The Evolution of War
Stratfor; October 11 (Video Transcript): George Friedman and Robert D. Kaplan
George Friedman: My name's George Friedman. I'm here with my colleague Robert Kaplan. And we want to talk about one of the most ubiquitous things in the human condition: war. War is not a subject people like to think of as insoluble, they don't like to think of it as natural. But the fact of the matter is there's very few things -- family, economics -- as commonplace as war. We don't want to talk so much about why there's war -- that is a long and endless discussion -- we want to talk about what's happening to war. Where we're going today. Everybody's talking about revolutions in warfare, the end of peer-to-peer conflict, a whole range of things. So what we'd like to do today is talk about what's happening to war, and what the future of war looks like. Robert?
Robert D. Kaplan: Yes, I think one of the noticeable changes over the last few decades -- its gradual, it shifts back and forth but it's certainly a change -- is like, whereas in the past you had a relatively confined space with a lot of troops and equipment inside it, which is conventional, industrial war like tank battles in the Sinai in 1973, or in North Africa during World War II. We're going from a small space with a lot of combatants inside it to vast spaces that include immense Third World cities and deserts with small numbers of combatants hidden inside them. So whereas killing the enemy is easy, finding him is what's difficult. It's locating him that constitutes the real weapon of war, whereas in industrial war it was just a matter of killing the enemy at his chief point of concentration. This new century, we may still have major interstate industrial wars or naval battles, we don't know that yet. But at least for the past few decades, what most people define as unconventional war or guerrilla war or irregular war means a vast battle space with small numbers of combatants hiding inside that space.
George: I think one of the things that led to that transformation, is the transformation of mathematics in war, which was the introduction of precision-guided munitions, which actually was introduced in the 1970s -- first by the United States when they destroyed a critical bridge in Vietnam that they hadn’t been able to destroy for years, and then by the Egyptians and the Soviets, who sank the Israeli destroyer Eilat with a single precision-guided munition. It used to take thousands of bombs to knock out a target. That meant hundreds of planes at least, that meant large numbers of crews, steel factories, aluminum factories and so on and so forth. The industrial nature of war that you refer to really had a great deal to do with the imprecision of the rifle. It's said -- and I'm not sure it's true -- it's said that in the First World War it took 10,000 rounds of ammunition to kill one man. Perhaps. But it certainly was true that you had to have large numbers of weapons. With the introduction of precision-guided munitions, you began with 50 percent hit/kill ratios and it rose and rose until one plane with one piece of munition would be able to destroy the enemy. And therefore, you had the same lethality with one aircraft and with hundreds.
Robert: And we are seeing this especially in air war, because one of the things they say in the Air Force is "The less obtrusive we are, the less number of planes we have overhead, the more lethal we can actually be." Because with precision-guided munitions, guided by satellites or whatever they're guided by, you don't have to drop a lot of ordnance to do damage. A single drone firing a medium or small-sized projectile can do the same amount of damage as decades ago would take a whole wing of an air force to drop.
But we haven’t seen it yet in naval war only because we haven’t had a real naval war. But if we do, we're going to see that repeat itself, perhaps.
George: Well, I think the next step is infantry war. But you know, it's interesting to me that during World War II, we had a thousand bomb raids over Germany, and it was morally complex but nobody objected to bombing Germany, or very few people -- of course, the Germans did. We now have this idea of the drone as somehow a singularly unique moral weapon, particularly evil. It strikes me as an ambiguous argument: Is it better to have World War II-style, thousand-bomber raids killing tens of thousands of people in order to destroy one factory, or to have an unmanned aircraft striking it? Precision has on the one hand offended people with an apparent callousness, which certainly is in the nature of war, but at the same time has the virtue that collateral damage -- which will always be part of war, you will always make massive mistakes -- have been reduced.
Robert: And precision implies the death penalty because the precision means that your chances of killing the target are 90 percent, 80 percent, rather than 5 or 10 percent. So you're essentially carrying out a death sentence on someone.
George: So there's a paradox. Massive raids that killed thousands of innocent people are seen as somehow less morally reprehensible than the certainty of the death of one person, that has been targeted for that. It's a transformation of war. Now, the question really is, Is this war or something else?
Robert: Or is it police actions? Carrying out assassinations? Because one of the natures of the post-9/11 world is we're hunting down individuals as much as we're hunting down groups. And if you're hunting down individuals, and you have a revolution in precision-guided weapons, and the battlefield is vast, and the individual is hiding in an apartment building in a slum in Peshawar, Pakistan. This is a whole different world than the Korean War or World War II.
George: But there's still, then, the question. We have and have always had in the world what we'll call policing. The British did it in India, the United States did it in Nicaragua and the Philippines. Most major countries and many minor countries did it. To me, the interesting argument that's underway, and the one that's least tenable, is the argument that this is the way war will always be from now on. We heard that all wars will be nuclear wars, we've heard that all wars will be counterinsurgencies, all wars will be small. To me, I don't accept the idea that the peer-to-peer war has been abolished, that the 21st century will be the first century that will have no major systemic war between two great powers.
Robert: Well, look, every century before, going back thousands of years, has had the equivalent of interstate war. So to claim that this century automatically won't doesn't stand up statistically, in any sense of the word. I mean, the Iran-Iraq war, which I covered firsthand as a journalist, was like World War I. You would see hundreds of bodies piled up, killed by poison gas, on the Iraqi side. They were Iranian bodies. Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons left, right and center. And this was only 25-30 years ago. So to think that we're not going to have interstate wars, given the tensions in the Middle East, given the buildup of weapons in the Far East, I mean we haven't even talked about the growth of various naval platforms throughout the Pacific, not just in China. It seems to me very questionable.
George: I want to apply the new math, which we have seen obviously in Afghanistan, for example, to peer-to-peer conflict. So for example, it strikes me as questionable whether surface vessels are survivable. We know that in the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, tanks facing wire-guided Soviet-built anti-tank systems, were being destroyed by infantrymen. And we learned that there was an entirely new matrix to the war. One of the things that it seems to me is that we're going to see interstate war, but with the same sparseness of forces.
Robert: And without even journalists able to cover it, because you mentioned that surface warships are more and more vulnerable. What that means is that the face of naval warfare is going under water. It's going under sea.
George: Assuming that submarines are survivable.
Robert: Yes. Well, there's a saying in the Pacific: The submarines are like the new bling; everybody wants one.
George: But, I mean, the question to really ask is, we have anti-submarine rockets. We have anti-submarine torpedoes. We have an entirely new generation of weapons. A submarine can run at 30 or 40 knots; a surface vessel can do 20, 30 knots. You have missiles coming out that are hypersonic, doing certainly Mach 3, Mach 4. You can't run from it, you can't hide from it.
There were three great platforms that emerged from World War II: the main battle tank, the aircraft carrier and the manned bomber. It's very hard to imagine how a manned bomber survives in an environment of surface-to-air missiles, or how a tank survives, or how a ship survives. And I include in that submarines because as much as you are hidden under water to my eyes, there are many technologies that can find you. So it really becomes an interesting question of how war is framed, what sea-lane control means, and so on and so forth, that's evolving.
Robert: We haven't had a test yet of these things. The 21st century so far, as violent as it has been in the Greater Middle East, in Afghanistan and Iraq, presently in Syria, has not had the kind of test that you're pointing at.
George: World War II. Many of these systems have appeared in World War I and afterwards. But in many ways people were surprised at the emergence of the aircraft carrier, at the criticality of the tank, certainly by the massed manned bomber. There was speculation about it, and then it emerged.
I would argue that first, we've had a revolution in warfare. Two, we've seen it applied in Afghanistan, in that morally difficult and ambiguous state. When it's supplied in the state-to-state conflict, which I expect to happen whether we want it or not -- I mean, it's not that everybody said, "Let's have a war"; wars seem to happen for their own reasons -- we're going to see emerging, exactly as you said, an entirely new structure.
Robert: This is why what's going on in the East China Sea and the South China Sea is very interesting in this sense. Because you see a buildup of naval platforms in a part of the world of vibrant states that are not united by an alliance in any sense of the word, have historical disputes and where essentially the peace has been kept by the U.S. Navy since World War II. It's been essentially a unipolar atmosphere at seas. Will that change? Is it changing?
George: Well that's the crucial thing. The United States has dominated the global oceans since World War II. It has been the only navy that is able to be global and bring overwhelming power locally. It bases itself on a triad of surface, air and submarine. How survivable is that? What can power on land do?
Robert: And will we see asymmetric naval war the way we've seen asymmetric, low-tech war in Iraq and Afghanistan with suicide bombers? Will we see the technological equivalent taking on the U.S. Navy like Iranian swarm boats, for instance, in the Persian Gulf?
George Friedman is the Chairman of Stratfor, a company he founded in 1996 that is now a leader in the field of global intelligence. Robert D. Kaplan is Chief Geopolitical Analyst for Stratfor, a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C., and has been a foreign correspondent for The Atlantic for over 25 years.