Summary: Tactical surprise was often devastating in the 20th century. We should fear it today, but in the 21st century it might take different forms. Ninth in a series discussing America’s grand strategy in the 21st century. At the end are links for more information.
The radio call Tora, Tora, Tora — in English Tiger, Tiger, Tiger — signaled that Japan’s attack on 7 December 1941 achieved tactical surprise. Surprises like this shaped the battlefields of the 20th century.
- It almost worked for Germany in WWI, taking their Army to the gates of Paris.
- It did work for Germany in WWII, as they conquered France.
- It might have worked for Japan if they caught the two US carriers based at Pearl Harbor and made a 3rd attack to destroy Pearl Harbor’s infrastructure and supplies.
- We feared this during the Cold War. Perhaps an attack across the Rhine, or a nuke attack which destroyed our communications and control apparatus — and our ability to retaliate with a 2nd strike.
None of these are likely today. Indeed with decline in global military spending, nobody can stage a serious attack on us. A military attack, that is. We remain vulnerable to more modern forms of attack, as France was in 1940 to Blitzkrieg.
What if terrorists destroying a city?
Yes, Dr. No, SPECTRE, or al Qaeda might burn a city. That would be a bad thing, but not necessarily significant to the global geopolitical situation. Cities burned through out history. In fact, history can be marked by the burning of cities. Mere deaths in large numbers do not change history or gain geo-politicaladvantage. To paraphrase Stalin: one death is a tragedy, one million deaths are a footnote. It’s the cruel logic of life. Or, for Disney fans, the Circle of Life.
What about September 11?
A footnote in history, notable only for the idiocy of its planners and our foolish, incompetent response.
A more likely inflectino point in 21st century history
In the 21stcentury our danger is Lǎo hǔ, lǎo hǔ, Lǎo hǔ — in Japanese Tora, Tora, Tora — an economic attack that achieves tactical surprise. Often predicted, as was Japan’s strike on Pearl Harbor, but still unanticipated because our decision-makers believe it will not happen.
Each year our debts to China grow. Each year, as they and their Asian neighbors grow, the importance of China’s exports to the US diminishes. Someday those lines will cross. One day the Chinese will see that they have grown strong, and the trillion dollars we owe them can be a powerful source of leverage. (See “To see an example of this, see “Too Chinese (and Russian) to fail?“, Brad Setser, Council on Foreign Relations, 12 July 2008)
They will use that leverage, one way or another. If we persist in positioning ourselves as their enemy, the odds increase that they use it in a hostile fashion. But one way or another, our relationship to China will change in the next decade or so — probably to our disadvantage.
They might exert their strength slowly or rapidly. Their internal political andeconomic dynamics are largely invisible to us, so reliable forecasts are impossible even for western experts. But their are many potential flashpointsin our relationship with China.
- Trade policy
- Our defense of Taiwan
- Their role as our primary creditor, and possible US action to inflate away their loans
The least likely scenario is geographic expansion by China. Other than buffer zones, in its long history China has seldom sought to govern the hordes of barbarians in the outside world.
The most fascinating thing about tactical surprise
Almost all the major tactical surprises of the 20th century were anticipated by their opponents, but these warnings were ignored. For example, the Wehrmacht’s advance through the Ardennes in both WWI and WWII, and Japan’s strike at Pearl Harbor and invasion of Singapore.
Will this be true of those in the 21st century?
The difference between cyberwar and economic warfare
In comment #1 ShogunNole mentions the book Unrestricted Warfare. From Wikipedia: “Unrestricted Warfare (超限战, literally “warfare beyond bounds”) is a book on military strategy written in 1999 by two colonels in the People’s Liberation Army, Qiao Liang (乔良) and Wang Xiangsui.” It discusses alternative modes of warfare, including lawfare, economic warfare, and cyberwar. The last two have received the most attention, often conflated despite their great differences.
Cyberwar theorists often write as if no protections have been taken, and the PLA can hire a few hackers and bring the US to its knees. In fact both government and corporations have made massive investments to defend against such attacks — both to prevent their success and mitigate the effects. A high level of tactical surprise will be difficult to achieve due to the high level of routine awareness and defensive efforts. Unlike Holly-world, as in Die Hard 4, hackers cannot easily take over utility systems and do anything they like.
Economic warfare is different, in that — so far as we can tell from public sources — the government has taken few steps to prepare, defend, or mitigate against an economic attack. This might be America’s chief vulnerability.
Excerpts from Unrestricted Warfare
Otherwise, the immortal bird of warfare will not be able to attain nirvana when it is on the verge of decline: When people begin to lean toward and rejoice in the reduced use of military force to resolve conflicts, war will be reborn in another form and in another arena, becoming an instrument of enormous power in the hands of all those who harbor intentions of controlling other countries or regions.
In this sense, there is reason for us to maintain that the financial attack by George Soros on East Asia, the terrorist attack on the U.S. embassy by Usama Bin Laden, the gas attack on the Tokyo subway by the disciples of the Aum Shinri Kyo, and the havoc wreaked by the likes of Morris Jr. on the Internet, in which the degree of destruction is by no means second to that of a war, represent semi-warfare, quasi-warfare, and sub-warfare, that is, the embryonic form of another kind of warfare.
… During the 1990’s, and concurrent with the series of military actions launched by nonprofessional warriors and non-state organizations, we began to get an inkling of a non-military type of war which is prosecuted by yet another type of non-professional warrior.
- This person is not a hacker in the general sense of the term, and also is not a member of a quasi-military organization.
- Perhaps he or she is a systems analyst or a software engineer, or a financier with a large amount of mobile capital or a stock speculator.
- He or she might even perhaps be a media mogul who controls a wide variety of media, a famous columnist or the host of a TV program.
- His or her philosophy of life is different from that of certain blind and inhuman terrorists.
- Frequently, he or she has a firmly held philosophy of life andhis or her faith is by no means inferior to Osama bin Ladin’s in terms of its fanaticism.
- Moreover, he or she does not lack the motivation or courage to enter a fight as necessary.
Judging by this kind of standard, who can say that George Sorosis not a financial terrorist?
… We believe that before long, “financial warfare” will undoubtedly be an entry in the various types of dictionaries of official military jargon. Moreover, when people revise the history books on twentieth-century warfare in the early 21st century, the section on financial warfare will command the reader’s utmost attention [see Endnote 12]. The main protagonist in this section of the history book will not be a statesman or a military strategist; rather, it will be George Soros. Of course, Soros does not have an exclusive monopoly on using the financial weapon for fighting wars.
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For more information from the FM site
To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar. Of esp interest are:
- About Military and strategic theory
- About America’s national defence strategy and machinery
- About End of the post-WWII geopolitical regime
Other posts about Financial Warfare:
- A brief note on the US Dollar. Is this like August 1914?, 8 November 2007
- Words to fear in the 21st century: Lǎo hǔ, lǎo hǔ, Lǎo hǔ, 14 July 2008
- Two essential texts in the theory and practice of financial warfare, 11 September 2008
- Rumors of financial war: Russia vs. US, 22 September 2008
Posts about China:
- Power shifts from West to East: the end of the post-WWII regime in the news, 20 December 2007
- What you probably do not know about China’s food crisis, 21 April 2008
- China becomes a super-power (geopolitical analysis need not be war-mongering), 9 July 2008
- Words to fear in the 21st century: Lǎo hǔ, lǎo hǔ, Lǎo hǔ, 14 July 2008
- “The changing balance of global financial power”, by Brad Setser, 22 August 2008
- The most important news of the month. Perhaps the year., 29 September 2008 – A warning from our #1 creditor.