Eye On Defence: War And Knowledge

March 1, 2005 by David J. Bercuson

PHOTO: CPL. RONALD DUCHESNE

PHOTO: CPL. RONALD DUCHESNE

During exercises at Wainwright, Alta., Bombardier Marcy Maddison listens to the network as Lieutenant-Colonel Kevin Cotten from the 2nd Regiment, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery works on his fire plan.

When the first clash of warriors occurred back in human history, the problem of the inherent chaos of battle first reared its head. Carl von Clausewitz gave the phenomenon its most-oft used name in his classic work Vom Kriege (On War) written in the 1820s and ‘30s. He called it “the fog of war.” He explained it as the difficulty of knowing exactly what is happening during the clash of arms, at the various levels of command that are supposed to control the battle and even on the battlefield itself.

The fog of war grows out of the nature of battle.

Battle pits two antagonists against each other who both possess intelligence, independent wills, and grim determination to inflict harm on each other. That makes it hard even to know what is happening just outside the slit trench, or around the next corner, let alone over the next hill.

Battle also calls up intense emotions, including both fear and exhilaration, and emotion clouds both judgment and understanding. That makes it harder still.

Clausewitz wrote that great commanders—at whatever level of command—have an almost instinctive fingertip feel for what is actually happening amidst the fog of war, but implies that no one ever truly knows what is happening in “real time,” as we would term it today.

The modern technologies that various armed forces are adapting today are aimed almost entirely at dissipating the fog of war. Military affairs specialists talk almost unendingly about the “revolution in military affairs” or armed forces in transformation as a kind of short hand for two related concepts: knowing better what is actually happening at any given moment and through knowing, being able to deliver a higher and more effective level of firepower at exactly the right place at precisely the right time.

The Canadian Forces, to their credit, have recently come to the forefront among armed forces in the transformation process.

For example, all three arms of the Forces have bought into the notion of “netcentric” warfare. This is jargon for “network centric”, a situation in which all the combat elements in a given environment are digitally linked so that each can “see” the situation from the other’s perspective as it happens. Thus a Canadian frigate, for example, becomes just one node in an information network that may link a United States aircraft carrier, U.S. and Allied fighter and reconnaissance aircraft, other Allied warships, and usually one or more surveillance and communications satellites.

The Canadian navy has been operating in this way with the U.S. Navy for the better part of a decade. The air force is upgrading its CF-18 fighter aircraft to do the same thing with the U.S. and other Allied air forces. The Canadian army is not only aiming to network with the U.S. Army but is also turning itself into a lighter, more mobile, more air transportable, and at the same time more lethal force.

This is all well and good. Smaller militaries must seek solutions through new technologies that cannot be found through more person power or more weapons platforms that healthier defence budgets allow. But if all this transformation is not done with an eye to the past, dangerous consequences might ensue.

Since there is no substitute for battle in any simulation, military history in particular and history in general is the only laboratory that can provide any real guidance to military planners. Two axioms that history reminds us of, for example, are that the future of anything is never predictable and that warriors who do not have access to up-to-date war-fighting technologies will seek other means to combat those technologies. A corollary to this last axiom is that they will always seek the cheapest and easiest means to do so.

Just what can we say about the future?

The Canadian army’s transformation—to take but one example—is largely based on the assumption that any future fighting that it does will be similar to the conflicts that have broken out around the world since the end of the Cold War. That is a reasonable assumption. It is hard to see what else the army can do now, given its limited resources. But there may be a cloud on the horizon.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin seems determined to re-centralize state power in Russia while building up anew the sort of heavy military forces that the Soviet Union once possessed. Hardly a week passes without the announcement of a new Russian missile, increased production of Russian armoured forces, or a new generation of Russian submarines. The Russian defence budget is growing, the recently sick Russian armed forces are being rejuvenated, Russia is establishing new military ties with China.

These are facts.

Whether they are facts that the Canadian military ought to (or should) take into consideration is another question. But they do indicate that the near future may more resemble the Cold War era than the 15 years since the end of the Cold War.

As to the effectiveness of new technologies, the fighting in both Afghanistan in 2002 and Iraq from the outbreak of the war in March 2003 to now have demonstrated pretty conclusively that technology has its limits. An article in the November 2004 Technology Review published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is subtitled “Networking Technologies Were Meant To Transform The U.S. Military. They Didn’t Work In Iraq.” It tells the story of one U.S. Army battalion fighting its way through to Baghdad in April 2003 but not knowing from one hour to the next exactly where the enemy was.

That story might have been written about World War II or indeed any war of movement since the dawn of time. Technology will give today’s soldier, and his or her commanders, more information than ever before, but it can no more dissipate the fog of war than it can or will remove the pain and killing of battle.

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