Thursday, 8 October 2009

Technology is not the answer...

Military technology procurement - that's straightforward isn't it?

From initial deployment and throughout its life the technology used by our armed forces is expected to deliver 100% availability, the price of technology failing at the wrong moment is unacceptable according to the buyers.  In an ideal world, this fantasy could be met, but in an ideal world we wouldn't build and design technology whose sole aim is to aid in the destruction of other human beings and their property.  We pay a pretty price for this ambition, military hardware costs the US and UK $600Bn and $60Bn respectively - but it makes a difference, doesn't it?

Stories of technology failures abound in military circles: If two early homing torpedoes were dropped from the air at the same time they would chase each other around and around until they exhausted their fuel, or if launched from a vessel with a louder screw than the target the torpedo would immediately home in on the firing vessel.  Early shipborne radar systems were often rendered useless by over zealous Bo'suns insisting that the radar antennas were painted the same shade of gray as the superstructure.  The first Harriers put on ships corroded so much they couldn't even raise their landing gear.  The German army found that Panzers were virtually unusable in desert terrain.  The impregnable Maginot line could be walked around.  Technology is fallible, a very imperfect solution, ironically the more one attempts to engineer reliability into a system the more prone to failure it is.

One axiom holds true when it comes to technology - the simpler it is the more reliable it is.   It was always thus, the AK47 is literally bits of metal, string and wood; it can be manufactured and repaired by any half capable blacksmith and is an icon of 20th century military hardware and a byword for reliability and efficiency.

For all the technology we equip our armed forces with, there is one immutable fact; a war whose objective is possession and control of territory demands one thing - highly motivated soldiers with guns.  If we accept the fact that there are opponents who control or influence a territory through force of arms, whom we wish to stop, we have to commit soldiers and take lives achieving our aim.  No land war, no theater of operations in the 20th century has been won through technology, sea or air power alone.

The one possible exception to this is often viewed as the dropping of tactical atomic weapons by the USA in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Although Japan surrendered shortly thereafter, the formal surrender was only signed as the US led allied army occupied mainland Japan and imposed military rule.  War was only really won when allied forces marched into Japan, imposed military control and detained 5,400,000 Japanese soldiers and 1,800,000 sailors. Atomic weapons, our ultimate technology, does not take or dominate territory - it just makes the mass slaughter required to enable occupation slightly easier.

War against highly motivated (or fanatical) soldiers and civilians fighting for their lives and equipped with the basics - a gun and a knife, is rarely straightforward.  Look at Indochina, Vietnam, Somalia, the Soviet War in Afghanistan, WWII in Europe, Korea, South Africa, Northern Ireland, Iran Iraq - a few of the long list of 20th century conflicts that did not favour the more technically advanced participants, in fact technical superiority may have led to unjustified self-belief and ultimately defeat.  The US forces in Vietnam had virtually unlimited helicopters, high altitude bombers, air support, chemical weapons and napalm, it mattered not a jot.

When Russian forces faced serious opposition in Afghanistan, their single biggest weakness was the vulnerability of their technology to rocket and IED attack and guerrilla tactics; soldiers lived in bases, traveled by armored truck and patrolled in the air. One helicopter shot down or one truck destroyed equaled multiple casualties with a single grenade, rather than hundreds or thousands of rounds wasted in attacking a well dug in position. To dominate you need lots of armed combatants on the ground, dispersed throughout. A total of 115,000 Russian soldiers were on active service Afghanistan in 1985 and yet there were calls for more men and more kit, sound familiar?

Our press, independent of any political agenda of course, is awash with calls for more technology, better technology - and are constantly berating this beleaguered government with calls for more and better; helicopters, body-armour, vehicles and men, take your pick...

The inevitable fact is that if you wage war costs will spiral, people will die and there is no guarantee of success; the infantile emotional hand wringing we see in society over each and every individual "heroes death" and the fixation on technology as some kind of military panacea that will somehow magic away tough and committed opposition speaks volumes of our emotional immaturity and a disregard for the soldiers that fall; only for them to become pawns in political backbiting and infighting - now that is fucking insulting.

The Taliban, Mujahideen whatever you want to call them, armed with AK47s, mortars, RPGs and IEDs -  the modern equivalent of knives and clubs, and the cheapest weapons in the world arms market, are more than capable of defeating the US led coalition in Afghanistan, and will fight for as long as it takes to ensure that. Their descendants will remain there, armed, long after we have lost our taste for war.

But unfortunately military commanders and soldiers don't see it that way - they do not give up, it is not in their nature, they train to fight and live to fight - and we want them that way.  Military commanders will always push for more men and more technology, that's the nature of the beast. Ask them what they want, no matter how overwhelming the odds against them, and the same answer will be given, "more men, more machines".  That's why we have civil-servants, diplomats and politicians, that's why our politicians are given control of our armed forces - soldiers would just keep on fighting, it's what they do.

I have heard nothing from Obama, Brown or Cameron committing to an immediate withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, nor plans to enter a dialogue to sue for a peaceful settlement, yet it is obvious here and in the US that the public have no stomach for more deaths. The Tories intention to appoint the former CIC of British forces seems to demonstrate that our next government will be no more committed to seeking a peaceful end to this lost cause either, looked at any way another warmonger in their ranks does not bode well.

But until we either leave or sue for peace, an anathema to our military commanders - and an act for which our politicians would be hung out to dry, we should get used to the funerals and calls for more men and more technology.

Military technology, war, death? - these are things we can ill afford and it's time for our politicians to step up, end this foolish war and stop using slaughter as political capital...


  1. Excellent post, Polaris. I couldn't agree more. It's just so sad that the British public are so apathetic. Although on Newsnight last night it was suuggested that the American public are losing the will to continue the war

  2. Fine sentiments.

    Poor logic.

    Wonky history.


    Unfortunately, "If you desire peace, prepare for war" still applies as much as it did in Roman times.

  3. And look what happened to the Roman Empire; it's now the Holy Roman Church - the cost of military upkeep destroyed the Empire.

    Poor Logic, wonky history?

    It's all about interpretation...


  4. Ah, you're referring to Imperial overstretch, (c) Paul Kennedy.

    That's something else again.

  5. I'm not a military tactician, the Imperial Overstretch/reach thing is an appropriate comparison though - "George W. Bush and the Hubris of Empire" makes interesting reading.

    Sm753 you must understand I wrote this piece from the heart, I was involved peripherally in military systems many years ago, and I quit on ethical grounds. I just didn't see the point of the money spent, for example: considerable £ x multiples were paid for military versions of civilian hardware - all for death and a marginal influence in most conflicts...