Futurology: the tyranny of half-truths

John Arquilla has a provocative piece in a recent issue of Foreign Policy.

In a nutshell, he argues that networks, swarming and ‘finding’ will be the way of the future, instead of rigid national hierarchies, flanking and mass. And that we must realise this if we are interested in ‘saving the world from darkness.’

He’s been doing this for a while now, and clearly he’s onto something. Today’s world offers up a range of new tools and possibilities – a more potent information domain, new ways of orchestrating ideas, money and violence, and agile non-state players can now acquire capabilities and confound nation-states. What’s more, there may be ways that America can lower its defence budget while still creating equally effective capabilities on a smaller scale. Anything that can allow the US to remain militarily excellent while lowering its half-trillion dollar defence budget is worth contemplating.

Its not that he is wrong. He is half-right. Like so many of the self-styled prophets of future war, he seems locked into the belief that innovation and radical thinking are always desirable, and conservation and accumulated wisdom are always backward and wrong. Not that’s he’s opposed to history, which he believes contains the code for success. It is the status quo that worries him – what he sees as lumbering, obsolete states buying expensive and cumbersome equipment, addicted to mass.

Here are some holes in his vision:

Networks are a mixed blessing when it comes to armed conflict, rather than being an unambiguous advantage. This is well argued here. Networks trade control for agility. This might make them harder to smash, but also makes it harder to discipline and command their forces. Al Qaeda for this reason has run into trouble because of this dilemma. It is harder to eliminate, and its ideas are a kind of contagion, but it could not master its promiscuously violent and indiscriminate forces in Anbar or Saudi Arabia or Algeria, and has suffered a blowback of its own as a result. That there is no such thing as a free lunch is worth remembering before we embrace one-sided visions of radical change.

Future warfare is not a fixed objective condition that will foist itself on us. It is something that humans create, in interaction and competition with each other. Arquilla may be right, for example, that mammoth aircraft carriers aren’t worth the candle, because they offer a rich and expensive target to the well-armed swarming enemy. But the Chinese and Russians are still investing in them. And if others are also building or buying carriers, by definition they are not obsolete. Putin and Jintao have as much say about the future of war as visionary theorists, because it is they who do the investing and make the decisions. And if we do radically redesign our forces to stress agility over mass and swarming over flanking, who is to say that a watchful enemy won’t counter-adapt, and surprise us with methods we thought obsolete? Hezbollah did precisely that to Israel in 2006, shocking its adversary that had become accustomed to counterinsurgency and low-intensity warfare, and did so partly with classical methods of defence.

Just because a weapon or doctrine lacks relevance in battling terrorists or insurgents, doesn’t mean it lacks relevance across the board. Arquilla invokes that seriously endangered and embattled species, the terrorist armed with a nuclear weapon. Is it so obvious that this enemy should be our organising, number one fear? He says that this spectre may blow old ideas like ‘deterrence’ to the wind. Well, we may not be able to deter everything, but our ability to retaliate against states and massively is one of many reasons why states are probably reluctant to hand WMD on to terrorist networks. But even if we did fail to deter one apocalyptic group with these weapons, deterrence and containment are still useful doctrines as we face the institution that has proven its remarkable durability in recent time, the nation-state.

If you want to sell an idea, don’t try too hard to make all facts fit the theory. True, Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 2006 do illustrate some of the potentialities of swarming and networking. But as other studies show, they also show the persistent, stubborn power of determined, heavily armed forces punching hard. Russia struck into Georgia with armoured columns of tanks (a weapon Arquilla blithely dismisses as obsolete). Hezbolla inflicted unexpected pain on the IDF not only by networking their enemies into confusion, but with classical and old-school methods, such as hedgehog defences, and the defence of fixed terrain, as some well-known studies show.

Very elegant idea – but what if he’s wrong? This is possibly the most important question to ask of any blueprint. If we become more networked and agile but retain our ‘mass’ and our conceptual tools of deterrence and containment, we may strike a decent compromise while avoiding the opposite dangers of being outflanked or outgunned. But if we abandon the ‘heavy metal’ in favour of lightness and rapidity, what are the penalties if we are wrong? Given that defence forecasts, like in most fields, have a deeply unimpressive history, we might think twice before hanging our future on over-confident broadcasts about the future. Under-estimating change can be dangerous. But so too can over-estimating it, as enthusiasts for strategic bombing and chemical warfare discovered.

Might we stop talking about the generation of 1871-1914 as idiotic? The western front of the first world war was an industrial scale bloodbath, but this was not mainly because that generation was stupid or lacked imagination. If anything, it was a time of excited and sometimes fantastical visions of future war, where chemical weapons or air power would revolutionise warfare. Even the discovery of the tank and the plane, and Blitzkrieg warfare, did not necessarily make war generally shorter or more humane. Not in World War Two, nor in the Iraq-Iran war of our time.

Lastly, there’s more to life than kit. And there’s much much more to warfare than latching on to upcoming gadgets and innovative doctrines, and getting ‘ahead of the curve.’ War’s speed, decisiveness and costs are shaped by a whole myriad of things, from the tactical to the grand strategic. And, yes, accidents: one important reason that Nazi Germany applied its effective method of armoured thrusts through the Ardenne was a navigational error of a bloke who had the plans and landed in the wrong spot and was arrested, which meant that Hitler’s original operational plan to attack in a more expected head-on fashion mainly through Belgium and Northern France was cancelled.

Its probably a vertiginous thing to spot the next big pattern around the corner, and to accuse the defence establishment of being backward, reactionary and out of step with the times. It makes for a good broadcast (like the British politician Nick Clegg, who uses the phrase ‘Cold War’ as a damning indictment of weapons systems). Many prophets of the early 90’s saw the Gulf War and the quick smashing of Saddam’s forces as the template for the future. Others saw the airpower ‘miracle’ of the NATO-Serbia war in 1999 as a departure point in military history. Others now confidently announce that Afghanistan and Iraq show a brave new world of standoff precision strike, or is it prolonged nationbuilding, or then again, is it all a red herring for the cyberwars to come? One would have thought some awareness of these short-sighted announcements would create a little restraint. Instead, the prophets effortlessly update their visions.

That approach is now a little out of date, surely.

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