- Oct 10, 2009
The New Rules of War
The visionary who first saw the age of "netwar" coming warns that the U.S. military is getting it wrong all over again. Here's his plan to make conflict cheaper, smaller, and smarter.
BY JOHN ARQUILLA | MARCH/APRIL 2010
Every day, the U.S. military spends $1.75 billion, much of it on big ships, big guns, and big battalions that are not only not needed to win the wars of the present, but are sure to be the wrong approach to waging the wars of the future.
In this, the ninth year of the first great conflict between nations and networks, America's armed forces have failed, as militaries so often do, to adapt sufficiently to changed conditions, finding out the hard way that their enemies often remain a step ahead. The U.S. military floundered for years in Iraq, then proved itself unable to grasp the point, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, that old-school surges of ground troops do not offer enduring solutions to new-style conflicts with networked adversaries.
So it has almost always been. Given the high stakes and dangers they routinely face, militaries are inevitably reluctant to change. During World War I, the armies on the Western Front in 1915 were fighting in much the same manner as those at Waterloo in 1815, attacking in close-packed formations -- despite the emergence of the machine gun and high-explosive artillery. Millions were slaughtered, year after bloody year, for a few yards of churned-up mud. It is no surprise that historian Alan Clark titled his study of the high command during this conflict The Donkeys.
Even the implications of maturing tanks, planes, and the radio waves that linked them were only partially understood by the next generation of military men. Just as their predecessors failed to grasp the lethal nature of firepower, their successors missed the rise of mechanized maneuver -- save for the Germans, who figured out that blitzkrieg was possible and won some grand early victories. They would have gone on winning, but for poor high-level strategic choices such as invading Russia and declaring war on the United States. In the end, the Nazis were not so much outfought as gang-tackled.
Nuclear weapons were next to be misunderstood, most monumentally by a U.S. military that initially thought they could be employed like any other weapons. But it turned out they were useful only in deterring their use. Surprisingly, it was cold warrior Ronald Reagan who had the keenest insight into such weapons when he said, "A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought."
Which brings us to war in the age of information. The technological breakthroughs of the last two decades -- comparable in world-shaking scope to those at the Industrial Revolution's outset two centuries ago -- coincided with a new moment of global political instability after the Cold War. Yet most militaries are entering this era with the familiar pattern of belief that new technological tools will simply reinforce existing practices.
In the U.S. case, senior officials remain convinced that their strategy of "shock and awe" and the Powell doctrine of "overwhelming force" have only been enhanced by the addition of greater numbers of smart weapons, remotely controlled aircraft, and near-instant global communications. Perhaps the most prominent cheerleader for "shock and awe" has been National Security Advisor James Jones, the general whose circle of senior aides has included those who came up with the concept in the 1990s. Their basic idea: "The bigger the hammer, the better the outcome."
Nothing could be further from the truth, as the results in Iraq and Afghanistan so painfully demonstrate. Indeed, a decade and a half after my colleague David Ronfeldt and I coined the term "netwar" to describe the world's emerging form of network-based conflict, the United States is still behind the curve. The evidence of the last 10 years shows clearly that massive applications of force have done little more than kill the innocent and enrage their survivors. Networked organizations like al Qaeda have proven how easy it is to dodge such heavy punches and persist to land sharp counterblows.
And the U.S. military, which has used these new tools of war in mostly traditional ways, has been staggered financially and gravely wounded psychologically. The Iraq war's real cost, for example, has been about $3 trillion, per the analysis of Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes -- and even "official" figures put expenditures around $1 trillion. As for human capital, U.S. troops are exhausted by repeated lengthy deployments against foes who, if they were lined up, would hardly fill a single division of Marines. In a very real sense, the United States has come close to punching itself out since 9/11.
When militaries don't keep up with the pace of change, countries suffer. In World War I, the failure to grasp the implications of mass production led not only to senseless slaughter, but also to the end of great empires and the bankruptcy of others. The inability to comprehend the meaning of mechanization at the outset of World War II handed vast tracts of territory to the Axis powers and very nearly gave them victory. The failure to grasp the true meaning of nuclear weapons led to a suicidal arms race and a barely averted apocalypse during the Cuban missile crisis.
Today, the signs of misunderstanding still abound. For example, in an age of supersonic anti-ship missiles, the U.S. Navy has spent countless billions of dollars on "surface warfare ships" whose aluminum superstructures will likely burn to the waterline if hit by a single missile. Yet Navy doctrine calls for them to engage missile-armed enemies at eyeball range in coastal waters.
The U.S. Army, meanwhile, has spent tens of billions of dollars on its "Future Combat Systems," a grab bag of new weapons, vehicles, and communications gadgets now seen by its own proponents as almost completely unworkable for the kind of military operations that land forces will be undertaking in the years ahead. The oceans of information the systems would generate each day would clog the command circuits so that carrying out even the simplest operation would be a terrible slog.
And the U.S. Air Force, beyond its well-known devotion to massive bombing, remains in love with extremely advanced and extremely expensive fighter aircraft -- despite losing only one fighter plane to an enemy fighter in nearly 40 years. Although the hugely costly F-22 turned out to function poorly and is being canceled after enormous investment in its production, the Air Force has by no means given up. Instead, the more advanced F-35 will be produced, at a cost running in the hundreds of billions of dollars. All this in an era in which what the United States already has is far better than anything else in the world and will remain so for many decades.
These developments suggest that the United States is spending huge amounts of money in ways that are actually making Americans less secure, not only against irregular insurgents, but also against smart countries building different sorts of militaries. And the problem goes well beyond weapons and other high-tech items. What's missing most of all from the U.S. military's arsenal is a deep understanding of networking, the loose but lively interconnection between people that creates and brings a new kind of collective intelligence, power, and purpose to bear -- for good and ill.
Civil society movements around the world have taken to networking in ways that have done far more to advance the cause of freedom than the U.S. military's problematic efforts to bring democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan at gunpoint. As for "uncivil society," terrorists and transnational criminals have embraced connectivity to coordinate global operations in ways that simply were not possible in the past. Before the Internet and the World Wide Web, a terrorist network operating cohesively in more than 60 countries could not have existed. Today, a world full of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallabs awaits -- and not all of them will fail.
But the principles of networking don't have to help only the bad guys. If fully embraced, they can lead to a new kind of military -- and even a new kind of war. The conflicts of the future should and could be less costly and destructive, with armed forces more able to protect the innocent and deter or defend against aggression.
Vast tank armies may no longer battle it out across the steppes, but modern warfare has indeed become exceedingly fast-paced and complex. Still, there is a way to reduce this complexity to just three simple rules that can save untold amounts of blood and treasure in the netwar age.