By Mike Davis
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Shock and Awe

This article is over 20 years, 11 months old
Mike Davis analyses the Pentagon's plans for a revolution in military affairs.
Issue 272

Imperial Washington, like Berlin in the late 1930s, has become a psychedelic capital where one megalomaniacal hallucination succeeds another. Thus in addition to creating a new geopolitical order in the Middle East, we are now told by the Pentagon’s deepest thinkers that the invasion of Iraq will also inaugurate ‘the most important revolution in military affairs (RMA) in 200 years’.

According to Admiral William Owen, a chief theorist of the revolution, the first Gulf War was ‘not a new kind of war, but the last of the old ones’. Likewise, the air wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan were only pale previews of the postmodern blitzkrieg that will be unleashed against the Ba’athist regime. Instead of old- fashioned sequential battles, we are promised nonlinear ‘shock and awe’.

Although the media will undoubtedly focus on the sci-fi gadgetry involved–thermobaric bombs, microwave weapons, unmanned aerial vehicles, PackBot robots, Stryker fighting vehicles, and so on–the truly radical innovations (or so the war wonks claim) will be in the organisation and, indeed, the very concept of the war.

In the bizarre argot of the Pentagon’s Office of Force Transformation, a new kind of ‘warfighting ecosystem’ known as ‘network centric warfare’ (or NCW) is slouching towards Baghdad. Promoted by military futurists as a ‘minimalist’ form of warfare that spares lives by replacing attrition with precision, NCW may in fact be the inevitable road to nuclear war.

From desert storm to Wal-Mart
Military ‘revolutions’ based on new technology have come and gone since air-power fanatics first proclaimed the obsolescence of traditional armies and battleship navies in the early 1920s. This time, however, the superweapon isn’t a long-distance bomber or nightmare H-bomb but the ordinary PC and its ability, via the internet, to generate virtual organisation in the ‘battlespace’ as well as the marketplace.

Like all good revolutionaries, the Pentagon advocates of RMA/NCW are responding to the rot and crisis of an ancien régime. Although the first Gulf War was publicly celebrated as a flawless victory of technology and alliance politics, the real story was vicious infighting among US commanders and potentially disastrous breakdowns in decision making. Proponents of high-tech warfare, like the ‘smart bomb’ attacks on Baghdad’s infrastructure, clashed bitterly with heavy-metal traditionalists, while frustrated battlefield CEO Norman Schwarzkopf threw stupefying tantrums.

The battles continued back in the Pentagon where the revolutionaries–mostly geekish colonels bunkered in a series of black-box think-tanks–found a powerful protector in Andrew Marshall, the venerable head of research and technology assessment. In 1993 Marshall provided the incoming Clinton administration with a working paper that warned that Cold War weapons ‘platforms’ like Nimitz-class aircraft carriers and heavy tank battle groups were becoming obsolete in the face of precision weapons and cruise missiles.

Marshall instead proselytised for cheaper, quicker, smarter weapons that took full advantage of US leadership in information technology. He warned, however, that ‘by perfecting these precision weapons, America is forcing its enemies to rely on terrorist activities that are difficult to target’. He cast doubt on the ability of the Pentagon’s fossilised command hierarchies to adapt to the challenges of so called ‘asymmetric warfare’.

The revolutionaries went even further: preaching that the potentials of 21st century warmaking technology were being squandered by 19th century military bureaucracies. The new military forces of production were straining to break out of their archaic relations of production. They viciously compared the Pentagon to one of the ‘old economy’ corporations–‘hardwired, dumb and top-heavy’–that were being driven into extinction by the ‘new economy’ marketplace.

Their alternative? Wal-Mart, the Arkansas-based retail leviathan. It may seem odd to nominate a chainstore that peddles cornflakes, jeans and motor oil as the model for a leaner, meaner Pentagon, but Marshall’s think-tankers were only following in the footsteps of management theorists who had already beatified Wal-Mart as the essence of a ‘self synchronised distribution network with realtime transactional awareness’. Translated, this means that the stores’ cash registers automatically transmit sales data to Wal-Mart’s suppliers and that inventory is managed through ‘horizontal’ networks rather than through a traditional head office hierarchy.

‘We’re trying to do the equivalent in the military,’ wrote the authors of Network Centric Warfare, the 1998 manifesto of the RMA/NCW camp that footnotes Wal-Mart annual reports in its bibliography. In ‘battlespace’, mobile military actors (ranging from computer hackers to stealth bomber pilots) would be the counterparts of Wal-Mart’s intelligent salespoints. Instead of depending on hardcopy orders and ponderous chains of commands, they would establish ‘virtual collaborations’ (regardless of service branch) to concentrate overpowering violence on precisely delineated targets. Command structures would be ‘flattened’ to a handful of generals, assisted by computerised decision-making aides, in egalitarian dialogue with their ‘shooters’.

The iconic image, of course, is the Special Forces op in Pathan drag using his laptop to summon airstrikes on a Taliban position that another op is highlighting with his laser designator. To NCW gurus, however, this is still fairly primitive Gunga Din stuff. They would prefer to ‘swarm’ the enemy terrain with locust-like myriads of miniaturised robot sensors and tiny flying videocams whose information would be fused together in a single panoptic picture shared by ordinary grunts in their fighting vehicles as well as by four-star generals in their Qatar or Florida command posts.

Inversely, as US ‘battlespace awareness’ is exponentially increased by networked sensors, it becomes ever more important to blind opponents by precision airstrikes on their equivalent (but outdated) ‘command and control’ infrastructures. This necessarily means a ruthless takeout of civilian telecommunications, power grids, and highway nodes–all the better, in the Pentagon’s view, to allow US psy-op units to propagandise, or, if necessary, terrorise the population.

Critics of RMA/NCW have compared it to a millennial cult, analogous to Bible-thumping fundamentalism or, for that matter, to Al Qaida. Indeed, reading ecstastic descriptions of how ‘Metcalfe’s Law’ guarantees increases of ‘network power proportional to the square of the number of nodes’, one wonders what the wonks are smoking in their Pentagon basement offices.

Their most outrageous claim is that Clausewitz’s famous ‘fog of war’ –the chaos and contingency of the battlefield–can be dispelled by enough sensors, networks and smart weapons. Thus vice-admiral Arthur Cebrowski, the Pentagon director for ‘force transformation’, hallucinates that ‘in only a few years, if the technological capabilities of America’s enemies remain only what they are today, the US military could effectively achieve total battlespace knowledge’.

Donald Rumsfeld, like Dick Cheney (but unlike Colin Powell), is a notorious addict of RMA/NCW fantasies (already enshrined as official doctrine by the Clinton administration in 1998). By opening the floodgates to a huge military budget, 11 September allowed Rumsfeld to go ahead with the revolution while buying the reactionaries off with funding for their baroque weapons systems, including three competing versions of a new tactical fighter. The cost of the compromise will be paid for by slashing federal spending on education, healthcare and local government.

A second Iraq war, in the eyes of the RMA/NCW zealots, is the inevitable theatre for demonstrating to the rest of the world that the US’s military superiority is now unprecedented and unduplicable. Haunted by the 1993 catastrophe in Mogadishu, when a poorly armed Somali militia defeated the Pentagon’s most elite troops, the war wonks have to show that networked technology can now prevail in labyrinthine street warfare.

So they are counting on a combination of battlefield omniscience, smart bombs, and new weapons like microwave pulses and nausea gases to drive Baghdadis out of their homes and bunkers. The use of ‘non-lethal’ (sic) weapons against civilian populations, especially in light of its deadly use during October’s Moscow hostage crisis last year, is a war crime waiting to happen.

But what if the RMA/NCW’s ‘second coming of warfare’ doesn’t arrive as punctually as promised? What happens if the Iraqis or future enemies find ways to foil the swarming sensors, the night-visioned Special Forces, the little stair-climbing robots, the missile-armed drones? Indeed, what if some North Korean cyberwar squad (or, for that matter, a 15 year old hacker in Des Moines) manages to crash the Pentagon’s ‘system of systems’ behind its battlespace panopticon?

If the US warfighting networks begin to unravel, the new paradigm–with its ‘just in time’ logistics and its small ‘battlefield footprint’–leaves little backup in terms of traditional military reserves. This is one reason why the Rumsfeld Pentagon takes every opportunity to rattle its nuclear sabre.

Just as precision munitions have resurrected all the mad omnipotent visions of yesterday’s strategic bombers, RMA/NCW is giving new life to monstrous fantasies of functionally integrating tactical nukes into the electronic battlespace. The US fought the Cold War with the permanent threat of ‘first use’ of nuclear weapons against a Soviet conventional attack. Now the threshold has been lowered to Iraqi gas attacks, North Korean missile launches, or retaliation for future terrorist attacks on US cities.

For all the geekspeak about networks and ecosystems, and millenarian boasting about minimal robotic warfare, the US is becoming a terror state pure and simple–a 21st century Assyria with laptops and modems.

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