Archive for November, 2012

An interesting article, courtesy of the BBC (available here) on the possibility that the recent operational successes of the Israeli Iron Dome technology in protecting Israel from missile attacks from Gaza. It is believed that Iron Dome had an 85% success rate against these Palestinian missile attacks. For some analysts therefore, Iron Dome may presage a game-changing phase in warfare.

The BBC article suggests a more cautious assessment. As the article suggests, “Missile defence may not yet be a game-changer, but it must now be a growing consideration in the calculations of Israel’s enemies.” There are, in other words, several considerations.

For one, the cost of the system. Each missile that Iron Dome launched to destroy incoming Hamas missiles costs in the range of US$50,000. Hezbollah is estimated to have about 60,000 missiles in its possession, not counting the missiles that Hamas might possess, or that other hostile Arab states might be willing to send to either Hamas or Hezbollah. The missiles that Hamas fired at Israel have an estimated value of several hundred dollars, which represents a huge cost imbalance.

Secondly, the multi-layered missile defence system that Israel is continuing to establish is potentially counter-acted with either quantity or with other counter-measures. All Israel’s opponents need to do is to fire more missiles that Israel’s missile defence systems can identify, track, and shoot down. Allied to the cost imbalance, and this becomes a potentially significant counter-measure against Israeli missile defences.

Furthermore, history suggests to us that any technological advantage is necessarily temporary in nature; opponents invariably find some way of counter-acting these technologies, and restoring at least tactical balance. Similarly, Israel’s opponents will almost inevitably find some ingenious (and probably low-cast) counter-measure that nullifies the tactical advantages that Israel’s missile defence systems currently enjoy over their putative opponents.

Finally, and this is something that the BBC article also points to, even if tactical superiority afforded by such missile defences can be maintained indefinitely, this surely is not a political solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict; a better strategic solution ultimately needs to be identified.

Extrapolating from this one case, therefore, a similar argument can be made for the case of non-offensive defence, which became intellectually fashionable for a while in the 1990s, and which its enthusiasts have been keen to resurrect with the advent of the Revolution in Military Affairs. Ultimately all technological solutions are necessarily temporary in nature; a counter-measure against an extant technological advantage is inevitably going to be found. Tactical advantages that accrue as a result of technological superiority is never a strategic solution to any conflict.


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An interesting post from Naval War College Professor James Holmes on who was the greatest strategist – Sun Zi or Clausewitz (available here).

As James points out, citing the late JC Wyllie, “the domain where we operate makes a difference…. Airmen tend to see things one way, as do seamen, soldiers, diplomats, or anyone else.” In a sense, therefore there may be no such thing as a “greatest of them all”.

That being said, James points out that Clausewitz unlike the other candidates was as much an advocate of particular methods of warfare as he was an analyst of war: “Clausewitz resonates with me more than the others simply because his insights are more fundamental. He respects his enemies, as befits someone who fought Napoleon and often lost. Sun Tzu insists that those who read his book win every time. Mao conveys a sense of Marxist-Leninist inevitability. Clausewitz refuses to sound such a cheery note. For him, strategy isn’t about our acting on some inert mass, an adversary with little capacity to adapt or innovate. Strategy is about interacting with living, breathing adversaries who have as many brain cells as we do and as much resolve to prevail. If we haven’t overthrown the enemy, we are bound to fear he will overthrow us.

Giving opponents their due means taking them seriously. That’s the proper attitude to take into international competition—and a useful starting point for strategic wisdom.”

War, in other words, is too complex a phenomenon to be reduced into a series of sterile maxims. Its very dynamic nature recalls the words of Helmuth von Moltke the Elder: No operations plan survives contact with the enemy. You start out thinking your opponent will behave in a particular manner, adopt a particular set of strategic choices; and you will plan your own strategic actions thereafter. Your opponent will almost certainly confound your expectations of him, unfortunately, and you will be forced to adjust your initial plans and strategic choices thereafter.

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A think piece (available here), written by Ron Sargent, and which came out in MIlitary Review in 2005, so it is a bit dated. That being said, much of what Sargent wrote on back then I believe continues to be true.

In Sargent’s words: “There can be no tolerance for the cultural ignorance of media-amplified “strategic cor- porals” (junior officers and soldiers at the forward edge of the battle area) whose words and actions can affect strategic outcomes. The information genie is out of the bottle, and from now and into the future, Army strategic legitimacy will be closely examined. We cannot fall victim to self-inflicted death by a thousand cuts.” All the more so today, when smart phones are ubiquitous, and the concept of citizen journalism no longer considered cutting-edge thinking, but already part of the new norm.

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The text below is a verbatim re-posting of an important article, written by Jimmy Chan, that came out in The Online Citizen on 17 November 2012 (also available here).

As my colleagues and I have argued in previous posts (here, here, here, and here)military training has to strike a very fine balance between training realism and rigour on the one hand, and safety on the other.

It goes without saying that we need to protect our sons and daughters in service before they can protect us.

Reports on the findings of the inquiries into the death of full-time National Servicemen Dominique Sarron Lee and Tan Mou Sheng, coming just days after Remembrance Day, make for some tragic reading. Amidst the details of what went wrong and who were at fault was a short mention that Dominique’s mother, Ms Felicia Seah, has been visiting her son’s grave in Choa Chu Kang Cemetery every day since he died in April. How depressing is that?

My own experience in NS tells me that safety is enforced, but perhaps the emphasis is on the more obvious aspects such as the handling of guns and explosives. What could be neglected sometimes are the other things that can kill as well — in this case smoke grenades and vehicles. In an adrenaline-laden environment full of young chaps not even old enough to vote, it’s easy to get all cavalier during training, as evident from a detail MP Alex Yam pointed out about the higher rate of accidents on Fridays. That is where the more senior officers come in. Unfortunately in these two cases it was the senior officers who had failed Dominique and Mou Sheng.

Five NS-related deaths this year come as quite a shock, but just as shocking is Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen’s reply when asked about the safety culture in the SAF: “The Chief of Army has assured me this is an isolated problem… My other source of assurance is the vehicle rate accidents, and it’s fairly low – 0.5 to 0.6 per 100,000 km.” I’m not sure what the minister expected the COA to say. Admit that it was totally his fault?

It is a tragedy on a national scale that no further questions will be asked beyond this lame parliament sitting; no media to poke further and no second opinion from experts other than those in the Committee of Inquiry that I assume was appointed by the government. As it is I can’t even make out what exactly is the compensation given from reading the news report.
In the UK, we get news too regularly of British soldiers getting killed in Afghanistan. I often wonder how the people here feel about their sons dying in a war that is not their own, protecting a country that is not theirs. But if that’s hard to fathom, deaths in peacetime training must be even harder to accept.

According to the Straits Times report: [Ms Seah’s] younger son, Daryl Shane Lee Rui Guang, 16, is slated for national service in two years’ time, and she is worried about that.
Daryl, an N-level student, said he is concerned about his safety but he knows he will need to serve his NS. “I am the only son left now. I cannot let anything happen to me. I need to take care of my mother,” he said.

If you have watched Saving Private Ryan you will be aware of a rule they have in the US called the Sole Survivor Policy. I can’t find any evidence of any other country having such a policy, but perhaps MINDEF can exempt little brother Daryl from NS, or at least from combat duties? Scant consolation, of course.

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A fascinating, and sometimes troubling, debate that appeared in the New York Times (available here) on the use of targeted killings and assassinations, precision drone strikes against combatant commanders.

Alan Dershowitz, Felix Frankfurter professor of law at Harvard Law School, addresses the issue of proportionality:

If a combatant is appropriately subject to military attack, as the military leader of Hamas certainly was, then targeted assassination may be the preferred legal and moral course. It is certainly better than a broad military attack that might endanger large numbers of noncombatants. Targeted assassinations are intended to limit collateral damage by focusing specifically on the combatant. Every reasonable effort should be made to avoid collateral damage. Sometimes it is impossible to eliminate completely all risk to noncombatants. In such cases, the military value of the target must be weighed against the likelihood and degree of collateral damage. The rule of proportionality should be the guiding principle.

Assassination will often be the least bad alternative in an inevitable choice of evils. It is sometimes argued that targeted assassination should never be permitted because it is a form of “extrajudicial killing.” This view is absurd: all military deaths are extrajudicial (as is killing in self-defense and shooting a fleeing felon). If a judicial element is to be added to targeted assassinations, it could take the form of a warrant requirement. Under such a requirement, the military or the executive would be obligated to seek a judicial warrant setting out the basis for why the target is an appropriate one, and why the risk of collateral damage is warranted. When time permits, such a warrant could be sought prior to the military action, but when immediate action is required by exigent circumstances, the warrant could be obtained after the fact. This is far from a perfect solution, but it introduces a more neutral decision maker into the balancing process.

The alternatives to targeted killing are either to allow terrorists free rein in targeting civilians or to engage in undertargeted military actions that are likely to cause more casualties. Targeted assassination will often be the least bad alternative in an inevitable choice of evils.

Next, George Bisharat, professor of law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, addresses the issue of lawfulness versus wise policy:

Targeted killings may be lawful in extremely limited circumstances in which the targeted individual is actively engaged in combat in a theater of war or is not in a theater of war but directly involved in an imminent attack and cannot be apprehended — and the means of carrying out the killing must be proportional to the anticipated harm, and must not inflict undue injuries and deaths on innocent civilians. Targeted killings to retaliate for past deeds, or to deter others, are illegal under international law.

Four decades of Israeli assassinations of Palestinian leaders have produced only more determined opposition to Israeli policies.

Whether targeted killings are wise policy is a different question. If practiced only when legally justified, targeted killings should be rare; and if the basis for the judgment leading to a killing were publicly revealed, the policy might excite little controversy. This, however, is seldom the case. The procedures, standards and reliability of data that are used to mark an individual for death are virtually never transparent. Instead, the decisions are typically made in a manner highly insulated from public view, and on the basis of information that defies verification.

Governments that practice such killings, therefore, are in a position to assert their justifications largely without challenge — which may convince credulous domestic audiences, but are utterly unconvincing to others, particularly in communities where killings occur. That is one reason northern Pakistan has become such a cauldron of anti-American sentiment. That is also why four decades of Israeli assassinations of Palestinian leaders have produced only more determined opposition to Israeli policies.

Anyone seduced by the siren song of targeted killings, particularly by drones, should ponder the reality that drone technology is cheap and proliferating. Hezbollah has already launched drones into Israeli airspace. Would we accept the legality and wisdom of targeted killings were the policy turned against us?

Third, Micah Zenko, fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, addresses the issue of transparency and accountability:

Targeted killings are justified against significant and imminent threats of violent attack against a state’s territory.

They would require the aggressor state to provide an articulation of which international laws apply, so it can be held accountable for its actions. In addition, when targeted killings occur in a state outside of an aggressor’s territory, it should articulate whether it was done with the consent of the state, or was a violation of sovereignty.

Nations must be transparent about their adherence to international law and defend attacks’ proportionality.

Furthermore, targeted killings necessitate transparency regarding what procedural safeguards are in place to assure the principles of proportionality and distinction are being met when using lethal force.

Finally, an aggressor state should provide a public account of what processes are in place to investigate accidental civilian casualties, hold willful perpetrators of those actions accountable, and provide compensation to the families of unintended victims.

Targeted killings are exceedingly rare in the world, and routinely conducted by only a handful of states, like the United States, Israel and Turkey. Of them, only the United States has provided some justification for its actions. The Obama administration says that it uses lethal force only against “high-level” or “senior” members of Al Qaeda, who, in President Obama’s words, “would pose an imminent threat the United States of America.”

It also claims that its targeted killings comply with all applicable international law, without articulating which bodies of laws apply, but only claiming that they “are complimentary.” It also will not admit whether it receives the consent of states where the attacks take place, describe any procedural safeguards that would cover such actions as “signature strikes,” or acknowledge the existence of post-attack assessments or corrective actions.

Though the United States has conducted more than 400 targeted killings in nonbattlefield settings in the past 10 years, it has refused to provide even the minimal amount of information to determine whether they could be justified.

Fourth, Jessica Snapper, a security analyst working in Israel, sees israel’s targeting killing of the Hamas commander as a carefully calibrated attack:

The assassination of the Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari will no doubt provoke international criticism of the targeted anti-terror campaign by the Israel Defense Forces. It should be noted that Israel’s action was a mild response in light of the 9,000 Palestinian rockets that have targeted Israeli civilians since 2005. A targeted response is even more pressing given that Hamas has Fajr-5 and other long-range missiles that are capable of striking Tel Aviv. Gaza is densely populated and Hamas is known for using its own civilians as human shields, but Israel’s carefully calibrated attack against Jabari resulted in only one other casualty — another Hamas official.

The only unethical action you can take in warfare is the failure to act in the best interest of your people.

With that said, assassinations are generally an issue of national policy and international affairs, as they usually involve attacks on the territory of another sovereign state or entity. Using force in this arena is not only risky, but also always controversial, no matter what country engages in such an operation. Ultimately, security agencies are obligated to defend their citizens, and sometimes the use of targeted killing is necessary.

At the same time, such maneuvers must be executed meticulously so as to not cause an unwanted escalation. Many a critic has referred to assassinations as “unethical,” but the only unethical action you can take in warfare is the failure to act in the best interest of your people.

Finally, George Jonas, a columnist for The National Post in Canada, argues that precision saves lives in the long run:

I spent my childhood under friendly fire. The Allies bombed the city where I lived with my parents in Nazi-dominated Europe. We were Jewish. The American pilots were our friends, but after they passed there were smoldering holes in the ground and dead horses on the cobblestones.

“Why don’t they bomb Hitler?” I asked my father.

“They don’t know where he lives.”

Some think killing a nameless enemy is an act of war but targeted assassination is murder. They’re mistaken.

I didn’t realize at the time that I was calling for targeted killing – assassination. It just made sense to me that if you have a quarrel with someone you bomb him, not your friend. If you do, he may not be your friend for long.

But my father was right, too, because in the 1940s Allied pilots didn’t know where Hitler lived close enough to hit him, so it made sense to carpet-bomb every city marked on the map he occupied.

Some think killing a nameless enemy is an act of war but targeted assassination is murder. They’re mistaken, but if they were right, it would still be the act of assassination that would make it murder, not the act of targeting. An untargeted assassination would simply be mass murder. The confusion arises from thinking that “indiscriminate” means “unintentional,” but the two aren’t synonymous. Not intending to kill is a defense against a charge of murder; not caring whom to kill only makes a murderer a moron, a monster, a terrorist – or an antediluvian low-tech combatant.

Peace is the only defensible aim, but when a deal becomes impossible; when a kind word no longer turns away wrath, when the choice is reduced to resisting evil or not resisting it – and, of course, when the technology is available – opting for targeted over untargeted warfare may require rockets but no rocket science.

Where would you, dear reader, stand on this issue?

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Here is a very interesting report, courtesy of the BBC (available here). It basically argues that the number of wars has been in decline for some time, and the report suggests thereafter that it might be possible to imagine a future where wars no longer exist. Of course, the report accepts that conflict and violence will still be with us for some time to come.

Some time ago, the eminent scholar Stephen Walt posted this blog. As Walt points out, more than 30,000 Americans each year die from gun-related violence in the United States. OK, it is not international politics, but the point that Walt makes remains, I suggest, a very valid one.

So, to go back to the BBC article, when Steven Pinker suggests that while “[t]here are some parts to the brain that impel us to carry out violence, such as the thirst for revenge, feelings of tribalism, or the quest for dominance. But packed into the same skull there are motives that inhibit us from violence, like empathy and reason that allow us to see violence as a problem to be solved instead of a contest to be won”, the fact that within one country alone 30,000 people die each year through gun-related domestic violence forgive me if I am not overly enthused by Pinker’s argument. What is the point??? People still die through violence, whether through international politics-legitimated violence (called war) or otherwise. Even Pinker admits that violence in the form of terrorism still exists.

Well, guess what: war is violence perpetrated for political reasons, violence perpetrated by the state. Presumably being a state legitimises that violence. Terrorism is violence perpetrated for political purposes, except that in the modern context it is perpetrated by non-state actors. So, presumably the non-state status of such actors as al Qaeda (take your pick of ANY terrorist group!) delegitimises that violence?

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It is probably already axiomatic that about the most difficult type of military operations that can be attempted will be those conducted in urban areas. We instinctively already know this.

Now coming soon will be a detailed case study of the Battle of Stalingrad. Old Soviet documents were recently given access to military historians, and the first glimpses suggest an even more horrifying spectacle.

A report courtesy of The Independent (available here) provides a tantalising glimpse of what these declassified documents will tell us. For concerned scholars, military history buffs, this is something worth looking forward to.

As the Independent report indicates, “The first-hand accounts also bring to life the terrifying ordeals suffered by both sides in the gruelling house-to-house street fighting which dominated much of the battle. In some cases the Red Army would find itself occupying one floor of a building while the Germans held another. ‘In this street fighting, hand grenades, machine guns, bayonets, knives and spades are used,’ recalls Lieutenant General Chuikov. ‘They face each other and flail at each other. The Germans can’t take it.'”

Given that globally urban centres are growing in numbers and scale, does Staingrad then presage the kinds of horror we are likely to face in times of war between states?

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