FP: What challenges does America face in coping with Information Age warfare?
Boot: America is the undisputed master of conventional warfare in the Information Age. No one can stand against our armed forces in a “fair” fight. Those who have tried, whether Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic, have wound up defeated and on trial for their lives. Our undisputed primacy in conventional conflict is largely due to the lead we have taken in applying information technologies to the battlefield. No one else has such an array of precision-guided munitions (“smart bombs”), surveillance systems (JSTARs, AWACS, Predators, Global Hawks, etc.), communications networks, command posts, and other sophisticated systems to match those employed by the United States. The use of these technologies, operated by smart, dedicated volunteers, has allowed the U.S. to smite such adversaries as the Serbian and Iraqi armies at scant cost to itself.
Unfortunately, our smarter enemies have learned from such experiences that it is fruitless to oppose the United States on a conventional battlefield. They are pursuing other strategies, ranging from acquiring weapons of mass destruction (Iran, North Korea ) to employing terrorist tactics (al Qaeda, Hezbollah), to negate our firepower superiority. There is nothing new about this; regular armies have been frustrated by irregular warfare since the days of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. What’s new today is the scope and destructive potential of our foes. Unlike most past guerrillas, they are no longer confined to one country or one region. Today insurgents can operate around the world, thanks to the proliferation of the Internet, cell phones, jumbo jets, and other Western technologies. Our Islamist foes are in fact waging a global insurgency against the West.
This presents a novel challenge for which the American armed forces and the American government more broadly are not well configured. Our institutions were designed to wage conventional, nation state adversaries in the Industrial Age—in World War II and the Cold War. They were not designed for combating bands of super-powerful terrorists organized in loose-knit networks.
One of the major themes of War Made New is that it’s not enough to acquire first-class technology. You also need the right organizational structure, training, and leadership to take advantage of that technology. When it comes to Information Age warfare, our enemies have in some respects made the transition more effectively than we have. We need to turn our rigid government hierarchies into more adaptive, decentralized networks able to keep up with our enemies.
The campaign waged in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001—chronicled in War Made New—suggests how effective a more nimble military can be. A few hundred special operators backed up by the world’s most advanced technology helped the Northern Alliance to topple the Taliban in just two months. Unfortunately our military has seldom been so improvisational—or so effective—in the years since. That’s something we should try to correct.
FP: What would your advice be to the American administration in its military efforts in the terror war in general and in Iraq in particular?
Boot: War Made New doesn’t lay out an agenda for how we should retool the government for the war on Islamist terror networks, but let me suggest a few ideas here.
For a start we need to make the interagency process more effective—to get various government departments, such as State, Defense, and CIA, to work more closely together. The lack of such cooperation proved a major hindrance in Iraq. This may require legislation along the lines of the 1986 Goldwater Nichols Act, which brought greater unity to the different branches of the armed forces.
Another urgent priority: to create a government agency tasked with rebuilding war torn societies. Since the end of the Cold War, we have been engaged in nation-building an average of once every 18 months under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Think of Panama, Somalia, Haiti, northern Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq. Yet each time we have had to start from scratch, because we do not have a cadre of experts devoted to such work. Much of the burden falls on the armed forces, which is not well trained for this task. We paid a heavy price in Iraq for our lack of preparedness: the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance charged with running postwar Iraq was created just two months before the invasion took place. To avoid such fiascos in the future, we need a permanent agency that develops plans for dealing with potential trouble spots years in advance and has a cadre of experts, civil as well as military, on call.
We also need to enhance knowledge of foreign languages and cultures within not only our armed forces but also within other branches of governments. This is another weakness exposed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. To correct it, we need a multifaceted effort akin to the crash program we undertook early in the Cold War to enhance knowledge of Russia and China. We need to upgrade language training from elementary school to college; to change curricula at military schools to emphasize learning about foreign countries; to send more military officers to study abroad; to ease the frenetic pace of job-hopping within the military where officers are often moved after two or three years in one assignment, and thus don’t have time to become really expert in another country; and to reward officers who acquire in-depth knowledge of foreign lands. (Foreign Area Officers are worth their weight in gold, but they qare often slighted by promotion boards that favor combat leaders above all.) We also need to revise anachronistic security clearance procedures that make it difficult or even impossible to hire for sensitive positions people who have spent years living in foreign countries or who have relatives living there.
There is much more that needs to be done in other areas such as improving Information Operations (the Pentagon has no assistant secretary in charge of this vital area), expanding the size of the active duty army and Marine Corps, beefing up civil affairs and psychological warfare detachments, and increasing the number of special operators.
Above all we need to realize that few if any insurgencies have ever been defeated simply by killing insurgents. This is a mistake we made initially in Iraq, where we focused too much on “kinetic” operations instead of on providing basic security and economic development to the people. We managed to capture Saddam Hussein and to kill Abu Musab Al Zarqawi but it made little difference in the long run. We need to be careful not to repeat this same mistake in the broader war on Islamist terrorism. Manhunting has its place but it’s not going to be enough to win this struggle. To do that we need to support more effective governance structures throughout the Muslim world to prevent radicals from gaining power. That is a giant task, and one for which the U.S. government is not very well configured right now. President Bush and his successors need to continue the process of reform (internal and external), whatever happens in Iraq.
FP: Max Boot, thank you for joining us.
Boot: My pleasure.