Friday, June 26, 2009

Soldier, soldier: has the new world of war passed you by?

The following was first published in The National on 26 June 2009.

To meet required budget cuts, the British ministry of defence is considering slashing the size of its standing army to its lowest level since the Crimean war in the 1850s. The ministry argues that this is the only way that it can preserve funding to maintain the country’s presence in Afghanistan. While the cuts are more a reflection of the global economic crisis than any nod to history, they are significant in a historical context.

The Crimean war is considered the first modern war. It marked the beginning of a new era in combat, drastically changing the way wars were fought. Major conflicts have a way of doing that: at some point technology surpasses the prevailing body of military scholarship and generals are often forced to learn and adapt to these changes on the battlefield, with bloody consequences.

The famous Charge of the Light Brigade demonstrated just how far strategic thinking lagged behind the realities of combat at the time. The British commander Lord Cardigan’s ill-advised charge on Russian gun emplacements at the Battle of Balaclava heralded the end of the horse cavalry. As the French Marshal Pierre Bosquet observed: “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre. C’est de la folie.” The humiliating aftermath of Balaclava led the British to outlaw the sale of military commissions to salvage the nation’s military reputation. Likewise, the incoming army chief, General Sir David Richards, is determined to apply a “ruthless focus” on Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan, at the expense of its military capacity, to recover the nation’s tarnished military reputation.

But as with the so-called “riddle of the trenches” in the First World War, a stalemate where neither force can overcome the defences of the other, armies must constantly examine their tools and strategies or risk facing a situation for which they have no answer.

Ever since George Bush’s ill-fated declaration of an end to major combat operations in Iraq and the poorly conceived drawdown of forces in Afghanistan, the US and its allies have struggled to unravel their own riddle of the trenches: a Gordian knot of sectarian tensions and historic rivalries exacerbated by the presence of foreign troops and non-state actors such as al Qa’eda. To attempt to quell the violence, troops trained to kill more efficiently than their enemies were suddenly asked to perform duties more akin to police work and public diplomacy.

The lack of preparedness for the insurgencies in both countries, and the touting of such strategies as “shock and awe”, showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the threat environment. In a way, it is shock and awe itself that was the cause of the oversight. Military technology in the West has developed to a point at which waging conventional war on the West is suicide. The overwhelming military might of the US armed forces alone could wipe out nearly every combination of the world’s armies. But, in essence, trillions of US dollars and American ingenuity have resulted in solving the riddles of the last war, not the current one.

Nothing demonstrates this more than the US Army’s Future Combat Systems (FCS). Launched in 2003, the programme aimed to create a hi-tech army in which a sophisticated digital communications network tied individual soldiers to a battery of sensors, unmanned aerial and ground vehicles and mobile artillery pieces, with the effect of greatly increasing that soldier’s lethal capacity. But the system was designed with large land battles in mind, which is not a threat the US currently faces. Both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have awoken the US in particular to the inadequacies of its tools. The foremost military power suddenly found itself on horseback facing an enemy it was not meant to fight.

Since 2006, the budget for FCS has been slashed and its goals scaled back; most importantly, funding for new self-propelled artillery has been ended altogether. Artillery is a tool used to wage war against other armies and ill-suited to fight insurgents who blend in with civilians. The US secretary of defence, Robert Gates, is also planning drastic cuts in the US Marine Corps’ troubled Osprey programme, the US Air Force’s next-generation fighter jet, the F-22, and portions of the US Navy’s fleet modernisation plan. Instead the focus has turned to low-cost, low-tech improvements to the ability of US forces.

The most famous example has been the current popularity of counterinsurgency. Insurgencies are nothing new, nor is the notion of counterinsurgency; or as it has come to be referred to in modern military parlance, Coin. But the application of its principles has done more to stabilise Iraq in the past two years than any previous effort by the US to kill or capture its way to victory. So, has the US discovered its blitzkrieg to the Taliban’s trenches? It is too early to tell.

It took four years in Iraq to discover a means to end a deadly cycle of sectarian violence. While in Afghanistan, the coalition has yet to discover a successful strategy after almost eight years. The US hopes that applying Coin principles that focus, among other things, on minimising civilian casualties and maximising population security will in time win the war against the Taliban. And since protecting the population means vast amounts of “boots on the ground” the US is signficantly increasing the size of its military forces. While it is demonstrably true that the Afghanistan and Iraq wars have highlighted how poorly prepared the US and its allies were to fight what are sometimes termed small wars, the jury is still out on whether we have truly reached another Battle of Balaclava. What is clear is that US and western military might has changed the face of the battlefield and forced its foes to adapt to exploit weaknesses.

Yet, in the current environment, it seems unwise for the UK to reduce its forces. If it truly wishes to regain its damaged military prestige, and certainly the British have a long estabilished history of quelling insurgencies, then slashing the size of its army is the least best way of accomplishing this. Britain will find that its new wars look rather like its old wars.