GLOBALIZATION AND WAR: AUSTIN BAYDr. Austin Bay is an accomplished author, syndicated columnist and consultant to the Department of Defense on wargaming. He is the author of The Wrong Side of Brightness, a novel, and A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition. co-authored with James Dunnigan. Bay also maintains a popular and influential blog and in addition to his literary pursuits, Dr. Bay is Colonel in the Army Reserve (ret.) and served in Iraq in 2004, where he was awarded the Bronze Star.Globalization and Warby Austin Bay
In early 1993 I made a wisecrack during an Office of Net Assessments-sponsored seminar at Ft. Monroe, Virginia. The subject was “future requirements on the global battlefield.” I said that to dominate the global battlespace (hey, why not use the buzzwords) American soldiers must have full spectrum capabilities. The wisecrack: “Troops need to be good with everything from bayonets to smart bombs.” In retrospect I should have added computers and syringes, but lots of conjunctions spoil a wisecrack. Substituting “beam weapons” for “smart bombs” may have sounded Star-Trekky, but as the decades march forward it may prove to be more apt. If I had really been savvy I would have said from bayonets to…no, I’ll hold off on that. For the moment the bayonet goes back into the scabbard.
The truth is, what constitutes “full spectrum capabilities” is never fully known. Don Rumsfeld ruminated on the “unknown unknowns” as plaguing intelligence analysts, planners, and leaders. When he said this I chuckled but thought “The old boy’s absolutely right.” A global battlefield has many niches, each one capable of springing a surprise for which “a global power” is not quite prepared.
Note I didn’t write “unprepared.” The big shots in military strategy, from Sun Tzu to Clausewitz, emphasize the need for anticipation, flexibility and adaptation. Alexander the Great was one great political and military anticipator and adapter. The Macedonian “combined arms system” was, for its era, the pinnacle of tactical adaptability. My point: Flexibility and adaptation are not new requirements for doing anything effectively—be it running a business, teaching a high school class, or waging war. However, when the problem inputs are planet-wide and the media outputs are planet-wired, tactical anticipation, flexibility, and adaptation can have strategic effects. Even tactical (troop level) un-anticipation, in-flexibility, and mal-adaptation can produce profoundly bad strategic effects when the planet-wired media focuses on the foul-ups.
Which brings us back to the “should have been” wisecrack. American troops must be good with everything from bayonets to smart bombs and media bombast. The camera, the microphone, and the computer screen shape the new battlespace –warp it in ways a clever cavalry flanking maneuver or well-screened ambush once surprised the superior force.
Success in the information battlespace doesn’t translate into victory, but it can create a hellacious global challenge. Al Qaeda is an extremely limited organization. It’s military limitations are obvious. As US Central Command’s General John Abizaid recently noted, Al Qaeda has yet to win a military engagement with US forces at or above the platoon level. (A platoon has approximately 30 troops.) This also holds true for Taliban guerrillas in Afghanistan and what military analysts call the “former regime elements” (FRE—ie, pro-Saddam forces) in Iraq.
Al Qaeda doesn’t have much in the way of education policies, beyond bankrolling Islamist schools. Al Qaeda says it will re-distribute the wealth of corrupt Middle Eastern petro-sheiks. Though that is an economic promise, it isn’t a long-term economic plan.
Al Qaeda, however, understands the power of perceived grievance and the appeal of Utopia. In the late 1990s Osama Bin Laden said Al Qaeda’s strategic goal was restoring the Islamic caliphate. Bin Laden expressed a special hatred for Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk, who ended the caliphate in 1924. History, going wrong for Islamist supremacists at least since the 16th century, really failed when the caliphate dissolved. Though Al Qaeda’s time-line to Utopia remains hazy, once the caliphate returns the decadent modern world will fade as Western power collapses—and presumably Eastern power as well. (Islamists are active in China’s Sinkiang province.) At some point Bin Laden-interpreted Islamic law will bring strict bliss to the entire world. If this sounds vaguely like a Marxist “Workers Paradise” that’s no accident—the Communists also justified the murder of millions pursuing their atheist Utopia.
The appeal to perceived grievance and promise of an Islamist utopia, however, made Al Qaeda a regional information power in a Middle East where political options were denied by tyrants. The 9/11 attacks made Al Qaeda a global information power—they were an international advertising campaign. Four years later Al Qaeda remains a strategic information power, but little else.
American is also information power but it is not a focused information power. Hence Al Qaeda’s success in this one area gives it a degree of global leverage. Focused information –a media campaign-- has characteristics we associate with “special weapons.” A weapon of mass destruction, be it chemical, nuclear, or biological, gives even its “smallest owner” big bang capacity. So does a globalized media event.
One final thought: American bayonets, smart bombs, and media bombast are formidable, but I suspect the growing awareness of an Iraqi democratic victory in Iraq will prove to be the “strategic information campaign” that trumps Al Qaeda.
copyright Austin Bay November 4, 2005
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