Murphy's Law: 21st Century War, How It Will Be Different And Why


January 24, 2014: The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were different in a lot of ways many people didn't expect, understand, or even notice. For example, the three week conquest of Iraq was not facilitated so much by high tech weapons, but largely by Cold War era gear using World War II tactics. The most crucial weapons were the decades old M-1 tank and M-2 infantry vehicle, with the 1960s vintage M-109 self-propelled artillery provided most of the artillery support. The 1950s era B-52 bomber was still the most cost effective way to deliver bomb attacks.

And what was so unique about conquering Iraq in three weeks while outnumbered? The British did this in 1941, using only two divisions under similar circumstances (and with far fewer armored vehicles). Not only that, the 1941 Iraqis also had the support of Germany, France and Russia. Made no difference.  Afghanistan featured a handful of American Special Forces troops calling in air strikes while deep in enemy territory. That was standard practice during the 1960s Vietnam War. But change is in the air, it's just a bit more complex a wave of change than most pundits are trying to describe.

It's not often that warfare suddenly goes through radical, unexpected and little understood changes. But as new technologies and ideas kept appearing faster and faster in the last century, change came more rapidly to warmaking as well. The last major transformation in warfare occurred during the 1930s. These changes were all played out during World War II. We've spent the rest of the 20th century trying to digest all those changes. But as we enter the 21st century, another critical mass of ideas and technologies are coming together to trigger another radical transformation in how wars are fought. Some of that change was seen in Afghanistan during late 2001, and Iraq in 2003. More is on the way, a lot more. The focus here is how these new items have developed and combined to produce a radical new way of war. “Shock and Awe” is a lot more than smart bombs and fancy tactics. And these new developments not only changed the way Iraq and Afghanistan were fought, but mean future wars, or threats of war will not be the same as in the past. Many of the changes are not all that visible to the casual observer, or even the media. There are a collection of new technologies and trends that, taken together, have created a remarkably new way to make war.

There are many new trends producing the dramatic changes in warfare. Many of these changes are missed by the media and even many military analysts because so much has changed so quickly. The new technologies and trends include;

Robots. Combat robots have actually been around for over a century. Naval mines and torpedoes are robotic weapons that proved themselves in the early years of the 20th century. There were some more robotic weapons in World War II (cruise and ballistic missiles plus the first "smart shells"), but the momentum for combat robots really didn't get going until the late 20th century, when smaller, cheaper and more reliable microprocessors and similar electronics made it possible to create inexpensive, "smart", dependable and useful battle droids. Combat robots have sneaked into the military, without many people in, or out of, uniform paying a lot of attention. That's still the case, especially because the media and even many senior military and political leaders don’t fully understand the technology nor how it is implemented. One example of this confusion can be seen with the constant reference to UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) as “drones” or “robots.” They are neither, they are simply remotely controlled aircraft, something that’s been around for over half a century. But these UAVs are being given more and more robotic (operating autonomously) capabilities. This isn’t new either, as torpedoes have had this ability for over 60 years and missiles for over 50 years.

Battlefield Internet. The Internet appeared as a mass-market product in the mid-1990s just as a generation of PC savvy officers were rising up the chain of command. These guys had encountered the first PCs as teenagers and then had access to the pre-World Wide Web Internet in college. PCs and the web were not mysteries, but tools they were familiar with. By 2001 these men and women were majors and colonels, the people the generals turn to when they want something done, or explained. When the World Wide Web showed up in the mid-1990s, generals turned to the majors and colonels for an update and were told, "no problem sir, good stuff. We can use it." There followed a scramble to create a workable "battlefield Internet." But there was another trend operating, the 1980s effort to implement "information technology." But as the ideas merged with workable and affordable hardware and software, sparks began to fly. Unlike earlier ventures into new technology, this was not just a case of the troops being given new gadgets and shown how to use them. With Internet stuff, and Internet savvy troops, a lot of the new technology was being invented by the users. This has created high speed development of new technology, putting new stuff through development, testing and into use much faster than ever before.

Exceptionally well trained soldiers. Professional soldiers have always been seen as superior to amateur (civilians rounded up and quickly armed) or part-time (who train a few hours a week) soldiers. But professionals cost a lot more than the other two categories, are prone to taking over the government, and thus have been rare throughout history. But during, and since, World War II, new training methods were developed that created exceptionally well trained soldiers in a shorter time. This has largely gone unnoticed by civilians, but it is a powerful new reality for the troops and the officers that command them. An example of these supertroopers was seen during the 1991 Gulf War. Afghanistan in 2001 was the same thing. It's the future and it is uncertain where this new development will lead. Better soldiers do things faster and more efficiently, and this may encourage politicians to use them more.

Persistent presence. Being able to watch the battlefield from the air for hours on end is an enormous advantage, especially if you have cameras that can see everything going on down there day and night. Late in the 20th century it became possible to keep aircraft in the air over a battlefield for hours on end. But it was expensive, as you had to use large, four engine aircraft, and tankers to refuel them in the air. But then came cheap, reliable unmanned aircraft. They didn’t have to be refueled and now had satellite links and the ability to send real time videos of what they saw to anywhere in the world. This changed warfare, a lot.

Jointness. This is the different services working together. Normally, there is not much of this in peacetime, even though it’s mandatory in wartime. The usual drill is to see a lot of screw ups and confusion in the early stages of a war. Because of the six month build up before the 1991 war, there was time to clear up all the problems. But many of the problems are still there, as are more efforts to get everyone together in peacetime.

Information War. Since the 1990s there has been a tremendous increase in electronics, communications and networks. That means more of these things are targets, or something to be defended. This is cyberwar, and no one really knows what it will be like because no one has gone at it full force yet. But the information is not just what is on the Internet, the proliferating mass media, and its effect on politics, diplomacy and public opinion has also become part of the battlefield. Commanders who want to win, don’t go to war without an “Information plan.” You have to be able to attack, and defend, in the “infosphere.” Your purely military operations are firmly linked with what is happening in the information war.

Self-confidence and Innovation. Throughout history, American soldiers have gone into wars ill-prepared and, after getting banged around a bit, were soon lacking self-confidence. This has changed, and there have been some interesting side effects. Between the 1991 Gulf War and 2003, there developed a greater willingness to aggressively use new weapons and tactics. In 1991, the senior officers, with their Vietnam experience, were reluctant to trust the better training and superior equipment of their ground troops to win a quick victory. Much emphasis was placed on keeping American casualties down. As a result, the air bombardment went on far longer than was needed. After the first week, the Iraqis in Kuwait had figured out how to deceive and bombers and avoid getting hit. But once the ground troops went in, they quickly tore the Iraqis apart, even the determined Republican Guard units that stood and fought. Except for some of the most senior NCOs and officers, most American military leaders never experienced Vietnam. The current generation have only known a volunteer military and a spirit of rapidly accepting and implementing new technologies. This included a new acceptance of Special Forces and commandos. Up until the 1991 war, most generals were reluctant to use Special Forces. This aversion was an ancient one, and was reinforced in World War II and Vietnam, where the commandos and Special Forces seemed a little too independent minded and, well, "unsoldierly." But these guys usually got the job done when no one else could. Through the 1990s, the Special Operations Command (SOCOM), that now controlled all Special Forces and commandos, made a major effort to convince the generals that their "operators" could be useful in a wide variety of situations. Afghanistan confirmed that. Now there is general enthusiasm for using all the new stuff (JDAM, better communications gear and Special Forces) aggressively to defeat Iraq as quickly as possible. Afghanistan, fortunately, delivered some reality checks on the dangers of being too aggressive. Several operations in Afghanistan turned out poorly (although none disastrously), mainly because of poor intelligence and inadequate training for some of the troops involved. For better or worse, the aggressiveness and bold use of technology will also be seen in Iraq. In the past, this combination has usually won spectacular victories. But sometimes there have been spectacular failures. Ultimately it's up to being able to combine competence and boldness in just the right proportions. As the British commandos (the SAS) motto puts it, "Who Dares, Wins."

Rapid Exploitation of New Technology. The last century has seen an unprecedented introduction of new technologies. The most obvious examples are those technologies that make up personal computers. New developments often come out, and onto the market so quickly that, by 2003 many new PCs are “obsolete” (eclipsed by faster and cheaper models) months after they are introduced. In wartime, especially during World War II, the military learned to cope with this. They did it by junking a lot of expensive new weapons and equipment after only a few months use. This was expensive, and not tolerated in peacetime. This approach was too expensive for peace time budgets. But the American military has learned to cope with this trend, at least cope more effectively than any other nation. By rapidly introducing less expensive technologies, but ones that would have the greatest impact on combat effectiveness, combat capability has grown far beyond what any other nation has.

High Speed Operations. Better, and faster, communications, better trained troops and faster moving combat vehicles has made it possible to wage war at speeds, and times, that were previously thought impossible. American troops can fight day and night and do it 24/7. Anyone who wants to be competitive with American troops has to try and match this, or try and find ways to slow the high speed warriors down. Speed has always been a formidable military capability, but in 21st Century Warfare, it is the crucial one.

Owning the Night. Since the 1970s American infantrymen have come to control the night because of the development of Night Vision Goggles (NVGs). These have been around since the 1960s, but have gotten more powerful and cheaper in that time. The first night vision devices looked like a handheld telescope and used a light intensifier to multiply available light several thousand times and show the user, on a tiny TV screen, a greenish, monochrome image of what was out there. On a clear night, with a full moon, you could make out a person at about 250 meters. During the 1990s American troops practiced a lot at night using their NVGs and have learned that, while they can see at night, they cannot see nearly as clearly as they can in daylight. But they can see better than opponents without NVGs. Early on in Afghanistan enemy troops were shocked, and frequently killed, when they encountered American troops who could see in the dark. NVGs are also used by pilots, and even by support troops, who can do their work, whether it be building a bridge across a river or moving up supplies, in the darkness.

Political Soldiers. The United States has one unique organization, the Special Forces, that specialize in operating in the gray zone between war and peace. They are trained to operate as diplomats and spies, as well as commandos. There's never been anything like it before, and after half a century of existence, the United States has finally accepted the "Green Berets." For most of the last 60 years, many army generals resisted the idea behind the Special Forces. Part of this was the disdain for highly trained soldiers who spent most of their time in the bush and were usually right when there was a disagreement between the Special Forces and the generals. Another reason for not liking the Special Forces was their ability to use politics and diplomacy, as well as weapons, to defeat an enemy. This, to most generals, was not what proper soldiers did. By 2003 the generals had started to come around, which means that the political aspect of future wars will never be the same.

Commandos. These specialists have always been around. Think of the “Knights of the Round Table” or any legendary super warrior. During the 20th century, methods were developed to produce commando class troops at will. This was not possible in the past. While commandos are specialist troops that are only useful in certain situations, when you can use them, they often have a devastating effect. Those nations with large commando forces (the US, Britain, Russia, etc.) have a military advantage that is often the margin of victory.

Off the Shelf Mentality. Since the 1980s, the military has increasingly looked to commercial companies for the latest combat equipment. This recognizes that military procurement has become too slow, and technological advances too rapid to get the latest gear into the hands of troops before it becomes obsolete. In most cases, civilian equipment works fine, as is, for the military. This is because over half the troops that work at jobs that never take them from shops or offices indistinguishable from the work places civilians use. But even the combat troops can find a lot of equipment that is rugged enough for the battlefield. Soldiers have long noted that civilian camping equipment is superior to most of the stuff they are issued, and many soldiers have supplemented, or replaced, issued equipment with better off-the-shelf gear. In the last decade, it's been common for combat troops to bring civilian electronics gear with them. Everything from laser range finders to GPS units, all of which are issued, but the official stuff tends to be heavier and less capable.

Note: The above item was originally written in April 2003 as a book proposal, as a follow-on to “The Perfect Soldier” which was published in June 2003. The publisher declined to proceed with 21st Century War, feeling that books on war in general would not be as popular as those that were more specific to Iraq, Afghanistan or the War on Terror. Nevertheless, when I came across this proposal recently I was struck by how appropriate is still is, and noted that it was never run in Strategypage. I don’t remember why that happened, probably because the publisher took months to make up their minds and I was busy covering Iraq and Afghanistan in Strategypage. The above is the book proposal, with a few paragraphs discussing business and publishing issues deleted and some adjustments to reflect that the original was in the present tense, which is now 11 years ago. – Jim Dunnigan





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