A tour d’horizon of future conflict
It is in the nature of military planning that we are never going to know quite how, in times of peace, the evaluation of risk takes place in respect of potential enemies. This, should be the most critical element in planning military expenditure – but is it? It is not to say that we can discount the human traits in the responsible committees, of going for a number they think they might get, in competition with other government priorities. Nor can we disregard the substantial weight and inducements of arms lobbyists, given the way politics is done in some of the big spending countries. Even other factors like the ‘whose turn’ it is, amongst the top brass of certain third world army, navy, or airforces, for the substantial ‘commissions’ that flow to them with big arms orders, can determine whether it is to be jet fighters, tanks or submarines, procured in any given year.
Assessing future risk in terms of defence expenditure is an awkward business particularly now, when novel weapons systems and their massive R&D budgets need to be in place and expended during many years before they are to become operational. Nothing could illustrate that better than the current US anti-missile missile, which is planned to go operational, and causing a big row with Russia as a result, even though it is not yet, and may never be reliable.
The arms industries of the world of course have a vested interest in there being universal tension between countries, but we are of the view that collectively
a massive amount of unnecessary expenditure will take place on the wrong weapons systems in the wrong places, given the profoundly different nature of conflict in the 21st century from what has gone
THE BIGGER BANG
Here in the murky world of nuclear weaponry, the heaviest hitter is the USA, which has already determined on an advanced program to take it up to the 2140’s – around the centenary of the first use of A-bombs against Japan, which hastened the end of WWII.
The apparent reason has nothing to do with any perceived emerging enemy, (although there is probably a room full of contingency plans somewhere, to engage with every nation on earth – which should be a fun read for future historians). But it is more likely that already being ahead of the nuclear pack, in terms of delivery systems and explosive power, that the rationale is simply to remain up there in front. Was it in fact just a mordant sense of history on the part of the planners to aim this next wave of nuclear weapons to last up until the centenary of the immolation of Nagasksi and Hiroshima? Will we be able to commemorate that anniversary of 1945’s two ‘airburst’ explosions, that each killed upwards of 100,000, by remembering them as the only bombs ever to be used in war? We are told sixty years afterwards, that these WWII weapons were comparative fireworks in terms of today’s bombs destructive power? Is there a chance that we will never know this from human experience? It is not for nothing that nuclear weapons are accurately described as ‘ultimate weapons.’
The UK was supposed to be having a debate about the renewal of its Trident system which involves submarines, missiles and nuclear war heads- ‘supposed to be’, because the Government and the largest opposition party have already agreed outside of the legislature, that this is the way forward. They have foreshortened public discussion this way and left stranded the smaller opposition parties, whose numbers are not sufficient for them to win the day. Their opposition is based primarily on the belief that there is insufficient reason for this momentous decision to be taken now – that it could be left at least until 2010, when this volatile world might be a little easier to read – or not.
The central idea of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which one hundred and eighty seven of the world’s nations signed up to, thirty nine years ago, has of course been brushed under the carpet by both the US and the UK, indeed the ‘UNSC Five’. It was that, in return for not developing nuclear weapons, those nations already possessed of nuclear weapons “would negotiate in good faith“ to dismantle them, and to disarm their nuclear arsenals over a reasonable time scale (compare with the US’s unilateral nuclear planning described above). Hence the hypocrisy over Iran, which did sign the non-proliferation pact, but insists it is only progressing civil applications allowed under the treaty; as opposed to India and Pakistan, neither of which signed up for non-proliferation, nor did Israel. North Korea having signed, later withdrew. All of these have now joined the nuclear weapons club - and ‘the nine’ make curious bedfellows.
Logically apart from nuclear, the choice of future weapons systems should be fundamentally influenced by the array of potential threats. The US, who are so far ahead of the rest of the world in terms of military spending and the sophistication of their weaponry, seem to have opted in planning for the military risks of the 21st C, as a matter of technologically advancing all existing weapons systems, in all of their four armed services. Other nations, with more modest armaments budgets (which is every other nation), have had to prioritise between land, sea and air. In that equation there are inevitably winners and losers.
In recent history, heavy spending was always assumed to be the essential factor in military predominance. Take the example of naval tonnage – once, indeed for a longish period up until WWII, a key indicator of military might (representing global power projection), particularly to island nations like Britain and Japan. Military superiority was seen to obviously be a function of military capital investment - not the only criterion but a critical one. Yet these general assumptions were often rapidly made redundant when real combat happened. Today more than ever they need to be re-examined.
In the naval example, air power swiftly changed the role of capital ships, after the Japanese in WWII destroyed two Royal Navy capital ships using aerial torpedoes launched by their aircraft, off the Malayan coast. The relative costs – and as it proved lethality - of the two opposing weapons systems were ludicrously inversely mismatched. Then US airpower sank a Japanese battle fleet at Midway, and after that the era of battleships, demonstrated to be so vulnerable to determined air attack, gave way to giant aircraft carriers. These also are defensively highly vulnerable, as the Japanese found out at Midway, but particularly at the center of a substantial screen of escort ships, with the firepower deployed by their aircraft, they have shown superior attack and defence capabilities, to any type of floating gun platforms.
But the decisive element in that epochal Battle of Midway, following which it was certain that Japan was going to lose the Pacific war, was relatively low cost military intelligence. The critical Japanese naval codes had been broken by specialist scientists, which meant that the US strike force knew precisely where to find them in a vast ocean, and could send such a concentration of forces as would be sure to overwhelm their defences. The opposition of the relative levels of investment showed that the US on this occasion, had triumphed at ludicrously minimal expenditure, compared with the capital costs of the sunken fleet.
After WWII, navies went sub-sea and the cold war witnessed massive investment in nuclear-propelled giant submarines, although hardly anyone outside the intelligence loop knew much about it at the time. Targeting for submarines moved on, from destroying a nation’s merchant shipping, to being the unseen weapons platform to deliver a knock-out nuclear attack on the enemy homeland. Then the detection technology with sub-sea sonar fences got better, sound detection became more sophisticated, inevitably more and more this threatened obsolescence for the sub, as a first line of attack – an issue not tested fortunately, due to the end of the cold war.
The bigger bang in military planning, as represented by nuclear munitions, seems to be the strategic weapon of choice, followed perhaps by the rocket or guided missile delivered chemical or biological warhead, which happily have not been tested in war situations. But it has been demonstrated that these weapons are probably unusable in real terms against any other nuclear or WMD power on the simple grounds that any retaliation of which they might still be capable after being hit by a first strike, would be at an unacceptable cost to the initial attacker.
Then up against a non-nuclear power who could not respond in kind, there is an unspoken understanding amongst the established nuclear powers for a complexity of reasons, that this will not happen. The closest perhaps was the Korean war, when the Allied C-in-C General Douglas MacArthur, tried unsuccessfully to convince President Truman to authorize a nuclear strike, on at that time a non-nuclear China. Witness the invasion of the Falkland Islands
(Malvinas) in 1982. There was never any possibility that Britain, a nuclear power, although engaged in a short but fierce air, land, and sea conflict with the Argentine republic, would ever have used that weapon against the Argentine mainland.
In the air, all advanced air forces within the limits of what they can spend, seek to equip with a fighter that has greater
maneuverability and fire-power than perceived opponents, the standard to measure against being the state-of-the-art US air forces which benefited from having mega-budgets for R&D. In real terms in the conflicts since WWII, probably Korea some sixty years ago, was the only one in which the US / Allied air forces encountered any opposition in terms of aerial combat, which was swiftly subdued. In the Arab-Israeli wars the Israelis destroyed the main opposing air forces on the ground and have held massive superiority in the middle-east ever since. The US in Vietnam, and the Soviets in Afghanistan, had a monopoly of airpower throughout, but it was primarily used as tactical support for ground forces. Similarly in Gulf War I, where the Iraqi air force had ceased to exist, the high-flying big bombers did their work of destruction, as they had done since WWII. Gulf war II was an illustration of that colourful phrase, “shooting fish in a barrel”. There was no Iraqi airforce, just as there was no Iraqi navy, just hapless, doomed infantry conscripts.
Long distance strategic power depends on the transport fleets available, so nations in the power-projection business cannot be effective without access to quantities of reliable and available transports. Bombers are still a factor for air forces that can afford them, to both perform long distance strategic tasks, and tactically the same function that heavy artillery has always done. That is to lay down a pattern of destruction over a measurable distance. Multi-role fighter-bombers capable of delivering guided munitions into tight targets, like let us say, cave mouths in Afghanistan, have still a key part to play, but the unmanned long distance cruise-type missiles, have a lot going for them by comparison.
With ground forces, there will always, in any future war of any kind, be a need for special forces typically highly skilled and well equipped. Infantry remain essential for patrols, perimeter defence and assault, and the range of their weaponry has been individually improved, but is otherwise much the same as it has been for fifty years. The rugged and reliable Kalashnikov, basically a WWII design, is still weapon of choice for many nations that seek an effective, cheap and reliable infantry weapon.
Armour has been modified by new technologies. In certain situations it can be decisive, in others it is highly vulnerable to minefields, and as shown in Iraq to shaped explosives, and even as in the earlier Iran-Iraq war, to suicidist volunteers with explosive satchels. Artillery again has better specialisation, reach and accuracy, (the wide scale WWII introduction by the Russians of tactical rocket batteries, had less to do with accuracy, being pointed more or less in the direction and range of the enemy, but very effectively disseminating terror.
So whilst improvements in the main armaments of the world’s forces continue, what has changed and can be expected to continue to change, are the terms on which weapons can be used.
As regard conventionally matched opponents where all arms would be relevant, the new factor is that there are few putative opponents that any longer answer this description. European wars, other than Balkans type outbreaks, are now unthinkable, so the centuries-long procedures there of complex alliances to contain rising powers are now redundant. Then what ‘matched’ opponents elsewhere, could feasibly face off?
The Americas seem to be well inoculated against war. Since the US has been able to resist the temptation for any further invasions of Cuba since the Bay of Pigs (now 45 years ago), it seems unlikely that it would seriously contemplate a military invasion of the loathed Venezuela, its third largest supplier to the homeland of oil and gas, despite the fears of the latter that this will happen. Under a President Cheney possibly, but let us pray for the continuing health of GWB, so that this may never be!
Other Latin Americans have largely moved away from military governments and towards overlong delayed democracy, in producing a crop of left-of-centre leaders who have their work cut out to show progress in their own countries, without any threatening of others. As to US military intervention in the face of enforced nationalization, Washington cannot have forgotten that the Iran disaster started from when the US and UK organised the fall of Dr Mossadeq, who had nationalized Iranian oil. This western interference in the internal affairs of a proud and ancient nation, was at the root of what has followed since. The US will hardly want to create an Iran situation in their Latin-American back-yard.
In Asia, a Taiwan-China conflict must be considered not as a full-on war on numerous fronts, but as a single scenario of the invasion or missile assault of Taiwan by China. This is a low level possibility in current circumstances, but the capability of China to successfully invade Taiwan, to their minds an unruly province, will undoubtedly be a major factor in the requisitions made by the military of their politicians. To use the political threat of invasion as a sanction for any Taiwanese declarations of independence, they need to have the military credibility, but the chances of them actually invading, as far as one can see now, are quite remote.
Firstly, because they cannot be certain to succeed. Taiwan has had more than fifty years to prepare for this obvious eventuality, is very rich and allowed by the US to acquire high- tech weapons. Also any Chinese government having launched such an attack, cannot afford the humiliation of being beaten, which could turn a relatively minor issue into a world-wide conflagration . Secondly, the two protagonists are interlocked in economic terms, with Taiwan being the largest source of inwards investment, since China took up capitalism.
Thirdly, the US has undertaken to safeguard the Taiwan straits. China’s burgeoning economic success depends on the US market. It is more likely that ‘in extremis’ they would lob missiles across the straits than launch a sea-borne invasion, but these are not going to be nuclear. Given the examples of the tiny islets of Qemoy and Matsu just eight miles off the mainland coast, which endured year after year of 24/7 artillery bombardment by the PLA, that would only bring sympathy for Taiwan with no military dividend at all for China. The corollary is that Taiwan, in the face of this possibility, is also going to keep up its military spending, but this situation on both sides of the strait, seems really to be military opera.
China’s other historic foes are just not that any more. Japan neither has the offensive capability, nor is it seeking to acquire that – the military feudal oligarchy is now a part of history. Having already the world’s second largest economy, what war aims could they have? Being the only nation in the world to have received nuclear bombs, they know the futility and full horror of post-modern war.
In east Asia, the most threatening war situation is North Korea, which constantly threatens its southern neighbour below the 38th parallel. But to go to war with South Korea would be a last throw of the dice and would bring down massive retribution on them. Whilst Pyongyang really is capable of anything, it has to seem unlikely, particularly with Russia, China, Japan, USA, and South Korea attending on them in semi-permanent negotiations. What could they possibly better achieve by at best, a limited territorial and short-term military success?
Russia and China have always mutually been afraid of each other, but now the USSR is no more, the relationship is much more one of co-operation, both economic, in the supply of oil and gas, and in politics, co-operating regionally and perhaps at the UNSC, so as not to be dominated by a hegemonic USA.
Russia has always been worried about its tiny population in all Siberia – approximately 30 million including the eastern Urals with far less than that number in their Far East - being swamped by China’s teeming hundreds of millions pressing against their borders in its northern provinces. That is why Russia will never let go of its nuclear arsenal (and perhaps why the Soviet Union acquired it in the first place, with balancing the US a secondary factor).
Vietnam is a proven military power, now making economic strides since it won its wars against France and the USA. It has its independence and it was for that rather than communist ideology, why so many Vietnamese fought and died. It appears to have no territorial rivals, although it will always keep an open eye on China, with who (as is almost universal) a potential casus belli exists in disputed offshore oil fields.
India - Pakistan did measure up more as potential matched opponents, but they have had too many stupid wars already and whilst neither will lower their guard that much, under present circumstances, war is receding as a probability. If the ‘boil’ of terrorism could finally be lanced, then an abiding and reliable peace could break out.
Central Asia : The five former FSU republics, the ’stans, do not appear to have hostile intentions to their neighbours, although Uzbekistan with less natural resources and a much larger population – and army, did initially see itself as senior to the others. In the complex Ferghana valley where the Uzbek boundaries and ethnicities interweave with Kirghizstan and Tajikistan, there is the potential for future bloodshed.
Afghanistan of course is ongoing as a theatre of civil war, but it is unusual for large concentrations of fighters to so offer themselves as a target and face off against the well armed NATO and Afghan government troops. But there are still upsurges in a conventional war going on, as well as skirmishes with the mujahaddin.
Iraq is also essentially a civil war with no signs of overt invasion by Iran, (the only nation who could possibly be thought of in that context). Given a Shia dominated government and with the southern third of Iraq, a Shia homeland, they will anyway have massive influence and probably an interest away from, rather than towards violence, once the US troops depart.
Other potential middle-east conflicts apart from the ever-bubbling stew of Israel –Palestine-Lebanon-Syria, do not look likely. Egypt and Jordan are not going to be sucked into that morass. Indeed they could be a part of the solution, if Israel can find it in their hearts to accept and negotiate the 22 Arab nations peace offer articulated by Saudi Arabia in Riyadh in April ’07.
The African continent is perpetually engaged in, or at risk of war, within rather than between the many nation states that inhabit the landmass. Conflict is usually localised and results partly from post-imperial political borders being a bad fit in terms of ancient tribal boundaries. This constantly provokes exploitation by the strong, often followed by a shift in power and sometimes equally brutal retaliation by the formerly oppressed. Africa more than most of the areas of the globe, is still in the era of ‘Big Man’ politics – war-lords dominating regions – made possible by the exchange of valuable minerals to the west, in return for modern weapons.
21st CENTURY CHANGES IN THE FACE OF WAR
In the light of US military superiority in all fields, it would be insane for any opponent to group conventional forces as in the old days, which now would present the ideal target for precision bombing / artillery as demonstrated in Gulf War I. Who has air control has territorial control, was another lesson of that conflict. Third world countries and partisan forces everywhere, must have taken note from Vietnam onwards, that the only answer to facing a modern first world military is mobility and dispersal – classic guerilla tactics and not to offer up their forces to be crushed by a combination of guided munitions and B52’s. Against the US in Vietnam and the USSR in Afghanistan, these tactics were successful.
But the fundamental factor in assessing and matching weapons systems against potential opponents, is that warfare has perhaps taken a 180 degree turn away from the concept of more and better of all weapons systems. Just as the American civil war introducing rapid firing artillery, breech loading rifles and early automatic weapons, which were destined to change the face of warfare by the time of WW1, it also demonstrated that soft human tissue cannot prevail against the well directed machine weapons of industrialised warfare.
High commands were disgracefully slow to learn those lessons, given that all the main European powers had military observers in America following the titanic struggles of the Union against the Confederacy in the USA. Fifty years later by 1914, the lessons of the earlier conflict had still not been learned by either side in Europe, so that human wave charges between opposing trenches following artillery barrages, remained the norm. By the time of WWII the lessons had been learned and applied in the west, but not so much on the eastern front. There the USSR pitched its great numbers against the German blitzkrieg and eventually succeeded, but after taking casualties at a level that no democracy would have stood for.
Just such a sea change has again taken place in the methods of war since Vietnam; Afghanistan, the Iraq-Iran war and as already mentioned, Gulf War I.
When after 9/11 the allies got involved in the Afghan civil war, it had until then been a conventional, unsophisticated ground war, giving and taking territory. The involvement of western forces meant the swift introduction of forward artillery spotting, and guided precision air assaults on such military obstructions as Taleban tanks and artillery, that until then had made frontal assault too costly. Now the Northern Alliance Afghan troops could keep moving forward, calling in air strikes when required. The Taleban had no answer to that, and it is a good example of why poorly armed belligerents are always now likely to concentrate on low intensity operations, as is typically the case in Iraq.
In Iraq, the weight of assault infantry in street fighting is an element in the balance of force. But the latter day experiences of troops from western democracies, is that their generals have to take on board the political considerations of unacceptable casualty figures, whilst their opponent is unchecked and conditioned to accept casualties. That swings the balance around. Democracies in anything less than a fight for survival will since Vietnam, no longer accept on military expeditions, the body-bag count being more than a trickle.
THE PHENOMENON OF SUICIDE FIGHTERS
To that disproportionate approach to casualty figures, must be added the almost new concept of suicide fighters. The west first encountered this in the Pacific war against Japan. That nation in all three of its armed forces enjoyed early success against the western allies that from the beginning had underestimated them. But when the tide finally turned, Japan became short of experienced troops, pilots etc, since when suffering local defeat, their military culture required them to die in combat, certainly not to surrender, and therefore not to survive.
The 21st century equivalent are the suicidist Islamic fighters, engaged in jihad, where they are certain that their violent acts are “the will of God”. This phenomenon first surfaced in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. They understand that they will be rewarded for prematurely ending their lives, by the instant solace of sexual licence - each with their own regiments of the choicest virgin females, and all manner of benefits associated with paradise. Not then as austere as Japanese Bushido, the Islamic version has attracted numerous rather young volunteers, many undoubtedly virgins themselves, who have been convinced of the rightness of what they are doing by their priests and religious teachers, who seldom seem to volunteer themselves.
It is a formidable state of mind for their opponents to contend with, particularly since combat is now largely street fighting, which pits the infantryman against the jihadist on much less advantageous terms. The infantryman is there to fight, to achieve military objectives and hopefully to survive. The jihadist doesn’t expect or seek to survive. The leaders of the jihad as long as they have sufficient fighters, are careless of casualty figures. The western commanders are not permitted to be so detached. Western democracies report casualties in their media in a prominent way, to acknowledge the sacrifice of their young men. In so doing, this puts pressure on political leaders who need to continually re-examine and justify the involvement of their military in any war zone or situation. It is probably true that the final withdrawal of the USA from Vietnam, was because the media coverage back in the states had after years of taking casualties, turned the public so much against continuing with this fight that the government had to accept it. The body-bags being unloaded on nightly TV was an argument that overwhelmed all others. It was significant that from the outset in Iraq, the military have not allowed the body-bags or casualties being shipped home, to be filmed.
Warfare in the 21st century, as we have attempted to show here, is highly unlikely to be between confrontational nations deploying conventional modern weapons against each other.
As a means of making territorial gains, nation states can easily calculate that the cost of seeking to expand territory by force of arms does not compute, given that economic power is much more to be desired. Anything other than military success is going to result in some degree of ruin, certainly for the leaders. Serbia might be regarded as an example of that.
On the level of war between great powers or their proxies, the very existence of ultimate weapons means that such wars cannot be won. All those states that so recently were recognized as the military great powers, are universally doing well economically, achieving a level of living standards far superior to that ever previously enjoyed. Japan with the world’s second largest economy is a fine example.
China is used as the threat by US arms lobbyists on the grounds that it is (technically) communist, very large and has an opaque method of governance. But China is achieving all its economic goals through peace, enabling it to manufacture for the world, which can only happen between peaceful partners. Belligerence would be the downfall of all that.
As far as the 21st Century horizon allows at this time, conflict will be localised and at low levels of intensity, therefore using cheap low-level weaponry. No serious combatant force is going to behave like the Japanese did in WWII and stand against superior force over which they cannot prevail and just die, because it is expected of them.
But in the chosen arena of street fighting many jihadists will fight to the death, and as we have seen in Iraq and in the Israeli incursion into Lebanon, in so doing, force their sophisticated opponents to either create aerial or artillery bombardments, causing massive civilian casualties and therefore losing the propaganda battle. Or the alternative, to settle for the bodybag outcome of fighting house-to-house, and as a result to take unacceptable losses amongst their foot
Checkmate perhaps to the hundreds of billions of dollars in all nations annual armaments expenditure, is perhaps a lowly Kalashnikov rifle and a well thumbed Koran.