Reinventing Warfare

Even before the terror attacks on the U.S., several thinkers considered the nature of future warfare and predicted it would change dramatically.

Amnon Barzilai
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Amnon Barzilai

On September 11, just hours before the terror attacks on the United States, Minister without Portfolio Dan Meridor addressed students of the National Security College outside Tel Aviv. The topic of his lecture was the character of future warfare.

Meridor told his audience, most of whom were senior officers in the Israel Defense Forces, that, in view of Israel's significant edge in conventional warfare, the Arabs have shifted to warfare at two levels. The first level, which can be called supra-conventional, involves the development of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. The second level, which can be called sub-conventional, expresses itself in non-conventional terrorism.

He offered his listeners examples of non-conventional terrorism. "Let us assume that someone creates a serious malfunction in the control system of a railway. As a result, trains crash into each other and in this single mass terrorist act, 50,000 persons lose their lives. Or, for example, a terrorist incident can turn the entire oxygen system in a nation's hospitals haywire. In this instance, as well, the result would be a mass terrorist attack. The problem facing both Israel, in particular, and the West, in general, in the war against terrorism is that it is impossible to pinpoint the precise source of the terror. No one has any clear idea whom to counter-attack and the nature of the counter-attack."

The conclusion Meridor offered was this: "Israel's defense echelons must reformulate their theory of combat in dealing with a threat in which planes, tanks and precision-guided weapons constitute an inadequate solution."

In the Prime Minster's Office, Meridor is responsible for the secret services and national security. Two years ago, he headed a commission on non-conventional weapons that operated within the context of a national security council that was set up to update thinking on national security. The council was chaired by retired Major General David Ivry, a former commander of the Israel Air Force and a former director-general of the Ministry of Defense. Ivry is today Israel's ambassador to the United States.

Only a few hour after Meridor had presented his terrifying scenario to members of the future generation of senior IDF commanders, along came the attacks on in New York City and Washington.

After the attacks, Meridor commented: "What happened does not belong in the same category as the terrorist attack of Kozo Okamoto [in 1972 at Ben-Gurion Airport]. Osama bin Laden carried out the kind of attack that has been depicted in suspense films. I still cannot fully digest what happened over there. Unfortunately, this attack is only the beginning."

Meridor formulated his double-level concept of future warfare two years ago. Yet, says Brigadier General Yekutiel Mor, a deputy director-general in the Defense Ministry for international affairs and arms control, "Immediately following the Gulf War and into the Yitzhak Rabin era in the Defense Ministry, people here in Israel did begin thinking about a breed of international terrorism capable of doing things with the aura of a science-fiction novel. Israel was the first country in the world to begin thinking seriously about the subject of non-conventional terror. We spoke about this issue with the Americans and we suggested the threat of such terrorist activity could emanate from `problem-nations' like Iraq, Iran and Libya. After the era of skyjackings, we expected threats involving nuclear weapons systems, biological warfare and chemical arms."

Murderer or idiot

Since the mid-1980s, three major thinkers have outlined the shape of warfare in the future. In 1993, an American scholar, Samuel P. Huntington, published an article in Foreign Affairs, entitled "The clash of civilizations?" According to Huntington, clashes between civilizations will fuel future wars. He predicted that the inevitable military confrontations of the 21st century would break out along the "borders" separating different civilizations. "The people of different civilizations have different views on the relations between God and man, the individual and the group, the citizen and the state, parents and children, husband and wife, and differing views of the relative importance of rights and responsibilities, liberty and authority, equality and hierarchy. These differences are the produce of centuries. They will not soon disappear. They are far more fundamental than differences among political ideologies and political regimes. Differences do not necessarily mean conflict, and conflict does not necessarily mean violence. Over the centuries, however, differences among civilizations have generated the most prolonged and the most violent conflicts."

Before this, an Israeli military historian, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Martin van Creveld, sent shock waves throughout the international academic community in 1991 with his new theory of military strategy. In his book, "Transformation of War," van Creveld declared the end of the era of major wars. Since the end of the World War Two, there has been a gradual downscaling in the size of the world's armies. The world's major powers only pretended that the Cold War could erupt into a world war. Despite the extensive production of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, the world powers never had any intention of making use of those weapons. Thus, the world never really faced the actual threat of a nuclear world war.

Nonetheless, van Creveld argued, that did not guarantee a rosier tomorrow. In the future, wars will break out between states and organizations, he predicted. Such wars are no less dangerous - perhaps even more dangerous - than world wars. When you fight a weak organization and emerge the victor, you are called a murderer. However, when you lose to a weak organization, you are labeled an idiot.

Van Creveld believes the modern state is in a process of retreat and one of the reasons for that retreat is its inability to defend itself effectively. In many respects, he says, the world is returning to the Middle Ages.

These two thinkers were preceded by a British strategist, Brigadier Richard E. Simpkin. In 1984, in a book bearing the title "Race to the swift: Thoughts on 21st century warfare," Simpkin defines terror as revolutionary warfare. He was strongly influenced by the war between the mujahedin in Afghanistan and the Soviets, which was taking place at the time. Another important influence on his thinking was his observations of the activities of subversive movements then operating in Europe - Baader-Meinhof and the Red Army Faction in Germany, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Basque underground (ETA), and the Red Brigades in Italy.

In Simpkin's view, revolutionary warfare (terrorism) in its various forms, and terrorism sponsored by governments have blurred the demarcation line between war and peace, while acts of violence, from assassinations to sudden invasions, invariably attain - or, at least, advance - their specific political goals. Revolutionary warfare poses a serious problem for modern democratic regimes because, he explains, the use of regular forces to combat terrorism arouses moral objections and raises the very issue of credibility.

In the future, predicts Simpkin, a theory of revolutionary combat will take its place along the theory of attrition and the theory of maneuverability - two theories that are currently employed by the regular armies of the world's democracies.

Regarding Islamic fundamentalism, Simpkin observes that the countries of the Old and New World are increasingly forced to intervene militarily - achieving only partial success - in their areas of influence in the Third World. These countries are gradually abandoning their wars as they face a threat from the south.

This threat, whose source is Islamic fundamentalism, has developed from the economic threat of the 1970s and from state-sponsored terrorism of the 1980s, and has evolved into the danger of large, organized military forces with nuclear capability. The impact of Shiite fundamentalism, he notes, can be felt from Morocco to Malaysia.

Since the forms of revolutionary warfare could become the most common type of armed conflict in the world, Simpkin proposes the creation of special forces that would be frequently used in covert operations, in limited combat situations, and in raids. He offers the example of the IDF as a military force that has already adopted the approach he advocates.

Despite his criticism of the IDF's performance in the invasion of Lebanon, he argues that, from the purely military standpoint, the Israelis are making effective use of the triple approach that he proposes.

In the war on terrorism, Simpkin says that countries with immense arsenals will have to go one step further and will have to prepare, equip themselves and train their forces to use the methods of revolutionary warfare - which means fighting enemy forces using the enemy's own techniques and conducting combat on the enemy's own home territory.

Simpkin describes an unsuccessful terrorist attempt that was carried out by the IRA. At the time he wrote "Race to the Swift," a single person, or perhaps two, managed, with the help of some simple electronic equipment and about ten kilograms of commercial-grade explosive, to come within a hair's breadth of wiping out the entire British cabinet. For the sake of argument, the individuals in such a terror attack could just as easily have been members of a fundamentalist Islamic group.

Despite defense budgets in the billions, Simpkin observes that the British government and the governments of every other advanced democracy in the world have no effective means for preventing this sort of terror attack or for speedily bringing the perpetrators to justice.

Debt of honor

Simpkin sees four major obstacles that make it extremely difficult to contain terrorism. First of all, democratic governments rely on a system of law and order. Second, a declaration of war against terrorist organizations will not stop an enemy whose techniques rely on the element of strategic surprise. Third, the policing tactics of liberal democratic regimes are ineffective in dealing with an enemy that uses the methods of revolutionary warfare. Fourth, and most important, the democratic nations of the world must realize that the direct and indirect influences of technological progress are transporting them from an era of stability and law and order to one of anarchy and violence.

Simpkin predicts that various types of irregular operations will apparently become the most common form of armed conflict in the future.

One of the participants in the national security forum chaired by Ivry was the director of development of weapons systems and infrastructure in the defense ministry, Major General Itzhak Ben-Israel, who also headed a commission for the development of future military technologies.

Says Ben-Israel: "People are always asking what will happen next, whether terrorists might not smuggle in a briefcase containing a nuclear device. However, these people do not understand that the number of persons killed in the attack on the World Trade Center in New York was roughly the number of casualties that a non-conventional bomb would cause. What happened in New York was actually the equivalent of a briefcase containing a nuclear device exploding in the heart of Manhattan.

"If you had asked me prior to September 11 whether 6,000 people could be killed at one time with the deployment of explosives, I would have said no. However, after September 11, all options are open. It may well be that we are on the brink of a world war or that we are already in the middle of one."

Ben-Israel proposes that a third option be taken into consideration. "No one would question the fact that the attack that took place on September 11, 2001, was a historic event that could usher in a new era. However, with a bit of luck, this entire event could culminate with the liquidation of bin Laden and his friends in the Al-Qaida organization. Then, the whole affair would end in the same manner as the war that the West is currently conducting against drug syndicates."

He is not prepared to guess what will be the results or consequences of the present war in Afghanistan. "The Americans have their honor to defend. Thus, they cannot simply leave Afghanistan with the statement, `We failed in our mission and we are therefore giving up and bringing our troops home.' If the Americans fail to kill bin Laden, they will not call off their war. Then there will be the possibility that the situation could deteriorate into a war between East and West, between Islam and Crusaders."

When the solidarity centering around the goals of this war fades or when the war ends, people will start asking themselves whether the United States may have been caught napping. For example, why was an author of suspense novels like Tom Clancy able to predict in his books what the American defense and intelligence establishment refused to see? Clancy's "Debt of Honor" describes how a Japanese plane crashes into the Capitol during a presidential inauguration, with the result that most of the members of the cabinet, most of the justices of the Supreme Court, most of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and most of members of Congress are killed in a horrifying catastrophe. In his sequel, "Executive Orders," the United States is attacked by an Ebola virus that has been spread by Iran.

"If the American defense establishment believed that the plots thought up by Clancy and by Hollywood film producers could become reality, American society would be vastly different than it is today," notes a senior Israeli official who is in continual contact with the American administration.

"The Western world, especially the United States, has developed a system whose basic assumption is that people simply do not annihilate each other. Without such an assumption, Western countries would have fundamentally changed the way of life of their citizens. If you cannot base yourself on that assumption, a free-market economy is impossible and New York City would be an entirely different metropolis today.

"A dictatorship, whether fascist or communist, assumes that people are essentially evil and thus builds defense mechanisms to protect itself from the evil of the human heart. The result is an oppressive regime. What is happening today certainly looks very much like a war between two different cultures. The United States is trying to deny this idea because it does not sit well with the American psyche. America is not strong enough to defeat Islam."

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