High-Tech Warfare Is a Losing Proposition
By Gary Chapman, Los Angeles Times, Monday 26 April 1999
Gazing over a battlefield strewn with thousands of corpses and moaning wounded, Napoleon muttered to his shocked aides, "Soldiers are meant to die."
Fast forward more than 150 years, to 1970, when U.S. Army Gen. William Westmoreland said: "On the battlefield of the future, enemy forces will be located, tracked and targeted almost instantaneously through the use of data links, computer-assisted intelligence and automated fire control. . . . I am confident the American people expect this country to take full advantage of its technology -- to welcome and applaud the developments that will replace wherever possible the man with the machine."
The current war in the Balkans between NATO forces and Yugoslavia is delivering new lessons about the contrast of these two perspectives -- whether wars are won by soldiers dying for a cause or by machines that deliver death and destruction to the enemy.
There obviously is a growing chorus of critics of this latest war, who are pointing out that NATO's bombing of Serbia is doing little to bring about a solution to the Kosovo crisis. In fact, the bombing may be producing the perverse effect of reinforcing Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, while he uses the war as an excuse to accomplish his goals, such as "cleansing" Kosovo of ethnic Albanians. Critics are saying that ground troops are the only real solution, and the introduction of ground troops will almost certainly entail American casualties, something the Pentagon has done everything to avoid thus far.
This conundrum illustrates a debate that has been going on in the military for more than 20 years over the role of high tech in warfare and U.S. arsenals. This debate goes back to the war in Vietnam, a time before personal computers or even microchips. But the debate has intensified in recent years because of the revolution in weaponry and in our society at large, brought about by new information technologies.
A great many people are puzzled by NATO's strategy, given its poor results. An Albanian Kosovar refugee told the media, "We don't understand NATO's strategy. They are up in the air, while we are dying here on the ground."
There are many historical reasons NATO has chosen its strategy, and these reveal significant frictions between Napoleon's view of war and that of modern U.S. military officers enamored of high tech.
First, NATO forces were configured in the 1970s and 1980s to counter the armies of the Warsaw Pact in Western Europe, not to fight the kind of war NATO is now waging in the Balkans. In the mid-1980s, the Warsaw Pact had an overwhelming numerical superiority in weapons, such as its 46,230 battle tanks to NATO's 17,730. The U.S. always claimed that it might be forced to use nuclear weapons because of this numerical imbalance in the event of a Warsaw Pact attack against Western Europe, but few people took this seriously, as nuclear weapons would destroy the very places NATO was sworn to protect.
Because of this, NATO instead pursued a policy of "quality over quantity" by investing in "smart" weapons that would destroy Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces deep behind their lines. These weapons included cruise missiles, precision-guided "submunitions" (missiles that deploy multiple homing warheads) and "fire and forget" projectiles that would seek out their targets after release. This trend gave birth to an entire generation of "over the horizon" weapons using distant remote sensing of targets, sensors on-board munitions and weapons guided by satellites, as well as laser-guided bombs and stealth aircraft.
The era of "attrition warfare," such as that practiced during World War II, in which soldiers and armor engage the enemy directly, was replaced with "maneuver warfare," a model in which opposing forces are held at bay by overwhelming firepower; advanced technology; rapid movement; complex, theater-wide communications; and command and control.
Another reason the U.S. military began to rely on high tech during the last two decades of the Cold War was that military leaders understood that the option of a vast standing army was no longer possible. Not only was a peacetime draft politically infeasible, but demographic changes in the U.S. and Western Europe had dramatically lowered the population of young men who might enlist in military service. Thus high-tech weapons were viewed as "force multipliers," substituting for manpower.
Richard Cooper, director of the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Projects Agency in the early 1980s, said, "It's my view that this society has decided that it will only use a fraction of its human effort in its own defense in peacetime. The imperative just isn't there. . . . So, consequently, we have no other alternative but to turn to high technology. That's it."
At the same time, the U.S. military is at any given time a reflection of the society and economy it represents. Military officers are often trained in management and organization at civilian colleges and universities whose curricula have been transformed by the influence of computers, networks and the imperatives of the information economy.
Moreover, senior military officers are often hired by defense contractors after they retire, and they have close ties to defense technology experts even during their service. They are disinclined to criticize the assumptions of the defense industry, which survives on selling increasingly complex and sophisticated technologies to the Pentagon.
Thus the worldview of the military has been reshaped by the culture of high tech in civilian and defense technology firms. "Efficiency" is a watchword for the military, as it is in the high-tech economy, and is a concept that competes with effectiveness, leadership, bravery and sacrifice.
Finally, of course, military leaders are only too aware of public opinion polls that show sharp downturns in public support for U.S. military involvement if it means American casualties. Recent polls have indicated public support for the use of ground troops in the Balkans would drop from 50% to below 20% if U.S. casualties exceed 1,000 soldiers. TV images of body bags returning to the U.S. from a place most Americans have only recently heard of would be the earliest trigger of collapsing public support. The Pentagon would rather have TV show dramatic explosions of targets hit by smart bombs.
For all these reasons, the U.S. military is trapped in its own web when it confronts a completely different, hostile and primitively brutal environment such as that of Yugoslavia. As the military should have learned in Vietnam, or as the Russians learned in Afghanistan, high technology cannot substitute for determination and perseverance on the ground by opponents. The U.S. dropped three times more bomb tonnage on Southeast Asia than was used by all the powers of World War II, in all the theaters of that war -- a grim fact that most Americans still don't grasp -- yet even that failed to secure victory.
The American public sustains very high levels of defense spending for high-tech weapons based on the rationale of wanting "nothing but the best" for our troops. But that naive desire may be at odds with military success. High-tech weapons may have changed the way war looks, but not the way wars are won.
Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
To subscribe to a listserv that forwards copies of Gary Chapman's published articles, including his column "Digital Nation" in The Los Angeles Times, send mail to:
Leave the subject line blank. In the first line of the message, put:
Subscribe Chapman [First name] [Last name]
Leave out the brackets, just put your name after Chapman.
Send this message.