This question was raised during a few rounds of cyber tennis between two experts on 4th generation warfare, Chet Richards and John Robb — posting at their websites Defense and the National Interest and Global Guerrillas. This being an open game in which any number can play, this post discusses one aspect of their debate. First, a recap of the opening rounds. These highlight only part of the debate; these posts are worth reading in full.
Chet Richards (Colonel, USAF, retired) is author of Neither shall the Sword (conflict in the years ahead), A Swift Elusive Sword (What if Sun Tzu and John Boyd did a national defense review), and If We Can Keep It (A national security Manifesto for the next Administration).
John Robb (Major, USAF, retired) is the author of Brave New World.
(1) Chet’s “What to do about Somalia“, 20 April 2009 — Excerpt:
And it would also help if we quit acting scared to death of a few criminals with a religious veneer ensconced in a poverty-ridden “country” some 8,000 miles away. Terrorists are going to strike us again — there’s no way to prevent it — but in the meantime, just to put the threat into perspective, we lose more than 3,000 people to traffic accidents and 1,500 to homicides every month.
(2) Robb’s “The Next Attack“, 21 April 2009 — Excerpt:
There’s been a long enough pause since 9/11 to generate a great deal of psychological shock from a significant new attack. … The attack, if it does come, will likely be suicide bombers (inexpensive wetware that is employed as terminal guidance systems for explosives) that detonate their packages in crowded commercial areas or Mumbai/Kabul style rampages/hostage take overs.
… Unfortunately, the US is suffering from a new window of vulnerability to this type of attack. Unlike a year ago, any attack on US commercial areas (retail, transportation, etc.) will have outsized network effects. Here’s why. Due to a global economic collapse and excessive indebtedness, Americans have cut back on purchases to repair household balance sheets (this is a long running secular shift). This has put most retail facing firms on the edge of bankruptcy. Any attack on commercial crowds over a large geographic area would radically reduce already depressed revenues at these firms (and drive costs for security through the roof), as people stay away from crowds until they feel safe again.
So, in an unusual turn of circumstance, blood and guts terrorism is now closely aligned with the multiplicative effect of economic systems disruption. As a result, the economic damage to the US from an attack of this type as it struggles to ward off economic depression, would be vast. Firms would wink out of existence at an alarming rate. Returns on investment (ROIs) from any attack of this type could potentially reach $100 million in economic loses for every $1 in attack costs.
Robb’s forecast builds on the usual interpretation of 9-11, as described by Tom Engelhardt in this excerpt from “Killing Civilians — How Safe Do You Actually Want to Be?” (posted at TomDispatch, 23 April 2009):
So those towers came down apocalyptically and it was horrible — and we couldn’t live with it. In response, we invaded a country (“no safe havens for terrorists”), rather than simply going after the group that had acted against us. In the process, the Bush administration went to extreme efforts to fetishize our own safety and security (and while they were at it, in part through the new Department of Homeland Security, they turned “security” into a lucrative endeavor).
Of course, elsewhere people have lived through remarkable paroxysms of violence and terror without the sort of fuss and fear this nation exhibited — or the money-grubbing and money-making that went with it. If you want to be reminded of just how fetishistic our focus on our own safety was, consider this news article: “Weeki Wachee mermaids in terrorists’ cross hairs?“, St. Petersburg Times, 22 April 2005. It began:
“Who on earth would ever want to harm the Weeki Wachee mermaids? It staggers the imagination. Still, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has named Weeki Wachee Springs as the potential terror target of Hernando County, according to a theme park official.
“The Weeki Wacheestaff is teaming up with the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office to ‘harden the target’ by keeping the mermaid theater and the rest of the park safe from a potential terror attack, said marketing and promotion manager John Athanason… Terror-prevention plans for Weeki Wachee may include adding surveillance cameras, installing lights in the parking lot and securing areas in the roadside attraction where there may be ‘security breaches,’ he said. But Athanason is also realistic. He said Walt Disney World is a bigger attraction and is likely to receive more counterterrorism funds.”
(3) Chet’s reply is (as usual) on target, in “How afraid should we be?” (22 April 2009) — Excerpt:
If John is correct, and I’m not saying that he’s wrong, then we are doomed. When any attack that inflicts a few hundred casualties can bring our country down, then it’s just a matter of time until somebody does it.
Our only hope is for Americans to recognize this danger get ready now to deal with itwhen it happens. Fortunately, there are a lot of people doing disaster prep, and I’ll leave the technical details to them. However, there is one point that might be overlooked that must not be. And that is, we cannot let ourselves be frightened into doing the terrorists’ job for them
What this means is that the physical damage they can do will likely be small — remember the 3,000/month we lose to traffic accidents. So as John suggests, the real danger comes from network effects that exploit the increased fragility of our national economy. In Brave New World, he outlines some actions we can take today.
(4) My comment
The second part of Chet’s reply is important. 9-11 was one of the most effective single military operation in the history of the world, esp on a cost-benefit basis (for more see this post). But we are far more prepared today for any attack. Not just have vast sums been spent on intelligence and domestic preparation (facilities, equipment) — right down to the local first responders — but equally important is the training and practice exercises.
Planning a successful attack without detection is more difficult. Executing it without interception is more difficult. Our response — both first and second responders plus regular citizens — will be better.
But that is the least important aspect. More important is the cause of 9-11’s effectiveness. It was the government that panicked. Perhaps as a matter of policy, to build public support to invade the Middle East, expand spending on defense and national security, and in general increase government powers. Or perhaps it was real panic. Or perhaps this is yet another example of America’s broken observation-orientation-decision-action loop (OODA loop; at the end are links for more about this).
Whatever the reason, I do not believe that the US public panicked then — or will panic in the event of another attack. The basis for this reasoning is IMO flawed. More importantly, the national security apparatus (including non-government experts who thrive with the Long War) believes it to be so because it is in their interest to do so.
Let’s hope I am correct. If Robb is right — that Americans are easily panicked cowards — we are finished. It’s just a matter of time until we crash, and rightly so.
(5) Robb replies to Chet in “Disaster Planageddon“, 22 April 2009. One brief relevant excerpt: “Since 9/11, nearly every branch of government, corporation, and sizable organization has built a plan for a large scale terrorist attack. ”
Update: Nature might do what terrorists cannot: about the swine flu epidemic
For more information
To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar. Of esp interest these days:
- About America – how can we reform it?
- About America’s national defence strategy and machinery
- About Military and strategic theory
About America’s broken observation-orientation-decision-action loop (OODA loop):
- News from the Front: America’s military has mastered 4GW!, 2 September 2007
- The two tracks of discussion about the Iraq War, never intersecting, 10 November 2007
- Another cycle down the Defense Death Spiral, 30 January 2008
- Quote of the day: this is America’s geopolitical strategy in action, 26 February 2008
- What do blogs do for America?, 26 February 2008
- Everything written about the economic crisis overlooks its true nature, 24 February 2009
- The housing crisis allows America to look in the mirror. What do we see?, 8 March 2009
- The magic of the mainstream media changes even the plainest words into face powder, 24 April 2009