Fighting 21st Century Wars

Ejaz Haider

War is older than the oldest profession. Violence began when Cain slew Abel. It has since gone through many ages. But while there are many spots of time along the historical trajectory of war-fighting, closer to our time we see the shift with the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. Bonaparte created a national army through ‘willing’ conscription and made France fight ‘armies’ on the continent that, until Gerhard von Scharnhorst’s idea of a general staff, mostly comprised mercenary troops employed by various states and principalities.

Bonaparte gave the foretaste of national wars, the idea so lamented and considered dangerous by Maj Gen JFC Fuller (The Conduct of War). Bonaparte’s corps d’armée, the model that allowed him both flexibility and superiority in numbers (width-depth and concentration/dispersion) could not be sustained without involving France in wars.

From the gunpowder revolution, the pace of technological advancement increases. We move to the First Industrial Revolution which introduced rifles and railroads, what has been described as the age of steel and steam and the machine gun. The MG killed more infantrymen during WWI than the two nuclear bombs did the Japanese in WWII. The Second Industrial Revolution, which introduced the tank and its terror, once again tipped the balance in favour of the offensive which the rifle and the MG had blunted. This was not to last long with the introduction of anti-tank weapons and aerial bombardment. These developments were to be followed by flattop carriers and submarines. Since then much else has changed in terms of platforms and weapon systems.

Since WWI, war is no more a remote event. It is not just a matter of the armies fighting one another in secluded battlefields. As Bonaparte’s France showed, modern wars are fought by nations, not just armies at war. Rocketry and air raids over cities ensured that. The spirit of the times in WWI was depicted by the famous Irish poet William Butler Yeats in the opening lines of his poem, Lapis Lazuli:

For everybody knows or else should know
That if nothing drastic is done
Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out.
Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in
Until the town lie beaten flat.

The fast pace at which new weapons are being introduced has also brought into sharp salience the issue of knowledge, high-end human resource and strong economies. But the interesting point, and a crucial one too, is about the slowness of response to changes on the battlefield, even when basic assumptions are being challenged and quite often falling apart. For instance, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the French top commander came up with absurd math on the 1:2 advantage of the attacker since the attacking force will have double the number of rifles and could fire more rounds than the defender. It was a costly mistake and Fuller describes Foch’s math as abracadabra. This despite the fact that Foch was a war theorist and a highly-acclaimed soldier.

The introduction of nuclear weapons is another case in point. With the benefit of the hindsight one would think that it should have led to deterrence, pure and simple. However, for a long time, even as nuclear weapons held the balance of terror, strategies were developed to fight a nuclear war and win it.

American strategist Bernard Brodie realised early on that wars between two nuclear-capable adversaries had become a big no. This fact is also reflected in the writings of Philip Windsor and Martin van Creveld, to name just two. Yet, it took at least two decades for military and civilian planners to accept that reality. The fifties and the sixties saw much theorising on the use and utility of nuclear weapons against the adversary until a realisation set in that balance of terror meant just that — a balance that precluded all sides from doing something stupid. Even now continued discussion on developing a ballistic missile defence keeps a hope kindled that somehow incoming missiles can be stopped. The attempts to create a Maginot Line in the sky continue.

There is of course nothing exhaustive about the foregoing. Nor is it new. Thousands of books and academic articles have been written on the impact of technology and other factors on tactics and operational strategies. What is, however, missed very often is the question of when and how to fight a war. This is the puzzle and it has become more puzzling with the changing nature of war and the layers of complexity that mask the phenomenon and its consequences.

Nary a man can be found who would deny that war entails suffering, very often terrible suffering. We have graphic depictions of the horrors of war in literature, some by soldier-poets like Lieutenant Wilfred Owen (MC) from WWI and Capt. Keith Douglas in WWII; others by such luminaries as Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy and George Orwell et al. The English playwright, Edward Bond, wrote in the preface to his play, Lear: “I write about violence as naturally as Jane Austen wrote about manners. Violence shapes and obsesses our society, and if we do not stop being violent we have no future…It would be immoral not to write about violence.” Bond was using the concept in a broader sense, talking about the aggression that takes many forms and which he described as an ability but not a necessity.

In a 1995 paper for the academic journal International Organisation, political scientist James D. Fearon argued that “The central puzzle about war, and also the main reason we study it, is that wars are costly but nonetheless wars recur.” If wars are costly ex post then some explanation is needed for why a compromise cannot be found ex ante. Some historians and political scientists put wars in the category of ‘wanted’ and ‘unwanted’.
A rather celebrated example of that would be US President Barack Obama’s categorisation of the Iraq war as the ‘bad’ war and the conflict in Afghanistan as a ‘necessary’ war. Since then of course the Obama Administration has come round to a second aerial round of war in Iraq and Syria, though this time against a new adversary. This categorisation assumes that while ‘wanted’ wars are or should be, to use the economists’ term, Pareto-efficient, the ‘unwanted’ ones are inefficient.

The question, however, is: how can we determine that War X must be fought because it will be more efficient than War Y? Clearly, any such assumption cannot fully factor in the responses of the adversary or how he will react to the application of force. The most that one side deciding to go to war can do is to play out all possible scenarios and contingencies.

This, as the history of war tells us, is always useful but never enough. Napoleon would not have marched on Moscow if he knew what would happen to his army on the return journey; he would not have gone into Spain if he knew that, having defeated the Spanish army, he would have to contend with the population that would embroil him in a different kind of conflict and give the world the famous term guerilla war. France and America would have stayed away from Indo-China; the Soviet Union from Afghanistan; the U.S. from Afghanistan and Iraq. The list is long.

The famous Prussian soldier and war theorist Carl von Clausewitz understood this clearly. He realised that the application of force on an animate object could result in unintended consequence. The inability of any man to predict consequences, in other words have foreknowledge of what an action would entail in a nonlinear environment, was Clausewitz’ ‘fog of war’, the ‘drag’, the ‘friction.’ War would be a much simpler affair if we were dealing with linear systems where, to quote Alan D. Beyerchen, “variables could be plotted against each other as a straight line.” But that is not to be. States, societies, groups are not linear systems where inputs and outputs equal each other and the parts make up the whole.

Take the example of Islamic State also referred to variously as ISIS and ISIL. The decision to bomb, strafe and rocket IS ground targets in Syria and Iraq is supposed to destroy the movement. To be certain, the aerial campaign will manage to achieve certain objectives. It will destroy IS infrastructure, partially, if not fully; it will degrade some of its fighting capability; it will make it difficult for IS to concentrate its forces for conventional ground offensives to take over strategic positions, communication arteries and cities. Since IS doesn’t have air capability, it is exposed to such attacks and apparently can’t do much about them. That said, how will IS react to the campaign? Put another way, what are its options?

The first would be to disperse its fighting cadres and assets. It will restrict the movement of large bodies of fighters and find patterns in time lags between in-coming sorties, just like one would calculate the lag between one artillery salvo and another. But most of all, it will calculate the sustainability of the campaign itself – i.e., how long will it take for the US-led Gulf coalition to continue this mission at the pace at which they have started it.

There is also the element of cost. While the cost per flight hour of Predators and Reapers is very low, sortie after sortie of A-10s, F-16s, F-15Es, F-18s and F-22s is much higher, averaging above USD30,000. The cost of this campaign will steadily grow and will also have to be estimated in relation to the extent of damage to IS on the ground. The IS will also devise strategies to tightly couple its fighters and assets with the population in cities it already controls. This will increase the chances of collateral damage and create an unfavourable environment for the coalition to continue with its bombing campaign. We have already seen how the scenario plays out during the Israeli air and artillery bombing and shelling of Gaza which was followed by the ground offensive.

The IS is on the ground and has the time. Without a serious ground offensive it cannot really be rolled back. But the ground offensive has its own problems. If the Gulf States decide on one, the IS will revert to being an elusive force. The offensive will likely take the ground back but will not be able to ‘defeat’ the IS because it will change its way of fighting and extend the war zone to areas in the Gulf that, so far, have been spared from terrorist attacks. Such a strategy could further destabilise the entire region.

Does this mean there is never an option to fight?

No. There are times when one has to fight. But any planning must clearly appreciate the limits of use of force and its utility. On the surface, IS stands no chance against the combined might of a US-led coalition. Yet, the very asymmetry allows the IS to play according to its own rules and blunt the advantage of the more powerful adversary. That is precisely what we saw in Iraq earlier and are witnessing in Libya, Syria, Afghanistan and at home in Pakistan.

This is one aspect of war’s nonlinear nature; the other is the employment of more than kinetic means. In a paper, The Value of Science in Prediction, General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Federation, writes:

“In the 21st century we have seen a tendency toward blurring the lines between the states of war and peace. Wars are no longer declared and, having begun, proceed according to an unfamiliar template.
“The experience of military conflicts — including those connected with the so-called coloured revolutions in north Africa and the Middle East — confirm that a perfectly thriving state can, in a matter of months and even days, be transformed into an arena of fierce armed conflict, become a victim of foreign intervention, and sink into a web of chaos, humanitarian catastrophe, and civil war.
“Of course, it would be easiest of all to say that the events of the ‘Arab Spring’ are not war and so there are no lessons for us — military men — to learn. But maybe the opposite is true — that precisely these events are typical of warfare in the 21st century.
“In terms of the scale of the casualties and destruction, the catastrophic social, economic, and political consequences, such new-type conflicts are comparable with the consequences of any real war.
“The very ‘rules of war’ have changed. The role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness.”

Strategists are already referring to the Gerasimov Doctrine while still others see the hand of Vladimir Putin behind this Russian way of making war. In a May 5, 2014 analysis in Foreign Policy (FP), titled, How Putin Is Reinventing Warfare, Peter Pomerantsev writes: “The Kremlin, according to Barack Obama, is stuck in the ‘old ways,’ trapped in Cold War or even 19th century mindsets. But look closer at the Kremlin’s actions during the crisis in Ukraine and you begin to see a very 21st century mentality, manipulating transnational financial interconnections, spinning global media, and reconfiguring geo-political alliances. Could it be that the West is the one caught up in the ‘old ways,’ while the Kremlin is the geopolitical avant-garde, informed by a dark, subversive reading of globalization?”

From the above quotes – the original Gerasimov article is much longer, as is the FP piece – it should be clear that nonlinear, or hybrid, war is an idea that incorporates into it the use and exploitation of both kinetic and non-kinetic means. The obvious lesson, especially given the reference to the Arab Spring as also the historical situation obtaining in Crimea and Ukraine, is that a state’s defence against this kind of war cannot be guaranteed by its military alone. How strong or weak a state is in the face of such a threat will depend on how internally strong and cohesive it is – or can be.

A state’s strength in such a situation is a function of political stability, economic prowess, diplomatic outreach and, consequent to these preconditions, military strength. In other words, military strength flows from non-military factors. This should clearly indicate that our national strategy to put military strength ahead of the very factors that can ensure and sustain it, has been a deeply flawed policy and has resulted in weakening rather than strengthening the state. Unfortunately, it also means that we are extremely vulnerable to the ravages of nonlinear or hybrid war.

The crucial problem is not this new way of fighting, though that proffers its own problems. The essential and deeply worrisome point is that we are completely unprepared for it. While the civilians have an uncanny realisation of it, without often understanding the ingredients of the problem, the military is still caught up in outmoded thinking. I call it the RCC (Ravi-Chenab Corridor) syndrome. Furthermore, the military remains afflicted with the thought that it can somehow act as an arbiter in a complex polity and its managerial skills are enough to advance the interests of this state. This thinking is reinforced at every level and blinds officers to the larger strategic picture that informs today’s world as also new ways of fighting wars.

That of course is a discussion with its own dimensions. For now it suffices to argue that nonlinear wars of 21st century are to be dealt with in a different way. This is a realisation that must reflect at all levels of training, beginning with the military academy. It also requires reconfiguration of the military in operational terms.

The 21st century wars will not just exploit military weaknesses. They will make use of a nation’s fault-lines. The non-kinetic means will act as force-multipliers for kinetic means. The sooner our civil and military planners understand this, the better prepared we will be for 21st century wars.
The writer was a Ford Scholar at the Programme in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (1997) and a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. (2002-03). He is currently Editor, National Security Affairs, at a private TV channel and contributes to several publications.
Twitter: @ejazhaider

This article was originally published in the October 2014 issue of Hilal, the Armed Forces’ Magazine.

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7 Responses to Fighting 21st Century Wars

  1. Momina khan says:

    Read your article and found it profound and thoughtful , but the real dilemma is that ,whether how to put these words into action and how convince our establishment to look beyond their tunnel vision .

    • Ejaz Haider says:

      my job is to write and recommend possible courses of action. i am in no position to get policymakers to follow them! thank you for reading the article and reaching out with your feedback. best, ejaz

  2. Momina khan says:

    Sorry,I was not challenging your position as I am well aware of your boundaries. Was just wondering whether how to put these recommendations into action .Anyways thanks for the reply .Regards Momina.

    • Ejaz Haider says:

      ah, no. i didn’t mean that you were challenging me. i was merely indicating what i can or cannot do. i do my bit when i speak to people but that’s all i can do.

      • Momina khan says:

        Appreciate the way you express your views across and hope they don’t fall on deaf ears . Well you do Bay laag quite well .

  3. Ejaz, great analysis as usual. Do you feel this unpreparedness is a result of the local situation in subcontinent, or a function of something else? In other words, the military thought is this way because the perceived real enemy i.e. India is also mired in traditional ideas of war? The Taliban/IS certainly is more than capable here.
    I would think, given the situation the political/bureaucratic class is as much of a combatant – and has to be integrated in the overall ‘framework’.

  4. You are using non-kinetic means to change our understanding of modern warfare! As you mentioned fault lines are exploited withing a country. It directly implies that a non-homogeneous country is at a sever disadvantage when it comes to modern warfare. It also implies that.

    Then one possible solution would be to not attempt to force the country into homogeneity as it will increase the fault lines, but to actually decentralize it with local autonomy for reduced dissatisfaction. It doesn’t remove the fault lines but the problem issue of majority or one group dictating terms for all is reduced with the reduced power at the top.

    Your articles are wonderful and a breath of fresh air. Please continue plugging along as keeping the ‘chaos theory’ in mind a butterfly fluttering wings in Beijing can cause a thunderstorm in New York. You fluttering of ideas might change the tide of thinking one day.

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