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[] The New Face of War (David Skinner), The New Atlantis, No. 2/2003,

"The New Atlantis" ist eine interessante neue Zeitschrift zu Technik und
Gesellschaft. Herausgeber ist das konservative Ethics and Public Policy
Center, Washington, D.C.

The New Face of War

David Skinner

That medical technology saves lives is a commonplace observation; that
military technology saves lives is not. It is, of course, the direct
purpose of medicine to save life, and that of war, generally speaking,
to ?snuff? it out (though of course death is not war?s ultimate end,
certainly not in wars justly fought). Yet recent U.S. military action
has been remarkable for the use of technologies?including offensive
weapons?that minimize the loss of life by design. From satellites to
laser-guided missiles to unmanned aircraft to a panoply of portable
devices, the gadgets of the new conventional warfare seem intended to
make killing as safe as possible, both for the American soldiers who
fight and the bystanders whose ?collateral? destruction was once an
accepted fact of modern warfare.

This extraordinary development teaches several important lessons about
the potent and sometimes surprising brew of technology, politics, and
war. The first is that military technology is not self-implementing. The
weapons we develop are not the inevitable fruits of progress; they come
into being in large part because of the victory of certain political
ideas?not just military doctrine, but the triumph of one political
worldview over another and the changes in national purpose that follow.
Second, by making war distinctly less hellish, the United States has,
even if just temporarily, undermined an age-old assumption about war in
the popular imagination. The new conventional warfare?which involves
killing with more deliberation and greater precision?answers several of
the classic complaints against war that have long formed the basis of
popular antiwar sentiment.

Of course, scientific discoveries have on several historic occasions
been thought to promise a great boon for the causes of peace and life,
only to result in unprecedented destruction and death. Richard J.
Gatling reportedly believed his gun would bring an end to the Civil War.
So lethal was his invention, Gatling supposed, that North and South
would be forced to negotiate a settlement. Alfred Nobel, whose name is
universally linked with the cause of peace, was also the inventor of
dynamite: He believed his research might one day yield a technology so
dangerous that warfare would be avoided.

As a second, more significant caveat, it should be observed that the
triumphs of the new conventional warfare may be short-lived, and the
American example may prove to be an isolated one. In war, fighting not
to kill any more people than minimally necessary is a luxury open only
to the very powerful. Should the United States find itself embroiled in
a large-scale war, where the survival of its own regime is at stake,
much of this technologically-enabled military restraint might go out the
window. Moreover, it would be utopian to imagine that the American
example of restraint would be copied far and wide, especially by
belligerent regimes or terrorist networks?the very regimes and
terrorists that are most likely to make war or provoke it. All that
said, something new is afoot in the way America fights, and it is worth
trying to sort out how we got here and how the new ways of fighting will
change what the nation thinks about the meaning of warfare.

The Politics of Military Technology

In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul
Wolfowitz tipped his hat to a 1988 government report, written by the
Commission of Integrated Long-Term Strategy, entitled ?Discriminate
Deterrence.? The report was authored by Wolfowitz?s mentor, the late
Albert Wohlstetter, and provides an excellent example of how political
ideas can direct technological developments.

While ?Discriminate Deterrence? is relatively famous for its prediction
that China would likely become a great military power, Wolfowitz cited
the report for its prescient recognition that the era of nuclear
deterrence was coming to an end. The report?s overriding argument was
that U.S. military policy should focus on the broader range of
smaller-scale scenarios that were increasingly more likely than World
War III, scenarios not unlike Desert Storm or the current war and
postwar operations in Iraq .

In short, ?Discriminate Deterrence? signaled that those responsible for
developing and implementing America ?s military strategy lacked the will
to engage in the indiscriminate destruction of nuclear weaponry. This
was not only an important step for American military policy, but a key
advance in the morality of American military thinking.

This philosophical shift is apparent in the report?s critique of nuclear
deterrence, which makes two key arguments. First, by focusing on ?the
extreme threats??such as ?an unrestrained Soviet nuclear attack? on the
United States?America?s ?apocalyptic? preoccupations were diverting
?America?s defense planners from trying to deal with many important and
far more plausible situations in which threats of nuclear annihilation
would not be credible.? Second, the report complained that ?the extreme
contingencies also warp decisions at a deeper level.? The philosophy of
nuclear deterrence resulted in an ultimately empty threat to respond by
nuclear strike in situations where only a conventional response would
even be contemplated.

Like the Gatling gun and other previous breakthroughs in military
weaponry, though on a vastly wider scale, nuclear technology was
supposed to have made war unthinkable by its sheer destructive power.
This was the logic of nuclear deterrence. By abandoning this utopian
premise, American policymakers found a way to anticipate, rather than
rule out, likely forms of military conflict, and to face them in the
future with greater effectiveness and greater humanity than was
otherwise conceivable within the nuclear mindset. (Being the product of
Cold War hawks, the report did not emphasize?indeed, it scarcely
mentioned?the humanitarian gains to be had by such a strategic and
philosophical shift.)

After recommending that American strategy refocus its strategic sights
on scenarios involving less than a global showdown, ?Discriminate
Deterrence? lays out an alternative approach to national defense: ?We
must diversify and strengthen our ability to bring discriminating,
non-nuclear force to bear where needed in time to defeat aggression. To
this end, we and our allies need to exploit emerging technologies of
precision, control, and intelligence that can provide our conventional
forces with more selective and more effective capabilities for
destroying military targets.? The report warned that technological
conservatism and bureaucratic small-mindedness were the enemies of sound
long-term strategy.

Ironically, it is in the Soviet context that ?Discriminate Deterrence?
first observes the importance of fundamental improvements in the
accuracy of our weapons?ironic because the Soviet Union was about to
crumble, and because the report?s lasting contribution would be helping
to shape a new defense policy for the post-Soviet world. The Soviet
threat is also used to argue for increased investment in technological
innovation generally: ?The underlying trends are disturbing. In a
growing number of basic technologies with important military
applications, the United States may lose its superiority over the Soviet
Union .? The programs that should receive the highest priority were
those promoting the ?controlled, discriminate use of force? and greater
flexibility in American military response.

The New Weapons of War

?Discriminate Deterrence? singled out four examples of developing
technologies that promised surgical force and greater flexibility:
stealth systems, smart weapons, ballistic missile defense, and space
systems or satellites. All except ballistic missile defense have become
staples of the new conventional warfare and have played important roles
in America ?s two wars in Iraq . Yet, we are just beginning to see the
new weapons of war at work, and to see how they change both the way we
fight and our attitudes about warfare.  

     A. Stealth Technology: The importance of stealth was first
established in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm. To read the official
Air Force history of the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW), the only
stealth unit at the time, is to follow a story of virtually unopposed
military triumph. Although the 37th TFW represented just 2.5 percent of
Air Force assets, it covered and hit 40 percent of Iraqi targets
attacked in the first three days of the war. As the report recounts:
?Twenty-nine Stealth fighters hit 26 high value targets on the first
night alone.? Moreover: ?The F-117As were so effective that the Iraqi
air defense system practically collapsed. Iraq ?s command, control, and
communications network never recovered.? Judging from the 37th TFW?s
mission log, the only thing that really slowed these fighters down was
bad weather.

Stealth technology also played a prominent role in the recent invasion.
The F-117A returned to Iraq in the famous opening strike on Saddam
Hussein and his sons, the first so-called ?target of opportunity.? This
time around, however, the stealth bomber?s load was ?enhanced,? so that
its attack could be guided by laser and satellite, to minimize
collateral damage. But the F-117A is just one part of the aerial
arsenal. Perhaps the aircraft to gain the most attention in the recent
Iraqi war was the Predator, a low-altitude surveillance aircraft that
reduces risk to pilots by leaving them on the ground. From invisible
aircraft to unmanned aircraft, technological innovation has dramatically
reduced or altogether eliminated the mortal dangers faced by American

     B. Precision-Weapons Technology: The ongoing revolution in accuracy
was the second innovation highlighted in ?Discriminate Deterrence? as
exemplifying the kind of research that should receive continued federal
funding. As the report described: ?Current technology makes it possible
to attack fixed targets at any range with accuracies within one to three
meters. These accuracies and modern munitions give us a high probability
of destroying a wide variety of point and area targets with one or a few
shots without using nuclear warheads.? This new conventional weaponry,
made potent by technological advances, not only obviates the unbounded
destruction of a nuclear attack, but minimizes the potentially massive
collateral damage associated with the old conventional warfare.

Precision-guided missiles accounted for only nine percent of the
munitions dropped in the first Gulf War?a point of complaint for human
rights organizations and activists. This time around, as Col. Gary L.
Crowder described at a March 19, 2003 , briefing, ?Every combat aircraft
in theater has the capability of precisely striking multiple targets,
and most of them can do it simultaneously.? In other words, instead of
needing many aircraft and many strikes to hit one target, one aircraft
can now hit many targets. Such gains in precision trigger a whole host
of virtuous effects: aircraft can release missiles from safer heights;
less destructive munitions can be used, since a much smaller margin of
targeting error has been achieved; fewer sorties are needed, because
each one is more effective; fewer escort planes are needed on each
sortie, because planes need not get as close as they used to; and
unnecessary destruction to both life and property is minimized, because
less destructive munitions are being used.

The military rule of thumb for demonstrating these impressive gains in
precision goes like this: In World War II, it took about 3,000 sorties
to destroy a major target; by the first Gulf War, that number was down
to about 10; today, as Crowder made clear, it is possible for one sortie
to hit several targets. But this only begins to capture the humanitarian
achievement, since precision-weapons technology now makes it possible to
disable targets without destroying them, leaving infrastructure intact
and ready to be brought back online once the fighting is over. In his
briefing, Crowder used the example of an electrical grid, which can be
crippled by precision bombing without obliterating it, thus removing the
problem of having to rebuild the entire grid afterwards. This way
hospitals, homes, police offices, courts, schools, and businesses can
receive power again after minimal repairs.  

     C. Satellite Technology: Central to these improvements in the way
we fight is the introduction of satellite technology into the American
arsenal. Originally, U.S. military satellites were designed primarily
for peacetime usage or to warn of the outbreak of war. In the first Gulf
War, the United States deployed 15 GPS satellites, 4 communications
satellites, 2 weather satellites, and a classified number of missile
defense satellites. Declassified reports from U.S. Space Command in July
1991 reveal that satellites provided 80 percent of communications in the
first Gulf War, though unit-to-unit communications still took place
primarily over field phones. They also supplied critically needed
weather reports and accurate navigation information, making night
missions possible.

Since then, our satellite bandwidth has increased tenfold. According to
General Lance W. Lord, head of U.S. Space Command, ?during the Gulf War,
milspace was in its formative stages? and military space capability was
only ?rudimentary.? In the recent war in Iraq , the United States made
use of over 50 satellites. These included many communications
satellites, satellites supporting global positioning systems (over one
in nine soldiers had a GPS device in the recent invasion, up from about
one per battalion in the first Gulf War); and satellites that do
everything from guide smart bombs to intercept cell-phone communications
to support the massive communication infrastructure of the U.S.-led
military coalition.

A sign of the times: Wired magazine sent a reporter to cover the story
of America ?s high-tech war. In the resulting article, one of the
military techies presented a typical scenario: ?A special forces unit in
northern Iraq attacks an Iraqi irregular unit. The firefight is recorded
with digital video, which is uploaded to GCCS [Global Command and
Control System] via secure satellite. JOC [ Joint Operations Center ]
intelligence officers fire up the Warfighting Web, click through to the
?Latest Intelligence,? watch the fight, write a summary, and post
follow-up orders to the unit. The soldiers either download the orders
directly or receive them by radio from the nearest Tactical Operations
Center , the most forward command post on the network.?

Out of the Fog

It is too early to know exactly which technologies proved most useful in
the recent war in Iraq . And surely, new tools create new problems.
High-tech equipment has become so abundant that our troops, even though
well-trained to use the new devices, are clamoring for a more
streamlined system of communications. One Marine officer quoted in a
Marine Corps Systems Command field report complains of information
overload: ?Marines were overwhelmed with the high number of various
communications equipment they were expected to use? Commanders want one
box that provides multiple capabilities and that is simple and easy to

But the overall effect of all this technology?which would be useless
without the political and military vision to exploit it?is to reduce the
?fog of war? and to make casualties avoidable to an unprecedented
extent. This is not to say that war is no longer horrible or dangerous
on the frontlines?for it surely is, as the daily reports of lost
American soldiers confirms. But these daily losses, so far, are in the
single digits, not the hundreds or thousands. And while it is often said
sarcastically that the public expects war to be fought with almost no
casualties, military or civilian, it is truly amazing how much progress
the United States has made toward this seemingly utopian goal.

In Vietnam , over 58,000 U.S. troops perished, leaving America firmly in
the grip of a syndrome that was supposed to prevent us from ever
pursuing such a far-flung, large-scale war again. In Desert Storm and
the recent war to achieve regime change in Iraq , American and allied
casualties were and remain in the low hundreds. And in both Gulf Wars,
civilian casualties were and remain in the low thousands?many of whom
were killed, accidentally or not, by Saddam Hussein?s own forces.

One also has to consider the second-wave benefits of the new
conventional warfare. The massive destruction of World War II-style
bombing can have deleterious effects lasting for years, if not decades,
on the economy, public health, and political order. Increases in disease
brought on by malnutrition; malnutrition brought on by a devastated
agricultural system or economy; food shortages and hyperinflation
brought on by the destruction of indiscriminate bombing: These are the
causal chains of old-fashioned war. By contrast, the destruction in
Baghdad and around Iraq does not even approach the devastation usually
wrought by a war that removes a regime and installs an occupying force.

This may, of course, be a temporary reality, and the current optimism
about high-tech war may one day seem, in its own way, as silly as the
Silicon Valley optimism of the 1990s. It is unlikely that we have ended,
once and for all, the horror and misery of being attacked by our
enemies. But we have greatly reduced the horror, at least for now, of
attacking our enemies; and we have reduced, if far from eliminated, the
hell of the frontlines. One result of this transformation is a changing
public perception of warfare.

The Fading Image of War

The most important postwar literature, television, and movies of the
twentieth century, at least those that became famous for their political
message, were antiwar. World War I gave us All Quiet on the Western
Front. World War II gave us Slaughterhouse-Five and Catch-22. The Korean
War gave us the sitcom ?M*A*S*H,? while Vietnam became a proving ground
for the most prominent filmmakers around: Oliver Stone, Francis Ford
Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, and others. In popular culture, most of what
one surveys on the subject of war leaves a taste of profound horror and

This is definitely true of Disturbing the Universe, a superb example of
post-World War II literature on the subject of technology and warfare.
First published in 1979, it is a memoir of the physicist Freeman Dyson.
Although not as famous as Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut?s
still-impressive polemical take on the firebombing of Dresden, Dyson?s
memoir provides a fascinating look at how leadership and technology, for
better and for worse, can add up to lives lost or lives saved. Dyson
himself, however, is less practical and more tragic: ?In the end it is
how you fight, as much as why you fight, that makes your cause good or
bad. And the more technological the war becomes, the more disastrously a
bad choice of means will change a good cause into evil.?

Dyson tells illuminating stories about his experience as a civilian
scientist working for Britain ?s Bomber Command, whose military efforts
were doing nothing, in his mind, to further the goal of defeating
Germany while killing a lot of British air crews in the process.
Compiling a study of whether a crew?s level of experience improved their
chances of not being shot down, Dyson discovered that despite examples
of experienced crews heroically making it home in the most dire
circumstances, ?the total effect of all the skill and dedication of the
experienced crews was statistically undetectable.? The one isolated
variable that explained fluctuations in loss of crews was the ability of
German fighters to discover and target the bombers. Dyson and his
colleagues believed it might improve the bombers? survival rate if the
planes were lighter and could thus move faster. They recommended
reducing the crew from seven to five and tearing out the planes? two gun
turrets and all related parts and ammunition. ?An extra fifty miles an
hour might have made an enormous difference.? As Dyson explains:

    This was not the kind of suggestion our commander in chief liked to
hear, and therefore our chief did not like it either. To push the idea
of ripping out gun turrets, against the official mythology of the
gallant gunner defending his crewmates, and against the massive
bureaucratic inertia of the Command, would have involved our chief in a
major political battle. Perhaps it was a battle he could not have hoped
to win. In any case, the instinct of a career civil servant told him to
avoid such battles. The gun turrets remained in the bombers, and the
gunners continued to die uselessly until the end of the war.

Another interesting story Dyson tells concerns a colleague of his who
discovered that the escape hatch on Britain ?s newest bombers was
causing a significant decrease in the number of pilots who successfully
escaped while their aircraft was being shot down. Reversing a two-inch
difference in the size of the hatch could result in thousands of lives
being spared. It took Dyson?s colleague months of research to document
the discrepancy; then more time and patience and willpower to force the
command to officially recognize the problem; and yet more time and
energy to lobby the aircraft company to redesign the escape hatch. Only
as the war was coming to an end did the new model of plane with a larger
escape hatch find its way into the British air fleet.

>From these episodes, Dyson does not draw the practical lessons that
might guide the statesmen and generals of the future?such as the need
for a change in military culture or the fact that war-fighting should
take greater account of research findings and not let itself motor
along, fueled only by the romantic assumptions of more primitive eras.
Instead, his critique is a full-scale indictment of technology itself
for enslaving human beings to its mechanistic demands. Inventions take
on lives of their own, Dyson argues, and begin shaping the lives of
everyone around them: ?Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman amuse themselves
with analytic radiochemistry and?boom!?a hundred thousand people in
Hiroshima are dead.?

And yet, the new conventional warfare suggests quite a different
progression of technologies: Space exploration in the 1960s leads to the
proliferation of satellites which leads to a new level of precision in
missile guidance. The result: thousands of people are not dead when the
United States bombs the one building in all of Baghdad where it believes
Saddam Hussein is holed up. Research into radar technology leads to
aeronautical designs that can escape detection, protecting pilots who
fly planes in war. Laser technology leads to guidance systems for
military weapons, and eventually allows for so much control over speed,
angle, and the moment of detonation that increasingly less lethal
munitions can be used. Technology does saddle us with new and ever
deadlier possibilities, which will likely cross the stage of human
events. But it also gives us new ways to avoid or prevent some of these
awful burdens, if only intelligent leadership will recognize such
opportunities and pursue them.

Dyson?s memoir presents all the familiar elements of twentieth-century
war drama: the entrenched bureaucracy, the courageous individual, and
the misery and injustice of war itself. Dyson, like Vonnegut and every
other writer and director listed above, hates war?and not without
reason. For he remembers a war as senseless as it was heroic. The
firebombing of Dresden , though not as infamous as the atom-bombing of
Hiroshima and Nagasaki , probably killed more people (around 100,000)
than either of those attacks. And unlike the bombing of Japan , the
burning of Dresden did not achieve any important strategic objective.
Although famously a just war with a just goal, World War II entailed
enough indiscriminate destruction to sicken generations.

The New Face of War

Looking back, it is no wonder that World War II produced literature like
Slaughterhouse-Five, a late twentieth-century Candide in which
Panglossian optimism is steamrolled by man?s universal and ultimately
world-ending sadism. Its signature line, ?So it goes,? tagged onto every
report of death and atrocity in the story, gave American culture a
perverse mantra of helplessness before the onslaught of human violence
and war-making. The novel, along with many others, prosecuted patriotism
as the habit of blowhards too moronic to notice the moral bankruptcy of
American foreign policy and the murderousness of all military action.

The major tropes of the cultural animus against military action include
war?s indiscriminate killing, the inhumanity of military leadership, the
utter stupidity of communal effort, the degradation of one?s self, and
the wickedness of technology. In the recent war in Iraq , however,
little of this applies. There was no indiscriminate killing; targeting
has become a hugely deliberative enterprise, with many levels of
consultation before any structure becomes a target for bombing. The new
American military has the technology to land munitions within an error
margin of feet; the capacity to account for every bomb or missile it
drops; and in the near future, the capacity to produce instant damage
reports from every explosion. Systems are in place to help American
soldiers identify one another and enemy combatants, reducing friendly
fire incidents.

What of the inhumanity of military leadership? In the recent war in Iraq
, computer networks and mobile communication devices enabled military
leaders to involve themselves in frontline decisions in a way simply not
possible in the past. Chatrooms at headquarters became head-scratching
venues for military commanders to debate possible solutions to problems
in the field; the cool separation of aloof and imperious leadership from
mired-down grunts has been shrunk to a quick series of high-tech relay
messages. How about the stupidity of communal endeavor? The
technological capacity to effect changes in strategy on short notice
allowed the United States military to fight with unprecedented
coordination and flexibility. All the parts are connected, and are going
to become even more connected, to the same ?brain? of military command.
The degradation of one?s self? In Slaughterhouse-Five, the main
character Billy Pilgrim is by the end of the war walking around Dresden
in a lady?s mink stole, wearing glittering boots he took from the set of
an improvised military production of Cinderella, and dopily meandering
among the charred ruins of a once beautiful city. He has been robbed of
all dignity. Today?s highly trained professional soldier may complain of
the psychic and physical strain of twenty-four-hour, high-tech,
high-performance warfare, but he is unlikely to return home a moral,
social, or political outcast.

As a thought experiment, try to imagine what kind of memoir, novel, or
movie might come from the recent wars in Afghanistan or Iraq , one that
would ring true and find resonance in the culture at large. Whatever one
imagines, such an artistic byproduct is not likely to soar to public
notice on the strength of its unvarnished fatalism or its withering
distrust of military and political authority. History seems to have
passed by, at least for now, the notion of a military command
indifferent to the deaths of soldiers and civilians, as well as the
absurd disconnect between everyday life and the world-ending,
Strangelovian ratiocinations of nuclear deterrence.

So far, public opinion has responded to America ?s increased use of
force since September 11 with aplomb. And the emerging picture of an
American military command competently using technological advances to
topple dangerous regimes has, if anything, confirmed public trust in the
American military. Such trust can of course be lost very quickly?and
political mistakes can do great damage to public confidence in the
military as a force for good. But for now, one notes a public enthusiasm
for the whiz-bang technology of the U.S. military that is almost boyish.
In the end, such boyishness gives way, or should give way, to a certain
sobriety. For it is precisely the threat of proliferation?the threat of
weapons of mass destruction in the hands of otherwise small powers?that
makes such technical improvements in America?s conventional war-making
capacity most essential. We need to kill precisely before our enemies
kill indiscriminately, and such preemptive attacks can withstand moral
scrutiny only if they do not result in the massive, uncontrollable death
of innocents.

David Skinner is an assistant managing editor of The Weekly Standard.

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