A Brief History of Future War

Another article at Fortnight today, this one the most relevant to regular readers of this blog. Simply titled “Future War,” it’s a fairly comprehensive overview of Things I’m Interested In militarily. Opening excerpt:

Much as we in the United States may have forgotten our two land wars in Asia, we’re still in them.

But if all goes according to plan, we’ll be completely out of both Iraq and Afghanistan by 2015. Except for the “advisory and assistance brigades.” And special forces. And drones. And all the other minutiae and caveats that will have essentially set the stage for a near-permanent American presence in Central Asia for the foreseeable future.

But some day, an end will come both in name and in deed—even if that end turns out to be anticlimactic. It’s said all too often that “today’s generals are preparing to fight yesterday’s wars.” By the same token, the ascendancy of counterinsurgency doctrine in the United States military could be here to stay.

Charting the future course of war requires wisdom—and prescience. Who will do the fighting? How will our fighting be done? Why will we fight? And why will they fight? The pithy answers, in order, are: Very few people, remotely, preservation and economics.

Go read it!

Nodes, Swarms, and the Risk Society

Christopher Albon takes on John Arquilla and addresses “The Limits of Netwar” in Current Intelligence:

Arquilla is correct: a netwar-enabled military would be powerful. Swarms of small American units could be perfectly suited for dismantling irregular terrorist networks in Afghanistan and elsewhere. However, America will never have a netwar military. Why? One reason: the political cost of casualties.

While a network of small swarming units represents substantial capacity, it also increases the risks to individual units on the battlefield. Operating quasi-independently and at speed, netwar’s small units are vulnerable to being flanked, isolated, and overrun. The network is resilient, but individual nodes are exposed.

Albon also cites the Battle of Wanat – with an American contingent of the same  ‘small unit’ size advocated by Arquilla – as an example of how this particular conception of ‘netwar’ is in fact precisely wrong for waging war in a democracy.

That is what truly determines the US military’s ability to conduct prolonged operations in a given theater: public support. And the easiest way to undermine it is to kill lots of American soldiers, preferably all at one time. This strategy is particularly effective within the node-centric system Arquilla calls for:

The attack left nine U.S. soldiers dead and the outpost was quickly abandoned. If the Taliban’s attack had been successful, the loss of this one node would have had little detrimental effect on an Arquillan network of small units.

Still, the military already seems to be considering the idea, with exercises scheduled for this summer to determine the feasibility of a company-sized Marine landing team. Of course, then logistics become the primary problem (plus the lack of battalion C3I, etc), which in turn leads to more deaths, which of course is the whole point for the enemy.

Leaving aside the issues of media control and information handling (because I still keep the faith), how then could a node-centric strategy utilizing smaller units actually function? Obviously, one key component to coming wars is UAVs and other unmanned weapons platforms. Most of these systems are currently more mobile than needed to be effective in a node-centric system. Automated sentry guns and the like, coupled with appropriate surveillance equipment and on-call air support – manned or unmanned – would be enough to maintain a network of observation posts without risk to American lives.

Then again, perhaps it’s the concept of nodes as they currently stand that needs to be addressed. Obviously not all OPs could be replaced by drones and remote-controlled camera, but presumably some could be. The further goal of the OP; that is, contact and interaction with the native population, could just as easily be accomplished through means other than an isolated post. Albon might overstate the case for maintaining centers of gravity (“There is power in small, networked units, but there is security in massed forces and large fortress bases, both for servicemen and politicians”), but he certainly grasps the risks of not doing so.

Presenting an American war effort to the public, then, is a two-part project. One is to convince them that both the overall and the specific causes are just (why are we in Afghanistan? And why do we maintain a network of isolated observation posts)? Two is to make sure that American casualties are in line with the perceived goal of it. Perhaps nothing more than a good PR strategy is what’s needed, but I think the issues with netwar run a bit deeper.

Men of the West

Babatim at Free Range International has a new update from the ground in Afghanistan. One quote struck me; either for the truth it holds or its stunning audacity (probably a little of both):

Less experience[d] cadres will do one of three things; stay in place because they are too freaked out to move, break contact and run because they are too freaked out to stay, or quickly surrender because they are too freaked out to fight.  Afghans do not have a cultural history of standing firm in battle and slugging it out toe to toe with heavy infantry.  Only men of the west fight using that style of warfare which is why western armies have dominated those of other lands since the battle of Plataea in 479 B.C.  I am not saying the Afghan Taliban does not have brave fighters….they do but brave individual fighters do not a cohesive combat unit make.  The shock of rapid violent assault by multiple platoons from multiple angles is something only a well trained, well equipped, well supported western army can handle.  [emphasis mine]

This, of course, is the same thesis of Victor Davis Hanson’s Culture and Carnage (later retitled more directly as Why the West Has Won) – that the west has a superior, innate ability to win the kinds of battles that shape the entire world. There are two sides to this – execution and will – and while the west has proved itself quite adept at winning (even so, not always), its will to fight in the first place seems diminished and continues to shrink.

The metaphors and parallels you could draw are all contradictory and point in very different directions: the U.S. as Rome to Britain’s Greece, the Greek bankruptcy, 300, a rousing speech from Aragorn, John Ford/John Wayne movies… Perhaps that’s just my train of thought leaving the station at full steam.

But what if the west starts abdicating its position, and what if it continues to cringe in the face of particular struggles? Western society is so risk-averse now that the slightest risk of harm – to regular, professional soldiers – now leads to accusations of “authoritarian” leadership. For heading into danger in the military! Thankfully the Dutch example is not pervasive throughout NATO (nor the Netherlands themselves, for that matter).

The Dutch have the 7th highest per capita rate of any nation in Afghanistan, Steve Coll calculated. But 21 dead is now enough to call off an entire deployment of a wealthy, western NATO member. Europe is certainly in decline. America too, albeit at a slower pace. But that’s just when the Netherlands needs to reassert itself as a full and willing member of the west. As does the rest of Europe. All need to be willing to defend themselves and their interests, with force if necessary.

Stand, men of the west!

One Man’s Malaise is Another’s Motivation

We’ll see if I can’t get up and running more regularly, but this is such an accurate quote to describe the lack of anything being undertaken in Congress that I needed to risk another meltdown:

Members of Congress—including seven Republicans who had proposed the idea—were even too chicken to vote for a bipartisan commission. This is the political equivalent of being too timid to take a nap.

I’ve jury-rigged the laptop to work in spurts while I wait for my backup to get sent, so I’ll have a semi-regular selection of new material for you. But hell, this one post alone has made my week more productive than the United States Congress.

On the Purpose of Armies

Via War is Boring:

In September 2008 two Dutch army squad leaders and their soldiers refused to go out on what Radio Netherlands describes as “a risky reconnaissance patrol” in Uruzgan, Afghanistan. The platoon leader responsible for the mission was allegedly guilty of  “excessively authoritarian behavior.” “[H]e was prepared to accept fatalities on the patrol,” Radio Netherlands reports.

On the surface, this is clearly ridiculous. Deeper down, it actually stays pretty ridiculous, but nevertheless there’s an argument to be made here. I’m not going to make it, but without conscription (as is the case in Holland), the point is moot.

I know, I know – I sound precisely like a member of the “101st Chairborne.” Then again, I haven’t joined the armed forces. My point is that if you sign up for a military willingly – and I emphasize willingly – you should be equally prepared to accept the risks inherent to combat. There’s a different between a ‘risky’ mission and one that’s ‘suicidal’, and according to the reports I’ve seen, this is a clear case of the former. It’s a warzone. There are enemies out there. And that’s why you’re there.

The worst part is the assumption of universality. The squad leaders “are worried for other soldiers who may have to serve with him in the future.” One can only hope that other soldiers take themselves more seriously. And professionally. I’m trying really hard to refrain from using this to condemn the European fighting spirit in toto, but it’s certainly one more nail in the coffin of a confident, vigorous West.