with a bias toward a future bi-polar world order with China and the US both desiring to preserve their status while not greatly disturbing the other through “miscommunication and miscalculation.” The Chinese are as eager as the US to keep the sea lanes open to international trade, as China’s burgeoning trade with the world is the lifeline of its resource-hungry, export-led economy.
But there is a fly in the ointment, and that fly is Taiwan. The US officially maintains a “One China” policy, but it also gives Taiwan security guarantees (though it remains coyly ambiguous about whether the nuclear umbrella covers Taiwan) and occasionally sells the Taiwanese advanced military hardware when it feels like poking a stick in the eye of the Beijing regime. For its part, China has floated its first aircraft carrier, rumored to be named the Shī Láng (施琅, formerly the Admiral Kuznetsov-class Varyag), and I do not think that it is merely coincidental that Shī Láng was a Ming-Qing Dynasty admiral who conquered Taiwan in 1681.
The Pacific Ocean has the distinction of being the only ocean on the globe to host the only major aircraft carrier engagements in planetary history. Aircraft carriers have been deployed in all the world’s oceans, but only the in the Pacific during the Second World War were there major military engagements between peer or near-peer fleets of multiple aircraft carriers. In The Pacific Theater, Then and Now I wrote, “Anyone who wants to understand carrier operations and carrier warfare studies Midway, Guadalcanal, and the Battle of the Philippine Sea. These are the only examples that we have.” I have moreover elsewhere stated that aircraft carriers are the premier instruments of force projection in the world today, and in light of this the entry of China into the lists of those nation-states operating aircraft carriers (a list about as short as the list of nation-states possessing nuclear weapons) suggests a re-run of historical naval arms races. Starting in 1922 with Hōshō (the first purpose-built aircraft carrier), the Japanese rapidly built a carrier fleet that was prepared to take on the US in the Pacific by 1941. That was a period of less than twenty years.
The Pacific Ocean is a relatively well-defined region that is not a nation-state. As such, it perfectly exemplifies that I recently wrote about in regard to regionalism. After posting my initial formulations of regionalism I realized that one way to define a region would be as a geographical area isolated from other geographical areas by choke points. The choke points of the Pacific Ocean are surprisingly few for a geographical region of this extent.
In the map above (if you click on it, it should get bigger) I have attempted to outline in red some of the obvious choke points that connect the Pacific Ocean to the rest of the world. The Bering Sea is the choke point for access to the Arctic Ocean; the Panama Canal and the Straight of Magellan are the choke points for access to the Atlantic Ocean. There is a particularly interesting buffer of southeast Asian islands interposed between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. One could regard this as a series of closely spaced choke points, or as something strategically distinct from a choke point, reticulate in nature, like a permeable barrier. Such an area would be difficult to transit in large capital ships or a fleet, but affords numerous hiding places (and re-supply opportunities) for small vessels that can safely negotiate the shallow seas and narrow straits of these islands.
Should the world begin to approximate a Pacific-centered world order, this world order would be at the mercy of the choke points noted above. In an A2/AD world, these choke points would dictate the dissemination of Pacific commerce to the rest of the world. Any power wishing to dictate terms to the world would seek to control these choke points, since by controlling the choke points, the entire Pacific Ocean becomes the subject of anti-access and area denial. One CSG per choke point would go a long way toward control of the Pacific. Whose carriers will it be?
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21 April 2012
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey spoke at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum, Harvard University, Boston, Massachusetts on Thursday, 12 April 2012. In his speech he formulated what he called a security paradox. I was made aware of this by a piece in Foreign Policy magazine, This Week at War: The General’s Dystopia by Robert Haddick.
The chairman’s formulation of one of the central strategic dilemmas of our time in the form of a paradox gives us a concise motif for the discussion of this dilemma. Here is the passage of the speech that first formulates the paradox:
…I believe I’m chairman at a time that seems less dangerous but it’s actually more dangerous. That’s the essence of what I describe as a security paradox. Although geopolitical trends are ushering in greater levels of peace and stability worldwide, destructive technologies are available to a wider and more disparate pool of adversaries. Highly accurate ballistic missiles are prevalent in every theater. Bombs made out of fertilizer can defeat and destroy our toughest mine-resistant vehicles. A cyberattack could stop this society in its tracks. And these are real threats that we face today.
What truly concerns me as chairman is that these lethal and destructive technologies are proliferating in two directions. They’re proliferating horizontally across advanced militaries in the world, and they’re proliferating vertically, down to nonstate actors, especially insurgents, terrorist groups and even transnational organized crime. As a result, more people have the ability to harm us or deny us the ability to act than at any point in my life. And that’s the security paradox.
The international system is more stable than at any time in the past, and there is less peer-to-peer war than throughout much of history, but the possibility of technologically sophisticated violence is more pervasive than at any time in the past. This summarizes the paradoxical coincidence of two of the most important strategic trends of our time. we have long known that major peer-to-peer wars are becoming less frequent in the international system, and we have long known that rapidly technological process is democratizing advanced technological capabilities. It is the virtue of the Chairman’s security paradox to bring these two strategic trends together.
It might sound a bit odd to say that war has been made less frequent by the contemporary international system, since there are seemingly interminable conflicts all over the world, and this is partly a semantic question of how “war” is to be defined. If we place the threshold of war rather low, and include non-state actors, we can say that war is pervasive in the world today. But if we place the threshold high, and disallow non-state actors are participants in war sensu stricto, war can be seen as rare. In fact, if we define war as peer-to-peer conflict between major military powers, there has not been a war since 1945. Subsequent larger conflicts have been proxy wars between Cold War adversaries that did not rise to the level of peer-to-peer (or near-peer) conflict.
I have expressed this strategic trend of the decreasing frequency of all-out war as the devolution of war, noting that this devolution involves the weaponization of eliminationism, which keeps depredations below the threshold of atrocity in order to forestall international intervention (and thereby avoid a “war”).
Another way to express this is to employ the acronym OOTW, which stands for “operations other than war” (also MOOTW, military operations other than war). Chapter 9 of Field Manual 100-15 – War and Operations Other Than War details military operations other than war, which may include (but are not necessarily limited to) arms control, attacks and raids, antiterrorism, counterterrorism, disaster relief, humanitarian assistance, security assistance, foreign internal defense, COIN, noncombatant evacuation operations, peace operations, and recovery operations. It is no secret that the military forces of major powers have been much more involved in OOTW than war itself for some time, although all of these OOTW can escalate into conflicts indistinguishable from war.
I don’t know of any acronym that sums up the devolution of technology as neatly as OOTW sums up the devolution of warfighting powers to conducting operations other than war, but the historical phenomenon of technology becoming less expensive and more widely available is familiar to all. I dealt with the technological devolution after a fashion in Power to the People, in which I discussed the electronic intelligence possibilities now available to non-state entities and indeed to individuals. Anyone today using Google Earth knows what it is like to have available on their desk top satellite intelligence once reserved for a handful of nation-states capable of launching a satellite into earth orbit.
We have every reason to believe that major military engagements will continue to be avoided in favor of military operations other than war, and we similarly have every reason to believe that advanced technology, including the technology of weapons systems, will continue to disperse more widely and cheaply. Thus the security paradox will not only continue to describe the global security situation, it will likely be exacerbated by high technology weapons systems devolving further down the continuum of actors and agents.
These developments are not smooth and continuous; there continue to be some technologies like nuclear weapons that require the resources of a nation-state to develop and to deploy (although, I might point out, not to steal). Computer technologies are very widely available, and wherever computer technologies inform weapons technology, we can expect such high technology weapons systems to eventually devolve to the level of the individual. Ideologically motivated groups, like terrorist groups, making a concerted effort to acquire such high technology weapons systems, will have them much sooner.
How are we to manage a world in which high technology weapons systems are in the hands of strongly ideologically motivated groups who are willing to kill in order to attain their objectives? That is the question that will shape security thinking for the remainder of the twenty-first century and beyond.
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