Stepen D. Biddle Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Military Victory in the Information Age: Conversation with Stephen D. Biddle, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; January 27, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

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The Modern Warfare System

Let's take this apart, what you're saying, so our audience can understand it. The modern system is telling us how soldiers are employed, their training, and their function and action in the course of warfare to make victory possible on their side, either in offense or defense.

That's right.

Give us concrete examples of the concepts we're playing here. You talk about cover, you talk about suppression. Talk a little about that.

Cover and concealment is the heart of the modern system. If you're going to do something militarily useful in the face of this much firepower, you've got to get out from under it. The basic way of getting out from under it is use variations in the terrain to create obstacles between you and people that are trying to find you or trying to shoot you, and cover and concealment is tremendously available. The earth's surface is very complex as a military environment. As little as two feet of median elevation difference can conceal a prone infantryman from a machine gunner dug in with the barrel at true ground level, as a proper machine gun position is prepared to do. In fact, very few of us can keep our entire front lawns under observation with eyeballs at machine gun level. There's a lot of variation out there in the terrain that can be exploited, if you're properly trained to do it.

So in a way, these adaptations help us understand what goes on when the organizational and human element interacts with the technology. You conclude, and it's a compelling argument, that in the end, if one were to go to entirely technology, "Hey, artillery really works, let's just do that," then -- if not in this war, then in the next one -- you may live to regret it.

And armies have lived to regret it. One of the things I find interesting about the military history of the twentieth century is that you can look at it as a series of technological innovations that induce militaries to completely change what they do because they think that it's the magic bullet that's going to solve all their military problems. Then they discover the hard way, in real experience, that no, the new technology isn't quite as decisive as we supposed. They are gradually forced by the pressures of this very intensive natural selection environment back toward a set of principles for tactics and strategy that revolve around exploiting cover and concealment to reduce your exposure to fire and to enable you to move where your opponent cannot. Artillery in 1914 and '15 was just the first of these.

In your book there's a series of historical case studies where you apply your theory, but I think it's important for our audience to show the relevance of this to current policy debates. The new thing, the new gizmo, the new gadget is called the "revolution in military affairs," of which program Secretary Rumsfeld is a major advocate. We will read about what he's trying to do in the weeks and months ahead. What is the "revolution in military affairs"?

The claim is that new information technologies, plus new precision strike technologies, have created a world in which the military business of the nation can be done very extensively at long stand-off. From far away we can find any target we want to find, we can direct a weapon against it with great precision, and we can destroy it. The cliché is "anything you can see, you can kill," and in the future we'll be able to see everything. If that's so, warfare will not be a matter of the maneuver of ground forces and the exploitation of terrain. It'll be a problem of a long-range artillery barrage in which very precise artillery shells, or bombs or missiles dropped by aircraft, do all the killing without ground soldiers exposing themselves to enemy fire. It's all done by push-button at a distance.

Let's take a concrete example. The dream here, or the vision, is to say you have a small group of Special Forces on the ground with computers, identifying a target. That information is sent back to command control, which is, I guess, in Tampa, Florida, which then orders the targeting of planes offshore to bomb a particular cave or a particular building and wipe it off the face of the earth. That's what we're talking about here.

That's largely what it's become. The original set of ideas didn't even have the Special Forces operators on the ground. We would spot targets by satellite, or by radar suspended from an aircraft hundreds of kilometers away from the battlefield. We discovered in Kosovo that that didn't work so well, that cover and concealment by the enemy could prevent us from finding targets in this way.

The "version 2.0" of the revolution in military affairs, as we saw in the campaign in Afghanistan, was just what you described. In the popular conception of Afghanistan a handful of Special Forces commandos in the American military walk forward, find enemy targets, designate them with lasers, bring down the thunderbolt of Zeus to vaporize the target with a 2000-pound bomb, and walk forward in the blasted remains, conquering most of Afghanistan, in the process dragging forward a group of untrained Afghan allies who were along for the ride.

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