December 4, 2005

Introduction to Neither Shall the Sword

By Chet Richards

[Neither Shall the Sword will be published by the Center for Defense Information, Washington DC, in early January 2006.]


The late Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, when asked his opinion on the impact of the French Revolution, thought for a moment and then answered that it was too soon to tell. So much more is it with the events of the 21st century, particularly the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the removal of the Taliban from Afghanistan, and the invasion of Iraq. In the four years since I wrote A Swift, Elusive Sword, our national mood has swung from horror to resolve to elation and now to frustration. It would be presumptuous in the extreme to draw conclusions from these events, much less to predict the course of even the next four years. Still, we do have to deal with the future, and one can perceive the first dim, dark glimpses of patterns that may help us navigate our way through.

The purpose of this volume is to re-examine the conclusions of A Swift, Elusive Sword in light of what has happened since 9/11. As was the intent of that book, I will only examine the military dimension of our national strategy. Some may object that such an approach would be of little value, or even dangerously misleading, since military forces should form a small and diminishing component of our strategy. While it is certainly true that trade, diplomacy, finance and intelligence should comprise the majority of the tools in our kit, recent history suggests that presidents from both parties will continue to regard military force as an attractive device for influencing events. Twenty-five centuries of history, however, demonstrate that if committed unwisely, military force causes more problems than it solves. It is important, therefore, as Sun Tzu urges in at the beginning of The Art of War, to examine the utility of force in the various categories of conflict that will confront us in the future.

Conventional conflictreplaying World War II?

The premise of Sword was that although it strained the imagination, we could not absolutely rule out the possibility of large-scale conventional conflict. Fortunately, we know how to fight this type of war, and although many of our weapons look back to the Cold War or even the Second World Wartanks, missiles, aircraft carriers, and the likeour doctrine has improved and our enemies have deteriorated so that we can ensure our security with far fewer weapons, people and expense. The fall of the Soviet Union and the removal of its thousands of tanks, aircraft and missiles from the list of potential threats made this a simple conclusion. Thus, I constructed the Sword force around those elements of the existing U.S. military establishment who best understood the doctrines of modern warfare, put the rest into reserve, and waited confidently for peace and prosperity.

That was May 2001. Are the prescriptions in A Swift, Elusive Sword still reasonable? Would we be doing better in Iraq if we had the Sword force? And how are we positioned for what might happen next?

The post-9/11 world

The future, of course, is not just sitting out there waiting to unfold. People will observe what we do over the next several years and gauge their own actions accordingly. So it makes no sense to talk of “likely” scenarios: future opponents will not be tossing dice and resigning themselves to whatever they get. They will do what they feel advances their cause best, weighing costs, difficulties and risks as part of their calculus.

One way to deal with this situation is to try to foresee moves into the future and create counters for each, much like how a supercomputer analyzes positions on a chessboard. This is, conceptually, what we tried to do during the Cold War: virtually all of our major hardware programs, including many still in production today, were sold as “counters” to some Soviet weapon or to our guess at what they might be developing.

Unfortunately, a game like this only works against a single enemy much like ourselves, with a limited number of predictable moves. It is barely feasible for chess, a game with only 64 locations and only six types of pieces available to each side. It would become more interesting if we gave the pieces creativity and initiative, allowed them to change sides, and inflicted them with varying degrees of cowardice, heroism, fear and fatigue. If we now multiply the numbers by millions, throw in strange cultures and religions, organize them into tribes, clans, cartels and villages as well as by modern stateswell, you see how ridiculous it is to try to predict what future opponents would do under such conditions. So as a country we were caught unawares by the attacks of 9/11 and by the intensity of the guerrilla-type war that has broken out in Iraq since our occupation. More such surprises are to be expected.

Where is Strangelove when we need him?

Although we cannot predict the future, we still have to live in it. Perhaps our best approach is to start with what we know and then set aside resources to cope with the unpredictable.1/ For example, we feel confident that we can deter nuclear attacks by states. Our strategy is to make sure the world understands that if we detect a nuclear attack coming from the territory of another country, or if we can trace an attack back to the government of another country, that government and perhaps that country will quickly cease to exist. This strategy deterred the Soviet Union, which was likewise capable of destroying the United States, and it will work against countries capable of hurling at most a handful of missiles. A similar logic says that there won’t be a large-scale conventional war between countries with significant nuclear capabilities since Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) could break down if one side began to feel its existence (or the personal honor of its supreme leader) threatened.

I could be wrong, though, so it makes sense to keep some conventional capability around, and it probably makes sense to keep a research and development (R&D) program going to look into a missile defense system, with the caveat that any country capable of developing or otherwise obtaining a warhead has many options for delivering it other than trying to re-invent the ICBM.

Countries lacking nuclear weapons are either U.S. allies or if they are not, they are so weak that any military action against them would hardly merit the label, “war”at least as far as the getting-in stage is concerned.

Where does this leave the force I proposed in A Swift, Elusive Sword? The answer is that it is still okay as a hedge against conventional conflicts and to pre-empt entities that we don’t like from developing nuclear weapons. Events in Iraq, however, suggest that we should have a real international coalition behind us before attempting such incursions, which are otherwise violations of international law no matter how egregious the regime appears in our view. Given that ground rule, we could reduce the burden on American taxpayers by incorporating elements into the Sword force from our NATO allies and from other longstanding partners, such as Australia.

Unconventional war

If the West persists in using military intervention as a tool of geopolitical engineering, we will get a lot of practice in guerrilla warfare. For one thing, the mere presence of occupying forces from another culture or religion will catalyze insurgency, which will most likely start as a guerrilla war, a form of warfare where the record of Western armies is at best mixed.

Foreswearing intervention, however, and staying within our own borders is no guarantee of peace. Even if we do not intervene somewhere, we can still expect a bumper crop of irregular, non-state opponents to arise and spar with us. Failed states, for example, and countries rent by rebellions will provide a fertile culture medium for transnational ideological groups such as al-Qa'ida as well as for a host of ordinary criminal cartels.

If you have a pessimistic streak, you might see the number of failed states growing over the next few years. Many of these were artificial creations of European colonialists and would have died natural deaths years ago if one side or the other had not propped them up during the Cold War. That war is 14 years over, and the ravages of neglect, the world economy, disease and tribal animosities are tearing at whatever foundations these nations once had.

The noted Israeli historian, Martin van Creveld, looked out on this landscape and prophesied a dim future for organized military forces. Much of the task of defending society against future warfare, he foretold, will fall to private security companies, with a corresponding decrease in the utility, size and technological complexity of military forces. Armies will shrink in size to be replaced by police-like security forces on the one hand and armed gangs on the other (“ … not that the difference is always clear even today.”)2/

It is coming to pass. Private military companies and other non-government security services represent a major source of job growth in the U.S. economy. And gangs like MS 13 and the Aryan Brotherhood are growing in wealth, power, and most disturbing of all, in their ability to harness new technologies such as the Internet to recruit members and plan, then conduct, operations. It seems reasonable that in this new world, the national security apparatus we built starting 200 years ago to protect us from other statesand that we tweaked a half century ago to wage the Cold Warmight not be what we need.

Can it change? I don’t think so. We can extrapolate from the experience of large commercial organizations since the end of WW II. Most of them will go out of business before they make the changes necessary to survive. Where are Pan Am, Eastern Airlines, Montgomery Ward and Digital Equipment? Even Chrysler and Sears are divisions of other companies. We do not want the United States or any other developed country or ally to go out of business, so to speak.

This book is an attempt to illustrate how much change would be necessary for the armed forces of the United States, Europe, Japan, China or Russia to be able to operate in a world of jihadists, narcotraffickers, road warriors, or among the even nastier organizations that are watching them and watching us and learning. I would never claim that the recommendations I make are the only ones that might work, nor would I suggest that others cannot create even more effective solutions. What I hope to convince the reader of, or at least make plausible, is that measures less drastic than mine are excuses for maintaining current organization charts, money flows, career paths and political alignments. As such, they stand no chance at all of securing our country and our allies.


1/  We must continue to question what we “know,” of course. But until we can identify some mismatch with our current orientation, we should focus on reducing the scope of the unknown and the unpredictable.
2/  Van Creveld, Martin, The Transformation of War, New York: The Free Press, 1991, p. 225.

Chet Richards is the editor of Defense and the National Interest.  He was an associate of the late Col John R. Boyd from 1976 until Boyd's death in 1997 and collaborated with him on the early drafts of Certain to Win.  Dr. Richards is a retired colonel in the USAF Reserve and served for many years as the Air Attaché (Reserve) to Saudi Arabia.  He and his wife live in Atlanta where they are associated with the public relations agency J. Addams & Partners, Inc.

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