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Is a new tech cycle starting that gives barbarians military parity with modern armies?

6 May 2012

Summary:  We, like people throughout history, assume that our military advantages are God-given and permanent.  History suggests otherwise.  Today we take a brief look at the past, and speculate about ways technology both gives — and takes away — military superiority.

Throughout our wars the neocons and their allies repeatedly claimed that foreign powers gave substantial aid to the insurgents.  While probably true to some extent for small arms, the great anomaly during these wars was that the insurgents found no national sponsors to give them anti-air weapons, radically changing the tactical situation (as stingers did to the Russians, and French aid did for our Founders).  This was discussed repeatedly on the FM website since 2003, most recently in The threat of insurgents using MANPADS is exaggerated (July 2010):

Especially significant, Stratfor does not discuss why these powerful and easy to get weapons remain unobtainable (except small numbers, mostly obsolete versions) by our enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Our helicopters make tempting targets should our enemies get them in decent numbers.  Insurgents failure to obtain them during a decade of conflict constitutes prima facie evidence that {insurgents have little external support}.

Dominance of the air gives modern armies a massive advantage over insurgents (although they still usually defeat foreign armies; see the links at the end).  The advance of technology gave us this advantage.  Might technology take it away?  This rise and fall of the military advantage of civilization over barbarians is a historical pattern, described in a letter by R.W. Johnson of Cape Town in response to David French’s review in the 5 April 2012 London Review of Books of The Dark Defile: Britain’s Catastrophic Invasion of Afghanistan 1838-42 by Diana Preston.

David French compares the battles of Isandhlwana (1879) and Maiwand (1880), where the British were worsted by the Zulus and Afghan tribesmen respectively (LRB, 5 April). As he says, these triumphs over modern armies caused a sensation, though neither of them quite as much as the similar defeat of Western arms at the Battle of Little Bighorn a few years earlier (1876).

The key to these defeats lay in the parity of military technology. Custer’s men had single shot Springfield 73 rifles; Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull’s men had Winchester repeater rifles. At Isandhlwana (and probably Maiwand) the British had Martini-Henry single-shot rifles. The Zulus had some of these too, but the short stabbing spear, used by highly disciplined units, was a match for rifles that continually needed reloading. All such outcomes were put beyond reach of Third World armies, first by the Gatling gun, introduced in the 1880s, and then by the Maxim, the first fully automatic weapon (1884). These were used over and over against Zulus, Mahdists and Matabele and never failed.


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A similar technological catch-up occurred in the 1950s when the Viet Minh managed to carry broken-down AA guns on bicycles down the Ho Chi Minh trail and then reassemble them at Dien Bien Phu, where they were more than a match for French air power – flimsy helicopters and old Second World War piston-engined planes. Within a few years, US jets, heavily armoured Chinooks and napalm had put that sort of success in pitched battle beyond the Vietnamese.

But there is a recurrent tendency for ground soldiers to catch up. The latest instance is the high-tech weaponry belonging to Gaddafi that is now being bought up by Somali pirates, some of whom could probably sink a modern warship.

Might technology military parity to insurgents, perhaps with cell phones, manpads and cyber-weapons?  Insurgents usually defeat foreign armies even with grossly inferior military technology.  What happens if they gain rough parity, or anything close to that?

And the next cycle…

For more information

Some notes about modern insurgencies:

  1. Why do we lose 4th generation wars?“, 4 January 2007 — About the two kinds of insurgencies
  2. Was 9/11 the most effective single military operation in the history of the world?, 11 June 2008

The scorecard of counter-insurgency warfare:

  1. More paths to failure in Iraq, 16 December 2006 — Myths about COIN in Iraq
  2. How often do insurgents win?  How much time does successful COIN require?, 29 May 2008
  3. Max Boot: history suggests we will win in Afghanistan, with better than 50-50 odds. Here’s the real story., 21 June 2010 — Boot discusses 7 alleged victories by foreign armies fighting insurgencies.
  4. A major discovery! It could change the course of US geopolitical strategy, if we’d only see it, 28 June 2010 — Andrew Exum (aka Abu Muqawama) points us to the doctoral dissertation of Erin Marie Simpson in Political Science from Harvard.  She examines the present and past analysis of  counter-insurgency.  This could change the course of American foreign policy, if we pay attention.
  5. A look at the history of victories over insurgents, 30 June 2010
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21 Comments leave one →
  1. Thomas Moore permalink
    6 May 2012 3:16 am

    And speaking of “the threat of insurgents using MANPADS is exaggerated”:

    “U.S. Still Hunting for Missing Libyan MANPADS,”, http://www.defensenews.com, 2 Feburary 2012.

    As Ren & Stimpy would say, “Happy happy, joy joy!”

    The really interesting evolution in technowarfare will come when America ill-advisedly sends autonomous airborne and land weapons against insurgents, and the insurgents capture and reprogram them and send them back against their creators.

    • Bluestocking permalink
      6 May 2012 6:39 pm

      Actually, if it gets that far, autonomous airborne drones might not even need to be captured by insurgents and reprogrammed in order to turn against us. Read Robert Sheckley’s short story “Watchbird”, which was written in 1990 and I think you’ll see what I mean. (available for free at Project Gutenberg in most popular e-reader formats.)

      This scenario may lie behind the sentiments I recently saw expressed in an online article which cited a warning from a senior member of the military to the effect that as weapons technology becomes more complex, more caution needs to be observed with regard to how these weapons will be used.

    • 6 May 2012 7:00 pm

      (1) I think this thread is losing the point of the article. No surprise, as I’ve seen many Americans have come to prefer talking about science fiction rather than simple and mundane trends.

      The concern is not what happens if insurgents gain control of superweapons. Rather, weapons for which States today have a near-monopoly will become cheaper and easier to manufacture, and thereby become more widely available. The writer cites several cycles of this, and no great feats are required for this to happen to one or more of today’s high-tech weapons. Such as cyber-weapons, drones, and anti-air weapons.

      As we have learned with drugs, supply creates demand — and vice versa.

      (2) Sheckley’s story is wonderful, although not overly relevant to this thread. It’s more like the famous story Superiority by Arthur C. Clarke.

    • jonh permalink
      6 May 2012 7:08 pm

      it seems like something that took decades of research shouldn’t be so easy to comprehend and master.

    • 6 May 2012 8:22 pm

      But that’s the pattern of history. The works of Einstein and Newton are taught in high school. Children use electronics that are the result of three thousand years of scientific progress.

    • jonh permalink
      6 May 2012 10:18 pm

      Good point. Could we say that an example of this is the submarine(s) being deployed by the drug cartels in Latin America?

    • 6 May 2012 10:30 pm

      A good example of the overall dynamic of tech formerly available only to States, but progress makes available to insurgents (and criminals, two over-lapping groups).

      That does not mean this specific example will prove an effective tool for smugglers.

  2. M Shannon permalink
    6 May 2012 3:32 am

    ISAF {International Security Assistance Force} tactics in Afghanistan would be suicide against an enemy armed with MRATGW {Medium Range Anti-Tank Guided Weapon}. Confined to roads and stopping at the first sign of an IED convoys- comprised primarily of vehicles designed to stop buried mines not direct fire- would be eviscerated by an enemy with even early 1980s technology. That would be bad but what about the FOBs. Overlooked by high ground and dependent on helicopters how many mini Dien Bien Phus would you get if the enemy had AT-14s?

    Of course some better IED technology would help. EFPs dug into the walls in villages anyone.

    My guess is that the Iranians have a number of reasons for withholding better weaponry from the various US enemies they may encourage. Perhaps one is the threat of opening the arms depots to the Taliban if the Israelis or US attack Iran. ISAF as hostage. Another good reason to get out of Dodge.

  3. Duncan Kinder permalink
    6 May 2012 4:52 am

    What may be more to the point: If I – by investing $1.00 in some insurgent gizmo – oblige you to respond by developing a $10.00 counter gizmo, then you had better be at least 10 times richer than I am.

    Otherwise, even if I cannot defeat you, I nevertheless can bankrupt you.

    A casual survey of Western finances suggests they need to consider this.

  4. Burke G Sheppard permalink
    6 May 2012 11:58 am

    This is an interesting question to raise. The possibility of technical surprise in a low intensity war cannot be ruled out. I don’t if if a war with Iran in the Gulf would count as a low intensity or “fourth generation war”, but I would certainly expect technical surprise to be possible there. But whatever technical means the enemy employs, I fear defeat more as a result of flawed strategy or grand strategy on our part. I do not expect the “barbarians” to gain technological parity with us though the odd ugly surprise is possible, but neither do I expect to beat them unless our strategy is sound. We might just have some problems there.

    • 6 May 2012 1:51 pm

      “I do not expect the “barbarians” to gain technological parity with us ”

      Why? Perhaps you are misinterpreting.

      1. Some of these have already happened. Cell-phones already give them good communications (albeit with serious defects). Public-key cryptography gives them a form of secure communications.
      2. Some of these might happen in the next decade: such as technology and economics (wider manufacturing) combining to provide ample access to anti-air weapons, which would reduce the utility of US airpower: low-level combat support, helicopters, and drones.
      3. And there is the missing element: insurgents need to learn to use and combine these tools. That seems likely to happen, eventually.

      “though the odd ugly surprise is possible”
      Yes, a State supplying weapons and training to insurgents would change the game. The Soviet Union did this to a low degree during the cold war, to great effect.

      “neither do I expect to beat them {insurgents} unless our strategy is sound”
      So far no foreign army has done well against local insurgents. IMO that’s structural. In the age of 4GW, the home-team advantage is powerful.

      “I don’t {doubt} if if a war with Iran in the Gulf would count as a low intensity or “fourth generation war”

      War with Iran would be a traditional State-to-State affair. I suspect (guess) it would be low-intensity, with Iran unable to respond effectively to our strikes — with Iran not effectively employing 4GW methods (eg, using Hezbollah, or insurgents in Iraq). But, as you note, an ugly surprise is possible.

  5. Burke G Sheppard permalink
    6 May 2012 3:08 pm

    Perhaps I am misinterpreting, or simply defining terms a bit differently. I expect insurgents to get a certain amount of new tech by hook or crook, but I suspect that issues of strategy, and the “structural” issues you refer to in counterinsurgency will have more to do with the outcome of these kinds of wars. Some of the tech they get hold of may be a mixed blessing for them. Cell phones give the better communications, and a way to remote trigger an IED. It also gives them a good way to give a lot of information to the counterinsurgents, who may have rather good SIGINT.

    A fight with Iran in the Gulf would be state to state warfare, but it might not be as traditional as all that. We aren’t talking about the battle of Leyte Gulf. here. Traditionally, destroyers were supposed to be more or less expendable units. Ours are rather pricey, and if the Iranians manage to put a couple of torpedoes into one, or maybe a sea skimmer, the political shock would be considerable.

    • 6 May 2012 3:29 pm

      (1) “I suspect that issues of strategy, and the “structural” issues you refer to in counterinsurgency will have more to do with the outcome of these kinds of wars”

      Yours is the consensus view, and might be correct (who can say with certainty what will come?). My guess is that you are just seeing what is, and not what can be (ie, technology works for us, not them). As the writer of this comment shows, changes in the technological balance often have large-scale effects.

      As a poor analogy, we see something similar in the history of science. Theory changes get all the attention these days. Newton, Darwin, and Einstein — continental drift and strings — Thomas Kuhn see’s paradigm changes as the cause of scientific “progress”. But development of new tools has played a equal or even larger role. Microscopes, telescopes, X-ray diffraction — it’s a long list of tools that have opened new perspectives and shaped how we see the universe.

      (2) “if the Iranians manage to put a couple of torpedoes into one”

      That would be as traditional a State-to-State outcome as can be imagined. I doubt that would have large-scale political effects (other than boosting the Navy’s requests for greater funding). The US reprisals against Iran probably would discourage others from repeating their experiment (assuming Iran tried it after seeing Iraq defeated twice).

      The non-traditional outcomes imagined are things such as the use of terrorism and cyber-warfare. Possible, but IMO (guessing) unlikely to be significant.

  6. david jones permalink
    7 May 2012 1:34 am

    We’re lucky to have uneducated enemies. Making the leap from an RPG to a laser (pointer) guided missile is almost down to hobby-level electronics, mostly from the RC airplane / battlebot world, and some clever programming for the guidance. The components are dirt cheap and availible to consumers in any first world country.

    • 7 May 2012 2:23 am

      Agreed. Uneducated doesn’t seem to cover it, esp as Iraq under Saddam, had a decent education system. Stupid seems more accurate. We’ve been at war for over a decade in two to eight nations, and none of our enemies has begged, borrowed, built, or stolen some anti-air weapons. They’ve done well with IEDs, but that is insufficient.

    • M Shannon permalink
      9 May 2012 2:04 am

      Almost all modern weapons are easier to use than their predecessors. For example .30 Browning versus M60 versus M240. GPS versus map and compass. Laser guided bomb from 10,000 feet versus trying to drop it in at tree top level.

      The weapons are harder to manufacture and repair, other than part replacement, is usually beyond the user or even second or third line techs.The belief that equipment is more complicated so soldiers (the users) must be more educated is wrong and that goes for any enemy who get their hands on modern weapons.

  7. Thomas Moore permalink
    7 May 2012 6:27 am

    “I do not expect the “barbarians” to gain technological parity with us.”

    Our enemies will use our own technology against us. The more sophisticated our tech, the more powerful our enemies will become. The solution? Create fewer enemies.

    John Boyd taught us this in “Patterns of Conflict.”

  8. 8 May 2012 12:19 am

    “What happens if they gain rough parity, or anything close to that?”

    If I may broaden the subject: what happens if the technological advantage of the US becomes obsolete? All technology, of course, ends up obsolete but what if it happens faster than the US can adapt or even perceive?

    Almost all large military hardware is vulnerable to small rockets. Not only slow moving helicopters but also ships and tanks. If Russia or China can develop a stealth-killer rocket then the US will lose an important advantage.

    The barbarians haven’t invaded a civilised country in a long time, all the battles you cite are part of imperial wars for conquest. The British empire didn’t fall because it lost to the Afghans or the Zulu, it fell because its battleships were sunk by Japanese air planes, as I wrote on my blog:

    “In a single day, the tenth of December 1941, attacks from Japanese aircrafts sank Prince of Wales & Repulse and broke the British power in Asia. The Japanese swept the British aside and advanced as far as Burma and would have gone further if it weren’t for the US victory at Midway.”

    Bagehot on Money (3), by anonemiss, August 6, 2008

    • 8 May 2012 2:59 am

      “The barbarians haven’t invaded a civilised country in a long time, all the battles you cite are part of imperial wars for conquest”

      Yes, almost. The barbarian wars since WWII were rebellions against the colonial empires. (I say “barbarian”, which is dramatic but of course not the right word)

      “The British empire didn’t fall because it lost to the Afghans or the Zulu, it fell because its battleships were sunk by Japanese air planes,”

      The colonial powers rebuilt their empires after WWII, and were defeated by rebellions of their subjects. Some peaceful (more or less, like India). Many less so.

  9. Marvin permalink
    8 May 2012 2:23 pm

    Lots to discuss on this post, I’ll keep my response as brief.

    I’d offer that though organized prosperous states still enjoy a significant military advantage over the not so prosperous and not so organized, military technical advantage,has not mattered as much as of late. The European states lost their empires- by being wiped out after WWII, and a combination of politics, economics, and yes, sometimes the fact that the peoples they were fighting were aided by their enemies (re-balancing the technical advantage). The United States, Soviet Union and Portugal weren’t drained by WWII but were defeated by the same three factors I mentioned. Further point, Britain’s 1921 Afghan War and Mussolini’s Ethiopia campaign (Italy won, but not easily) show that even before the Second World War Western Technical advantage was not necessarily decisive.

    • 8 May 2012 2:49 pm

      All valid points! But don’t forget advances in military theory. Mao brought 4GW to maturity, and this has allowed insurgents since WWII to reliably to defeat foreign armies.

      This is the military parallel to scientific progress. Science advances in two paths. New tools (eg, telescope, microscope) AND new theory (ie, Thomas Kuhn’s paradigms).

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