Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Building a 20th Century Force to Fight a 21st Century War

A bad day at the office
The second world war was a watershed moment in the arc of human history.  In a mere six years, everything that people knew about warfare, about diplomacy, about international relations and the way power was acquired, maintained and projected changed in radical and unexpected ways.  September of 1945 saw a new world, ruled by technology, manufacturing capacity and economic power.  The aircraft carrier was the new capital ship, the symbol of global power manifest.  Air power itself changed the calculation of warfare, as there were no safe areas where a nation could manufacture their war machine unfettered.  The tank got faster and better armored, leading to the concept of mechanized infantry that could move at lighting speed, over-running or bypassing massive traditional defenses. The beginnings of a modern combined arms doctrine were being developed, along with a radical decentralization of authority, where the most advanced armies pushed responsibility, initiative and decision making down to the battalion and company, or even the platoon level.  But most of all, September of 1945 saw the deployment of the ultimate technological advance in warfare, nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons changed warfare simultaneously in a more subtle and more radical manner.  It wasn't about how wars would be fought, it was, to a much larger extent than ever before, about WHO would fight them and WHERE they would be fought.  As nuclear weapons stockpiles grew, the weapons became more powerful and more accurate, the understanding that a global nuclear exchange was becoming unthinkable.  Instead of preventing wars, nuclear weapons deterred nuclear wars, which in a bi-polar world meant proxy wars all over the globe.  But proxy wars had an internal logic of their own - they must be fought carefully, without achieving too complete a victory that might make the losing sponsoring power feel the need to escalate

 The result of the postwar development of nuclear weapons and advanced technology has had a profound effect on the way the world orders itself.  Forget superpowers - the technologically adanced Western "hyperpowers" had the air power, the surveillance systems and the global reach to put an end to armies in conflict.  It was simply no longer possible for a fleet, or an armored division, or massed artillery to survive even one day on the battlefield.  If anyone doubted that, the wholesale destruction of Saddam Hussein's massive Iraqi army without significant costs in 1991 was an epochal wake-up call.  The era of warfare as it had been known for thousands of years was over - no nation could hope to even see its armies survive first contact with Western forces.

Of course, because traditional warfare was no longer possible due to the combination of nuclear weapons and technological superiority, that doesn't mean that humankind would simply cease killing one another.  It just meant that things had to be done differently.  The best example of this sea change occurred with the American invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003.  The Iraqi army was quickly and efficiently destroyed, the capitol fell, the government was deposed, all in the time it used to take an invasion force to arrive at the battlefield in the first place.  But now the Americans were shocked to discover that the rules had changed, and the defeat of a nation's army and government didn't mean the war was over.  Indeed, resistance to the occupation became so virulent that the occupation itself became untenable.  The lesson is that, in the 21st century, wars never end.  There is no longer a measurable concept of victory or defeat.  As long as an enemy faction can recruit fighters and raise funds, it can go on for generations.  In the 21st century, winning a war is one of the worst things that can happen to a nation - the victor must either immediately withdraw his forces and return the defeated nation to its owners (or the most powerful remaining faction) or he must stay as a hated occupier and bleed.

These lessons about the evolution of warfare, particularly the technological evolution of warfare, should be obvious to all.  And yet the US, the most powerful technological military force in history, continues to build aircraft carriers, tanks and jet fighters in enourmous volumes, as if World War III was on the horizon, and it was going to look a great deal like WW II.  But technology continues to advance, and all this military power the US is building is on the cusp of becoming obsolete.

Take the aircraft carrier.  It's always been considered vulnerable, so it travels surrounded by defensive measures, guided missile cruisers to protect it from air attack, submarines and ASW destroyers to protect it from submarines, and specialized technology like CIWS to provide a last line of defense against anti-ship cruise missiles.  But those missiles are becoming harder to defend against, submarines are harder to detect, swarming tactics using small, fast attack boats have been alarmingly successful in simulations, and worst of all, the technological holy grail of a terminally-guided anti-ship ballistic missile is now a reality.  You see, ballistic missiles in their re-entry and terminal phase are essentially impossible to defend against. But they have also been impossible to guide, to finely adjust their targeting in the brief minutes between re-entry and impact.  This has always made strategic ICBMs with nuclear warheads effective against land-based fixed targets, but made it impossible to target a ship.  Now the Chinese have, as part of their A2/AD (Anti Access/Area Denial) strategy, developed a ballistic missile with a conventional warhead that either can, or soon will be able to sink aircraft carriers within several thousand miles of the Chinese coast. If technology gives us a world where large surface combatants cannot survive in contested waters, that leaves only the submarine as a naval force projection vessel, and that is not an useful capability.

Similarly, with modern technology improving the ability of anti-aircraft missiles, from shoulder launched to advanced mobile systems, even the vaunted US air power will soon find it hard to survive in contested airspace.  And with directed energy and (more likely) particle beam weapons in development now, one can see a time in the next decade or two that aircraft will simply not be useful weapons of war.  The skies will belong to fast, intelligent missiles and various specialized drones.

A similar thing is happening with armored vehicles.  Shoulder-fired anti-tank missiles (known as ATGMs) are becoming so effective that we are also seeing the end of the era of armored or mechanized infantry. In 2006, Hezbollah fighters using advanced ATGMs knocked out 52 Israeli Merkava tanks, causing the IDF to rethink its tactics in the middle of a shooting war. Tanks will no longer be necessary for their primary duty, killing other tanks, and they will only be useable after traditional infantry has made certain that there are no enemy fighters in range.

So therein you have the amazing conclusion.  America is spending trillions on the weapons that won the second world war, weapons that are now or will in the very near future be obsolete. Interestingly, however, these advances in weapons and military systems and tactics are, in general, a good thing.  They make it harder for entire nations or societies to go to kill one another on an industrial scale.  Without the ability of large, traditional forces to survive on the battlefield, wars will be fought with missiles and drones at one end of the spectrum, and with rifles and mortars at the other.  Conflicts will be localized, and the fighting will be rooted, not in the traditional nation state disputes, but in the older and more savage tribal, ethnic, sectarian hatred, in many cases exacerbated by desperate resource shortages.  The fact that the US is spending so much of her wealth to build weapons that will never be used (or will be lost in some large-scale future folly in the South China Sea) is an economic tragedy with massive opportunity costs, but it's not really a risk to the US.  All of these technological advancements in war fighting tend to make wars smaller, more localized and often much more defensive in nature.  But it is telling that none of these profound, fundamental changes are having any impact on US strategy or procurement policies.


  1. But it is telling that none of these profound, fundamental changes are having any impact on US strategy or procurement policies.

    Take the F-35, please. It doesn't even work, and is fantastically expensive. But the proponents made sure there is some spending for it going on in as many congressional districts as possible, so there you go.

    But things like global warming really are risks to the U.S., and life on the planet as we have grown used to.

    And we're told we can't afford to address it. (Or that it doesn't even exist, which is the tribal version of 'can't afford to.')

  2. What makes the F-35 debacle even stupider is they are going to retire the A-10 to "save money" and turn the CAS job over to the F-35, which is too fast and lacks the weapons loadout, armor, loiter time and accuracy to do the job. This decision WILL kill American troops...

  3. I can't wait for the robot wars of the future.

    (Guessing if I'm not dead yet, one of them will kill me.)

  4. I very firmly believe the next world war will start with all the computers and all the satellites stopping.