Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Goliath meets Playstation

Here's a read-worthy piece on open-source warfare (the kind we're struggling to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan) by Robert N. Charette. It pulls together much that's been learned and observed in the past five years.

Interspersed with observations from me, of course, because this is a blog, after all.

Once again, this is not about Bush or blood-for-oil. This is not even especially about Iraq. This is the face of warfare wherever the United States will go. Just or unjust, war of choice or war of necessity, this is how our opponents will fight us. If you want to stay at home forever, then you don't need to think about this. If you want to lead the United States in the foreseeable future, or make serious decisions about who ought to, or criticize those who will do that job, then you should think about this.

Need a missile-guidance system? Buy yourself a Sony PlayStation 2. Need more capability? Just upgrade to a PS3. Need satellite photos? Download them from Google Earth or Microsoft's Virtual Earth. Need to know the current thinking on IED attacks? Watch the latest videos created by insurgents and posted on any one of hundreds of Web sites or log on to chat rooms where you can exchange technical details with like-minded folks.

Or where you can go online and spoof them into making things that will blow up in the assembly lab, not on the street where they're meant to kill. The Web, along with the rest of the media, is a battlefield now.

According to some estimates, it now takes Iraqi insurgents less than a month to adapt their methods of attack, much faster than coalition troops can respond. “For every move we make, the enemy makes three,” U.S. Brigadier General Joe E. Ramirez Jr. told attendees at a May conference on IEDs. “The enemy changes techniques, tactics, and procedures every two to three weeks. Our biggest task is staying current and relevant.”

Unfortunately, the traditional weapons-acquisition process, which dictates how the United States and other Western militaries define and develop new weapons systems, is simply not designed to operate on such a fleeting timescale. It can take years and sometimes decades—not to mention many millions or billions of dollars—for a new military machine to move from concept to design to testing and out into the field. Worse, the vast majority of the battlefield technologies now wending their way through the acquisition bureaucracy were intended to fight large force-on-force battles among sovereign nations, not the guerrilla warfare that typifies the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

Among the many knotty thought-trains that leave from that station is this one: Should the people who complain about Pentagon waste, or contractor sweetheart deals, or corner-cutting and failure to keep scrupulous books, also be the same ones who complain when the battlefield gear is outdated, or insufficient, or not changing fast enough to meet evolving attack methods?

Terrorist Web sites serve not only to spread propaganda but also to share knowledge among insurgent groups, Jackson says. That helps explain why the learning cycles among Iraqi insurgents are some 20 times as fast as the Irish Republican Army's were in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, according to military estimates.

Keep that in mind the next time someone offers you the British strategy in Northern Ireland as a model for modern America to follow.

Even as coalition troops have become proficient at identifying roadside bombs, insurgents have shifted to using IEDs to booby-trap houses. “Nothing they're doing is going to win any prizes from the Department of Defense for high tech, but the stuff is deadly,” says Lawrence Husick, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, in Philadelphia. “They're using a huge variety of cheaply available stuff.” One recent innovation is IED detonators made from battery-powered doorbells. The doorbells consist of crude 400-kilohertz transmitters and receivers. “They're sloppy as hell, but they are really hard to jam,” Husick says.

That unconventional style of mine warfare is something coalition forces clearly didn't anticipate, and response has been slow. Earlier this year, for instance, the Pentagon decided to spend $25 billion on mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) armored vehicles, whose V-shaped hulls and raised chassis make them better than armored Humvees at fending off bomb blasts [see photo, “Help Is on the Way”]. The price tag includes $750 million to airlift the 12-metric-ton vehicles to Iraq, instead of sending them by ship. In August, though, the Pentagon scaled back its schedule, saying only 1500 of the planned 3900 vehicles would be delivered by year's end.

It's a race against time. As happened first to unarmored Humvees and then to armored Humvees, insurgents have made destroying MRAP vehicles a high priority—a “trophy kill,” as some observers call it. MRAP designs are already reportedly being rethought to deal with emerging insurgent tactics.

You might think that the lag time was due to bureaucratic screwups, but in fact, that's just how long the bureaucracy takes to respond. Marine commanders in Iraq first requested MRAP vehicles in May 2006. Acquisition officials reviewed the request and ultimately approved it late in the year. By April, five suppliers had demonstrated they could meet survivability requirements, production numbers, and delivery timelines, and they were then awarded contracts. But ramping up production doesn't happen overnight. Before MRAP vehicles became a high priority, the sole manufacturer, Force Protection, in Ladson, S.C., was making only about five per month.

See the point above about contractors. And remember a word from World War I: "attrition." We waste ours to waste yours, and as long as you lose more than we do, we win over time. Then it was of bodies. In the next big war, it was of tanks and planes and aircraft carriers. What is the measure of attrition in this sort of warfare, where one side has no aircraft carriers and all the bodies it could ever want?