The Electric Commentary

Sunday, July 30, 2006

How To Beat Terrorism

It's becoming increasingly clear that conventional military forces are no good at fighting small, well-entrenched, quickly mobile para-military groups. I see several reasons for this:

1. Old school military conquests were largely about gaining territory, and territory is static. If you want a certain area, it makes sense to have a heavily armored force consisting of heavy vehicles and heavy weapons, because the land itself isn't going anywhere. If a bully wants to hang out on the monkey bars, he will likely be able to do so.

2. Most "terrorist" groups, for lack of a better term, are not immediately concerned with territory. They are concerned with annoying people. I realize that equating the deaths of civilians with mere "annoyance" may be slightly offensive, but I think it's fairly accurate. After all, their goal is not to beat you, but instead to make your goal as unpleasant as possible to the extent that you give up. If you're a bully and hanging out at the monkey bars, and a group of monkeys steal your hat and play keep away with it, you may just decide to leave the monkey bars to the monkeys and go hang out at the slide.

3. The US tends to bomb the heck out of everyone, and then roll in with ground forces later (if at all). Terrorist groups know this, and have moved to a model in which they use many different fortified bunkers for storage and hiding. They are disaggregated, and largely immune from airstrikes. As a result, it will take many more bombs to kill an entire squad than in the past, and a modern military's "softening up" airstrikes are now ineffective.

4. Civilian deaths are terrible for an established military, but just fine for terrorists. This is largely the media's fault, but it is a fact, nonetheless. When terrorists kill civilians they get press, attention, and their ability to "annoy" grows. When a military kills civilians they are vilified and told by the rest of the world to stop attacking. This allows terrorists to hide their members and their supplies in civilian establishments. If the military bombs the civilian household, they look like monsters. If it is revealed that terrorists were present, the terrorists look like monsters, which is good for them. Either way they win.

5. Established militaries fight at the behest of the populace. They are susceptible to popular support or popular criticism. Terrorist organizations are like shell corporations. They are funded by states, but not controlled by states, and therefore offer the funder states deniability. Granted, most of these states do not allow popular dissent anyway, but this insulates the states from even foreign pressure.

The theme here is decentralization. Terrorist cells and militias are growing more decentralized, and they are becoming more adept at taking away the built-in advantages of a military force. The US Military is responsible to the people, but Hezbollah is responsible only to Hezbollah. Moreover, the US Military is built for real wars against other militaries with tanks and bombs and navies.

So, what are some possible solutions to this problem? First of all, the military could use a shot of innovation. I have no idea how to accomplish this, other than advocating for a more diversity (intellectual, not the other kind). In other words, they need an Ender.

They should also begin to use prediction markets as a tool. Some wise legislators attempted to institute these a few years ago, but they were shouted down as being "horrific" and "denying human dignity." There may be some ethical problems with markets in which you can wager on terrorism, but the fact is that these markets work. (For more on prediction markets I highly recommend James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds.)

Finally, the US should probably look into some sort of decentralized military fighting force made up of small teams of terror cell sized mini-forces. The force in question should have wide latitude to follow up intelligence leads as they see fit, and to deal with them as they see fit. There is probably some sort of constitutional problem with this. It would be difficult, after all, to make such a force accountable to the public, and I don't have a good solution, but someone else can figure out the checks on this group. I'm merely advocating its existence.

I am also aware that this probably sounds a bit too much like Team America for some people.

Lastly, such a force would change the incentives of defense contractors. The good ol' military industrial complex is very good at building big weapons that do big damage, but terrorists are getting adept at dodging big damage. What we could use is an infusion of individual weapons. One of our goals should be to make every US soldier a walking (no, a running) fortress. I'm talking Inspector Gadget and James Bond here. Better bullet and shrapnel resistance, better detection and recon tech, and better personal weaponry. If terrorism persists as the big military threat, bounty hunting may be as valuable as capturing cities, and our troops should have the tools to be the best soldiers and the best bounty hunters.

I'm not sure if any of this would help, but I do know that Hezbollah has shown itself to be up to the task of taking on the Israeli army thus far using the techniques mentioned above, and the Iraqi insurgency seems to have staying power as well.

Regardless of how you feel about these two wars, or war in general, if we are going to fight these forces, we should definitely be able to win. As it stands today, I'm simply not sure that we can. They have adapted to the market of war. We, with our centralized military, are stagnant.

(Note: When I talk of a lighter, faster military I am not talking about Donald Rumsfeld's military. He seemed to advocate a lighter, faster conventional force. I think that that is a stupid idea, for the reasons stated above. We still need conventional forces to fight conventional wars, but we also need a new kind of military.)

(Note 2: Of every topic I could possibly blog about, I am probably most ignorant of military strategy, but this makes sense to me.)


  • Uh, I don't know if Robocop is really the answer. I think the military is fairly well suited for what its supporting role should be against terrorism. I think the innovative change in forces needs to be more of an intelligence and recon based capability. We shouldn't aim to have a strong military presence in each country, just an ability to know what people are up to. Once we do, many strategies to neutralize them can be considered. They aren't as difficult as long as we aren't trying to build a country like we are Iraq. Special Ops can take out terrorists if it knows where to find them. The problem is when they can't.

    That said, I strongly agree that more capable individual soldiers would be an improvement over bombing everything.

    By Blogger Scott H, at 6:25 PM  

  • Uh, before I get in trouble for knocking our soldiers, by "more capable individual soldiers" I mean "increasing the capability of individual soldiers through technological development" as Paul has sugggested.

    By Blogger Scott H, at 6:28 PM  

  • Paul, you sound just like Rumsfeld. Nice.

    By Blogger Beano, at 2:57 PM  

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