The Self-Destructive Logic of War

“You go to war with the army you have,” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously noted.” “They might not be the army you want or have at a later time.” Echoing Rumsfeld, President Bush said in his 2007 State of the Union Address, “This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we are in.”

Yet the Pentagon continues to spend money on weapons that are ill suited for the fights “we are in.” As a top U.S. Air Force commander told Aviation Week and Space Technology, the most expensive fighter aircraft ever built may be ready for war but it’s not ready for the war we have today in Iraq. The F-22 isn’t “ready for Iraq” because it probably can’t fulfill its core mission, especially in the Baghdad area. In straightforward language, the F-22 would be electronically “blind” despite having the most advanced suite of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance devices in the U.S. Air Force.

The mismatch between the F-22 and the Iraq War highlights a central problem for the U.S. military. Technological progress has not necessarily produced more efficient weapons. The destructive capabilities of these high-tech devices can often turn back upon themselves. Paradoxically, however, this self-destructive tendency may be a good thing in the long run.

The Wrong Weapons

The F-22 isn’t the first weapon system the Pentagon has ordered that couldn’t perform as advertised. The Army’s M551 Sheridan “armored reconnaissance vehicle” – really a light tank – was designed to fire both a conventional tank shell loaded with flechettes and the Shillelagh anti-tank missile. The U.S. infantry in Vietnam, where the M551 saw combat, appreciated the firepower support, but virtually none of the 88,000 Shillelagh missiles bought for the Sheridan was ever fired in anger. The tank’s missile guidance system could not withstand the recoil when the main gun fired. In effect the tank “killed” half of its own offensive capability.

Warfare has long been indiscriminate in its lethal effects. As armies have gotten larger, battlegrounds bigger, and weaponry more indirect in their fire, the greater has become the possibility that non-combatants could be killed. In the 20th century, soldiers using new forms of warfare occasionally ended up killing themselves instead of the enemy – and not from simply from the “friendly fire” of their fellow soldiers. Earlier recorded instances of biological warfare– catapulting carcasses of dead animals into walled cities under siege and handing Native Americans disease-laden blankets – introduced difficult-to-control pathogens into warfare. But the widespread use of poison gas in World War I represented a new and systematic use of substances other than explosives, kinetic energy, or piercing devices to kill or incapacitate people. The toxicity of war thus made a quantum leap. In rapid order, military innovators introduced radiation, herbicides, and, during the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq, depleted uranium. Those suffering from the cocktail of diseases known collectively as Gulf War Syndrome can attest to the growing self-destructiveness of war.

The wireless radio set the stage for a new type of battlefield toxicity: electronic. Initially, the radio frequency spectrum was large enough so that each side could easily avoid the other’s frequency. Problems began when opposing armies, having unwittingly chosen the same frequencies, came into contact. Inevitably, the nets with the more powerful transmitters or better line-of-sight dominated, forcing the weaker communications nets to scramble to change frequencies even as fighting raged. Put another way, the side with the stronger signal proved “toxic” to its rival.

Then someone realized that interfering on purpose with an opponent’s radio net could be advantageous. There could be problems with this new weapon of electronic “jamming.” For example, the use of a super-strong signal by a transmitter to jam an enemy net could also wipe out the ability of nearby friendly units to communicate. Moreover, it did not take long before countermeasures such as frequency-hopping radios were introduced. Meanwhile, use of the electronic spectrum spilled well beyond the frequencies of human speech, so much so that the Pentagon has been pressing for increasing the military’s slice of the total spectrum.

The F-22’s Utility

This brings us back full circle. U.S. Air Force Gen. Ronald E. Keys is concerned that the surveillance suite of the $350 million aircraft may not be able to operate around Baghdad. Although nominally a fighter aircraft, the F-22 also can act as a signals intelligence interceptor, which would be its role in Iraq. General Keys notes, however, that the electronic spectrum around Baghdad is polluted by the myriad jamming devices that coalition forces primarily employed to thwart remote detonations of the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that have inflicted 70% of all U.S. fatalities in that war.

The potential problem was discovered when the first F-22s were operating near U.S. navy ships off the Atlantic coast. Navy radars overwhelmed the F-22’s automated sensors. Even now, larger, multi-station, purpose-built electronic intelligence-gathering airplanes encounter difficulties around the Iraqi capital because of the extreme density of jamming devices. Supporters of the F-22 propose that one headquarters should coordinate F-22 intelligence collection missions with the use of both airborne and ground-based jammers.

An alternative to the F-22 is the MQ-9 Predator. These carry both sensors and bombs and missiles, allowing the remote operator to “see” where the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) is flying, avoid hazards, and deliver ordnance on “target.” The differences – and the choices – are plain. One super-fast, super-expensive ($350 million each) manned airplane cannot, at this point, do a better job collecting information about and reacting to insurgent movements than a $8.3 million UAV can.

Considering that political insiders are projecting a $700 billion budget for the Pentagon and the “war on terror” supplemental requests, new Secretary of Defense Robert Gates ought to end Cold War programs like the F-22 before the rest of the money is lost to unneeded procurement.

And the future? Humans went from one-on-one fighting to massing armies of people. The next step was massing machines to kill people and then to kill masses of people with indiscriminate weapons. What we could use now are weapons that self-destruct before they are used, like the F-22 if it is effectively mothballed, followed by weapons that self-destruct in the computer design stage before they are built. That would save lives and money. Eventually, the reverse process could take us all the way back to not even thinking about weapons.

Dan Smith is a military affairs analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org), a retired U.S. Army colonel, and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. His blog is “The Quakers’ Colonel” http://quakerscolonel.blogspot.com/.