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Archive for November, 2009

We talk all the time about the ‘rules of engagement’ – that which defines a situation and circumscribes the scope of action that can be taken in that situation.  But when these rules frustrate troops in the field because they are made by politicians back home, then perhaps we need to rethink the rules of how ‘rules of engagement’ are made?

Check out this Daily Telegraph article by Andrew Gilligan on the frustrations of British troops in Iraq:

British troops in Iraq had to let attackers go free

British troops in Iraq had to let 40 armed men who had just ambushed them “walk away” under “constraining” and “frustrating” rules of engagement, papers leaked to The Daily Telegraph show.

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It’s undeniable how important technology is to this whole exercise of military transformation, or the revolution in military affairs (RMA).  In case we’ve forgotten, the RMA was initially referred to by the Soviets as a ‘military-technical revolution’.  True, we acknowledge the other crucial elements in the process of transformation, such as organisational processes, culture,  structures and so forth.  But really, technology truly stands out if for no other reasons than tangibility, visibility, glamour even, and the sheer amount of money spent on acquiring sophisticated C4ISR and weapon systems.  Look no further than the recruitment ads for the armed forces, and see the extent to which technology takes centre stage.

For me, the crux of the RMA actually consists more in the sensing, communications and computing technologies rather than the weaponry.  In other words, it is information technology (IT) that drives military transformation, if simply because you have to see it first before you can shoot it.  The by-now familiar concepts of joint operations, network-centric warfare (NCW), systemic operational design (unfortunately known as SOD), and effects-based operations (EBO) and so forth are made possible by information technology, rather than advances in munitions and ballistics.

But the emphasis on IT comes with a price: IT cuts both ways.  In transforming the way the armed forces does things, IT is at the same time transforming the armed forces organisation itself.  The same networking technology that calls for assigning greater autonomy to the soldier on the ground is also the same technology that allows the soldier’s superior to micro-manage him to an extent never before thought possible.  Paul Mitchell refers to this as the 1000-mile screw driver that as good as enables an arm-chair general to essentially call the play (‘soldier number two, move 12 metres to the left’).  Colleague Weichong also discusses this, arguing that while IT in the armed forces promises the ‘strategic corporal’, it could instead deliver the ‘tactical general’.

I would go even further and argue that far from flattening the armed forces organisation, such technologies instead reinforce the twin rationales of discipline and punishment (to borrow from Foucault) that form the basis of military life and organisation.  Foucault uses the concept of disciplinary power to explain how the anticipation of control and punishment causes people to engage in self-surveillance.  Stan Deetz extends this idea by arguing how power, discipline and sanction are embedded in all aspects of social practices and organisational lives, expressed and reconstructed constantly in the interactions between people.  The power to discipline and punish, therefore, does not simply reside in particular sites of authority in society or an organisation; rather, that power is all pervasive in that it permeates the complex set of practices that frame common sense, shared experiences, and personal and collective identity.

For an armed forces organisation, which runs on rules, standard operating procedures, and the punishment of deviations from rules, the ability to ‘see all, hear all’ actually reinforces the conservative, risk-averse, top-down, authority-driven, hierarchical structure of the military.  Attempts to create a culture of innovation, which is inherently risky and involves testing the rules, backfire because organisational members start to ‘second guess’ themselves because they feel (or think they feel) the gaze of inspection on them all the time.

Bentham’s 18th century idea of the Panoptican – a single tower in a prison yard that enables the prison warden to monitor every prisoner’s behaviour – is a particularly salient one for the armed forces that is in the throes of transformation.  The Panoptican works on the principle that while the prison guard can see what all the prisoners are doing, the prisoners cannot see what the prison guard is doing; because of this asymmetry, the prisoners cannot know if they are being watched, and therefore behave in the desired way in case they are being watched.  In other words, they engage in self-surveillance, which results in the reproduction of established behaviour.  Replace ‘Panoptican’ with ‘information technology’ and ‘battlespace awareness’, and ‘prisoners’ with ‘soldiers on the ground’, and you get where I am headed with this.  The same technology that enables surveillance of the enemy – the ‘S’ in ‘C4ISR’ – also enables surveillance of members of your own organisation.  Worse, the anticipation of surveillance by superiors results in self-surveillance, self-monitoring, and a growing reluctance to improvise, innovate and take risks, in short, to deviate from the rules.

Stephen Ambrose, in Band of Brothers, wrote that while the army cannot always control the things you do, it can always make you regret doing the things you were not supposed to do.  Now, with information (disciplinary) technologies, military commanders get to do both.  And that’s not always a good thing as far as promoting innovation and adaptability is concerned.

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The War Against Terror

Defining the fight against terrorism as a war meant that terrorists could be dealt with and interned as enemy combatants. However, another issue has come to the fore – how should terrorists be tried? Before a military tribunal as an enemy combatant, or before a criminal court? It matters, especially for the accused, because of the different rights afforded to suspects/convicts, as well as the different sentencing regimes and punishments. With the closing of Guantanamo, the US must now decide where its detainees must go.

http://www.economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=14917825&fsrc=nwl

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Research Institute on Contemporary Southeast Asia (IRASEC) Discussion Paper No. 5

Arguably already the most modern military in Southeast Asia, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) hopes to transform itself into a “technologically advanced” military capable of a “full-spectrum of operations” this century.

This paper traces the origins of the SAF’s fascination with technology by identifying its wellspring and the agents that have deepened it.

Four main explanations for the SAF’s fascination are offered. First, the SAF sees technology as a vital force-multiplier in battle, thus mitigating Singapore’s perceived strategic vulnerability. Second, the SAF is a product of Singapore society writ large which itself is attracted to the latest technology has to offer. Third, the SAF’s technocratic leadership has made its professional essence inherently pro-technological. Finally, the SAF is intimately influenced externally by the Singaporean “military-industrial-administrative complex,” providing both non-military direction and support for its acquisition and development of cutting-edge military technology.

Download the IRASEC Discussion Paper here

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As one might say, it’s only a matter of time before an undersea accident happens.

Kelvin Wong looks at history to suggest what might happen, and what steps have been taken by the region to mitigate such a disaster should one unfortunately happen.

Submarine Accidents in Asia: Preparing for the Worst
by Kelvin Wong
RSIS Commentary No. 112
Click here to download Commentary

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Lest We Forget

Sorry for sounding preachy, but today is after all Remembrance Day. 91 years ago, on this day, the guns in Europe fell silent, and what now is called the First World War, came to an end.

What we do in Military Studies at RSIS is not to glorify the organised violence that scholars call war. But we seek to understand it, we seek to understand the military as an organisation, and the people who comprise it. We seek to understand why wars exist, how they are fought, how they end. In so doing, we hope our little community has helped to bring a little illumination into the darkest chapter of human history.

The First World War was not always known by this name; it had been called the ‘War to end all wars’. So much for that one! I seriously doubt that we have seen the last of the ‘great’ wars of our collective past, the nuclear peace/democratic peace/interdependent peace/liberal IR/constructivist IR (delete as appropriate) theories notwithstanding.

So, lest we forget, we should all keep those fallen in battle in our thoughts today. George Patton allegedly said he did not want his men to die for their country, but rather to get the ‘other guy’ to die for his country. But in the end, someone always dies, and that someone is in the final analysis no different from us.

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In the final examination of his course on the RMA, colleague Dick Bitzinger likes to ask his students to write a memo on what the Armed Forces of the region might look like in 10 years time.

B.Loo’s latest commentary suggests a short answer, though his reponse raises more questions, and thankfully so.

My take is uncertainty in this case can be a good thing for it can prevent an arms-race. Afterall, if you don’t know what the race is about, and there’s no consensus on where the end might be, a country can’t possible participate in, or start, one.

The present challenge it seems is the immense cost of modern weapons systems. Everybody, dust your copy of Mary Kaldor’s The Baroque Arsenal (what? You don’t have a copy?!) and read it again (what? you haven’t already read it once over?)!

The Armed Forces of Southeast Asia in 2020
by Bernard Loo
RSIS Commentary No. 110
Click here to download Commentary

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