On the Cusp of Qualitative Strikes

3 November 2013


Lenins tomb with missiles

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.

Soviet Yangel R-16 two stage ICBM in its silo.

Soviet Yangel R-16 two stage ICBM in its silo.

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.

norad war room

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.

Strategic bombing during the Second World War demonstrated the possibility of leveling cities; nuclear strategy was simply an extension of this.

Strategic bombing during the Second World War demonstrated the possibility of leveling cities; nuclear strategy was simply an extension of this.

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.

General Curtis LeMay of the Strategic Air Command.

General Curtis LeMay of the Strategic Air Command.

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.

Air Marshal Arthur (Bomber) Harris.

Air Marshal Arthur (Bomber) Harris.

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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Grand Strategy Annex

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