Friday, June 19, 2009

Reading :: Worst Enemy

Worst Enemy: The Reluctant Transformation of the American Military
By John Arquilla

“For David Ronfeldt,” reads the inscription on this book, “visionary, colleague, friend.” Arquilla and Ronfeldt worked together for many years at RAND, and many of the themes they developed during that time made their way into this book, which is all about transforming the US military to meet future demands. Arquilla, who went on to teach at the Naval Postgraduate School, has thought a great deal about the challenges and implications in such an undertaking.

His analysis is even-handed and complex, as he demonstrates beginning in the Preface. “In this book the reader will find [former SecDef Donald] Rumsfeld an elusive, complex character, right on the big issues about military innovation, tragically wrong about both the idea of invading Iraq and the manner in which the campaign there was conducted” (p.xi). Rumsfeld's vision of a more nimble, more networked, more agile military contrasts with the vision of a political rival who usually comes off better in such accounts: “our adherence to a military philosophy of overwhelming force – the so-called Powell Doctrine – seems exceptionally ill-suited to our time, guaranteeing staggering expenditures, major collateral damage inflicted upon innocents, and growing global resentment of the United States”(p.xi).

We can take Rumsfeld and Powell as figures for two possible pathways for the US military and armies in general. On the one hand, the Powell Doctrine pushes us towards massed forces, a larger army, more extensive and expensive weapons systems, more aircraft carriers, more command and control, and conflicts that minimize risk to US soldiers – by maximizing risks to civilians. As Arquilla points out, throughout military history, massed forces have had their day, then suffered from nimbler, more innovative forces: the phalanx fell to the legion, the massed infantries fell to the German stormtroopers, and more recently the US has had its hands full dealing with decentralized terrorists (p.11). In the latter example, the Powell Doctrine has led to maximizing troop safety by maximizing civilian risks, most obviously in airstrikes, and the resulting collateral damage has provided arguments for recruiters for terrorist networks.

On the other hand, the approach that Rumsfeld (imperfectly, intermittently) took involved smaller, nimbler forces, a smaller army made of smaller networked units, lighter weapons, more decentralized decision-making and initiative at unit level, less centralized control, fewer if any aircraft carriers and fewer expensive weapons systems. Arquilla approvingly cites Rumsfeld's “A-Teams” of commandoes whose partnerships with tribal Afghanis made Operation Enduring Freedom such a success (pp.40-41; see also p.87). Arquilla says the Army “should become a force of the 'many and small,' not the 'few and the large'” (pp.45-46). Remodel the Army along the lines of the Special Forces, he says, with as few as 100-200 troops per unit (p.46). Realize, as Rumsfeld belatedly did, that conflicts are more likely to be netwar conflicts in the future (p.161), and that we must prepare military leaders to confront networks as well as nation-states (p.166). Arquilla points out that Rumsfeld initially favored an “Afghan approach” to Iraq, but encountered sharp opposition from the Pentagon and compromised, leading to the massive Iraq invasion (p.216) – and he also argues that the more recent success in Iraq had less to do with the surge and more to do with small, dispersed garrisons (p.217).

Indeed, Arquilla argues that better organization and communication could give an advantage to low-tech dispersed solutions. For instance, he argues that proven, inexpensive WWI-era biplanes and distributed one-gun batteries could be deployed to great effect (p.52), as could drone JetSkis (p.78) and surveillance blimps, if the Air Force controls the skies (pp. 102-103). Compare these, he invites us, to the aircraft carrier – a recurrent symbol of what's wrong with the traditionalist military thinking that Arquilla warns “is leading us toward disaster” (p.24). Aircraft carriers are protected by traditionalism and budgetary inertia – “they represent the largest single line items in the defense budget” - and face no clear rivals on the seas (p.59). Yet they are large, relatively slow targets representing a “big, single 'point of failure'” (p.69), the epitome of massed forces. Meanwhile, the Chinese are working on a “sea power without a navy” (p.63), remote warfare based on supercavitating torpedoes, supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, and “brilliant” seagoing mines with limited maneuverability (pp.63-64). The US armed forces have been slow to innovate in the face of such developments, Arquilla points out.

Arquilla also weighs in on nonlethal weapons, an issue that has become more central recently. These include infantry weapons, and he discusses the Intifada in this context, but it also includes electronic warfare; he argues strongly for a move to a strong encryption regime for the military and the government (p.128).

Arquilla's chapter on influence operations, which clearly shows the mark of his work with Ronfeldt on noopolitik, is also valuable. Influence operations are more than propaganda: they are perceptions management (and in that sense, rhetorical) (pp.132-133). And he argues that they must be better integrated with miilitary concepts (p.133). He reviews the existing principles for influence operations: (1) Don't use them on US citizens; (2) Avoid lying; (3) craft the message and repeat it often (pp.134-136). But, he says, two problems mar this concept of influence operations: (1) “it undervalues listening,” and (2) “it rules out the idea of making concessions in order to induce others to change their behavior” (p.136). While our influence operations have been bogged down, he says, al-Qaeda's have been successful because “they are well suited for exploiting our own 'scaling problem.' They can mount just a few operations and yet be able to count on the Americans having to respond in costly, balky ways,” responding in entire divisions geared for conventional, symmetrical warfare (p.151). Arquilla counsels that instead we “go small,” relying on influence operations more and on conventional methods less (p.153).

And that brings us to the concept of netwar. I've reviewed netwar concepts elsewhere on the blog, mostly in Arquilla and Ronfeldt's writings, but Chapter 7 is a good overview for those who are less familiar with the concept. One key sentence: “Netwar has a postmodern quality, one that takes advantage of the tendency in our time to view the actual fighting in any conflict as a backdrop to the more important 'battle of the story' about why the war is being waged in the first place” (p.162). That's partly why influence operations have become so important. As we see the crisis in Teheran unfolding over YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, shortly after the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, we are seeing an example of netwar in which the regime and citizens battle for control of the story.

So what are the implications for our armed forces? Let's start with a surprising one. Arquilla wants to bring back the draft. The problem with the volunteer army, he says, is that volunteers come disproportionately from specific regions, religious backgrounds, and political affiliations, so the armed forces have come to represent a narrower slice of the citizenry. The results have included instances of overt politicization, undue religious influence, and socioeconomic segregation. Reinstating the draft “would remind all Americans of the implicit social contract that runs from citizen to government, and to one's compatriots” (p.195).

At the same time, Arquilla wants a much smaller armed forces: he wants to reduce active duty forces by three quarters while enlarging the reserves to provide more flexible, scalable forces (p.226). He wants to keep elite forces elite and focus on small, dispersed field units (p.226). Most of all, he wants to see the armed forces phase out the enormous, centralized aircraft carriers in favor of smaller ships, and he wants to see outer space kept for intelligence support rather than advanced weaponry (p.226).

Arquilla's book is a well-written, thought-provoking argument. I'm not qualified to evaluate it as a blueprint for the armed forces, but it has analogical implications for other large organizations. I highly recommend it.

1 comment:

David Ronfeldt said...

clay -- i'm pleased to see this positive review. i'll let arquilla know about it. much appreciated. timely too. -- onward, david