The Best Defense

No. 1 in the Future of War contest: ‘The future of war means we need resiliency’

Congratulations to Puong Fei Yeh, whose essay was the clear winner in our contest.

Also, please send along ideas for future contests. You can e-mail me at the address at the bottom of my bio. Or you can tweet to me @tomricks1

Here is the gold medal winner:


‘The future of war scares me - and underscores the importance of resiliency' By Puong Fei Yeh, Best Defense future of war entrant

The future of war scares me.

It scares me the most when I think about the world we live in -- the long-standing threat of nuclear weapons and proliferation, the rise of unmanned combat platforms, cyber weapons, and not-yet-invented or imagined ways to conduct war. Some of the earlier posts in this blog have touched on the inviolate laws of war, and therefore what we can expect war to look like in the future, but if there is one law that gives me pause it is the power law of war.

I'm not referring to the capacity of countries or groups to wage war, but rather Lewis Fry Richardson's insight in 1948 that wars exhibit a power law relationship.

Richardson discovered that the magnitude of wars as measured in how many people die is inversely proportional to the frequency with which those wars occur along a smooth curve. At one extreme end of the scale are the First and Second World Wars, in which tens of millions of people were killed, and at the other end of the spectrum are greater numbers of conflicts in which the number of causalities range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. Conflicts like the Vietnam War (1965), Iran-Iraq War (1980), and the Taiping Rebellion (1850) lie in the upper range of the curve. Since Richardson's discovery, scholars have duplicated his results using larger datasets and subsets of conflict-related data, including fatalities attributed to terrorism. Power law explains a diverse range of natural and human phenomenon, from the magnitudes and frequency of earthquakes to the population of cities.

Are we (or our kids) due for a high magnitude event? One of the most frustrating things about Richardson's discovery is the complete lack of predicative power. Simply put, power law is nice, but as many others have pointed out, so what? Knowing in the aggregate that a lot of people die in a few wars and not as many in many more wars doesn't help us plan for the future. Although that's true, I believe Richardson's insight is useful in providing some perspective and humility about the future, both near- and long-term. First, wars will continue: People, in large numbers, will continue to die. Second, the unthinkable -- the risk of another world war or even a more localized, regional war -- should not be unimaginable. Power law suggests events of intense severity will occur more often than random chance. Unfortunately, we lack of a good sense of where we lie on the curve.

So whether we think the next big one is an all-out war between China and the United States, a global cyberwar, a regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan, or a terrorist organization detonating a nuke in one of the world's top 10 cities, managing the risk that stems from any of these wars occurring is just as important as reducing the risk that these deadly conflicts will start. Borrowing from Nassim Taleb's theme of antifragile and other works on resiliency, what series of steps can we begin to take to mold our system today -- political, military, economic, and social institutions -- to withstand devastating shocks? Ideally, you'd like to take a series of short-term steps towards solving what is hopefully a long-term problem, because if you don't, you're screwed when the high-magnitude event arrives.

If I'm going to make a bet on the future of war, I will bet on the country that is most adaptive and most resilient as the one to survive and prevail through the next series of shocks.

Puong Fei Yeh is an analyst at the Department of Defense, specializing in WMD and arms proliferation. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Defense or the U.S. government.

via Wikimedia Commons

The Best Defense

No. 2 in the Future of War contest: ‘We’ve been out-innovated for the last 13 years’

Here it is, the silver medal winner in our Future of War essay contest:

‘We've been out-innovated for the last 13 years' By Paul Lewandowski, Best Defense future of war entrant

To the American military, innovation means technology. Innovating on the battlefield is synonymous with more electronics, bigger robots, and better fighter jets. To non-state actors, insurgents and terrorists, innovation has taken on a fundamentally different meaning. Their tactics are moving away from technological solutions and into realms where technology does not play a role.

In the realm of military technology, the U.S. Defense Department and its host of contractors are the ultimate trump card. America's military budget is greater than the next 10 largest state actors' military spending combined. Any force attempting to develop technology superior to American forces will eventually be crushed under the weight of billions of dollars of DARPA contracts, DOD research grants, and rapid fielding initiatives.

The Iraq and Afghan insurgencies have struggled valiantly to out-innovate American tactical forces. From 2001 until recently, these insurgencies believed they could turn to technological solutions to outpace coalition counter-IED efforts. The first IEDs were simple -- a detonator, some copper wire, and an old artillery shell. It didn't take long for U.S. forces to answer. Humvees became armored, gunners' turrets grew taller and more protected. Soon, the insurgency evolved. They turned to pressure plates and infrared sensors triggered by an engine's heat. Again, U.S. technological savvy answered. Cell phone and radio IED detonators were countered as well. The insurgents' reliance on technology quickly became a hindrance rather than an advantage. US forces could hunt them down on their cell numbers, via their purchases, texts, and emails.

And so the terrorists began to innovate in the other direction. Insurgent techniques became simpler, low-tech. Military-grade munitions gave way to homemade explosives. Cell phone detonators regressed back to command wire. Suicide bombers and insurgents disguised as Afghan army or police proved more efficient than complex, electronic IEDs or expensive VBIEDs. After nearly 13 years of war, the terrorists have learned that the best counter to a techno-savvy force is simplicity.

The gospel of the simple insurgent hasn't just stayed in Afghanistan. In Kenya's Westgate Mall, insurgents lightly armed with assault rifles, grenades, and an active Twitter account were able to make the marginalized al-Shabab a global name in terror. They were able to instill fear in the citizens of Kenya and humiliate the Kenyan government as it bungled the response. The whole operation probably cost less than a used car.

Despite what defense contractors want to believe, the next war isn't going to be fought or won with drones, biometric readers, or robot suits. It will be won with smart, adaptive, culturally aware ground forces. Non-state actors and peripheral militaries have learned not to fall into the technological arms-race trap again. The 21st century insurgent won't have a cell phone to tap. He will have a few trusted associates and a courier. Emails, texts, and phone calls will give way to written plans, handshakes, and hard currency.

The next-generation terror network will look more like a drug cartel: deeply embedded in the local culture, regional in focus, and urban in operation. The new insurgent will be so low tech he will be virtually untraceable. Another face in a sea of faces. No biometric data, no name on a government registry, they will be known to their associates as just a nickname. A ghost in plain view. They won't be identified as terrorists until they decide to make their moves. Their tactics will be crude but lethal, more befitting of medieval warfare than modern combat: stabbing a policeman in the throat, a bucket of chemicals in the reservoir, a soldier who suddenly turns on the unit. They'll carry weapons that are innovative yet simple: The counterinsurgent could see them walking to their target, weapon in hand, and never register him as a threat. It could be a bucket of chemicals, a farmer with a sickle, or even a rancher with his disease-infected cattle. These low-tech, low-cost innovations are the insurgent answer to a modern, technologically-heavy force.

The 21st-century insurgent will be adaptive. He will seize opportunities as they break. A power transformer left unguarded, a truck full of food, even a herd of livestock are all opportunities for him to seize. His reaction time is minutes, not days. The counterinsurgent will struggle to fight him. Governments, by their very nature, are bureaucratic institutions. They demand supervision, approval, review. The counterinsurgent can't tap into the local, informal network the way the insurgent can. No one talks to the uniformed government official, but everyone talks to their neighbor. It's why the Autodefensa in Mexico can damage a cartel more in a week than the Mexican army can in a year. They react at the speed of the cartel and they glean intelligence straight from the source. They don't just have their finger on the pulse of the community -- they are swimming in its bloodstream.

The only way to fight and win as a state actor in the 21st century is to become as smart and as culturally sensitive as the insurgent. Forces will have to look at the herd of cattle and see the same target the insurgent does. The counterinsurgent will have to understand the culture of the streets the same way his enemy does. No military can afford to outsource analytical, in-the-moment thinking. The future counterinsurgent must know the culture and the enemy so well that he can think one step ahead of him. The future of war demands predictive abilities that only a living, breathing, thinking soldier can bring to the fight.

A drone overhead would have done exactly nothing during the Westgate Mall attacks. Biometric scanners are useless after a food supply has been poisoned. An F-35 can't put a bomb on a green-on-blue attack. These tactics cannot be countered by military technology. Believing that technology will answer our problems, and that money spent developing robots is better spent than on developing smarter warriors is a dangerous fallacy. It serves only to play into the hands of America's enemies.

Paul Lewandowski is a former Army officer and Operation Enduring Freedom veteran. The views expressed here are his own.


via Wikimedia Commons