Permissible Arms

Radio Free Everything

Posted in counterinsurgency, intelligence, isaf, united states, us defense, us military by Karaka on 15 March 2010

Good grief. Let’s try this again.

I’m sure everyone who (maybe, still) reads this blog has gotten their hands on some or all of Foreign Policy’s War Issue, but in case you haven’t here’s a pdf copy of the magazine.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in there (as well as a dreadfully long multipage advertisement for Brazil that I really could have lived without paying for), written by names that will be familiar to anyone who reads in the field regularly; but the article that caught my attention was John Arquilla’s argument for a new mode of warfare for the American military structure. Delightfully, the article is available in full here. It’s worth your time to read.

However, there are two points I think Arquilla misses; or rather, the focus of his article prevents him from touching on these two points, and I think they’re worth bringing up. First:

A networked U.S. military that knows how to swarm would have much smaller active manpower — easily two-thirds less than the more than 2 million serving today — but would be organized in hundreds more little units of mixed forces. The model for military intervention would be the 200 Special Forces “horse soldiers” who beat the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan late in 2001. Such teams would deploy quickly and lethally, with ample reserves for relieving “first waves” and dealing with other crises. At sea, instead of concentrating firepower in a handful of large, increasingly vulnerable supercarriers, the U.S. Navy would distribute its capabilities across many hundreds of small craft armed with very smart weapons. Given their stealth and multiple uses, submarines would stay while carriers would go. And in the air, the “wings” would reduce in size but increase in overall number, with mere handfuls of aircraft in each. Needless to say, networking means that these small pieces would still be able to join together to swarm enemies, large or small.

I agree with Arquilla on this point, particularly that nothing offers a better model for networked warfare in contemporary history than special ops engagements in Afghanistan (and, rather to some extent, Iraq). But by virtue of using this conflict and the force applied to it, Arquilla doesn’t seem to embrace the secondary component that has proven necessary in Afghanistan where ISAF spec ops forces have intervened: stability.

“[W]ith ample reserves for relieving ‘first waves’ and dealing with other crises,” Arquilla says, but the very times special ops has worked in greatest favor in our modern wars as been when the original intervenors could be a continuous presence in the lives of the combatants they defeated and the civilians they end up protecting. I’m thinking specifically of The Mayor of Ar Rutbah and One Tribe at a Time, though there are many examples to draw from; while there are valid critiques of these strategies for dealing with insurgency specifically, and the larger field of warcraft Arquilla is describing in his article, there is a clear application to ongoing conflict that can act as a lens for future conflicts. It’s very clearly not enough just to embrace the effectiveness of swarming a conflict with a small, agile, networked band of soldiers. Those same soldiers either have to establish a kind of semi-permanency of themselves and the security they have created by defeating an enemy; or some authoritative organization, either native or foreign, has to establish itself in the wake of that success immediately, or that security is lost overnight.

But if the idea is to have small, mobile, highly effective units–essentially exponentially more special forces units–with the emphasis on mobile, how does one correlate that with the void left in the wake of success?


There’s real urgency to this debate. Not only has history not ended with the Cold War and the advent of commerce-driven globalization, but conflict and violence have persisted — even grown — into a new postmodern scourge.

Indeed, it is ironic that, in an era in which the attraction to persuasive “soft power” has grown dramatically, coercive “hard power” continues to dominate in world affairs. This is no surprise in the case of rogue nations hellbent on developing nuclear arsenals to ensure their security, nor when it comes to terrorist networks that think their essential nature is revealed in and sustained by violent acts. But this primary reliance on coercive capabilities is also on display across a range of countries great and small, most notably the United States, whose defense policy has over the past decade largely become its foreign policy.

Probably for good reason, Arquilla doesn’t discuss the other avenues the United States has for exploiting soft power. He’s talking specifically about the military, and intelligence services don’t cleanly align with the military. But it seems an odd exception to make when discussing the hard power inherent in most American military endeavors, because if there is one thing that has been made clear in the last seven years of America At War, it’s that intelligence is everything. Planes can’t drop bombs without a target. (Or, well, they can, but that road ain’t one I’m going down today.) If you act without intelligence, you go in blind, and in the last seven years and particularly the last eighteen months it’s clear that priority is placed on intelligence gathered by military personnel and the contacts they make in areas of engagement. And that intelligence is the difference between action and inaction. I don’t think the military is necessarily blind to this, and whatever problems there are in information sharing between departments, there has to be something getting through for anything to happen at all.

We may love our subs and our carriers and our fighter jets; but I don’t know that such love is necessarily at the expense of information.


6 Responses

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  1. Starbuck said, on 17 March 2010 at 04:09

    This idea (Network-Centric Warfare) has been around for about a decade now. While there is some merit to it in conventional warfare (check out Net-Centric Warfare and Effects-Based Operations), it’s abysmal for counterinsurgency warfare and nation building.

    I could go on for hours on this topic, but some key points:

    a.) technology doesn’t always give a commander an omniscient view of the battlefield, particularly in COIN where the real valuable intelligence comes from social contact.
    b.) Information still needs to be processed by human beings
    c.) NCW and EBO are based on predicting an enemy’s moves–using action x in order to achieve effect y in the enemy. Unfortunately, this requires a level of prescience akin to comic-book villians. Social structures are far too complex to accurately model.
    d.) NCW and EBO work best against centralized enemies, and base their premise on the fact that “decapitating” an organization will cause the limbs to wither and die. This works well for Arab armies, which are HIGHLY centralized, but it’s poor for decentralized organizations (e.g., Hezbollah).

    • Karaka said, on 14 April 2010 at 10:33

      urk, I’m appallingly behind in responding to this, but I’ve been thinking about it for ages.

      I think, first off, that Arquilla isn’t talking so much about network-centric warfare as a technological strategy but as a physical one. He’s using the concept of networked computers to envision smaller bands of independently acting teams who could then come together to work towards a more collective goal; but, that goal or mission having been accomplished, disband again and work independently once more. This would rely a great deal on the availability and stability of certain kinds of technology to make the strategy viable, but is not necessarily a technological strategy itself.

      But I do agree with you that it works best against centralized enemies. The level of predictable activity in one’s enemy makes the reactive nature of smaller teams more influential.

      Mea culpa for dropping off the face of the earth!

  2. onparkstreet said, on 29 March 2010 at 15:28

    Hey, welcome back, karaka :)

    – Madhu

    • Karaka said, on 14 April 2010 at 10:25

      heh, I’m more likely to agree with alec down there–when I can manage more than one post in two weeks I’ll call myself back. but in the meantime, hullo anyhow. :)

  3. Alec said, on 7 April 2010 at 12:26

    When you pen more than two missives a fortnight, then I’ll welcome you back.

    Also, I can’t remember where precisely you hail from (Pennsylvania?), but my deepest sympathies for the Massey disaster. I recall you said the menfolk in your family either had the mines/steelworks or the military.

    • Karaka said, on 14 April 2010 at 10:27

      snarky but accurate! I’m working on doing better.

      I actually reside in Oregon, but the Massey mine collapse was horrifying. But you’re right on the second count–I grew up in Appalachia, where the majority of options for young men in the region are mines or military.

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