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.

We are confronting a similar friction observed after decades of spending trillions of dollars on nuclear weapons of all sorts, the nuclear-powered aircraft, a nuclear-powered cruise missile (PLUTO), as well as a nuclear torpedo called ASTOR (otherwise referred to as “underwater insanity”) designed to be used against submarines. In the latter, the use of such a torpedo would have meant the destruction of the submarine that launched it as well as the target.

The idea of war is to cause destruction or damage to the enemy with the least possible damage to oneself, if any at all. That logic fails us in the case of ASTOR and serves as a metaphor for security and defense logic today in considering the weapons being designed and developed to guard against and pursue rebels like those who launched their rickety old rockets at a billion-dollar U.S. warship, which in-turn spent, a disproportionate sum to prevent that attack.

It is interesting how we have escaped our quantity-obsessed attitude toward defense that consumed us during the Cold War – the thinking that apparently kept us safe – only to fall into the same quality-based obsession to secure ourselves against threats technologically inferior to anything we faced between circa 1945 and 1991.

We should be alarmed at the potential reduction in the human costs of war if we are moving toward increasingly robotic warfare, and with this, the possibility of warfare becoming entirely economic.

Military leaders have an amazing ability to develop strategy but if they fail to take into account the economic costs, their strategies could become inherently unviable and unsustainable. To what extent is society willing to put up with wars that are foremost robotic and primarily economic?

This could be the case in asymmetry as well as in conflicts between high tech actors. Combat – particularly robotic combat – could become ultimately a purely economic affair in which the states that have the economic resources to sustain a longer robotic warfare campaign win. In this, the inhuman element of future combat would not only release the concept of human casualties, but likewise begin sketching a different template for warfare, perhaps even cause a paradigm shift in warfare, from which point warfare could be solely an economic affair. This could in a sense create an incentive for actors to try to fight wars on the cheap – particularly against actors bound by their high-tech warfare capabilities.

We often think of our military capabilities as one that allow us to dominate the battlefield, to achieve full spectrum dominance and enemy/threat enclosure. Turning to “unmanned” systems, or (small) drones, such technology could start a new era of warfare in which actors with lesser-economic possibilities, not just capabilities, can seize upon the opportunity to expand the space of the battlefield to their benefit, namely through the use of simple drones, loaded with explosives. In this, actors would exploit different avenues or new ways (for them) of attacking their enemy.

This sort of scenario can be played-out along the lines of IS sending bomb-loaded drones against the Kurdish Peshmerga, or a terrorist trying to fly small-scale drones into the U.S. Capitol. It is pertinent to consider how this kind of approach to warfare and technology will evolve.

For the first time, technology actually seems to favor those with lesser possibilities but perversely presents more opportunity. Generally, technology has favored the actors who have the money to pursue the research and defense (R&D) side of warfare and warfighting, but now actors who do not have it can benefit in due course. Have we been too unmindful of how warfare has become foremost economic once again? Now actors with limited means actually possess the means to act beyond their material capabilities and limits and conduct strikes beyond their (limited) horizon.

This has hit the U.S. military at a relatively late point in the War on Terror and in context of the radically changing nature of the modern military landscape/character of war. But in a way we are still moving full-tilt down a path where we develop the means to attack ants using elephant guns. We tend to adhere to the idea of over-kill in a way that goes relatively unnoticed on our own side. During the Second World War, we sought to defeat the enemies of democracy and our self-styled freedom by dumping thousands of tons of bombs on Germany’s Kassel, Hamburg, Dresden, and Cologne, and Japan’s, Kagoshima, Tokushima, Fukuyama, Tokyo, and Yokohama (among many others.)

Today, we overkill the enemy using expensive technology and weapons that we mistakenly perceive to be produced at bargain prices. Comparing what the United States spends on defending against extant threats to what terrorists and insurgents spend presents a shrill contrast. It is as effortless as taking a stroll to a gun market. The going price for an American-made M-16 is $200, $400 for a Chinese- or Russian-made AK-47, and $150 for a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) at a gun market in Somalia. Obtaining the requisite small arms necessary to cause widespread panic and casualties on and off the battlefield is like sifting through used clothing at a flea market – no permission, no identification, no papers, no checks required; you just choose your weapon, pay, and be on your way to attack whomever you like. A standard suicide bomber belt costs just $150.

Perceptions of contemporary security and defense have to align with the costs associated with rebel attacks, the current economic climate, and the idea that abstaining from the purchase of a single $1-1.5 million cruise missile would enable the United States and others to purchase less-technologically sophisticated alternatives capable of achieving near-similar ends.

We have to remember that supporting our capacity to strike at anyone and anything at anytime and anyplace without human losses has its own costs. It will not be a matter of how much we have to pay, but rather, or how long will we be able to afford it. In this, former U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower, a military man himself who served as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, was right when he stated that: “We will bankrupt ourselves in the vain search for absolute security.”

The debate about national security and military effectiveness should not be solely conducted within the existent framework. Economic perception and reality must be discussed too.

Tobias Burgers is a Doctoral Candidate at the Otto-Suhr-Institute (Free University of Berlin) where he researches the rise and use of cyber, robotic systems in security relations, and the future of military conflict. Scott Nicholas Romaniuk is a PhD Candidate in International Studies (University of Trento). His research focuses on asymmetric warfare, counterterrorism, international security, and the use of force.

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