The Delusions of High-Tech Warfare

The biggest problem with relying on the US is that it is by no means clear that the Trump presidency was an aberration and that America will not be permanently absorbed by political civil war at home. The narrow Democrat majority in Congress and Republican voter suppression legislation in Texas and Georgia suggest that this struggle will go on.

A weakness in the British defence review is that it shares the American delusion that vastly expensive military procurement translates into enhanced military strength. This is despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary provided by the post-9/11 wars, fought directly or indirectly over the last 20 years by the US and Britain in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria.

The claim by military planners that we should look to the wars of the future, rather than the wars of the past, should be treated with suspicion. Such self-inflicted blindness to recent history is convenient because what Britain, echoing America, is proposing to do has failed before. Despite their supposed technological wizardry and the expenditure of vast sums,  the US and Britain never found an answer to the mix of IEDs (improvised explosive devices), booby traps, suicide bombers and snipers that they faced in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The pretence that technical innovation is key to military success was always contradicted by the facts on the ground. I remember an American combat engineer outside Ramadi in Iraq telling me that the US army had refused to let him see a textbook on mines and boobytraps used in the Vietnam War because this might suggest that the Vietnam and Iraq conflicts had a lot in common when it came to battlefield tactics. The soldier complained that he had had to buy a copy of the manual on the black market.

Military conflicts which Britain and the US fought over the last 20 years have all been messy, guerrilla-type conflicts. Crucial to success in all cases was accurate political and military intelligence and that was invariably what was lacking. A British military intelligence officer in Basra in Iraq in about 2004 told me that he kept vainly trying to persuade his superiors that the British force had no allies or friends in a city of one million people which it could not control.

Similar self-destructive ignorance was a feature of the war in Afghanistan. In 2001-02, I followed the Taliban retreating south from Kabul and it was clear that they had not been militarily defeated. They could come back at any moment, as indeed they did a few years later, much to the discomfiture of the British army that had just arrived in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan.

It was not only the generals who were culpably misinformed. Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British ambassador in Kabul, wrote in his memoirs that the worst mistake made by the Foreign Office in the previous 30 years was the invasion of Iraq, and the second worst was “its enthusiastic endorsement of Britain’s half-baked effort to occupy Helmand in 2006”. Most of the 400 British soldiers who were killed in Afghanistan were to die in the province.

There was nothing secret about the reasons for the failure of the direct military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq and indirect ones in Libya and Syria. They were criticised in detail in highly informed governmental and parliamentary reports that today’s political and military leaders have probably never read. The Chilcot inquiry into Britain’s role in Iraq unmasked an extraordinarily level of official ignorance before and after the invasion. It found that “between 2003 and 2009, the UK’s most consistent strategic objective in relation to Iraq was to reduce the level of its deployed forces”. In other words, the British wanted to scuttle, but without offending the Americans too much.

But surely this is all ancient history? The defence review published this week says that we are in a brave new military world, in which scientific gadgetry is displacing conventional forces. This is supposedly being done to face an enhanced risk of attack from Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, which sounds exactly like the sort of “threat inflation” that was such a feature of the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Recall, to cite one of many instances, how there was an entirely imaginary “missile gap” in favour of Moscow in the 1950s when, in fact, the advantage was all the other way.

Given that an all-out war with Russia and China is unlikely, it is suggested that armed confrontation will instead be with their proxies and allies in a “grey zone”. In this arena, highly trained special forces will be needed to help our own allies and proxies. The new name merely disguises the fact that we have been in the “grey zone” for a long time in Libya, Syria and Yemen and have not done too well there. The sole achievement has been to keep these so-called “endless wars” on the boil, preventing winners and losers emerging, and reducing these countries to wastelands.

The truth – which British and American defence chiefs reject in order to justify gargantuan military budgets – is that the nature of warfare has changed far less than they pretend. “Political and strategic preparations must go hand in hand,” wrote Sir Eyre Crowe, a famed Foreign Office permanent secretary before the First World War, in words that are still relevant. “Failure of such harmony must lead either to military disaster or political retreat.”

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