Asymmetric warfare

"Asymmetric warfare" has been a buzzword for too long. Even high-price weapons producers have used it to promote supposedly special weapons and equipment.

My understanding of the matter tells me that asymmetric warfare is extremely unlikely to be won or lost by a military decision. Its very nature is not the superficial "tank vs. RPG" equipment & logistics asymmetry. The relevant asymmetry is another one - the strengths of both war parties are so different that they cannot enter a common arena to fight for a decision (at least not quickly).

One party always has a military superiority, but lacks the political superiority. In a cabinet war, this would by a total victory à la Clausewitz. In wars between peoples that don't want to give way it's a stalemate. The violence by military and paramilitary forces keeps the conflict hot, but a decision is very difficult to achieve as no superiority (military/political) can easily overcome the other one.

I created this matrix to illustrate the problem; a power wins a hot conflict with superiority in both areas, it loses with inferiority in both areas.
In total wars or cabinet wars (low loyalty of the people to the cause) the power with military superiority wins - that's the "conventional" pattern of thinking.
Asymmetric warfare happens in a non-cabinet, non-total war when military and political superiority are not united in one war party, but split between the warring powers.

Asymmetric warfare decisions that focus on the differences in employed weapons & equipment are in my opinion useless.
(Bomb traps, mines, remotely-controlled explosives, improvised explosives, snipers, ambushes, hit and run tactics, assaults on support troops, mortar raids, terror against civilians, abuse of civilians and prisoners, killing of civilians - this isn't exclusively para-military or even exclusively terrorist. It was standard for conventional armies in the previous century and partially even for millenniums.)

Sven Ortmann


Mechanical engineering industry

Did you ever ask yourself how the Soviet Union transformed itself from a mostly rural, civil war-torn country into a titan that was able to withstand the German onslaught and even replace its almost entirely lost army within months?

Well, the answer is rather simple; planning economies are better than their reputation concerning industrialization of countries that have no middle class - and lots of machine imports from the USA.
Russia was in fact every major customer for American machinery in the inter-war years. They also learned the economics of quantity production there.

The mechanical engineering industry is one of the most demanding industries. It's easier to build a super-complicated chemical factory with ten thousands of pipes and valves in a 3rd World Country and let it work at 80% capacity than to build factories for often custom-produced machines. That business is not so much about hardware as it is about experience and skills. That's why the mechanical engineering industry is still strong in the Western World and not so in industrializing countries.

If the Western societies were really determined to slow down or end the rise of the Chinese not only as military power, but also to keep their own remaining industries from moving to countries like China....well, if that was the case, we could simply embargo them concerning machine sales. The PR China would be set back by at least a decade in its economic and military expansion.

That doesn't happen, was probably even never proposed seriously - so let's sit back and watch China's rise.

(Their rise will not look like the common predictions. They'll be hit hard by the current financial market crisis effects, they will have their own bubbles blast and will have significant internal stress due to inequality and some inefficient national industries. Their list of troubles is as long as their potential.)



Sunk costs and war or not war

"Sunk costs" is an economical term. Rational, effective behavior is to ignore these costs.

All effort and resources that were already spent are lost and cannot be recovered. They are plain irrelevant for good decisions. If you'd consider these sunk costs as arguments that influence your decisions, you're prone to stick to sub-optimal behavior and invest in projects that are simply not efficient.

Many people have strong misgivings about "wasting" resources. This is called "loss aversion". In the above example involving a non-refundable movie ticket, many people, for example, would feel obligated to go to the movie despite not really wanting to, because doing otherwise would be wasting the ticket price; they feel they passed the point of no return. This is sometimes called the sunk cost fallacy. Economists would label this behavior "irrational": It is inefficient because it misallocates resources by depending on information that is irrelevant to the decision being made. Colloquially, this is known as "throwing good money after bad".

This economical problem is very relevant for warfare. The most important application is at the highest level of warfare, the decision whether to continue a war or not.
A war that does not promise to be better than no war is often continued simply because many people cannot stand the idea that past losses were a waste.

Bad news; most losses in warfare are a waste, as most wars simply don't improve the overall situation in comparison to no war. Warfare is about destruction and waste, not about creation.

We are surprisingly often in a position to end a war by ourselves (which by the way equals that we are the aggressors), so this is very relevant for us.

We should be aware of the need to ignore "sunk costs" when we think about continuing a war or dropping out.


Every man a rifleman...

It's been well-known for ages that every warrior/soldier needs to be a good fighter.
The mere idea that an army could be a powerful with only a small fraction of itself well-trained in combat is ridiculous.

But few forces really appreciate that. They emphasize the specialist competence and the order of battle, how everyone should be at his right spot and not somewhere else. And most important of all; the enemy should only be where he belongs to!

Reality is very different in most if not all wars. Order of Battles are like plans - obsolete on day 2 of combat. NCO's temporarily lead companies, lieutenants temporarily lead battalions and permanently lead companies. American anti-air and other combat support troops of WW2 were used to fill up the ever thinned ranks of infantry, today's American artillerymen are used as quasi-MP during an occupation, Tankers who lost their tanks are mis-used as infantry, entire enemy units suddenly appear where they shouldn't be and overwhelm surprised combat and support units who don't even shoot once at the sight of machine guns in immediate vicinity.
Lack of infantry is a common problem in modern war. The infantry of day 1 is quickly thinned out in a major war against a capable opponent. Expect an average retention period of few weeks to some months in infantry units (till KIA/WIA/POW).
It's a silly idea to concentrate the burden of infantry combat on a small fraction of the army.
An army WILL use other troops as infantry if the latter had high losses. An army WILL use ill-trained fresh troops as infantry - who will fail at times.

The present lack of infantry in our force structures is alarming. The lack of infantry after combat against a capable foe will be a disaster.

Forget the abysmal losses sustained in post-90 wars. That were lucky times. Unessential great power games warfare. War will look different if we really have to fight for our or our close friends' sovereignty!

360° coverage with outposts, weapons ready at all times, proficiency with weapons, adequate weapons even for a repair platoon to fight off medium armored recce elements, a mindset that everyone is a fighter and no-one just depends on others to keep the enemy away, good morale, good cohesion - a battle-ready army looks very differently than most "modern" armies.

Let's avoid the air forces to keep this readable ...

We need more troops who are well-trained to act as infantry, both in support units and in reserve units. Much more.

Sven Ortmann


Shocking shipbuilding industry

Some people think and discuss whether ever or when the PR China might match Western naval forces with its own ones.

Well, the recent economic crisis might have answered this; forget about Western naval capabilities in the long run.

The world has never seen a great power sustaining great naval power in face of a challenger without a superior shipbuilding capacity.
Judging by this criterion the USA will have a coastal defense navy in 2040 in comparison to real naval powers.

(source: Wikipedia.org)

OK, maybe it's just because of the quantity of ships, and the USA builds the greatest, largest ships - thereby earning a place somewhere in the top 10 instead of ... don't want to know where?

Umm, not really. Only eleven major naval/merchant ships completed in 2007 tell a different story. Five of these were naval ships.



Megayachts, tank barges, ferries, tug boats ... the USA would have almost no shipbuilding industry if there weren't some offshore oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi/Missouri shipping and the Great Lakes.

The electronics industry of Eastern Asia is also hmm, let's say "strong".
Conclusion; The capability to easily overturn naval power balances exists in East Asia (including Japan and Taiwan) - they were just kind enough not to use it (and were our friends for decades).
But now the PRC is on the rise also in shipbuilding - and might not be so kind in 20, 30 or 40 years if we piss them off.

It's nice to sit in "Old Europe", as we have no serious conflicts with China (we have adopted the habit to only buy, not conquer, raw materials) and are far, far away from East Asian countries' geo-strategic interests.

I wrote about the relation between industrial capacities and national security options before (here). Now I added the "shock (and awe?)" for the topic.

Don't take it as cast in stone that NATO nations will have superior war economies for major wars in the future.

*** Update 21.07.2008 ***

New statistics are easily accessible here.


Break resolve, keep neutrals neutral, survive

In "Break resolve, not things" I had the focus on will in warfare.
It was focused on a point, and of course not comprehensive.

To excel at breaking your foes' will (and things) is not enough - several empires fell under extreme pressure when they had too many enemies at once. Germany was a perfect example in the 20th century when its society was still authoritarian. Germany was overwhelmed by sheer quantity of enemies in both World Wars, exhausting itself (and most of all its infantry) both physical and psychical.
The principal mistake was to have too many enemies at once. Even at times when the war didn't go too terrible it alienated other nations that declared war - and in WW2 it even attacked further nations during the war.

That was a clear failure of politics. Politics/diplomacy should have prevented such stupidity (I don't regret it, though), as was always one of the primary tasks for politicians at times of war.

That's an example about nation-state conflicts. It's a bit different in small wars that include significant non-state forces.
This is where the "hearts and minds" theory has its place - all troops down to NCO are representatives of their nation. Their behavior is the most important variable for generating additional allies or foes. It's not enough if officers attend some local meetings and do some diplomacy. Disrespectful or even violent behavior of their troops towards neutrals ruins the chances for higher-level diplomacy. I mentioned this last year, without specifying the exact reasons.

A) Break the enemy's resolve according to the mission

B) Avoid to alienate neutrals if the mission permits that.

C) Keep losses down if the mission permits that.

At first sight conflicts seem to exist between all three objectives - it's ultimately the job of superiors in the military and political system ranks to set priorities by formulating the mission.

Again, it's clearly visible that unless you act really, really drastic and break the resolve of the enemy by (today) unacceptable brutality (the ancient method of COIN) you need to emphasize "B" a lot in small wars.
It's quite obvious that this is important (the "Hearts and minds" theory is right on this), but not the ultimate challenge.

The ultimate challenge in COIN is to set the priorities right. This begins on top, at the political leadership.

Sven Ortmann


Break resolve, not things

Jeder sucht den anderen durch physische Gewalt zur Erfüllung seines Willens zu zwingen; sein nächster Zweck ist, den Gegner niederzuwerfen und dadurch zu jedem ferneren Widerstand unfähig zu machen.

Der Krieg ist also ein Akt der Gewalt, um den Gegner zur Erfüllung unseres Willens zu zwingen.
(Clausewitz, vom Kriege)

"Everybody strives by violence to force the other one to fulfill his will; the next purpose is to force the enemy down and thereby make him incapable of further resistance.

The war is therefore an act of violence, to force the enemy to fulfill our will."

That's a pretty good description of the real objective in war. But two total (world) wars and the decade-long threat of a perverted nuclear war casted a strong fog of war on its real objective.

War isn't about breaking things, it's about breaking the enemy's resolve to resist.

The Western forces haven't paid much attention to this in the past decades. Our politicians didn't do as well - our entire societies are under the impression that breaking stuff means to win.

Our forces are great in breaking things, but not so great in breaking resolve.

Almost inexplicable military setbacks in this real, unforgiving world pushed the old knowledge about the real face of war back into our conscience.
Many people understand again that war is about will, not about guns.
The "Hearts and minds" talk is such a symptom, as is the complaint about suspected propaganda inferiority.

In fact we don't need to win hearts and minds. That's not really warfare - it's politics. "Hearts and minds" is about allying, not about defeating.

First and foremost we need to understand how wars work - and we need to understand it on the political level. Our politicians should not think about whether our tanks can kill theirs, how many KIA we will have or whether a military campaign will be finished till the next election campaign.

Our politicians and all politically interested citizens need to think about whether we will be able to break our adversary's resolve with acceptable effort and loss.

This applies both before and during war.

Sven Ortmann


Swarms & dispersed operations

A couple of years go - when the military communities were not occupied with COIN yet - we had some concepts and experiments that envisaged the dispersed use of small troops to cover a large area as forward observers. They should use stealth (that was still a credible idea then) and be the eyes on the ground for air and artillery strikes. LRRPs basically. At the same time swarming - the unconventional (self-) coordination of many small elements for a common purpose - was almost fashionable as an idea.

Well, the ideas were not really transferred into practice, but they did apparently shape our thinking about conventional war to some degree.
The FCS program, for example, is still not oriented at brutal grinding force-on-force or breakthrough battles. It's rather oriented at careful use of seeing but unseen manned systems supported by unmanned systems and again effective indirect fires.

I was always interested in all such concepts and thought a lot about those.
My conclusion is that certain strengths like stealth have a very varying usefulness - their usefulness depends on the tactical situation and mission.
Critics of FCS, stealth and the like claim that those approaches will fail in this or that situation. They are right. But what about not employing these concepts in such unfavorable situations if possible?

My idea is to have very different ground forces working together. The German army of WW2 was composed of very different units; tank forces, motorized forces, light infantry, infantry and lower quality infantry units.
Each such part of the army fulfilled its job, and it wasn't necessary to have an all-Panzer Division army at all. That's why the obvious shortages of a Panzer Regiment were not a problem for the army; combined arms for the win.

I believe we should have a heavy force as brutal striking force. Such heavy combat teams should be able to execute two-pronged attacks with superior local force and a quick reserve.

They should operate in a skirmisher-saturated battlefield. The skirmishers should resemble the proposed high-tech forces; employing stealth and acting as forward observers. In addition to that they should be proficient in delaying; ambushing with fire-and-forget anti-tank weapons and creating lightly defended obstacles should be standard capabilities.

Finally there should be strong reserve infantry forces (conscripts) to control the very closed terrain of mountainous, urban and wooded regions. I doubt that tank forces are useful against a modern and competent opponent in such terrain, so I don't consider front-line armored vehicles as necessary for this infantry force. Artillery and artillery-protected support vehicles (commercial truck-based APC and specialized versions) should be enough.

This, of course, is very different from the perfect force for an expeditionary conventional war of a COIN war.
Again I fear that our pre-occupation with unnecessary military missions makes our force ill-prepared for their real, legitimate reason of existence; to defend our sovereignty (AT HOME).