Postmodern Wars (I): New actors in a postmodern world

Postmodern Wars take place in a world where nation states are no longer the only relevant actor in the international stage. Nation states share the stage with other kind of actors now. For example, supranational organizations deploy forces under their own flag. Uruguayan blue helmets serve in Congo under the United Nations flag, as Spanish blue helmets do in Lebanon and Philippine blue helmets do in Haiti. We also find regional organizations like the European Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) that deploy forces in international missions. The matter is that we find that soldiers serve and occasionally kill or die in the name of organizations that are not their Motherland.

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The spread of regional organizations are not only the symptom but often the cause of an increasing interdependence among countries that attenuate conflicts. Just think about the European Union, whose monetary union brings together the very same handful of countries that were responsible for the wars that devastated Europe from the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century. Or let’s think about UNASUR: Argentina and Chile were on the verge of war in 1978, but today they keep ready a binational brigade for peace missions. The result is that the number of interstate conflicts has been decreasing since the end of the Second World War.

Nation states not only share the international stage with supranational organizations, but also with non-state actors, such as big companies, NGOs and local governments. All of them have today international projection due to their economical power, their ability to set the agenda and push international legislation. It is not difficult to find megacities with more population and megacorporations with more wealth than many countries. But, beyond these new comers, the novelty is finding organizations that have no nationality but have a transnational character. Of special relevance for the concept of Postmodern Wars is that, among transnational non-state actors, we find armed, terrorist and criminal groups.

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I think the best description of the spirit of the age was made by the Argentinian writer and politician Fernando A. Iglesias in his book Twin Towers. According to him, during the 9/11 events we witnessed

“the frightening inability of the most powerful nation in Earth to fulfill the most elemental function, protecting its citizens’ life, and the enormous destructive power held against it by a small network organized in a unanchored and deterritorialized way in a global world determined by state-of-the-art technology”

The rise of non-state actors is the result of globalization and the information society, with the intensification of connectivity and the democratization of technology. Organizations, movements and companies can coordinate the action of many people located in dispersed far away places. Nowadays a hunter or a hiker hold in their hands as much technology as a special operations soldier did 25 years ago. Thuraya satellite phones, night-vision goggles and GPS navigation devices can be easily bought online.

While some regions of the world go beyond the nation state as main international actor, others suffer from the catastrophic collapse of the nation state. The European colonial expansion in the Americas, Asia and Oceania left a legacy of nation states imitating their former colonial rulers. The break up of European empires left behind nation states with their flags, national anthems and armed forces. But the nation state was born in Europe as the result of a long singular historical process (economical, political and social) that can not always be reproduced successfully. As soon as many African state stopped being geopoliticallly relevant after the end of the Cold War and the transfer of resources from Washington or Moscow ceased, they collapsed ravaged by civil wars. The civil wars after the Arab Spring showed the fragility of the state structure in places like Libya, Syria and Iraq.

Back to swarming: Networked micro-drones

After the resounding allied victory in the Gulf War (1991), John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt started theorizing at the RAND Corporation about the future of technological war, considering the experience of what was called ‘The First Information War’ [1]. Arquilla and Ronfeldt stated that technologies such as the GPS, new electronic sensors and data links would enable future combatants to organize themselves as a network, sharing information about the location of the each other and the enemy. All was needed is just one one node finding the enemy to allow the whole network to be aware of it and then organize an attack as a swarm. Arquilla and Ronfeldt called that way of warfighting ‘netwar’ [2].

Meanwhile, the visions about future war from gurus such as the Tofflers [3] and the Friedmans [4] announced a new era of uncontested American military hegemony, thanks to information technologies that was heralded also by the Pentagon in the midst of the dot-com bubble. After the 1996 Taiwan Straits Crisis, and facing the threat of the nuclear programmes from ‘rogue states’ like Iran and North Korea, the Pentagon found the conventional enemies it was missing.

Athough, Arquilla and Ronfeldt left behind the state-centric perspective to study the use of new technologies by criminal, hacker, terrorist and political activists networks. It was a matter of chance that their book, Networks & Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy, went to press short before 9/11. Immediately the media ran stories about the threat of ‘terrorist networks’ as a new kind of organization that made Al Qaeda invulnerable when compared with former Western terrorist groups.

Technological war fantasies were abandoned (remember the shielving of the Future Combat Systems programme) until the death of Usama Bin Ladin and the American withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. That year, president Obama showed his willingness to close a chapter, after a decade focused on terrorism and the Middle East, and then move U.S. attention to Asia (the ‘Pivot to Asia’). The obvious subtext was that he wanted to check the expanding Chinese power in the Asia-Pacific region.

The Pacific Ocean constitutes an empty open flat battlefield like the desert. It’s an ideal place for a high intensity technological conventional war where the forces with the best sensors and long range intelligent weapons prevail. Therefore, the Pentagon started again theorizing about netwar to face China, so the Air-Sea Battle Concept was born [I wrote about it in the Spanish Navy journal: “La tentación de la guerra tecnológica o el camino hacia el Air Sea-Battle Concept].

The technological advances brought back the concept of swarming, but not consisting in highly networked combat units but autonomous swarms of drones as Paul Scharre envisioned in Drones in the Battlefield Part II: The Coming Swarm [5]. Scharre pictured networks of disposable drones with warheads that allowed them to switch their role from ISR asset to intelligent munition. Two years later the concept was tested.

The Department of Defense announced recently that a micro-drone swarm was tested last October in China Lake (California). According to the DoD press release, the ‘micro-drones demonstrated advanced swarm behaviors such as collective decision-making, adaptive formation flying, and self-healing’. They weren’t pre-programmed devices but worked as a ‘collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature’. The released video shows 103 Perdix micro-drones being dropped from three F-18s before moving to their target while adopting different fly formations.

The Perdix micro-drone. Photo: DoD via Haaretz.
The Perdix micro-drone. Photo: DoD via Haaretz.

The Perdix micro-drones were developed by MIT students. They are small cheap biplanes made with kevlar and carbon fiber, and powered by Lithium polymer batteries. The Pentagon’s goal is to find several companies ready to produce batches of Perdix drones en masse while taking advantage of ready commercial technologies from the civil world. In the future, micro-drones such as the Perdix, could be used as decoys or equipped with electronic transmitters as radars jammers. Meanwhile, the DoD is developing autonomous systems as the Sea Hunter ship. All of these are just first generation prototypes that will evolve to much more advanced and refined systems.

[1] CAMPEN, Alan D.: The First Information War: The Story of Communications, Computers, and Intelligence Systems in the Persian Gulf War. AFCEA International Press, 1992.
[2] ARQUILLA, John & RONFELDT, David: The Advent Of Netwar. RAND Corporation, 1996.
[3] TOFFLER, Alvin & TOFFLER, Heidi: War and Antiwar: Survival at the Dawn of the 21st Century. Little, Brown and Company, 1993.
[4] FRIEDMAN, George & FRIEDMAN, Meredith: The Future of War: Power, Technology and American World Dominance in the Twenty-first Century. Crown Publishers, 1996.
[5] SCHARRE, Paul: Drones in the Battlefield Part II: The Coming Swarm. CNAS, 2014.



The “Sea Shepherds” as a naval insurgency

I think I found out about the “Sea Shepherds” through a South Park parody. They are an animal-rights group that harasses and annoys the Japanese whaling fleet in Antarctic waters. The U.S. channel Animal Planet has a documentary TV series portraying their “adventures,” “Whale Wars“, which in Spain was entitled “Piratas Ecológicos” (sic). Its renewal for a sixth season was announced last January.

“Sea Shepherds” now has a respectable fleet that consists of the MY Steve Irwin (a former patrol boat), the MY Bob Barker (a former whale catcher), the MY Sam Simon (a former oceanographic ship), the MV Brigitte Bardot (an experimental trimaran), several RIB boats, helicopters and light drones. The larger boats formerly wore a quite ugly and theatrical black that has been replaced by a camouflage pattern.

“Sea Shepherds” is in a category apart from environmental groups such as Greenpeace, as their aesthetics and language reveal. Both organizations conduct public actions seeking high media coverage, but “Sea Shepherds” plays with the limits of maritime law. That already has earned them several problems with the law, the seizure of a ship in Canada and the loss of another one after a “clash” at sea with a Japanese whaler. Viewing the TV series gives the impression that the “Sea Shepherds” place ends above means. The fact that their actions make for attractive content for a television show also questions their credibility due to the evident pursuit of spectacularity, parodied and criticized by South Park. But as we saw in the case of the Gaza Flotilla (I, II, III and IV) the important thing in these times is not to reflect the reality of the facts, but to reach media notoriety with a propaganda action that harms the image of the “enemy” .

“Sea Shepherds”, with private funding sources (*) and multinational crews, is a clear example of the emergence of non-state actors who achieve global notoriety. Chris Rawley at Information Dissemination told how he was invited to discuss this and other issues related to irregular warfare at sea within a specialized forum at the U.S. Naval Academy. Rawley noted how interesting it is to follow the evolution of the tactics and means of the “Sea Shepherds”, which have been considered “piracy” by an appeals court in the United States.

(*) “Sea Shepherds” is financed by contributions from supporters and merchandising sales, like the book “Earthforce!: An Earth Warrior’s Guide to Strategy”, written by its founder. The book is touted as:

Captain Paul Watson, one of the most brilliant ecologist strategists of our generation, takes the genius of Sun Tzu, the discipline of Miyamoto Musashi, the perception of Marshall McLuhan and his own field experiences to present an effective strategic guide for any apprentice of environmental or conservationist activism.

Published originally by Jesús M. Pérez in
Translated from Spanish by Alan Furth.

The US Navy Stumbles into the 21st Century

On March 1st, the U.S. Navy’s USS Freedom warship began its deployment towards Asia. This is one of the new Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), a new generation of multi-role warships conceived for special operations, anti-piracy and other missions that fit well with the postmodern wars framework. But what came as an idea that I initially found most interesting, became a great little disaster that reveals the state of affairs in the American military-industrial complex, and the Pentagon’s discomfort with anything other than large conventional wars.

LCS 1 USS Freedom
USS Freedom (LCS 1)

The idea of developing the Littoral Combat Ship came from Gordon R. England, then Secretary of the Navy, who set the goal of creating “a family of small boats, fast, maneuverable and relatively inexpensive”. During the last twenty years, the U.S. Navy has been withdrawing its lighter warships, Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates (4,200 tons), to stay only with Ticonderoga-class cruisers (9,800 tonnes) and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers (8,315 tons initially). In fact, the U.S. Navy has been introducing successive variants of increasingly heavy Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. The latest, called Flight III, has a displacement of 10,000 tons. And the next generation of destroyers of the U.S. Navy, the Zumwalt-class, displaces over 14,000 tons, and it’s so expensive that only three will be built. So as the U.S. Navy was requiring ever larger vessels, it found itself without a relevant role in post-9/11 conflicts because there were no Soviet fleets to fight against in the Atlantic Ocean.

Zumwalt-class destroyer
Zumwalt-class destroyer

The Littoral Combat Ship project was an attempt to adapt to a new era of insurgencies, terrorism, piracy and drug trafficking in an increasingly complex world where the timely infiltration of small special operations units in hostile shores was paramount. Building a “small” boat for this sort of operations didn’t seem difficult. Unlike the U.S. Navy, most navies combine large marine units with smaller ships like offshore patrol vessels, or fast attack crafts. For example, France has an aircraft carrier and nuclear submarines, but also has lighter and cheaper, yet well armed boats to patrol its overseas territories. But it’s as if the United States could only “think big”.

The LCS were born large, with more than 2,000 tons of displacement. They were required to be extremely fast. And therefore the estimated cost started to skyrocket. They were given a very poor weaponry: A not very powerful cannon and a short-range anti-aircraft missile launcher. The idea was to have a modular design. “Packages” of equipment and weaponry would be added according to each mission. Also, the LCS would be highly connected to the rest of the fleet with data links, so that one could take advantage of the sensors of other ships and aircraft. But achieving seamless integration of all such additional systems was complicated. Costs continued to soar. The program of the NLOS-LS missile with which the LCS would be provided was canceled in 2011, leaving as an alternative a light short-range missile. For such an expensive and large boat, the LCS lacked ‘punch’. It became a joke. The New Wars blog asked its readers to nominate alternative meanings for the acronym LCS. They suggested things like “Little Crappy Ship” or “Lack of Common Sense”. It was as if too many people had influenced the design, requiring the ship to do too many different things, resulting in a mediocre boat in all its facets. On top of this, shipyards competing with two different prototypes were not without problems with the actual construction of the boat, and the prototypes had many failures when tested at sea. In the end, the U.S. government took a Solomonic decision. Instead of picking a winner, it decided to buy a few of each design. So the U.S. Navy might even not be able to take advantage of economies of scale with a long production run.

USS Independence LCS 2
USS Independence LCS 2

I’m sure that someone somewhere in the Pentagon must have said “I told you so”. And surely all the problems of the LCS program will be used as an argument that small boats prepared for unconventional wars have no place in the U.S. Navy. I almost dare to speculate whether the LCS program encountered very powerful internal enemies. At the end of the day, Navy Secretary England, father of the project, left office before it got started.

The two competitor designs
The two competitor designs

The USS Freedom became functional in 2008 and has finally begun its first deployment away from home. It will be sent to Singapore for several months as a test for a subsequent deployment of four LCS to that port. Singapore is at the mouth of the Straits of Malacca, one of the world’s toughest piracy regions. Recently, there was a military confrontation between Malaysian soldiers and Filipino rebels there. Perhaps the choice of port is a clue that those within the U.S. Navy who think about unconventional wars still have the last word against those who “think big” and dream of a war against China.

Published originally by Jesús M. Pérez in
Translated from Spanish by Alan Furth.

The Pentagon’s temptation for industrial war

Robert Gates, former United States Secretary of Defense, warned against nextwaritis, the syndrome of focusing attention on the “wars of the future” and leaving the current ones unattended. He was referring to the obsession with high-tech weapons and the “Chinese threat” when the war in Afghanistan was still running its course and Irak was still not pacified. But the reasons given by Gates for not looking into the future seem to not make much sense anymore.

The recent State of the Union Address announced the withdrawal of 34,000 additional troops from Afghanistan. 2014 was set as the date for turning over full responsibilities to Kabul’s government. And it seems like regardless of the state of affairs, a “mission accomplished” will be proclaimed and attention will be focused somewhere else. Even if special forces, private contractors and drones will remain in place. We will see American think tanks producing a flurry of ideas and prospective exercises about the conflicts of the future. But what is clear is that there already is a winner in this process: Asia-Pacific.

On November 12th 2011, while at a summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, president Obama announced that “we’ve turned our attention back to the Asia Pacific region,” and explained that this renewed interest for the region would have two concrete consequences: a free trade agreement, and a pivot to Asia, a redeployment of military forces from Europe and the Middle East.

A U.S. Air Force B-2 Spirit and two F-15E Strike Eagle fly in formation over Andersen Air Force Base, Guam.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Cecilio Ricardo)
A U.S. Air Force B-2 Spirit and two F-15E Strike Eagle fly in formation over Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Cecilio Ricardo)

What does it mean to leave Afghanistan and Irak behind for focusing on Asia-Pacific? It means to stop thinking in counterinsurgency campaigns against irregular forces in which it is crucial to gain over the support from the local population. It means to stop thinking about the phenomena that interrelates with armed conflicts that arise in postmodern wars, like drug-trafficking in Afghanistan and piracy in Somalia. During the ten years of the first phase of the Global War on Terror (2001-2011), the United States’ air force did not shoot down a single enemy airplane, and the Navy did not shoot a single anti-ship missile or torpedo. Instead, they were dedicated to carrying out missions of transport, intelligence-gathering and distribution of humanitary aid. Now nobody hides the fact that talking about Asia-Pacific is an euphemism for talking about a hypothetical high-tech war with China. The model is already in place. It is called Air-Sea Battle, the brainchild of those who coined the concept of Revolution in Military Affairs.

The actual armed forces of the United States are not prepared to develop the Air-Sea Battle, and doing it will imply incurring staggering costs. It is easy to imagine the entrenched interests that will push to go ahead with it, for which Thomas Barnett has called it the military-industrial complex’s self-serving fantasy. The problems with Air-Sea Battle are evident. It is not backed up by a study of the evolution of the international scene and armed conflicts. It is a simple war hypothesis that does not analyze China’s likely evolution, that of its armed forces and its relations with the United States. And what is worse, it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy because it has not gone unnoticed at all in China. Air-Sea Battle is a product of the same school of thought that, during the 90’s, thought of the next great technological war, and that led the Bush Administration to promote the development of an anti-missile defense shield in 2001 based on the inexistent threat of North-Korean and Iranian nuclear missiles, months before 9/11.

Published originally by Jesús M. Pérez in
Translated from Spanish by Alan Furth.