During the series of wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria, insurgents have used low-tech weapons against Western forces and their allies. Typical are suicide bombers who carry explosives right up to its target, and IEDs-- improvised explosive devices hidden in the roadway and set off by a mobile phone when a enemy vehicle passes. But these have acquired a high-tech component. Spotters who see a vehicle approach do not have to communicate directly with the trigger-man who sets off the bomb; both are connected to a coordinator in an Internet cafe in Brussels. We can trace the link but we can’t do anything about it. Ironically, this parallels the command structure of US high-tech military, where spotters can be Special Forces putting laser tags on enemy targets, or silent drones flying overhead, or satellites in space, all sending their information to a remote headquarters, like the Air Force base in Florida that controlled the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The Long Trend: Dispersing the Battlefield
How did this situation come about, and what direction is it heading in the future? The pattern of military high-tech has been building up since the First World War. Weapons have gotten more lethal, and more accurate at increasingly longer distance. The digital revolution in the last 30 years has vastly increased targeting information, by aerial surveillance and satellites using an array of sensors that track vehicle movements and even individual humans by infra-red heat signature, radar, and computer-enhanced photographic imagery (which can be compared over time to look for tell-tale changes). Enemy headquarters can be located by its buzz of electronic activity. Enemy rockets or artillery that use radar for their own targeting can be tracked by radar-seeking devices (similar to auto drivers locating a police radar trap) and fire back immediately to destroy the enemy weapon. Huge super-computers assemble the information into a composite picture of the battlefield, and remote computers increasingly control firing on enemy targets, whether from aircraft, ships or ground-based weapons.
What follows from this? Troops and their equipment cannot be bunched together, since this makes them too vulnerable a target. By 1916, machine guns made old-fashioned marching into battle suicidal. Soldiers split into small groups, taking cover where they could find it on the ground. The trend has continued with every advance in weaponry. In World War II, the front was typically 5 km from one brigade to another; now it is 150 km. Forward Operating Bases, supplied by helicopter and communicating electronically, make a checker-board of mostly empty battlespace. If the enemy has similar weapons, even high-tech troops need to take advantage of natural cover, and hide their electronic and heat signatures as much as possible. World War II was the last such war between what the military calls “peer adversaries,” although US military are now planning for a mutually high-tech war with China.
Guerrillas and terrorists disperse even more
Most wars in the last 50 years have been asymmetrical, a high-tech military versus a low-tech insurgency. The resource-poor side of an asymmetrical war has responded by dispersing its forces even more, and making hit-and-run attacks on isolated enemy bases and the supply lines between them. This was called guerrilla war, as long as it attacked military targets; it became “terrorism” when it concentrated on civilian targets, since these are softer, less-protected than military targets. Guerrilla war slides over into terrorism, because guerrillas between attacks hide in the civilian population.
Terrorists generally are civilians, and they live among other civilians, especially in cities, since these provide the most cover against high-tech weapons. Urban sight-lines are poor; it is difficult to distinguish the heat-signatures of civilians from combatants; and high-tech surveillance is evaded by hiding in the electronic clutter of normal life-- even in poor countries, cell phones and other consumer electronics are the features of modernity that diffuse the fastest.
The biggest problem in fighting urban guerrillas is political: they use other civilians as shields; and they welcome civilian casualties because these turn the local population against the outside enemy. Atrocities are the major recruiting tool for militant terrorists and revenge-seeking suicide attackers.
Terrorism has grown in symbiosis with high-tech weapons and communications, because the weaker side cannot win on conventional battlefields. Politically, an insurgency does not have to win battles or take territory, but only to resist pacification by an outside enemy. Islamic State made the mistake in Iraq and Syria of taking territory, setting up a state structure and using more conventional military tactics, which transformed ISIS into the weaker side of a somewhat more symmetrical war. Similarly, the Taliban in Afghanistan became an easy target when they were a government, but hard to eradicate as guerrillas.
Terrorism is media-dependent war
Small numbers of insurgents can keep a war going. Their main resource is advertising their presence by spectacular attacks, even if they are bloody atrocities of their own. As long as their actions are well-publicized, they demonstrate a will to continue the fight. They expect to prevail over time, if only because occupying forces lose the political will to persist.
On the high-tech side, a modern military is surrounded by news networks as well as its own communications media, so it cannot avoid having its own atrocities publicized world-wide. It doesn't matter if civilian casualties are accidents, or emotional reactions by occupying troops embittered by fighting an enemy who hides and disguises themselves as civilians. The cell-phone photos of American soldiers humiliating and torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib are typical of the ubiquitous Western media redounding to their own political disadvantage.
The growth of world-wide high-tech is shifting the crucial balance of military power to communications, above all because contemporary war is primarily political statements. The irony here is that global communications-- both for consumers, and as a major component of the post-industrial economy-- means that every innovation by the rich capitalist countries creates a military opportunity for insurgents. It is not so much that they imitate our weapons (although they can capture or buy them, especially from the West’s so-called local allies), but they can share in digital communications because they are marketed world-wide.
Many of the most advanced surveillance systems are umbrellas covering everything within their range, friend and enemy alike. In Iraq, insurgent fires were coordinated via Internet cafes in Belgium, just as US soldiers could link to Internet cafes or any other sites in the world for private communications with family and friends. Cell phones are used to trigger IEDs, but shutting down the local cell phone network was not feasible, since US commanders themselves use them as a more-reliable alternative to centralized military communication channels. GPS coordinates, pin-pointed by a network of satellites around the earth, are used both by allied targeting and by insurgents targeting us. The terrorist attack on Mumbai luxury hotels in 2008 was run by the ISI from Karachi, Pakistan.
Terrorist fighters might be killed in action, but the main principle of modern military doctrine-- to decapitate the enemy by knocking out its headquarters command-and-control and thus destroying it as a functioning organization-- has become impossible. There is no command post “in theatre,” but on ostensibly neutral foreign soil; and there need not be any clandestine network on the spot to uproot (as the French attempted during the Algerian war). Commands and targeting information are sent out by one-way messages, on the open Internet-- its source lost in the morass of ordinary communications. In the Russian semi-proxy war in the eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian military used the same satellites as the Russians (since they were the same country not long ago), so neither side could disrupt the other’s targeting without disrupting their own.
Cyber-war has been growing as a cheap resource for insurgents, because they operate inside the same global communications umbrella as their resource-rich enemies. The US does not have an advantage in cyber-space. By concentrating on digital high-tech, the West is playing in an arena where its advantage in other kinds of military resources do not count. Cyber-war can also be practiced by wealthy states, but it is above all a weapon of the weak. Its physical tools are easily available commercially; skill at hacking requires no great organizational coordination, and is easily acquired by alienated youth all over the world. Fighting a cyber-war is exactly the wrong place for the wealthy states to fight.
So what can or will be done about the Great Powers’ loss of military advantage in a cyber-linked world? Here we come to an unthinkable solution that the military is actually thinking about: shutting down the Internet in time of war. This is a short-hand way of referring to all the communications devices under the modern world-umbrella that are shared with our adversaries: mobile phones, GPS coordinates, networked computers.
But how could these be shut down, without enormous damage to our own economy, and our contemporary way of life? Air travel (and increasingly ground travel) are coordinated by digital networks; so are power grids, hospitals, and police forces; so are most financial transactions, from international banking to personal salaries and bill-paying; so are the now-huge business of on-line shopping and delivery. In fact, one of the most devastating forms of cyber-war now being worried about is a cyber-attack, not from isolated mischief-making hackers or from thieves, but from an enemy government (or an insurgency), aimed at shutting down the economy of one of the rich capitalist nations. More primitive economies would be safer from such attack, being less reliant on digital coordination.
But although this is an extremely dangerous prospect, it is not the most dangerous event that could happen. Since an ultra-modern military is so heavily organized around electronic command and control, the worst threat to its existence would be if an enemy could hack into its links to disable its weapons, its mobility and its logistics-- in effect an electronic giant rendered blind, deaf, and paralyzed. (This is the scenario envisioned in P.W. Singer’s novel, Ghost Fleet, where Chinese-made components in American electronics are programmed to put the entire US military out of operation during a surprise attack.) There is even one nightmare step beyond this scenario: enemy hackers leave the operational system of our military intact, but take over controls of our weapons so that our rockets and aircraft are turned about to fire on ourselves. There have been some steps in this direction, as Iranians and others have been able to capture some US-made drones by diverting their remote controls.
If the US military’s digital control system were seriously threatened by an enemy, the response now being considered is to shut down the entire digital umbrella. (This is based on discussions with high-ranking US and UK military commanders who were active in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.) There are two ways this could happen: either the enemy themselves shuts down our digital network or attacks it to the extent that it becomes useless; or we shut it down pre-emptively to keep our enemies from using it.
Probably there would be several levels of shut-down: smallest would be to shut down all mobile phone and Internet activity in a given area (e.g. battlegrounds in Iraq or Syria), by shutting down cell phone towers and servers. Or the Internet and/or mobile phones could be put on one-way broadcast mode; messages going out from a central source (as in some emergency warning systems) but otherwise clearing the network of traffic.
Another choice would be to shut down crucial targeting infrastructure, such as GPS; since this is a satellite-based system, it would affect the entire world. Such plans are being seriously contemplated; the Chinese reportedly are building their own GPS system (based on their own satellites) that would be inaccessible to others.
This seems unthinkable, since GPS is included in all sorts of devices, including ordinary smart phones. But GPS was originally created as a secret project by the US military (as a way of preventing aerial collisions and other blue-on-blue attacks); and was opened up to commercial use in the 1990s. In the same way, the Internet originated as the DARPANET: Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration. There is precedent for returning GPS to government control; and it may become a matter of military necessity-- or what is presented to the public as such. We should not expect that history has one continuous trajectory, and that technologies and social customs surrounding them become impervious to removal once they become widespread. The Chinese government’s use of super-computers, complete with facial recognition systems for tracking every move of every citizen, shows what kinds of things are technically possible, although they may be politically repugnant in some countries and not in others. (In fact, Chinese citizens in the future might well benefit from some kind of emergency that caused the shut-down of its central government computers.)
Backing up to non-digital backup
But how would the military operate under this unthinkable contingency, shutting down the electronic networks that have become the core of its organization? Planning on this point is proceeding. The essential pattern is to build back-up procedures-- how to run a war without the Internet, computer links, GPS, or mobile phones. In fact, there is discussion about how over-reliance on digital networks even now is reducing military efficiency; and how weaning ourselves away from it can be done.
We tend to forget that the ultra-computerized military is a relatively recent thing. Big mainframe computers were developed in the military from World War II onwards; it is the dispersed, omnipresent commercial and private networks and its devices that have become widespread so rapidly since the 1990s and early 2000s. Military officers have commented on the huge increase in computerization since the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003. A company (about 200 soldiers) then had 5 computers, operated by the Executive Officer and First Sergeant. Now all officers have computers, so much so that they spend 75% of their time reporting to headquarters. A US general commented: “Network has become more problem than solution.” On Navy ships, the traditional system was a single wireless link under authority of the ship’s captain; now with all sailors in possession of personal computers or smart phones, official channels are surrounded by links used for personal reasons. All news gets out, even if confidential. Officers have become risk-averse, since even minor mishaps are scrutinized; junior officers lose initiative and feel they must clear every decision with higher command.
Similarly with the profusion of information from battle sites, gathered by electronic sensors and relayed to all levels of the command network. The term has developed, “Predator pawns”-- as if Predator drones are pawns in a chess game. Since high-ranking officers as well as drone operators can watch the video feed from the drone; the result is a strong temptation to micro-manage. This is a general problem for all military organization. Wars have become increasingly political, in the sense that counter-insurgency is largely a fight “for hearts and minds.” A major recruiting device for guerrillas and terrorists are their dramatic or even gruesome attacks, such as videos of bass beheadings circulated on the social media. The same dialectic encompasses the Western forces, through periodic scandals of civilian atrocities that are more or less inevitable given that civilian presence is exactly where insurgents choose their battlefield.
There are many channels for war stories to leak out; politicians are under pressure to achieve results, but also highly vulnerable to criticism for mishaps. All this increases the tendency for politicians to intervene, even at the smallest tactical level. A US commander gave the example of how much time he had to spend going back-and-forth with a high official in Washington about whether a load of small arms could be dropped to a local ally in Syria. Multi-national forces are considered politically desirable, but US advisors describe the resulting organizational chart as “a wiring diagram”-- and US commanders spend much of their time clearing requests for resources with the National Security Council and Iraqi politicians. “I spent a year in Iraq and all I fought was the IJC” -- a sardonic remark about the tangled authorities of the International Joint Command.
The core problem is communication overload; the presence of information technology everywhere results in a situation that one general described as “we’ve gone from network-enabled, to network-enamoured, to network-encumbered.” Thus military planners see some advantages to going back to older forms of command and control-- cutting off reliance on cyber, going back to local radio links to coordinate troops. Computers, especially when centralized and taking inputs from a vast area, make it hard to quickly change course. Old-fashioned communications allow for more flexibility and more rapid reaction to emergencies and sudden opportunities. Historians point out that just this kind of flexibility by aggressive front-line officers were the key to the blitzkreig successes of World War II.
The limits of computerized warfare
As I mentioned earlier, the cyber-war expert P.W. Singer’s novel, Ghost Fleet, envisions the US being devastated by a Chinese cyber attack that incapacitates the US military. In the novel, the US makes a come-back by resuscitating an old moth-balled World War II fleet, unhackable because its controls are pre-digital; plus creating some advanced weapons that can’t be diverted from their targets since they carry no on-board mini-computer to be taken over. I have written my own thought-experiment, a novel about a hypothetical civil war, in which the American military divides and fights itself with exactly the same weapons on both sides. (Just as happened in the Civil War of 1861-65). The novel is called Civil War Two. The war begins with cyber attacks attempting to turn bombers against their own bases. The solution to the cyber hacking is to shut down the computerized system and build another control system. High-tech aircraft have enormous capacities for locating enemy targets and firing back at their electronic location; but since both sides can do this, the result is to destroy a large proportion of the most advanced aircraft on both sides.
Moreover, the most advanced aircraft are the most expensive, and take the longest time to build, as well as requiring assiduous maintenance between missions-- e.g. a B-2 stealth bomber costs over $1 billion dollars each, plus operating costs. Attrition of such weapons would inevitably result in older weapons being pressed into service. Even a battle between robots would be, most likely, not Hollywood's humanoid giants on two legs, but armored tanks containing no humans, like driverless cars firing at each other. The outcome of such a battle would depend, not on the superiority of one side’s robots over the other, but on the skill and energy of humans going out onto the battlefield to repair the damaged robots. My chief conclusion is that a war fought between two very advanced militaries would lead over time to mutual degradation, and a return to earlier forms of warfare.
I have already suggested that remote computerized communications and control would be shut down early in such a war. If both sides have drones, armored helicopters, anti-missile missiles, and robot vehicles, the mutual attrition would eventually result in humans making the difference.
High-tech stalemate will drive combat back to the human level. The idea that has prevailed for about a century-- that the state would win which created the next super-weapon before the other side did-- will probably not hold in the future. That is because the recent wave of digital technologies, whose initial thrust has come heavily from military inventions, has spread into the civilian economy and ordinary life; and warfare centered in the cyber sphere gives most advantage to the disrupters of the other side’s communications. This is true whether it be asymmetrical terrorist attacks against a military and economic behemoth; or symmetrical war between states with equally sophisticated equipment.
Our idea that history is moving in a straight line is wrong. What seems unthinkable now-- shutting down the Internet and all the other digital media-- in one degree or another is likely to happen. Where we come out on the other side of that crisis will probably become normal to people who live in it, just as the digital devices of the last 15 years have become so normal that we can’t imagine living without them. If we continue to live, it will probably be because we have learned to get along without them.
Randall Collins. 2018. Civil War Two: America Elects a President Determined to Restore Religion to Public Life, and the Nation Splits. Maren Ink. 2018.
P.W. Singer and August Cole. Ghost Fleet. A Novel of the Next World War. Mariner Books. 2016.