Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Debating the New Rules of War

When John Arquilla came to UCSB to give a job talk, back in the 1990s, one thing sticks out in my memory: He was the only prospective faculty hire who flirted with the female graduate students during a colloquium!

He was quirky and extremely knowledgeable, but he didn't get the job.

In any case, Aquilla's got the lead essay at the March/April Foreign Policy, "
The New Rules of War":

The visionary who first saw the age of "netwar" coming warns that the U.S. military is getting it wrong all over again. Here's his plan to make conflict cheaper, smaller, and smarter.

Every day, the U.S. military spends $1.75 billion, much of it on big ships, big guns, and big battalions that are not only not needed to win the wars of the present, but are sure to be the wrong approach to waging the wars of the future.

In this, the ninth year of the first great conflict between nations and networks, America's armed forces have failed, as militaries so often do, to adapt sufficiently to changed conditions, finding out the hard way that their enemies often remain a step ahead. The U.S. military floundered for years in Iraq, then proved itself unable to grasp the point, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, that old-school surges of ground troops do not offer enduring solutions to new-style conflicts with networked adversaries.

So it has almost always been. Given the high stakes and dangers they routinely face, militaries are inevitably reluctant to change. During World War I, the armies on the Western Front in 1915 were fighting in much the same manner as those at Waterloo in 1815, attacking in close-packed formations -- despite the emergence of the machine gun and high-explosive artillery. Millions were slaughtered, year after bloody year, for a few yards of churned-up mud. It is no surprise that historian Alan Clark titled his study of the high command during this conflict The Donkeys.

Even the implications of maturing tanks, planes, and the radio waves that linked them were only partially understood by the next generation of military men. Just as their predecessors failed to grasp the lethal nature of firepower, their successors missed the rise of mechanized maneuver -- save for the Germans, who figured out that blitzkrieg was possible and won some grand early victories. They would have gone on winning, but for poor high-level strategic choices such as invading Russia and declaring war on the United States. In the end, the Nazis were not so much outfought as gang-tackled.

Nuclear weapons were next to be misunderstood, most monumentally by a U.S. military that initially thought they could be employed like any other weapons. But it turned out they were useful only in deterring their use. Surprisingly, it was cold warrior Ronald Reagan who had the keenest insight into such weapons when he said, "A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought."

Which brings us to war in the age of information. The technological breakthroughs of the last two decades -- comparable in world-shaking scope to those at the Industrial Revolution's outset two centuries ago -- coincided with a new moment of global political instability after the Cold War. Yet most militaries are entering this era with the familiar pattern of belief that new technological tools will simply reinforce existing practices.

In the U.S. case, senior officials remain convinced that their strategy of "shock and awe" and the Powell doctrine of "overwhelming force" have only been enhanced by the addition of greater numbers of smart weapons, remotely controlled aircraft, and near-instant global communications. Perhaps the most prominent cheerleader for "shock and awe" has been National Security Advisor James Jones, the general whose circle of senior aides has included those who came up with the concept in the 1990s. Their basic idea: "The bigger the hammer, the better the outcome."

Nothing could be further from the truth, as the results in Iraq and Afghanistan so painfully demonstrate. Indeed, a decade and a half after my colleague David Ronfeldt and I coined the term "
netwar" to describe the world's emerging form of network-based conflict, the United States is still behind the curve. The evidence of the last 10 years shows clearly that massive applications of force have done little more than kill the innocent and enrage their survivors. Networked organizations like al Qaeda have proven how easy it is to dodge such heavy punches and persist to land sharp counterblows.
Lots more at the link.

A lot of folks at the Pentagon and in the armed services aren't going to love the argument, although Arquilla does note that we're actually developing a more "networked U.S. military" right now. Yet while mentioning it, the article still slights the phenomenal strategic adaptation of U.S. forces in Iraq. Moreover, Arquilla's argument for a smaller, more agile displacement profile of fighting forces was in fact used in 2003 in Iraq. General Eric Shinseki lost his job for arguing that the U.S. should have gone in with "something in the order of several hundred thousand soldiers." Since then, untold analysts have said Shinseki was right, and of course Rumsfeld left the Pentagon in 2006 with his early postwar celebrity simply destroyed. So, Arquilla's argument needs to be developed further in light of various contingencies, and in the context of further evolving military, strategic, and technological circumstances. He's got the big picture right, but plugging in a few cases leaves a little to be desired.