Kenneth Clark, in his Civilisation: A Personal View, concludes his multi-hour documentary with a reflection on moral psychology, although he does not call it that. He particularly mentions the rise of humanitarianism. This sort of thing would not go over well today, some forty years later, as it would be seen as rather too credulous, and smacking of progressivism (which, we are given to understand, is a terrible thing). But listening to Clark it is obvious that it is already in his time becoming dangerous to say such things — dangerous, because one is liable to be thought a simpleton. Clark himself calls himself a “stick-in-the-mud.”

I do not disagree with Clark, and I am not so dismissive of progress as has become common today, but this is a point I will not argue here. I simply tell you my prejudices so you know that I agree with Clark on this point. This is significant because, even if we recognize the emergence of a humanitarian consciousness in the nineteenth century, we must recognize at the same time the earlier wisdom of Hamlet, viz. that we often discover that we must be cruel to be kind.

One might consider it a kindness that the First World War was ended by agreement with an armistice, and that this spared lives and property by not necessitating an invasion of Germany itself, but the very fact that the defeat of Germany was not made absolutely manifest on the home front in an age of popular sovereignty meant that the armistice did not settle the war. As Foch said, and was proved right, “it is not peace, but an armistice for twenty years.”

Would it have been a “kindness” to push on an defeat the Germans on German soil, taking the lives of more soldiers and destroying the infrastructure of Germany in the teens? This would possibly have changed subsequent history, and it might not have been necessary to level Germany twenty years later with a strategic bombing campaign. And it would have been primarily soldiers who were put at risk of life and limb. During the First World War, more soldiers died than civilians. During the Second World War, more civilians died than soldiers. This is a portent that says something truly horrific about our time.

Such horrific choices have faced us repeatedly throughout our history, and still face us today. Because these choices are hideous, the way that each of us comes down on one side of the question or the other is often used against us, when the most unflattering construction is placed on our preference. This is disingenuous, because either side can smear the other side with the unsavory and unavoidable corollaries of a forced choice. And history forces us to make such forced choices — or forces us to avoid making a choice and, as we say today, kicking the can further down the road — time and again. We should not conceal this from ourselves.

Here is a semi-contemporary example. I have read interviews with one of the scientists who was involved in the design of the neutron bomb. He had served as a solder in Korea, and he had seen the devastation wrought in Korea by conventional weapons. Many cities were annihilated, not unlike the German cities subject to strategic bombing during the Second World War. This vision of destruction on an apocalyptic scale was an inspiration to this scientist, and was part of his experience that contributed to the design of the neutron bomb. For this man, the neutron bomb was a more humanitarian weapon — not unlike the guillotine, which when first invented by a doctor, was conceived as a humane form of execution.

After it become possible to build a neutron bomb, and some nation-states considered adding it to their arsenals, the very idea of the neutron bomb was held up as something ghastly and ghoulish, as though it had been designed with the intent to killing people while “saving” their property, which latter might be expropriated by others who would simply move in to a depopulated urban area. Anti-neutron bomb activists put the worst possible construction on the intention of the neutron bomb. For them, it was apparently more “humanitarian” to keep war so horrible that it would remain unthinkable. From this point of view, mutually assured destruction is a good thing. And I certainly understand this argument, but at the same time as I understand the argument, I know that, for some people, mutually assured destruction is one of the great moral obscenities of our time, and our civilization should be ashamed of itself for having made such a conception possible, not to mention the very foundation of the international order during the Cold War.

What is more “humanitarian”: the threat of a nuclear genocide of a significant proportion of our species, or the threat of a lesser degree of destruction that might settle a war at a lower cost? I think that if you are honest with yourself, you will acknowledge that each alternative is a moral horror. That does not mean that I regard the argument between the two as indifferent. On the contrary, I believe that rational arguments can be made on both sides of the question. All I am saying here is that the irrational thing is to believe that moral horror is exclusively on one side or the other.

This is certainly not the only paradox of humanitarianism, but it is certainly one of them.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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It has been widely reported that Public Intelligence has released a 108 page document from the U.S. Department of Defense Non-Lethal Weapons Program, the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate (JNLWD), titled Non-Lethal Weapons (NLW) Reference Book and published in 2011. There isn’t much shocking or surprising in the document, and anyone who follows these things will recognize most of these NLWs as programs that have been under development for some time. However, the document is interesting to look through as an overview of such weapons systems, as it is heavy on pictures and descriptions and without much detail.

The document defines NLWs as:

“Weapons, devices and munitions that are explicitly designed and primarily employed to incapacitate targeted personnel or materiel immediately, while minimizing fatalities, permanent injury to personnel, and undesired damage to property in the targeted area or environment. Non-lethal weapons are intended to have reversible effects on personnel or materiel.”

JROCM 060-09, Initial Capabilities Document for Counter Personnel Joint Non-Lethal Effects and Initial Capabilities Document for Counter Materiel Joint Non-Lethal Effects

And in the “frequently asked questions” there is this nice summary:

“NLW provide another ‘option’ to the force. In past operations, the effective employment of NLW resolved escalation of force situations. Specifically, the NLW created the right ‘direct effect’ on the personnel/materiel targeted. The use of NLW has also generated positive ‘psychological effects’ on others in the area and helped to contribute to mission accomplishment. The perceptions associated with the use of NLW have been a positive and powerful influence in local communities on ‘winning the hearts and minds’ of the local populace. The employment of NLW has helped reduce the loss of life and collateral damage.”

Implied but not explicitly expressed in this document is the danger of NLW being employed in such a way as to cause permanent injury or disfigurement to its targets. From the perspective of public diplomacy, the old “dead men tell no tales” adage holds: while I suspect most people would prefer to be alive even if injured to being killed, the fact remains that bodies are buried and forgotten, while an injured individual would likely enter into the 24/7 news cycle and could conceivably cause more damage to the political image of a nation-state employing NLW than outright killing of targets. The human interest angle here is impossible to avoid.

As interesting as this possibility is, it is not the most interesting thing about NLW. The most interesting thing about NLW is their paradigmatic role in the political constraints on weapons systems that are increasingly driving defense thinking. These political constraints on weapons systems are in turn a manifestation of a fundamental shift in warfighting away from major conventional engagements between peer powers to low-level, chronic unconventional and asymmetrical warfare.

Unconventional and asymmetrical warfare is the new reality for nation-states, and this poses a fundamental challenge to the nation-state system, since the nation-state itself is a consequence of the early modern socioeconomic organization of peoples in order to mobilize military forces for precisely those conventional engagements between peer powers that are now being overtaken by the events of history. There are so many aspects of this shift in warfighting that they cannot be easily summarized.

It is possible that NLW will play an increasing role in unconventional and asymmetrical warfighting (really, fighting that is no longer subject to the warfighting paradigm, to be more accurate about it), and at some time in the future NLW may well dominate military engagements. If you can simply shut down an adversary’s ships, tanks, and planes from a distance, that is both less costly and less dangerous than engaging them with live fire. Similarly, if you can stop a riot by incapacitating the crowd without killing large numbers of people, this is preferable.

One form that this continuum of violence will take is what I have previously called the weaponization of eliminationism, and by the responses of political entities to ongoing depredations kept below the threshold of atrocity.

In this context, warfighting comes to approximate peacekeeping, if not policing. This, too, is a challenge to the nation-state system, as in liberal democratic political theory the distinction between military forces and police forces has been an important one, but as police forces become more robust and military forces become less lethal, the operations of each will approximate the other, and they will tend to meet in the middle.

The pacifist’s dream of a world without war may well become true in the not-too-distant future, but a world without war will not be a world without violence. Instead of peer and near-pear powers engaging in discretely separated wars, there will be a constant backdrop of violence to most political events — a continuum of incident rather than a declaration of war — and the most effective (and most responsible) way to respond to this will be with NLW.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards march during a parade to commemorate the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), in Tehran. (REUTERS)

Recently there has been a debate at the Foreign Policy website about the possibility of a US-led preventative war against Iran, to prevent the latter from becoming a nuclear weapons power. Matthew Kroenig wrote an article for Foreign Affairs advocating a preventative war; Stephen M. Walt wrote a response against Kroenig in Foreign Policy; Kroenig responded to Walt, and Walt wrote another rejoinder. You can read all about it in Why attacking Iran is still a bad idea. I rarely say this, but I agree with almost everything that Stephen M. Walt wrote.

With all this talk of war and Iran, here’s a quick review of what I’ve written about some of Iran’s more interesting capabilities revealed over the last three years:

Speedboat Diplomacy

This was my first post about the much-discussed acquisition by Iran of the Bradstone Challenger, a specialty high speed small sport boat with obvious military implications for building a fast patrol boat.

The Swarming Attack

After discussing the possibility of a fast patrol boat, the question emerges of the possibility of “swarm warfare” involving a large number of small, fast patrol boats going up against a large, lumbering blue water navy in the confines of the Persian Gulf, and most especially the Strait of Hormuz (the latter very much in the news again; cf. US warns Iran over threat to block oil route)

The Political Context of Striking a Carrier

I left a lot of questions unanswered in my post on small boat swarm warfare, so I revisited the topic in this little-read post that attempts to place a US-Iran confrontation in a political context. The Iranians don’t need to sink a carrier in order to score a political victory, and they don’t need to stop all traffic in order to do real economic damage merely by slowing the sixty percent of the world’s oil that transits the Strait of Hormuz.

Small Boat Swarms: Strategic or Tactical?

This post was a further elaboration of the problems of swarm warfare, specially asking whether we should regard such weapons systems as tactical (like a tank or a helicopter) or strategic (like a nuclear bomb).

An Iranian Coup

This post followed the announcement by Iran of the indigenous development of a drone UCAV bomber, the Karrar.

Flying Boat Swarms?

This post followed the announcement by Iran of the indigenous development of a flying boat, the Bavar, which I suggested might also be used in swarm warfare, like fast patrol boats.

Political Constraints on Weapons Systems

The central argument of this post concerned the political imperatives that drove the design of the F-35, but I have also observed here that political imperatives have similarly driven Iran’s innovative weapons systems.

Another Iranian Coup

In this relatively recent post I discussed the Iranians taking possession (possibly by hacking and hijacking) a Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel drone, which may well have things to teach them about their own drone program under development.

I hope that these posts have given the reader an adequate understanding that Iran is well aware of its pariah status vis-à-vis the Western powers, and that it has sought to address its vulnerable position in the world by pursuing innovative weapons systems and developing innovative doctrines for the battlespace deployment of these weapons systems. Iran’s innovations don’t guarantee military success or the efficacy of their weapons systems in combat, but it does suggest surprises in any military engagement that cannot be predicted prior to combat. I have no doubt that every conceivable scenario has been and is being war-gamed by military professionals around the world, but none of this will accurately predict the real thing.

One of the few things upon which I would disagree with Stephen Walt in the arguments he made (as referenced above) is his cautious attitude on whether or not Iran is seeking to become a nuclear power. I not only believe this to be the case, but I believe that it is more or less inevitable, and that the other powers in the world need to get used to the idea of a nuclear-armed Iran. It won’t be the end of the world. Of course, perhaps you will be saying to yourself that the Israelis won’t let it go that far, and will intervene as they intervened with Iraq’s nuclear program under Saddam Hussein. The obvious rejoinder to this is that the Iranians will have learned the lessons of the vulnerability of the Osirak reactor. I am sure that Iran’s nuclear facilities are both hardened and geographically distributed.

Some time ago I mentioned how much I unexpectedly enjoyed William Langewiesche’s book Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor. Langewiesche concludes his book by mentioning the importance of, “…finding the courage in parallel to accept the equalities of a maturing world in which many countries have acquired atomic bombs, and some may use them.” I can imagine someone calling this pessimistic or fatalistic, but it is so sober and so realistic that I admire Mr. Langewiesche for ending on this note. It is precisely this spirit that ought to inform all our endeavors (and adventures). There are some things that can be addressed by the military power of the advanced industrialized nation-states of the West, but there are other things that are beyond the possibility of intervention. Physics and technology must be counted among those things that cannot be stopped by intervention, and physics and technology are what it takes to build a bomb. Deal with it.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Another Iranian Coup

11 December 2011


Captured RQ-170 on display in Iran.

More than a year ago, in An Iranian Coup written in August 2010, I discussed the Iranian production of a drone UCAV (unmanned combat air vehicle) bomber, the Karrar. One of the consequences of developing an innovative weapons systems, in addition to the obvious effort to push technologies as far as they can be pushed, is the development of expertise in design, construction, maintenance, and operations of the weapons system in question. Thus even if Iran’s UCAV Karrar is not terribly sophisticated, simply engaging in production and operation of the drone is fostering a team of experienced UCAV experts.

Iran has now put this expertise to good use, having apparently taken control of a Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel, also called “The Beast of Kandahar,” brought it down to the ground in one piece, and now have put it on display. There is no agreement on exactly how Iran obtained possession of the RQ-170 Sentinel. Many news stories only suggested scenarios of the drone coming down of its own accord on Iranian territory, the result of a “falling leaf” descent, or “flat spin.” I judge this scenario to be unlikely, though I am apparently in the minority on this. I think that the Iranians viewed US drones over their territory as a potential gold mine, like the US trying the recover Soviet submarines from the bottom of the ocean during the Cold War. It is there for the taking, if only you can get your hands on it.

It seems to me by far the most likely story that the Iranians managed to take over the controls of the RC-170 — albeit imperfectly — and guide it down in a less than perfect landing that caused some damage but which left the craft mostly intact. Why should this be more likely that the US losing control of the craft and it coming down of its own accord within Iran? Because of the nature of the technology. I will try to explain what I mean by this using an analogy with a classic situation in which technology changed the battlefield.

One of the most perfect examples in history of changing the classic equation of a battlefield favoring the initiative was the introduction of machine guns and barbed wire during the First World War. Machine guns and barbed wire overwhelmingly favored the defense, and as a result the First World War turned into a standoff in which major operations taking the initiative came at such a great cost for such a small result that any victory was a Pyrrhic victory. This situation was not changed until another technology came along — actually a combination of hardware technologies and social technologies of military doctrine — during the Second World War, when massed mechanized armor was employed according to infiltration tactics and Blitzkrieg was born. The initiative shifted back from the defense to the offense, and the Second World War as in consequence a very different war than the First World War.

The introduction of computer technology to the battlefield is one of those technological innovations that rapidly changes the battlefield equation. Here, it is not that the initiative has shifted from the attack to the defense, but rather that battlefield exploitation of computer technologies has shifted the initiative from regular to irregular forces, or, if you prefer, the overwhelming superiority of conventional military forces can be nullified under certain circumstances so that unconventional forces and unconventional methods of offense can be disproportionately effective.

What are these circumstances in which the initiative goes to irregular forces? Particular individuals with a special genius for programming. That’s all it takes: a clever sixteen year old with a good idea and reasonably current equipment — maybe not cutting edge technology, but pretty good technology, such that is within the grasp of second- and even third-tier nation-states today, as well as within the realm of possibility for well-funded non-state actors — could be sufficient to defeat the institutionalized hardware and software systems of conventional forces.

In the C4ISR networked battlespace of the near future, the weapons systems will be awe-inspiring in their complexity and precision, but all of them, however impressive, with have an Achilles heel, and that Achilles heel will be the network itself and wireless communication within the network. The wireless network is available for all to eavesdrop, and the only thing keeping you out of another’s network is their encryption.

This situation is not new; we have been here before. After the explosion of the first atomic bombs, several of the scientists who worked on the project, and especially Oppenheimer, emphasized that there was no “secret” of atomic weapons. His point was that the bombs were the results of science, physics, and technology. In principle, any determined agent could master the science, the physics, and the technology, producing an atomic bomb for themselves. The same is true of most of our high technology weapons systems: there are no secrets per se, only an incremental advantage of one side having slightly more advanced technology than the other side, and this advantage will be nullified in time. And so it is today with the networked battlespace: the possibilities of radio-frequency transmission are known to all, as are the basic ideas behind remote operation of drones. In this context, the only skill that matters is hacking, and hackers of genius are as likely to emerge in Iran, China, or Russia as in the US, the UK, or Canada.

Encryption is key to the electronic battlefield, and encryption is not 'big science,' but rather idiosyncratic and individual science. At some time in the future, when quantum computers are brought to bear upon encryption this may change, but that is further down the road.

The technology onboard the RQ-170 is likely to be greatly in advance of Iran’s own Karrar, but thanks to the growing expertise the Iranians are cultivating, they have a good chance of exploiting this captured technology and improving their own future UCAV iterations. It would be interesting to know if US UCAVs have some kind of device that destroys their inner mechanisms if they fail to remain in contact with their proper handlers. If they do not as yet have this feature, I suspect that they will have something like it in the near future.

Electronic countermeasures will need to become much more sophisticated, but with their sophistication will come complexity, and with complexity will come weaknesses that can be exploited by an adversary.

In the meantime, the Iranians can be expected to exploit the captured RQ-170 to the limit, as Russia exploited the B-29 that fell into its possession at the end of the Second World War, and as the US exploited its captured MiGs during the Cold War, studying them (and, in the case of the Russians, copying them) in painstaking detail. And the Americans will be working on counter-measures to having their drones hijacked. Encryption will be the key technology in this battle of technologies, with cleverness and innovation figuring more significantly than institutional and organizational rationality.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The End of a Nuclear Era

26 October 2011


Yesterday the US dismantled the last B53 nuclear bomb, which was the largest yield nuclear weapon in the US nuclear arsenal, with a yield of about 9 megatons. This was not the highest yield US nuclear weapon ever fielded. This distinction belonged to the B41, with a yield of about 25 megatons. The last B41 was dismantled in July 1976. While the B41 was a very high yield bomb by any measure, it was not the highest yield nuclear device ever built. This distinction belonged to the Soviet-made AN602, commonly known as the Tsar Bomba. The highest yield US bomb ever exploded was the Castle Bravo test, which surprised its builders by an explosion of about 15 megatons, three times the expected yield of 4-6 megatons. The Tsar Bomba was a relatively “clean” bomb, while the B41 was the most efficient production-line nuclear bomb in terms of yield to weight ratio.

The B53 had a very long service life — nearly fifty years. With the end of the B53 we see the symbolic end of an era in strategic nuclear weapons. A bomb like the B53 or the B41 (or the Soviet RDS-9) could have, with a single blast, annihilated a contemporary megalopolis. It is interesting to note that the vastly expanded cities of today began to emerge at about the same time as nuclear weapons were invented, so that in this admittedly bizarre sense, the means of civilization to destroy itself perfectly kept pace with the scope and extent of the expanding urbanization of civilization. Of course, a contemporary megalopolis could be destroyed by multiple warheads, and most missiles and many other delivery systems are MIRVed and therefore have many warheads at their disposal, there is a certain elegance to the strategic calculus of one bomb, one city — this the ethos of the sniper — one shot, one kill — put into practice on a macroscopic scale.

It should be obvious that, had the US and the Soviet Union chosen to continue to design and build bigger nuclear weapons, that this capacity was technically within their grasp. Perhaps it would be possible to build a bomb with a yield of 500 megatons, or perhaps even a gigaton bomb. But there was nothing large enough to destroy to make it worth the while to attempt to build such devices. And then the paradigm or war began to shift. Ultimately, even nuclear weapons design began to incorporate features of precisification. Mature experimentation with nuclear weapons design included innovative shaped charges and miniaturization.

The age of the nuclear weapon as a purely strategic device is passing. Technologies of precisification and miniaturization are useful; you can do something with a precise or miniaturized nuclear device. It may sound odd to remark that a weapon is useful, but we must remember that throughout the Cold War nuclear weapons were strictly useless, present only to guarantee mutually assured destruction. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that nuclear weapons had only a strategic use. If the nuclear powers chose not to build bigger bombs, and eventually chose to decommission and dismantle their largest warheads, this tells us that the strategic situation has changed, and that the strategic calculation has changed with the strategic situation.

The limitation of the size of nuclear weapons and the decommissioning of larger weapons did not come about as a result of political pressure. While the B53 was old, there was no political pressure to eliminate it from the arsenal. The same cannot be said, for example, of the neutron bomb, which was not built for political reasons, or the Swedish nuclear weapons program, which was ended for economic reasons. These strategic decisions were strictly voluntary on the part of strategic planners, and as such they represent the purest expression of strategic thought.

More than a year ago in The Atomic Age Turns 65 I wrote about the 65th anniversary of the Hiroshima nuclear blast. There I observed that, “What we now usually call the Second World War was also the First Nuclear War.” I also noted that there has been no Second Nuclear War. In the same spirit of unfamiliar periodization, we could call this period of time from the first use of nuclear weapons to the dismantling of the largest bomb the First Nuclear Age, which lasted less than seventy years. During the First Nuclear Age, bigger was better. Now bigger is no longer better, and we have entered the brave new world of the Second Nuclear Age, in which the proliferation of nuclear weapons seems likely and the concern of nuclear terrorism is a much greater danger than a massive decapitation strike in the form of ICBMs, bombers, and SLBMs.

As the strategic logic of the Second Nuclear Age continues to unfold, nuclear doctrine will continue to change and adapt itself to changed circumstances. In the long term, these changes will eventually be concretely manifested in the nuclear arsenal. Given the slow pace of transition from doctrinal development to weapons production, the fact that world nuclear arsenals are already changing points to the reality of strategic change and confirms the End of a Nuclear Era.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Tradition of Non-Use

29 August 2011


The “tradition of non-use” refers to the non-use of nuclear weapons since the initial use of nuclear weapons to bring an end to the Second World War, which, as I have observed elsewhere, could as well be called the First Nuclear War. This tradition of non-use is striking, and perhaps even historically unprecedented. I cannot think of another weapons system produced in such great quantity and maintained the ready for use, that nevertheless remained unused for better than sixty years.

The possible exceptions to this would include other weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The traditional triumvirate of WMD includes nulclear, biological, and chemical weapons. As we know, chemical weapons were used many times during the First World War, though to little strategic effect. During the Second World War, stocks of chemical weapons were available, but despite the “total” character of the world, both Axis and Allies chose to observe a tradition of non-use of chemical weapons. Biological weapons are more difficult to pin down because of their historical precedent, but biological weapons in their contemporary form — i.e., in the form of weaponized biological agents stockpiled as a strategic deterrent — have been treated much like chemical and nuclear weapons.

With the first appearance of WMD in history, these technologies were part of a natural and logical process of escalation, which involved doing with other means what had already been done with conventional means. This was especially the case with nuclear weapons, which allowed for the destruction on cities simply and cheaply, although the destruction of cities had already been accomplished by more costly and more labor- and material-intensive methods. There was no reason not to use WMD once they become available, and there were many reasons to use them. And so they were used.

Like the transition from armor and shock weapons to gunpowder and cannon, the transition from conventional weapons to WMD was gradual, but with a much faster and steeper growth curve once science-driven technology began making WMD available in a systematic way. At some point this gradual transition came to be viewed in hindsight in terms of before and after and either/or — with the systematic use of the weapons system equated with apocalypse, cataclysm, and extinction. The incremental introduction of WMD was retrospectively perceived as a pivot point. That is to say, with the vision of nuclear annihilation vividly in the minds of everyone, we came to view the contemporary world as the Axial Age of Weapons Systems.

Growing apart: allopatric speciation

The doctrine that emerged from the Axial Age of Weapons systems was the tradition of non-use. However, it ought to be remarked that WMD had strategic use, so that their tradition of non-use was a doctrine of substrategic non-use. This strategic use coupled with operational and tactical non-use had a self-perpetuating character that isolated WMD from other weapons systems. Strategically, WMD proliferated, yet tactically and operationally they had no place in warfighting. Despite some limited attempts to create tactical nukes for use in theater, these efforts dwindled and the withered away under pressure to create fully strategic nukes. This constitutes a kind of allopatric speciation, in which weapons systems were forced apart in their adaptation to a a role that emerged in competition with other weapons systems. These weapons systems grew apart.

With the emergence of the Devolution of Warfare, the speciation of weapons systems encountered changed environmental conditions that favored conventional weapons and selected against WMD. This should not surprise us. It is one of the lessons of history that weapons systems must be fielded and put into use if they are to be used effectively. The role of strategic weapons systems guarantees that they will be insulated from this kind of effective use derived from experience. The more that they grow into their role — i.e., the more absolutely destructive they become — the more useless they become, and the more useless WMD become, the less likely that they could be employed effectively in combat operations.

The only role for WMD is not to be used, and so the doctrine of non-use makes them even more useless over time. Why, then to nation-states pursue WMD so relentlessly? Because their substrategic non-use has been coupled with their strategic use, and on a strategic level of isolation of WMD that has occurred as a result of the speciation of weapons systems has led some to the conclusion that only WMD can deliver on strategic ambitions.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Constraint and Devolution

19 August 2011


A news item today was interesting on several levels. Matt McGrath, Science reporter for the BBC, reported in US military develops ‘bigger bang’ explosive material that a successful test of High-Density Reactive Materials (HDRM) demonstrated that an inert casing could be replaced with this material to great effect. The HDRM is as strong as steel, but detonates when it strikes its target, unlike an inert steel casing that only serves to hold a high explosive charge.

Materials technology is among the most promising areas of weapons research, although it doesn’t get the attention of big and expensive weapons systems, especially that those are the products of big, sexy science, which are usually aimed at big, sexy targets — like the Chinese DF21-D anti-carrier missile. Better casings, better charges, and better gun barrels would all make an immediate difference in the efficacy of proven weapons systems.

Two quotes from the BBC article were of particular interest to me. Here is the first one:

“US Navy scientists say that projectiles made from the new compound are less likely to kill innocent bystanders.”


“Because the new material reacts and explodes on impact, Dr Bedford believes it could cause fewer casualties among innocent bystanders.”

This is a perfect example of what I wrote about in Political Constraints on Weapons Systems. The US is not working on the most destructive weapons systems imaginable, and is not looking for overwhelming force. Rather, US research is aimed at perfecting weapons systems that are politically acceptable, and which can be used in the context of the constraints under which the US operates. This point, I think, is insufficiently appreciated, particularly in light of the heated rhetoric which is directed against the world’s only current superpower. If the US wanted to simply wipe a nation-state off the face of the earth, it could do so, and with impunity.

If the US wanted to get really good at the utter annihilation of adversaries, it could probably do this too. But we do not see weapons systems in development that would accomplish this. Even very large yield conventional weapons seem to interest the Russians more than the US (since it is the Russians who have developed the Father of All Bombs, not to mention the Tsar Bomba of the Cold War). Instead, the US develops and perfects precision munitions that can eliminate military targets with almost a preternatural ability to spare civilians (again, heated rhetoric to the contrary, as I am going by the historical record).

Here is the other quote that particularly got my attention:

“The researcher says the materials could ultimately be applied to grenades and bullets as well as larger weapons.”

Before new technologies reach the battlefield, and before any coherent doctrine emerges for the employment of new weapons technologies, it is always difficult to say whether these technologies alter the balance in favor of the offense or the defense. In terms of the development of High-Density Reactive Materials (HDRM), it certainly isn’t intuitively obvious to me that it favors the offense or the defense. However, it does seem to me that this technology further tips the balance in favor of irregular forces, whether these forces are engaged in offensive or defensive operations.

Every major military force in the world has large, heavy assets such as tanks and ships that would come in for greater and more concentrated damage from HDRM shells, while conventional shells are entirely adequate for the targeting of individual soldiers, so that no advantage is gained by targeting irregular forces with this new technology, while irregular forces in possession of this technology would gain a significant advantage by employing small, mobile weapons systems which pack a bigger punch against armored assets.

Thus HDRM shells for smaller, hand-held weapons systems (I imagine this would work particularly well for mortars and RPGs) fall into a category like that of the XM25, which I characterized as being the precisification of small arms fire. both give an advantage to small, mobile irregular forces. However, no “irregular” forces in the traditional understanding of that term would have access to such advanced weapons systems. It would only be in the case that a technologically advanced nation-state chose to arm militant proxies, or if such a nation-state sought to constitute its own quasi-irregular forces, that such weapons systems could realize their full potential.

Under either of these two aforementioned conditions, the Devolution of War can continue apace.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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A Flock of Drones

17 August 2011


Unfurling the Panopticon for

Total Battlespace Situational Awareness

The idea of the panopticon is due to the English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Utilitarians were the “modern” and “progressive” thinkers of the 19th century, ready to dispense with tradition and replace it with radical ideas of their own. While the basic idea of utilitarianism — that we should do what is best for the greatest number of people — is very much with us today, a lot of the other utilitarian ideas have fallen by the wayside. One of the interestingly eccentric ideas of the utilitarians was that of the panopticon, which Bentham described as follows:

“A building circular… The prisoners in their cells, occupying the circumference — The officers in the centre. By blinds and other contrivances, the Inspectors concealed… from the observation of the prisoners: hence the sentiment of a sort of omnipresence — The whole circuit reviewable with little, or… without any, change of place. One station in the inspection part affording the most perfect view of every cell.”

Jeremy Bentham, Proposal for a New and Less Expensive mode of Employing and Reforming Convicts, London, 1798

The spirit of the idea of the panopticon was thus that of an advanced concept in penal reform — reformers are always focusing on the penal system, since this is filled with the people most perceived to need reform — but the reason that the idea of the panopticon is so well known today is that it was taken up by Michel Foucault and prominently discussed in his book Discipline and Punish.

In Foucault’s context, the panopticon is only secondarily a humane concept of penal reform. For Foucault, the panopticon is primarily a central exhibit in the development of the modern surveillance state in which bodies are observed, managed, regulated, and subordinated to regimentation and control that may be superficially humane but is at a deeper level a form of “bio-power.”

Here is how Foucault described the panopticon:

“Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. To achieve this, it is at once too much and too little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much, because he has no need in fact of being so. In view of this, Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so. In order to make the presence or absence of the inspector unverifiable, so that the prisoners, in their cells, cannot even see a shadow, Bentham envisaged not only venetian blinds on the windows of the central observation hall, but, on the inside, partitions that intersected the hall at right angles and, in order to pass from one quarter to the other, not doors but zig-zag openings; for the slightest noise, a gleam of light, a brightness in a half-opened door would betray the presence of the guardian. The Panopticon is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.”

Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, New York: Vintage Books, 1995, pp. 195-228, translated from the French by Alan Sheridan (translation 1977)

Several actual prisons were built on the panopticon model, but the larger point that Foucault is making is one of universal surveillance. This universal surveillance — the nation-state as all seeing eye, divinely omnipotent — is coming true in other ways — for example, the ubiquitous presence of cameras in public spaces — so that no one expects privacy any more as soon as they step outside the door of their home. People assume they are being watched, so by and large they conduct themselves as obedient citizens. (However, some comments on the recent riots in London have suggested that this policing-by-camera is ultimately ineffective.)

Another concept that has emerged from the milieu of surveillance is that of situational awareness. I was interested to discover that Wikipedia has quite a long and detailed article on situational awareness, which is, in that context, treated after a quasi-scientific fashion. Foucault would have been fascinated by this.

I won’t go into the details of situational awareness, but I will cite one definition specific to the strategico-tactical nexus: Fred Burton and Scott Stewart of Strategic Forecasting define situational awareness as follows: “Situational awareness is the process of recognizing a threat at an early stage and taking measures to avoid it.”

In Foucault’s discussion of the panopticon is has already gone these more recent discussions of situational awareness one better by recognizing that in the panopticon, “in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.” This condition I will call asymmetrical situational awareness. Once we are aware, as it were, of asymmetrical situational awareness, we can immediately see the role that perpetuating this asymmetry plays in successful military operations. Asymmetrical situational awareness is to recognize and avoid threats while posing an unrecognized and unavoidable threat in turn. If one can establish and maintain this enviable state of affairs, one can act with impunity, and acting with impunity, while unpleasant in the ordinary business of life, is the difference between life and death on the battlefield — as well as the difference between winning and losing.

The panopticon is a structure conceived to realize asymmetrical situational awareness, favoring guards at the expense of prisoners. What if we could unfurl the rigid structure of the panopticon and enjoy its surveillance benefits in the real world? I suggest that the technology to do this is not far away. A perfect realization of asymmetrical situational awareness is not likely, but something close to totality of surveillance would make an enormous difference.

A couple of days ago in Vulnerabilities of Vertical Lift I suggested that the vulnerability of large helicopters could be partially addressed by deploying drones in a miniaturized version of the combat air patrol that surrounds a carrier strike group, protecting the vulnerability of large, slow, and valuable aircraft carriers. After I suggested this, I realized that this idea would be generalized, extrapolated, and detached from any particular weapons systems, such as a large, slow, complex and therefore vulnerable helicopter.

Imagine, if you will, a flock of drones deployed throughout a battlespace. With technological improvements of the not-too-distant future, miniaturization could make these small enough to be difficult to see, and still have a high degree of sensitivity that even sophisticated radar systems now used to monitor the battlespace do not possess. A sensor network of this kind might hover over the ground between, say, ten and fifty feet — obviously, it could move, reposition itself, and realign itself as events within the battlespace dictated.

A robust suite of sensing technologies could include ordinary visible spectrum cameras, as well as infrared cameras (to detect body heat), “sniffers” that could (if close enough) detect various chemical, bomb, and propellent residues, microphones of several specialized types, motion detectors, and anything else that scientists could think of to monitor events on the ground. This would be like an “early warning system” for the more traditional battlespace agents of tactical engagement, by which I mean individual soldiers, troop carriers, fighting vehicles, tanks, helicopters, and fixed wing aircraft.

The first iteration of such a technology would be vulnerable and clumsy, but it should be easy to see how something like this, refined and miniaturized, could deliver something like total battlespace situational awareness, and since a sensing network like this could only be produced by technologically advanced nation-states, it would possess the same kind of asymmetry that nuclear weapons once had and fifth generation jetfights now possess in regard to air superiority. In the case of such an asymmetry, this flock of drones would give nearly absolute asymmetrical situational awareness.

The greatest vulnerability of a sensing network of this kind would be its networking and control, which if hacked and hijacked could be rendered useless, or, worse, turned against those who built it. Thus information security would be paramount in constructing such a sensing network. If any clever young hacker with a radio control system could break in, it would be useless. Presumably advanced encryption would be employed in the control network, with safeguards built in that would render the entire network useless if compromised.

The next step beyond a sensing network would be to arm the network itself, so that the flock of drones would not only be the surveillance equivalent of an all seeing eye, but the eye could eliminate any threats that it discovered.

A sensing network of this kind would not only be useful for purely military missions, but would also have obvious applications in peacekeeping operations.

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Note Added 14 August 2012: Given what I wrote above almost exactly a year ago about the possibility of a flock of drones, it was with the greatest of interest that I read Bugs in the sky: Boeing showcases hard-to-detect drones that behave like a ‘swarm of insects’ from the Daily Mail. It seems that defense contractors were already working on something pretty similar to what I suggested. That is to be expected.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Boeing CH-47 Chinook

Helicopters have become indispensable to military operations of all kinds, yet helicopters remain vulnerable, if not fragile, pieces of equipment. Thus helicopters are used because they are indispensable, and their use results in fatalities because they are vulnerable. The obvious response to vertical lift vulnerability would be to up-armor helicopters, and of course this has been done — to the extent possible. Helicopters possess the speed and mobility that they do in virtue of their light weight. Heavy armor would defeat that mobility and speed, as well as reduce their carrying capacity, whether for soldiers or for guns and ammunition.

Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk

The vulnerability of helicopters has been dramatically and fatally revealed some years ago in Somalia, during the episode recounted in the book and the film Black Hawk Down, and again just earlier this month when a Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter was downed in Afghanistan, possibly by an “Improvised Rocket-Assisted Mortar” (IRAM).

Improvised Rocket-Assisted Mortar (IRAM)

A story in Wired magazine, Did a New Taliban Weapon Kill a Chopper Full of Navy SEALs? by David Axe quotes Army Lt. Col. Thomas Gukeisen as saying, “My biggest headache is vertical lift.” This headache follows logically from helicopter indispensability and vulnerability.

Another Improvised Rocket-Assisted Mortar (IRAM)

One approach to vertical lift vulnerability would be a seek an alternative weapons system. This was precisely the idea behind the V-22 Osprey. Because of its own troubled history the V-22 has not realized its full potential on the battlefield. But the idea is sound. The V-22 in its cruising mode would not be the “Complex, slow and low-flying” targets that helicopters are. Since the V-22 has proved problematic, helicopters remain the primary form of vertical lift for infantry infiltration.

V-22 Osprey

In several posts — The End of the Age of the Aircraft Carrier, Stealth Helicopter Technology, and More Advanced Helicopter Technology among them — I have emphasized the future role of helicopters on the battlefield, and I do not mean to withdraw my comments on the possibilities of armored air assault taking the place of armored cavalry on the ground. Helicopters possess superior speed, superior mobility, superior flexibility, and in this sense they have local theater advantages over both armored cavalry and fixed wing aircraft.

Nevertheless, helicopter vulnerability remains an Achilles’ heel, and this Achilles’ heel both limits their usefulness and limits their employment in the kind of armored air thrust that I have envisioned. The advent of stealth helicopter technologies represents an important development in light of the visibility and audibility of helicopters, and any significant increase in helicopter stealth will result in a significant increase in survivability. (The stealth helicopter technologies recently discussed were of sufficient interest that it was reported in today’s Financial Times that Pakistan allowed Chinese engineers to look over the fragments of the destroyed helicopter left from the Bin Laden raid.) Next to stealth, the other obvious improvement to helicopter technology which could help them to realize their full potential on the battlefield would be to address the vulnerabilities that have been revealed in recent operations.

Helicopter vulnerability needs to be treated differently for vertical lift purposes and attack purposes. These distinct tactical roles involve distinct dangers and vulnerabilities. Some of these vulnerabilities can be addressed by changes in doctrine specifically formulated to address the threat. Doctrine will be distinct for vertical lift and gunships, so the evolution of doctrine in each case must follow an optimization dictated by the tactical role fulfilled by the aircraft.

The bulk of helicopter operations comprises vertical lift for infantry infiltration. The Black Hawk downed in Mogadishu and the Chinook downed in Afghanistan were involved in vertical lift operations, inserting and removing troops in a hostile environment. For this purpose large numbers of troops ride in the craft and the craft must touch down on the ground to perform its function. This makes all of the soldiers on the helicopter vulnerable.

Vertical lift helicopters could learn something from the experience of ships. Large ships are obviously very vulnerable, and this vulnerability has gone so far as to virtually eliminate the traditional battleship from the world’s ocean. The aircraft carrier is the largest naval vessel (valuable for the air arm it projects, and not for its big guns, which were traditionally the value of battleships), and it is very large indeed. Its size makes its highly vulnerable, and numerous counter-measures are in place to protect the vulnerable carrier. Indeed, the carrier does not merely employ counter-measures, but lies at the center of a Carrier Strike Group (CSG) or Carrier Battle Group (CVBG) that is constituted for the purpose of combined arms defense of the carrier.

All of this sounds rather distant from the concerns of vertical lift, but in an age of rapid technological innovation and miniaturization, counter-measures for vertical lift are not unthinkable. Troop-carrying vertical lift helicopters could be fitted with counter-missile batteries and something like a miniaturized version of the Phalanx CIWS (close in weapons system) to automatically engage with any incoming threats. While with ships radar-confusing chaff is employed to confuse radar-targeting systems for weapons, vertical lift helicopters are more vulnerable to visual line-of-sight weapons, so that counter-measures based on sight-confusing technologies could make the helicopter difficult to target — for example, lasers or sound systems might be employed to blind or deafen those targeting helicopters from the ground.

In the further future, employing technologies not yet available but clearly on the horizon, a vertical lift helicopter could have its own miniaturized equivalent of a combat air patrol. That is to say, miniaturized, automatically controlled drones, little more than guns and missile launchers hovering at a given distance from the central helicopter and networked by a central fire control computer, could scan for threats in the vicinity and, being closer, respond quicker to threats on the ground.

Helicopter gunships designed for attack are smaller, faster, and need not drop to the ground for the insertion and removal of troops. For this reason they are less vulnerable than helicopters used for vertical lift, but they are still vulnerable. Some of the suggestions above could be employed for helicopter gunships as well. A swarming mass of helicopter gunships could itself be linked together in a fire control network including outlying sensor drones perhaps flying lower and slower and therefore more sensitive to threats on the ground.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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