Military: What’s New About the New Military

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Mr. Safranski is an educational consultant to secondary schools.

One of the noteworthy features of the Afghan campaign in the war on terrorism is not the widespread use of smart munitions, improved since their first appearance in the Gulf War, to minimize civilian casualties while targeting Al Qaeda. There was nothing new about that since the Soviets had anticipated these technological developments two decades earlier.

What was novel was the decision by the Bush administration to opt for a ground strategy dependent upon only a small cadre of special forces troops and CIA operatives functioning as"precision-guided infantry." The marriage of information-age technology, air power and elite troops allowed a minimal number of combat units to be enormously effective against a numerically superior Taliban that was fired with religious zeal and at home in a hostile terrain.


Defense experts are currently enamored of two trends,"asymmetric warfare" and"the revolution in military affairs" or RAM. Both trends tend to reinforce the other. The real increase in comparative advantage that technology offers the Pentagon tends to cause other states like China and nonstate actors like Al Qaeda to look to unconventional options to inflict maximum damage on American interests. The National Security Agency (NSA), for example, has reported no fewer than 100 nations are developing cyber warfare capabilities -- a field of battle in which Iraq could stand on more equal terms with the U.S. because our economy is far more dependent upon computer networks to control everything from power grids to financial transactions. With all potential foes in an asymmetric position the Pentagon is now forced to contemplate defending a vast array of potential targets that never entered into Cold War planning. Hence, the emphasis by RAM proponents to build a force capable of speed, mobility, flexibility and deception and employing tactics that owe more to Sun-tzu than von Clausewitz.

The RAM reforms are commendable; in effect they are the tail end of a trend initiated by President Kennedy who overcame the bias of the Brass against elite units to create the Green Berets who stood in relation to the conventional conscript Army as quality does to quantity. However, twenty-first century warfare, ever more tangled with humanitarian interventions, covert operations and multilateral organizations, will not merely be measured in terms of speed and stealth as claimed by RAM advocates or even by firepower but by the number of options that can be leveraged by utilizing emerging technologies. Whose army is"smarter" will matter as much as who can get from point A to point B fastest or packs the biggest punch. Robotics, high energy weapons, quantum computing and nanotechnology will drastically expand the reach, vision, survivability and lethality of each individual soldier and their unit in the next fifty years -- with great advantages and inevitable dangers for the United States.


How dramatic are the possibilities that we can extrapolate from existing prototypes? Laser weapons developed jointly between the Army and the Israeli Defense Forces are capable of shooting down a Katushya rocket while the Russians have developed a"non-lethal" laser the size of a flashlight that can stun or temporarily blind. Nanotechnology, in which the Army is investing heavily, has already produced NanoProtect, a topical anti-bioweapon substance that kills smallpox, anthrax spores and other biological agents on contact. Within ten years"smart uniforms" engineered through nanotechnology will stop bullets, shift color to match the environment and create"wired" platoons. Nanotechnology also will allow scientists to get closer to creating quantum computers, currently a race of extreme importance to the nation that assembles the first array. Although directly applicable to upgrading defense systems or fighter jets, more importantly quantum computing will be able to solve previously intractable math problems which will allow the" winner" nation to break through barriers in a number of fields in short order and lock in an enormous comparative advantage economically and militarily over latecomers.

The net result of these high tech advances, assuming the political will remains to incorporate them into America's arsenal, is that the gap between American military power and all other states in the coming decades is likely to widen. We will be able to more damage with fewer troops at lower cost than any rival or group of rival states. The downside is that dual-use technology will also empower smaller groups of individuals to wreck havoc. Fifty years ago, lacking cell phones, credit cards and the Internet no private group like Al Qaeda could possibly finance and coordinate an attack on a major power as was done 9-11. Fifty years hence, the acceleration of technological progress may empower one individual to be as destructive as all of Al Qaeda is today. A paradoxical situation could result where an all-powerful but finite American military may be confounded by an unknowable number of foes menacing an infinite number of targets. How then can the United States reduce the potential threats to manageable proportions?

The key to U.S. security in the twenty-first century may lie in pre-empting future threats while they remain nascent, allowing America to avoid using military force altogether. For example, in the 1950's and 1960's U.S. policymakers ignored incipient radical Islamism in the Mideast because the focus was on the threat of pro-Nasserite regimes giving the Soviets a foothold in the region. Ultimately this proved to be a mistake.

If we consider Richard Dawkin's Meme theory, basic ideas - or memes - compete with each other for public acceptance and some ideas -- National Socialism, Marxism, radical Islam -- have proven to be both inflammatory, potent and dangerously negative in the extreme. U.S. policymakers could use American"soft power" -- intellectual, cultural and economic levers -- abroad to crowd out and discredit threatening ideologies before they win a critical mass of popular adherence and promote congenial values as countervailing trends.. As we concentrate on radical Islamist terrorism today it might be beneficial to consider if say Hindu fundamentalism or Pan-Turkism might emerge from the margins to set the world on fire tomorrow; the fewer militant movements in positions of influence among nations, the less likely a crisis will break out requiring an American military response. Such a strategy will require the foreign policy establishment to reorient it's thinking to a long term perspective. Such a paradigm shift is required because in fifty, thirty or perhaps only twenty years, even the U.S. military, as awesome as technology can make it, will simply be too limited an instrument to handle a world in which asymmetric warfare is the norm.

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Ronald Dale Karr - 1/18/2002

If you listen to CNN, Afghanistan was a triumph of clean-cut American high-tech over the bad guys featuring laser-guided smart bombs, green berets, etc., etc.

Or was it? Heavy censorship precludes a definitive analysis, but from where I sit it seems that good old-fashioned carpet bombing with Elvis-era B-52s played a major if not decisive role in smashing the wicked Taliban. Carpet bombing, as we know, was introduced in Korea and perfected in 'Nam. Add cluster bombs (1970s) and daisy cutters, and you've got a winning combination.

And it was the pro-U.S. Afghanis, our little brown brothers, who appear to have done most of the fighting.

In less than three months, our "precision" bombing killed a mere 3500 civilians. A small price to pay for freedom.

God Bless American bombs.

As for the author's assertion that "We will be able to more damage with fewer troops at lower cost than any rival or group of rival states," what does he mean by "lower cost"? The opposite is true; our high-tech weapons are the most costly in history.

Which brings us to Paul Kennedy. If he is correct, military might utlimately rests on economic power. Whether the U.S. can afford to remain the world's only superpower remains to be seen.

Aaron M - 1/15/2002

Mr Safranski,

You bring up some interesting points that have never been brought to my view. Thank You. This may very well cause a paradigm shift in me, I hope others in the necessary roles will also consider these views.