Clear Strategic Thinking About Drones

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

Note: Last week (on October 7, 2014) I had the privilege of speaking at the West Point Philosophy Forum on the subject of “Killer Machines” (aka drones).  A representative version of my remarks follows:

…we should start with the proposition that drones are simply another, arguably more effective and more efficient, variant of airpower. Drones are a tactical weapon that should be “neither glorified nor demonized.”  So how should we think strategically about this new airpower tool?

Unfortunately, in invoking strategy, many look to simple “cost benefit analysis” (Stimson Report, p. 11). Journalist Tom Ricks prefers a different term, the “Law of Conservation of Enemies.”  Or, more famously, right here at West Point this past May 28, the Commander in Chief stated that in using drones, “our actions should meet a simple test: we must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield.”

The problem with this analysis is that it considers each strike on it’s particular tactical merits. For example, did “we” finish that engagement +1 or -1?  We end up seeking a series of tactical victories in the hopes that the overall picture will end up favorable to “our” side.  This is the rough equivalent of a football team measuring the net thrust of an offensive versus a defensive line (i.e. who pushed who in what direction, and how far).  You can see how it might be a useful indicator, but must acknowledge that this only tells one part of the game’s story.  

Beyond this narrow tactical focus on “sum of battle,” there is more to thinking strategically about a particular tool like drones.  We should look to other measures; how we can use this weapon in a sustainable and comprehensive way; will this produce a durable strategic effect consistent with our vital national interests?

 

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Destroying Value: ISIS, The Anaconda, and War on the Cheap

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

This past week, while reading and thinking about the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), two figures jumped out at me. The first comes from an interview with the head of (Iraqi) Kurdish intelligence, who said he believes that ISIS “generates something equivalent to $6 million a day by the selling of oil, wheat, taking taxes from people, ransoms, and still getting donations.”  The second figure, just released by the Pentagon, is how much the American component of the bombing campaign against ISIS costs US taxpayers per day: “7 million to $10 million per day in Iraq and Syria.”  

As we spend so much time considering military effectiveness (which is, admittedly, a terribly important measure), one underestimated component to any strategy is efficiency.  In essence, how sustainable are your military actions?  Consider for a moment, the expense incurred to combat the threat in Afghanistan, as related by The Washington Post’s George Will in a 2011 column:

Jim Lacey of the Marine Corps War College notes that General David Petraeus has said that there are perhaps about 100 Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. “Did anyone,” Lacey asks, “do the math?” There are, he says, more than 140,000 coalition soldiers in Afghanistan, or 1,400 for every Al Qaeda fighter. It costs about $1 million/year to deploy and support every soldier – or up to $140 billion, or close to $1.5 billion/year, for each Al Qaeda fighter. “In what universe to we find strategists to whom this makes sense?”

This was the essential “Long War” (or “War on Terror”) imbalance.  Extremely lofty ends – ending terror and remaking the Middle East – without correspondingly sustainable means with which to achieve these generational-length tasks.  The great domestic fear in the middle of the last decade was that the US was “waging war on the cheap,” and so spent enormous sums of money on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  It seems that experience is correcting/tilting the balance to a more stable expenditure.  And “war on the cheap,” in the right circumstances, can be beneficial.

In comparison, taking on ISIS seems to be a bargain at the $7 million/day mark (or, as a car salesman might put it, “price point”).  Moreover, Thomas Schelling has helpfully pointed out that military force can be used to “destroy value.”  In this case, ISIS derives most of its revenues for support of military operations through oil (all those black flags don’t just pay for themselves!) – not unlike the American Confederacy’s heavy reliance on “King Cotton.”  In that conflict, General Winfield Scott’s initial “Anaconda” plan was one of broad concentric pressure that slowly constricted the opponent into submission.  It was political pressure that forced President Lincoln to ask Scott to speed it up through aggressive and active landpower, which will definitely not be the case today.  Attrition is clearly sustainable here – spending $7-10 million/day (a very reasonable sum for a country with a $15 trillion GDP) to destroy a significant amount of ISIS’s entire GDP (roughly $6 million/day). But sustainability is not the only consideration.

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Mitchell Test for Cyber

Friday’s Last Word – Pull Pin, Throw Grenade, Run Away: A provocative thought to kick off the weekend…

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

I’m a little tired of the back-and-forth between cyber “experts” (an overused superlative when one considers how early it is into this domain’s usefulness in security affairs), particularly the deliberately provocative expressions about a potential “cyber Pearl Harbor.”  In my mind, Richard Clarke’s 2012 book adequately represents the hype about the threat, while Thomas Rid’s 2013 book might be read as a response or a bucket of cold water to the keyboard.  Why doesn’t the cyber community put up or shut up?  Frankly, Stuxnet was not enough for proof of concept. Show us the money – especially with respect to cyber’s ability to create physical destruction in a useful or meaningful way. Or, as I’d put it: pass the “Mitchell Test.”

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Drone Warfare: The Sky’s the Limit

By First Lieutenant Jimmy Byrn

The sailors of the U.S.S. George Washington never saw it coming. In a matter of minutes the bridge was in flames, the flight deck severely damaged, and hundreds of personnel wounded or killed. They hardly had time to launch their own aircraft before they were swarmed by scores of fast-moving, heavily-armed robots with no fear of death and the ability to outthink even the smartest human being. And worst of all, this was only the first wave.

This scenario is no longer the stuff of science fiction movies. The possibility of planning for an event such as this may be mere decades away and the world is going to have to contend not only with new conventional drone doctrine, but also the question of where to draw the line with respect to the use of drones in conventional warfare.

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Collateral Damage and Societal Apathy

Friday’s Last Word – Pull Pin, Throw Grenade, Run Away: A provocative thought to kick off the weekend…

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

How much time do we as a society reflect on the damage we inflict on other societies in war?  Any at all? Don’t get me wrong, I’m clearly not a pacifist and certainly believe that the United States generally stands for good in the world.  But often – to do good – we have to do things that are not so good.  

Is this societal apathy a function of the size of our military?  That is, does Joe Citizen believe that since society has created extreme specialization in warfighting – he doesn’t bear any responsibility for conflict and war damage?  Author Sebastian Junger took this up recently in the Washington Post,

“The country approved, financed and justified war – and sent the soldiers to fight it. This is important because it returns the moral burden of war to its rightful place: with the entire nation. If a soldier inadvertently kills a civilian in Baghdad, we all helped kill that civilian. If a soldier loses his arm in Afghanistan, we all lost something.”

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Technology, Organizational Design, and Future Jointness

By Professor Robert Farley

Major Cavanaugh’s post brings to the fore one of the most critical issues facing any defense establishment: the relationship between technology and organizational design. How does the way in which we structure our military organizations affect military technological innovation? The short answer is that institutions both shape and manage technology.  The services set priorities for procurement and innovation that lead to technological transformation.  This is as it should be; specialists in land, air, and naval warfare know what they need, and should have a hand in pushing the defense industrial sector in the right direction. At the same time, organizations have to respond to disruptive, unanticipated technological change.  Military success over the last century had depended on having the capacity to manage such change.

Yet we struggle with major reform to our institutions; bureaucracies have ways of protecting themselves, often by mobilizing political influence. Institutions are good at pointing out how important they are, and what critical roles they play in existing structures. But granting that the technological environment in which we plan for and fight war in the future will differ considerably from the environment that exists today means that we have to consider how our institutional arrangements will shape the future. 

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