The sheer breadth of countries covered by the defence-themed analyses in this issue illustrates the dizzying scale of modern-day conflicts. Some are in full flow, others are receding and many are threatened; all require our attention.
In the Somali towns of Baidoa, Hudur, Ras Kamboni and the capital, Mogadishu, people are enjoying a peace and stability denied to them for years. Elders, imams, officials, teachers, traders and teenagers all tell of breathing a sigh of relief as the Islamist insurgent group al-Shabaab – “The Youth” – pulled out over recent months.
Such a turnaround was unthinkable even a year ago. Back then all these towns – and much of the rest of Somalia – were controlled by al-Shabaab, which developed a fearsome reputation for brutal public punishments, deadly terrorist attacks and slick jihadi propaganda. For a while, it was the only al-Qaeda affiliate to openly administer towns and territory.
The change is largely thanks to a military force made of African armies that is on the verge of pacifying Somalia, something the US and the UN have failed to do for more than 20 years. On Somalia’s battlefields, reality is catching up with the rhetoric of “African solutions to African problems”. There will soon be more than 17,700 African Union Mission (Amisom) troops in Somalia, from Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, Kenya and Sierra Leone (Ethiopia too, though it insists on commanding its own forces).
Five years of fighting hits hard. “It has taken a huge sacrifice from Amisom fighters – we have had many casualties,” Wafula Wamunyinyi, a senior African Union (au) official, told me. Official casualty figures are not made public, but security and diplomatic sources estimate that 600 have been killed. The au’s special representative to Somalia, Jerry Rawlings – the former president of Ghana who seized power in a military coup before ushering in democracy – puts Amisom’s success down to the heavy involvement of states in the regions that have a personal interest in al-Shabaab being defeated. “What we’re seeing here is a regional consensus, led by regional forces that have demonstrated the courage and the will to fight,” he said, as we bumped along a Mogadishu street in an armoured car.
The first 1,700 peacekeepers landed in Mogadishu in 2007, but found no peace to keep. During a visit to Mogadishu this year, Augustine Mahiga, the UN’s top diplomat for Somalia, described Amisom as a “peace-enforcement mission”. Amisom, he told me, had “pushed its Chapter VII [peacekeeping] mandate to the maximum. This is warfare.”
It took 18 body bags to convince Washington to pull its soldiers out of a wrongheaded, joint UN peacekeeping mission. Fewer than 18 months later, the last of 22,000 foreign peacekeepers left, the world turned its back and Somalia was abandoned to the warlords.
The era of al-Shabaab is the latest iteration of a civil war that has raged almost non-stop since 1989, when clan militias took up arms against the dictatorial government. But as soon as they achieved their aims, chasing out President Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, the warlords attacked one another. Brief respite came in 2006 when a grassroots organisation called the Islamic Courts Union (icu) defeated the clan militias, but their timing and choice of name were poor.
Looked at through Washington’s post-September 11 lens, the icu were terrorists and were quickly booted out by Ethiopia’s army, backed by US air strikes. Then al-Shabaab emerged as a more violent and radical offshoot of the icu, making Somalia a magnet for jihadis.
Al-Shabaab’s ability to attract recruits from the US and Europe – and trainers from Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere – alerted western security agencies helping Amisom get the finances and firepower it needed. Meanwhile, al-Shabaab’s will and ability to strike beyond Somalia’s borders – proven by a suicide bombing in Uganda that killed more than 70 people in 2010 – put neighbours Ethiopia and Kenya on edge. Wary of their security and economies, both countries were drawn into the fight last year.
In Baidoa and Hudur, towns in the east of the country, the Ethiopian military is clearly still in charge despite local administrations and the deployment of government troops. In southern towns such as Dhobley and Ras Kamboni, a powerful local militia backed by Kenya holds sway. It is still the gunmen who rule but signs of a return to life are evident. Children are playing football again in the late-afternoon light, while people sit in tea shops drinking and chatting.
“The most important thing for a human being is freedom,” Ali Noor Kasim, a clan elder in Ras Kamboni, told me. “Al-Shabaab took that away, but now it has been returned to us.”
The writer: Monocle’s Nairobi correspondent, Tristan McConnell has reported from across Africa for several years for a range of international publications.
An Iranian agent tries to recruit a Mexican drugs cartel to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador in an American restaurant. “Nobody could make that up, right?” asked US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last year. According to the FBI, that was the latest blow in a Middle Eastern Cold War between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran that has dragged on since 1979.
Dangling a few hundred kilometres above the states of the Persian Gulf like a geopolitical sword of Damocles, post-revolutionary Iran has long been the principal strategic menace for the sheikhdoms and emirates on the other side of the water. For years, Saudi Arabia led the conservative, pro-American camp in the Middle East against Colonel Nasser’s radical Egypt. By 1979, all that dissolved: Egypt made peace with Israel, and the Islamic revolution shook Iran. Almost as soon as he assumed power, Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s revolution, declared that “the concept of monarchy totally contradicts Islam,” and denounced Saddam Hussein’s secular government in Iraq.
Iran had always looked at the Arabs with a sneer. Who were these uncultured nomads to talk down to one of the world’s oldest and most sophisticated civilisations? This cultural condescension was overlaid with sectarian grievance. Iran is 90 per cent Shia, a sect that rankles with memory of historic persecution, whereas the states of the Arab League are over 80 per cent Sunni. The Saudi monarchy has reigned with the backing of the ultra-conservative Wahhabi religious establishment, which sees the ruling clerics of Iran as dangerous heretics.
Soon, the missiles started flying thick and fast. During the bloody Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, the Gulf states – helped by Saudi oil wealth – funnelled €50bn to Iraq every year. Saudi warplanes shot down Iranian aircraft, and diplomatic relations were severed in 1988.
Iraq wasn’t the only battleground. The Ayatollahs decided that the “export of revolution”, sudur inqilab, would stand at the heart of Iranian foreign policy. Even after the Government mellowed in the late 1980s, Tehran was fueling armed movements in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Palestine and elsewhere. The spearhead of this revolutionary zeal was the elite Quds Force, a powerful arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
The Saudis give as good as they get: funding the Taliban, fostering Pakistani extremists and, recently, sending cash and weapons to hardline Islamist rebels in Libya and Syria. In some ways, the Saudi-Iran rivalry has matured over the past decade, not least because Iran has grown in confidence. In removing the Saudi-backed Taliban, who had murdered 10 Iranian diplomats and allowed opium to flood into Iran, the West did Tehran a favour. Two years later, the West removed Saddam Hussein, and turned Iraq into a playground for Iranian operatives.
The Arab Spring has opened up new avenues for competition. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran believe that their geopolitical situation is slipping, which creates a toxic combination of insecurity and belligerence. Saudi Arabia, perturbed by the precedent set during Hosni Mubarak’s fall, has scrambled to bolster the Gulf Cooperation Council, a mostly anti-Iran bloc of states. It has also cracked down hard on Shia protesters in its oil-rich Eastern Province, and sent troops to quell Bahrain’s uprising.
Meanwhile, Iran is sending arms and advice to Syria – one of its only meaningful allies – and allegedly supporting Yemeni rebels on Saudi Arabia’s southern flank. Undeniably, Iran and its allies have sought to frustrate Western policies, but we should tread carefully in assessing claims of Iranian perfidy; their capabilities are often inflated for self-serving purposes. For example, when Iranian nuclear scientists were assassinated, Iran hit back by trying to kill Israeli diplomats in Tblisi, Bangkok and New Delhi. Each attempt failed miserably; in one case a would-be assassin blew his own legs off.
Elsewhere, Saudi Arabia has dismissed Bahrain’s tenacious Shia protesters – most of whom are sincere in their desire for democratic reform – as Iranian stooges. This is both untrue and dangerous. Saudi Arabia’s poisonous sectarian rhetoric and brutal policies will, over the next decade, radicalise minorities and make it harder to engage in desperately needed political reform.
What the Middle East needs is détente; what it will get is more acrimony. If the Assad regime falls then Iran, shorn of its ally, could respond by redoubling its efforts elsewhere. If Iran’s nuclear programme is attacked, missiles could rain down on Israel and the smaller Gulf states. With uncompromising regimes in both Riyadh and Tehran, both of which see regional geopolitics in zero-sum terms, expect a new and intensified phase of the Saudi-Iranian struggle.
The writer: Shashank Joshi is a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and a regular Monocle 24 contributor.
Just over three years ago, President Barack Obama laid the prospects for nuclear disarmament firmly on the line in a landmark speech in Prague, where he unveiled his vision of a world without nuclear weapons. It met with support on the ground: looking at trends in public-opinion surveys, the only country where there is a plurality of people in favour of retaining nuclear weapons is Pakistan.
In the US, something new is happening. Former military members are joining the movement, most recently the retired vice chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General James Cartwright. As soon as he took off his uniform this year he joined Global Zero, supporting a timeline for nuclear disarmament. Even some members of the Republican Party can see that nuclear weapons should no longer be a sacred cow when defence budgets are being cut.
The arguments for the US and Russia to retain their existing arsenals of 5,000 warheads apiece – plenty to destroy the entire planet – are threadbare. The commander of the US Strategic Command, General Robert Kehler, has said that the threat of nuclear war between the US and Russia is at the lowest level in his career, and therefore extremely remote. Yet, astonishingly, both countries remain in a Cold War posture of Mutually Assured Destruction (known, appropriately enough, as mad). Of the 19,000 nuclear weapons in the world today, 95 per cent are held by the US and Russia.
Cold War mentalities are still entrenched in the government bureaucracies of the five acknowledged nuclear powers, which are also the veto-holding permanent members of the UN Security Council: Britain, the US, France, Russia and China. The same goes for the Brussels headquarters of Nato. But even in France, where François Hollande is stubbornly in favour of maintaining the full panoply of the force de frappe provided by his nuclear options, there are the timid beginnings of a debate.
The theory of nuclear deterrence is undermined by the nature of 21st-century threats. Pakistan and India are arms-racing in textbook tradition, but Israel’s presumed nuclear weapons did not deter Hezbollah from firing rockets against its neighbour in 2006. North Korea acquired nuclear bombs as insurance despite the risk of military retaliation; Iran may be doing the same.
The difference now is that the global strategic landscape has changed since the end of the Cold War: nuclear weapons are useless against terrorists, computer hackers and cyberwarriors. The P5 – the five permanent members on the Security Council recognised as nuclear-weapon possessors in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – acknowledge that states need to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in defence policy.
It’s all smoke and mirrors. A modest pact such as New Start, ratified last year by the US and Russia, is touted as major progress, but it simply calls for a ceiling of 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads. At the same time, all P5 members are spending billions on modernising their arsenals and will throw more money at this effort over the next decade than in the 50 years of the Cold War.
Future arms-control deals between Russia and America have fallen foul of domestic politics. The same goes for the US Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty; negotiations on a global treaty banning the production of fissile material are stalled.
Obama himself has gone quiet, facing challenges from vociferous Republicans in Congress blocking every initiative in this election year. Then there’s France, which has played a leading role in blocking the removal of around 200 nuclear bombs deployed in five European countries since the Cold War, despite admitting that they serve no military purpose.
Obama admitted in Prague that nuclear disarmament may not be achieved in his lifetime. Transformational steps towards it may have to wait, but they are surely inevitable.
The writer: Anne Penketh, former diplomatic editor of The Independent, is currently the programme director of the British American Security Information Council.
Policy-makers have questioned whether the US’s “pivot” to Asia is a new tactic at all, or merely a recharacterisation of long-term policy. In Europe, the debate has been on whether this will mean that America turns away from traditional allies. But the real issue is whether the US is rebalancing in the right way; the answer is, unfortunately, no.
The focus of America’s Asia policy is in the security realm. Since President Obama’s trip to Asia last November, a number of new initiatives have been announced. A total of 2,500 marines are going to be based in Australia, and two new littoral ships will go to Singapore. The long-term negotiations with Japan over restructuring US bases in Okinawa have progressed with an agreement to reassign troops on rotation around Asia, Guam and the US mainland. In addition, new conversations are taking place with the Philippines and Vietnam.
But let’s take a step back. There are four main threats to the US from Asia-Pacific: North Korea (potential nuclear proliferation, state collapse and/or war with South Korea); escalation of territorial disputes; threats to open trade; and violent extremism. America’s error is in focusing on traditional forces for security. None of these threats – except a conflict between North and South Korea – are likely to involve American ground troops. Yet the US maintains over 50,000, troops in the region (of which 20,000 are ground forces).
Granted, the traditional threats (open trade routes, territorial disputes) are unlikely to go away soon, but they are joined by non-traditional security threats such as food and water security, cyber espionage and environmental challenges. These cannot be addressed by the military alone, requiring other instruments of foreign policy such as bilateral diplomacy, development assistance, economic leverage and multilateral engagement. There has been little mention of augmenting these arms of US power in Asia-Pacific.
These problems are exacerbated by the uncertainty surrounding America’s future security policy. There will be major cuts in the defence budget over the coming 10 years: $500bn (€400bn) with a possible additional $600bn (€490bn) to come; unnecessary troops are expensive.
The US presidential election in November also raises questions. Obama has taken a multilateral approach, distancing himself from the perceived unilateralism of his predecessor. However, Mitt Romney has made clear that he and his party have little time for this approach.
The US, as all other nations, has three means to meet future security dilemmas: increased efficiencies and focus; stronger partnerships; and lower expectations of reach. American foreign policy is stuck in the 20th century, but the international order is surging forward.
The writer: Xenia Dormandy is the senior fellow of the US Programme at Chatham House and author of the report, Prepared for Future Threats? US Defence Partnerships in the Asia-Pacific Region.
The German armed forces are in transformation. The long path to end conscription is complete and Defence Minister Thomas de Maizière says that the Bundeswehr is prepared to carry out military operations anywhere in the world. Chief of Staff General Volker Wieker has announced that he is ready to take on a new challenge: raising the percentage of women in military ranks from 9 per cent to 15 per cent across the services. In short, while the Bundeswehr will be a smaller force than in the past, it is no longer simply a military designed for the territorial defence of Germany as it was during the Cold War. The new Bundeswehr will contain significant capabilities for the full spectrum of conflict, to include peacekeeping, stabilisation and counterinsurgency.
Over the past decade, the German military has overcome the challenges it faced in learning how to intervene aggressively. Begrudgingly, German political leadership has accepted that today’s world does not include clear distinctions between war and peace and may require intervention in situations short of war. The German public is hostile to the deployment of forces abroad; German political leadership should be given credit for sticking to its mission in Afghanistan since 2003, despite public opposition of around 70 per cent. In 2010, the German government acknowledged that its troops in Afghanistan were not a stabilising force but engaged in a “non-international armed conflict”. The almost 5,000 German troops in Afghanistan are at war and this recognition by leadership may prove to be the most important cultural change of the past decade.
Minister de Maizière has outlined reforms that will allow Germany to deploy 12,000 troops for at least six months; the challenge will be to balance what may be €1bn in reforms with current operational requirements and preparation for long-term challenges. The second challenge is political: the willingness of the Merkel government to deploy forces and the Bundestag to support those deployments.
Decisions regarding the Libya conflict still haunt German policymakers. Fifteen months since they chose to abstain from imposing a no-fly zone at the UN and opt out of the Nato mission, some senior German officials believe their lack of participation was a mistake.
The direction in which the Bundeswehr is headed reflects an understanding that successful Nato military operations in Libya have not brought a “peace dividend.” Stability in Libya is not yet assured, while crises in Syria and Mali – and the threat of one in Iran – all serve as reminders that the Euro-Atlantic partnership faces challenges.
The maintenance of a flexible Bundeswehr will remain an imperative. Moreover it will require, as Minister de Maizière has stated, a public debate to “electrify” Germany on the need for an interventionist foreign policy.
The writer: Previously director of international affairs at ISAF in Afghanistan, Dr Mark Jacobson has also served in several positions at the US Department of Defense.
In the final scene of many a classic action film, the hero and villain point a gun at each other; the first one to blink is dead. Hollywood scriptwriters call it a “Mexican standoff”, and it’s a scene that is about to be played out for real in Latin America. In recent months the new left, dominant in the region since the beginning of the century, has been challenged by a resurgent and increasingly belligerent right, ready to use all means at its disposal.
The use of military might to gain political power was the rule in the 1970s; the result was a vicious circle of economic dependency, social tension and more violence. That began to be reversed almost a decade ago thanks to the savvy pragmatism of progressive political parties, the determination of social movements and a new generation of activists and politicians. Now Latin America has gained autonomy, it navigates the perilous waters of globalisation better than Europe and America and inequality, though still rampant, is on the retreat.
These changes are part of a wider phenomenon: the transference of global power from north to south. Until now, the Latin American right has been the loser. Voters in countries around the region have favoured centre or left-of-centre parties with an egalitarian agenda. Abroad, rising powers such as China, for all their alleged pragmatism, prefer to do business with governments whose geopolitical stance they can recognise and whose ideology they largely share.
But the right is making a comeback. Last month, a right-wing dominated congress ousted left-leaning president Fernando Lugo in Paraguay. Its methods were familiar, albeit more subtle. Rather than having the army storm the palace, as was the case in Honduras, the Paraguayan right used a disciplinary procedure that lasted a couple of hours and gave Lugo no chance to defend himself. The pretext was the perceived mishandling of a conflict between police forces and land-occupiers. Following Lugo’s departure, Paraguay was suspended from crucial regional organisations such as Unasur and Mercosur.
In Colombia, a slight move to the centre by liberal president Juan Manuel Santos meant anger from a vociferous right led by populist ex-president Álvaro Uribe. Uribe has tried to create a rift between the army and Santos, accusing the latter of being soft on security.
In Bolivia, a police strike was denounced by President Evo Morales as a cover for a coup d’état, contained only at the eleventh hour. Observing these events, President Chávez of Venezuela has warned that his Bolivarian sympathisers in and out of the army would not go without a fight. Chilean students and unions are asking for the renationalisation of copper, preparing to face the conservative government of Sebastián Piñera on the streets. All the while the indigenous peoples of Peru and Colombia have been expelling left guerrillas and army divisions from their territories.
The lines for a standoff are being drawn in Latin America. Lights, camera…
The writer: Oscar Guardiola-Rivera is the author of What If Latin America Ruled the World and a senior law lecturer at Birkbeck University.
If the preeminent role of the UN, as stated in the opening lines of its charter, is “saving future generations from the scourge of war,” then its peacekeeping missions must do a better job of meeting the security challenges of the day. Today’s challenge, which will define the future of peacekeeping and the UN itself, is the protection of civilians.
In the past, peacekeepers were only deployed once active hostilities had ceased. They eased the parties from conflict to peace, guided by the foundational principles of consent, impartiality and the non-use of force, except in self-defence and defence of the mandate. While this approach may have been suitable during the Cold War, an epidemic of intrastate conflicts has rendered it untenable.
Today’s conflicts are characterised by weak or failing states with shifting centres of power. In the Rwandan genocide, while negotiations were focused on the Rwandan Patriotic Front and the Rwandan Armed Forces, the Interahamwe were silently sowing death in the streets. The same is now true in Syria: who massacred the children in Houla? This is the nightmare that is intrastate conflict: war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and genocide. It is civilians who bear the brunt of the fighting, which increasingly takes place in and around refugee camps, villages and urban centres, somewhere in that ambiguous plane between war and peace.
In light of this, it is necessary to re-evaluate the meaning of consent and impartiality, as well as the use of force and even the meaning of peace. This is exactly what the UN’s departments of peacekeeping operations and field support are doing. The ideas are there but reforms are slow, and fundamental weaknesses still hinder implementation.
As part of this greater emphasis on the protection of civilians, UN peacekeeping now has an overarching mandate to give special consideration to women and children – a change in approach that has implications for peacekeeping’s guiding principles, especially the use of force. Peacekeepers are more frequently being told to protect civilians using “all necessary means”. This is what happened in the 2010-2011 Côte d’Ivoire election crisis, and it saved a lot of lives. There remains, however, a significant chasm between the protection-of-civilians mandate, force capabilities and the traditional principles of peacekeeping.
Currently, UN missions must rely on supplies through “pull systems”, where even necessary resources need to be requested and painfully extracted. That’s compared to Nato’s interventions, where resources – whether food or artillery – come with the fighting force. UN peacekeeping efforts also need to embrace greater flexibility – such as hybrid missions with Nato, the African Union, the EU and other regional bodies – if they are to effectively fulfill their mandate.
Beyond material challenges, peacekeeping must acknowledge its role in the application of the responsibility to protect (r2p). This doctrine, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2005, calls upon the international community to intervene with sanctions or ultimately force should the local government fail to protect its population from mass atrocities.
Too often, however, r2p is negotiated as a political decision. To remedy this, individual countries need to increase their capabilities for the prevention of mass atrocities, particularly as direct donors to peacekeeping missions. While this will lead to missions of increased complexity and risk, the hope is that peacekeeping can bring necessary impartiality to the robust application of r2p.
It is clear from the present showdown over Syria that there is not yet a consensus on the Security Council as to how and when to apply r2p. One of the damning realities of recent history is the politicking that occurs while innocent lives are lost. Presently, people are dying in Syria because a regime is being debated; fears of foreign intervention and political allegiance rule the day.
Perhaps, when the first ceasefire was called, the rapid mobilisation of impartial UN peacekeepers with a protection-of-civilians mandate should have been initiated. Maybe it would have worked; it may be some time before we have another opportunity to try.
The writer: Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire was the force commander of the UN mission to Rwanda during the 1994 genocide and is now a Canadian senator.
On a sunny morning in early March 1994 I ventured out of a media compound in Kabul for a day of reporting. Afghanistan was in the middle of a bitter civil war that erupted in the wake of Russia’s humiliating retreat and the world was just months away from being introduced to the medieval ways of the Taliban.
As we drove through Kabul in a faded sky-blue Nissan that had done service for the un, the city was buzzing with traders selling their plastic wares and foodstuffs and the snow on the peaks around the city was dazzling in the sunlight. After a brief stop to pick up some handsome Russian nick-nacks (a pair of large ashstrays with migs bolted on the side) we hit a fork in the road. While there was no sign that stated we were in no-man’s land, the lack of merchants or bustle suggested there might be snipers (or mines) and we stopped briefly to discuss our options. My gut told me we should turn around but my Afghan guides said the road was fine but we should move swiftly. Moments later a bullet punctured the windscreen, the driver lost control of the vehicle and we were spinning out of control.
As the vehicle came to a juddering halt the Nissan’s thin skin was punctured by bullet holes, there was an implosion of glass as the windows blew in and the vellum vinyl ceiling was dappled a deep crimson. I did my best to stay below the window line, somehow thinking the little estate car might protect me but seconds later there was another explosion and then another as two bullets ripped through the car, through me and out of the car again.
The force and speed of impact mixed with the severing of nerves, veins, arteries and then the splintering of bones is too much for the brain to process. The pain is hot, numbing and heavy and you can’t process where you’ve been hit.
I managed to remain conscious during the attack and when we limped out of harm’s way, I determined that one bullet had hit me around the right side of my chest (my green jumper had turned a rusty black) and another bullet had gone through my right forearm (I had what appeared to be an extra elbow). Thirty minutes later I was on a stretcher in a Kabul hospital, my wounds were clamped and cleaned and I was prepared for evacuation from Afghanistan.
It took six months to recover (multiple operations and transplants) and I had the good fortune of receiving top-rank stress disorder therapy at a British military hospital. Unfortunately these hospitals have been closed and returning servicemen have to make do with civilian facilities. Not surprisingly, I count myself as incredibly lucky.
The writer: Tyler Brûlé is editor in chief of Monocle. As a young correspondent he reported from Afghanistan and the Middle East.
Standing on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington (see page 47), it was the ambiguity that hit me: was this the past or future of warfare?
Aircraft carriers are mainstays of a long-established military playbook that is being torn up by a technological revolution. Human beings are out; unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are slowly outstripping piloted fighter jets. They are cheaper, stay in the air for longer (solar-powered craft will soon do so perpetually); and no one dies when they crash. The exorbitant costs involved in developing the F-35 – the US’s latest and possibly last piloted fighter jet – are estimated at €1.2tn over its lifetime, and the US Navy has axed its pricey new stealth destroyer. The €4.1bn ships are vulnerable to a new Chinese weapon system: the DF-21D. There are no effective countermeasures for this ballistic missile.
Next-generation propulsion systems – called ramjets or scramjets – will enable missiles and possibly aircraft to top Mach 10, or 7,000mph. Rail guns, which use electromagnetism to fire projectiles farther and faster than traditional artillery, will be in active service by the 2020s. So too will directed-energy weapons: lasers powerful enough to incinerate enemy ships or aircraft at long range.
Cyberweapons could become the most lethal of all: malware capable of crippling an enemy’s computerised forces. Meanwhile, China and the US are developing a new generation of “space planes” officially for civilian purposes; however, the militarisation of space is almost as inevitable as that of the web. All modern armies depend on satellites, so capabilities for attacking and defending those critical assets will be required.
Will aircraft carriers survive in this future battlespace? Consider the once all-conquering battleship: a winner of 20th-century wars, it has now disappeared. The USS George Washington could soon be joining it in the war museum.
The writer: Monocle’s Asia defence correspondent, Trefor Moss is currently based in Hong Kong.
In 2002, while still a general in the Israeli military, Itzhak Ben Israel – now a professor of physics at the Tel Aviv University and chairman of Israel’s space agency – developed an equation. It was based on systems theory, and created in order to predict the necessary number of people the Israeli military must eliminate from a militant organisation by arrest or targeted assassinations in order to defeat it.
As he reported to Yotam Feldman in the latter’s forthcoming film The Lab, one such equation – Q=1–(q ln q + 1/q ln 1/q) – applied principles pertaining to the entropic behaviour of molecules in a gas state to military and political matters. If Q is the probability that the militant organisation will collapse, q is the percentage of militants you kill or arrest. So, in simple terms: by Ben Israel’s calculus, if you eliminate 20-25 per cent of the members of an organisation, there is an 85 per cent likelihood that the ensuing confusion and knowledge loss would lead to the collapse of the organisation. If you kill 50 per cent, as the formula has it, the probability will be around 100 per cent.
This is just one example of how algorithmic calculations have become central to contemporary warfare. This is not surprising in our market-driven culture, where “economy” not only refers to finance and monetary matters, but to other systems of calculation, exchange and transfer.
The increased presence of sophisticated algorithms on battlefields means that militaries increasingly believe that loss of life and damage to urban environments can be calculated, measured and calibrated. The “calculability” of war has also become the language of human rights groups monitoring wars, seeking to reduce the excess of their violence.
Since the end of the Cold War, the body of customs and conventions that make up the jus in bello [the laws of war, or International Humanitarian Law (IHL)] have become the frame within which the calculation of military violence takes place, and against which war is monitored by global bystanders.
The legal principle of proportionality is IHL’s clearest manifestation of an economy of calculations. The law’s wording prohibits “an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.”
The law demands that violence is measured but provides no rules. It demands assessment on a case-by-case basis within relative and immanent parameters. By opening a field of equivalence – in which different forms of violence, risk and damage become exchangeable – proportionality approximates an algorithmic logic of computation; although, in practice, it is rarely computed.
During the run-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Pentagon’s proportionality calculations came up with 29 as an acceptable threshold. That is, it condoned the death of 29 civilians in attacks on high-value targets. Any attack that was anticipated to lead to more deaths required the explicit permission of Donald Rumsfeld or George Bush.
The current textbook for US counterinsurgency is the infamous Field Manual FM 3-24, drafted in 2005 under the command of General David Petraeus and used in Baghdad and Afghanistan to implement the surges. It is a prime example of a collusion of interests between general ihl and human-rights principles: to mitigate the horrors of war on the one hand and the demands of military efficiency on the other.
Before he was relieved of his duties by President Obama, General Stanley McChrystal was the manual’s most devoted follower and, as chief of Nato forces in Afghanistan, its implementing arm. In an address to the US military in Afghanistan, McChrystal explained how adherence to mitigating principles of the law would be militarily effective: “Our strategy cannot be focused on seizing terrain or destroying insurgent forces; our objective must be the population … We run the risk of strategic defeat by pursuing tactical wins that cause civilian casualties or unnecessary collateral damage.” As political activists, our problem is whether to argue with the military’s humanitarian calculations. Should we claim that the proper threshold of civilian casualties is 14? Seven? Sometimes the best way to address an economy of calculation – as is the way of angry protesters campaigning in front of banks – is to seek to do away with it completely.
This is an edited version of the introduction to Weizman’s The Least of all Possible Evils, published by Verso
The writer: Eyal Weizman is professor of visual cultures and director of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London.