Ready for What? 

September 16, 1998

Comment: #189


[1] Email from Fletcher B. Cox, (Anti-Tank Gunner, Pvt., 95th Division, WWII). Attached.

Many observers have argued that the nature of warfare is changing as we move into the post-cold war era. There is considerable disagreement what these changes are and where they are taking us, however. I think there are two views competing unequally for attention.

The first, and by far the largest, is the idea that we are on the verge of a technological Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) that will make many existing platforms obsolete. Adherents of this view war as a technical problem that can be solved by hi-tech computer-intensive hardware solutions. They argue that The RMA is a "system of systems" consisting of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance sensors to find targets; an automated command, control, and communications system to decide which targets to strike and to control weapons launch decisions; and a variety of long-range precision-guided weapons to carry out the actual attacks.

The RMA may be a techno-strategy, but is hardly a revolution in thinking. In fact, its conceptual roots lie in Robert McNamara's flawed vision of an electronic line in Vietnam, a multi-billion dollar fiasco known as Task Force Alpha/Igloo White. Although this vision was resurrected in several variants in the 1970s and 1980s, planners were unable to convert it into an effective system during the Cold War. Now, its latest reincarnation is supposed to "revolutionize" the nature of a regional war against an undefined "near-peer" competitor on a hypothetical electronic battlefield in the year 2010. At the core of RMA is a radical hypothesis that would cause Sun Tzu, Clausewitz and George Patton to roll over in their graves: namely that technology will transform the fog and friction of combat (i.e., the uncertainty, fear, chaos, imperfect information, etc. which is a natural product of a clash between opposing wills), into clear, friction-free, predictable, mechanistic interaction.

In effect, believers in RMA say warfare will change war for US because new technologies enable us to be more efficient in performing the same combat tasks we used to do with conventional platforms like tanks and jet fighters. RMA is, therefore, primarily an inwardly directed philosophy that predicts how things will be different for us (e.g., no fog or friction). On the other hand, RMA theorists take a far more static view of the threat. They see the future threat not as a transformed adversary, who is creatively acting to neutralize our strengths, but rather as a more modern version of past adversaries, still equipped with familiar types of weapons, like tanks, and therefore presenting the same kinds of targets to be chewed up in a conventional battle of attrition.

Perhaps three of the best examples of this techno-centric philosophy are the Army's concept of the digital battlefield envisioned under the Force XXI concept, the Navy's concept of net centric warfare, and the Joint Vision 2010 theory proposed by the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (In fairness, it should be noted that some of the RMA extremist do not believe these concepts go far enough. They believe they are bureaucratic attempts to marry RMA technologies while protecting conventional weapons like tanks, jet fighters, and guided missile destroyers.)

Others argue that the evolution of war is shaped by a many-sided battle of ideas (with technology in a supporting role). They assert our adversaries are learning to counter the conventional attrition doctrine of the technology and firepower intensive forces of industrial based armies. They call this new form of warfare Fourth Generation Warfare to contrast it to warfare of the 1st Generation (tactics of line and column, e.g., Napoleon), the 2nd Generation (the industrial logistics/firepower intensive attrition tactics from Civil War through WWI), and the 3rd Generation (maneuver warfare as evolved out of the German's 1918 infiltration tactics to blitzkrieg to the mission tactics adopted by the Marine Corps in the 1980s).

The Fourth Generationists assert that the end of the Cold War neutralized the organizing dynamics of the bi-polar cold war rivalry and thereby unleashed a welter of nationalist, ethnic, religious, tribal, and criminal conflicts among state and non-state actors. They say these players fight differently and we better learn to exploit their very different weaknesses while avoiding their strengths.

They go on to say that the most important lesson they learned from the Iraq War is that if you going to fight America, never mass your forces in the open or in static defensive positions where it is easy to separate friend from foe, because the Americans will use their technological advantage to blow you to smithereens. Instead these state and non-state adversaries will aim at our weaknesses by relying increasingly on irregular urban/suburban close quarters combat and terrorism where this an intermingling of hostile, neutral, and friendly parties.

The cite the rise of different forms of warfare, how the Intifada armed with rocks, backed up by Hamas, Hezbollah, and the 24 hour news cycle gained the Palestinians more initiative from Israel than was achieved in four conventional wars, how Aideed drove the US out of Somalia because he won the infowar, how Russian forces were defeated by tribal irregulars in Chechnya and Afghanistan, and how Osama bin Ladin snookered the US into overreacting with an ill-advised high-cost cruise missile attack that violated the national sovereignty of a neutral power (Pakistan). To counter such threats, these thinkers argue, that we will need fast-transient, expeditionary forces skilled in littoral penetration operations, special forces operations, political military operations, counter-drug, counter-terrorist, and nuc operations, police work, all taking place more often in high density urban/suburban areas.

These are two very different visions of the future, so I asked one of my closest friends, Fletcher Cox, and anti-tank gunner in 95th Division during World War II what he thought of this kind of thinking. Gunner Cox, as usual, did not think my ramblings about the generations of war were a big deal, probably just the tortured fulminations of a self-important former air force officer with no experience in the trenches.

He said this difference of opinion smelled like the problem George Washington had with General Braddock during the French and Indian War.

Attached is the Gunner's email.

Chuck Spinney

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Reference #1

Email from Gunner Cox

On our Wilderness Road expedition, my friend and I visited the site of Drapers Meadows (now part of the Virginia Tech campus, Blacksburg), where Shawnee Indians captured a few whites and slaughtered the rest of that settlement's inhabitants in 1755. That made me interested in the French and Indian War. I looked it up in an old set of "The New Book of Knowledge" and found this passage:

In 1755 General Braddock arrived from England to take charge of the British troops (He) had never fought in North America, where the enemy hid behind trees, melted away in the darkness, and never stood still to be fired at. Braddock had learned his fighting tactics in Europe, where armies fought in regular formations. Though Washington and the Indians [friendly scouts] told him otherwise, Braddock simply could not believe that tactics used by the best armies of Europe would not work against a ragged French-Indian force. The result was a French massacre of the British forces at Fort Duquesne. Two thirds of the approximately 1,500 British who fought were killed or wounded. Braddock himself was killed.

Does that make you think of a 20th century war not too many decades ago?

Does it make you think the Pentagon has its own cadre of General Braddocks even down unto the present day?