The age of high-tech war: after Libya

There is intense rethinking in the Pentagon about the “war on terror”. The outcome of the Libyan conflict will reinforce its principal trends.

When Donald Rumsfeld was appointed George W Bush's defence secretary in 2001, he had the clear aim of fighting wars with minimal “boots on the ground”. From that point, the United States would fight its enemies mainly from the air and the sea. This vision of a high-tech military age saw armies as increasingly redundant.

After the 9/11 atrocities this line of thinking was exemplified in the termination of the Taliban: the chief instruments were air-power, a rearming of the Northern Alliance of warlords, and the deployment of a few hundred special forces to target, coordinate and undertake some direct raids.

The vision gained further momentum in the destrution of the Saddam Hussein regime in March-April 2003: here the operation used air-power, multiple rocket-launchers, and far fewer troops than had been used to push the Iraqis out of Kuwait in 1991.

By 1 May 2003, when Bush made his famous “mission accomplished” speech on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, Rumsfeld and his associates seemed vindicated. Afghanistan and Iraq were coming under western influence, including hosting big US bases; several central Asian republics were providing facilities that would increase US capabilities in an oil- and gas-rich region; and Iran, it was believed, would be constrained by the much bigger US military footprint in the region. Perhaps most welcome of all was the conviction that Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq would establish a truly free-market economy with minimal financial regulation, a flat-rate tax system and wholesale privatisation of state assets.

It all went desperately wrong. A new report by the Oxford Research Group maps the damage (see A War Gone Badly Wrong - The War on Terror Ten Years On, September 2011). This cites the Eisenhower Research Project study that estimates the human and financial cost at 225,000 people killed, 7.8 million refugees and $4,000 billion potentially spent (see "The harvest of war: from pain to gain", 28 October 2010).

The costs and the ambitions persist: plans are reported to keep US soldiers in Afghanistan until 2024, the withdrawal from an insecure Iraq is proving problematic, and al-Qaida affiliates are active in west and east Africa as well as south Asia (see "Al-Qaida: an enduring insurgency", 1 September 2011).

The dark matter

The fact that so many of the problems the war encountered derived from the presence of hundreds of thousands of “boots on the ground” has provoked serious rethinking in and around the Pentagon. Much of it involves an intensification of two existing trends.

The first is the very much greater emphasis on special forces (see Dana Priest & William M Arkin, “'Top Secret America': A look at the military's Joint Special Operations Command”, Washington Post, 3 September 2011).  The US joint special-operations command is reported to have increased tenfold in personnel since 9/11, while receiving very little attention. The special forces operate in “regular” war-zones like Afghanistan and Iraq, and less regular theatres such as Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. Ther secrecy exceeds that of the CIA; one Navy Seal is quoted: “We're the dark matter. We're the force that orders the universe but can't be seen”.

The second trend is the widespread use of many types of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) or drones. The speed of development of these systems is staggering and; while it is concentrated in the United States, other states (including Britain, France, Russia, China and especially Israel) are working hard to stay in touch. The UAS phenomenon amounts to a potential transformation of warfare, and is part of a returning emphasis on air-power as its key ingredient.

Take one example, that of Boeing. This is a company currently developing two new UAS models - Phantom Ray and Phantom Eye. These are large aircraft with wingspans around that of a regional airliner. The Ray is stealthy and designed to operate in contested air-space; the Eye will be a high-flying hydrogen-powered device with extraordinary endurance-capacity - 100 hours in the air at a time (see David A Fulghum & Bill Sweetman, “Phantom Wings”, Aviation Week, 5 September 2011).

Iraq and Afghanistan have been the proving-grounds for expanded drone and special-forces operations. The latter are seen as key to the future, especially when the drones are integrated with the use of more regular strike-aircraft. Indeed, there is now a sense in western defence circles that - having seen a more old-fashioned approach go badly wrong - they can return to Rumsfeld's original ideas (Drone warfare: cost and challenge", 23 June 2011).

A paradigm postponed

The Nato experience in Libya is relevant in this context. The organisation regards the conflict - including more than six months of air-strikes, persistent use of drones, and numerous special-force operations under its belt - as a success-story, and clear evidence that the Rumsfeld view can be re-embraced.

The reports of many hundreds of air-strikes have almost wholly ignored the military or civilian deaths - indeed the operation is represented as a war against real-estate. There is little said either about the deep divisions in the rebel camp or the risk of persistent instability. It is as though these and other actual or potential shadows over the operation are glossed over as “remote war” returns once more to centre-stage (see "The casualties of war: Libya and beyond", 7 July 2011).

At the start of 2011, the manifest failures of the “war on terror” were so evident that it seemed plausible that a more general change in attitudes to international security could be encouraged: away from the “control paradigm” and towards recognition of the value of of ideas such as sustainable security.

Now, for the time being at least, that prospect is receding. There is even (alongside the blessed relief) a certain relish in the Libyan result, which is seen as proof that there are indeed effective and lucrative yet less costly new ways of doing warfare. That conclusion - call it Rumsfeld's revenge - may become a significant consequence of the Libya war. If so, it will ensure that even more years will pass before creative thinking on international security gains real influence.

About the author

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on twitter at: @ProfPRogers

A lecture by Paul Rogers, delivered to the Food Systems Academy in late 2014, provides an overview of the analysis that underpins his openDemocracy column. The lecture - "The crucial century, 1945-2045: transforming food systems in a global context" - focuses on the central place of food systems in human security worldwide. Paul argues that food is the pivot of humanity's next great transition. It can be accessed here.

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Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international-security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on twitter at: @ProfPRogers