Archive for July, 2012

An entry, courtesy of the highly regarded Kings of War blog, by colleague Professor Paul Mitchell (no, not the hair care products guy!) of the Canadian Forces College, which can be accessed here.

Paul writes about a recent joint exercise between the 33rd Canadian Brigade Group and elements of the US 1st MEF. Paul’s blog basically describes the joint exercise, and intersperses his description with his usual analytical scalpel.

The key issue, as Paul notes, is the human interfaces that necessarily underpins the long and complicated staffwork that plans and precedes the deployment of even a relatively small group like a brigade, which in the Canadian Army numbers about under 8,000 troops. And this staffwork is necessarily the domain of what a former SAF Chief Defence Scientist referred to as ‘wet’ware’, that is, the human operators behind any weapons system or technology.

As his conclusion notes, “The overall impression left at the conclusion of the exercise is a human one, not a technological one. True, information technologies in terms of how the Brigade’s forces were marshaled and employed were evident throughout. True, these technologies were critical in requesting and managing the long range forces that turned the lop-sided battle the Brigade fought. However, it was the ability of the different groups of people within the headquarters to use the resources under their direction to produce a collaborative result in a highly dynamic situation. In many ways, it is this human capability rather than the excellence of its technology which explains the effectiveness of Western armies.”

One vignette offered by Paul refers to Operation Totalize, which was a Canadian Army operation to effect an Allied breakthrough at the French city of Caen, after the successful Operation Overlord, the landing of Allied troops at Normandy in 1944. Paul writes, “Despite its innovative nature and successes early in the battle, Totalize failed to close the Falaise gap. USAAF bombers struck friendly targets; untested armoured units failed to press home the attack and laagered early in the battle; units became lost and failed to properly coordinate their attacks. Arguably, Simmond’s staff, particularly at the divisional level, lacked the skill to coordinate a welter of resources in the confusion of battle.” I would argue that at least one key element of the eventual failure, the so-called ‘friendly fire’ from USAAF bombers, was part and parcel of the so-called fog and friction of war, which the great Clausewitzian scholars like Christopher Bassford referred to as the non-rational elements of the Clausewitzian Trinity. That is something that, I suspect, even the best staffwork would never be able to prevent.

Many thanks to Paul for volunteering to let us reblog his Kings of War submission!


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Two fascinating commentaries on the current South China Sea problems for our readers’ consideration.

The first, from the Council on Foreign Relations’ Joshua Kurlantzick, Fellow for Southeast Asia, (available here) argues that the on-going spat has the potential to degenerate into a shooting conflict, if tensions are not managed properly. Joshua suggests that a resolution will demand a more high-profile ASEAN Secretary General, supported by an ASEAN Secretariat with significantly strengthened powers and more resources.

The second, from Luke Hunt for The Diplomat (available here), examines the fallout from the recent ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting, which had failed for the first time to produce a consensus final communique at the end of the meeting.

The problem, it seems, might well be how different ASEAN countries view the role of China. Cambodia, who had chaired the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting, has received considerable amounts of economic and financial assistance from China, and some commentators suggest that this increasing economic reliance on China had an effect on Cambodia’s chairmanship of the meeting. In particular, as Luke Hunt writes, “Cambodia refused to cater for Manila’s demands that any statement concerning disputes in the South China Sea must mention its standoff with China at Scarborough Shoal.”

So what will be next for ASEAN? Will the organisation ultimately prove itself capable of managing the increasing tensions in the South China Sea? Nobody wants a shooting conflict in this economically vital waterway. But what everybody wants might well end up as something that nobody can prevent.

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Associate Research Fellow Collin Koh comments on the recently signed submarine rescue agreement between the Singaporean (RSN) and Indonesian (TNI-AL) navies. Buying and fielding submarines is high on the agenda of many regional governments, given the perceived utility of these stealthy vessels in defence of national interests. However, such acquisitions (and projected acquisitions) have caused a number of concerns, such as a potential naval arms race in the region. Collin argues that this new, and unprecedented, agreement concerning a traditionally sensitive aspect of naval operations is a positive step for regional military cooperation and maritime safety. The commentary can be accessed here: http://www.rsis.edu.sg/publications/Perspective/RSIS1342012.pdf

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A really interesting piece from the BBC, available here, about how from the Persian perspective, Alexander the Great doesn’t look, well, so great after all. Alexander the Great was one of the two men that the great (OK, my own bias here) Prussian philosopher of war, Clausewitz, had called a true genius of war.

Yet, from the Persian perspective, Alexander comes out smelling distinctly less like roses. Alexander burnt the ancient Persian capital, Persepolis, to the ground, supposedly in revenge for Xerxes’ burning of the Athens. Alexander is also responsible for the destruction of the most important temples of the Zoroastrian faith.

More recently, what most histories call the Vietnam War is, from the Vietnamese perspective, called the American War. No surprises there! What struck me as interesting was how over a period of two years, I had heard the Vietnamese title of that war go from “The American War of Aggression” to just “The American War”.

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The article, reproduced below, can also be accessed here.

Scott Shane
FOR streamlined, unmanned aircraft, drones carry a lot of baggage these days, along with their Hellfire missiles. Some people find the very notion of killer robots deeply disturbing. Their lethal operations inside sovereign countries that are not at war with the United States raise contentious legal questions. They have become a radicalizing force in some Muslim countries. And proliferation will inevitably put them in the hands of odious regimes.

But most critics of the Obama administration’s aggressive use of drones for targeted killing have focused on evidence that they are unintentionally killing innocent civilians. From the desolate tribal regions of Pakistan have come heartbreaking tales of families wiped out by mistake and of children as collateral damage in the campaign against Al Qaeda. And there are serious questions about whether American officials have understated civilian deaths.

So it may be a surprise to find that some moral philosophers, political scientists and weapons specialists believe armed, unmanned aircraft offer marked moral advantages over almost any other tool of warfare.

“I had ethical doubts and concerns when I started looking into this,” said Bradley J. Strawser, a former Air Force officer and an assistant professor of philosophy at the Naval Postgraduate School. But after a concentrated study of remotely piloted vehicles, he said, he concluded that using them to go after terrorists not only was ethically permissible but also might be ethically obligatory, because of their advantages in identifying targets and striking with precision.

“You have to start by asking, as for any military action, is the cause just?” Mr. Strawser said. But for extremists who are indeed plotting violence against innocents, he said, “all the evidence we have so far suggests that drones do better at both identifying the terrorist and avoiding collateral damage than anything else we have.”

Since drone operators can view a target for hours or days in advance of a strike, they can identify terrorists more accurately than ground troops or conventional pilots. They are able to time a strike when innocents are not nearby and can even divert a missile after firing if, say, a child wanders into range.

Clearly, those advantages have not always been used competently or humanely; like any other weapon, armed drones can be used recklessly or on the basis of flawed intelligence. If an operator targets the wrong house, innocents will die.

Moreover, any analysis of actual results from the Central Intelligence Agency’s strikes in Pakistan, which has become the world’s unwilling test ground for the new weapon, is hampered by secrecy and wildly varying casualty reports. But one rough comparison has found that even if the highest estimates of collateral deaths are accurate, the drones kill fewer civilians than other modes of warfare.

AVERY PLAW, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts, put the C.I.A. drone record in Pakistan up against the ratio of combatant deaths to civilian deaths in other settings. Mr. Plaw considered four studies of drone deaths in Pakistan that estimated the proportion of civilian victims at 4 percent, 6 percent, 17 percent and 20 percent respectively.

But even the high-end count of 20 percent was considerably lower than the rate in other settings, he found. When the Pakistani Army went after militants in the tribal area on the ground, civilians were 46 percent of those killed. In Israel’s targeted killings of militants from Hamas and other groups, using a range of weapons from bombs to missile strikes, the collateral death rate was 41 percent, according to an Israeli human rights group.

In conventional military conflicts over the last two decades, he found that estimates of civilian deaths ranged from about 33 percent to more than 80 percent of all deaths.

Mr. Plaw acknowledged the limitations of such comparisons, which mix different kinds of warfare. But he concluded, “A fair-minded evaluation of the best data we have available suggests that the drone program compares favorably with similar operations and contemporary armed conflict more generally.”

By the count of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London, which has done perhaps the most detailed and skeptical study of the strikes, the C.I.A. operators are improving their performance. The bureau has documented a notable drop in the civilian proportion of drone casualties, to 16 percent of those killed in 2011 from 28 percent in 2008. This year, by the bureau’s count, just three of the 152 people killed in drone strikes through July 7 were civilians.

The drone’s promise of precision killing and perfect safety for operators is so seductive, in fact, that some scholars have raised a different moral question: Do drones threaten to lower the threshold for lethal violence?

“In the just-war tradition, there’s the notion that you only wage war as a last resort,” said Daniel R. Brunstetter, a political scientist at the University of California at Irvine who fears that drones are becoming “a default strategy to be used almost anywhere.”

With hundreds of terrorist suspects killed under President Obama and just one taken into custody overseas, some question whether drones have become not a more precise alternative to bombing but a convenient substitute for capture. If so, drones may actually be encouraging unnecessary killing.

Few imagined such debates in 2000, when American security officials first began to think about arming the Predator surveillance drone, with which they had spotted Osama bin Laden at his Afghanistan base, said Henry A. Crumpton, then deputy chief of the C.I.A.’s counterterrorism center, who tells the story in his recent memoir, “The Art of Intelligence.”

“We never said, ‘Let’s build a more humane weapon,’ ” Mr. Crumpton said. “We said, ‘Let’s be as precise as possible, because that’s our mission — to kill Bin Laden and the people right around him.’ ”

Since then, Mr. Crumpton said, the drone war has prompted an intense focus on civilian casualties, which in a YouTube world have become harder to hide. He argues that technological change is producing a growing intolerance for the routine slaughter of earlier wars.

“Look at the firebombing of Dresden, and compare what we’re doing today,” Mr. Crumpton said. “The public’s expectations have been raised dramatically around the world, and that’s good news.”

Scott Shane is a national security reporter for The New York Times.

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First came the news that the ASEAN meeting had ended without the customary joint statement; as the somewhat lurid Asiaone.com headline put it, “Southeast Asian summit breaks up in acrimony” (see here). This was swiftly followed by news that China is about to send a 30-vessel fishing fleet to the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea (see here). That was even more quickly followed by the news (see here) that a Chinese warship has run aground on the Half Moon Shoal, some 60-odd nautical miles from the Philippine island of Palawan. This places the location well within the internationally-recognised 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.

All this happening essentially over 2 days!

Conspicuously silent have been the multilateral security, common security and collective proponents. Equally silent have been the so-called ASEANists – the champions of the ASEAN-as-model-for-regionalism proposition. But I believe it is fair to now ask, “Whither ASEAN? Whither multilateral security?”

In the academic world, the war studies and strategic studies have been widely regarded as intellectual dinosaurs, fixated on a no longer relevant model of international politics, the Realist school focusing on the power principle, and often manifested in such might-as-right images as the Melian Dialogue and the Roman proverb, “Si vis pacem, parabellum (if you want peace, prepare for war).” Dialogue, habits of consultation and diplomacy (admittedly difficult to acquire, but with careful and patient husbandry absolutely attainable) were supposed to lead us to a new model of international politics that would focus on the issues of commonality, rather than the traditional Realist focus on differences, between states and other political actors.

Granted, it is probably too early to predict the demise of multilateralism and other common/collective security concepts. I may be an intellectual dinosaur belonging to the war/strategic studies community, but I nevertheless share my multilateralism colleagues’ desire for a better model of international politics. Unlike them, I am also enough of a pessimist to think that this better world is probably not realisable.

ASEAN was to some scholars held as a new successful model of regionalism, multilateralism, common/collective security. Many scholars admit that ASEAN’s success came during the last decade of the Cold War, and was really a result of the regional organisation being able to maintain the international spotlight on the Cambodian conflict. Nevertheless, the organisation’s ability thereafter to admit in its Cambodian conflict opponent (namely, Vietnam) and have that state function effectively as a worthy member of the organisation was regarded by these scholars of the resilience and flexibility of ASEAN. ASEAN’s ability to almost always come to a consensus agreement was also supposedly a hallmark of this success. Finally, the fact that ASEAN remains the centrepiece (apparently) of a whole range of other regional institutions (the so-called regional security architecture) was also supposed to be another testament of the regional organisation’s success.

The Security Architecture of the Asia-Pacific

I have always wondered about these various metrics of success of ASEAN. I personally always thought success is a reflection of actually having done something good, something constructive, something real. ASEAN’s ability to maintain international attention on the then-Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, okay, something good, constructive and real. The other two metrics of success that ASEAN scholars have claimed, those I am not too sure of.

So, now, in terms of the constructive, good and real, ASEAN’s failure to get a consensus on the recent and on-going spike in tensions in the South China Sea is, at least in my humble opinion, not a good sign of the organisation’s ability to resolve real problems.

In the absence of alternative security approaches, what is there left to us but Realism and military power?

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Another RSIS Commentary, this one written by colleague Adrian Kuah, and available here, on how the issue of complexity can be understood and approached by policy makers. Adrian argues that as policy-making moves from clockwork to network, one implication arising out of complexity science is that every once in a while, the best approach might be to do nothing.

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