Technology and the Future of Warfare

Mark Williams of Technology Review has an interview with RAND defense analyst John Arquilla on “Technology and the Future of Warfare.” It is scheduled to appear on their website next Monday but they have sent out a preview to some of us who blog on such things. [Update (3/23): They released the Web version early. Full content is here.]

The tone is set by Williams’ intro:

In 2007, the Pentagon’s budget will exceed the combined military spending of every other country on earth. In round numbers, according to the Quadrennial Defense Review — or QDR — unveiled this February, the Department of Defense will spend over $440 billion next year, supplemented with another $120 billion for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would be nice, therefore, if the Pentagon’s four-year plan for how its strategic priorities and force structure align with its budget made for less schizophrenic reading.

For the QDR lucidly explains, on the one hand, that the threats American forces confront today are asymmetric: catastrophic attacks by small groups, insurgencies by enemies of U.S. allies, and so on. It espouses the ‘transformation’ of America’s military: whereas industrial-era U.S. forces, depending on ‘big platform’ weapons systems like aircraft carriers and tank regiments, took half a year to mass in the field for operations like the first Gulf War, the QDR insists that the new military will be networked, lean and nimble, using special ops and robotics for rapid global responses.

On the other hand, the 92-page document calls for $84 billion of weapons spending, mostly for items like the F-22 and F-35 fighters, DDX and LCS warships, and the CVN-21, the Navy’s next-generation super-carrier, which will start construction in 2007 and be bigger than today’s Nimitz-class carriers. Overall, despite a 15 percent increase in Special Forces and investments in new systems like drone aircraft, the Pentagon continues to embrace military giantism.

That we spend more than everyone else combined has been, depending on how one does the accounting, true for a number of years. Sadly, the mismatch between grand strategy and force structure is over a century old. Indeed, I wrote a dissertation on the subject over a decade ago.

The good news is that the Defense Department has undeniably made substantial progress toward becoming a lighter, more joint, better networked force than it was in 1991 and, indeed, 2001. Unfortunately, it has a long way to go and there are a number of institutional and cultural barriers to change. Not least among these is that, when engaged in traditional force-on-force battles, our force is not only the best on the planet, by a substantial margin, but the best in history. More importantly, though, there has been a mindset going back at least to the middle of World War II that technology is the savior.

Arquilla argues, “Over this past quarter-century, we’ve reinforced an old industrial-policy military with hardware that makes increasingly less sense, spending most on things that provide the least return. The principal argument for that is ‘we have to keep the big, old-style military because we might fight a big, old-style war one day.’ But in the future the bigger you are, the harder you’re going to fall to ever-more accurate weapons.” While that may be true, it has not borne out in reality. Again, we are unmatched in large scale battle; the problem is in the murkier areas of counterinsurgency and stability operations.

He argues that the Navy is the most backward of the Services, still mired in the concept of warfare at “eyeball range” despite it having been obviated by technology decades ago. This is my impression as well–the Navy has long been regarded as the most hidebound and inflexible of the Services–but I think Arquilla undersells the doctrinal shift toward fighting in the litorrals that has been underway since the early 1990s. Still, my knowledge of naval warfare is incredibly limited.

Arquilla credits the Air Force for being the most wholehearted embracer of defense transformation–but thinks it’s transforming in the wrong direction.

The Air Force seeks to use technology to validate a questionable concept: strategic bombardment. Now, we’re almost a hundred years into the era of strategic bombing. In that time, you can count on the fingers of one hand how many such campaigns ever succeeded. Yet the Air Force continues to try to make this work. Shock and Awe — which did nothing besides spurring some Iraqis to join the insurgency— is the linear descendant of strategic, round-the-clock carpet bombing in World War II, of Curtis LeMay’s ideas and of Operation Rolling Thunder in Vietnam. Strategically, it’s a trail of tears. Yet the Air Force is still on it.

In technological terms, in fact, they’re taking a fatal upward turn. Every Air Force general I talk to says to me, ‘We’re going into space.’ For them, that’s the ultimate high ground. They want to make strategic bombing work from space with bombers that climb into orbit, then drop directly on a country somewhere,. They’re even talking about moving small numbers of troops very quickly — a ‘starship troopers’ approach. The Air Force is bedazzled by the technology of going into space and hopes this will somehow validate strategic bombardment. In fact, they’ll create a catastrophe if they start an arms race in space.

I agree wholeheartedly, as would the late Carl Builder, Arquilla’s former RAND colleague, who argued that the Air Force culture had always centered around “toys.”

Arquilla thinks the Army, sadly, is headed in the same direction:

It bothers the hell out of me that Future Warrior is focused simply on throwing enough technology at the individual soldier to make him invincible, like the armored knight of the middle ages. I think it’s like the related Future Combat System for Army vehicles — largely a wrong-headed approach. The Future Combat System has so far not been thought of as a real system of interconnecting parts. With these programs, we’re really de-emphasizing the connectivity part of military effectiveness. That’s unfortunate. The more your people are interconnected and work skillfully with each other, the more effective they are.

Many in the Army feel the same way.

As to Iraqi counterinsurgency and the war against al Qaeda,

The terrorists have a technology strategy designed to get the most effective, most usable tools out there for their use. They’ve learned to ride the rails of our technology to strike at us. One area of short-term research that the U.S. is emphasizing is the effort to deal in a technological way with the problem of the improvised explosive device. Of course, our opponents have figured out a variety of systems allowing them to detonate these weapons in a way that cannot be jammed. I can’t talk in more detail, but these leaderless networks we’re fighting in Iraq are giving as good as they get in technological terms.

The real answer is about understanding the enemy as a system and trying to pull that system apart. But we’re not doing that. We’re going simply for the technological fix and that’s one reason we’ve had so much trouble with these IEDs. Since we’re spending so much on military affairs, maybe some of that should be directed towards technologies that will break our opponents’ communications. In World War II, there was an investment in creating the first high-performance computers, for that very purpose. Today, it may be an investment in creating the most effective quantum computing or figuring out how to structure the vast ocean of data that masks the movements of al-Quaeda on the Net and the Web. We need a new Bletchley Park [the country house where the German WWII codes were broken], if we’re going to win this war.

So, oddly, the most seemingly low tech enemy is the one that requires the most high tech solution?

TR: Aren’t our enemies in Iraq an entirely human network? It’s not clear that breaking into their Internet communications ….

JA: Oh, but they don’t exist without the Web and the Net. You don’t move around that country easily and even the old-school Baathist insurgent elements rely on the Web. A networked insurgency doesn’t have anything like a traditional leadership. Most of the leadership they get is by going on websites, where they share information very quickly.

TR: Could we take down the Net in Iraq and would it have the effect of downing the insurgency to a significant degree?

JA: You could end all Internet access in Iraq and it would in many ways cripple the insurgents, in terms of slowing them down tremendously. But you’d also cripple reconstruction.

TR: So, in other words, we should data-mine Net exchanges within Iraq?

JA: There you go. The great figure in all this is Admiral John Poindexter. He suffered from his vaguely Orwellian-seeming tendencies and his connections with the Iran-Contra scandal. But the truth is he’s had the most important ideas in decades about how to revolutionize intelligence-gathering. He understands the Web and the Net. He’s one of the original, great military computer scientists and it’s a tragedy that his ideas were discredited for very poor reasons.

TR: Why were those reasons poor?

JA: We live in an era when the power of small groups and individuals has expanded beyond our imaginations. We live in a virtually transparent world. The truth is that to have more security we have to give up some privacy.

I understand information warfare at a very high level but this this is well beyond my expertise. It is interesting fodder for debate, however.

FILED UNDER: General, Military Affairs, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Patrick McGuire says:

    I was in the Persian Gulf (as a civilian) during Desert Storm and was able to tour some of the naval vessels that were there at the time. There was a supply/support vessel that was built by Boeing which was a effectively a floating factory-warehouse for the rest of the fleet. It had the capability of building or repairing anything anyone can imagine. It had carpentry, sheet-metal, electronics, etc. workshops onboard and it had a machine shop that made me drool with envy. The only “hi-tech” capability of this vessel was it’s computerized inventory tracking system which was impressive in itself.

    Another vessel however was just the opposite. It had very little in the way of weapons or armament but had multiple-array radar systems that gave the Admiral of the fleet a full picture of the entire area covering both the arabian penninsula and most of Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. From his perch, the Admiral could see the disposition of all of our forces, including air and land forces in real time.

    When the fighting broke out, it was from this vessel, from that one room with radar and computer images projected on large screen monitors covering three walls, that the war was directed. The reality of this vessel far exceeded anything that I have ever seen in any movie and that was more than 15 years ago.

    Without this technology I have no doubt that Desert Storm would have lasted much longer than it did, and it would have cost much more in casualties. I have no problem going hi-tech.

  2. Jonk says:

    We need systems that provide us the intel we need to feed to our warfighters and direct them in the most precise manner possible.

    I just wish there was a little more money spent on the men and women and less on gadgets overall.

  3. anonymous says:

    “…But in the future the bigger you are, the harder youâ??re going to fall to ever-more accurate weapons.â?? While that may be true, it has not borne out in reality. Again, we are unmatched in large scale battle; the problem is in the murkier areas of counterinsurgency and stability operations.

    The British understood this when the Argintines started shooting Exocets during the Falklands war. But the British prevailed anyway and could never have retaken the Falklands by waging a counterinsurgency. The US has not fought an opponent with militarily technology that rivaled it’s own for a very long time maybe not since WWII. So while China builds planes and ships and tanks should we plan on defending Taiwan and theh pacific sea lanes with asymetric warefare or with steel?

    “The Air Force seeks to use technology to validate a questionable concept: strategic bombardment. Now, weâ??re almost a hundred years into the era of strategic bombing. In that time, you can count on the fingers of one hand how many such campaigns ever succeeded. Yet the Air Force continues to try to make this work. Shock and Awe â?? which did nothing besides spurring some Iraqis to join the insurgencyâ?? is the linear descendant of strategic, round-the-clock carpet bombing in World War II, of Curtis LeMayâ??s ideas and of Operation Rolling Thunder in Vietnam. Strategically, itâ??s a trail of tears. Yet the Air Force is still on it.”

    I disagree whole hartedly. What we saw in Iraq was not shock and awe. The fear of world opinion prevented that. However bombing Serbia ended the Kosovo confligration quite effectively without a boot on the ground. Few bombing campaing may have succeeded but how many have been tried? Just a few. Even in Vietnam aftwerwards we found out that strategic bombing was much more effective than we knew at the time. In the latest Iraq war the US rolled in to Baghdad fighting against punks in pickup trucks because there were no tanks left after the air campaing which only started around the time of the invasion. How can any one argue against the value of bombing? I think there needs to be more facts discussed to make the point that bombing is a “trail of tears”. I don’t see it except as tears for the enemy.

    “It bothers the hell out of me that Future Warrior is focused simply on throwing enough technology at the individual soldier to make him invincible, like the armored knight of the middle ages. I think itâ??s like the related Future Combat System for Army vehicles â?? largely a wrong-headed approach. The Future Combat System has so far not been thought of as a real system of interconnecting parts. With these programs, weâ??re really de-emphasizing the connectivity part of military effectiveness. Thatâ??s unfortunate. The more your people are interconnected and work skillfully with each other, the more effective they are.”

    I think this is just plain wrong. The “future warrior technology” where it is introduced in Iraq is given highly favorable reviews by the troops exactly because it helps them work skillfully with eachother. Troops know where other troops are and communication between air and ground forces are improved.

    “The real answer is about understanding the enemy as a system and trying to pull that system apart. But weâ??re not doing that. Weâ??re going simply for the technological fix and thatâ??s one reason weâ??ve had so much trouble with these IEDs. ”

    There is a technological fix and it has worked. The military has used software developed for police work to analyze intelligence about the insurgents and it works.

    “Since weâ??re spending so much on military affairs, maybe some of that should be directed towards technologies that will break our opponentsâ?? communications.”

    Huh? Electronic intelligence is one of our strongest areas.