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Thursday, April 10, 2003


The swift unfolding of the Iraqi war --- with the US strategic stress on lightening-fast dashes of mobile armored forces on the ground, both light and heavy infantry units, plus small agile special ops, all supported by air power and advanced technologies for reconnaissance and intelligence for target acquisition and communication to various weapons delivery systems: CentCom itself in Qatar able to monitor the entire Iraqi battlefield --- has taken almost all the media by surprise and even quite a few old-time generals.

At the heart of the new strategy are revolutionary information-age set of computer-driven technologies (C3-I), evolving now for over two decades. To make good use of them on the battlefield, flexible ground forces and various weapons platforms have had to be developed, with the information and communications technologies able to acquire pin-point targets and lead to real-time destruction that use smart, information-driven warheads --- some sea-based hundreds of miles away, other dropped from planes or by stand-off cruise missiles, yet others fired by artillery or fast-moving tanks. It all adds up to combined arms operations in ways that the world has never seen before. Nor is that all. There are the remarkably adaptive battlefield tactics too. Agilely executed in fluid battlefield conditions, and updated sometimes hourly as the war unfolded and opportunities arose across several fronts, these resourceful and nimble tactics couldn't have materialized without uncommonly well-trained men and women operating in highly flexible military units and organizations . . . from squad- and platoon-levels all the way up to divisional headquarters, and at times through Cent-Com to distant carrier-based planes.



The strategy, you'll recall, came under fire as early as the end of the first week of war, and not least from a set of intelligent, retired military officers as being stingy with armor and men on the ground and hence creating a high-risk set of tactics that could backfire. The fault here, it was further charged, lay with the arrogant Donald Rumsfeld and his civilian staff.

The Critics Were Misled

The critics like retired General Barry McCaffrey, a decent and intelligent professor of national security studies whose commentaries on various cable channels were always informative --- or Colonel David Hackworth, the youngest colonel in American history, who took control of a demoralized, poorly performing army battalion in Vietnam in the late 1960s, turning it into a crack outfit and then in effect forced into retirement when he told the higher-ups in Washington that a military-oriented strategy couldn't win the war in the country --- were voicing thoughtful but misguided assessments that indicated they were still clinging to old ways of fighting and winning wars. Even so, both of these admirable men --- along with some of their colleagues ---- never doubted the outcome of the war, only the reliance on rapid mobility and a substitute of extraordinary C3-I and smart weaponry (intelligence, command-control-communications for target-acquisition and smart weaponry for real-time destruction) for some armor and boots-on-the-ground. To C3-I, it's important to stress, add logistics support without parallel in the history of war, with the intact if stretched-out supply forces --- using mainly trucks and light armored vehicles for defense (along with air power) --- enabling the entire mission to succeed in record time.

No doubt the failure of the Turkish government to approve the deployment of the 4th Infantry Mechanized Division for the northern front --- the 4th the most digitalized in the entire American military, armed with the most up-to-date M1A2 tanks and Bradley armored fighting vehicles --- did cause some justifiable concern for outside observers. Even so, the rapid use of airborne troops, supported by Apache helicopters in the North, to supplement special forces and Kurdish militia, showed just how flexible American planning had been . . . including a range of optional tactics for different fronts. As for the supply lines' vulnerability, this occurred in principle only. This happened when the 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force --- the latter a lightly armored outfit by any standard, though with tremendous firepower brought into battle by close coordination with Apache helicopter gunships and A-10 Warthog tank-destroyers --- executed their remarkably speedy bursts northward, skirting the southern Iraqi cities where Saddam had hoped to bog our forces down, and end up in just five days only 75 miles or so from Baghdad. In reality, as opposed to the worries of outside onlookers, the lines were heavily defended by air power and the admirable skills of the support units bringing them daily loads of water, food, ammunition, and above all fuel for their armor.


Admirable Men All the Same

General McCaffrey, Colonel Hackworth, and the other retired military critics, to repeat were well-intentioned and remain gifted men who deserve our respect, even admiration.

Interesting side-bar comment about Colonel Hackworth, who has special reasons for bitterness toward the Pentagon. In particular, his analysis of what was wrong with US strategy in Vietnam ended his career when, shortly after his return to the US in the early 1970s, he went public with criticisms. These, as it happened, were right on target. For that matter, the buggy professor --- who didn't put his life on the line the way Colonel Hackworth, a brilliant and courageous officer whose men idolized him, did repeatedly in battle --- also expressed more abstract views at the time to some influential people. Since his forced retirement, the Colonel, like General McCaffrey, has also been a noted author and columnist. See Hackworth

More generally, those who want the best assessment to date of why the Vietnam war couldn't be won with a reliance on US firepower --- nicely concise and readable, by an IR scholar specializing in military affairs --- will find it in Jeffry Record, Why We Lost in Vietnam (1998). Among the reasons he cites: a reliance on a WWII strategy of firepower, plus helicopter mobility; officer rotation in and out to give the entire officer corps experience; a Pentagon-dominated hierachy with unrealistic quantitative body-counts; but above all a failure to find and nurture an effective government and military in South Vietnam that had the support of the population, hostile as it was to the North's communism.

Fortunately, the US military reorganized and updated itself in the decades that followed, as shown first in the Gulf War in 1991, then in Kosovo and even more in Afghanistan, and most dramatically right now in Iraq.


The answer is pivotal for assessing future US adversaries and possible war-scenarios, but hard to be certain about. One thing for sure: at present, there are only three up-to-date information-age militaries able to effectively implement a military strategy that uses advanced C3-I and smart weaponry, plus flexible mobile forces on the ground, the use of special forces for fighting and further target-acquisition, and a wide array of weapons-platforms, sea-, air-, and ground-based: the US, the UK, and Israel. Even the latter two countries, however, lack the logistics capabililties for an extended war of several weeks on a full societal-wide battleground like Iraq, as well as the manpower.

The Israelis, 5 million Jews who face 280 million Arabs and another 65 million Iranians, have always had to rely on a lightening-fast pre-emptive strategy to compensate for their manpower shortages, carrying the war quickly and deeply into enemy territory and hitting hard from the outside with devastating force. And only the Israelis and the US, the two carrying on joint R&D in missile defenses for years now, have the ability to deploy the sorts of anti-missile capability that the US has shown with PAC-2 and PAC-3 missiles in Kuwait over the last three weeks. The Israelis, as it turned out, didn't have to rely on their deployed Arrow high-altitude anti-missile system --- which they have done the most work on (it's another joint Israeli-US weapons development) --- thanks to the darting speed with which US airborne troops moved into western Iraq and their destruction of any launcher sites in that part of the country. As for other countries, the French --- who have been replacing their cumbersome conscription-based military with a professional one --- have the technological skills, if they're willing to spend the money, to develop a small up-to-date military using C3-I and smart weaponry in a decade or so. The only other country with such a capability, again on a limited level, is Australia. Both India and China have some of the potential, but are a long way from approaching US or UK or Israeli breakthroughs.


The Hard-To-Obtain Components: Human Beings and Their Organizations

A key set of points rear up here. Specifically, the revolution in military affairs and strategy isn't just a matter of money or R&D or technology, however important these ingredients happen to be. What also matters are three other components: [1] organizational flexibility, [2] the skill levels of the men and women in the military, and [3] a unique coordinating system-of-systems that combine C3-! and smart weaponry and centralized battlefield monitoring and anti-missile defenses --- and logistics support --- with existing military and civilian organizations and human skills.

It's on these latter three scores where the Indians and Chinese are noticeably handicapped at present, despite Indian advances in computers and their commitment to building Aegis-class destroyers for projecting Indian naval power out to the Straits of Malacca that separate the Indian and Pacific Oceans . . . towards which the Chinese have been seeking to project their power from the opposite direction. The Russians are even more handicapped here, given the rigidities built into their institutions and mentalities that 75 years of communism imposed, with little evidence of much change in the bureaucratic labyrinth and educational system in the last decade, despite clear evidence of technologically gifted specialists. Put bluntly, a great deal of individual initiative and acceptance of responsibility are needed for the system-of-systems organizational and technological coordination of a strategy that has been implemented on the US and UK sides in the current war. The US, the British, the Israelis, and the Australians have these capacities, though note: even Rumsfeld, who has had allies at the top of the Pentagon, has had to knock heads in overcoming organizational inertia and traditional mind-sets of a cautious sort.

By contrast, centralized statist systems destroy such initiative, whether they are fascist or communist or variants of them like Saddam's Iraq. You saw that in the recent failures of the Iraqi revolutionary guards to have advanced in their tactics from the war with Iran, which ended three years before the Gulf War of 1991: above all, a reliance on a multilayered set of fixed defenses, then, whether the defenses worked or not, frontal attacks with armor and motorized infantry that happen to be suicidal in confronting combined-arms and ground forces like the US 3rd Infantry and 1st Marine Expeditionary Force or the 101st Airborne as a swiftly moving back-up (and at times avant-garde).

What about France? By far the most statist of the industrial democracies --- essentially, a country run by an elite civil service in both the sprawling public sector and the big private companies and banks (the managers and directors usually former civil servants as are the political leaders and heads of parties) --- it has been committed since 1997 or so to implementing the revolution in military affairs too. Whether such a powerfully statist system and hierarchical, semi-authoritarian educational system can produce enough adaptive, nimble-minded people to successfully bring off the commitment remains an open question. The Israelis and the British have largely succeeded here, within the limits of their GDP and defense spending. So too, with only a little lag, have the Australians. None of this trio is as remotely hierarchical in its public sectors and educational system as the French are.


The Impact of National Cultures and Societal Influences

Another way of putting all these points is to note that they all reflect broad cultural and societal causal forces that vary markedly across countries. In dozens of different ways, that's also true of technological innovation itself. After all, technology is little more than embodied knowledge; and technological progress reflects advances in human knowledge as well as the willingness and risk-taking of the owners and managers of firms involved in R&D and innovation, much of which for the pioneering firms might never pan out. It's been estimated, for instance, that US information and communications firms spent well over $200 billion on risky R&D to produce the lead ICT that they came to dominate world markets in by the late 1990s . . . at which point the entire ICT package could be obtained by other countries for a fifth or sixth of the price.

Implied in these figures here is something worth bringing center-stage and spotlighting. Specifically, the more revolutionary cutting-edge technologies happen to be, the more there have to be bold, risk-taking entrepreneurs and flexible financial institutions for implementing them. That's the case with the ICT technologies of the last 25 to 30 years --- information and communications technologies, to an extent bio-tech too, all creating entirely new industries and having a marked impact on the ways people work and spend their leisure time. Such revolutionary technologies with society-changing consequences, it seems, always come in clustered waves . . . roughly every fifty years since the industrial revolution of the late 18th century. Late in the 19th century, the third such cluster emerged. Centered on electrification and automobiles, it took decades to alter profoundly the ways we live --- and not least too, the distribution of economic and military power across countries. Then, starting in the 1930s, there was the 4th wave of radically restructuring technologies . . . this time focused on synthetics, aviation, trucking, the modern television and radio media and movies, and mass tourism, plus new credit facilities, retail chains, and discount firms available to consumers for buying houses and other durable goods. The ICT and bio-tech revolutions, now just in their mid-phase, have ushered in the most recent wave of whole new industries, with a further impact --- the most profound of all since the industrial revolution --- in the distribution of power. The key point here? Without bold, obsessively hard-driving entrepreneurs and radically new ways of financing their start-ups, always risky --- big changes above all in venture-capital and in the stock markets here --- these powerfully restructuring technologies would never have created the new industries they did, and at a pace full of flux and uncertainty.

By way of illustration, consider that in the US, by the mid-1990s, 80% of the Fortune 500 Top Firms hadn't existed in 1975.

Eighty per cent! Including even such high-tech consumer-oriented firms like MacDonald's and Walmart, not just Microsoft and Compaq and Intel. By contrast, there were scarcely any new German or Japanese firms to make it onto their national equivalent scorecards by the turn of the century. The upshot? Not surprisingly, they lag markedly behind US firms these days in advanced technologies almost across-the-board. However successful in one period of dominant technology, old-line firms are notoriously wedded to the status quo and unwilling to risk diversion of their resources --- financial, managerial, scientific --- to new and uncertain commercial products or ways of creating existing ones. As for the pivotal, economy-wide impact, the stagnation of both countries is by now graphically vivid.


National Pre-requisites

Can we be more specific about these cultural, educational, and other society-based influences? Yes, but only in shorthand ways for the time being. Later of, in other commentaries, the buggy prof will try to elaborate. In particular, the triad of influences revolves around these concerns, themselves markedly varied, remember, across countries:

  • habits or not of personal initiative and imaginativeness and flexibility;
  • truth-telling as opposed to hierarchical subservience;/li>
  • a willingness or not to take responsibility and be assessed on those terms by others;
  • promotion by merit and accomplishment as opposed to who you know and serve;
  • also, degrees of trust and spontaneous cooperation across wide swathes of a society as opposed to cynicism and mistrust;
  • and not least organizational and bureaucratic openess or resistance to change

  • The hard truth is, there just aren't many countries that can score well on the criteria listed here. And some societies, say the Germans and the Japanese, might have done well on them in the past, and for various reasons, have then lost societal dynamism and the willingness to promote economic change and risk-taking, preferring instead a comfortable if stagnant status-quo. Leaders, of course, bear a responsibility here too. Most societies aren't even close to scoring well on these counts, not least --- relevant to what has just happened in Iraq --- Arab societies.


    An Illustration: Specific Problems of Arab Armies

    A telling, detailed analysis by a US Colonel who helped train Arab armies from several countries is instructive here. See Colonel Norvelle B. De Atkine, "Why Arab Armies Lose Wars" --- a lengthy two-part series that starts out this way (to give you a flavor of the analysis):

    ARABIC-SPEAKING ARMIES have been generally ineffective in the modern era. Egyptian regular forces did poorly against Yemeni irregulars in the 1960s. Syrians could only impose their will in Lebanon during the mid-1970s by the use of overwhelming weaponry and numbers. Iraqis showed ineptness against an Iranian military ripped apart by revolutionary turmoil in the 1980s and could not win a three-decades-long war against the Kurds. The Arab military performance on both sides of the 1990 Kuwait war was mediocre. And the Arabs have done poorly in nearly all the military confrontations with Israel. Why this unimpressive record? There are many factors — economic, ideological, technical — but perhaps the most important has to do with culture and certain societal attributes which inhibit Arabs from producing an effective military force.

    False starts

    Including culture in strategic assessments has a poor legacy, for it has often been spun from an ugly brew of ignorance, wishful thinking, and mythology. Thus, the U.S. Army in the 1930s evaluated the Japanese national character as lacking originality and drew the unwarranted conclusion that that country would be permanently disadvantaged in technology. Hitler dismissed the United States as a mongrel society and consequently underestimated the impact of America's entry into the war. American strategists assumed that the pain threshold of the North Vietnamese approximated our own and that the air bombardment of the North would bring it to its knees. Three days of aerial attacks were thought to be all the Serbs could withstand; in fact, seventy-eight days were needed. As these examples suggest, when culture is considered in calculating the relative strengths and weaknesses of opposing forces, it tends to lead to wild distortions, especially when it is a matter of understanding why states unprepared for war enter into combat flushed with confidence. The temptation is to impute cultural attributes to the enemy state that negate its superior numbers or weaponry. Or the opposite: to view the potential enemy through the prism of one's own cultural norms.

    It is particularly dangerous to make facile assumptions about abilities in warfare based on past performance, for societies evolve and so does the military subculture with it. The dismal French performance in the 1870 Franco-Prussian war led the German high command to an overly optimistic assessment prior to World War I. Then tenacity and courage of French soldiers in World War I lead everyone from Winston Churchill to the German high command vastly to overestimate the French army's fighting abilities. Israeli generals underestimated the Egyptian army of 1973 based on Egypt's hapless performance in the 1967 war.

    Culture is difficult to pin down. It is not synonymous with an individual's race nor ethnic identity. The history of warfare makes a mockery of attempts to assign rigid cultural attributes to individuals — as the military histories of the Ottoman and Roman empires illustrate. In both cases it was training, discipline, esprit, and ιlan which made the difference, not the individual soldiers' origin. The highly disciplined and effective Roman legions, for example, recruited from throughout the Roman Empire, and the elite Ottoman Janissaries (slave soldiers) were Christians forcibly recruited as boys from the Balkans.

    The role of culture These problems notwithstanding, culture does need to be taken into account. Indeed, awareness of prior mistakes should make it possible to assess the role of cultural factors in warfare. John Keegan, the eminent historian of warfare, argues that culture is a prime determinant of the nature of warfare. In contrast to the usual manner of European warfare, which he terms "face to face," Keegan depicts the early Arab armies in the Islamic era as masters of evasion, delay, and indirection. Examining Arab warfare in this century leads to the conclusion that the Arabs remain more successful in insurgent, or political, warfare — what T. E. Lawrence termed "winning wars without battles." Even the much-lauded Egyptian crossing of the Suez in 1973 at its core entailed a masterful deception plan. It may well be that these seemingly permanent attributes result from a culture that engenders subtlety, indirection, and dissimulation in personal relationships.

    Along these lines, Kenneth Pollock concludes his exhaustive study of Arab military effectiveness by noting that "certain patterns of behavior fostered by the dominant Arab culture were the most important factors contributing to the limited military effectiveness of Arab armies and air forces from 1945 to 1991." These attributes included over-centralization, discouraging initiative, lack of flexibility, manipulation of information, and the discouragement of leadership at the junior officer level. The barrage of criticism leveled at Samuel Huntington's notion of a "clash of civilizations" in no way lessens the vital point he made — that however much the grouping of peoples by religion and culture rather than political or economic divisions offends academics who propound a world defined by class, race, and gender, it is a reality, one not diminished by modern communications.

    But how does one integrate the study of culture into military training? At present, it has hardly any role. Paul M. Belbutowski, a scholar and former member of the U.S. Delta Force, succinctly stated a deficiency in our own military education system: "Culture, comprised of all that is vague and intangible, is not generally integrated into strategic planning except at the most superficial level." And yet it is precisely "all that is vague and intangible" that defines low-intensity conflicts. The Vietnamese communists did not fight the war the United States had trained for, nor did the Chechens and Afghans fight the war the Russians prepared for. This entails far more than simply retooling weaponry and retraining soldiers. It requires an understanding of the cultural mythology, history, attitude toward time, etc.; and it demands a more substantial investment in time and money than a bureaucratic organization is likely to authorize. Mindful of walking through a minefield of past errors and present cultural sensibilities, I offer some assessments of the role of culture in the military training of Arabic-speaking officers. I confine myself principally to training for two reasons:

    • First, I observed much training but only one combat campaign (the Jordanian Army against the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1970).

    • Secondly, armies fight as they train. Troops are conditioned by peacetime habits, policies, and procedures; they do not undergo a sudden metamorphosis that transforms civilians in uniform into warriors. General George Patton was fond of relating the story about Julius Caesar, who "in the winter time. . . so trained his legions in all that became soldiers and so habituated them to the proper performance of their duties, that when in the spring he committed them to battle against the Gauls, it was not necessary to give them orders, for they knew what to do and how to do it."

    Information as power In every society information is a means of making a living or wielding power, but Arabs husband information and hold it especially tightly. U.S. trainers have often been surprised over the years by the fact that information provided to key personnel does not get much further than them. Having learned to perform some complicated procedure, an Arab technician knows that he is invaluable so long as he is the only one in a unit to have that knowledge; once he dispenses it to others he no longer is the only font of knowledge and his power dissipates. This explains the commonplace hoarding of manuals, books, training pamphlets, and other training or logistics literature.

    On one occasion, an American mobile training team working with armor in Egypt at long last received the operators' manuals that had laboriously been translated into Arabic. The American trainers took the newly minted manuals straight to the tank park and distributed them to the tank crews. Right behind them, the company commander, a graduate of the armor school at Fort Knox and specialized courses at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds ordnance school, promptly collected the manuals from those crews. Questioned why he did this, the commander said that there was no point in giving them to the drivers because enlisted men could not read. In point of fact, he did not want enlisted men to have an independent source of knowledge. Being the only person who could explain the fire control instrumentation or bore sight artillery weapons brought prestige and attention.

    In military terms this means that very little cross-training is accomplished and that, for instance in a tank crew, the gunners, loaders and drivers might be proficient in their jobs but are not prepared to fill in should one become a casualty. Not understanding one another's jobs also inhibits a smoothly functioning crew. At a higher level it means that there is no depth in technical proficiency. . . .