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The debate between Henry Kissinger and Anne-Marie Slaughter about intervention in Syria rests on interpretations of sovereignty and world order that are more complex than popularly depicted. By properly contextualizing sovereignty and intervention in the world system, we can come to a better understanding of what is at stake in the current debate. Post Cold War interventions are part of a great continuum of intervention that goes back at least several centuries.
Kissinger begins by noting the role that the Treaty of Westphalia allegedly played in putting an end to Europe's wars of religion, and goes on to suggest that humanitarian intervention in the Middle East is undermining the norm of state sovereignty:
The modern concept of world order arose in 1648 from the Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War. In that conflict, competing dynasties sent armies across political borders to impose their conflicting religious norms. This 17th-century version of regime change killed perhaps a third of the population of Central Europe. To prevent a repetition of this carnage, the Treaty of Westphalia separated international from domestic politics. States, built on national and cultural units, were deemed sovereign within their borders; international politics was confined to their interaction across established boundaries. For the founders, the new concepts of national interest and balance of power amounted to a limitation, not an expansion, of the role of force; it substituted the preservation of equilibrium for the forced conversion of populations.
While Kissinger's conclusions are very reasonable, the problem is that interventions in the Middle East represent the endpoint of a spectrum of intervention that the United States substantially contributed to with Cold War actions many realists supported. Furthermore, there's also a big empirical problem with the Westphalia-centric interpretation advanced in the op-ed.
First, in a critique of the then-dominant trend of New Medievalism, Lt. Col. Michael Phillips observed that Westphalia was more a metaphor for an at best imperfectly observed world order than a transformative shift in international relations. The treaty itself was silent on the concept of sovereignty, and served only to codify an informal set of arrangements that had already evolved in Germany. More relevant to the balance of power in the oft-idealized pre-Napoleonic European system was the political, financial, organizational, and military difficulties involved in levying decisive war. Warfare before Napoleon is so distant to us as to be alien--a time when the public had little to do with the making of war and conscripts could not biovac near forests lest they desert. Certainly, aggressive men and women existed, but lacked the means to realize their dreams of domination. European warfare in the Americas, however, was waged as if the Thirty Years War never ended. Women and children were targeted, crops and settlements were laid to waste, and irregular forces, pirates, and militias were decisive combatants. Wars in the Americas were wars of annihilation.
As would be demonstrated during the 19th century, intervention in the international system came to take several divergent forms. First, intervention in internal affairs was countenanced when a given state's ideology made it threatening to other actors. Revolutionary France was the Iran of its era, never fully trusted because of its fanaticism, ideological crimes against its own citizenry, and desire to export its ideology abroad. Second, intervention against transnational irregular actors--often in defiance of sovereign boundaries--occured because of the threat pirates and bandits posed to travel and commerce. These actors were viewed as criminals and enemies of all mankind. Finally, non-European powers that mistreated Europeans or populations Europeans were sympathetic to were targets for humanitarian intervention.
During the 20th century the Nazis and Soviets forced a merger of all three categories of intervention. Enemies that sought to wage global ideological war, who inverted Clausewitz--as Lenin did-- to conceptualize politics as war by other means had to be fought everywhere. As Dan has observed, these struggles were if anything much more invasive than the drone wars. The US and Britain routinely violated neutrality and sovereignty, assaulting Iceland to deny it to the Nazis and invading Iran to logistically support the Soviets. The US rightly regarded the Nazis and Japanese as war criminals, but did so in a manner that legal circles viewed with a skeptical eye.
During the Cold War, this logic was taken to another extreme through covert operations against governments and movements deemed to be sympathetic to Communism. It is easy to condemn such activities today, but it is worth noting why they were undertaken. The United States had internationalized its national interest, viewing Communism itself--a borderless ideology--as a national security threat. Hence Soviet influence in states once seen as peripheral to international security became probable cause for viewing these environments as battlefronts. Some of these interventions--particularly in Europe--were justified. Others were tragic failures with devastating humanitarian consequences. It is also interesting to observe that the tools being proposed for intervention in Syria--air and weapon support to rebels--are Cold War vintage. Countless movements--most notably the Cubans and the Contras--were supported by private American air forces and/or weapons support, enabling operations in environments the United States did not view as important enough to devote ground troops to.
Today we have come full circle. Post-2001, authoritarian states are simultaneously viewed as breeding grounds for dangerous ideologies, humanitarian criminals, and supporters of threatening irregular actors. Arguments about US policy towards those states blur all three categories of intervention justification together into a formless blob. While we live in a world that is in some respects safer than ever, debates about intervention still sit implicitly within the framework of global war. It made sense to consider Fascism and Soviet Communism--idious ideologies backed by overwhelming military and political power--mortal threats to international order. But does what happen "over there" really matter "over here" in the same way today? It is difficult to argue that the same relationship exists, but many implicitly do when discussing authoritarian states in international security.
A more difficult problem for sovereignty is the threat posed by transnational groups with absolute aims. Their aims in and themselves may not be strategic threats to the United States, but they certainly pose tactical threats in the form of mass-casualty attacks. The United States usually acts in cooperation with partner states in launching airstrikes and ground raids, but has acted unilaterally when circumstances demand decisive and preemptive operations. When not launching kinetic strikes, the United States has also taken on sovereign responsibilities rightfully performed by host governments in an effort to build host nation capacity. While kinetic strikes pose some risk of blowback, capacity-building arguably poses a moral hazard by enmeshing the United States in the domestic politics of local actors who see Uncle Sam as a walking ATM. When the US tries to make unruly local clients reform, it only deepens American involvement in their domestic politics and further threatens their sovereignty.
The problem is not simple and should not be viewed as "drones bad" and "foreign aid good." Rather, it's a problem of how far the United States can go in managing threats that emerge from troubled states without either making those threats worse or making the US another party in a local civil war or violent elite dispute. Whether firing Hellfire missiles or delivering aid, the US is becoming an actor in a political system it is not institutionally well-equipped to understand or alter. How this problem will be resolved is an important question for 21st century security.
We are still struggling to figure out how we will manage our own national security without either threatening others' sovereignty or performing sovereign responsibilites that they have, for domestic reasons, failed to exercise. While precedents exist in 19th and 20th century history for American diplomatic, political, and military efforts to create domestic security either by intervening in the Western hemisphere or globally, our situation is in many ways unique. The anarchist wave of terrorism was not as cohesive as al-Qaeda and Affiliated Movements (AQAM) are today and lacks AQAM's global reach. It is difficult to see how America could have avoided striking into Pakistan to kill or capture Osama Bin Laden, a move criticized by international organizations as a violation of sovereignty despite the manifold opportunities Pakistan had to bring him to justice. History is important, but there is a limit to how much historical context can shed light on a political-military problem.
To answer the title question: no one lost Westphalia, because Westphalia is a useful myth for international relations theorists seeking a shorthand for systemic change in the international system. Drones didn't kill Westphalia, and Libya--while injurious to sovereignty--has really principally demonstrated that dictators in coastal regions without nuclear weapons, Russian-supplied integrated air defense systems, or basing agreements with the United States Navy might do well to explore alternative career options. But beyond Syria polemics, the real challenge of sovereignty lies in moving beyond the framework of global ideological war that World War II and the Cold War set in place. A different international environment requires a course correction towards security policy inclined, as a rule, towards skepticism on whether or not local security problems have international implications.
I spent all last week traveling around a country in the Middle East that rhymes with "Shmisreal" getting a feel for how leaders and analysts there see the Arab Spring. In general, our Shmisraeli friends remain pessimistic about what has thus far taken place and the trends they see going forward. By contrast, I spent the past eight months looking at the Middle East as part of a team that included Bruce Jentleson, Melissa Dalton and Dana Stuster, and although we identified some real near-term concerns for the United States, we also indentified several potentially positive trends for the United States.
Please do me a favor and provide some meaning for my life by downloading the paper here.
The bottom line is that the United States can accept a lot more risk in the region than it has done over the past decade. (Aside from that whole "invading Iraq" thing, of course, which entailed more risk than many of us were comfortable with.) Reduced U.S. dependency on the states of the Gulf as well as the return of politics to the Arab world should both be positive trends for U.S. interests -- so long as U.S. policy makers play their cards right.
Again, read the report here.
Earlier today Shadi Hamid set off something of a minor conflagration on Twitter by asking why, in the face of clearly horrific and mounting violence in Syria, should think-tank civilians advocating intervention be expected to come up with detailed military plans for an intervention?
Speaking as a
civilian writing on a think-tank affiliated blog, this struck me as a very
distressing position. If one is going to advocate for a military intervention -
of any kind - serious analysis of a military plan is absolutely vital, and
think-tanks - unlike, say, service members or policymakers, have a unique
position to publicly weigh in on such debates with candor. Let me be blunt: if an
analyst or the think-tank she or he represents cannot offer a plausible
military strategy for an advocated intervention, then it is difficult to treat
that advocacy with weight or authority.
It is a cliché to note that war is too important to be left to the generals because it's also absolutely true - and it would also be unfair to single out Hamid or the issue of Syria. Similar arguments have been trotted out by commentators, analysts and public figures on a variety of military issues, although more often as excuses to defer responsibility to military staffs for decision-making, or arguments to wrest away decision-making from policymakers with undesired views. As Adam has noted, basic victory definition is inseparable from policy prerogatives. Think-tanks, like other public institutions and figures engaging in policy debates, have a role in offering informed advice, even on matters might not be the professional domain of civilians, that can help shape those prerogatives. If an organization advocating intervention lacks access to civilians, veterans or military fellows with sufficient expertise such that it cannot confidently and cogently substantiate its case for military intervention, that's a problem for the organization to rectify, not for the audience to accept.
Nobody is expecting a think-tank to elaborate a full OPLAN – although there are some which probably could. But an ends, ways and means analysis subjected to the scrutiny of those with defense experience and expertise is all too often lacking in our public discourse. At a point when “leaving it to the generals” has become a rhetorical stoplight to paper over strategic aimlessness in debates over Afghanistan, it is not simply a necessary component of argument but something of a civic responsibility to ensure that the public have a chance to assess the likely costs and outcomes of the use of force - something that the government, by virtue of political and operational concerns, will be reluctant or unable to do without restriction.
Hamid has argued it is unreasonable to demand this since analysts can’t predict what actors would be in play - but the beauty of an ends, ways and means analysis would be that it could formulate what was necessary to achieve objectives, and then determine what combinations of actors, resources, and techniques would be necessary to make the executions of those plans a reasonable choice. Obviously, analysts, which are not psychic, cannot be expected always either to predict the future or read the minds of those privy to militarily relevant information they lack. But they can offer plans that relate the ends, ways, and means of their course of actions, with their assumptions made explicit so that effective debate and critique can be offered - and they should respond to those critiques by examining what kind of resources or strategies would be necessary to address the risk that those assumptions might be false.
War is a grave matter, and discussing war on its own terms is hardly an unfair expectations of advocates who would wish the U.S. participate in it. Similarly, as Daveed Gartenstein-Ross has noted, advocates of non-intervention should be frank about the consequences of the status quo and the feasibility of alternatives. What is dangerous, however, is advocacy without substantive engagement in the subject matter of its aim - whether about Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, or anywhere else. Policymakers and publics alike need voices outside the military capable of assessing military subjects, at least so long as we live in a society that exercises civilian control over the armed forces.
During the American Civil War, the U.S. was lucky enough to be led by perhaps our finest self-taught strategist ever, Abraham Lincoln. If today, a coterie of officials were able to claim a monopoly on military knowledge and operational practice as McClellan attempted to, it would be difficult for the public and policymakers alike to effectively resist the charm of their authority and expertise. Not only, then, does military uninformed civilian debate make it more difficult for a policymaker to undertake militarily-reasonable operations, it can also create space for the military to resist civilian policies. Strategy (and even passing familiarity with operations) should not be cult knowledge kept by an anointed caste, they should be published in vulgate and nailed to doors. Not every policymaker, let alone every voter, can be Lincoln. Hawks and doves alike must endeavor to ensure that their policies and critiques have enough strategic fluency to be worthy of informing laymen and advising leaders.
Update: While I was pounding away at this, Jason Fritz wrote a far superior post. Check it out.
When reading Gregory Johnsen's excellent piece at Waq-al-Qaq on US involvement in Yemen, this phrase jumped out at me:
I have argued for several years now that the US needs to draw as narrow of a circle as possible when it comes to targeting AQAP in Yemen. I worried then as I do now, that any expansion of targeting in Yemen would find the US in a war that it could never kill its way out of.
Johnsen is of course totally right. Should the US interests become coequal with the client government's fortunes, it will find itself even more embroiled in Yemen's local politics than it already is. It is difficult to see how the United States could rectify those politics, especially considering the "light" (heavily qualified, at least lighter than Afghanistan and Iraq) American political and military presence. But the phrase "kill its way out of" reminded me of Admiral Mike Mullen's comment about the impossibility of "killing your way to victory" and the conceptual morass it created for counterinsurgency theorists and practitioners surrounding the proper use of force vis-a-vis persuasion. The following is not to disagree with Johnsen, who has contributed much (if not everything) to our understanding of Yemen. Rather, it is to look at the way that a meme sprung into the consciousness of political and military thinkers.
The statement that one cannot "kill [their] way to victory," from the framework of strategic theory, is not particularly useful. The concept of "victory" does not objectively exist outside of the tactical level. Because victory is defined so much by political objectives, one could primarily achieve victory through force or balance force with other tools of national power depending on the overall policy and strategy. Thus Mullen's phrase cannot be relied on as a universal strategic dictum. Second, while the possibility of achieving victory through brute force is left open to the unique policy context, one can gain control over a situation with a sufficient and strategically employed use of force.
Whether or not that control leads to bigger and better things depends very much on what an actor does to build on it. The US gaining control in the American Civil War was only strategically relevant because of Abraham Lincoln's policy decisions regarding the treatment of a defeated enemy. But in order for whole-of-government power to be employed, the enemy's ability to interfere with the process must be curtailed. As long as an opponent has a "vote" in a situation, nothing can be assured. Syria provides one of the better examples of the situation. Spencer Ackerman, critiquing Anne-Marie Slaughter's proposal for Syrian intervention, observes the following:
Now, why do I say this is a broader problem with the Responsibility to Protect? Because it shows that the R2P is a military endeavor that still lacks actual, substantive objectives for militaries to achieve. If I am one of the Qatari SOF captains who has to aid the “no-kill zones,” I don’t know from Slaughter’s guidance how to design my operational campaign. I get that I have to help the Free Syrian Army clear out a “no-kill zone” of loyalist Syrian troops; I can presume that I must hold that zone. But what happens when I get mortar fire from the loyalists who’ve pulled back? Does protecting that zone mean I can push it outward? If it does, then I am escalating the objectives as Slaughter has described them; if it doesn’t, then I have failed to hold the no-kill zone.
The example illustrates several important points. First, the non-military task of civilian protection is dependent on the use of force to gain control over a tactical zone. Second, the process of gaining control, contrary to the ancient stereotype that force-on-force warfare is simple or does not involve complex decisions, is in fact extremely complex. Tactical decisions are the building blocks of strategy, and each tactical decision is in fact extremely fraught with strategic implications. The gaining of control is neglected at one's own peril. The cost of British inability to gain tactical control over Basra is well-known to readers of this blog, as are the UN's failures in Bosnia and Rwanda. Military forces, when given clear strategy and policy and sufficient resources, can gain control.
Sometimes gaining control through force is possible but also prohibitively expensive. Israel, as Thomas Rid has argued, has opted to use force to build or refresh deterrence rather than gain control. This reflects Tel Aviv's limited resources as well as its desire to contain external threats without detrimental domestic effects. Rid analogizes this to law enforcement concepts of deterrence, which must be constantly refreshed through punishment, instead of nuclear deterrence. Perhaps this model will come to predominate in an era of American fiscal austerity, but it would require an altogether different foreign policy and philosophy of employing force.
Up at Information Dissemination, Owen Cote Jr. of MIT has an interesting take on the future of naval warfare. Those interested in the future of US defense strategy should pay attention to these two grafs, from which I quote at length:
The next major change in naval warfare caused by U.S. submarines will likely result from the marriage between the submarine on the one hand, and precision, land attack, tactical ballistic missiles (TBMs) and small, long endurance UAVs on the other.In general, fast weapons and small UAVs would give submarines a capability to find and strike high value, mobile targets ashore. Specifically, in the context of the new Air-Sea Battle strategy, they would enable a submarine-based capability to destroy rather than merely suppress modern, ground-based air defenses, or in the DOD vernacular, DEAD. A submarine-based DEAD capability would close a major capability gap against modern A2/AD networks. The systems that form these networks often seek to use the sanctuary provided by mobility in the cluttered environment ashore as a base from which to launch missile strikes against fixed targets necessary for power projection like air bases, or more ambitiously against ships at sea.
DEAD? I suppose someone had some fun with that one. Of course, Cote observes that air defenses under this scheme are also assumed to be mobile, which presents a set of different problems:
Ever since the failed “SCUD Hunt” of Desert Storm, persistent airborne surveillance has been identified as key to the rapid identification and precise geo-location of mobile targets, as has been a source of precision weapons for attacking those mobile targets in time urgent fashion when they are found. Everything learned during the decade-long war on terror in operations against IEDs and terrorist leaders has amplified that message. This means that persistent airborne surveillance and time urgent weapons will also need to play a central role in defeating the mobile targets that form the heart of an A2/AD network. ... At the heart of any DEAD capability against a modern air defense system is the need to destroy relatively small numbers of expensive, phased array engagement radars. Without them, SAM batteries lack the ability to track targets with the accuracy needed to guide missiles against them. These radars need only emit intermittently during an engagement and can be quickly moved afterward. Thus, traditional radar-homing weapons like HARM will not work because they require a continuous signal to home on, and traditional single-platform, angle-of-arrival (AOA) ELINT techniques cannot provide accuracy sufficient to target coordinate-seeking weapons.
Cote goes on to look at how an alternative ELINT/COMINT technique called Time Difference of Arrival (TDOA). At this point, I fear that my acronym limit has been reached. The point, overall, is something Dan and I have highlighted in the past. These are major conflict capabilities, but will most likely find operational use in humanitarian interventions, offshore counterterrorism operations, and missions in the Persian Gulf. As Robert Caruso observed about the Afloat Foreward Operating Base, naval ships that enable light projection of special operations forces, Marines and allow dominance over onshore battlefields without the need for large infrastructures are indispensible for current American strategy. A DEAD (OK, bad pun) giveaway is the way Iraq and Afghanistan experiences with improvised explosive devices and high-value targeting has influenced the design of counter-shore capabilities for conventional warfare.
When coupled with operational cyber capabilities for missions against state opponents, what you begin to see is the shape of a military building a capability for decisive onshore intervention. Granted, it is important to qualify this (as we have with drones). The US could, with sufficient investment, destroy Syria's air defense system with existing technologies. But even so, the real problem is the postwar situation and regional effects. Weapons do not make war, and the ultimate determinant of US intervention will be the way these innovations mesh (or do not) with policy discussion in Washington.
Drones and cyber weapons are not the same thing, as Tim Stevens notes. Yet they are both popularly perceived as political weapons---specialized capabilities employed at the discretion of the President. Executive control of deadly weapons, the meme goes, are part of a growing centralization of potent force that is inherently anti-democratic. Aside from the inconvenient parts of the narrative---drone attacks are politically popular and conducted under the auspices of an Authoritization of Military Force (AUMF) that Congress has declined to challenge because it reflects such public desires---there is reason to believe that political weapons will be less of a potent force than their critics imagine.
Covert operations--political warfare, propaganda, and military support to paramilitary groups--were the first modern political weapon. Contrary to the myth of out-of-control intelligence agencies, covert operations were mostly presidential projects. Presidents searched for flexibility in a Cold War whose alliance structures and nuclear dangers firmly challenged executive freedom of action. They also occured within a Cold War framework that generated broad public support for non-military measures to counter Soviet influence at home and abroad. The Marshall Plan, for example, was only one half the benign aid project as popularly remembered. It was nested within an overall plan for the defense of Europe that included strategic influence operations, covert operations, and the creation of paramilitary stay-behind networks.
Covert operations, however, did not deliver the Presidential flexibility intelligence agencies promised. In order for covert operations to be successful, infrastructure had to be developed and unruly local clients contracted. The classic example is the Bay of Pigs, as the United States generated a private army that could not be successfully utilized without direct American air support. Faced with a choice between sending them to fight an hopeless battle on the Cuban beaches or let them dissipate back into the US and reveal the covert preparations, the US let tactical matters determine policy. Sometimes covert operations paid dividends, but usually out of proportion to their costs.
Similarly, require host nation political agreements to deploy. They are weak against air defenses and require an intelligence, surveillence, and command and control human and technical infrastructure. As Dan has blogged, their weaknesses force them to be supplemented by manned aircraft, special operations forces, and missiles. Cyber computer network weapons like the Stuxnet attack require detailed development and highly specific kinds of target intelligence, and have yet to achieve a serious political objective. Merely by deploying Stuxnet, the United States has rendered itself unable to use it again. As Thomas Rid notes, the present generation of strategically useful cyber weapons are effectively single-shot tools.
Covert operations, drones, and cyber weapons are most successfully employed within the context of larger strategic efforts rather than standalone political weapons. But the process of creating a strategy for their use, paradoxically, reduces their utility as option-maximizers because it widens the span of institutional actors involved. The successful employment of information warfare tools against Iraqi air defenses in 1991 occured within the context of large-scale warfare. The covert defense of Europe was tied to the overall American containment and rollback policies in that theater. Finally, covert operations in Afghanistan were also, as any viewer of Charlie Wilson's War knows, hardly confined to secret White House deliberations.
Finally, Iran-Contra, the most significant case in which the executive tried to develop a political weapon that bypassed the legislature and the wider public, resulted in substantial scandal and blowback. Iran-Contra is not necessarily proof that the "system worked," but what it does demonstrate is how difficult it is in America for a President to carry out large-scale covert operations without legislative and public acceptance. Political weapons certainly give Presidents new capabilities, but also constrain them.
OK, there is no sex involved in this post (I'm not a 4Chan guy, my apologies if that's your thing). I just wanted a catchy title. And the "lies" involved are the usual sort that states employ for covert operations. But there is a lot of cyberhype and red herrings associated with the Stuxnet disclosure. The revelation (which was not unsurprising to those following the Stuxnet case) that the US has been involved has raised all of the issues of the cyberwar/cyberpeace debate: what constitutes war vs. security, the lexical inflation involved in the term "cyberweapons," the force of norms in cyberspace, infrastructure attacks, and the role of international regulation. I will deal with each of them in turn.
Separating Cyber "War" and Cyber Peace (I)
First, there is a very concrete difference between cyber conflict, cyber war, and cyber warfare. Conflict is a generic term that refers to all manner of adversarial interactions in the international system. States conflict in a variety of ways, some of which involve various forms of coercion. The United States and Iran are arguably engaged in in multiple kinds of financial, covert, and proxy conflict. But the definition of war should not be unnecessarily expanded. As Thomas Rid has insightfully observed, standalone cyber war is impossible. But before I explain why, it's worth going into what the domain we are talking about actually represents.
The notion of cyber "war" is based on a misunderstanding of what cyberspace constitutes. Cyberspace is a domain utilized since the late 19th century that always existed in some shape or form, but only has been recently accessed by human tools. Cyberspace is only as much a "man-made" domain as space or the ocean is. It is different in that it governs the seams between the artificially constructed domain relationships that DoD has portioned out. The term "battlespace" accurately demonstrates that air, sea, and land are really permutations of the same thing, and the realm of "command, control, communication, coordination, and cognition" that cyberspace represents is something qualitatively different.
Cyberspace is, of course, not a separation from "real" life any more than the sea, air, or space is. Human beings are embodied in cyberspace, but our inability to visualize the complexity of the space in which our communications travel across large distances leads us to create an image of it as somehow being a Tron-like universe we lose our physical selves to enter. All things that send and receive information have cyberspace, something that the Chinese have always recognized in their theoretical juxtaposition of computer network operations (CNO) and electronic warfare (EW) under the common banner of information warfare. True, CNOs may exploit pre-existing vulnerabilities through zero-day exploits and EW physically degrades systems, but they are not conceptually separate.
It is a common truth of naval, air, and space warfare that people live on the land, hence the goal of military efforts is to influence events on land. The goal of cyber warfare is to cause political effects through uses of force. As we have seen from today's disclosure, attribution is overrated when it really counts. Ambiguity rarely serves either domestic or international purposes. Unless one has a narrow technical objective or is simply doing it for the lulz, there is no benefit to keeping silent about being the originator of an cyber attack that actually matters. Would the Obama administration, if it sought to stop the killings in Syria, launch an airstrike with a completely invisible fighter jet? No. The point of using destructive force is to let the other team know that there could be more on the way.
Separating Cyber "War" and Cyber Peace (II)
Rid argues that the vast majority of what has been dubbed "cyberwar" by the media is actually sabatoge, subversion, theft, vandalism, or intelligence exploitation. All of these things are important forms of conflict relevant to national security, law enforcement, and private security. In order to be war, however, they have to be lethal, instrumental, and waged to further political objectives. Is cybersecurity an important problem? Yes. But cybersecurity and cyberwarfare are two conceptually different problems that are routinely conflated.
It is true that some cyber operations and tactics constitute cyberwarfare, but they can never be "war" alone. Certainly some cyber attacks can constitute acts of war (more on that later), but it is illogical to believe that an adversary could attain his or her objectives solely through cyberspace or that war would be limited to cyberspace. The DoD's Plan X, for example, is based on the explicit presumption that cyber operations and tactics amplify conventional attacks or work in concert with them. Furthermore, the vast majority of what are called cyber weapons are not actually weapons. A weapon is designed with lethal intent--to purposefully cause or threaten loss of life and physical damage. The present generation of cyberweapons utilizes the target system itself as a vehicle for creating damage, and EW platforms explicitly create direct damage themselves.
Now, is Stuxnet an "act of war," as many have claimed? The answer is really not as crystal clear as it has been made out to be. First, the phrase "act of war" is a political rather than legal concept. The United States chose to interpret the Gulf of Tonkin skirmish as a casus belli but the Republic of Korea did not choose to do so when the Cheonan was purposefully sunk. Inasmuch as war is a lethal relationship between two competing forces seeking to impose their will on the other through violence, the Kargil conflict between India and Pakistan was a military conflict. But until India chooses to respond to Pakistan's numerous state sponsorship and in some cases operational control of terrorism against the Indian heartland and Kashmir, it will not rise to the level of warfare. Iran has not chosen to interpret the Stuxnet attack as an act of war and has even downplayed the damage. Had the United States executed an airstrike on the same centrifuges, do as anyone believe Iran would have sat on their hands? And this brings us into the next paragraph.
What we do have, however, are international law standards as to what constitutes an act that could justify retaliation. I will quote my own (rather crude simplification) summary of former Air Force JAG Charles Dunlap on this issue:
Charles Dunlap observed that international law of armed conflict (LOAC) tends to be "effects-based"--as in the effect of the action determines whether it constitutes an "armed attack" against which can be retaliated. LOAC can at times be confusing because it does not grant a clear go-ahead for states to respond to force more generally, even if it simultaneously prohibits threats of force (talking about Articles 2 and 51 of the UN Charter respectively).
The effect of Stuxnet has been vastly overestimated. It slowed Iran's nuclear program, certainly, by maliciously altering its operations. Had the United States desired to use Stuxnet as a means of compelling Iran through a more lethal attack, it could have done so. But this would contravene the purpose of utilizing a covert cyberweapon in the first place. The United States wanted to slow down the nuclear program in a narrow, technical sense rather than using lethal force to compel the Iranians to cease their efforts. Cyber covert operations offered the President the flexibility necessary to do so. The US, similarly, wanted to overthrow the Guatemalan and Iranian governments without engaging in warfare and used covert means to do so.
My CTOVision colleague Matt Devost is right to observe that this heralds the beginning of state use of cyberweapons for infrastructure disruption in peacetime. The private sector has traditionally conceptualized infrastructure attacks through the prism of criminality or thrill-seeking. Now it is clear that they already have been used to further international strategic objectives. But Matt, in referencing Chinese military texts, is right to highlight that the US' role in innovating this is overblown. There is nothing close to a "no-first use" norm that the United States has just violated. To state that there was is to overstate the degree of consensus in the international system and also ignore the covert context of Stuxnet. Furthermore, other states have conceptualized and planned for information warfare long before Stuxnet was even conceived as a means of balancing against American high-tech power.
The Chinese military text Unrestricted Warfare's actual influence within the People's Liberation Army (PLA) hierarchy has been massively oversold, but "unrestricted warfare" against infrastructure targets through IW is a staple of openly accessible and translated Russian and Chinese military writings. Ask Taia Global's Jeffrey Carr, the Foreign Military Studies Office's Timothy L. Thomas, and the Heritage Foundation's Dean Cheng about it and they will talk for days about the ways in which IW attacks are conceived as perfectly normal tools of statecraft by major powers. The Chinese and Russians have not done so because they have no concrete strategic interest right now in doing so that would counterbalance the massive risks involved. As Bob Gourley noted, if the attack is serious enough attribution will become an afterthought:
For example, regarding attribution, I would like to point out that at a high level, there really is not an attribution problem. I can attribute any attack, I mean 100% if attacks, with 100% confidence that I have made an attribution. Of course I know we always imply that attribution needs to be accurate. But I am trying to make the point here that decision-makers should know you can make decisions based on assumptions. And if we have not been able to think through this well enough we might have to understand this. And maybe we should make our adversaries understand this as well. Maybe we should make it policy that we will make any attribution we want to make and those we attribute attacks to will pay the consequences.
The Russians and Chinese understand this. Attacks that they can get away with are likely to pose problems for information security but not necessarily information war. And as anyone who has talked to a network defender recently knows, the Chinese and Russians are already launching countless cyber operations of this sort already. Certainly there may be room for miscalculation and misperception, but this has less to do with inherent technical considerations and more with the political questions of redlines and other states' perception of those threshholds.
Is US use of Stuxnet going to lead to the normative legitimization of cyber weapons? As my blogmate Dan has noted in the past, norms in international relations are fundamentally sustained by coercion. Had the Axis powers won the second World War, the current structure of political, economic, and legal relationships based on the 1945 regime would be unthinkable. The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is on some way a backhanded acknowledgment of this brute fact, as it depended on massive military coercion executed by the United States in Libya. It is foundering in Syria because the United States is not going (at present) to repeat the process and no one else has the capacity to substitute for us. Each of the three most powerful states in the information realm has an incentive to flout whatever embryonic set of norms about information warfare that may or may not have emerged. The United States seeks cyberweapons to lock in its conventional military advantage and Russia and China seek them to precisely negate that overwhelming power. And this is without going into the problem of cyber arms control that Mike Tanji has blogged about.
What the Chinese and Russians will do is exploit Stuxnet for the purpose of lawfare. As Jeffrey Carr has blogged, the Russians in particular are attempting to execute a legal end run around the United States through the United Nations, protecting their usage of offensive information tools while clamping down on American superiority in cyber weapon technology and operations. This is called "soft balancing" and is not really distinctive to the cyber realm. The Chinese and Russians have been "hard" balancing against the United States' information dominance since the Gulf War through their extensive investment in information warfare capabilities. Where Stuxnet and American investment in cyber warfare does become a concern is if other states perceive it as a threat to themselves and invest accordingly. It will likely accelerate a process of investment in asymmetric weapons by other states that has been ongoing since 1991, but the idea that it will scare other powers more than, say, a carrier battle group is somewhat off-base. Where is some more concrete danger is the US, in turn, being blamed for future malware utilized by other powers and groups. There are also legitimate questions about how the open use of the tool could lead to its reformatting as part of a "digital arms market," but also reasons to be skeptical as well due to the highly specific kinds of target intelligence needed.
Reading Dan's latest drone piece, I was reminded of some arguments about airpower and information warfare I first encountered in 1999 while watching the Kosovo War on TV. About 15 years ago, you couldn't pick up a defense or international relations publication without reading a downbeat analysis of "virtual" or "post-heroic" war. Modern technology had made wars cost-free, more likely, and could potentially subvert democracy, the theme went. Today we're hearing a similar jingle, and this time, the future of robotics technology is the bogeyman.
The 1990s literature on virtual war and post-heroic war was not uniformly bad. Some of these reflections were thoughtful, as Jack McDonald notes about Michael Ignatieff's always fascinating oeuvre. Others were completely ridiculous and sprung from intellectuals' loathing and suspicion of any and all standoff weaponry. Perhaps the nadir of this era were Jean Baudrillard's arguments about the Gulf War. Yes, most people got what it really meant wrong. But even when you take into account the points Baudrillard really wanted to make about the relationship between media, information-based warfare, and politics, he was still a tad off course. The post-heroic moment was fundamentally rooted in a deeply rooted sense of fear about the implications of the information-based Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). It seemed to cement the dominance of the West and the US in particular. Worse yet, it promised a future of war in which Third World armies were swatted away by precision weapons as surely as a little boy could fry a helpless nest of ants with a magnifying glass.
The post-heroic critics were wrong on multiple levels. First, they were wrong (as they are now) about the novelty of power projection enabling discretionary wars. As Dan has noted, if you're unhappy about discretionary wars, blame the Navy. If you're unhappy about privatized force being used as tools of state power, well, blame John Hawkood. David Parrot has also written about how privatized force has been the norm for most of Western history. Private CIA air forces supporting local allies is the Agency's equivalent of a cheap bar band playing "Free Bird," as is the peculiar idea held by many supporters of drone operations and humanitarian intervention that operating in an a country's airspace without its expressed permission is not violating its sovereignty. It's true that America's intervention in Libya had troubling implications for war powers---but I'm talking about the first one 200 years ago. You know, the one fought by a crew of foreign mercenaries Uncle Sam dredged up from every sundry Mediterranean watering hole from Athens to the Levant.
Second, the "virtual war" movement took Pentagon ad copy seriously without realizing that all of the "systems of systems" rhetoric was an aspiration rather than a military fact. Most postwar analyses of the actual impact of RMA platforms during the Gulf War also cast doubt on the idea that platform superiority would translate into operational effectiveness. The grisly ambush of Blackhawk Down also proved that special operations forces aren't always so special when they are outnumbered by massess of Third World infantry in urban environments. Finally, the Future Combat Systems (FCS) fiasco and the numerous tactical surprises encountered by ground forces in the 2003 invasion phase of the Iraq War laid the final nail in the coffin in the technocentric vision of dominant battlespace knowledge that would supposedly "lock in" American military advantage. This didn't mean that an RMA hadn't occured, or that Admiral Cebrowski and others were not correct about the way technology was transforming military operations. But those that feared the political impact of these technologies, at home and abroad, had made future projections that did not take into account the zig-zaggedy trajectory of strategic history.
Military revolutions also do not remain within a single country. The Chinese were so shocked by the seemingly effortless way the US intervened in the Middle East and Balkans during the 1990s and resolved to invest in "informatizing" their forces and building up an anti-access capability. People's Liberation Army (PLA) military writings, though shrouded in the political jargon characteristic of Communist militaries, could have been written by a DoD green-badger during the height of the Effects-Based Operations (EBO) craze. Yes, PLA doctrine, is, like a particularly inspired Houhai Bar Street cover band, partially inspired by the top 40 "hits" of yesteryear. But the specific way the PLA built its own information warfare, precision-strike, and joint operations doctrine bears little resemblance to the American assimilation of the RMA. Quite naturally, it's shaped by unique Chinese roles and missions, technological base, doctrine, and strategic culture. And this is to say nothing of the way technology may have transformed non-state militaries.
Military innovation literature has consistently demonstrated the basic fact that individual national culture, economics, and defense requirements dictate the form a particular state's use of technology or doctrine will take. How a state or non-state actor assimilates a given technology matters more than whether they have it or not, especially since technological innovations do not necessarily stay with first adopters. Examples can be found in the evolution of tank doctrine and carrier operations. The British may have been initially ahead in tank design and doctrine, and but that didn't save them from deploying them in a manner distinctly inferior to the Wehrmarcht. The fragility of RMAs was grasped by the early RMA writers, who often warned that the US could not expect to be the only actor to exploit precision-strike technology.
Another basic truth is that those who forecast continued impunity also forget that the defense is the stronger form of war. Tanks soon were countered by layered anti-tank defenses. Massed artillery barrages in World War I were frustrated by elastic defense. Aircraft once prophesized to be invincible were torn to pieces over the skies in Europe in the Combined Bomber Offensive. And what of the nuclear weapon, the so-called "ultimate weapon?" Well, its ultimate-ness meant that it could not be employed as an effective operational weapon, and using nuclear weapons to do anything more than deter was very chancy. For every ambiguous success of nuclear compellence (such as the end of Pacific War and the Korean War), there have also been many more failures to achieve escalation dominance. Iran is likely to discover that all they do is protect it from something the US has never seriously contemplated: full-bore regime change. And covert action, the political "ultimate weapon" of the Cold War era, has a checkered history so infamous that even reasoned scholars of intelligence history such as John Prados think the entire idea in and of itself is dubious. Maybe Prados is a bit too harsh, but his point is important.
Solly Zuckerman noted in 1962 that technological complexity actually make it more difficult to achieve strategic effect on the battlefield. More complex systems tend to increase personnel requirements and require a complex backbone of supporting technologies and systems to optimize. This will not change with the introduction of autonomous weapons. In fact, the need to ensure that these military technologies act in accordance with the commander's intent will likely create new classes of technicians and operators--just as remotely piloted vehicles generated their own set of support requirements. Zuckerman also argues that more complex technologies also limit freedom of action, which is also true when one examines the political implications of actually utilizing drones in expeditionary environments. Autonomous weapons, should they emerge, will be targeted by a group of international lawyers and activists opposed to their mere existence. Using an autonomous system is one thing on the open seas or skies, but even the most gung-ho robotics supporter is likely to see their relative lack of utility in a populated area. As Martin Libicki predicted in The Mesh and the Net, urban warfare will remain an infantryman's game. Sure, technology will transform infantry operations, but all of the robotic bells and whistles will not change the fact that the ultimate decider of the "three-block war" is the man on the scene with the gun.
Maybe future robotics technology will expand impunity, but strategic history suggests that impunity never lasts very long. The predictions of "virtual war" during the 1990s must have seemed very hollow to Army and Marine soldiers slugging it out house-to-house in Fallujah or armor commanders discovering in 2003 that they were still fighting encounter battles in the age of dominant battlespace knowledge. Critics of American intervention and the Shock and Awe crowd are strangely both (unintentionally) in agreement about the future of warfare. But the future, as that great philosopher James T. Kirk once said, is an undiscovered country.
W. N. Hodgson on Memorial Day. Paul Fussell would have approved.
By all the glories of the day
And the cool evening's benison,
By that last sunset touch that lay
Upon the hills where day was done,
By beauty lavisghly outpoured
And blessings carelessly received,
By all the days that I have lived
Make me a solider, Lord.
By all of man's hopes and fears,
And all the wonders poets sing,
The laughter of unclouded years,
And every sad and lovely thing;
By the romantic ages stored
With high endeavor that was his,
By all his mad catastrophes
Make me a man, O Lord.
I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of Thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say goodbye to all of this;--
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.
Before Action (1916)
King's College London professor John Mackinlay, one of my favorite European security analysts, has an interesting new essay at Prism. The gist? Britain's operational design is moving from projecting power abroad to a more insular of idea of security:
Is it unimaginable that Britain may soon find itself in need of armed forces that are much more versatile and have greater capabilities for dealing with other kinds of worst-case scenarios? In 2011, the short-term success of rioters and demonstrators associated with the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Iran, Libya, Bahrain, Oman, Djibouti, Kuwait, and Morocco seemed to push the techniques of political violence over the threshold of a new chapter. Across the region, the images and techniques of mass deployment by the population of one state seemed to incite violence in another. The crowds that surged into the streets were impulsive, leaderless, and without a deliberated manifesto. Their guidance through the streets relied on the widespread possession of cell phones and access to the Internet. In the UK, similarly leaderless crowds using similarly impulsive networking methods surged onto the streets of London, Manchester, and Birmingham.
Mackinaly argues that a number of environmental, economic, and migratory pressures on European security are coalescing, and this geopolitical event horizon may force Britain to choose between its traditional support of US operations abroad and ensuring domestic stability at home through an integrated mixture of security services. Moreover, public support for expeditionary operations has eroded over the last ten years and there is no longer an immediately compelling rationale for European "out-of-area" operations. He goes on to recommend a new kind of operational design rooted in gendarme capabilities.
Of course, anyone broadly familiar with 19th century history and the conservative reaction against revolutionary ideas after the Napoleonic wars might find this sort of idea vaguely familiar. These too were conceived of as broadly paradigm-breaking national security (although that term had not yet been invented) challenges, enabled by new ideologies and evolved technologies. French political theorist Paul Virilio has written extensively in Speed and Politics on how states have traditionally feared urban threats that use the urban commons as a medium for channeling revolutionary fervor to create a sped-up and terrifying new crowd power. Virilio's analysis begins with the French Revolution and the street fights of the late 1800s and reviews evolved responses to crowd power such as Baron Haussman's military-oriented renovation of Paris. The Concert of Vienna was not just a mechanism for great power peace but a means of freeing up European states to focus on preservation of their own internal orders in the face of threats viewed just as apocalyptically as Islamic jihadism is seen today. The phrase "terrorist," after all, has its roots in the state terror of Maximilian Robespierre and his mobs. And just as Islamophobia is sometimes substituted for solid analysis of the domestic terrorist threat, the horrors of the French Revolution fueled bizarre conspiracy theories that still have resonsance among the tinfoil hat crowd today.
The difference, primarily, is that counterinsurgency and counterterrorism thinking have powerfully shaped the way security policymakers look at domestic complex operations challenges. Such a shift goes beyond the simplistic idea of police militarization, as European public security has traditionally featured the expansive use of domestic intelligence and expansive police powers for maintaining order. Though European counterinsurgency and counterterrorism thought has conceptual roots in colonial experiences, the guiding logic behind it can be seen as a liberal response to the same kind of threats that motivated the conservative reaction of the 19th century.
Aaron Ellis of the Tory blog Egremont has written about the concept of the "internationalization of the national interest" as conceived during the Tony Blair government. Broadly speaking, British policymakers argued that in a world shrunk by globalization far-off security threats required urgent attention lest they trigger domestic catastrophe. There is, however, little unique to Blair about such an idea. It became broadly accepted in the West after September 11. While Patrick Porter and others have focused on the degree to which this idea ties Western strategy to far-flung zones of action with little connection to core interests, the internationalization of the national interest is not really a cosmopolitan idea. It is actually quite a parochial one tied to the postwar European state's dilemmas of domestic order.
By proposing the idea that domestic and international security threats were inescapably linked, Blair and others did not internationalize the national interest. Rather, Blair domesticated the international. Unruly, failed, or failing states became seen as extensions of existing domestic security problems. Foreign grey zones were areas that had to be pacified to fully realize the state's domestic monopoly of force, because those areas exerted influence that compromised domestic government authority. There was, in a sense, an equation of pacifying Helmand with solving the problem of a "no-go" neighborhood in London. But unlike the 19th century European states, which conceived of domestic security problems as a problem to be dealt with Napoleon's "whiff of grapeshot," the domestication of the international reflected the liberal norms and concerns of 21st century welfare states shaped by a desire to transcend a century of ideological turmoil. The management of order, especially in the context of publics vulnerable to extremist ideologies, was conceived from a frame of simultaneously extending security, policing malcontents, and gaining legitimacy through state largesse.
If Mackinlay is right, the consequence of a decline in public and elite acceptance of an internationalized interest and expeditionary operations means that complex operations are merely returning to their domestic origins. This would not mean literally carrying out military operations akin to Iraq and Afghanistan. But just as some US police forces have adopted counterinsurgency methods to domestic legal, normative, and political contexts it would mean--as Mackinlay suggests--an European operational design for a predominately civil security context.
Thanks to Carl Prine, I got a good look at Cerywn Moore's look at case studies of complex attacks in the North Causcasus. There is a lot of theory regarding swarming and complex attacks, but very little empirical work aside from Sean Edwards' dissertation on swarming in military history. Though John P. Sullivan and I like to use it, Mumbai is fast becoming the Algeria of swarming: an over-used case that has reached the culminating point of its utility to theory and practice. So I'm happy that someone has done a good look at these sorts of operations. Moore looks in particular at the 1995 Budyonnovsk Hospital raid and the July 2004 assault on Nazran. In the process, he gets at the core of what Sullivan has tried to get across in his writings on police and urban operations: it's about command and control.
The military has a C2 system that is--at least compared to many police systems--extremely robust and able to deal with dispersed tactical threats. The police have less resources and less experience, and face difficulty at times in managing situations over large urban expanses. In the case studies Moore reviews, Russian police C2 was severely strained at the point of impact. Of course, some major American cities also have engineered flexible systems that have successfully managed large and complex natural and human threats. More broadly, federal and local agencies train alike under the national Incident Command System.
As any reader of Mike Davis' work knows, Los Angeles is (to understate) a very demanding operating environment. LA's ecological fragilty is infamous and its municipal politics are very complicated. It is also a federally designated High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), the birthplace of MS-13, and the stomping ground of a veritable United Nations of internationally networked criminal organizations. Finally, Los Angeles and its environs stretches over 502 square miles with a population of over three million. From urban riots to wildfires, LA keeps police and emergency response agencies very busy.
Sid Heal of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department helped create a disaster response framework inspired by the Marine Corps' Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) concept as well as disaster response researcher Thomas Drabek's idea of Emergent Multi-Organizational Networks (EMONs). Heal was looking for a way to buld an disaster response ability that, like the Marine Corps he served in, could rapidly move with a comprehensive host of organic assets. This organization would also have to expand and contract rapidly based on operational needs during a disaster with clear lines of interagency command and control, and Heal seized on Drabek's idea as a means of accomplishing this goal. Sullivan himself also was involved with the Terrorism Early Warning Group (TEWG)--which he and I have often written about within the context of police C2.
I would be remiss in portarying this simply as an organizational or technical challenge. American municipal agencies exist within a unique political ecosystem very much shaped by local politics and needs. The Los Angeles Police Department's evolution since the 1991 Rodney King riots and the 1997-1998 Rampart scandals to the William Bratton era is a case study in the problems that can ensue when an municipal organization falls out of step with the public. The LAPD shook by the riots was predominately affiliated with the city's older and more established political interests and Bratton's chief innovation was to build a wider base of political support by overhauling its internal culture.
Other major cities have different, but equally valid emergency response frameworks. Urban attacks certainly pose challenges, but American cities have successfully adapted C2 and operations structures for complex contingencies and disasters.
That is no way to win a war, folks. My column in World Politics Review this week looks at the way in which the United States and its allies, while complaining a lot about the government in Afghanistan, have not ourselves been the most dependable partners.
As Adam recently reminded us to beware bad quantitative measures, it’s important to remember that bad qualitative ones are similarly subversive. To stay on the subject of Sino-American rivalry, note David Axe’s post comparing the J-20’s progress to American frustration with its 5th generation fighter programs. While the reader’s first temptation is to fear for American superiority because China appears to be developing new aircraft faster than America, jet-for-jet comparisons and procurement process envy only tell part of the story. Even when Axe notes that China’s stealth programs have their own problems, I think comparing weapons systems that China isn’t likely to field equivalents to in large numbers leads debate down the wrong track.
States with the best hardware or most technically-impressive defense establishments don’t automatically win. Niall Ferguson, in his Pity of War, pointed out that the Central Powers were more fiscally efficient in inflicting casualties. In World War II, the Allied powers were often technically inferior side. Certainly the German R&D programs had some notable advantages over U.S. equivalents in some fields. The Germans led the way in sophisticated tanks, aircraft, small arms, and rocket and jet technology. But ultimately, logistical and geographic advantages bought the Allied coalitions time that initially technically or tactically superior foes could ill afford to waste.
Similarly, while China’s development of 5th generation fighter technology is certainly concerning, it’s not the prime concern in theater. The more concerning issue is that China might be able to muster a large number of platforms and personnel that are good enough to deny a more limited number of qualitatively superior American and allied equivalents. John Stillion and Scott Perdue made this point, most explicitly on a tactical scale, in “Air Combat Past, Present and Future,” noting sortie generation – with scant mention of J-20s, and even with soft-balled estimates of Chinese A2/AD measures against American local infrastructure – could deliver devastating results as American airmen struggled to overcome distance and inferior numbers.
If America suffers a disappointing result in a conventional war in the near future, it will likely not be because the victor fielded, pound-for-pound, better equipment. It would more likely be that the enemy is able to “get there first and with the most,” and maintain that longer than the U.S. is politically willing to muster additional resources from either geographic redistribution or internal economic extraction. None of this to say that technological superiority or fast R&D don’t necessarily matter, but only to note they only matter to the extent they can leverage advantages or mitigate disadvantages in the broader geographical and logistical framework that allows the arms to be brought to bear.
True net assessment is a lost art these days, at least in popular military budget discussions. Let's take this Bloomberg piece, for example. First, the headline: "Obama's 'Paper Tiger' Pentagon Budget Spends Five Times China." I understand and respect that the piece is mostly about rebutting an election year claim that reductions of the defense budget will make the US militarily weak. I have no desire to wade into those muddy waters since they have been well-covered by others. But, as the article title implies, the piece supposedly rebuts the claim by looking at the data:
U.S. spending accounted for 41 percent of global military expenditures in 2011, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. China accounted for 8.2 percent and Russia 4.1 percent, the Stockholm-based policy group said in an April report.
And this is where the problem begins. It means nothing to state that the US outspends China by five times because flat aggregate comparisons of defense spending tells us little about operational and strategic outcomes. Let's start with the strictly material: The US is a global power with global responsibilities. China, on the other hand, regionally concentrates its forces. The US is operating at the periphery whereas China, an power rooted in the hard crust of the Asian landmass, has no such logistical problems. Such a figure also tells us nothing about the correlation of forces in the theater in question, or whether each power has managed to translate spending into usable military resources. Given that there have been a lot of news stories about whether or not the US has been getting value out of its latest aerial platforms and problems associated with aging Cold War-era systems as well as the way that personnel and per-unit major platform costs may be causing a "defense death spiral," such an omission has analytical consequences.
Doctrine and force employment matter too. During the late 70s, Phillip Karber ran a simulation of May 1940 for an overly quantitative theater balance methodology called WEI-WUV and found that it didn't account for French and British defeat. The Allies may have enjoyed quantitative and qualitative platform advantages but did not master the "modern system" of military operations that had evolved out of World War I. The Germans, on the other hand, were farther along in the path towards combined arms mobile warfare even if they had some serious material and doctrinal flaws of their own. Andrew Marshall also reminds us that the socio-bureaucratic set of relationships within a military hierarchy also have an impact on effectiveness.
Finally, let's go to the most important factor: the human. WJ Rue at Gunpowder and Lead explains:
Let’s assume that the U.S. and Russia spend the same amount of money on their respective militaries. Let’s further assume that the U.S. allocates a sizeable portion of its resources to training – we’ll say the average fighter pilot gets roughly 150 hours per year in the cockpit. Russia, meanwhile, elects to spend its resources on slightly more capable jets, but its pilots only get 20 hours per year flight time, and they ran out of money before they could build a simulator. If we assume that similar circumstances exist throughout the Russian armed forces, who has the more capable military? The well-trained one or the one with the expensive equipment that the troops don’t know how to use effectively?
Is it too much to expect this in a short piece ostensibly about US budget debates and election politics? Probably. But defense budget debates are also never served well by using total military spending as a good metric of comparison of military power. As Rue argues, military power has aspects that are easy to quantify and other facets that are difficult to express on a balance sheet. Hence, the utility of net assessment.
As is wont to happen, the current forms of warfare the United States in engaging in and preparing for lend themselves easily to misrepresentation and simplification. As the U.S. appears to wind down the era of large scale U.S.-led land operations, particularly ones in which the U.S. is bearing the brunt of combat against insurgencies, the new form of U.S. operations against non-state actors has unsurprisingly been described in terms such as drone wars or components of an offshore or counterterrorism strategy, while conventional platforms and capabilities are viewed in reference to the apparent "pivot to Asia" and AirSea Battle. However, recent events in Yemen demonstrate that such these sorts of small war operations, while they have a significant covert component and often involve the use of remotely piloted aircraft, also involve boots on the ground and the use of what are often conceived of as conventional military platforms such as naval and aerial ISR and strike assets.
On Sunday, a U.S. special forces trainer embedded with Yemeni troops suffered a serious combat wound. This came on the heels of a LA Times piece last week which noted that several dozen U.S. military personnel were on the ground in Yemen embedded with Yemeni forces and assisting with targeting for U.S. strike capabilities. Also notable is a recent story by David Axe highlighting the work of bloggers who have publicized the presence of a unit of F-15Es based out of Djibouti. All of these developments reveal some uncomfortable truths about the nature of U.S. power projection.
Firstly, while drones are undoubtedly a significant portion of U.S. operations in its counterterrorism campaigns across the Indian Ocean rim, they are but one platform in one prong of the effort. The phrase "drone war" might be accurate for Pakistan, where by tacit agreement with the Pakistani government and military the U.S. has restricted its strike operations to drone activities. But even in Pakistan the presence of proxy forces such as the Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams and significant amounts of on-the-ground CIA and JSOC personnel supporting targeting are a major portion of the campaign. In Yemen and Somalia, where the U.S. has more flexibility diplomatically and geographically, expansions in strike campaigns have meant more U.S. forces operating on the ground, as well as the use of manned aircraft and naval vessels.
Despite the hype, even in politically sensitive counterterrorism options drones remain but one instrument in the U.S. arsenal. The primary perceived advantage of drones, that they keep service members out of harm's way, is really not a significant concern in these theaters. Pakistan is not in the habit of seriously defending its western airspace, nor does Yemen or AQAP have the will or capability of imposing significant military obstacles to U.S. standoff strikes. All these sentiments hold even more true for Somalia. Indeed, as the crash of the U-28 in Djibouti recently demonstrated, pilots of fixed-wing aircraft are at a greater risk for accidents than they are of being shot down in the Indian Ocean "shadow wars." And indeed, manned aircraft are frequently employed - AC-130 gunships were frequent features of U.S. operations in Somalia, along with helicopter gunshipsand JSOC assets. So too has the U.S. used cruise missiles to strike targets in Yemen and naval gunfire to support U.S. special operations on the ground in Somalia.
Ultimately, to a non-state threat in a conventionally permissive environment, a submarine, frigate, Strike Eagle or an AC-130 gunship is just as invulnerable as a drone, and offer a variety of other strike options drones cannot provide. Additionally, the use of manned aircraft such as the F-15E has likely allowed the U.S. to conduct mysterious airstrikes in support of Kenya's "Linda Nchi" incursion last fall, or conduct airstrikes which seemed implausible for Yemen's organizationally beleaguered air force. Nor are they necessarily significantly more costly. As Winslow Wheeler pointed out in an excellent series on the MQ-9 Reaper, when the cost of the additional infrastructure on the ground necessary to operate drones is factored in, similar overall maintenance costs make them fiscally competitive with many manned platforms.
Secondly, offshore strike campaigns are simply one prong of these so-called shadow wars. Supporting offshore strike, of course, are personnel on the ground, and often ones acting in support of foreign partner or proxy forces. As Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and I noted earlier, in Somalia, for example, strike campaigns are simply one component of a larger effort that involved supporting Somali intelligence, a proxy war using Somali armed groups, and supporting partner nation counterinsurgency efforts. All of the thorny dilemmas of dealing with COIN remain, even if most of the blood price of grappling with them is passed on to foreign soldiers. While it may take longer for the U.S. to embroil large formations of conventional forces directly into another insurgency or civil war, the dilemmas of how to balance U.S. strike campaigns without endangering counterinsurgency efforts still remain.
Additionally, any change in one prong of the strategy necessarily effects the importance or execution of the others. For example, in controversy about Yemen, the issue of signature strikes has prompted understandable concern. However, improving intelligence products contributing to offshore strikes requires greater resources being put towards clandestine intelligence or special operations units acting on the ground, or towards greater work with partner nation intelligence services. However, partner nations often have their own agendas, and particularly in an era when the U.S. is at least publically reticent to work with strongmen and unsavory regimes for the sake of "stability," trading strikes for greater support of regime security and intelligence services may end up having even more debilitating - and long lasting - effects.
While offshore strikes in and of themselves are far less costly and resource intensive than large formations operating in land campaigns, they are not all that cheap or small, and they exist only as part of a larger constellation of programs to feed intelligence and address partner nation concerns. Counterterrorism is no more a strategy than is counterinsurgency. It is a capability, a set of tactical building blocks, aimed at political objectives which, more often than not, require the employment of other capabilities in a broader war strategy.
The new U.S. force posture does not mean the death of U.S. support of COIN campaigns, but it does change their character. The U.S. discomfort with the Arab Spring's outbreak in Yemen is emblematic of this reality. Because the conception of counterterrorism required working with partner nations, it required accepting regime stability, and accepting regime stability required involvement in the regime's efforts to maintain power against peaceful and violent attempts to overthrow it.
Thirdly, the prosecution of multi-pronged military operations from an offshore and covert posture is a reminder that rhetoric about AirSea Battle and the Pivot to Asia notwithstanding, conventional military forces will remain major assets in combat against irregular assets, and that these conflicts will continue to rage outside PACOM, political rhetoric notwithstanding. This should not, of course, be all that surprising. Hopes that reductions to land forces would somehow starve the beast and reduce the U.S. appetite for waging wars against irregular threats were obviously misplaced, and indeed the Asian "Pivot" really serves to increase U.S. freedom of action for prosecuting such campaigns by providing a host of platforms capable of projecting power into navally-accessible regions and reducing the level of political attention and controversy surrounding the Middle East and American activities there.
The supposedly offshore shadow wars in fact involve major ground operations by partners, an active ground presence by the U.S., and large amounts of conventional military assets. Rhetoric and planning aside, for the near future the U.S. will likely remain militarily engaged in and around the Africa and the West Eurasian rimlands against irregular foes. These operations will likely also likely involve greater degrees of ground combat troops in the future. As Brett Friedman explains in an excellent post at the Marine Corps Gazette, the USMC will likely take a larger role in these small wars, as it did during the early 20th century. A survey of British history also demonstrates that despite the portrayal of Britain as dispassionately concerned with offshore balancing, it frequently engaged in onshore warfare across its colonial area of interest.
Ultimately, fixation on specific platforms or their elemental nature (land, sea, air), or specific prongs and their shorthand typology (counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, etc) obscures more about the nature of these conflicts than they reveal. Ignoring this weakens quality and utility of the debate the debate for both proponents and detractors of America's present military undertakings.
Thomas Rid criticizes Jennifer Rubin and Max Boot for proposing what he views as an misunderstanding of the basic norms of civil-military relations:
Boot and Rubin take issue with the president not following the advice of his generals to continue sending American soldiers into harm’s way to help bring about change in Afghanistan through counterinsurgency ....One on politics, just as a reminder: is strategy taking a back seat to politics? Isn’t that what we call democracy? But even in non-democracies that is the case, and classic military thought and strategic theory says it should be that way. You don’t think so? Read this book. Why would it be superior to defer decisions on extraordinarily costly long-term strategy to decision-makers who are not democratically elected (read: generals and admirals)?
Rid is certainly correct that classical strategic theory states that politics drives strategy. The ambiguous part, of course, is how Clausewitz defines "politics" and whether or not he is being primarily descriptive or normative. The original German usage does not neatly correspond to either our understanding of policy--an condition or behavior of state--or politics--the process of deciding "who gets what, when and how." There is also a similar tension in Clausewitz (and Clausewitzians) between a normative and descriptive theory of politics. Clausewitz simultaneously describes violence as an outgrowth of the political process (which could imply a negative impact) and calls for politics to be placed at the head of military operations. My favorite Dead Old Prussian (sorry Moltke the Elder!) also places the reason of the state as one element in a three-pronged tug of war between the rage of the people and the play of chance on the battlefield.
There is also really little in Clausewitz that explicitly states what kind of civil-military relations should predominate. That's not surprising, as in those days it was not uncommon for heads of state to take the field. Policy, strategy, and tactics resided in the body of one person. It was not until later that civilian political leaders came to predominate in warfare.
All of this is of course irrelevant to the actual discussion of the Afghan war. The charge being leveled is not that the political leader is exercising his sound judgment but "playing politics"--placing domestic political considerations (politics) over the reason of the state (policy). The fact that domestic politics produces policy does not enter into such discussions. Why? Because American strategic culture, while implicitly accepting of civilian control in operational practice, abhors the symbolic implications of civilian control. People like to hear that the generals are in charge.
Why is this? One might be tempted to argue that American culture has become militaristic. But the answer is more complicated. First, American faith in government as a whole has significantly declined over the last 50 years. The idea of the benign civiian expert using rational tools to govern is dead and buried, and the last 20 years of electoral politics fired a shotgun blast into the grave just to make sure. Simultaneously, political polarization has also increased for structural reasons that political scientists have well-documented. It is unsurprising that the military survives as the only institution whose technical expertise remains unquestioned--in large part because of the cultivation of operational art as a neutral and technical sphere of expertise after Vietnam. Politicians (especially those without military backgrounds) are no longer are viewed with an expectation that they can be trusted to keep the nation safe.
Moreover, the idea of politics and war that Clausewitz lays out is rooted in a classical European context that views war as a normal aspect of state-to-state relations. The US in contrast, has always seen war as a disruption of the normal state of affairs. And if war represents the end of politics and the beginning of an battle of all against all, then the role of the politician is implicitly imperiled. Of course, any casual glance at the historical record shows that such symbolic politics are not reflected in American political-military practice. Americans have supported degrees of civilian control that defy even the Huntingtonian ideal. Abraham Lincoln organized military force at operational and even at times tactical levels, to say nothing of the way FDR exercised supreme command.
Afghanistan is too unpopular a war to test the divide between symbolic politics and operational practice. The McCrystal affair--the most explicit clash between military-technical expertise and civilian politics--had a tiny domestic impact. But the divide certainly exists.
Over the weekend, I had a Twitter conversation with the always stimulating infosec blogger Krypt3ia on the subject of hard and soft power. Krypt3ia has a new post on his site that grew out of the conversation. While I would encourage you to read the whole entry (there are shades of some of Timothy L. Thomas's recent work on China, Russia, and information warfare), I would like to build off of one of the more interesting parts of the post:
Finally, I would also put it to you all that the battle space is much different today than it has been in the past. Not only do we have the digital landscape, but said same digital landscape, that makes it easier to steal, also makes everything more interconnected. By interconnected, I mean that it is far easier to effect large changes to companies by the automation that we all have in place today to speed up our transactions. Today it is far easier to quickly make instant trades, and effect the bottom line of a company for the better or worse as well as steal data in minutes that in the past, would have taken days, weeks, or months to ex-filtrate from a company via conventional HUMINT means. In the scenarios run on trades on the markets, you can see how one alleged “fat finger” incident can have a large scale and rippling effect on the whole economies of states, never mind businesses individually. So, once again, the battle space has changed greatly because of the interconnected-ness of things. It seems that the matters of state now more than before, can be changed through the soft power of the digital attack or manipulation. This is what I mean by “soft power” or perhaps the term I mentioned above “Covert Soft Power”, attacks that we are seeing now, and are having trouble truly attributing to nation-state, corporate, or individual actors are having larger and larger effects on our economy, our policies, and our long term viability as nations, companies, or groups.
One of the classics of the neorealist literature on force is Robert Art's article "The Fungibility of Force." Art argues that force, expressed roughly as a state's power for physical coercion, has ripple effects on other issues. The United States has historically benefited economically from its ability to protect the Persian Gulf, and the core of the deal made with Saudi Arabia has been one of economic benefit for the physical protection of the regime. This, in part, is what helps a single family dominate a country that Middle East watchers have perpetually predicted would be ripe for revolt. Barry Posen has also argued that military control of "commons"--air and sea lanes of commerce--underpins the US' current strategy of primacy. Force is also "fungible"--it can be utilized in a variety of ways and be exchanged for a multitude of political "goods." But despite being fungible, force is often tremendously costly to actually employ. Hence we should not confuse the shaping power of force structurally for force necessarily equaling an ability to create certain political effects in domestic political systems. The US, for example, can use force to shape the Persian Gulf security architecture in an attempt to thwart Iranian ambitions. This requires military investments in naval warfare systems, basing architecture, and military deployments. But the bluntness of force in use is infamous. You cannot guarantee, say, that an OPLAN for an invasion and occupation of iran or even devastating standoff strikes would result in Iran changing its system of government to American liking or giving up its nuclear program.
Hence states often search for indirect routes to benefit from military force or substitute it for other forms of decision. Indirect forms of coercion seek to shape national-level outcomes as opposed to regional or systemic outcomes. These can take form of compellence and coercive diplomacy. Compellence can involve discrete force but coercive diplomacy involves the threat of force integrated with economic pressure and psychological operations directed against enemy leadership targets. But coercive diplomacy itself has something of a mixed track record in recent years, and economic statecraft, while undoubtedly the root of all power--political and military--also is not necessarily a very efficient means of coercion. Let's not mince words--economic coercion can completely destroy a state's basic standards of living, as the Iraq sanctions did. But without positive sanctions (a suitable carrot), strictly negative measures often fail to convince states to change their behavior. The Iraqi sanctions were forged in a political climate that desired the removal of Saddam Hussein from power. Limited uses of force or coercion cannot hope to succeed if tied to total outcomes. And even if we perceive our aims to be limited, they may not be limited to those we hope to coerce. The Iranians see a "surge" capacity for nuclear mobilization as intimately tied not only to their means of power projection but also to their basic survival as a political entity.
Covert power is a "grey area" of statecraft not really well-covered in policy literature. As I noted in a previous entry, low-intensity warfare and covert operations can look alike at the lowest tactical margin. One interesting question that Kryp3ia raises in his discussion of Chinese and Russian (as well as non-state) cyber power and digital espionage is whether covert power is similarly "fungible" in the way Art argues that conventional military power is. For example, can states leverage proxy power, subversion, espionage and long-range cyber-reconassiance, the use of information warfare, or private force to shape outcomes in the way that an overflight of TU Backfire Bombers might? Plenty of decisionmakers seem to think so.Queen Elizabeth I saw subversion and divided loyalties as a mortal threat to the defense of the realm, and created a domestic intelligence apparatus to root it out. Robert Kaplan has written about Iran's use of covert power as a force multiplier in the Middle East. In the 1950s, many saw Communist psychological operations as a mortal threat against open societies, discussing them in terms similar to how some talk about cyber warfare today. Carl Schmitt attributes fear of Communist subversion as an explicit motivator for coup plotters against De Gaulle. Covert operations also have demonstrated the ability to change a domestic set of political relations. Political warfare altered the political composition of the Guatemalan and Iranian governments and augmented a conventional NATO strategy for the defense of Europe through the construction of stay-behind networks and a means of secretly intervening in domestic politics.
There are some advantages to the use of covert or paramilitary power as a means of power projection. The United States has, through the fine-tuning of the joint special operations community since the debacle of DESERT ONE, created an apparatus that compresses integrated logistics, advanced technology, and raw human strength into paramilitary war machine. It is useful for "reaching out and touching" J.D. Salinger-like reclusives holed up in air-gapped compounds in the suburbs of Abbotabad. These kinds of operations also create a dilemma for the target state. They take place in a murky realm populated by spies, criminals, and arms smugglers, proving that difficulty of attribution is not just a cyber problem. Moreover, even in the case of attribution it is hard to see what recourse is often open to target states. It was obvious to any intelligent observer that the United States, facilitated by Pakistan and a host of other partners, was funneling arms and money into Afghanistan during the 1980s. But what could the Soviets really do about it? The problem, however, comes when states expect covert ops, espionage, or discrete force to work as a standalone effort without being tied to a sound policy.
This brings us to the intersection of information and covert power. The postwar science of cybernetics is the backbone for our understanding of information power. Cybernetics--the science of communication and control---is about information as a feedback mechanism. Claude Shannon's idea of information theory is based on the idea that information is a signal, or a "difference that makes a difference" as Gregory Bateson artfully puts it. Whereas first-wave cybernetics looked at closed systems that adjust their internal states to preserve a set value (like a thermostat that adjusts a room's temperature) based on negative feedback from the environment, second-order cybernetics and complexity theory have looked at how information causes systems to shift to new frames of reference.
Thus, information warfare pioneers like Dorothy Denning and Martin Libicki have looked at information warfare in ways that draw from Shannon's mathematical theory and cybernetics. To Denning, information warfare involves operations that target or exploit information resources. Information resources consist of containers (information media that contain forms of data), transporters (objects and communication systems that transport information from one location to another), sensors (humans and machines that extract information objects and the environment), recorders (objects that place information in containers), and processors (people and objects that manipulate information). In Denning's theory, you gain advantage by increasing the value of your own information resources while degrading the other side's ability to use theirs. Martin Libicki has a taxonomy of information warfare targets and methods that also are useful for thinking about the subject: the physical (hardware), syntactic (machine operating software) and semantic (the content of the information exchanged). You can drop a bomb on a command or control node and physically destroy it, certainly. You might also compromise a system through various cybernetic means, or you could, through military deception, attempt to prevent your opponent from utilizing information available to him.
While it may seeem like physical and syntactic information methods are particularly powerful, the power of strategic deception should be not be underrated. In 1944 and 1945, the Soviet Union utilitzed maskirovka on a massive scale to carry out Operations BAGRATION and AUGUST STORM, completely destroying the German and Japanese armies in Belorussia and Manchuria. The former laid bare the German heartland to the ravages of the Red war machine, and the latter may have--in conjunction with the atomic bomb--knocked Japan out of the war. It certainly also posed a direct Soviet threat to the Japanese heartland due to the threat of potential Soviet control over China. Strategic deception also protects intentions and capabilities in peacetime, such as crucial weapons projects or crucial geopolitical designs. Deception can also make a state seem more powerful than it actually may be. Hitler's Germany integrated numerous deception operations to play on the psychological weakness of Allied decisionmakers in the 1930s, convincing them that his military forces were ready for protracted war in spite of their actual material deficits.
Getting to the root of infomation power requires engagement with the fact that we live, largely, in the world Claude Shannon made. Information--as message rather than content--is key to many massively complex and integrated systems that underpin our day-to-day existence, from the stock exchange to military command and control systems. Thus information warfare and information power might broadly be understood, again, as the plain use of information resources in order to improve our own information resources and degrade, exploit, or otherwise co-opt those of our adversaries. This process is not necessarily entirely technological. From a systems perspective, the British Double-Cross System or the Soviet Trust operation were analog-era attempts to manipulate organizational systems by sending distorting feedback through information channels. In a world increasingly governed by the way information interacts with organizational, technical, and social systems, information power becomes more important. Digitization and the delegation of authority to more and more automated systems in everyday life is creating a "second economy" well-known in the information technology community. There are certainly political and military implications in such a technological shift, as especially when paired with emerging informatized architectures and ecological systems.
So, with this understanding of information, we can go back to the original issues of fungibility Krypt3ia brought up. What can information, taken through the lens of Denning and Libicki, do?
Strategic deception not only distorts the quality of information available to a decisionmaker but also can, when coupled with targeted psychological operations and counterintelligence, disrupt a decisionmaking system by eroding its ability to process and use information. The British did the latter by riddling the Irish Republican Army with informers. The ability to exercise individualized information targeting, as demonstrated through Anonymous and the Chinese "human flesh search engine" opens up intriguing possiblities for both deception and psychological pressures and disruptions.
The informatization of critical infrastructure poses opportunities for countervalue attacks on civilian targets. Though these threats often have been massively inflated, they do exist. They can cause everything from financial damage to injury and death. And air-gapping is not a panacea. This perhaps may be most useful not necessarily as a tool of "cyber-doom" but more as a tool of escalation dominance at the lowest rung. Industrial espionage can create economic gain. China and Russia, after all, are following a longstanding French practice of using spying to bolster state-suppotted industries. French intelligence, in fact, used to bug first-class sections of Air France jets to record commerical conversations. The knowledge that crucial systems may be vulnerable could create a deterrent effect, but it is important to note that these threats are of an operational rather than predominately strategic nature.
That being said, there are very many drawbacks. Strategic deception can certainly help realize a given policy objective, but also can significantly backfire. Saddam Hussein attempted to simulate and dissumulate, presentating an ambiguous image of unconventional power to Iran and internal regime audiences while simultaneously trying to hide evidence of the truth from the outside world. The United States eventually decided that it was better to remove him from power than deal with the constant ambiguity his deception efforts created. The German deception efforts from the end of World War I to the late 1930s at first hid re-armament and then exaggerated German strength. But they would not have worked if the Allies had the political will to enforce the terms of the Versailles Treaty. It is hard to see what the Soviet Union gained in the long term beyond immediately tactical and operational gains from its strategic deception efforts.
Individualized information targeting depends on a dauntingly granular degree of information about an individual's worldview, habits, and psychology, paired with an accurate model of how he or she plays a role in the overall ecology of a regime's decisionmaking structure. Playing havoc with an organizational system may also result in undesired side effects. Targed disruption of individual links within the Syrian regime hierarchy should only be attempted if the targeteer is OK with such actions potentially resulting in intensified strife that may result in substantial civilian casualties. James Angleton's mental decline into the "wilderness of mirrors" is also an apt demonstration of what happens when counterintelligence begins to devour the bonds of trust within an organization intead of its adversary's organizational functioning.
It is also true that critical infrastructure can present a countervalue target, but Sean Lawson's review of disaster response research and the historical record of the Air Force's "industrial web" strategy against German critical infrastructure and moral resilience in World War II suggests that disruption may only be temporary. Frederick Kagan has also observed that while command and control links can be reconstituted at a relatively low cost, the destruction of an army itself through annihilation requires an immense amount of resources to rectify.
Finally, as a part of the larger "grey area" of covert and paramilitary power, information power suffers from some of the same defects as special operations direct action or black propaganda. It is dependent on a host of pre-existing factors that may be difficult to be conjured out of thin air. Operation AJAX was only possible because powerful forces within the Iranian political ecosystem were receptive to covert power. American contractor support ended the Bosnian War, but only by utilizing the pre-existing Croatian Army as a hammer for a punishing ground offensive against Serbian forces. Operation BAGRATION may have been enabled by deception but was carried out by a preponderence of Soviet military force. And a determined countersubversion architecture safeguarded the English throne from the threat of subversion in the Elizabethan era. Iranian covert power projection allows it to punch above its weight but still does not make it a hegemon regionally due to the political, material, and military weight of the Gulf states and their external protector in Washington. The specific characteristics of information power also pose some quandries. One can, say, monitor, disrupt, or deny the electromagnetic spectrum but not control it in the way that the "man on the scene with a gun" can when he attacks land targets.
So we have ultimately a mixed picture of the fungiblity of information power. Krypt3ia and others writing on the subject have demonstrated that it should be regarded, like financial power, as a force to be reckoned with in world politics. But it lacks the ability, seen in military force, to be tied to other important issues or exercise ripple effects. To return to the example of Saudi Arabia, American military backing for the Saudi regime enabled beneficial economic effects. It's true that information power can bolster military and financial power, but its impact may be ultimately much more limited than military force in creating linkages. Information power can bolster other forms of power significantly and will certainly transform the nature of "grey area" force in the international aren. Krypt3ia is right that it should not be disregarded, and states should pay heed to how they construct their own information strategies.
Yesterday, I watched some folks describe the United States as a "police state" because of some allegations of police brutality in Chicago. Without either defending the Chicago police department or agreeing with its critics, I tweeted that those who describe the United States as a "police state" have never lived in or visited an actual police state. I then watched as leftists went berserk in response.
As regular readers of this blog know, I believe language matters -- as does the precision with which we use it.
So let's first explore the term "police state." Political science literature has a lot to say about authoritarianism and police states, but here is the plain vanilla definition from Merriam-Webster:
a political unit characterized by repressive governmental control of political, economic, and social life usually by an arbitrary exercise of power by police and especially secret police in place of regular operation of administrative and judicial organs of the government according to publicly known legal procedures.
Now, by that definition, I think most observers of U.S. politics and comparative politics would be hard pressed to classify the system by which we we govern the United States as a police state. But let's look at the United States in comparison to other nations using the Freedom House and Polity IV surveys. The 2012 Freedom House survey (.pdf) ranks the United States as among the most free countries on earth with respect to both political rights and civil liberties. And here is the 2010 Polity IV country report for the United States (.pdf), which raises questions about some post-9/11 legislation passed in the United States (and also this crazy thing called the Electoral College) but otherwise gives the United States a clean bill of democratic health.
None of this is to say that the United States is perfect or that violations of civil liberties do not occurr too often for any of us to be comfortable with. And yes, I realize that a white guy such as myself shouldn't take his largely positive interactions with law enforcement authorities as being representative of, say, the experiences of African-Americans who live in my neighborhood.
At the same time, though, when polemicists and activists on both the left and the right so carelessly throw around pejoritive terms like "police state" and "facism" and "totalitarian," the only thing they accomplish is to strip these terms of any real meaning so that when we really do need them, they are rendered useless.
After all, if the United States is a police state, can Syria really be that much worse?
There's a lot of (correct) criticism about military buzzwords and calling things war which plainly are not. So credit should be given when credit is due when someone gets it right, as US Cyber Command attorney Robert Clark has:
While happy to label so-called outbreaks of “cyber-war” as “B.S.”, Clark stated that “governments are in the business of offensive cyber-operations now.” Clark also said that cyber “attack” is over-used in the media, as he feels the planet is yet to see a real cyber-attack . “Stuxnet was not a cyber ‘attack’, Estonia was not a cyber ‘attack’, that pipeline that some people say ‘yeah, that was malicious code’ wasn’t a cyber ‘attack’,” he said. ....And why does this definition matter? In other words, why should we care about loose media use of “cyber war”? Because, Clark explained to El Reg: if policy-makers are only informed by the catchphrase and not the definition, they will make bad policy.
To be perfectly clear, there are a lot of things that also aren't war that have serious security implications. Espionage is threat, for example, even if thefts of crucial secrets are not literally military operations. A hurricane--not a foreign army--devastated New Orleans. And the bad economy has far-reaching implications for our ability to generate military and diplomatic power. But securitizing an issue is not always (or even partly) likely to lead to more effective policy. Calling obesity a national security threat or declaring wars on nouns is not going to lead anywhere productive.
I tend to agree more with Tim Stevens on the issue of cyber war--it's a no brainer that distinctive cyber operations and tactics will augment more traditional military operations. Take it away, Tim:
At least 95% of this debate could be solved by substituting ‘cyber warfare’ for ‘cyber war’. That is, by accepting – as any sane person should – that ‘cyber warfare’ tactics and operations are part of war. ...We should also accept – at least, for now – that there is no pure-play cyber war. It’s either war or it’s not. Simple. A land war is still a war. A sea war is still a war. All ‘cyber’ is in this context is an environmental modifier. Useful for descriptive purposes but it doesn’t alter the essential nature of war as a political and coercive act.
I would be remiss in not observing that the line between military activities and covert operations and espionge is not really always easy to draw for policymakers or military analysts to draw in practice.
Since some forms of covert operations and military operations both aim to achieve strategic effect through violent coercion, it is easy to make arguments to the effect that Iran and Israel are engaged in "shadow war." Low-intensity operations tend to look remarkably like terrorism, crime, sabotage, subversion, and coercive diplomacy at the lower tactical margins. Those who like to eat out in Foggy Bottom (I enjoy a nice Thai place every once and a while) may be sympathetic to this agument because Iran may have gotten away with trying to put a bomb under their dinner plates.
Charles Dunlap observed that international law of armed conflict (LOAC) tends to be "effects-based"--as in the effect of the action determines whether it constitutes an "armed attack" against which can be retaliated. LOAC can at times be confusing because it does not grant a clear go-ahead for states to respond to force more generally, even if it simultaneously prohibits threats of force (talking about Articles 2 and 51 of the UN Charter respectively). Dunlap also soundly argues that the phrase "act of war" is really a political, rather than legal distinction.
In the Principles of War, the Principle of Mass
calls for the commander to concentrate combat power at the decisive time
and place. Sounds simple enough. Those who allowed themselves to be defeated in detail learned firsthand the price of forgoing this maxim during Napoleonic engagements. The Allied inability to reinforce the advance force at Arnhem in World War II stands as a modern operational example of concentration's importance. But this obscures one problem: while the Principle calls for concentration at the decisive time and place, militaries can concentrate in exclusively spatial or temporal dimensions. A military can certainly concentrate in the decisive time and place, but it can also concentrate either in a defined space or execute a simultaneous concentration in many contigious or noncontigious spaces linked together by an common operational design. For example, a commander could throw his or her combat power in one sector of the enemy's defenses in the hope of effecting a breakthrough or press multiple points at the same time.
There is some controversy in the Civil War historiographical community as to whether or not Archer Jones or James McPherson should be credited with the idea of concentration in time. Either way, as the linked blog makes clear, the notion is somewhat of an anachronism. Civil War operational artists certainly thought in term of simultaneous advances, but the notion of those advances equating to a kind of temporal concentration should not be taken as a given. Whatever the origins of the concept, the idea of concentration in time holds that it is possible to generate a significant concentration of force across an theater of war, or in the case of a multitheater strategic offensive, throughout any and all important areas of military competition. McPherson's argument in Tried by War, to some extent reinforced by James Schneider's idea of a distributed campaign made up of several simultaneous and/or successive operations, is that Lincoln and his generals conceived of later strategic offensives as continent-wide. Operations in one theater reinforced the other in service to one overriding strategic design. Concentration in time generates cumulative rather than wholly sequential pressure on an adversary, leading to a cascading military failure. In an odd way, concentration in time--especially when it pursues a strategic center of gravity--is the real "effects-based operation."
Schneider makes clear that distributed campaignng is not by any means easy. Concentration in time requires continuous logistics to support the complex architecture of a distributed campaign, and instaneous command and control is also needed to deal with the increased tactical and operational opportunities that a distributed force encounters. The obsession with "self-synchronization" in the network-centric literature is one example of an effort by information-age militaries to deal with the problem of command and control in a distributed campaign. As befitting the continental bias of the operational art literature as a whole, concentration in time is obviously dependent on having the resources to mount simultaneous and successive operations. Concentration in time looks more realizable with lesser numbers in a naval context, with a exponentially larger operational space and powerful platforms capable of exerting power over operational distances. Naval power is still governed by Schneider's basic set of requirements despite its general difference from the continental model of military theory the notion of operational art issues from.
The past ten years of operations seem to suggest that Western military forces struggle to meet any of Schneider's basic requirements for distributed campaigning. Logistically, as Jonathan Riley points out, Western forces struggle to supply continuous logistics:
In modern campaigns, static operations in theatres like the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan have brought their own problems in over-stretching military logistic units and military forces that rely on contractors to provide many functions. This situation is almost the reverse of Napoleonic times. Once the line of communication has been established, the use of contracts allied to food technology and other commodity storage have made it far simpler to maintain a static force than a mobile one.
Indeed, contractors have become indispensible to projecting force across strategic distances and for austere militaries it is also financially easier to build supplies off networks of contracts than generate sustainment as a core competency. If Napoleonic armies foraged off the land and industrial logistics created a continuous stream of mobile supply that could follow a campaign, even shattering operational successes like the Gulf War were dependent on prestocked logistics and base infrastructure. My Abu Muquwama blogmate Dan Trombly has also written at his own site about the importance of prestocked equipment in maintaining a capacity for intervening in the Hormuz strait.
Instantenous command and control has also recently eluded Western military forces. Martin van Creveld has written often about the growth in headquarters staffs and the growing complexity of what used to be a simple staff process for generating orders and processing operations. To some extent, this is a result of technological and organizational complexity. Witness the Herculean struggles of an brigade commander in Afghanistan:
Few people would recognize the sheer amount of complex equipment fielded to a brigade today that requires sync. There is much, much more to integrate. We have UAVs employed by every echelon from Company to Theater level, plus helicopters and CAS to manage. The airspace is complex and must be deconflicted. We have signals collection gear that does some amazing stuff. We have ground penetrating radar mine detectors. We have precision guided mortar rounds. We have explosive detection dogs. Electronic jamming gear. We have various MISO/PSYOP assets, such as portable radio stations. We have balloons to integrate into the ISR plans with all kinds of towers. We have a host of interagency and joint embeds. We have ISAF/NATO countries which may or may not speak the language. We have SOF assets playing in our area with their own enablers. The list goes on but you get the idea. None of this can be employed haphazardly or we lose the effect of the system, or worse, the systems "fratricide" each other unless someone is looking holistically at the employment. So mission command has its limits.
The cost of this complexity, especially when it comes to even more organizationally tangled Coalition operations, is the ability to exploit local opportunities and respond to local conditions. Granted, commanders in previous wars dealt with an equally complex array of weapons, units, and armies (Alexander, Hannibal, and the Persians had large multinational armies with platforms ranging from horse archers to war elephants) but did so with the benefit of unity of command, more personalized command and control, and smaller operating environments. Moreover, as David Johnson has argued about the 2006 Lebanon War, the languid (compared to mobile campaigns like 1940, 1967, or 1991) pace of guerrilla wars accustoms operational planners to a far different style of operations then would be characteristic either of mobile or static conventional wars. Finally, modern wars has added the legal problems inherent in the modern targeting process and the concept of operational "lawfare" to the already tangled command and control loop.
These complex military organizations are also simply much smaller than they used to be. Technological advances have made individual weapons and units more powerful, but at the price of investing in complex platforms that require a more technically complex support infrastructure. The complexity of qualititvely superior platforms and their attendant personnel costs feeds into the problem of a contractor-augmented "tooth-to-tail" ratio and fuels the growing fiscal crisis of Western democracies. Escalating per-unit costs of technologically complex weapons designed for qualitative superiority fed through a dysfunctional design and acquisition process are responsible not only for problem-plagued aerial dominance fighter aircraft, but also a host of other troubled platforms. Even the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), originally conceptualized as a light craft to extend Western power to littoral regions, has become a financial sinkhole. Cost growth in major weapons platforms and growing personnel costs (which as noted before have a symbiotic relatioship) add to the costs of replacing and/or modernizing aging Cold War platforms.
This "wicked problem" has been dubbed the "defense train wreck." This, as Dakota Wood noted a couple years ago about the threat posed to the Marine Corps's institutional design by the fiscal drain of the F-35B and the Expenditionary Fighting Vehicle, not only complicates employing core platforms but threatens service and theater strategies writ large. It goes without saying that these problems, while toleable in a flush fiscal climate, are deadly in today's atmosphere of fiscal austerity. And at a certain point, quantity has a quality all of its own, particularly when expeditionary forces are far from their strategic base area and are confronted by local forces with an abundance of cheap but deadly weapons. This, without DoD buzzwords, is what "anti-access" amounts to. The United States, after all, relied on anti-access capabilities in the 19th century with its coastal fortress network and defensive naval strategy.
In Afghanistan and Iraq the cost of operations, inflexible logistics easily disrupted by political concerns or enemy action, and small forces spread out over large distances hampers the ability of military forces to gain strategic control. Just as in naval strategy, the cost of gaining control over a large area with small distributed forces is substantial. The cost, on the other hand, to the enemy of disputing control is very small. Joshua Foust has noted in his Afghanistan metrics series that the ability of the Taliban to sustain complex attacks in Kabul over many years has had a significant political cost to Afghan perceptions of safety and security, and Foust has argued elsewhere that military pressure in Helmand came at the expense of security in other equally important regions.
Looking to the future, the growth of urban megacities does not particularly bode well for small expeditionary forces. John Collins argued in his Military Geography that the Schlieffen Plan, if dodgy in 1914, might be impossible today due to the slowing power of extensive urbanization in what used to be terrain fit perfectly for mobile war. It is difficult for even host nations to exercise control over large cities, as anyone familiar with Latin American public security problems may surmise. For a long time, criminals in Rio de Janeiro controlled fortified neighborhood expanses and police, like American troops pre-Surge, engaged mainly in raiding operations. Peace in El Salvador was (albeit perhaps temporarily) granted by a truce between the country's two most powerful gangs, not a government political-military operation.
If concentration in time was really a 19th century innovation borne out by the power of industrial command and control and logistics, the political and military economy of Western defense suggests a potential return to the military methods of an era before the age of mass armies. Armies moved in dense blocks, proficient through rigid command and control at intrabattle maneuver but struggled at intratheater maneuver--to say nothing of strategic power projection. Some accounts of 18th century operations read like modern news clippings. Modern operations, like the 18th century depot system that so frustrated the generals of that period, are increasingly tied to dense stockpiles. Contractors taking over core military competencies is not, as commonly portrayed, really an alarming product of today's politics. Rather, it is a return to what really can be considered a military norm in recent Western history. Finally, brittle platform-intensive Western militaries may not be risked for fear of damage and loss of expensive machines or valuable personnel, just as Frederician militaries were similarly frustrated by the cost of direct battle.
Concentration in space, which assumed paramount importance in the days in which low-ranged and relatively inefficient weapons needed to be massed to achieve tactical effect, may come back to the fore. The primary difference is that the space in which concentration occurs has grown exponentially larger. We aren't going back to Leuthen or Cannae-type engagements. The other crucial difference is that the means by which military power is concentrated also do not have to fit a 19th century continental model of military power.
American power projection has traditionally prized a different form of strategic concentration than either the continental or purely naval schools of strategy. As Dan has pointed out, drones and special forces are simply the latest manifestation of the age-old American design for naval-backed discrete operations:
The broad authorization for use of military force which began the War on Terror and its “undeclared” nature has very little to do with drone technology, and more to do with the fact that the United States has never formally declared war on a non-state actor in its history. Even in areas frequently identified with drone warfare, such as the Horn of Africa, Yemen, and Pakistan, non-drone US interference has occurred at varying levels of frequency during the War on Terror. As I have argued before, drones increase operating tempo more than anything else. ...The tradition of undeclared wars against belligerent irregular foes across poorly defined regions is something very familiar to the Founding Fathers. .... The all-volunteer force, private contractors, and sea-deployed small units conducting raids into sovereign countries are products of the US body politic’s rejection of the heavy costs of mass mobilization, but continued interest in responding to actual or perceived threats and slights to broadly conceived notions of America’s international rights – in many respects, it is a return to the Barbary-style of warfare (the tradition of which is reflected in the “Small Wars” era of USMC operations in the early 20th century), where irregular threats did not merit a formal declaration of war and were dealt with without conscription or mass mobilization of the army.
Dan gets to the heart of where strategy really becomes linked to political economy. Traditional European continental military powers that in earlier eras pioneered the era of mass warfare no longer have the capability to exert power beyond their borders and generally lack threats to justify large mobile combined-arms forces for warfare on the Eurasian landmass. The United States has traditionally rejected the continental model of military power and large standing forces were maintained only after World War II and Korea made clear the necessity of projecting worldwide military power. The Cold War can be seen as an exercise in grand strategic concentration in time. The United States aimed, when possible, to project military and paramilitary force in theaters both crucial (Europe, the Persian Gulf, and Northeast Asia) and peripheral (Southast Asia, most of the Middle East, and Latin America) rather than forfeit any kind of advantage to what was viewed as a monolithic Communist threat.
Such a worldwide threat is a historical aberration. A landscape of discretionary wars and humanitarian interventions with small contractor-supported and paramilitary-intensive military forces is actually truest to American political tradition. The late 1700s to early 1900s yields many examples of interventions waged by flexible naval-enabled forces, from American participation in the crushing of the Boxer Rebellion to the Banana Wars. When Eisenhower attempted to implement the "New Look," it was a attempt to consciously do away with the continental operational model of massive land forces in the hope that nuclear forces could bridge the gap. As Dan notes, the political economy of American strategy and operations is, contrary to dreams of an better past, extremely conducive to undeclared wars and covert operations. Take a look at the Quasi War and the Barbary Wars, waged under extremely questionable legal backing and in the case of the latter supported by foreign militias raised by American operators. And as David Parrot argues in The Business of War, Western militaries as a whole have traditionally preferred flexible forces augmented with contractors and local auxilaries in a "plug-and-play" fashion to large national armies. Such methods, to the extent they are politically viable, constitute the best chance of enabling Western power projection in the new fiscal environment.
Does this mean that these interventions will manifest in strategic effect? Not necessarily. But this is not necessarily a problem with the means provided by American material or the ways dictated by American operational art. Rather, it is a problem of strategic ends. If political economy dictates a certain style of operations for the near term, American strategists ought to take note of what such force can and cannot realize on the world stage. But a reversion back to older ways of using force does not necessarily imply a simultaneous reversion to older political and strategic conceptions of military goals. The challenge for military planners is to reconcile, as always, the means and ways available to a political determination of ends wholly (and rightly) outside their sphere of influence.
There has been much understandable worry about the civil war in Syria re-igniting dormant conflicts in Lebanon and Iraq. Despite the ongoing violence in northern Lebanon, I used my World Politics Review column yesterday to explain why spillover was likely but also why it would not take the form of civil war.
(As my article went online, Emile el-Hokayem published this excellent analysis on the drivers of conflict in northern Lebanon. Highly recommended.)
As some of you may know, I am planning on taking a leave of absence at the end of the summer from CNAS in order to participate in the Council on Foreign Relations' International Affairs Fellowship program. When I do that, I will no longer be able to blog at Abu Muqawama. But if the truth be told, I have not found the time to blog as much as I used to over the past year, and the quality of the blog has already suffered as a result.
In the past, I have been helped out on the blog by some pretty fantastic co-authors. Amil Khan and Erin Simpson were my two longest-running partners in crime, but I was also helped out by some anonymous folks who have gone on to serve at high levels in the Dept. of Defense, the National Security Council, and the U.S. Army. These folks have to remain anonymous, but their contributions really added something great to the blog.
I realized earlier this spring, even before I knew I was going to have to take a leave of absence, that if the blog was to continue, I would need some help. So I began to scout around for some of the smartest younger folks out there writing about issues related to strategy, counterinsurgency and defense policy. As it turns out, there are some fantastically bright young analysts out there, and they deserve a bigger platform. So over the summer, I will begin to incorporate some of these younger voices into the blog.
The first two young turks to join me will be Adam Elkus and Dan Trombly. When I first approached these guys about blogging here, they informed me that it would be an honor because they had been reading this blog since high school. (I took a strong sip of whatever I was drinking at the time and continued my pitch.) Adam is a PhD student in International Relations at American University. He helps edit the Red Team Journal, contributes to CTOVision.com, and blogs at his own site at Rethinking Security. Dan has not yet graduated from George Washington University, but his kung-fu is already strong. He blogs at Slouching Towards Columbia. You can follow both of these trouble-makers on Twitter at @aelkus and @stcolumbia, respectively.
I told both Adam and Dan that we'll take a look at things as the summer progresses and might consider adding some more voices -- likely folks who can either write on security issues related to the Middle East or people who have on-the-ground experience in either Iraq or Afghanistan they can share. But Adam and Dan will be running the show when I leave, so please welcome them to the team.
The enemy of my enemy isn't really a terrorist if his lobbying is really, really good.
Shameful move by the Dept. of State.
Update: Former Obama Administration State official Tamara Cofman Wittes says I should be blaming the Congress, not the Dept. of State.
Richard Betts on the difference between policing and war:
Some attempts to use force in this multilateral and limited manner – such as in the second phase of the Somalia intervention in 1993, “pinprick” punishments in Bosnia before 1995, or the initial assault on Serbia in 1999 – proved ineffectual and surprisingly costly. This was because the U.S. and NATO forces found themselves acting not as police suppressing individuals or small groups, but in acts of war, confronting organized mass resistance by force of arms. This was discomfiting to those who unleash force for humanitarian reasons because they do not like the idea of killing people and breaking things even for good purposes. They hope for clean application of force without casualties, or at least combat in which only the guilty are destroyed and large numbers of civilian deaths are an aberration.
War, in contrast, inevitably hurts the innocent as well – and as anyone who has studied or experienced war will insist to those who hope otherwise, the stress is on inevitably. Deliberate targeting of civilians may be prevented, but the nature of real war is that accidental collateral damage is a regular cost of doing business. …
Law enforcement aims to protect the rights and interests of individuals by apprehending transgressors and holding them to account for their crimes, and letting the guilty go free rather than unfairly harm an individual innocent. In war, the ultimate communitarian enterprise, the priorities are reversed; many individual interests are sacrificed for the nation’s collective interests. Soldiers die for their countrymen, not themselves, and civilians caught in cross fires are simply out of luck. This fundamental empirical difference between policing and war is not easily grasped by people of good will. Before unleashing force they need to recognize that war by its nature entails terrible injustice to many individuals, and that acceptance of that injustice as the lesser evil is implicit in any decision to send the military into combat.
Buy his excellent new book American Force: Dangers, Delusions, and Dilemmas in National Security here.