The American Military's Real Problem: Shooting 'Ants' With 'Elephant Guns'

The U.S. Navy coastal patrol ship USS Firebolt fires a BGM-176B Griffin missile. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy

Do we really have the money for high-end, extended, near-endless military campaigns?

In combating asymmetric threats, we have to ask ourselves, on which side of the asymmetry do we sit? Typically and almost in a cliché manner, we depict our side as superior – we have the technology, we have the equipment, we have the on-going development capabilities. But do we really have the money for such high-end, extended, near-endless military campaigns?

Consider the defensive action by USS Mason in the Red Sea in October 2016. Its response to a rebel attack compels us to rethink the cost factor involved in defensive measures, and how we popularly interpret the costs of war and national security. A few short seconds of fending off a Yemeni rebel attack cost the United States NAVY (USN) an unsettling $8 million. Cost of the rebel attack: $500,000 or less than 10 percent of USS Mason’s reaction.

The USS Mason example illustrates how high-tech warfare, albeit adequate in purely military terms, is, in a larger strategic context, a flawed option.

In this article, we advocate a realignment of security and defense debates to position them in the context of what it means to wage high-tech war in the twenty-first century. The asymmetry of warfare has never been more evident than in the material costs of warfighting.

America’s wars of the twenty-first century against non-state soldiers or non-state militants seem to require high and higher-tech weapons. They will include machines necessary for fast and effective transportation, weapons that kill and do not kill, personal equipment as part of soldiers’ combat uniforms, “unmanned” or remote equipment, anytime/anywhere communications technology, robotic platforms, global surveillance and instruments like the Low-Cost Imaging Terminal Seeker (LCITS), and a turn to non-petroleum fuels. The costs associated with these requisite weapons and equipment are staggering.

Smart technologies/equipment/weapons – items usually associated with the obligatory “precision” characteristic, non-lethal element, or “green energy” dimension cost a fortune. By contrast, non-state actors (NSAs) are not beholden to similar budgetary cutbacks, environmental considerations, or human rights and treaty compulsion. Attack and response costs for NSAs (typically insurgents and terrorists, or generally militant extremists) are grossly disparate in cost. Thus, this kind of high tech warfare is becoming increasingly economically unviable for high-tech states and organizations like the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

It is necessary for states to consider the dissonance between low-tech attacks and high-tech defensive responses. As it stands now, high-tech states, due to their military preferences and strongly embedded high tech warfare cultures, have not really considered the options for low-tech response. War, or just simple security for that matter, has been reconfigured by states, with their advanced and technological weaponry, to become high-cost. In contrast to asymmetric enemies with much cheaper systems, this raises the question: What response options are available to countries like the United States if NSAs pursue cost-effective approaches to combat and the West. What are the potential ramifications of lost-tech/low-cost warfare against high-tech/high-cost security/defensive measures of states? It is unlikely that the United States can sustain such a war. U.S. military action against the Islamic State (IS) costs American taxpayers well over $600 thousand per hour. The cost of war in Afghanistan by the latter half of 2016 stood at $750 billion and $819 billion for combat missions in Iraq that could alternatively be funneled toward other more critical military and nonmilitary (i.e., statebuilding) projects.

The costs of U.S. military action, either offensive or defensive, stand at around $1.5 million for just one medium to long-range subsonic cruise missile like the Tomahawk. A single air-to-ground (AGM-114) Hellfire means an injurious cost of some $115 thousand. The shoulder-rocket named the Javelin costs some $150 thousand each. The APKWS II is about $28 thousand per unit. Our departure from bombs and embrace of precision-guided munitions (PGMs) and smart weapons generally has come without clear and constant consideration for the fact that precision has its costs. “Cheap” laser-guided weapons can have a price tag of up to $250 thousand attached to them.

One glaring flaw inherent in these weapons is their lack of deterrence. If they are to be used for security, there ought to be a purpose in their non-use; however, their non-use fails to deter the principle threats in a not-so-state-centric international realm.