15 September 2016
A Century of Industrialized Warfare:
Mechanized Armor Enters the Fray
On 15 September 1916 one of the pivotal events of industrialized warfare occurred: the tank was used in battle for the first time in history. Mobile fire has been the crucial offensive weapon of warfare since the beginning of civilization and warfare, whether that mobile fire took the form of chariot archers, mounted horse archers, a ship of the line, or mechanized armor, as with the tank. Before industrialized warfare the heaviest armored unit was heavy cavalry (or possibly elephants, though elephants were never armored to the extent that cataphracti or medieval knights were armored), which was a shock weapon — mobile, but not mobile fire. The tank was able to combine mobile fire with heavy armor in a way that no non-mechanized force was capable, and this made it a distinctive feature of industrialized warfare.
The Battle of the Somme had started on 01 July 1916, and with two and half months into the “battle” it was obvious that the Somme would be like most WWI battlefields: largely static and dominated by defense: trenches, barbed wire, and machine gun nests, which had arrested the progress of any offensive and so had precluded decisive attainment of objectives. Up to this time, the technology of the industrial revolution had strengthened the defense, but with the introduction of the tank all that changed. Mechanized armor brought mobile fire into the age of industrialized warfare, and mechanized armor has remained, for a hundred years, the primary spearhead of offensive action.
Despite its initial effectiveness as a “terror weapon,” the pace of tank development was somewhat slow for wartime conditions. The Germans did not introduce their first tank until the A7V was deployed in March 1918, and the first battle between tanks took place during the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux in April 1918. Early tanks were mechanically unreliable, and were fielded in smaller numbers than would have been necessary to fundamentally change the conditions of battle. In many ways, this paralleled the use of aircraft during the First World War: the technology was introduced, but not yet mastered.
It was not the introduction of the tank that ended the First World War. However, an adequate conceptualization of mechanized armor began to emerge during the interwar period, when tanks underwent extensive development and testing, and Heinz Guderian wrote his Achtung — Panzer! (much as Giulio Douhet wrote The Command of the Air during the interwar period). The tank truly came into its own during the Second World War, combined with close air support in a highly mobile form of maneuver warfare that came to be called Blitzkrieg. The largest tank battle in history took place during the Battle of Kursk in July 1943, almost thirty years after the tank was first used in combat.
In The End of the Age of the Aircraft Carrier I speculated that armored helicopters could take the place of tanks in a mechanized spearhead. Though helicopters will always be more vulnerable than a tank, because they can never be as heavily armored as tanks, they are today the premier weapon of mobile fire and could press forward the attack far faster than tanks. Helicopter gunships, however, have not yet been fully exploited for battlefield use, partly because they appeared on the scene at a point of time in history when peer-to-peer conflict among nation-states was already a declining paradigm, and so they have filled a very different combat role.
The paradigm of hybrid warfare that is emerging in our own time — a form of warfare probably more consistent with the existence of planetary civilization than the past paradigm of peer-to-peer conflict among nation-states — has no place for heavily armored mobile fire comparable to the place of the tank in twentieth century warfare. The forces now actually engaged in armed conflict (as opposed to appearing in military parades) tend to be lighter, faster, and stealthier. Despite the tendency of warfare to press forward the rapid development of technologies under conditions of existential threat, we have seen that it can take decades to fully assimilate a new technology into warfare, as was the case with the tank. It will probably take decades to get beyond doctrines of mechanized warfare established in the twentieth century and to adopt a doctrine more suitable for the forces employed today.
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A Century of Industrialized Warfare
11. The Tank after One Hundred Years
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1 July 2016
Today is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme (also called the Somme Offensive), which began on 01 July 1916. The Somme has become symbolic in regard to the military mistakes of the First World War, especially in its wastefulness of human life. On the first day of the battle alone the British lost almost 20,000 killed in action out of a total of 57,470 casualties. This went on for months, with the total casualties for all armies numbering about a million on this one battlefield — the exact number will never be known.
When I first began reading about the First World War I can remember that I was confused about “battles” that went on for months at a time. Verdun, like the Somme, was another “battle” that went on for months. Earlier in history, a battle was a conflict that was usually decided in one day, between sunrise and sunset — a battle possessed the Aristotelian dramatic unities of space, time, and action — and at the most in a few days. The Battle of Gettysburg went on for four days. One can easily make the shift from single day battles of classical antiquity to multi-day battles of the nineteenth century, when the confrontation was more complex, not least because the societies upon which the battle supervened were larger and more complex. But from four days to four months is more of a stretch, and the Battle of the Somme went on for four and half months.
Today we would call military engagements like the Somme or Verdun operations rather than battles, as in The Somme Operation or Operation Verdun. Understanding the Somme (or Verdun) as operations rather than battles places these conflicts on the strategico-tactical continuum, i.e., operational thinking lies between tactical exigencies and strategic thinking, and different talents and a different kind of mind is required for operational planning in contradistinction to tactical action or strategic planning. The fact that we still call The Somme and Verdun “battles” — a usage preserved from the era of the conflict — shows how little these engagements were understood at the time.
As the First Global Industrialized War, World War One involved many new elements unprecedented in warfare, primarily technological innovations. How these technological innovations came together tactically, operationally, or strategically was not understood, and it was not understood for the simple reason that no one had any experience of these technologies on the battlefield. World War One provided this experience, while the interwar period provided time to reflect, and resulted in definitive treatises like Heinz Guderian‘s Achtung – Panzer! and Giulio Douhet‘s Il dominio dell’aria. With the advent of World War Two, military thinking had caught up with industrialized military technology, and the Second Global Industrialized War was very different from the first.
I am sure that memorials will be held on this hundredth anniversary, and speeches will be made. For the most part, the Somme has passed out of living memory and into historical memory. What is the historical memory of the Somme? Today we primarily remember the bloodletting — not any nobility of sacrifice or military glory, not any technological innovation or bold idea. What we remember is the human toll.
Recently I learned a term for the human toll of conflict, “hemoclysm,” used by Matthew White to describe the mass bloodletting that was characteristic of the twentieth century — “A violent and bloody conflict, a bloodbath; specifically (chiefly with capital initial), the period of the mid-twentieth century encompassing both world wars” — and which specially marks the Somme. Unfortunately, the Somme no longer stands out for its human toll. During the Second World War there were far higher casualty totals for single days, mostly civilians killed when entire cities were destroyed in a single day or a single night, which is something like a return to the paradigm of warfare according to the Aristotelian unities — although we can no longer call these slaughters “battles” in good conscience, so, in this sense, they diverge from the classical warfare paradigm, as they also diverge in primarily resulting in the deaths of civilians.
Total numbers of casualties increased until World War Two, after which they began to decline — something I identified in an early blog post as the “lethality peak.” However, this steady decline in lethality — partly a result of improving technology and precision weapons, but also partly a result of changing human attitudes to industrialized slaughter — took place against the backdrop of the Cold War, i.e., the possibility of nuclear war, with its ever-present possibility of a greater number of casualties in a shorter period of time than any possible conflict with conventional weapons. If humanity every fights a full scale nuclear war, the casualties will be orders of magnitude greater than our conventional wars.
We call nuclear weapons “strategic weapons” as a concession to their limited utility in actual warfighting. The few examples of tactical nuclear weapons that have been built were considered controversial, because they lowered the threshold for nuclear conflict — notwithstanding the fact that the first use of nuclear weapons was as just another weapon of war — the latest innovation from the conveyor belt of new technologies served up by wartime industries pushed to the limit of their capacity. The attempts to “think the unthinkable,” i.e., to think clearly about nuclear weapons, most famously made by Herman Kahn, were primarily strategic reflections. However, we know that NATO would not pledge “no first use” of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, as the last line of defense for a massive Warsaw Pact tank invasion of western Europe would have been the use of battlefield nuclear weapons, so some tactical doctrine for nuclear weapons would have been worked out, but it is not likely to come to light for some decades.
Nuclear weapons today, like machine guns and barbwire, airplanes and mobile armor a hundred years ago in 1916, remain a technology not yet assimilated to warfighting, and for good reason. The possibilities of nuclear weapons have lain fallow because the powers possessing nuclear weapons have recognized that their use must not be allowed while their escalation would result in our extinction as a species. In other words, our planetary endemism made nuclear war suicidal. This may change eventually.
If I am right that the native range of an intelligent species is not the single world of planetary endemism, but to be distributed across many worlds, the weapons systems that we can today imagine but choose not to build in the interest of our survival may be seen to have a military utility that they do not possess today. When we have a full tactical, operational, and strategic doctrine worked out for nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, we may see a conflict played out on a scale that dwarfs twentieth century world wars as twentieth century world wars dwarfed all previous conflicts.
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A Century of Industrialized Warfare
10. The Somme after One Hundred Years
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Air Force Space Command General John E. Hyten has announced the release of a new “Commander’s Strategic Intent” document (Commander’s Strategic Intent), which is a 17-page PDF file. Once you take away the front and back covers, and subtract for the photographs inside, there are only a few pages of content. Much of this content, moreover, is the worst kind of contemporary management-speak (the sort of writing that Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times takes a particular delight in skewering). In terms of strategic content, the document is rather thin, but with a few interesting hints here and there. In a strange way, reading this strategic document from the Air Force Space Command is not unlike the Taliban annual statements formerly issued under Mullah Omar’s name (cf. 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015). One must read between the lines and past the rhetoric in an attempt to discern the reality beneath and behind the appearances. But strategic thought has always been like this.
After a one page Forward by General Hyten, there follows a page each on a summary of the contemporary strategic situation, priorities, mission, vision, Commander’s Intent, Strategy — Four Lines of Effort, and two and a half pages on “Reconnect as Airmen and Embrace Airmindedness,” then several pages with bureaucratic titles but interesting strategic content, “Preserve the Space and Cyberspace Environments for Future Generations,” “Deliver Integrated Multi-Domain Combat Effects in, from and through Space and Cyberspace,” and “Fight through Contested, Degraded and Operationally-Limited Environments,” eith a final page on “You Make a Difference, Today and Tomorrow.”
This section rapidly reviews the improving capabilities of adversaries, who are responding to technological and tactical innovations continually introduced by US armed forces in the field. While the document never explicitly mentions hybrid warfare, this is the threat that is clearly on the minds of those formulating this document. While noting the continued dominance of US forces in the global arena, the document mentions that this is, “an era marked by the rapid proliferation of game-changing technologies and growing opportunities to use them,” which is a central problem that will be further discussed below, and for which the document offers no strategic or systematic response (other than the commander’s overall strategic intent).
This survey of the strategic situation also mentions, “new international norms,” which I assume is an internal reference to the central strategic idea of this document discussed below in terms of norms of behavior intended to discourage adventurism that could compromise the global flow of commerce and information. If any new idea about norms of behavior are intended to be a part of the commander’s strategic intent, they are not formulated in this document. I would have left out these references to norms of behavior unless the idea were further developed in an independent section of the document.
The priorities listed are three:
Win today’s fight
Prepare for tomorrow’s fight
Take care of our Airmen and our Families
A paragraph is devoted to each priority. The first two are sufficiently obvious. The last introduces a theme that is dominant in this document: the social context of the soldier. One way to look at this is that, in a political context in which it is not possible to raise the wages of soldiers to equal those of the professional class, one benefit that the institutional military can confer on the solider in lieu of higher pay is institutional support for the soldier and his family. An equally plausible interpretation, and perhaps an equally valid explanation, is that, given the technological focus of the Air Force, and especially Space Command, it would be easy to prioritize machinery over soldiers, or to give the impression that machinery has been prioritized over soldiers. Sending the explicit message that, “Airmen — not machines — deliver effects,” is to unambiguously prioritize the soldier over the machinery. (All of this is delivered in the nauseating language of social science and management-speak, but the meaning is clear enough regardless.) And with suicides among returning veterans as high as they are, the military knows that it must do better or it risks losing the trust of its warfighters.
The mission statement is predictable and uninspiring:
Provide Resilient and Affordable Space and Cyberspace Capabilities for the Joint Force and the Nation.
There is, however, one interesting thing on this page, which is the idea that “Resilience Capacity” is to be used as a metric for combat power. I have written about similar matters in Combat Power and Battle Ecology and Metaphysical Ecology Reformulated, especially as these concerns relate to the social context of the soldier (in the present case, the airman). One hint is given for how this is to be quantified: “Any capability that cannot survive when facing the threats of today and the future is worthless in conflict.” Certainly this is true, but how rigorously this principle can be applied in practice is another question. If everything that failed when exposed to actual combat conditions were to be ruthlessly rooted out, the military would be radically different institution than it is today. Is the Space Command ready for radical application of resilience capacity? I doubt it; it cannot alone defy the weight of institutional inertia possessed by all bureaucracies.
The vision statement is as lackluster as the mission statement:
One Team—Innovative Airmen Fighting and Delivering Integrated Multi-Domain Combat Effects across the Globe.
This is the kind of management-speak rhetoric that brings documents like this into ill repute, and deservedly so. Moreover, this page makes the claim that, “The three strategic effects of Airpower — Global Vigilance, Global Reach, and Global Power — have not changed.” This is exactly backward. Global vigilance, global reach, and global power are not effects of airpower, but causes of airpower. Such an elementary conceptual failure is inexcusable, but in this context I think it stems more from a desire to employ management-speak in a military context than from pure conceptual confusion. Despite these problems, this page introduces the phrase “aerospace nation,” which is a way to collectively refer to the soldiers and support staff who make aerospace operations possible (presumably also private contractors), and again drives home the message of the social context of the soldier and the institutional support for this social context.
It is a little surprising to read here about the need to, “reconnect with our profession of arms,” which is as much as to admit that there has been a failure to maintain a robust connection with the profession of arms. This is a theme that connects with the support for the social context of the soldier. Part of this social context is home and family, part of this is support staff, and part of it is those directly involved in the profession of arms (i.e., the human ecology of the soldier). Reconnecting with the profession of arms is one method of strengthening the social context of the soldier and therefore the whole of the “aerospace nation.”
Strategy — Four Lines of Effort
So here are the four lines of effort:
• Reconnect as Airmen and Embrace Airmindedness
• Preserve the Space and Cyberspace Environments for Future Generations
• Deliver Integrated Multi-Domain Combat Effects in, from, and through Space and Cyberspace
• Fight through Contested, Degraded, and Operationally-Limited Environments
These themes occur throughout the document, but one can’t call this a strategy. It does, however, qualify as guidance for shaping the policy of Air Force Space Command. But policy must not be mistaken for strategy. Any bureaucrat can make policy, but bureaucrats don’t fight and win wars.
Reconnect as Airmen and Embrace Airmindedness
Now “airmindedness” is an awkward neologism, but it does represent an attempt to represent the qualities needed for the “aerospace nation.” These qualities are difficult to define; this document defines them awkwardly (like its neologisms), but at least it makes an attempt to define them. That is to say, this document makes an attempt to define the distinctive institutional culture of the Air Force Space Command. There is a value in this effort. This is what, if anything, distinguishes the Air Force Space Command from the other branches of the armed services. The need to reconnect with the profession of arms and at the same time to foster the distinctive qualities necessary to aerospace operations, which means pushing the boundaries of technology, constitute a unique challenge for a large, bureaucratic institution (which is what the peacetime military is).
If I had written this I would emphasized the need to continually update and revise any conception of what it means to engage in aerospace operations, hence “airmindedness.” This document focuses on “airmindedness” by emphasizing “shared core values,” innovation, the self-image of the airman as a combatant, development of expertise, resilience capacity (which in this context seems to mean taking care of the individual airman), and supporting the families of airmen while the latter are deployed. While these are all admirable aims, even essential aims, it is astonishing how many of these strategic statements read like social science documents of a Carl Rogers person-centered kind. I would have aimed at conceptually surprising the target audience of this document so that they could see these challenges in a new light, rather than through the lens of boilerplate management-speak.
Preserve the Space and Cyberspace Environments for Future Generations
Strategically, this is perhaps the most important part of the document. In four admirably short paragraphs, this page systematically lays out the the large-scale vision of deterring the outbreak of war, or triumphing in the event that war breaks out. Here, finally, we have a strategy: free flow of commerce and information, deterring adventurism that would compromise the free flow of commerce and information, influencing international norms of behavior in order to deter adventurism, “dissuade and deter conflict” by fielding “forces and capabilities that deny our adversaries the ability to achieve their objectives by imposing costs and/or denying the benefits of hostile actions…” I would have put this section front and center in the document, and connected all the other themes to this central strategy.
Deliver Integrated Multi-Domain Combat Effects in, from and through Space and Cyberspace
This section of the document addresses the technological underpinnings of the strategy announced in the previous section, and so can be considered its tactical implementation on a technological level. Such an emphasis fits in well with the idea of “airmindedness” as a distinctively innovative approach to combat power. But hiding this on page 12 under a section title that is all but incomprehensible is not helpful. The reference to “agility of thought” is belied by the management-speak of the entire document. This agility of thought should extend to the conceptual formulation of what is being done, and how it is being presented.
Fight through Contested, Degraded and Operationally-Limited Environments
This section of the document specifies “four critical activities” that would allow the Air Force Space Command to fight in “Contested, Degraded and Operationally-Limited Environments.” In other words, this is the contemporary approach taken by Space Command to the perennial problem of warfighting that Clausewitz called the “fog of war” (“Nebel des Krieges” — Clausewitz himself used the term “friction,” but this has popularly come to be know as “fog of war”). The document defines these four critical activities intended to mitigate the fog of war as follows:
1. Train to threat scenarios — endeavor to discover the boundaries of our capabilities and constantly reassess those boundaries as threats and blue force capabilities evolve.
2. Identify the timelines and authorities required to successfully defend, fight, and provide effects in today’s and tomorrow’s environments with Operations Centers capable of executing them.
3. Establish the right authorities. For those authorities we control, push the right authorities as far down as possible to ensure timely response.
4. Establish and foster a joint, combined, and multidomain warrior culture that embraces pushing and breaking our operational boundaries and adapting and innovating new doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership, personnel, facilities, and policy (DOTMLPF-P) solutions.
The friction of combat environments is a real and serious problem for the contemporary technologically-sophisticated warfighting effort — perhaps more of a problem than in the pre-technological age of war. The most sophisticated uses of technology are networked, and sophisticated technology requires continual maintenance and repair. If the first thing that happens in the battlespace is for the network to fail, any battle plan based upon that network will have become irrelevant. How to take advantage of networked information flow while not being captive to the vulnerabilities of such a network is a central problem for warfighting in the technological era. In so far as the Air Force Space Command presents itself as being a uniquely technological capable and competent, this is perhaps the overwhelming challenge to this branch of the military.
Given the centrality of the problem, not surprisingly the document details another seven explicit steps toward attaining the goal of mitigating friction in the technological battlespace. Prefatory to these seven principles the document states, “Our Space Enterprise Vision will capture the key principles needed to guide how we will design and build a space architecture suitable for operations in a contested environment.” No doubt volumes of study have been devoted to this problem internally, and it is admirable that this has been condensed down into seven principles.
As this is intended to be strategic document, I would go a bit farther into the high concept aspect of this problem, and how it could be tackled on the strategic level. What we have seen in recent history is that domains of human endeavor (including warfighting) are utterly transformed when technology becomes cheap and widely available. Adversaries have used this fact asymmetrically against institutionalized armed forces. The strategic approach to being wrong-footed in this way, it seems to me, would be to turn precisely this emerging historical dynamic against asymmetrical forces exploiting this opportunity. How can this be done? A strategy is needed. None is enunciated.
You Make a Difference, Today and Tomorrow
The document closes with a directive to carefully re-read the document and to discuss and to think critically about carrying out the commander’s intent formulated in this statement of principles. There is even an assurance that those who act most fully and faithfully in carrying out this intent will not be punished or put their careers in jeopardy by getting too far out ahead. This observation points to the fundamental tension between the continuous innovation required to keep up with the pace of technological innovation and the inherent friction of any bureaucratic institution. This, too, like the problem of friction in the technological battlespace, is a central problem for the Air Force Space Command, and deserves close and careful study. The definitive strategy to address these two central problems has not yet been formulated.
If I had written this document, I would have had a one paragraph introduction from the general, put the last sections of crucial strategic content first, and reformulated the initial sections so that each section was shown to contribute to and to derive from the central strategic ideas. Beyond that, I would suggest that the institutional challenges faced by Air Force Space Command, recognized in the phase “agility of thought,” points to the need for continual conceptual innovation in parallel with continual technological innovation. The Air Force needs to hire some philosophers.
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12 November 2015
It caused quite a stir today when it was announced that the Russians had accidentally released some details of a proposed submersible weapons system (the Status-6, or Статус-6 in Russian) when television coverage of a conference among defense chiefs broadcast a document being held by one of the participants. This was first brought to my attention by a BBC story, Russia reveals giant nuclear torpedo in state TV ‘leak’. The BBC story led me to Russia may be planning to develop a nuclear submarine drone aimed at ‘inflicting unacceptable damage’ by Jeremy Bender, which in turn led me to Is Russia working on a massive dirty bomb? on the Russian strategic nuclear forces blog, which latter includes inks to a television news segment on Youtube, where you can see (at 1:48) the document in question. A comment on the article includes a link to a Russian language media story, Кремль признал случайным показ секретного оружия по Первому каналу и НТВ, that discusses the leak.
This news story is only in its earliest stages, and there are already many conflicting accounts as to exactly what was leaked and what it means. There is also the possibility that the “leak” was intentional, and meant for public consumption, both domestic and international. There is nothing yet on Janes or Stratfor about this, both of which sources I would consider more reliable on defense than the BBC or any mainstream media outlet. There is a story on DefenseOne, Russia: We Didn’t Mean to Show Everyone Our Massive New Nuclear Torpedo, but this seems to be at least partly derivative of the BBC story.
The BBC story suggested the the new Russian torpedo could carry a “dirty bomb,” or possibly a Colbalt bomb, as well as suggesting that it could carry a 100-megaton warhead. These possible warhead configurations constitute the extreme ends of the spectrum of nuclear devices. A “dirty bomb” that is merely a dirty bomb and not a nuclear warhead is a conventional explosive that scatters radioactive material. Such a device has long been a concern for anti-terrorism policy, because the worry is that it would be easier for terrorists to gain access to nuclear materials than to a nuclear weapon. Scattering radioactive elements in a large urban area would not be a weapon of mass destruction, but it has been called a “weapon of mass disruption,” as it would doubtless be attended by panic as as the 24/7 news cycle escalated the situation to apocalyptic proportions.
At the other end of the scale of nuclear devices, either a cobalt bomb or a 100-megaton warhead would be considered doomsday weapons, and there are no nation-states in the world today constructing such devices. The USSR made some 50-100 MT devices, most famously the Tsar Bomba, the most powerful nuclear device ever detonated, but no longer produces these weapons and is unlikely to retain any in its stockpile. It was widely thought that these enormous weapons were intended as “counterforce” assets, as, given the technology of the time (i.e., the low level of accuracy of missiles at this time), it would have required a warhead of this size to take out a missile silo on the other side of the planet. The US never made such large weapons, but its technology was superior, so if the US was also building counterforce missiles at this time, they could have gotten by with smaller yields. The US arsenal formerly included significant numbers of the B53, with a yield of about 9 MT, and before that the B41, with a yield of about 25 MT, but the US dismantled the last B53 in 2011 (cf. The End of a Nuclear Era).
Nuclear weapons today are being miniaturized, and their delivery systems are being given precision computerized guidance systems, so the reasons for building massively destructive warheads the only purpose of which is to participate in a MAD (mutually assured destruction) scenario have disappeared (mostly). A cobalt bomb (as distinct from a dirty bomb, with which it is sometimes confused, as both a dirty bomb and a cobalt bomb can be considered radiological weapons) would be a nuclear warhead purposefully configured to maximize radioactive fallout. In the case of the element cobalt, its dispersal by a nuclear weapon would result in the radioactive isotope cobalt-60, a high intensity gamma ray emitter with a half-life of 5.26 years — remaining highly radioactive for a sufficient period of time that it would likely poison any life that survived the initial blast of the warhead. The cobalt bomb was first proposed by physicist Leó Szilárd in the spirit of a warning as to the direction that nuclear technology could take, ultimately converging upon human extinction, which became a Cold War touchstone (cf. Existential Lessons of the Cold War).
The discussion of the new Russian weapon Status-6 (Статус-6) in terms of dirty bombs, cobalt bombs, and 100 MT warheads is an anachronism. If a major power were to build a new nuclear device today, they would want to develop what have been called fourth generation nuclear weapons, which is an umbrella term to cover a number of innovative nuclear technologies not systematically researched due to both the end of the Cold War and the nuclear test ban treaty. (On the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty cf. The Atomic Age Turns 70) Thus this part of the story so far is probably very misleading, but the basic idea of a nuclear device on a drone submersible is what we need to pay attention to here. This is important.
I am not surprised by this development, because I predicted it. In WMD: The Submersible Vector of January 2011 I suggested the possibility of placing nuclear weapons in drone submersibles, which could then be quietly infiltrated into the harbors of major port cities (or military facilities, although these would be much more difficult to infiltrate stealthily and to keep hidden), there to wait for a signal to detonate. By this method it would be possible to deprive an adversary of major cities, port, and military facilities in one fell swoop. The damage that could be inflicted by such a first strike would be just as devastating as the first strikes contemplated during the Cold War, when first strikes were conceived as a massive strike by ICBMs coming over the pole. Only now, with US air superiority so far in advance of other nation-states, it makes sense to transfer the nuclear strategic strike option to below the world’s oceans. Strategically, this is a brilliant paradigm shift, and one can see a great many possibilities for its execution and the possible counters to such a strategy.
During the Cold War, the US adopted a strategic defense “triad” consisting of nuclear weapons deliverable by ground-based missiles (ICBMs), jet bombers (initially the subsonic B-52, and later supersonic bombers such as the B-1 and B-2), and submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Later this triad was supplemented by nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, which represent the beginning of a disruptive change in nuclear strategy, away from massive bombardment to precision strikes.
The Russians depended on ground-based ICBMs, of which they possessed more, but, in the earlier stages of the Cold War Russian ICBMs were rather primitive, subject to failure, and able to carry only a single warhead. As Soviet technology caught up with US technology, and the Russians were able to build reliable missile boats and MIRVs for their ICBMs, the Russians too began to converge upon a triad of strategic defense, adding supersonic bombers (the Tu-22M “Backfire” and then the Tu-160 “Blackjack”) and missile boats to their ground-based missiles. For a brief period of the late Cold War, there was a certain limited nuclear parity that roughly corresponded with détente.
This rough nuclear parity was upset by political events and continuing technological changes, the latter almost always led by the US. An early US lead in computing technology once again led to a generational divide between US and Soviet technology, with the Soviet infrastructure increasingly unable to keep up with technological advances. The introduction of SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative) threatened to further destabilize nuclear parity, and which in particular was perceived to as a threat to the stability of MAD. Long after the Cold War is over, the US continues to pursue missile defense, which has been a remarkably powerful political tool, but despite several decades of greatly improved technology, cannot deliver on its promises. So SDI upset the applecart of MAD, but still cannot redeem its promissory note. This is an important detail, because the weapons system that the Russians are contemplating with Status-6 (Статус-6) can be built with contemporary technologies. Thus even if the US could extend its air superiority to space, in addition to fielding an effective missile defense system, none of this would be an adequate counter to a Russian submersible strategic weapon, except in a second strike capacity.
As I noted above, there would be many ways in which to build out this submersible drone strategic capability, and many ways to counter it, which suggests the possibility of a new arms race, although this time without Russia being ideologically crippled by communism (which during the Cold War prevented the Soviet Union from achieving parity with western scientific and economic strength). A “slow” strategic capability could be constructed based something like what I described in WMD: The Submersible Vector, involving infiltration and sequestered assets, or a “fast” strategic capability closer to what was revealed in the Russian document that sparked the story about Status-6, in which the submersibles could fan out and position themselves in hours or days. Each of these strategic assets would suggest different counter measures.
What we are now seeing is the familiar Cold War specter of a massive nuclear exchange displaced from our skies into the oceans. If the Russians thought of it, and I thought of it, you can be certain that all the defense think tanks of the world’s major nation-states have thought of it also, and have probably gamed some of the obvious scenarios that could result.
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Addendum Added Sunday 15 November 2015: In what way is a nuclear-tipped drone submersible different from a conventional nuclear torpedo? Contemporary miniaturization technology makes it possible to have a precision guided submersible that is very small — small enough that such a weapon might conceivably bury itself in the mud on the bottom of a waterway and so be impossible to detect, even to be visually by divers alerted to search for suspicious objects on the bottom (as presumably happens in military harbors). Also, the Status-6 was given a range of some 6,000 nautical miles, which means that these weapons could be released by a mothership almost anywhere in the world’s oceans, and travel from that point to their respective targets. Such weapons could be dropped from the bottom of a ship, and would not necessarily have to be delivered by submarine. Once the drones were on their way, they would be almost impossible to find because of their small size. The key vulnerability would be the need for some telecommunications signaling to the weapon. If the decision had already been made to strike, and those making the decision were sufficiently confident that they would not change their minds, such drones could be launched programmed to detonate and therefore with no need to a telecommunications link. Alternatively, drones could be launched programmed to detonate, but the detonation could be suppressed by remote command, which would be a one-time signal and not an ongoing telecommunications link to the drone. This presents obvious vulnerabilities as well — what if the detonation suppression signal were blocked? — but any weapons systems will have vulnerabilities. It would be a relatively simple matter to have the device configurable as either fail-safe or fail-deadly, with the appropriate choice made at the time of launch.
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Note Added Saturday 14 November 2015: Since writing the above, an article has appeared on Janes, Russian state TV footage reveals ‘oceanic multi-purpose’ torpedo-based nuclear system, by Bruce Jones, London, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, though it doesn’t add much in addition to what is already known.
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23 October 2015
Some Lessons from Ineffective Interventions
Nation-states and other mainstream political entities often find their policy options constrained by public opinion, legal limitations, treaty obligations, and the moral scruples of individual leaders, and so in order to act with fewer constraints they cultivate relationships with militant groups that can act as proxies and which can take on missions that the regular forces of a nation-state cannot be tasked to accomplish. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union supported an array of militant proxies by identifying their struggle with global communist revolution and so exapting local struggles as new theaters for the Cold War, and they did this very effectively. At the present time, Iran has proved itself masterful in the use of militant proxies to affect outcomes throughout its sphere of influence, even as its economy has suffered from international sanctions. One can only admire this bravura performance, especially in comparison to the lackluster US efforts to mobilize militant proxies. What is it about the US political process that has meant that the militant proxies selected by the US have been largely ineffective?
The relation between a militant proxy and its state sponsor is what we would today call a “mutually beneficial relationship.” The relationship to a militant proxy with military objectives that are politically unacceptable (especially for a democracy) grants plausible deniability to the sponsor, who can then act with fewer constraints from behind a veil of secrecy, and it provides resources for the militant group. However, the relationship is often a troubled one. Militant proxies are often extraordinarily difficult to control and constrain, even when a state sponsor of such a proxy can pull the plug on its funding. It was said that Mullah Mohammad Omar was a, “rigid man who defied even his patrons.” While the Taliban were not properly a military proxy organization, the precursors of the Taliban functioned as US militant proxies employed against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and constituted one of the few successes for the US in proxy warfare — though this success came at a great cost. The description of Mullah Omar by his Pakistani “handlers” prophetically fits the profile of an unmanageable proxy.
Most militant proxies do not view themselves as proxies, but as stand-alone militant groups with their own ends, aims, objectives, and motivations. If a state sponsor gives them arms, matériel, supplies, training, and advisers, such groups rarely feel beholden by these sponsors. Should the sponsor object to its other objectives or its methods, the attitude of the militant proxy is often the equivalent of a shoulder shrug and and a dismissive, “Let them fund the revolution.” There is nothing more commonplace in geopolitics that a nation-state patron of a militant proxy believing itself to be in control of a situation, only to discover that it cannot force the cooperation of its militant proxy at a sensitive political moment. And if a militant proxy can make itself strong enough through the temporary receipt of aid from a state sponsor, it can accept this aid in a pure spirit of cynical opportunism, making the calculation that once the aid is cut off due to lack of cooperation of the militant proxy with the sponsor state’s agenda, the group can then function on its own.
Perhaps the most well-known and effective militant proxy of our time is Hezbollah, which runs a virtual state-within-a-state in Lebanon, controlling much of the county, its politics, and a considerable geographical region. Hezbollah has long been one of the most effective and efficient militant proxies for Iran, and until recently also acted as a militant proxy of Syria; Syria was a crucial conduit for Iranian aid to reach Hezbollah in Lebanon. However, since Syria’s descent into civil war, Hezbollah has acted on behalf of the Syrian government as an agent in the internal struggle, rather than as an instrument of external force projection. That is to say, Hezbollah has proved itself such an effective fighting force that it not only defends its own interests, but now returns to defend the interests of its former sponsor, now under duress and in need of sponsorship itself.
During the Vietnam war, the CIA virtually created a militant proxy from Hmong tribesmen. Because the US could not openly operate in Laos, a militant proxy was the weapon of choice to expand the war against Vietnam’s communists to the Pathet Lao communists in Laos. By most accounts the Hmong were effective fighters, but they were the military equivalent of astroturf: not grass roots, but essentially created by the CIA for US purposes. As long as the money flowed to pay and supply the fighters, they fought. The Hmong, then, turned out to be ineffective not because they couldn’t fight, but because they were more mercenaries than militant proxies. There is an interesting lesson in this observation: a truly effective militant proxy should have its own agenda, but, as we have already seen, recalcitrant proxies can be dangerous, and so there must be a balance between the militant agenda and the sponsor’s agenda.
After the US withdrawal from Indochina, Cold War proxy wars came closer to US shores as a number of guerrilla wars were fought in Central America, with the US backing a number of militant proxies in the region, most famously the Nicaraguan Contras, who fought against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. The Contras did manage to disrupt the region, but they mounted few effective military operations, and no decisive operations. One would have thought, what with US resources flowing into a conflict so close to its borders, that it would have created a truly formidable militant proxy. This did not happen. In Latin America, militant proxies both communist and anti-communist became deeply involved in the drug trade in order to finance their operations. There is another important lesson to be learned from this failure: personal greed often trumps ideological fervor, and if the head of a militant proxy sees an opportunity to transform himself into a drug lord, he may well do so.
In the war in Iraq to unseat Saddam Hussein, with the Kurdish Peshmerga, the US had, in a rare instance, partnered with a militant proxy that really could deliver the goods. The Kurds fought effectively and seemed to possess the right balance between serving their own ends by serving the agenda of a sponsor. If the US had promised the Kurds a state of their own in exchange for an effective settlement of the conflict in Kurdish lands (or, perhaps I should say, the aspirational map of Kurdish sovereignty), it is highly likely that this could have been achieved. And by “a state of their own” I mean a real de jure nation-state, and not the de facto state the Kurds now possess. But the US is a world power, and the use of US power to guarantee a Kurdish state would have offended too many US allies. The overall strategic goals of the US and the Kurds were and are incompatible. Almost certainly both the US and the Kurds knew from the beginning that their alignment had to be temporary.
The Kurds have been in the news again lately because they have proved themselves among the few regional forces that have been combat effective against ISIS, and because of a particularly compelling photograph of a female Kurdish fighter that became briefly famous on the internet. However, the temporary and effective convergence of interests between the US and the Kurds was not fully exploited and the moment for this has probably passed.
In the tumult and confusion of regional instability in Mesopotamia, the US is now supporting the Free Syrian Army in Syria. Unfortunately, the Free Syrian Army is not making progress, but they have said the kind of things that US political leaders like to hear, and so they receive support. This is the “strategy” for Syria, but Syria cannot be treated in isolation from the rest of the region.
We can no longer speak of a US strategy in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, because these states are nation-states in name only. The facts on the ground belie the official maps and the seats for delegates to the UN. We must speak of US policy regionally, apart from any hollowed-out and ineffective nation-state; and regionally, it must be said, US strategy has been a catastrophic failure. Worse yet, the US is continuing old and repeatedly failed policies, as though the situation on the ground can be rescued and turned around if the US will simply keep doing what it has been doing. In other words, the US is digging itself in deeper by the day.
One of the problems in Mesopotamia and the Levant is the failure of the US to support effective militant proxies, and its willingness to support ineffective militant proxies, so that even as it is spending money and political capital on forces that cannot win, it is not spending these same resources that could win if given the chance. Thus the US is experiencing an opportunity cost in the region with profound consequences. If the US supported the Kurds instead of the Free Syrian Army it might actually accomplish something, but this apparently comes with unacceptable political costs — as though the costs of failure could more easily be borne.
The bottom line is that US militant proxies are selected for ideological reasons rather than for reasons of combat effectiveness or shared military objectives. This is a disastrous mistake. Trying to select winners on the battlefield is a lot like a nation-state attempting to choose winners in the marketplace: states are notoriously bad at picking winners, and when they attempt to use the power they possess as a nation-state to enforce their choice (i.e., when they try to turn a loser into a winner by the methods available to nation-states) they usually fail. Not only that, they fail at great cost.
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23 May 2015
In my recent post on Proxy War in Yemen I asserted that the concept of a proxy war, while primarily associated with the Cold War, can be applied to the war now being fought indirectly between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Yemen. A narrow conception of proxy wars would not have this application, and would be more confined to its original introduction and usage. Thus is could be rightly said that I was applying a broad conception of a proxy war. This was my intent.
What has been said above of proxy wars can also be said of war in general: that there are narrow and broad conceptions. Narrow conceptions are usually a function of a particular historical context of usage. If you asked an inhabitant of Periclean Athens to define war, they might have answered that war was a clash between hoplites from different city-states facing each other as a phalanx. For such a narrow conception of war, the innovations that Alexander introduced into the Macedonian phalanx might pose a definitional challenge: is it or is it not a phalanx, and is war employing this instrument a war, or something related to war through descent with modification?
In many contexts I have pursued the exposition of what I call the extended sense of a concept, in which a familiar concept is systematically subjected to variation, extrapolation, extension, and generalization in order to see how comprehensive a conception can be made. I have been influenced in this respect by Bertrand Russell, whose imperative to generalization I previously quoted in The Science of Time and The Genealogy of the Technium:
“It is a principle, in all formal reasoning, to generalize to the utmost, since we thereby secure that a given process of deduction shall have more widely applicable results…”
Bertrand Russell, An Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, Chapter XVIII, “Mathematics and Logic”
Open-textured concepts are best suited to Russellian generalization. What is an open-textured concept? Here is one account:
“According to Austin and Wittgenstein, words have clear conditions of application only against a background of ‘normal circumstances’ corresponding to the type of context in which the words were used in the past. There is no ‘convention’ to guide us as to whether or not a particular expression applies in some extraordinary situation. This is not because the meaning of the word is ‘vague’, but because the application of words ultimately depends on there being a sufficient similarity between the new situation of use and past situations. The relevant dimensions of similarity are not fixed once and for all; this is what generates ‘open texture’ (Waismann 1951).”
Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, London and New York: Routledge, 1998, “Pragmatics”
More briefly, Stephan Barker wrote of open texture: “Our tendencies concerning the use of the word form a loosely knit pattern which does not definitely provide for all possibilities.” (Philosophy of Mathematics, “Introduction: The Open Texture of Language” p. 11) Barker goes on to use the Copernican analysis of celestial motion as an example of open texture. If “move” means to change position relative to Earth, then certainly the Earth cannot, by definition move. But what Copernicus did is to extend our conception of movement beyond the concept of movement that was limited to the special case of the surface of the Earth. One could say that Copernicus formulated an extended concept of motion.
It seems to me that war is a perfect example of an open-textured concept, and one that can readily (and indeed has been repeatedly) extended by changed circumstances. As civilization has grown, war has grown — in scope, scale, fatality, and complexity. The growth of war has been twofold: 1) growth in the absolute size of war (quantitative), and 2) growth in the complexity and sophistication of war (qualitative). Once we understand that war is an open-textured concept, the Russellian imperative comes into play, and the philosophical impulse is to generalize war to the greatest possible extent and thus to arrive at an extended conception of warfare.
Recently in VE Day: Seventy Years I suggested the possibility of the existential viability of warfare, which sounds like an odd way to speak of war, as though we were concerned to maintain war in existence, when many if not most individuals view the extirpation of war as the goal of civilization. But war and civilization are coextensive, and this implies that the viability of war is linked to the viability of civilization. In the long ten thousand year history of agricultural civilization warfare took many different and distinct forms. These different forms of warfare were driven by both quantitative and qualitative growth in war. The advent of industrialized warfare (cf. A Century of Industrialized Warfare) forced us once again to expand the scope and scale of what we call war.
Industrialized warfare coincided with the social consequences of industrialization — the growth of conurbations, mass communications, rapid transportation, and popular sovereignty, inter alia — and all of these developments forced warfare to become mass war fought by mass man. Industrialization allowed for a rapid increase in scale that outstripped qualitative development, and this almost exclusively quantitative increase in warfare gave us the concept of total war. (The idea of total war preceded that of industrialization, but I would argue that the term only came into its proper significant in the wake of mass war, i.e., that industrialized mass war is the natural teleology of the concept of total war.)
Industrialized total war did not persist long; if it had, we would have destroyed ourselves. Thus the rapid development of total war executed a perfect dialectical inversion and gave us the contemporary conception of limited war. We don’t even talk in terms of “limited war” any more because all wars are limited. An unlimited war today — total war — would be too devastating to contemplate. During the Cold War, a common euphemism for the MAD scenario of a massive nuclear exchange was “the unthinkable.” Of course, some did think the unthinkable, and they in turn became symbolic of an unmentionable engagement with the unthinkable (Curtis LeMay and Herman Kahn come to mind in this respect). The strange world of pervasive yet limited conflict to which we have now become accustomed has no place for total war, but it is perhaps no less strange than the paradigm of warfare that preceded it, consisting of mass conscript armies engaged in total industrialized warfare between nation-states.
Yet we have found countless ways to wage limited wars, with new conceptions of war appearing regularly with changes in technology and social organization. There is proxy war, guerrilla war, irregular war, asymmetrical warfare, swarm warfare, and so on. Perhaps the most recent extension of the concept of war is that of hybrid warfare, which has received much attention lately. (Russian actions in east Ukraine are often characterized in terms of hybrid warfare.) It is arguable that the many “experiments” with limited war following the end of the period of industrialized total war have qualitatively expanded and extended our conception of war in a way parallel to the quantitative expansion and extension of our conception of war driven by industrialization. Thus hybrid war, or some successor to hybrid war that is yet to be visited upon us (through descent with modification), may be understood as the qualitative form of total war.
Hybrid warfare is an illustration of how the scope and scape of warfare are related and can come to permeate society even when war is not “total” in the sense used prior to nuclear weapons (i.e., the quantitative sense of total war). The duration of the local and limited wars we have managed to fight under the nuclear umbrella is limited only by the willingness of participants to engage in long-term low-intensity warfare. We have learned much from this experience. While the world wars of the first half of the twentieth century taught us that democratic nation-states could field armies of millions and project unprecedented power for a few years’ duration, the local and limited wars of the second half of the twentieth century taught us that democratic nation-states cannot sustain long term warfare. Whatever the initial war enthusiasm, the populace grows tired of it, and eventually turns against it. If wars are to be fought, they must be fought within the political constraints of the form of social organization available in any given historical period.
On the other side, national insurgencies often possess a willingness to continue fighting virtually indefinitely (there has been insurgent conflict in Colombia for almost a half century, i.e., the entire period of post-industrialized total war), but when these groups come to realize that, despite their nationalist aspirations, they have been used as the pawns in someone else’s war (i.e., they have been serving someone else’s national aspirations), they are as likely to switch sides as not. Moreover, civil governance following long civil wars — regardless of which side in the conflict wins, if in fact any side wins — is almost always disastrous, and low-intensity warfare is essentially traded for high-intensity civil strife. Police do the killing instead of soldiers (but many of the police are former soldiers).
As warfare becomes pervasively represented throughout the culture, it represents the return (for it has occurred many times in human history) of warfare as a cultural activity, something I discussed in an early post Civilization and War as Social Technologies, i.e., war is a social technology, like civilization, that allows us to do certain things and to accomplish certain ends. For example, war is a decision procedure among nation-states who can agree upon nothing except that they will not allow a local and limited war to grow into a general and total war.
Warfare has, once again, adapted to changed conditions and thereby demonstrated its existential viability when war itself has risen to the level of an existential risk to the species and our civilization.
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14 May 2015
Recent news items have related that a couple of staples of late Soviet-era military technology may be returned to production and deployment, specifically the Mil Mi-14 (cf. Re-commissioned? Soviet nuke-capable sub-killing copter comeback slated) and the Tu-160 “Blackjack” bomber (cf. ‘Blackjack’ comeback: Russia to renew production of its most powerful strategic bomber).
In many earlier posts I have noted the surprisingly vigorous afterlife of Soviet-era military technology, as the Moskit P-270 “sunburn” anti-ship missile and the VA-111 Shkval supercavitating torpedo remain formidable weapons systems. Much of this Soviet-era weaponry can be retro-fitted with contemporary electronics, turning previously “dumb” weapons into “smart” weapons, i.e., precision guided munitions, making them even more formidable, and, as such, they can fulfill combat roles they could not previously fulfill, and in some cases they can fulfill combat roles that did not previously exist.
Russia has, in addition, continued to produce new weapons systems that are the evolutionary descendents of Soviet-era systems, as with the latest air defense system, the S-400 Triumf, recently in the news because Russia has sold or considered selling these systems to China, India, Iran, and Syria, and the newest Russian tank, the T-14 Armata, which was in the news because one stalled in the rehearsal for the May Day parade in Moscow. The resurrection of Soviet-era weapons systems is distinct from these weapons systems in continual production and regularly updated with improvements in technology.
There is an obvious narrative to account for the return to service of Soviet-era military technology, and that obvious narrative is that Vladimir Putin wants to return Russia to the international stature it enjoyed while the Soviet Union was perceived as a superpower equal to the US. For reasons of national prestige and Russian national pride, Russia is dusting off old weapons systems and at times even returning to former methods of military patrols dating to the Cold War. The most obvious examples of this have been Russian long-range bomber patrols using Tupolev Tu-95 “Bear” bombers, which, with their turboprop engines, are virtually flying antiques. I discussed a particularly striking example of Russian air patrols in Sweden and Finland in NATO?
There is also an obvious economic rationale for the resurrection of Soviet-era weapons systems, which is that the design and testing of major weapons systems has become so expensive that many of these weapons systems have entered a “death spiral,” such that even if a nation-state could afford the R&D costs, the finished product would be too expensive to produce in sufficient numbers to be combat effective. Updating known weapons platforms can be a much more cost effective way to approach this problem than starting from scratch. Enormous savings can be realized on the testing, training, and deployment phases of a weapons system.
There is, however, much more going on here than any attempt on the part of Putin to compensate for perceived personal or national failures. The world has changed in its political structure since the post-WWII settlement that shaped the second half of the twentieth century and the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. The political (and technological) changes have changed how wars are fought. I have mentioned in many posts that the paradigm of peer-to-peer conventional engagements between mass conscript armies has effectively fallen out of contemporary history. The Cold War was based on this paradigm, with NATO and the Warsaw Pact roughly equally matched, although sufficiently different in detail that no one could predict with confidence the outcome of a conventional war in Europe, and whether or how a conventional war in Europe would escalate into a nuclear war (and, again, whether a nuclear war in Europe would escalate into globally mutually assured destruction).
“…war under the nuclear umbrella involved a devolution of war from total and absolute war, including the use of nuclear weapons, to conventional war, using all means short of nuclear weapons, and exercising restraint with these means in order to avoid triggering a nuclear strike. Next, war under the ‘no fly’ umbrella of imposed air superiority involved a devolution of war from everything that has happened since Douhet’s The Command of the Air was published, to a state of combat prior to Douhet’s deadly vision. War under the ‘no fly’ umbrella means war limited to ground combat, almost as though the age of air power had never been known.”
Having just finished listening to the book Level Zero Heroes: The Story of U.S. Marine Special Operations in Bala Murghab, Afghanistan I realized that expectations of warfighting in the twenty-first century have driven the development of rules of engagement (ROE) to the point of negating the overwhelming air superiority of the most technologically advanced nation-states. When each individual decision to drop a bomb in combat is run through a political infrastructure that includes individuals with mixed motives, combat is driven down to a level at which the only actions that can be approved are those taken by individual soldiers with the weapons they carry. This has the effect of giving plausible deniability to a nation-state, as individual soldiers are considered expendable and can be prosecuted if they make decisions in combat that fail to conform with the ideological justifications given for a military engagement.
Strategic weapons systems have always been primarily political. The devolution of warfare has meant that the most sophisticated weapons systems are being politicized from the top down, which has the practical consequence that even a superpower like the US engages primarily only in close-quarters small arms skirmishes. The big ticket, expensive, and technologically sophisticated weapons systems are frequently used only for a “show of force” (SOF) in order to intimidate, using the sound of a jet’s engines to obtain a temporary advantage in a combat environment in which a political decision has been made not to make full use of the air assets available.
There are several possible explanations for the devolution of warfare, and I have discussed some of them previously. One obvious explanation is that war has become too destructive, but human beings love war so much they must find a way of limiting the destructiveness of war if they are going to continue enjoying it, so the devolution of war serves the purposes of limiting war to a survivable level. I have made this argument several times, so I think that it has some merit, but that it is not the whole story. (I recently made a variation of this argument in Existential Threat Narratives.)
There is another approach to this problem that has just occurred to me today as I was formulating the above thoughts, and this is that the history of warfare has exhibited a pattern of settling into a culturally determined routine (such as I described in Civilization and War as Social Technologies in regard to the ritualized violence of the Aztec “Flower Battle”, Samurai swordsmanship, and the Mandan Sundance) which is then interrupted when a geographically isolated region comes into contact with a peer or near-peer civilization, with which it has no established customs of limiting violence to a survivable level. The example that comes to mind is the nearly continual warfare in the Italian peninsula among mercenary armies fighting for individual city-states in the late medieval period, which was, however, not very destructive. At this time, Italy was mostly cut off from Europe by the Alps, but this changed when the French marched into Italy under Charles VIII with 25,000 men in 1494-1498, which brought a new and much less forgiving form of war to the Italian peninsula.
Human civilization is now effectively global, and that means that no nation-state is truly isolated from any other nation-state. We are not only aware of the activities of our neighbors, we are often (painfully) aware of events occurring in distant parts of the world, which are not so distant any more. No one today could say of any quarter of the world what Neville Chamberlain said of Czechslovakia, “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.”
Warfare has become a commons, and if we want to preserve this commons, we must manage it. Hence the world entire may evolve toward global ritualized, symbolic violence of the sort previously only seen in geographically isolated regions. There are no more geographically isolated regions, and with the planet as a single region warfare may tend to evolve in the direction in which it previously evolved in widely separated societies when all enemies were known and conflict was primarily a matter of prestige requirements. Globalization may now be expressed through the unification of warfare under a common set of customs intended to limit and control violence.
There is a sense in which this is a profoundly sad realization, for what it says about human nature, but there is another sense in which this is a hopeful realization, as it points to a human nature that implicitly recognizes an existential threat and modifies its behavior accordingly. If all violence could be transformed into something ritualized, symbolic, and sustainable, we would have a chance to devote our economy and industry toward the long term survivability of our species and our planet with some confidence that destructiveness will be limited from here on out.
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28 February 2015
Introduction: A Failed Region
What do you get when you cluster several failed nation-states together in a single geographical region? You get a failed region, and what we see today in Mesopotamia and the Levant is a failed region catastrophically failing. This is regionalism gone horribly wrong. Even by the self-serving standards of the international nation-state system, the several regimes of the region are not only failing to provide basic services for their respective peoples, but are manifestly making life much worse and more difficult for the unfortunates resident in the region.
My previous post on Islamic State, The Philosophical Basis of Islamic State, was purely analysis; I made no recommendations or policy prescriptions. Here I am going to shift gears and consider how the present violence in the region will ultimately be reduced through some settlement to the ongoing conflict. The level of violence in the region is not now compatible with civil society, and the longer this level of violence continues, the greater the breakdown of institutions on the ground. The sooner the violence is reduced, institutions still in existence may recover. If violence persists, all functioning institutions may disappear and new institutions will have to be established in their place, even if they are former institutions resurrected.
Violence is destabilizing; insurgencies and political movements know this (this knowledge is a major source of revolutionary violence), and so they foment violence as a tactic to destabilize the established order so that they can insert themselves in addition to or in place of that order. But implicit in this tactic is that, once a new political accommodation is found, violence will subside and civil society will be able to return to some semblance of normality, perhaps on a different basis (presumably the basis preferred by those who instigated the violence). Islamic State is no exception to this time-honored political calculation, despite its apocalyptic pretensions. They seek to eliminate the nation-states of the region and to assert the control of the Islamic State caliphate in place of these nation-states. Once the work of replacement is completed (if it is completed), civil society will proceed under principles of Islamic law as recognized by Islamic State. The point here is simply that, one way or another, the unsustainable levels of violence will recede, and the only question is the mechanism by which the reduction in violence takes place, and whether it leaves in its wake a stable civil society or an unstable civil society that will give way to further violence.
The Options for Islamic State
After I wrote ISIS and Sykes-Picot I must admit that I was quite surprised that Islamic State declared the reestablishment of the caliphate. The stakes are high. If ISIS proclaims itself to be the caliphate and then fails ignominiously, this compromises any future attempt to reestablish the caliphate (i.e., another subsequent caliphate wouldn’t be taken seriously, and the caliphate is an institution that must command respect or it is better off defunct). If, however, ISIS can secure enough territory to keep its caliphate intact for some period of time, the longer it endures the greater legitimacy it will have.
Perhaps I should not have been surprised. Islamic State has been called the best funded terrorist organization ever in existence. This may be overstating the case — organized insurgencies in the Golden Triangle that took control of the opium trade, and non-state groups in Andean South America that monopolized cocaine trafficking, both commanded serious financial resources — but even to be among the most well-funded of non-state entities is a significant accomplishment. If ISIS can continue the flow of money and find ways to increase its funding as it increases its de facto territory, this will go a long way toward securing a longer term future for the group.
On the surface, it would seem that the prospects of ISIS are grim, and that the group must almost certainly be destroyed, root and branch, as long as their horrific tactics alienate world opinion so that major powers (like the US) have the political cover to intervene with the support of regional powers. If a nation-state with the resources of the US decides that your group should be destroyed, then you really don’t have much of a chance. Under conditions of strong motive and weak constraints, the US can act with impunity at any place on the planet. However, ideal conditions of motive and constraint rarely obtain in the messy reality of politics and diplomacy.
ISIS is in the classic position of an insurgency, except that it has ambitions to rule territory distinct from any contemporary nation-state. Therefore it cannot simply replace the leadership of some extant nation-state; in order to achieve success on its own terms it must establish control over some territory that can with some credibility be called a caliphate, to which sympathetic Muslims can travel to join the cause. Situated as they are at present, they are in a geographical position to easily draw off the disaffected youth of six neighboring states, and the truly determined will find a way to join the cause regardless of geographical obstacles (individuals from all over the world have already, in fact, made their way to Islamic State). As long as this flow of fighters into Islamic State continues, the group can expand its ability to project power.
Inflows of money and fighters have made ISIS what it is today. Can it maintain or expanded its successes to date? What strategy could ISIS pursue in order to continue in existence as a viable political entity and thereby the gain credibility for the caliphate it has declared? There seems to be only a single viable course of action, and that would be to so divide regional powers so as to paralyze any coalition action against ISIS. If local powers are sufficiently paralyzed, larger powers would be hesitant to commit sufficient forces, or to unilaterally seek the destruction of ISIS. This paralysis is already one of the factors that has allowed ISIS to seize and to hold territory.
As it turns out, it is not terribly difficult to divide opinion and to politically paralyze those regional nation-states that a power like the US would require as cover for offensive action necessary for the attainment of decisive objectives. It has been pointed out by many commentators that the global Islamic community (i.e., the Ummah) is quick to jump on perceived slights to their faith from non-Muslims, but when it comes to atrocities perpetrated by Muslims (as those being committed now by Islamic State as I write this) there is a preternatural silence. And even when the occasional Islamic nation-state makes an official condemnation of ISIS and their like, there still is no broad groundswell of outrage from the Ummah. There are theological reasons for this.
Islam has never had a top-down institutional organization of the kind that is commonplace in Christianity. As a result there has always been a tension in issues of governance of the Ummah. This is particularly apparent when it comes to declaring anything unislamic (takfir). If you wrongly denounce another Muslim as being non-Muslim in beliefs or practices, you are yourself non-Muslim. To be non-Muslim fallen from the true faith is to be an apostate, and the punishment for apostasy is death. Thus an outcry against Islamic State and its brutality would risk the standing of those protesting the beliefs and practices of Islamic State. As Islamic State appears to have a literal reading of the relevant texts on its side, few are ready to meet them in theological debate.
As neighboring regimes are kept off-balance by internal conflict, and no great power is willing to intervene regionally for this reason, ISIS can continue to expand its influence into the vacuum of destabilized and paralyzed regimes, making good on its commitment of offensive jihad.
The Options for Dar al-Harb
The appeal of ISIS is powerful, but also limited. If it demonstrated a resounding series of successes, it would expand its appeal and draw in more who want to believe its message but don’t quite dare to believe it yet. If ISIS can be contained, however, it will not be seen as moving from one success to another, the inflow of excited would-be jihadis will slow to a small trickle, and to the extent that the legitimacy of ISIS is predicated upon expansion through offensive jihad, its legitimacy would be called into question.
If ISIS is to be contained, and its prophetic mission thereby called into question as it accepts de facto borders between itself and surrounding nation-states, it must be contained by local forces with an ongoing interest in policing these borders. Anything achieved by outsiders who will eventually pull out and go home will necessarily be ephemeral, and ISIS can resume offensive Jihad after any pull out, legitimizing any pause in operations as a temporary truce (the latter acceptable according to the prophetic methodology). Thus the containment of ISIS must not be by the US, or NATO, or Europe, or even Russian or Chinese assistance to any one of the warring parties; containment must be effected by those who live in the region and who will remain in the region.
There is a way to do this, but this way is closed to the western powers for political reasons. The one coherent, workable strategy for Mesopotamia and the Levant that would have any chance of success — and by “success” I mean a long term reduction in violence and the establishment of a regional order that will allow the majority of individuals to live out their lives in relative safety and security — is, unfortunately, politically impossible… impossible, at least, for the US, and only nearly impossible for the rest of the world — and cannot be implemented for political reasons. There are, of course, many other strategies as well, but these other strategies are either incoherent, unworkable, or unlikely to issue in success (as defined above).
Because the US and its allies are not going to throw their resources behind Assad in order to resurrect Syria as an Alawite-minority-dominated, Sunni majority dictatorship, and because the other forces that have fought against Assad have proved themselves to be far less capable than ISIS, a workable strategy would need to employ proxies in the region that are militarily capable. And there are militarily capable forces in the regions: the Kurds and Iran and Iranian proxies. If support and materiel were funneled to the Kurds and to Iranian proxies, it would be possible not only to defeat ISIS on the ground, but also to change the political conditions in the region that allowed for the rise of ISIS.
There are problems with this, of course, The Kurds want their own nation-state, and a well armed, supplied and financed Kurdish Peshmerga would take for itself a nation-state carved out of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, and in so doing to incur the hatred of all of these nation-states, who are jealous of their territory and who are not about to give up any of it for a homeland for the Kurds. Nevertheless, the Kurds have proved that they can fight and they can organize under adverse conditions.
Another problem is that Iran and Iranian proxies, which have also, like the Kurds, proved their mettle, are supporters of Assad. While this support for Assad has a long history, it is primarily a function of Syria’s ruling clique being Alawite, which is a small offshoot of Shia Islam, and I suspect that a deal could be struck that removed Assad from power while leaving the ruling clique of some rump Syria (dominated by Iran) in the hands of the Alawites. Such a deal would actually be facilitated by the credibility that Iran and its proxies would have in dealing with Assad and his supporters.
Once again I must assure the reader that I am under no illusion that the above scenario will take place, I only say that it is coherent and could be formulated into clear military objectives. There is already a certain measure of support being shown for the Kurds, and despite the apparent political impossibility, there is an article on Foreign Policy’s website, Washington’s Uneasy Partnership With Tehran Now Extends to Yemen by Seán D. Naylor, that discusses de facto US-Iranian cooperation, so, far from being unimaginable, such cooperation is already a fait accompli, and stunts like the IRGC blowing up a mock-up of a US aircraft carrier in the Strait of Hormuz is merely a matter of placating domestic opinion so that no one thinks the regime has gone soft on the Great Satan.
These efforts, however, are much too small to contain what Islamic State has already become. A strategy that had a hope of success would have to be robust; instead of debating whether only non-lethal aid would be sent to the Kurds, the Kurds should receive massive support, and no complaints should be made when they assert territorial control over an independent Kurdistan with the assistance they were given. The geopolitical obsession with retaining current borders — itself an ideological outgrowth of the ossified international system of nation-states — prevents this kind of support from practical realization.
Since we can predict with confidence that the one chance for a sane stability in the region (not stability deriving from a xenophobic and genocidal regime imposing a Pax Islamica) will not be pursued, there is the question of the second best strategy. The second best strategy would be a decapitation strike against the apex leadership of Islamic State, and especially Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. I understand that there have been airstrikes that have killed several prominent leaders of IS; these efforts to date have been as ineffectual as support for anti-ISIS forces in the region. by a decapitation strike I don’t mean a rain of cruise missiles, which is the nation-state equivalent of “spray and pray.” I mean two dozen or more stealth helicopters with special forces commandos coming down on top of the apex leadership of ISIS and capturing or killing that leadership. Knowing the ISIS obsession with Dabiq as the location for an apocalyptic battle, it would be no great difficulty to convincingly feint in the direction of Dabiq long enough to draw fighters away from other duties and so to leave the leadership relatively exposed.
Given the commando resources available to the US, it would be entirely within the capacity of US special forces to capture or to kill al-Baghdadi even in the midst of Islamic State territory. The mission would have to be quite large — much larger than the mission that killed Osama Bin Laden — and it would entail casualties. Such an operation would likely result in dozens of US casualties and perhaps hundreds of IS casualties, but successfully executed the apex leadership of IS could be captured or killed, and this might be a sufficient blow against the nascent regime to scatter those who remain behind. (Follow-on strikes could continue the dispersion of remaining leaders and prevent them from regrouping.) It would also be the occasion for much hand-wringing on the part of the international community and protests by nation-states who feel they have a stake in the conflict. It would, however, be a decisive strike and a coherent strategy.
This second option is not much more likely than the first, though it can at least be said that it is not politically impossible. At same time, its greater political feasibility is balanced against its absence of an endgame that would allow the region to transition toward a sustainable and less violent order in the near future. The elimination of ISIS is a mere tactic to stabilize the region; regional stability requires a regional strategy, and not a single operation.
Dar al-Islam vs. Dar al-Harb
Perhaps it is a universal truth that all civil wars produce civil atrocities on an unprecedented scale. The civil war within Islam, i.e., the civil war of the Ummah, like the civil war within Christendom in the 17th century, will be no exception. Whatever side in this conflict receives support from western nation-states, will eventually be implicated in atrocities and war crimes, and, when these atrocities and war crimes come to light, all popular will to continue any support will vanish, and political will to continue support will vanish soon after.
As I have argued elsewhere (The Neurotic Misery of Islamic Civilization), Islam is a civilization in the midst of neurotic misery, and the only therapy that will deliver them over into ordinary human unhappiness is philosophy taught by examples, that is to say, history.
There is a detailed article on The Atlantic’s website, What ISIS Really Wants by Graeme Wood that takes ISIS at its word in regard to the group’s “prophetic methodology,” which is the particular conception of history now entertained by the leadership of ISIS. Wood makes the valid point that ISIS is to a certain extent hamstrung by its Koranic literalness, and that this is a valuable guide in predicting the actions of the group. This is one of the few potentially valuable ways of understanding ISIS that can be of material benefit to any action taken against it.
Another point that Graeme Wood makes is that the west has, up to now, drawn a number of false analogies by putting all jihadist organizations into the same basket. This has indeed been part of the problem, but it is just as much of a problem to treat ISIS an the monolith it aspires to be. The success of ISIS to date has not only been the result of a brutal fidelity to “prophetic methodology,” but also a not inconsiderable rationality and organizational mettle. While there are no doubt a great many within ISIS who see their struggle as a cosmic war, there are probably also many who see ISIS in another, and much more pragmatic, light. Even if ISIS is successfully contained, and its claim to being in the vanguard of cosmic war called into question by any such containment, there will still be a struggle within ISIS between ideological purists and pragmatists who would be content with establishing a new state along the lines of Islamic State but shorn of its ideological pretensions.
A chastened but still violent and combat-effective ISIS could continue to destabilize the region for decades to come, if not centuries, during which time many strategies on both sides of the divide would be tested. If we test the optimal strategy for ISIS against the likely strategy of any anti-ISIS coalition (viz. the US and its European allies making feeble and half-hearted attempts to support the “good” side in this conflict), the prospects for the continued survival of ISIS are quite high, even if it is a mere shadow of its prophetic aspirations.
If a quasi-pragmatic leadership emerges from a less-than-triumphant ISIS, this leadership will have to arrive at some modus vivendi with its neighbors in the region. ISIS would then have to become a nation-state among nation-states, which is apostasy from the purely eschatological point of view, but also a human, all-too-human compromise that should be expected at some point in time.
In this case, the boundaries of existing nation-states — the status quo ante — would be re-established as far as possible given the events that have transpired to date, as part of the process of resurrecting institutions of civil society mentioned above in the Introduction. We recall that the European powers fought their religious wars for almost a century before they finally negotiated the Treaty of Westphalia (which came nearly to affirming borders that existed prior to the conflict), which settled on the principle cuius regio, eius religio, which I previously discussed in The Stalin Doctrine.
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9 February 2015
Introduction: Madmen in Authority
If you’ve ever heard the final paragraph of Keynes’ economic masterpiece, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, you will not have forgotten these now-classic lines:
“…the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.”
John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, Chapter 24, section V
Whether you care to consider our homegrown madmen here in the west, or the madmen elsewhere in the world, it is difficult to deny Keynes’ estimate of the place of ideas in political life. We are now seeing some especially pernicious ideas being played out in our planet’s history, and while we can be confident that these ideas will be discredited in the long term, in the short term they will be the source of enormous human suffering as long as madmen in authority cling to them, and others are willing to follow the madmen.
One of these madmen in authority at the present time is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (born Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri) who, as leader of Islamic State, has taken the name and title Caliph Ibrahim, as the restoration of the caliphate abolished with the end of the Ottoman Empire has been one of the long-held dreams of political Islamists upon which Islamic State has acted. The political entity now called Islamic State is also called ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) or ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), in reference to the geographical region in which the movement is now active. The history of this geographical region is relevant to our inquiry, so we will consider this next.
The Civilizational Milieu of Mesopotamia and the Levant
The region of the world now being fought over by Islamic State militants challenging established state structures was that region of the world most productive of ancient civilizations. The civilizations of India and China arose independently in almost complete cultural isolation, and they developed in isolation for hundreds or thousands of years before encountering other civilizations at a similar level of development. In the western hemisphere, there was perhaps more interaction between settled groups, with highland peoples of the Andes trading with lowland peoples along the coast from the earliest origins of civilization in South America, but even this was nothing like the density of civilization to be found in the contiguous regions of Mesopotamia, Anatolia, the Levant, and Egypt — a geographical area that came to be called the Fertile Crescent.
At the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea a series of civilizations arose in relation to and often in conflict with each other. Empire succeeded empire as the peoples of the region competed for power. This predecessor — this common ancestor — of Jewish civilization, western civilization, Islamic civilization, North African civilization, Russian civilization and all the civilizations that have their ultimate origins in the Mediterranean Basin, was the most complex, most polyglot, most diverse civilizational milieu on our planet. In my notes to myself I sometimes call this civilizational region the “West Asian cluster,” as these contiguous lands hosted a cluster of evolving and interacting civilizations. History has great depth and complexity here, and one might well spend a lifetime attempting to master all the diverging and converging strains that are interwoven in the region.
The civilization that was to become Western civilization is ultimately from this west Asian cluster (albeit derivatively), specifically, from Anatolia, and it is easy to trace on the map its journey through Thrace, Bulgaria, and into the Balkan Peninsula. Then in Greece that civilization experienced a dramatic mutation, and then again, further west, in Rome, again that civilization mutated into something else, and further west again when the Roman legacy was mixed with Barbarian Europe, Christendom emerged and western civilization as we know it today took shape. Western civilization, in other words, took shape outside the region of the west Asian cluster. The civilizations we see in the region today are those that remained in the region from earliest antiquity, and this is our first hint of the dramatically different histories of East and West. Christendom took shape in the muddy, rural backwaters of manorial estates in western Europe; nothing could be farther from the dusty, desert cities of the Levant, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and Egypt — cities that had already existed for thousands of years by the time Islamic civilization emerged and became the dominant power.
Islamic State is seeking to establish itself and to project power at the heart of this West Asian Cluster that proved itself fertile not only in its soil for the production of food, but fertile also in the minds of its peoples for the production of civilizations. But it is interesting to note that among the civilizations that emerge from the West Asian cluster, Islamic civilization is only derivatively from this cluster (like Western Civilization), since Islamic civilization in the narrow sense has its origins in the Arabian Peninsula, although the civilizations of the Arabian Peninsula had their origins in turn from the West Asian Cluster.
The Golden Age of Islamic Civilization
It is not unusual to hear the ideology of ISIS compared to medieval interpretations of Islam, but medieval Islam — a civilization of wealth and power at the height of its historical influence — was a large and diverse civilization, one of civilization’s “big tents,” and moreover a civilization of many hundreds of years in duration, so that if you were to compare early medieval Islam of the sort you might find in Samarra and Baghdad with late medieval Islam of the sort you might find in Granada and Cordoba, the differences may be more evident than the continuity of Islamic identity. Medieval Islam, then, is not exactly what people usually have in mind when they speak of “medieval Islam.”
The height of medieval Islamic civilization saw cosmopolitan cities, monumental architecture, and a great efflorescence of philosophy. The works of classical philosophy lost in western Europe with the collapse of Roman institutions were translated into Arabic and were the subject of extensive interpretation and commentary. When medieval Europe recovered to the point of being able to once again engage with philosophy, they received the Greek and Roman classics from Islam, and they consumed the works of Islamic commentators no less than ancient works. While St. Thomas called Aristotle “The Philosopher,” he also called Averroes “The Commentator.”
Any wealthy agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization that begins to produce an abundance of intellectual innovation will trigger a reaction from the conservative sectors of society who wish to preserve untainted the religious principles of social organization that are of the very essence of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization. This was true for the Greeks, for the Romans, for the Jews, and it was true for Islam. The Greeks killed Socrates, the Romans exiled Ovid, the Jews excommunicated Spinoza, and Islam produced figures like Ibn Taymiyyah who condemned all intellectual innovation.
Ibn Taymiyyah and reactionary philosophy
I begin my inquiry into the violence in the region from the earliest traces of civilization, but the echo chamber of the press and the popular media goes back only when pressed for explanations they do not have, and then they go only far enough to seize upon a figure who can be used to “explain” the apparently inexplicable. A review of regional history may include the split between Shia and Sunni, and will certainly go on to discuss the crucial role of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Wahhabism in the ideology of the militant Salafist groups. It would be an easy matter to use up one’s available time simply trying to clarify the distinction, if any, between Wahhabism and Salafism.
There are several older and deeper layers of history sedimented into the ideology of ISIS. One of the pivotal philosophical figures in contemporary militant ideology is that of Ibn Taymiyyah, who is one of the “Two Shaikhs” — the other being al-Islam — of the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence. It should be noted that jurisprudence plays a much larger role in Islamic thought than it does in Christian thought. Perhaps this is a consequence of the separation of political and ecclesiastical power that has always marked western civilization; perhaps there are other historical forces at work as well. In any case, one of the major distinction made within Islam is that made among the five schools of Islamic jurisprudence, viz. the Ja‘fari, the Hanafi, the Maliki, the Shafi΄i, and the Hanbali. There are in addition some other schools, though with relatively few followers.
Ibn Taymiyyah not only played a prominent role in the foundation of the Hanbali school, he was also what we would today call a technical philosopher, that is to say, he wrote technical treatises in philosophy that can only be understood by other philosophers who have studied similar questions. But Ibn Taymiyyah was a technical philosopher only because he felt the need to refute the doctrines of other technical philosophers. Refuting philosophers on their own terms has the paradoxical consequence of requiring that the intellectual representatives of a simpler past are forced to engage these philosophers on their own terms, adopting the language and the concepts of philosophy in order to give the lie to philosophy.
A figure like Ibn Taymiyyah within Islam has several parallels in the western philosophical tradition. When intellectual life revived in western Europe after the Dark Ages, and scholars began to read Aristotle and his Greek and Arabian commentators (all of these texts passed along via a cosmopolitan Islamic civilization, since they had been lost in the west), many sincere yet conservative Schoolmen were nothing less than horrified by the “Latin Averroists” and other philosophers who openly learned from pagan and Islamic scholars. They not only argued against these philosophical innovations, they also actively sought to have these views suppressed and their authors silenced, and they were successful with depressing regularity and thoroughness.
Giles of Rome is a good example of this: he wrote a book called The Errors of the Philosophers, in which he recounts in detail the false doctrines that Christian philosophers had disastrously picked up from reading Greek and Arabic philosophical texts. Yet, paradoxically, in order to effectively refute these doctrines, Giles himself had to learn to speak the language of the philosophers. A good example of this is his book Theorems on Existence and Essence — a technical philosophical treatise on ontology. If you read this book without knowing medieval philosophy, you would have no idea if Giles was a flaming radical or the most hidebound reactionary. It bristles with philosophical terminology that can only be understood by initiates of the discipline. Nietzsche once wrote, “Kant wanted to prove in a way that would dumfound the ‘common man’ that the ‘common man’ was right.” A similar observation might be made on Giles of Rome.
Ibn Taymiyyah was in a similar position: he wanted to refute the rationalism of the Greek logicians, but in order to do so he was forced to adopt the language and the concepts of the Greeks, and so his primary theoretical text, Against the Greek Logicians, like Giles’ treatises against Christians borrowing from Greeks and Arabs, is a demanding philosophical read. It is a subtle and sophisticated work, not a mere catalog of rejection or condemnation, though it also resembles Saint Augustine in its elaborate and verbose digressions. But his project is a paradoxical project. Like all anti-rationalist philosophies, it is beset with contradictions from the outset. But a little contradiction never worried a committed ideologue; indeed, the very idea of contradiction stems from logic, so that in so far as you use logic to condemn itself (as Ibn Taymiyyah does), you are in a position to welcome contradictions.
In so far as we can identify the Enlightenment project as the re-emergence of rationalism in western civilization, all of those western nation-states today who look to the Enlightenment project, or which, like the US and France, owe their very existence to the Enlightenment, have their source and origin in Locke, Hume, and the cluster of early modern political philosophers who made their work possible. But it is not only rationalism that re-emerges repeatedly in history; irrationalism also returns time and again in human history. The philosophy of ISIS constitutes a parallel re-emergence of Ibn Taymiyaah’s project, a reactionary, anti-rational project for civilization. While we already know that anti-rationalistic programs are failed civilizational programs, sometimes failed ideas are perennial ideas, and so they come back to haunt us time and time again, no matter how pernicious to human well being and many times discredited by history when history teaches by example.
Fawaz A. Gerges on Islamic State
In a cosmopolitan civilization, men like Ibn Taymiyyah and Giles of Rome would be mere cranks, rapidly left behind by accelerating intellectual innovations that open up new horizons of inquiry and research and which change civilization in their wake. (I suspect that Ibn Taymiyyah and Giles of Rome, had they ever met, would have gotten along famously as long as the topic of religion never came up, in which case they would likely have killed each other.) Unfortunately, in human history from all quarters of the planet we can find examples of growing and dynamic civilizations, civilizations that do not feel threatened by diversity of thought, retrenching from their cosmopolitanism, closing themselves off from new influences, looking to the past rather than the future, and refusing change, if not actively working to reverse changes. (In Islamic thought there is actually a term for this: “closing of the gate of ijtihad.”)
In non-cosmopolitan civilizations, in reactionary social contexts, failed ideas that fully deserve to be defunct ideas are given a new lease on life, and perhaps more importantly and most dangerously, these ideas are placed in the context of a mythology that gives cosmic significance to them. In such a retrograde social context, men like Ibn Taymiyyah and Giles of Rome take on a prophetic quality: they have seen the limitations of reason and scientific inquiry, and they were among the first to issue warnings about where such developments will take us if we allow them to continue.
We have seen that the philosophical basis of ISIS and related groups that share the ideology of ISIS is the principled rejection of that rationalism that has been the unique contribution of the western branch of the west Asian cluster of civilizations, and that Ibn Taymiyyah is one of the theoretical sources of this principled rejection, and author of the many of the principles that can be and have been invoked to this end. Much of the social and eschatological background against which these ideas have been received can be found in an article on the BBC, Islamic State: Can its savagery be explained? by Fawaz A. Gerges, Emirates Chair in Contemporary Middle Eastern Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. In this article Gerges wrote:
“…IS actually stresses violent action over theology and theory, and has produced no repertoire of ideas to sustain and nourish its social base. It is a killing machine powered by blood and iron.”
Obviously, I do not share this view, but Gerges is unquestionably correct that Islamic State emphasizes violent action over theoretical disputation. Gerges, however, also notes several other factors in the appeal of Islamic State that constitute the social context within which the ideological superstructure of the group is played out:
● “victory through terrorism” (the quotation marks are in the Gerges’ text, though I can’t find the source of this presumed slogan)
● Get out of the way or you will be crushed; join our caravan and make history.
● a powerful vanguard that delivers victory and salvation
● shock-and-awe tactics against the enemies of Islam
● capturing huge swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq
● a greater mission — to resurrect a lost idealised type of caliphate (Gerges also says “establishing a caliphate”)
● be part of a tight-knit community with a potent identity
● to defend persecuted co-religionists
● an anti-Shia diet and visceral hatred of minorities in general
● the spearhead of Sunni Arabs in the fight against sectarian-based regimes in Baghdad and Damascus
All of these are direct quotes from the Gerges article on the BBC. While this may not sound like an ideology compared to the tortuous theological justifications for brutality to which we are accustomed, it is clearly an ideological program, and, more than that, it is an ideological program with an unmistakeable pragmatic bent.
Strategy and Tactics of Cosmic War
It would be difficult to produce a more concise list of the tactics of cosmic war than that above I have derived from Gerges. The violence and brutality, then, are epiphenomenal to the eschatological core of militant Salafism, which is in turn the core of Islamic State.
It is at least arguable that the devolution of warfare has driven the brutality of warfare on the ground, as this remains one of the few avenues for perpetrating atrocities that will command the attention of the world, and it is through the practice of atrocities that Islamic State has advertised itself and its ruthlessness to the world. But the calling card of brutality and ruthlessness is not be conflated with the ideological superstructure of Islamic State.
We can see that all of these slogans, ideas, and actions noted by Gerges play into a conception of history, that is to say, they constitute a kind of historical consciousness, and a particular conception of history superadded to the individual’s conception of himself — which is to say, the individual consciousness supplemented by an historical consciousness that places that individual within a big picture conception of the world — is a potent ideological cocktail. It is precisely this kind of historical consciousness that drove fanatical (and also often victorious) communists in the twentieth century. In other words, militant Islam today is in some sense parallel to militant communism in the twentieth century. This observation should give us pause, and it is something that we need to remember when we consider the problem of Islamic terrorism.
A conception of history, while powerful, is essentially only the scaffolding of an ideological superstructure. The scaffolding is there to support and to organize the principles that constitute the substance of an ideological superstructure. This substance of the ideological superstructure is taken from the older, perennial theoretical justifications found in original thinkers like Ibn Taymiyyah (who, I might note, would not want to have been thought of as an original thinker).
The principles that ultimately govern the shape of the ideological superstructure go far beyond the tactical implementation of a particular conception of history: these ideas are the strategy of cosmic war. We can understand thinkers like Ibn Taymiyyah, then, as the strategists of cosmic war — and I even think that if a sympathetic reader of Ibn Taymiyyah and a supporter of Islamic State took the time to understand that I have written here, that he would not necessarily reject this formulation.
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7 October 2014
Since the recent Russian incursion in east Ukraine I have been seeing the term “hybrid warfare” being used. I first encountered this in the Financial Times on Friday 29 August 2014 (“Russia’s New Art of War”), which shows how far behind the curve I am, as when I looked up the term I frequently found hybrid warfare referred to as a “buzzword” (and, until now, I had heard none of this buzz). There is already an anthology of essays on hybrid warfare, Hybrid Warfare: Fighting Complex Opponents from the Ancient World to the Present, edited by Williamson Murray and Peter R. Mansoor, which takes a primarily historical perspective and focuses on hybrid warfare as the combination of conventional and irregular forces employed in tandem. In any case, here is how the FT article characterized hybrid warfare:
“The phrase refers to a broad range of hostile actions, of which military force is only a small part, that are invariably executed in concert as part of a flexible strategy with long-term objectives.”
The article also quotes General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Federation, from an article that appeared in the Russian defense journal VPK, as follows:
“Methods of conflict,” he wrote, have changed, and now involve “the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian and other non-military measures”. All of this, he said, could be supplemented by firing up the local populace as a fifth column and by “concealed” armed forces. Mr Gerasimov quoted the Soviet military theoretician Georgii Isserson: mobilisation does not occur after a war is declared, but “unnoticed, proceeds long before that.”
In the Times of Malta article about General Gerasimov’s appointment as Chief of Staff, Putin appoints a new army chief, Putin is quoted as saying, “new means of conducting warfare are appearing.” It would seem that Putin’s choice to head Russia’s military has taken it upon himself to formulate and refine these new means of conducting warfare, which may prove to be ideal for implementing the Putin Doctrine.
The Georgii Isserson mentioned in the above quote in the FT was a theoretician of “deep battle” (about which I wrote in Deep Battle and the Culture of War) and the author of two important treatises, The Evolution of Operational Art, 1932 and 1937, and Fundamentals of the Deep Operation, 1933. (The former has been translated into English and is available in PDF format.) Thus we see that Gerasimov is drawing on an established tradition of Russian strategic and tactical thought, and we might well ask, in an inquiry regarding hybrid warfare, if the latter constitutes the contemporary extrapolation of the Soviet conception of deep battle.
Isserson’s The Evolution of Operational Art is a highly ideological book, at the same time as being both a theoretical and practical military manual. Throughout the text he employs the language and the concepts of Marx, Engels, and Lenin in a way that is familiar from many Soviet-era books. While some Soviet-era texts following this pattern are a worthless Hodge-podge, fawning for Party approval, in the case of Isserson’s book, the intermingling of revolutionary communism and organized, large-scale military violence works quite well, and this is one of our first clues to understanding the nature of hybrid warfare. There is a continuum that extends from revolutionary violence to military violence, and it is not necessary to limit oneself to any one point on this continuum if one has the ability to act across the spectrum of operations.
A translation of the above-quoted article by General Gerasimov has been posted on Facebook by Robert Coalson (the original Russian text is also available). It is a work of great military insight, admirable in its analytical clarity. In this translation we read:
“The focus of applied methods of conflict has altered in the direction of the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other nonmilitary measures — applied in coordination with the protest potential of the population. All this is supplemented by military means of a concealed character, including carrying out actions of informational conflict and the actions of special-operations forces. The open use of forces — often under the guise of peacekeeping and crisis regulation — is resorted to only at a certain stage, primarily for the achievement of final success in the conflict.”
If the methods of warfare described by General Gerasimov are to be understood as the definitive statement — so far — of hybrid warfare, then we can see from his article that this is a highly comprehensive conception, but not merely eclectic. The general states that, “Frontal engagements of large formations of forces at the strategic and operational level are gradually becoming a thing of the past.” This is undoubtedly true. I have observed many times that there have been no peer-to-peer conflicts since the middle of the twentieth century, and none seem likely in the near future. So while hybrid warfare is a comprehensive conception, it is not about peer-to-peer conflict or frontal engagements of large formations. Hybrid warfare is, in a sense, about everything other than peer-to-peer frontal engagement. One might think of this as the culmination of the mobile small unit tactics predicted by Liddel-Hart and Heinz Guderian, practiced by the Germans with Blitzkrieg, and further refined throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, but I don’t want to too quickly or readily assimilate Gerasimov’s conception to these models of western military thought.
Gerasimov, true to the Russian concern for defense in depth (a conception that follows naturally from the perspective of a land empire with few borders defined by geographical obstacles), places Isserson’s concern for depth in the context of high-technology implementation, as though the idea were waiting for the proper means with which to put it into practice:
“Long-distance, contactless actions against the enemy are becoming the main means of achieving combat and operational goals. The defeat of the enemy’s objects is conducted throughout the entire depth of his territory. The differences between strategic, operational, and tactical levels, as well as between offensive and defensive operations, are being erased.”
The erasure of the distinction between offensive and defensive operations means the erasure of the distinction between defense in depth and offense in depth: the two become one. General Gerasimov also demonstrates that he has learned one of the most important lessons of war in industrial-technological civilization:
“A scornful attitude toward new ideas, to nonstandard approaches, to other points of view is unacceptable in military science. And it is even more unacceptable for practitioners to have this attitude toward science.”
Science and its applications lies at the root on industrial-technological warfare no less than at the root of industrial-technological civilization, both of which are locked in a co-evolutionary spiral. Not only does the scope of civilization correspond to the scope science, but the scope of war also corresponds to the scope of science. And not only the scope of science, but also its sophistication. If Gerasimov can imbue this spirit into the Russian general staff, he will make a permanent contribution to Russia military posture, and it is likely that the Chinese and other authoritarian states that look to Russia will learn the lesson as well.
That the idea of hybrid warfare has been given a definitive formulation by a Russian general, drawing upon Soviet strategy and tactics derived from revolutionary movements and partisan warfare, and that the Russian military has apparently implemented a paradigmatic hybrid war in east Ukraine, is significant. Even as a superpower, the Russians could not compete with US technology or US production; Soviet counter-measures were usually asymmetrical — and much cheaper than the high-technology weapons systems fielded by the US and NATO. Even as the US built a carrier fleet capable of dominating all the world’s oceans, the Soviets built supersonic missiles and supercavitating torpedoes that could neutralize a carrier at a fraction of the cost of a carrier. This principle of state-sponsored asymmetrical response to state-level threats is now, in hybrid warfare, extended across the range of materiel and operations.
How can hybrid warfare be defined? How does hybrid warfare differ from MOOTW? How does hybrid warfare differ from asymmetrical warfare? How does hybrid warfare differ from any competently executed grand strategy?
It is to Gerasimov’s credit that he poses radical questions about the nature of warfare in order to illuminate hybrid warfare, as when he asks, “What is modern war? What should the army be prepared for? How should it be armed?” We must ask radical questions in order to make radical conceptual breakthroughs. The most radical question in the philosophy of warfare is “What is war?” The article on war in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy characterizes war as follows:
‘War’ defined by Webster’s Dictionary is a state of open and declared, hostile armed conflict between states or nations, or a period of such conflict. This captures a particularly political-rationalistic account of war and warfare, i.e., that war needs to be explicitly declared and to be between states to be a war. We find Rousseau arguing this position: “War is constituted by a relation between things, and not between persons… War then is a relation, not between man and man, but between State and State…”
Any definition of war is going to incorporate presuppositions, but in asking radical questions about warfare we want to question our own presuppositions about war. This suggests the possibility of the via negativa. What is the opposite of war? Not peace, but non-war. What is non-war? That is a more difficult question to answer. Or, rather, it is a question that takes much longer to answer, because non-war is anything that is not war, so in so far as war is a limited conception, non-war is what set theorists call the complement of war: everything that a (narrow) definition of war says that war is not.
Each definition of war implies the possibility of its own negation, so that there are at least as many definitions of non-war as of war itself. Clausewitz wrote in one place that, “war is the continuation of politics by other means,” while in another place he wrote that war is, “an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.” Each of these definitions of war can be negated to produce a definition of non-war, and each produces a distinct definition of non-war. The plurality of conceptions of war and non-war point to the polysemous character of hybrid warfare, which exists on the cusp of war and non-war.
Although the US DOD declines to define hybrid warfare, NATO has defined hybrid threats as follows:
“A hybrid threat is one posed by any current or potential adversary, including state, non-state and terrorists, with the ability, whether demonstrated or likely, to simultaneously employ conventional and non conventional means adaptively, in pursuit of their objectives.”
NATO Military Working Group (Strategic Planning & Concepts), February 2010
Let us further consider the possible varieties of warfare in order to illuminate hybrid warfare by way of contrast and comparison. The following list of seventeen distinct forms of warfare recognized by the US DOD and NATO is taken from Hybrid Warfare: Briefing to the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities, Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, by Davi M. D’Agostino (hybrid warfare is not on the list because it is not officially defined):
● Acoustic Warfare (DOD, NATO) Action involving the use of underwater acoustic energy to determine, exploit, reduce, or prevent hostile use of the underwater acoustic spectrum and actions which retain friendly use of the underwater acoustic spectrum.
● Antisubmarine Warfare Operations conducted with the intention of denying the enemy the effective use of submarines.
● Biological Warfare (DOD, NATO) Employment of biological agents to produce casualties in personnel or animals, or damage to plants or materiel; or defense against such employment.
● Chemical Warfare (DOD) All aspects of military operations involving the employment of lethal and incapacitating munitions/agents and the warning and protective measures associated with such offensive operations. Since riot control agents and herbicides are not considered to be chemical warfare agents, those two items will be referred to separately or under the broader term “chemical,” which will be used to include all types of chemical munitions/agents collectively.
● Directed-Energy Warfare (DOD) Military action involving the use of directed-energy weapons, devices, and countermeasures to either cause direct damage or destruction of enemy equipment, facilities, and personnel, or to determine, exploit, reduce, or prevent hostile use of the electromagnetic spectrum through damage, destruction, and disruption. It also includes actions taken to protect friendly equipment, facilities, and personnel and retain friendly use of the electromagnetic spectrum.
● Electronic Warfare (DOD) Military action involving the use of electromagnetic and directed energy to control the electromagnetic spectrum or to attack the enemy. Electronic warfare consists of three divisions: electronic attack, electronic protection, and electronic warfare support.
● Guerrilla Warfare (DOD, NATO) Military and paramilitary operations conducted in enemy-held or hostile territory by irregular, predominantly indigenous forces (also called Partisan Warfare).
● Irregular Warfare (DOD) A violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant population(s). Irregular warfare favors indirect and asymmetric approaches, though it may employ the full range of military and other capacities, in order to erode an adversary’s power, influence, and will.
● Mine Warfare (DOD) The strategic, operational, and tactical use of mines and mine countermeasures. Mine warfare is divided into two basic subdivisions: the laying of mines to degrade the enemy’s capabilities to wage land, air, and maritime warfare; and the countering of enemy-laid mines to permit friendly maneuver or use of selected land or sea areas. (Also called Land Mine Warfare)
● Multinational Warfare (DOD) Warfare conducted by forces of two or more nations, usually undertaken within the structure of a coalition or alliance.
● Naval Coastal Warfare (DOD) Coastal sea control, harbor defense, and port security, executed both in coastal areas outside the United States in support of national policy and in the United States as part of this Nation’s defense.
● Naval Expeditionary Warfare (DOD) Military operations mounted from the sea, usually on short notice, consisting of forward deployed, or rapidly deployable, self-sustaining naval forces tailored to achieve a clearly stated objective.
● Naval Special Warfare (DOD) A designated naval warfare specialty that conducts operations in the coastal, riverine, and maritime environments. Naval special warfare emphasizes small, flexible, mobile units operating under, on, and from the sea. These operations are characterized by stealth, speed, and precise, violent application of force.
● Nuclear Warfare (DOD, NATO) Warfare involving the employment of nuclear weapons (also called Atomic Warfare).
● Surface Warfare (DOD) That portion of maritime warfare in which operations are conducted to destroy or neutralize enemy naval surface forces and merchant vessels.
● Unconventional Warfare (DOD) A broad spectrum of military and paramilitary operations, normally of long duration, predominantly conducted through, with, or by indigenous or surrogate forces who are organized, trained, equipped, supported, and directed in varying degrees by an external source. It includes, but is not limited to, guerrilla warfare, subversion, sabotage, intelligence activities, and unconventional assisted recovery.
● Under Sea Warfare (DOD) Operations conducted to establish and maintain control of the underwater environment by denying an opposing force the effective use of underwater systems and weapons. It includes offensive and defensive submarine, antisubmarine, and mine warfare operations.
To each of these “officially” recognized types of warfare we can dialectically oppose a type of non-war or peace (the latter for ease of reference), as, e.g., “unconventional warfare” implies the possibility of “unconventional peace.” With so many varieties of warfare, it is inevitable that some of these categories will overlap with other categories of warfare, so that one particular species of peace may be another species of warfare, and vice versa. For example, one might be at “peace” in regard to a clearly delimited conception of “multinational warfare” while simultaneously being in a condition of open hostility in regard to an equally clearly delimited conception of “irregular warfare.”
One of the ways in which we might understand hybrid warfare is as accepting prima facie this diverse admixture of types of warfare that, in Wittgensteinian terms, overlap and intersect. Hybrid warfare, then, may consist of selectively, and at times simultaneously, pursuing (or avoiding) any and all possible forms of warfare across the spectrum of conflict.
Given the comprehensive scope of hybrid warfare, the resources of a major industrialized nation-state would be a necessary condition for waging hybrid warfare, and this clearly distinguishes hybrid warfare from irregular, partisan, or unconventional warfare in the narrow sense. Only the most successful and well-funded non-state entities could aspire to the range of operations implied by hybrid warfare, and in so far as one of the essential feature of hybrid warfare is the coordinated use of regular and irregular forces, a non-state entity without regular forces would not, by definition, be in a position of wage hybrid warfare. But it would be a mistake, as we can see, to get too caught up in definitions.
As we can see, trying to answer the question, “What is hybrid warfare?” (much less, “What is war?”) raises a host of questions that could only be dealt with adequately by a treatise of Clausewitzean length. Perhaps the next great work on the philosophy of war will come out of this milieu of hybrid conflict.
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