The Fourth Generation Warfare Reason to Ditch the “War on Terrorism” Analogy

Gulliver and the Lilliputians

After the underwear bomber incident, all together too many people are talking about how Yemen is now the central front of the war on terrorism and preemptive action is necessary and if Yemen’s dysfunctional government can’t do what needs to be done then the U.S. should step in and do it for them (as usual, Senator Lieberman can be counted on as the go-to guy for idiotic pronouncements here). To me the events of recent days really show what’s wrong with the U.S. reaction being dominated by the notion of a “war on terrorism,” and the superiority of the strategy of treating terrorism as an issue of law enforcement as enunciated by, among others, John Kerry throughout 2004.

What we’re facing is the classic squeezing a balloon problem: the United States can deploy 112,000 solders to Iraq and another 98,000 to Afghanistan, and thousands more throughout Central and Southeast Asia and in the Pacific Islands and the terrorists just pick up their laptops, sell their Range Rovers and relocate their operation to the Horn of Africa, or the outer reaches of the Arabian Peninsula. Meanwhile the U.S. is stuck for the next decade in whatever country owing to the weight of tens of thousands of soldiers and hundreds of tones of heavy metal.

We are engaged in a fourth generation-type struggle with an opponent employing the classical tactics of asymmetric warfare. The object for the opponent on the presumptively disadvantaged side of the asymmetry is to adopt a strategy whereby the seeming advantages of the preponderant power are transformed into weaknesses. The war on terrorism is a contest of strategic dexterity and in this case the very weight, size and overwhelming capability of the U.S. military has become its greatest liability.

The game that has been played by al Qaeda et al. is that of miring the U.S. in regions of declining strategic importance. Terrorists are Lilliputians and the U.S. Gulliver. Only in this story Gulliver ties himself down. The Lilliputians only have to indicate where he should sink the stakes and he applies the lashes to himself.

While I am deeply skeptical of black ops, secret programs, plausible deniability, assassination, et cetera, I generally agree with the idea that the only time counter-terrorist actions should make the news is when something has gone wrong. The Predator drone and special forces operations that are being conducted along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border seems correct in conception, if still problematic in execution, to me. And of course this level of militarization is still awfully high. The FBI is the U.S. government agency with the largest presence abroad after the Pentagon and the State Department. Treasury is quickly following suite. Counter-terrorism should only become subject to special forces means under extreme circumstances. The rest of the time it should be dealt with by the various legal investigative agencies.

Whatever the case, our reaction to terrorism needs to be in kind: nimble, dynamic, human not territory oriented, multifaceted.

A strategic studies acquaintance commented the other day that he can’t wait for the reigning generation of the foreign policy establishment to retire, because they are a bunch of Cold War relics, mired in the mindset of a bygone era. The idea of stateless actors is beyond their comprehension. In this regard one of the most seminal moments in the U.S. reaction to mass-casualty terrorism was Paul Wolfowitz’s 13 September 2001 press conference, where he said the following (DoD News Briefing, The Pentagon, Arlington, VA):

I think one has to say it’s not just simply a matter of capturing people and holding them accountable, but removing the sanctuaries, removing the support systems, ending states who sponsor terrorism. And that’s why it has to be a broad and sustained campaign. It’s not going to stop if a few criminals are taken care of.

I believe that in some ultimate sense Paul Wolfowitz has been right about Islamic extremism: that it is not our war, that we cannot fight it, that it is not a war that can be won in the realm of strictly materialist forces, but that it is a struggle of ideology, that it can only be settled among those most immediately concerned, that the most the U.S. can do is indirectly effect this outcome through the opening of a space where moderate, modernist, liberal Islam can flourish. This was Secretary Wolfowitz’s idea for Iraq: that it would become the Islamic “city on the hill.” That he could simultaneously have been so wrong makes Paul Wolfowitz one of the tragic figures of the post-11 September period.

But this idea, that states and territory are what is important, this was the commanding idea of the early Bush administration. But the strategy of militarily occupying every square mile of lawless territory on the Earth and engaging in nation building in every failed state is beyond our capability. It is how the strength of a great power will be sapped.

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Sociobiology as the Transcendence of Biological Ecology

The central idea of sociobiology is that the emergence of social creatures (herd animals) coincided with the creation of what might be termed a socio-cultural environment. The socio-cultural environment is as much an environment that social creatures inhabited as the material environment. As social creatures evolve, two things happen to the socio-cultural environment:

  1. As with evolution of species morphology, the maximum complexity of socio-cultural environments increases (there is selection pressure on the entire socio-cultural environment as, say, predators develop way of thwarting or exploiting the social aspect of their prey and the social species evolve to countervail this development, e.g. parasitic cordyceps and ants; that is, there is species-level selection, since a social characteristic unrecognized by a counterpart comes to nothing; consider this as an analogy for fourth generation warfare).

  2. Subsequent generations of herd animals come to rely ever more heavily upon social cohesion — as opposed to horns, honed perceptive apparatus, efficient digestion, et cetera — as their primary means of survival.

As this socio-cultural environment becomes more sophisticated and intricate and increasingly important as a means of survival, the socio-cultural environment grows in importance as the universe of factors shaping the evolution of social animals, while the objective, geological, hydrological and biological environment recedes in its evolutionary force.

Sexual selection (a type of sociobiological selection, as opposed to natural or Malthusian selection) is the sort of selection pressure that a species faces when its fellows, rather than the environment becomes the main challenge to getting its genes into the future. The shifting balance of natural selection and sexual selection in the play of evolutionary forces is meta-evolutionary. Evolution is recursive, with developments in the subjects of evolution backpropigating into the mechanism itself. In this respect every new thing in the universe (or at least in the effective realm) can potentially alter the functioning of the evolutionary dynamic. In this broadened perspective, the idea of machine or meme evolution supplanting biological evolution should not be so surprising.

Among a certain sector of the wildly technologically enthusiastic (among whom I count myself, though Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work is presently doing a lot to kick the piss out of this pretention), there is a notion that humans are rapidly disencumbering themselves of the material world and constructing for ourselves a world of pure ideas, information, mind-stuff. At some point in human history saber-toothed tigers, virulent microbes, droughts and tar pits ceased to be the primary challenge to humans seeking to survive and reproduce. Such extra-human threats were replaced as the primary danger by human-originating threats such as careening contraptions, shoddy construction techniques, insufficient precaution with the kitchen fire, marauding hoplites, jilted dagger-wielding lovers, corrupt institutions and flawed regimes of succession in governance. It is at the point where today it is plausible that the human socio-cultural environment has attained a level of preponderance where even the level of environmental catastrophe such as an asteroid strike that caused the mass extinctions of the past might be thwarted by the constituents of the human socio-cultural environment (on the other hand, the complexity of our socio-cultural environment might be just the sort of run-away biological factor that caused past mass extinction such as the oxygen catastrophe or the Canfield ocean thesis of the Permian–Triassic extinction event). In this conception, it is usually the the information revolution, the invention of the computer — a brain-like device — that is the cause of this transcending of matter. The advent of technology was not the key turning point. The recognition of sociobiology is that this trend is an aspect of evolution; that it long predates not only technology, but also even predates humans. In this way, we are not unique, not the penultimate branch of the tree of life, but only the latest in a succession of forms.

Update, 15 September 2009: It’s worth noting that while computers are not the revolution, nor the source of the revolution, they do form a paradigm, shaping our conceptualizations in ways that allow us to perceive the revolution.

RMA: Radical and Moderate

What I’m writing about in that last post without ever typing the words is Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). And I may read like an outright detractor, but I actually consider myself an RMA enthusiast. In any revolution you have the radicals and the moderates. The radicals want the revolution to sweep away all previously existing forms and practices. The moderates are more or less satisfied with the status quo, but advocate some non-routine revisions. I consider myself to be in the moderate camp. I don’t think things like heavy armor, large units, piloted planes, aircraft carriers and such are going to go away. I am in favor of RMA being bent towards the purpose of improving these weapons systems and adding capabilities around the margins. I think the U.S. has done a pretty good job pushing RMA so far, would be in favor of perhaps a more aggressive agenda in the near future, but would also advocate a critical examination of some of the recent advances in RMA with an eye to possibly bringing back some older practices. Perhaps I’m just in favor of Evolution in Military Affairs, or, to retain but overload the acronym, Reformation in Military Affairs.

My moderation in my enthusiasm for RMA comes from my sympathy for the sort of institutional conservatism that’s entirely appropriate to the special circumstances of the military. It’s a conservatism and a ponderousness born of some of the most gruesome experience in the human record and it should not be taken lightly.

In, say, the economy or a federal policy environment, experimentation can be freely encouraged and pursued. Owing to the redundancy and parallelism of market economies, one or even many suppliers or consumers can fail without much perturbation to the system as a whole. There is no single point of failure. Owing to the security monopoly of the state and the extremely high stakes, a similar experimentalism would be unwise in the extreme. Here there is but one point of success or failure: make a mistake of sufficient consequence and the security of the state is lost. Even in cases of less than catastrophic miscalculation, the lives of thousands of young people are at stake.

I think a NASA-like caution is warranted here, with modifications to tried and true systems only taking place in the tiniest, most sure-footed steps, each one of them being subjected to the most rigorous stress testing and a period of learning before proceeding to the next modification.

But to make perhaps a more trenchant critique of RMA, most RMA thinking comes out of the Air Force. Some comes out of the Navy as well, though many RMA proponents see a lot of the Navy’s heavy metal as ripe for the pruning too. But as often as not Navy heavy metal is viewed as a platform rather than a legacy system, e.g. submarines with their element of stealth are considered sexy platforms; aircraft carriers are more in the sitting duck category. The Army is often perceived as and feels itself the target of RMA. It’s heavy metal is in that sour spot of just the wrong size: too small to be platform, to big not to be target.

But arguably there is a service-parochialism to all RMA thinking to date.

The Air Force, and to a lesser extent the Navy, just work differently than the Army. They operate with much more narrow margins of error. A large air force might consist of only a few hundred planes and pilots. The U.S. only has 21 B-2 bombers. At the height of the Cold War it only planned to purchase 132 of them. Present plans only call for the purchase of 183 of the F-22. A lot of this is true of the Navy as well. A powerful navy in today’s world could be comprised of a few score blue water ships. In addition to the narrow margin for an air force overall, the individual units of an air force typically run on fairly narrow margins of error as well. Most planes are capable of sustaining only very little damage before they are totally inoperable — typically they sustain a little damage followed by total loss when they hit the ground or go down behind enemy lines. Under these pressures, when air forces operate, they execute a mission, then return to safety behind friendly lines or on an aircraft carrier, where they are closely monitored and restored to 100 percent functionality. When something breaks, that’s often the end of the line.

The Army is different. It operates in considerably more punishing circumstances and at much lower levels of function. The Army expects supply lines cut, radios to fail, communication cut off, equipment to be waterlogged and jammed with sand, mobility impeded by mud or weather. The Army is often expected to operate deep in hostile territory for months at a time (think counterinsurgency or Vietnam), with no option of a quick jaunt back across friendly lines to be restored to full capacity. As a result, it has built in considerably higher fault tolerance. In fact it is just these built-in margins of error that today make it a target for the RMA revolutionaries.

Another way to think about this is to say that RMA is heavily plan-oriented — though this is often invisible because in RMA-type systems the plans are ubiquitous owing to the intangibility of coordination and the instantaneousness of computation. The plans are invented on the fly for actually existent situations, rather than plotted well in advance for situations projected a priori. But this is not the Army way. As the maxim goes, even the best plans never survive the first encounter with the enemy. Too much goes wrong on the battlefield for anything but the most improvisational micro-strategies to be workable (on the other hand, maybe the best of RMA is just the systemization of improvisation).

An example RMA proposal that I think founders on this Army-Air Force distinction is Future Combat Systems (Wikipedia | Global Security.org): the idea that the Army trade in its heavy tanks for lighter, faster vehicles. They would rely on surveillance, communication and maneuver instead of armor to avoid losses: a military doctrine version of “best block no be there.” The idea is that in essence, the information technology becomes the armor. To the extent that enemy forces needed to be destroyed, that would be handled by air power, long range munitions and stand-off weapons.

To some extent this tactic was employed in Iraq using existing vehicles. The invasion could happen so fast because U.S. forces deliberately avoided time consuming confrontations with Iraqi forces and simply drove around them to make hast for the (perceived) more important objectives of the command, control and communication nerve centers of the regime. As was pointed out at the time, the logistics tail couldn’t keep up with the invasion force.

As altogether too many a Humvee convoy in Iraq has found, dispersal, concealment, surveillance and stand-off attack are not tactics exclusively available to the U.S. And when these tactics fail, a lot of metal is plan B. In the Air Force a few square yards of nylon, namely a parachute, is plan B. In the Army, plan B doesn’t fit in a knapsack.

To criticize the Army on the basis of the standards of the Air Force and the Navy is to make an operating environment-category error. The Army faces its own set of problems, has identified its own relevant learning experiences and brings to bare its own set of institutional methods. It should not be immune to criticism in these — fresh thinking and an outside perspective are often useful. But for the Air Force to criticize the Army for employing too much heavy armor and relying too much on mass would be like the Army criticizing the Air Force for constructing their planes out of excessively light weight materials.

The Army needs to develop its own version of RMA. Obviously it has done some of that to date. It recognizes that every pair of boots on the ground is also a pair of eyes on the ground. It long ago adopted a doctrine of maneuver and plans to get much more aggressive in this regard: through heads-up displays on soldiers and in vehicles it is building a sort of military surge-mob model. With a renewed emphasis on counterinsurgency and perhaps a new found enthusiasm for state building it will end up with a skill set more relevant to the foreign policy problems of the next century than that of the Air Force.

Iraq and Vietnam; Civil Wars and Asymmetric Conflict

Someone at some point should drive home to the right that Iraq and Vietnam are not some apparition or anomaly requiring exceptional explanation — namely the Dolchstoßlegende — but in fact the historical trend.

Our historical-materialist problems in Iraq are multifaceted. Iraq is a combination of two pernicious trends: one relating to civil wars and one relating to asymmetric conflict.

First, on the issue of civil wars, they are by nature long, intractable and fought to the bitter, bloody end. The Los Angeles Times had the good sense to have Barbara F. Walter, author of the study, Committing to Peace: The Successful Settlement of Civil Wars (2002), write a brief summary of her survey of civil wars and the likely meaning for Iraq (Walter, Barbara F., “You Can’t Win With Civil Wars,” Los Angeles Times, 2 October 2007):

The approximately 125 civil wars — conflicts involving a government and rebels that produce at least 1,000 battle deaths — since 1945 tell us several things: The civil war in Iraq will drag on for many more years; it will end in a decisive victory for either the Shiites or the Sunnis, not in a compromise settlement; and the weaker side will never sign a settlement or lay down its arms because it has no way to enforce the terms.

Civil wars don’t end quickly. The average length of all civil wars since 1945 is 10 years. Conflicts in Burma, Angola, India, the Philippines, Chad and Colombia have lasted more than 30 years. Wars in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Lebanon, Sudan and Peru have lasted more than 15 years. Even Iraq’s previous civil war, fought against the Kurds, lasted 14 years.

This suggests that, historically speaking, Iraq’s current civil war could be in its early stages, with nothing to suggest that it will be a short, easy war.

Another lesson from history is that the greater the number of factions involved in a civil war, the longer it is likely to persist. Iraq simply has too many factions, with too much outside support, to come to a compromise settlement now. Not only is there no Shiite or Sunni who can speak for all of his side’s factions, but the parliament seems incapable of stopping the violence between these groups.

Civil wars rarely end in negotiated settlements. In research for a book on the topic, I found that 76% of civil wars between 1945 and 2005 ended only after one side had defeated all others. Only 24% ended in some form of negotiated solution. This suggests that the war in Iraq will not end at the bargaining table but on the battlefield.

Second, on the issue of asymmetric conflict, the trend over the last two centuries is toward small powers defeating larger ones, to the point where in the latter half of the Twentieth Century, small powers actually defeat large powers more often than not. Below is figure 2 from Ivan Arreguín-Toft, “How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conlict,” (International Security, vol. 26, no. 1, Summer 2001, pp. 93–128).

Arreguín-Toft, Ivan, "How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conlict," International Security, vol. 26, no. 1, Summer 2001, pp. 93–128, Figure 2: Percentage of Asymmetric Conflict Victories by Type of Actor in Four Fifty-Year Periods

Given these two trends, the deck was stacked against the U.S., even with the greatest effort, but since it was undertaken by the Solomon Grundy administration (Wikipedia | Sean Baby) we never stood a chance. They know how to smash and that’s about it.

Neither of these two observations are new: both trends were generally known at the time of the invasion of Iraq — Ms. Walter’s book is from 2002 and Mr. Arreguín-Toft’s article is from 2001 and neither were breaking new ground. Five year on, it is now completely apparent outside of administration propagandists that the key strategic judgment with respect to Iraq was not how many soldiers in the initial invasion, or how many in the subsequent occupation, or whether to intervene in the looting, or to disband the Iraqi army, or seasoned experts versus right-wing sycophants to staff the CPA, or any of the many, many other mistakes, but whether to go into Iraq or not in the first place. Barring sufficient historical awareness here, at least the administration should have known and acted like the odds were not in favor of success. Instead we got the fast-talker’s sales pitch.

And as the Dolchstoßlegende crowd now attempts to rewrite the history of the Iraq debacle a la the Vietnam War version thereof, it should be born in mind that that war was part and parcel of these trends.