18 August 2014

The Messy Side of Precision Warfare

Since the 1920s, air power theorists and technologists in the United States have been obsessed by the idea of precision bombardment of critical targets or nodes deep in the adversary's infrastructure.  From famous Norden computing bombsight of WWII to the so-called precision guided weapons launched by a network of drones today, successive generations of advocates of precision warfare have predicted that new technologies promised surgical levels of destruction that would produce revolutionary increases in both economy effort and and combat effectiveness.  It is the promise of the silver bullet or free lunch.

In January 1988, for example, a Pentagon accepted a report, Discriminant Deterrence by produced for the Secretary of Defense the Commission on Integrated Long-Term Strategy, a blue ribbon panel composed of the bluest of defense bluebloods.*  Their predictions included inter alia: 

"The precision associated with the new technologies will enable us to use conventional weapons for many of the missions once assigned to nuclear weapons.” [pg. 8] and  
"The equipment, training, uses of intelligence, and methods of operation we have developed mainly for contingencies involving massive worldwide attacks by the Soviet Union do not prepare us very well for conflicts in the Third World. Such conflicts are likely to feature terrorism, sabotage, and other "low intensity" violence. Assisting allies to respond to such violence will put a premium on the use of some of the same information technologies we find increasingly relevant for selective operations in higher intensity conflicts. The need to use force for political purposes and to discriminate between civilian and legitimate targets is even more evident here. In particular, we will need optical and electronic intelligence, communications and control, and precise delivery of weapons so as to minimize damage to noncombatants.  We will need advanced technologies for training local forces. These will be important both for obtaining local political support and support in the United States and elsewhere in the West.” [pg. 67 emphasis added]

In short, the same technologies used to deter the Soviets will enable the surgical use of force in coercive diplomacy to mold third world countries and terrorists to our will, while providing the grist to build political support at home.  

As for the promise of economy of force, suffice to say that the use of these technologies in the low intensity war on terror that began after 9-11 has now made it the second most expensive war in US history, exceeded only by WWII, but exceeding the costs of the far larger, more intense Civil War, WWI, and Viet Nam wars (after adjusting for the costs of inflation).  

As for effectiveness, every extended precision bombardment campaign conducted by the United States — i.e., WWII, Korea, Viet Nam, The First Iraq War, Kosovo, and now the War on Terror -- has been accompanied by wildly escalating target lists suggesting (1) an inability to surgically discriminate important from unimportant targets in real war or (2) frustrated expectations about the actual effectiveness attending to those targets successfully destroyed or (3) both.

The drone wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia represent the apotheosis of the precision surgical strike mentality so evident in prognostications of the wise men of 1988.  The obsession with critical targets may have devolved from the destruction of industrial nodes like ball bearing works in WWII to the targeted liquidation individual terrorist leaders in the war on terror, but as in all previous precision bombardment campaigns, the actual conduct of the drone war reveals a far messier reality.  Add this limited effectiveness (or worse, counter productiveness and blowback) to the theory that these surgical strikes can be combined with tit for tat coercive diplomacy and you have a indiscriminate prescription for perpetual war.

Attachment 1, introduced below, are the opening paragraphs of an outstanding report that indirectly supports these points.  It was written by Gregory D. Johnsen for Buzz Feed News, and his subject is collateral damage caused by drone strikes in Yeman.  It is impressively researched and is one of the best descriptions yet of how fatally flawed assumptions implicit the precision bombardment theories propping up the drone the war are bogging the United States from the President on  down in the mental and moral quagmire of perpetual war.  

This report is long but well worth the investment in time.  This is where thinking like that in Discriminent Deterrence takes us, because the real name of the game is shoveling money to the MICC at the expense of John Q. Average American; or as one defense expert told me, the Discriminant Deterrence report may not have been on the money as far as effectiveness and economy go, but its authors certainly understood how to get the money! 
* The members of the commission was a who’s who list of the Beltway Establishment, including: Anne Armstrong, Zbigniew Brzesinski, William P. Clark, W. Graham Caytor, Gen. Andrew Goodpastor, Adm. James Holloway, Samuel Huntington, Henry Kissinger, Joshua Lederberg, Gen. Bernard Schriever, and Gen. John Vessey. With respect to their prognostication abilities,  even a causal perusal of their 1988 report reveals the Soviet threat is portrayed as being 10 feet tall and growing, with superior capabilities in many dimensions to those of the United States.  It contained no hints of any discriminating awareness of internal problems that were then causing the Soviet Union to crumble from within, leading inevitably to its dissolution only four years later in 1991.  A more accurate threat appreciation could have been found five years earlier at far less cost by buying and reading my friend Andrew Cockburn’s, The Threat: Inside the Soviet Military Machine (1983).

Attachment #1

Nothing Says “Sorry Our Drones Hit Your Wedding Party” Like $800,000 And Some Guns
On December 12, 2013, a drone struck and killed 12 members of a wedding party in Yemen. If the U.S., which claims the strike was clean and justified, didn’t pony up the $800,000 in cash and guns as reparations, then who did?
Gregory D. Johnsen, Buzz Feed News
Michael Hastings Fellow

Posted on Aug. 7, 2014, at 10:29 p.m.
Muhammad al-Tuhayf was relaxing at his house late in the afternoon on Dec. 12, 2013, when his iPhone rang. A boxy, tired-looking Yemeni shaykh with large hands and a slow voice, Tuhayf heard the news: A few miles from where he was sitting, along a rutted-out dirt track that snaked through the mountains and wadis of central Yemen, U.S. drones had fired four missiles at a convoy of vehicles. Drone strikes were nothing new in Yemen — there had been one four days earlier, another one a couple weeks before that, and a burst of eight strikes in 12 days in late July and August that had set the country on edge. But this one was different: This time the Americans had hit a wedding party. And now the government needed Tuhayf’s help.
The corpses had already started to arrive in the provincial capital of Radaa, and by the next morning angry tribesmen were lining the dead up in the street. Laid out side by side on bright blue tarps and wrapped in cheap blankets, what was left of the men looked distorted by death. Heads were thrown back at awkward angles, splattered with blood that had caked and dried in the hours since the strike. Faces that had been whole were now in pieces, missing chunks of skin and bone, and off to one side, as if he didn’t quite belong, lay a bearded man with no visible wounds.
Clustered around them in a sweaty, jostling circle, dozens of men bumped up against one another as they struggled for position and a peek at the remains. Above the crowd, swaying out over the row of bodies as he hung onto what appeared to be the back of a truck with one hand, a leathery old Yemeni screamed into the crowd. “This is a massacre,” he shouted, his arm slicing through the air. “They were a wedding party.” Dressed in a gray jacket and a dusty beige robe with prayer beads draped over his dagger, the man was shaking with fury as his voice faltered under the strain. “An American drone killed them,” he croaked with another wild gesture from his one free hand. “Look at them.”
A few miles outside of town, Tuhayf already knew what he had to do. This had happened in his backyard; he was one of the shaykhs on the ground. Only three hours south of the capital, the central government held little sway in Radaa. Like a rural sheriff in a disaster zone, he was a local authority, someone who was known and respected. And on Dec. 12, that meant acting as a first responder. Tuhayf needed to assess the situation and deal with the fallout. Every few minutes his phone went off again, the marimba ringtone sounding with yet another update. Already he was hearing reports that angry tribesmen had cut the road north. Frightened municipal employees, worried that they might be targeted, kept calling, begging for his help. So did the governor, who was three hours away at his compound in Sanaa.
It didn’t take Tuhayf long to reach a conclusion. The Americans had made a mess, and to clean it up he was going to need money and guns.
This is the other side of America’s drone program: the part that comes after the missiles fly and the cars explode, when the smoke clears and the bodies are sorted. Because it is here, at desert strike sites across the Middle East, where unsettling questions emerge about culpability and responsibility — about the value of a human life and assessing the true costs of a surgical war.
For much of the past century, the United States has gone to war with lawyers, men and women who follow the fighting, adjudicating claims of civilian casualties and dispensing cash for errors. They write reports and interview survivors. But 
  • what happens when there are no boots on the ground? 
  • When the lawyers are thousands of miles away and dependent on aerial footage that is as ambiguous as it is inconclusive? 
  • How do you determine innocence or guilt from a pre-strike video? 
  • When everyone has beards and guns, like they do in rural Yemen, can you tell the good guys from the bad? Is it even possible? 
  • And when the U.S. gets it wrong, when it kills the wrong man: What happens then? Who is accountable when a drone does the killing?

On Dec. 12, 2013, a U.S. drone carried out a strike in Yemen. Little of what happened that day is known with any degree of certainty. Most of the facts are adrift somewhere in the shadowy sea of a classified world. Identities shift and change depending on the vantage point, and what appears true thousands of feet up in the air often looks different on the ground. Following two reviews, the U.S. claims it was a clean strike and that all the dead were militants. Yemen disagrees, calling the attack a tragic mistake that killed civilians. Two countries, two conclusions. But one of them paid the families of the dead men a lot of money.
Yemen is a U.S. ally that says it approves every drone strike, but it is also so strapped for cash that the government has implemented numerous austerity measures. Either it handed out the money and guns to cover for its partner, or the U.S. privately paid money to the families of men it publicly describes as al-Qaeda while simultaneously promoting the man responsible for the strike. 

In truth, only three things are known for certain: Twelve men are dead, $800,000 in cash was delivered, and the dead can’t be both guilty and innocent …. continued