3 Ways War is Different Today Than in The Past

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

The longest war in American history lasted 13 years and caused the death of approximately 2,224 U.S. troops. It ended recently in Afghanistan.

This fact is surprising when you consider the sophistication of weapons involved (on the American side), the advanced military techniques used (that, incidentally, were designed to shorten, rather than prolong, effort), and the tenacity of our enemies. But the contours of wars have changed in recent times. Instead of decisive conflicts, wars have become protracted affairs that are fought over unpredictable terrain and mediums. Physical and military prowess is not enough to win a war; mental agility and patience have become necessary attributes as well.

Military skirmishes, which were once a diversionary tactic earlier, have become routine. The scenes of battle have also changed from remote outposts to the etherized confines of cyberspace and urban guerrilla warfare.

Iraq provided strong evidence of this last trend as American forces fought pitched battles against insurgents and terrorists in the streets of major cities. The rise of Islamic State, which has usurped cities in Iraq and Syria through shrewd calculation and guerrilla warfare, is further proof that cities are the new battlefields.

According to David Kilcullen, author of Out Of The Mountains, a book about urban guerrillas, four factors are responsible for the changing nature of warfare: population growth, urban migration, littoralization (increased habitation around coastal areas), and connections through technologies.

An example of these megatrends is the city of San Pedro Sula in Honduras. The city has the dubious distinction of being the “most dangerous city on the planet.” San Pedro Sula is the commercial capital of Honduras and is shaped like “a flattened arrowhead” pointing toward the port, the source of its economic activity. People, goods, and money traffic flow toward the port. Not surprisingly, San Pedros Sula has been the site of major gang violence and is also a major conduit in the drug trade industry. According to Kilcullen, anyone dominating the intersection (at which the north-to-south traffic bifurcates) has a chokehold on the Honduras economy.

The city, therefore, can teach us a lesson in urban warfare trends. Making connections between these trends can be the difference between winning and losing wars. Here are three such warfare trends.

1. Controlling alleyways and chokepoints

The layout and architecture of modern Paris evokes much wonder and compliments. But aesthetic beauty was as important as the ability to dissuade social unrest from an unruly population for its planners, when they designed the city. The result was a city that was as beautiful as it was defensible.

The French revolution occurred in narrow streets crammed with people and businesses. The emperor’s troops found it difficult to navigate alleyways and engage in street fighting when the revolution erupted.

Paris’s new architects widened those streets into boulevards and surrounded them with squares. Besides being light and airy, the boulevard and streets served another purpose: they enabled easy control of crowds. As Kilcullen writes in his book, the boulevards were exactly one cavalry squadron wide and the squares at each end of the boulevard enabled easy control of crowds through artillery mounted on each side. In his consultations with parliament, Baron Hausmann, the civil servant who oversaw the project, argued for more funding because the boulevards and squares were for “national defense” purposes.

The “Paris effect” (if it can be called that) has only become sharper in recent times as increasing urbanization gobbles out empty spaces. But modern countries cities (especially in developing countries) grow in an unplanned and haphazard manner. This organic growth leaves them inherently vulnerable to security lapses and, consequently, terror attacks and battles.

Indian firefighters attempt to put out the fire at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai after terrorist attacks in November 2008. Photograph: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images

Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images

As illustrated in the case of San Pedro Sulas, despite its outwardly chaotic appearance, the urban city agglomerates at specific choke points. Terrorists and urban guerrillas can take advantage of these city choke points to inflict the maximum possible damage on its citizens.

The 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, which left 172 dead and injured another 304, best exemplified this nature of urban warfare. The attackers infiltrated Indian territory in a fishing vessel and landed at a busy jetty inside coastal slums in the suburbs of Mumbai.

They immediately proceeded toward South Mumbai, where much of the economic activity occurs in the city, after landing. Here, they chose high profile targets such as the world’s largest transit railway station, a luxury hotel, and one of the few remaining Jewish prayer houses of Mumbai.

Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistan-based terror group which planned the siege, spread word about it through Twitter and communicated with the attackers through easily available mobile phones. Finally, the attackers did not use weapons of mass destruction or particularly high tech equipment. Instead, for opted for the personalized and prolonged terror of small guns and improvised grenades.

The American army fought a similar battle in Fallujah. A short and deadly assault on the city turned into a six-week battle with numerous casualties on both sides.

Therefore, it is important for armies to calibrate their offensive tactics for prolonged urban warfare. “Shock And Awe” may be impressive in the short term, but it just doesn’t cut it in the long term.

A Yemeni boy (C) walks past a mural depicting a US drone and reading ' Why did you kill my family' on December 13, 2013 in the capital Sanaa. A drone strike on a wedding convoy in Yemen killed 17 people, mostly civilians, medical and security sources said, adding grist to mounting criticism of the US drone war. (Photo by Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images)

Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

2. Remote warfare’s incomplete promise

Much has been made about the possibilities of remote warfare.

The promise is seductive: control over territory without committing ground troops. In turn, this helps leaders avoid expensive political and human capital to control foreign territories. Known as the Obama doctrine, remote warfare enables drones and remotely powered airplanes to wreak considerable damage in distant territories.

But modern wars are about more than physical dominance. They are also about minds. As such, any effort that disregards the importance of operational forces on the ground misses the point about modern war completely. The connected nature of modern economies and information channels makes it impossible to assume that physical battles will result in mental subjugation. In Kilcullen’s words, this is about the theory of competitive control (between insurgents or terrorists and armed forces).

Two examples from the Middle East, where America is involved in multiple battles, illustrate these problems.

Non-state actors, such as the Islamic State and Hezbollah, offer two contrasting approaches to this problem. ISIS and similar groups, like Al Qaeda In Iraq, used terror to subjugate Sunni Muslims. They conducted public executions, shootings, and used a wide variety of methods to strike terror in the hearts of Iraq’s Sunni population.

But they were tolerated because they offered protection from Shia militias and government forces (which were predominantly Shia). That is until U.S. forces teamed up with Iraqi forces to fight them.

Hezbollah, which functions as a state within a state in Lebanon, tried a different tactic. It offered vital public services and financed reconstruction projects destroyed by the 2006 war with Israel. The Shia group lost the physical battle with Israel; but it ended up with valuable political capital, which helped legitimize it and win points within the Shia community, even among its hardened critics.

Therefore, it is necessary for states to augment remote warfare with physical presence.

This image of Earth's city lights was created with data from the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) Operational Linescan System (OLS). Originally designed to view clouds by moonlight, the OLS is also used to map the locations of permanent lights on the Earth's surface. (Photo by NASA/Newsmakers)

Source: NASA/Newsmakers

3. The effect of connected states on future wars

Much has been written about the effects of social media. Perhaps, the most famous example is that of the Arab Spring .

But the connected revolution is about much more than social media. It is also about a revolution in telecommunication and the flow of information in war zones between non-state actors. For example, Somalia, which is considered a failed state, has rates of cell phone usage that approach 25%, despite the constant strife and violence. According to Kilcullen, it has a “vibrant remittance system between coastal cities such as Mogadishu, its capital city and the Somali diaspora, which amounts to about 10 percent of the total population.”

There are, of course, the economic benefits of remittances. But that is just one side of the story within the context of urban warfare. In addition to remittances, the network connections also enable weapons, drugs, and contraband smuggling and, also, the passage of piracy and terrorism.”

In places, such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, social media forces were responsible for inciting revolutions. More recently, the Syrian government cut off access to the Internet after the medium emerged as a useful conduit mechanism for terrorists to conduct their activities. The efforts by ISIS to draw foreign recruits and fighters to its cause represents the opposite end of the spectrum.

Therefore, a new front has opened up in war, and it is not physical. The theater of war has become global, with the emergence of the Internet. To fight such wars, a cyber warfare strategy is as important as an on-the-ground strategy.

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