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Going to war in the 21st century


The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World
(General Sir Rupert Smith)

This is a brilliant book, by a long shot the best I've encountered in three years of ransacking the literature. What a shame the publishers didn't switch the title and sub-title! The Art of War in the Modern World is what the book is all about, though Sir Rupert does keep returning to the notion of the utility of force. (Not nearly as useful as we'd like to think.) Here are my fairly extensive notes:

'The enemy is always a reacting being that not only has no intention of falling in with your plans, but will be actively setting out to foil them--whilst making plans of his own at the same time. The enemy is an adversary, an opponent, not a sitting target. Response and adjustment are as much a part of a plan of attack unfolding as the original blueprint.' (p.9)

'In the [old] world of industrial war the premise is of the sequence peace-crisis-war-resolution, which will result in peace again, with the war, the military action, being the deciding factor. In contrast, the new paradigm of war amongst the people is based on the concept of a continuous crisscrossing between confrontation and conflict, regardless of whether a state is facing another state or a non-state actor....
    'War amongst the people is characterized by six major trends:
    'The ends for which we fight are changing ... to more malleable objectives....
    'We fight amongst the people ... we fight in every living room in the world....
    'Our conflicts tend to be timeless....
    'We fight so as not to lose the force, rather than ... at any cost to achieve the aim.
    'On each occasion new uses are found for old weapons ... since the tools of industrial war are often irrelevant to war amongst the people.
    'The sides are mostly non-state ... in some form of multi-national grouping ... against some party or parties that are not states.' (pp.19-20)

In a multi-national force, the commander must usually 'manoeuvre his force as a collectional of smaller national groupings rather than a single coherent force.' (p.27)

Thesis: Napoleon to WW2

Following Napoleon, 'wars of manoeuvre' between states became obsolete as armies chose instead to engage the enemy's main force directly. (p.36) Whereas previously the rulers remained the same after an engagement, 'His strategic political aim was precisely to change rulers and states, largely in order to make them part of his empire.' (p.41) He failed in Spain because the peoples' will was not broken 'and guerrilla war ensued. Indeed, this long struggle was the start of ... the "antithesis" to the paradigm of interstate industrial war....' (p.42) 'the Peninsular War ... came to be termed by Napoleon as a "running sore" that bled his armies....' (p.43)

In 1991 Gulf War, Smith's armored division met and destroyed Iraqi armour. 'The prisoners ... told us they had been moving to counter-attack the breach we had made the day before in the ... minefields along the Iraqi border.... As such, their commanders were reacting to an event that had happened some eighteen or twenty-four hours previously and 100 kilometres back.' (p.51)

'war is an imitative and reciprocal activity. In order to defeat an enemy in a long war one becomes more and more like him, and both sides end up feeding off the other.' (p.61)

'To win, we have learned from Napoleon that we must fight wars with all available resources. To this end we need to be able to mobilize a mass army.... But to mobilize we need to have a strategic plan.... However, to have a strategy, we need an enemy', generally one's strongest neighbor. (p.63) Following this logic, European nations developed military forces characterized by conscription, by sophisticated mobilization plans, by a professional officer corps, and by an emphasis on technological development. (pp.63-64) Today's multi-national groupings such as NATO are organized similarly to the old ministries of defense. However, they 'cannot identify an enemy around which to form a strategy, and without a strategy it is impossible to make a plan to use force.' (p.90)

Quoting Bismarck: 'In war as in art there exist no general rules; in neither case can talent be replaced by precept.' Smith: 'There are two methods to achieving this end. The first is that the staff put the commander's direction into effect. This requires the commander to make an early decision ... and subordinate commanders to be told the result required (get the unit over the river by dawn) rather than what to do (build a bridge at X by midnight) ....' (p.97) This is the British system (and though he doesn't say so, the WW2 German system). Second method: work up multiple options for the commander; the US and NATO system. 'To my mind, the first, more informal system is suited best to the tactical level: it is smaller, more agile, and produces rapid results, provided the commander is well forward and decisive.' (p.96)

In WW1, 'The Schlieffen Plan failed quite simply because the French defeated the German attack. That is the trouble with plans: the enemy does not as a rule cooperate with the assumptions on which they are laid.' (p.112)

In 1918, Germans adopted what would be called 'mobile warfare'. 'they selected and trained ... elite Sturmtruppen, ... soldiers who specialized in infiltration and conducting fast, hard-hitting attacks before moving on to their next target.... Armed with the latest weapons ... they wielded the firepower necessary to overcome a defensive position quickly. The commanders ... had considerable freedom of action. They were directed to bypass points of resistance and then to continue deep into the British positions, seeking to destroy the coherence of the defence and to cause alarm in the rear areas. Other forces ... would follow up and complete the destruction of the remaining defenders.' (p.125) In May 1940, 'the Germans made use of the same tactics once again, adding paratroop drops to shock and disorganize the defenders further.... The attacks were conducted and success exploited at the speed of the armoured vehicle rather than the marching man.' (p.134)

Antithesis: the guerrilla

Sharpe and TeresaIn Sharpe's Rifles, a British officer (Sean Bean) falls for a Spanish guerrilla (Asumpta Serna) during the Peninsular War. Little did I realize that Teresa was the mother of the new paradigm!

'the demise of industrial war was ignored because the entire underpinning of the Cold War was the need on both sides to convince the other of their willingness to go out and fight another total war.... The utility of force was in its deterrence, not its application.... at the root of many of the problems we have now with the use of force and forces is their persistent structuring and use as if the old paradigm still held, at the expense of ignoring and being unfit for the new one that long since replaced it: the paradigm of war amongst the people.' (p.154)

Its origins in the Peninsular War: 'small, mobile and flexible combat groups drawn from, concealed and sustained by the people, intended to harass an enemy force superior in strength whilst avoiding any large-scale direct confrontation.... The strategic objectives were to erode the enemy's will to continue, to gather information and the disrupt and delay enemy operations....' (pp.158-59)

'But the forces equipped and organized for [industrial war] are in the main what we currently have to work with.... the period from 1946 to 1991 [was] one of an overarching confrontation (the Cold War) maintained by industrial structures, containing non-industrial conflicts, the parallel wars. It is within these conflicts that we see the first signs of the new paradigm, especially in the nature and objectives of the opponents, and in the constant adaptation of the existing means--the industrial military machines--to non-industrial conflicts.' (p.199)

'It takes a real enemy to produce a real threat.... This point must always be considered by those deciding on policy ... since they are constructing the nest for those who will have to decide a specific strategy at some point in the future.... it is not possible to have a strategy until there is an opponent.' (pp.211-12)

continued in part 2