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Techno War

When I worked in the Pentagon, one of our “reform” critiques of the Military – Industrial – Congressional Complex’s (MICC’s) ever-growing infatuation with the high-cost electronic battlefield — i.e., idea of coupling an all-seeing, all-knowing surveillance systems with computerized decision making rules for the targeting and control of so-called precision-guided weapons — was that we were actually making it easier for our adversaries to deceive us with simple countermeasures.

That is because any sensor/guidance, artificial intelligence system must mechanically filter reams of data to construct some sort of pattern out of the plethora of sensor returns (noisy signals like radar blobs, thermal blobs, acoustic blobs, comm signals, cell phone taps, intelligence findings, TV images, etc.). This filtering must be done at high speed and necessarily involves some sort pre-designed template to make a probabilistic determination of whether or not the pattern of blobs is a legitimate target, and then using those fine distinctions to guide a weapon to that target. This is equivalent to saying that we know a priori what the enemy will always look like — or put another way, the enemy will always be predictable. Putting humans in front of control screens (as is currently the fashion in the drone war) is simply a variation on this old mechanical idea.

The basic reason why defeating this kind of decision making system is actually easier lies in the central fact these sensor/guidance technologies increase the “distance” and add a hardware/software intermediary between the intuitive abilities of the human mind and the subtle, ever-changing nuances on the battlefield. By reducing the warrior’s intimate connection to his environment, these technologies displace the intuitive judgement that is so important to split second decision-making and makes the decision cycle or OODA Loop more dependent on sterile pre-defined analytic procedures. In other words, our increasing dependence on template-based decision making makes us more predictable, while we are simultaneously making it easier for our adversary to act unpredictably. In terms of competing decision cycles, this kind of asymmetry is about as dumb as it gets. Yet it is the doctrine justifying the exorbitant costs of techno-war. To see why it is so dumb, consider please, the following:

One of the oldest and most obvious nuances on a battlefield is hiding from or misleading your adversary via camouflage, deception, or by being ambiguous. But our conception of decision making on the electronic battlefield actually makes it easier to for our adversary to create these effects. For example, a moving target indicator (MTI) radars rely on the doppler effect to work. All a defender needs to do is create a simple cheap doppler generator (perhaps a metal pinwheel that spins in the wind or a relatively simple electronic doppler simulator?) to fake or overwhelm MTI signals. He might then add fake comm signals and make nothing look like an armored regiment to a decision-making template. A defender can undermine more complex sensor-template regimes by simply rearranging the pattern of blobs (electronic, thermal, or tv returns, etc.) and thereby game the decision making rules in the template by creating false patterns of targets, adding white noise, and hiding real targets. Of course there is always brute force noise making — like smoke, electrical jamming, thermal flares, and all sorts of phony electronic emissions, including the simple expedient of making a large number of fake and misleading cell phone calls, planting false information in defectors, etc.

When we raised this kind of critique in meetings in the Pentagon, the promoters of these technologies invariably dismissed our arguments with the same response: namely, that our adversaries would not or could not make this kind of effort needed to countermeasure their programs. This response is the intellectual equivalent of saying your adversary is either too lazy or too stupid to make the effort to duck if you are shooting at him. Apparently, the modern techno-shills in the Pentagon had forgotten or did not care that in WWII, the US Army went to the enormous effort of creating a fictitious army group around General Patton (complete with an army of inflatable tanks and airplanes and a phony signals system) to mislead the Germans into believing we were going to invade Pas de Calais instead of Normandy. The Germans quite rightly considered Patton to be the most dangerous threat they faced in the West, and this mix of deception and ambiguity that continued to distract the Germans for a short time even after D-Day revealed that the main effort was focused on Normandy.

Nevertheless, despite our arguments, the advocates of push button, robotic warfare always won the internal debates over whether countermeasures might negate the effectiveness of their techno-dreams. The reason was simple: money was on their side, and these debates were really about money, or more precisely, not interrupting the flow of money to the MICC by applying common sense restraints to untested techno-enthusiasm (in fact, operational tests always avoided examining the effects of innovative countermeasures like the plague).

In this regard the Kosovo War should have been a wake up call. It is well established in after action reports and by on-the-ground observers that the Serb army used simplistic decoys to derail our “precision” attacks to a point where our forces destroyed a tiny, militarily insignificant quantity of Serb weapons and support equipment, despite Nato’s priority targeting of that equipment. One of the most imaginative Serb countermeasures, for example, was using cheap microwave ovens to attract our hugely expensive anti radiation missiles (missiles designed to home on enemy radars). But Serbs had many other effective countermeasures: they also created fake tanks, fake bridges, and even fake roads which we obliging bombed with expensive precision weapons. We even mistook the thermal returns of chicken shit in chicken coops for army barracks (which apparently was a serendipitous countermeasure that led to the destruction of many chicken coops). That the Serb countermeasures worked like a charm became evident when the Serb army withdrew from Kosovo; it was larger than estimated, its soldiers were spoiling for a fight, and their weapons and tanks were in good order. Indeed, we know from intelligence sources that the Serb generals wanted to fight and were pissed off at Slobodan Milosovic for pulling the plug, which they regarded as a sell out.

Now it is 2010 and nothing has changed.

Read this BBC report. It shows that the efficacy of cheap decoys has not been lost on the Russians (indeed it never was). The Russian are building cheap inflatable decoys — tanks, radar stations, airplanes, air defense missiles, etc. together with the ability to simulate electronic emissions and thermal sources, and (while not mentioned) probably arrays of fake comm nets as well. The BBC reports this discovery almost breathlessly as if it were a new and surprising development. Of course, in the unlikely event that the techno-warriors in the Pentagon were queried about this development, they would claim again that these primitive countermeasures won’t work on their emerging electronic battlefield, because we have newer more-expensive technologies to neutralize these proven countermeasures, and besides, our adversaries in the Hindu Kush are too stupid to copy them or buy them from the Russians in the Central Asian black markets.

There is one thing the techno-warriors will not say, however: Namely that, after spending billions to counter simple, cheap landmines and booby traps (which the Pentagon has pompously named Improvised Explosive Devices — or IEDs — as if they were a new and unexpected phenomenon) in Iraq and Afghanistan, they have successfully countered a totally predictable threat. To those who assert these land mines and booby traps were a surprise, I would ask them to name a guerrilla war where land mines and booby traps (or decoys and simple countermeasures) were not used to pump up the invader’s friction and terrorize any supporting population.

On the other hand, countering the IED threat after the fact is merely a matter of technology, time, and especially money, because in the Hall of Mirrors that is Versailles on the Potomac, protecting and expanding the money flow over the long term is always the name of the game.

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon. He currently lives on a sailboat in the Mediterranean and can be reached at chuck_spinney@mac.com