Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The illusory promise of high-tech firepower

What were their names, tell me what were their names
Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James
What were their names, tell me what were their names
The men that went down on the good Reuben James

(Woody Guthrie, "The Sinking of the Reuben James")
Helena Cobban, one of the bloggers genuinely well-informed about Middle East affairs that we're lucky lucky to have posting on a regular basis in her Just World News blog, has posted a review, Boys with (very lethal) toys: What are these 'toys' good for? 05/01/07, of the paper The Limitations of Standoff Firepower-Based Operations: On Standoff Warfare, Maneuver, and Decision by Ron Tira. Tira analyzes the Israeli military doctrine of "standoff, firepower-based operations" (SFO's); as Cobban writes, "the Israeli concept of reliance on SFO's is intimately - one might say, organically - linked to many of the ideas and concepts developed within the US military in recent years". Actually, Israeli military theories and practices have been very influential on the US military since the Six Day War in 1967, so there's nothing especially controversial about her observation.

Basically, the concept is the hope-burns-eternal one of finding the magic bullet, the Super Weapon, the technological fix that will make Our Side invincible. It involves the idea that air power and high-tech artillery can win wars while minimizing own-side casualties.

There's nothing new about the search for the Super Weapon, of course. And the gee-whiz admiration for the latest technologies of death is always a point of enthusiastic comment at the beginning of a war. What Cobban discusses in her post is that however wonderful such technological fixes look in the techie-fantasy version of war, in practice they have significant drawbacks.

For those of you who haven't had your daily dose of military jargon, here's a quick dose from Tira's paper. I've found that you just have to wade through some of this to get to the useful analysis that these military papers often contain:

In recent years the US armed forces, the IDF [Israeli Defense Force], and other Western militaries have been undergoing a dramatic revolution. This revolution has numerous components and is referred to with a variety of names. In the United States and the West it is known as the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), the New American Way of War, Army After Next (AAN), Force Transformation, Network-Centric Warfare (NCW), Rapid Decisive Operations (RDO), Effects-Based Operations (EBO), and Shock and Awe. Israel has adopted and even enhanced many of these ideas, including “decentralized warfare,” "the dynamic molecule," "the swarms" and the "flocks," "the campaign theme," "maneuvering by fire,"and "fire as reserve."
Cobban writes:

A good proportion of the "boys" in both the US and the Israeli armed services have clearly always been enamored of high-tech gadgetry, and seduced by the idea that its effective utilization could reduce their own forces' casualties (and perhaps, through the development of 'precision guidance' to the desired level of 'surgical' precision, also reduce 'collateral' damage in the areas targeted) while allowing them greater flexibility to operate anywhere in the world they pleased and without all the messy, time-consuming, and expensive business of having to plan for, move into position, and then sustain in the field large numbers of the infantry's "boots on the ground"... But until Rumsfeld's sharp-elbowed arrival in the Pentagon, operational-art thinking there had still been dominated by the basic tents of "the Powell Doctrine": that is, a basic reliance on large infantry forces (as built up over several decades in, primarily, Central Europe), with all the strategic and political constraints that reliance on such forces entails.

Rumsfeld worked rapidly and ruthlessly to bend the high command of the US military to his will. The two great "experiments" of his attempt to reconfigure US forces according to the new focus ... were the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
One of the genuine tragedies of the period between the Vietnam War and the Iraq War, and especially between the Gulf War and the Iraq War, is that these razzle-dazzle techno-fixes and arcane-sounding concepts with large practical real-world implications became the province of policy wonks, defense contractors and ambitious generals and were never subjected to the kind of public debate they deserved.

The idea that 2,000-lb. bombs creatively delivered would allow the United States to march through the Middle East deposing governments we didn't like and installing friendlier ones at little cost in blood and treasure was always insane. But the misplaced faith in these technological fixes and the questionable military doctrines built on them were key bridges to make these foolish and self-destructive notion the operative realities of American foreign policy.

Cobban also raises an important question about the American and Israeli approach of targeting the enemy leadership, here in the context of the Israel-Lebanon War of 2006:

If the IDF was seeking "behavior change" by Hizbollah, how on earth were they hoping to achieve this at the same time they were - as they very evidently and avowedly seemed to be - aggressively working for the physical elimination of Hizbollah's top leadership? If the IDF had indeed succeeded in killing Sayed Hassan Nasrallah and his circle of top aides, who did they think could issue any credible order to dismantle Hizbollah's rocket-launcher arrays? Indeed, was it really "behavior change" they were aiming at - or rather, the physical destruction of Hizbullah's entire decision-making and command-and-control system?
Cobban expresses a number of reservations and criticisms of Tira's approach. But she points in particular to Chapter 6 of his paper as raising important questions about the effectiveness of the SFO approach.

And she reminds us of the implications of that for the United States' own military planning:

Of course, here in the US, there has already been a strong and still growing understanding that the "lean, mobile, hi-tech" force championed by Donald Rumsfeld has not been effective at all in bringing about-- especially in Iraq!-- on a lasting and stable basis the large-scale strategic shift that he promised for it. Hence we have seen the Bush administration's hasty (and completely doomed) rush to increase the size of the ground-force deployment in Iraq. And we have already seen the proposals and plans, subscribed to by leading Democratic politicians just as much as by Republicans, to increase the overall size of the US's standing military by 92,000 or even 100,000 people.

Increasing the US's military to that degree will similarly impose a huge additional burden on the US citizenry; and certainly I intend to do some hard-hitting analysis of all these proposals in the very near future.
This is likely to be a key feature of post-Iraq War defense debates in the US, though several of the major participants will do their best to blur that fact.

The US currently spends half or more of the military budgets of the entire world. Trying to maintain the techie dream arsenal the Air Force wants and expand the ground strenth of the Army and Marines is just going to bloat that budget even further. And the blunt fact is that if men like Cheney, Bush and Rummy have such an enormous set of military resources, they will be eager to find applicactions for them.

What we need is a far more realistic set of foreign policy objectives and a strong push for nuclear disarmament. And a military policy and budget that's rightsized to match those objectives. A good measure of meeting that goal: any arrangement that leaves the United States spending more each year on the military than every other nation in the world combined has something seriously wrong with it.


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