The Defense News version

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
22 February 2008

The Washington-based weekly Defense News is one of the most informative of the many military and defence journals on the market. As well as topical and detailed reports and analyses, it gives independent researchers useful insights into the thinking of the United States defence department. On occasion, a single issue of the magazine provides multiple indications of the Pentagon's outlook. The current issue - which, as ever, requires a subscription to access most of its material - is an unusually good example.

The lead item is that the United States army is planning to equip its entire fleet of trucks and other tactical vehicles with "add-on" armour that can be quickly fitted and removed depending on the tasks set for particular vehicles (see Kris Osborn "U.S. May Armour Most Vehicles", Defense News, 18 February 2008) The term used is "scalable protection"; the requirement stems from the bitter experience of locally-made improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq and now Afghanistan (see "The Pakistan-Afghanistan abyss", 4 January 2008).

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

The scale of the operation is going to be huge. In addition to refitting armour to many thousands of existing vehicles, just about all of the army's 40,000 trucks and Humvees that it plans to buy in 2008-12 would require new levels of protection. At the core of the plan is the provision of kits to provide additional protection for the driver's cab; other kits would safeguard the rest of the vehicle, especially the floor. There will also be fire-suppression systems, and seats with four-point safety-belts and shock absorbers.

The US marine corps is following suit, adding scalable armour to their whole tactical vehicle fleet. This process has already started with the equipping of over 4,500 of its medium-weight vehicles, using an Israeli made product - Pulsan Armour; this is a further indication of the close links between the US armed forces and the Israeli Defence Force (see "Between Fallujah and Palestine", 22 April 2004).

None of this was anticipated as recently as 2003. But the bitter experience of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with the remarkable learning curve of insurgents when it comes to fighting US armed forces, means that there is no alternative. But the policy is revealing for more than its plans in these two arenas of war: it is also an indication of the kinds of wars the US military expects to fight in the coming decades. Another, intriguing example here is the development of a new type of artillery piece, the subject of a further article (see Kris Osborn, "U.S. Army Looks to New Cannon To Fight Insurgents", Defense News, 18 February 2008).

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's most recent book is Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 and why a new security paradigm is needed

This new self-propelled howitzer fires forty-five-kilogram rounds every six seconds; it can be readied for firing in thirty seconds, a quarter of the time of current systems. With a range of up to thirty kilometres, the gun is intended to counter the ability of small groups of insurgents to set up a rocket-launcher within a a couple of minutes, fire some rounds and then move on and disappear before the US military can respond.

Both the armouring of tens of thousands of army and marine-corps vehicles and the development of new rapid-fire guns are examples of the radical changes in thinking that are going on in the US military as they engage in their "long war" in Iraq, Afghanistan and possibly elsewhere (see "The hi-tech battlefield", 27 September 2007). It is all a long way from the cold war that was still the governing reality in the late 1980s, only two decades ago.

Yet such technological advances are still not enough for the US military, since they involve troops stationed on the ground. There remains a demand for an ability to strike anywhere in the world at short notice. One scheme to fulfil this objective involves equipping the B-2 "stealth" bomber with what is termed a "moving target kill" (MTK) capability; this will, according to manufacturers Northrop "...allow commanders to deal decisively with an increasingly decentralized and mobile enemy under all weather conditions" ("B-2 Takes on Mobile Targets", Defense News, 18 February 2008).

This creates its own problems, however: dropping bombs by plane takes time and isn't therefore "short term" enough. This challenge leads with circular inevitability back to the notion of "prompt global strike" - and converting Trident submarine-launched nuclear missiles to carry conventional high-explosive warheads (see "Global security: a vision for change", 11 April 2007). These could deliver their explosive charge almost anywhere in the world at little more than an hour's notice - if Congress, which is currently limiting funding for the programme, can be persuaded to support the programme.

This does not deter two analysts identifying an alternative (see Lance Lord & Tom Scheber, "Conventional ICBMs", Defense News, 18 February 2008). The idea is that as a number of the land-based nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles are taken out of deployment - as part of the US/Russian strategic arms reduction treaty (Start) - some of these should be converted to conventional use and be available "for a rapid response to serious threats thousands of miles from the United States and out of range of forward-deployed U.S. forces."

There are some awkward problems with the idea. If such missiles were deployed in silos in the current inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) bases in the American mid-west, and if they were aimed at targets in southwest Asia, they would drop their first stage boosters over Canada (which wouldn't go down too well in Ottawa) and they would then over-fly Russia (which wouldn't please Moscow). They could be based at experimental test-sites such as Vandenberg air-force base in California (which would solve both problems, but that would not be allowed under the terms of the Start agreement). Fortunately, from the authors' perspective, that treaty expires at the end of 2009 so this aspect at least shouldn't be a problem.

A glimpse of light

Thus, a single weekly issue of just one defence journal reveals a fascinating , combination:

* massive expenditure of money to protect US troops in conflicts that were never anticipated

* more money for a new counterinsurgency artillery system

* yet another idea to provide for prompt global strike.

One article in this current copy, however, presents an entirely different view (see William Matthews, "RAND: Build Society to Fight Insurgencies", Defense News, 18 February 2008). A study released by the RAND corporation on 11 February 2008 focuses on "Building functioning local governments, improving security and creating jobs..." as an alternative to the usual run of counterinsurgency operations. Whether an external state can even do such things in an acceptable manner when it is seen to be occupying a country is debatable, but the approach is at least an intellectual departure from the dominant one of the past few years.

The study points to the extraordinary discontinuities of approach (for example, the US Agency for International Development [Usaid], which would in principle be at the forefront of such a constructive policy, has lost 80% of its staff since the late 1980s); but it also claims that what might be termed civil counterinsurgency could be done for around 10% of the cost of the military approach.

Such a conclusion will not be at all welcome in the corridors of the immensely powerful defence lobby, nor will it be acceptable in and around the White House. But all the other programmes reported in this single issue of Defense News will be highly lucrative for this lobby, and (partly for this reason) far more likely to be implemented - at least until there is a radical change in leadership in the United States.

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