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February 08, 2013


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How funny. I was thinking of writing a piece like this. There's not a fundamental change, especially when you factor in the SpecFor folks. Its just a change of technology.

Speaking of stuff like this, are you familiar with the Wide Area Mine or the antihelicopter mines that they grew out of? Or the new XM1100?

They are not traditional mines by any means.

(and I worked on the WAM project for a time)

I'm not sure I buy the "change in scale but not in kind" argument. You can also make the same "nothing new, just easier" argument for the printing press (we already made books, just could make them easier), the telegraph (or radio), we were already delivering messages long distances, or the atom bomb (we could already bomb cities into rubble). And I think the political response to the use of force has had a qualitative change. Back in the day, after landing marines, or launching a cruise missile strike, someone would get up, usually the President, and give a speech about how at this time, we violated the sovereignty of this country for these reasons. It was exceptional. What's going on now is we're trying to formulate policies for doing this routinely, and I'm not at all confident that it's elected officials making the call to do this any more, and that, I think is worrying.

Granted, I'm not that up in arms about it because I don't have a really good solution for how to deal with the use of force in the lawless places of the world. But if we're going to do it routinely, rather than as an exceptional ad-hoc thing at the highest levels, I think we're entitled to more transparency in what is being done in our name.

The rules of the internet require me to state first where your examples are wrong before giving credit for an excellent point. :-)

Nuclear weapons are not merely a cheaper way to conduct strategic bombing. Strategic bombing was remarkably ineffective at shutting down manufacturing activity in urban centers; nuclear weapons are not. A corollary of that is that nuclear weapons could annihilate any city; strategic bombing could really only do that under certain specific conditions. To be fair, some military historians will argue that the real change came with the development of fusion weapons, not smaller fission bombs, but no one denies that H-bombs irrevocably revolutionized the strategic landscape.

The converse is true for the telegraph. It really was just a reduction in cost from things we were already doing: not a whole lot changed from speeding up the speed of messages from the speed of railroads to the speed of telegraphs. (Which wasn't really that fast.) Reference: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1109158.

Finally, it would be hard to argue that radio was just another way of doing the same old thing --- broadcasting was something new. (And contrary to what you might think from some of my other posts, I think the internet in its broadest form is also something new ... I just think that most people have it wrong when they emphasize the internet's effect on the ease of political mobilization or the ability to form dispersed affinity groups.)

Now that I've satisfied my ego by picking apart two of the three examples, I want to say that I think you raise a very good argument against my thesis. Some things in this world are not linear: a change in cost can result in a change in kind.

And you present some compelling anecdotal evidence! Drone strikes have been routinized in a way that cruise missile attacks or SOF operations or bombing runs or punitive expeditions never were.

With that, I turn the floor back over to Will. Counter-counter arguments?

This is actually a very good piece, and articulates how I've felt about this for a while.

I'm not so sure we wouldn't have used cruise missiles this way back in the 1990s, if the 1993 WTC bombings had been as bad as 9/11. That may be part of the reason these are more routine nowadays as well.

The rules of the internet require I defend my examples, even though I put in three (four if you count radio) for redundancy, knowing they weren't all perfect.

Strategic bombings (relative) inability to shut down industrial production was not because the destructive capability was insufficient, but because nations being strategically bombed dispersed their industry, a tactic that would remain effective against nuclear weapons. (And strategic bombing with incendiaries was much more effective than with HE, by the end of the war, the allies could pretty much burn down cities at will, it just doesn't do a lot of good when their industrial production is spread out over the countryside). But in any case, a nuclear weapon just creates a lot of heat, and a big shock wave. Both things we knew how to do already, the only difference is one of (again), degree. And yes, increasing the yield of bombs a millionfold does revolutionize the strategic landscape. Which was my point.

I'll trust you on the telegraph thing, and yes, broadcasting is new. Well, mostly new, I suppose standing on a soapbox and yelling is a low tech one-to-many communication method, but....

Ah, internet rules ... okay, my critique of your defense. :-)

Wait, what's the defense? I could quibble about dispersal, but even then the point holds. Nuclear weapons could destroy an enemy; strategic bombing could not.

But you said that! Where's the defense? What am I missing?

(For unnecesary reference: http://www.wwiiarchives.net/servlet/action/document/index/149/0)



OK. Here's my point:

From your reference, volume 2, page 73, the table on the upper left hand corner, the area raids on Hamburg, Ausburg, and Wupperdal destroyed approximately 30% of the residences in each city. Despite this, all the cities returned to 80% of their original production capacity within 5 months, and for those that were bombed more than a year before VE day, they recovered full production in less than a year. The failure of strategic bombing was not in the inability to do massive damage to cities, but their unexpected resiliance to that damage, and their ability to recover from it. The Nagasaki raid also destroyed about 30% of the structures in the city (see: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/mp09.asp), and there is no reason to believe that it would not also have recovered within a year, had the war lasted that long. Hiroshima was more badly damaged, with 67% of it's structures damaged, but it was pretty much ideally shaped to take out with an A-bomb, and there's no real reason to believe if you just tripled or quadrupled the length of your conventional bombing campaign (depending on how I do the math), you couldn't get the same results.

My point is that the ability to destroy 1/3 of the buildings in a city was not a new one at the time of the invention of the atom bomb (or even 2/3 if we wanted to badly enough and thought it'd actually make a difference). The atom bomb just made it hugely quicker and more convenient. Yes, sufficiently so as to change the world, but then, that's my point, isn't it?

What was the recovery for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Eric? Or Dresden?

Ah! Now I understand, Eric.

There are strategists (past and present) who would grant your point about the A-Bomb. Some of them were inside the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, in fact.

That said, even those strategists believe that the H-Bomb was something new under the ... er ... sun. It's destructive power was a change in kind, not just more of the same. You're arguing that Hiroshima-yield bombs might not have been a world-shattering game changer, and had the technology stopped there you could make a case that you're correct!

But I'm not sure; depends on the answer to Will's question. I actually suspect that even Hiroshima bombs changed the game: the low accuracy of the Norton bombsight no longer mattered. You could shut down everything in a city right then with one bomber, wreck the transportation net beyond wartime repair. Of course, that could be wrong.

(I don't think it's productive to say that an explosion is an explosion is an explosion; accepting that premise leads to some silly reductios ad absurdum pretty fast.)

Will: “Speaking of stuff like this, are you familiar with the Wide Area Mine or the antihelicopter mines that they grew out of? Or the new XM1100?”

I am familiar with the "wide area mine" but only as the phrase was used in the 1990s and early 2000s. I am not familiar with the XM1100.

I think I see what you mean about the WAM being something very new, but tell us more!

Not really sure we can answer Will's question. Getting Hiroshima back up to wartime production capacity immediately wasn't really the priority after the war that it would have been had Japan not surrendered. So documents about Hiroshima mostly talk about recovery time to normalcy, or something like that, not to how long before they could start making zero engines again.

And I'd say that the success of nuclear weapons lies more in their use as terror weapons, than their actual ability to destroy industrial production.

But really... how is "You could shut down everything in a city right then with one bomber..." not a "quicker and easier" argument that doesn't apply to "now you can hit a target in some other country with a $70,000 Hellfire missile, fired from a $4,000,000 Predator drone, instead of using a $1,000,000 Tomahawk missile fired from a Ticonderoga cruiser (whose cost I can't easily find, but has to be in the billions)". So a 1000-fold increase in bomb yields is a qualitative difference, but a 100 to 1000 fold decrease in the cost to conduct targetted strikes isn't?

Sunk cost error. The U.S. is going to have missile cruisers regardless of any decision to fight in ungoverned spaces, so the cost of the ship is irrelevant.

The right calculation for the drone is:

Missile cost × Variable sortie cost × fixed per sortie cost (e.g., overhead for the operating base.)

Same for the cruise missile:

Missile cost × marginal operation cost (i.e., the additional cost of getting the ship into position)

I would bet a large sum that drones don't actually reduce costs much in these simplistic terms. But they phenominally improve accuracy by loitering. You could accomplish something similar with a helicopter or a low-flying airplane, but then you'd risk losing the pilot and you'd need more ground support albeit not as much more as you might think. (This is why drones are used in open war zones but haven't replaced manned air support, let alone boots on the ground. http://www.afcent.af.mil/shared/media/document/AFD-130206-003.pdf)

See also:


Fair enough on the sunk costs. Well, except you multiplied, rather than added, your costs but I'll put that down to an error in transmission, rather than in thinking.

And the improvement in accuracy means that you need less $70,000 Hellfires than $1,000,000 Tomahawks to take out a given target (on average). We used (about) 75 in the 1998 strikes against 4 al-Quaeda camps in Afghanistan and the Sudan, and killed less than half a person per missile. (The drone strikes seem to be doing about 1/missile).

It's going to be almost impossible to actually calculate costs with publicly available information (how much does the availability of drone strikes play into the decommissioning of 4 Ticonderogas, those things are expensive just to keep afloat.

Still, I think that whether it's financial costs, ability to forward deploy drones, ease of transport, accuracy, whatever, there have been qualitative changes in doctrine as a result of whatever makes them easier to use, and you seem to be arguing that the qualitative changes in doctrine that nuclear weapons caused means that they aren't just really big bombs, but something qualitatively different, and new.

Let's back up a second.

The argument in this post is that the rules governing the circumstances under which the U.S. will deploy drones are the same as they have ever been for other kinds of military force.

In that sense, drones are not a qualitative change.

That said, drones may have made it far more likely that the U.S. will employ military force against small and dispersed or individual targets. So far, the jury is out on that, save for Yemen. But it seems possible.

Whether that (as yet hypothetical) change would constitute a game-change in how the U.S. does geopolitics (or conducts wars) is not clear to me. Nuclear weapons took industrial interstate war off the table --- will automated airplanes produce anything that dramatic?

WAMs. You are effectively deploying selective, stationary drones here. These are not simply mines. They feedback data to the end user. Often acoustic data that can be combined to produce range and direction. This is the first gen. The XM1100 has more. The idea though is that you can effectively make a persistent 'no drive zone.' In fact, you could selectively enforce which vehicles are present: tanks (BLAM), cars, ok.

These can be reset, too. Insurgents using cars? Wellllll....

In future generations, you could change the sensors and even do live video. With proper face rec and whatnot, you could declare some folks toast on sight. Literally.

Or even just flip a bit to the US soldier sitting in Nevada that there is someone with a covered face or even a potential insurgent or...

Oh, yes, AP charges are expected for those that are messing with the "mines," too. Keep having issues? That's where you drop in your mobile drones or even flesh and blood troops.

Persistent surveillance with instant lethality. Occupation gets interesting.

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