Addendum on Constraint and Devolution

20 August 2011


Further to yesterday’s post, Constraint and Devolution, it has occurred to me that there is a close relationship between the two distinct tactical trends of constraint and devolution.

Weapons systems designed under political constraints are mostly weapons systems devolved from absolute destructiveness. While nuclear weapons were employed tactically at the close of the Second World War (which was also the First Nuclear War), the emergence of multiple nuclear powers with large stockpiles of nuclear weapons made nuclear weapons into purely strategic weapons systems that could not be used tactically without justifiable fears of escalation to the point of mutually assured destruction.

There are many political constraints on weapons systems, for example: 1) in terms of numbers of weapons and weapons programs, 2) expenses of the same, 3) frequency of use, 4) destructiveness of use, and 5) collateral damage inflicted.

1) Nuclear weapons stockpiled during the Cold War were judged to be a threat simply in virtue of their existence in large numbers; disarmament efforts often focused on reducing the numbers of nuclear warheads, delivery systems for nuclear warheads, and reducing the throw weights of missiles.

2) The F-22, the world’s first fifth generation air superiority fighter, and probably a superior airframe in comparison to the F-35, has been cancelled due to its expense.

3) It sometimes happens that the isolated use of a weapons system goes but little remarked, while the proliferation of a weapons system begins to be noted in the press and political pressure builds for the limitation of proliferating weapons systems. We have seen this in relation to landmines, cluster bomblets, and white phosphorus munitions.

4) Especially large-scale destructiveness, or weapons systems that cause especially gruesome injuries (which seem to attract the press more than outright deaths), create political pressure to limit their production, deployment, and use. Although physicist Leó Szilárd proposed the Cobalt bomb as early as 1950, no such bomb was built because its destructiveness was potentially too great. Since that time the scope of destructiveness has contracted to the point that the only weapons system that is politically acceptable is a precision weapons system (on which cf. no. 5, below).

5) The exponential increase of precision munitions is largely driven by the political need to minimize collateral damage. This has been perhaps the single most significant development driving weapons research in the past quarter century.

These constraints taken together — and this list I created off the top of my head, and is therefore in no respect to be considered exhaustive — force a devolution of war down to a scale at which effective action can only be taken by small fire teams with advanced weapons, or a single platform (jet, ship, helicopter, tank, etc.) mounting smart weapons systems.

There is hardly any place any more in contemporary warfare for conventional engagements. There will continue to be sporadic exceptions, like the take-down of Iraq, but this too, after the conventional phase, passed over into extended unconventional, asymmetrical, and irregular warfare.

At the same time that political constraints drive devolution, the devolution to small, highly mobile fire teams, as well as militant proxies and irregular forces, drives the demand for disproportionately effective small weapons systems — ideally, weapons systems that can be carried by an individual, but which will possess the precision destructiveness made possible by miniaturization and high technology.

The devolution of weapons systems involves a devolution of responsibility to small fire teams and irregular forces, which as a practical matter of fact must often involve a parallel devolution of authority to these same entities. The success and extrapolation of infiltration tactics since the closing stages of the First World War, and subsequently codified into doctrine during the Second World War, demonstrated to every large institutional military the importance of delegating authority and encouraging the initiative down to the level of the individual fire team.

The devolution of authority that follows from the decisive need to exploit the initiative and the politically driven constraint on weapons systems means that combat decisions will be more decentralized than ever. In practical terms, this means that decisions will be made at the far periphery of the political apparatus, and from this development we can expect to see an increase in limited, local atrocities from small combat teams that take decisions in the heat of battle and without oversight from more politically astute commanders closer to the centers of power but farther from the firefight.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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