The Delusions of High-Tech Warfare

Combined Air and Space Operations Center (CAOC) provided command and control of air power throughout Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and 17 other nations. Photograph Source: Tech. Sgt. Joshua Strang – Public Domain

Asked what he would do if the British army invaded Germany, Bismarck said that he would tell the police to arrest them. In the wake of the latest British defence review, cutting the size of the conventional armed forces, many contemporary world leaders may respond with similar derision to any future threat of British military intervention.

The former chief of defence staff, Lord Richards, says that after these cuts, “we could not do a Gulf War One or Two”. The Falklands, if lost, could not be recaptured, and the ability to launch any significant military intervention overseas will be minimal. This may be no bad thing, but only if the government understands the gap between its much-advertised “global Britain” and the modest reality.

The claim is that Britain should, in future, have a “smart” army, downsized to 72,500 soldiers but choc-a-bloc with expensive weaponry to make it more lethal. There will be plenty of money for high-tech drones, cyberwars, satellites designed to control space, while the stockpile of nuclear warheads is to be increased by 40 per cent.

The missiles, aircraft carrier and killer satellites are all there to give the impression that Britain is a power with global reach. But at the core of British foreign and defence policy remains the need to impress on the United States that Britain is an ally worth having and to piggy-back on American political and military might. This is scarcely surprising since the alliance with the US has been at the heart of British policy since 1940, was reinforced by the Suez Crisis, and has lasted so long because it is a sensible piece of realpolitik.

The biggest problem with relying on the US is that it is by no means clear that the Trump presidency was an aberration and that America will not be permanently absorbed by political civil war at home. The narrow Democrat majority in Congress and Republican voter suppression legislation in Texas and Georgia suggest that this struggle will go on.

A weakness in the British defence review is that it shares the American delusion that vastly expensive military procurement translates into enhanced military strength. This is despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary provided by the post-9/11 wars, fought directly or indirectly over the last 20 years by the US and Britain in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria.

The claim by military planners that we should look to the wars of the future, rather than the wars of the past, should be treated with suspicion. Such self-inflicted blindness to recent history is convenient because what Britain, echoing America, is proposing to do has failed before. Despite their supposed technological wizardry and the expenditure of vast sums,  the US and Britain never found an answer to the mix of IEDs (improvised explosive devices), booby traps, suicide bombers and snipers that they faced in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).