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Friday, October 16, 2009

Missing in Action: Innovation

America used technological innovation to attain victory in World War II and the Cold War.  Why haven't we done the same with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Jet engines, nuclear weapons, satellites and stealth planes all were born of an innovative frenzy unleashed in our drive to beat the Axis and the Soviet Union. You might think a similar technological surge might have occurred following the attacks of September 11, 2001. 

It didn't happen.

Since 9/11, we have seen the debut of the iPod; we have sent unmanned rovers to explore Mars, and we have perfected vitamin-sized capsules with tiny cameras and lights that we can swallow to investigate our intestines. Toyota has even started selling cars that parallel park themselves. 

The SWORDS robot made by Foster-Miller for the U.S. Army.

Yet we have invented almost nothing to fight Islamist extremists. I find that utterly mystifying.

For the duration of the Iraq War, the U.S. Army has been tinkering with small robots capable of heading into combat with a machine gun or a sniper rifle while remotely operated from a mile away. That sounds like something that should be a game changer. But sadly, the only significant use of these machines has been for IED disposal. The combat-ready versions have languished in a seemingly endless process of evaluation. 

A deployment of three of the combat-ready SWORD robots in 2008 ended with the Army withdrawing funding. The contractor is now trying to win back the Army with an enhanced version that can carry more payload and can do double duty with a manipulator arm for bomb disposal.

By now, we should have been sending whole armies of remote-controlled machines into insurgent-filled neighborhoods. What's our excuse? It cannot be that the technology is not feasible. That is just question begging. In a country rife with genius and research money, why haven't we made it feasible?

The paltry wartime innovation that has actually occurred since 2001 speaks more to opportunities lost than accomplishments achieved.

For instance, the most prominent technological advance employed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is, without a doubt, the Predator drone aircraft. Indeed, the Predator would be a laudable example of wartime cleverness but for one thing: It started flying in 1995. 

Can you imagine what we could have made by now if we had kicked it into high gear after 9/11?

Perhaps the best example of a real wartime innovation in recent years is the MRAP – the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected utility vehicle. But ultimately, the MRAP is better example of sloth than success. Built with a v-shaped hull to deflect the blast of buried explosives, the MRAP showed a clear capacity to save soldiers' lives. Yet after years of ignoring pleas from commanders in the field, the Pentagon only made large-scale manufacture of the MRAP a priority in 2007. In 2008, in part thanks to the MRAPs, casualties from roadside bombs have dropped 88 percent. 

During World War II, the U.S. rushed newly designed bombers into the sky and manufactured them at the rate of a squadron a day. If we had put forth even a fraction of that effort with projects like the MRAP, we could have saved hundreds if not thousands of lives in Iraq. What is more, the increased effectiveness of our troops over those years in Iraq would have meant greater security for Iraqi civilians and consequently far less bloodshed among noncombatant Iraqi citizens. 

Despite the opportunities lost, it is not too late for military innovation to win, end, and prevent wars in the Middle East. The war in Iraq, though it has receded from recent headlines, is far from over. The situation for NATO troops in Afghanistan is, of course, growing worse. And Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is pushing Iran to be able to threaten Israel and other countries with nuclear weapons. 

Whatever leadership failure or bureaucratic tangle is responsible for our current torpor, we should not tolerate it. To win wars and keep the peace, we must come back to doing what America has long done best: Invent. 

Posted by Eric E. Johnson on October 16, 2009 at 09:35 AM in Current Affairs, Information and Technology | Permalink


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I am puzzled by this post. Clearly you haven't been paying attention. Battlefield medicine has advanced to the point where Army doctrine on how to perform first aid has dramatically changed several times over. Similarly, our understanding of rehabilitation, traumatic brain injury, and post-traumatic stress disorder has grown by leaps and bounds in the past 8 years.

The Stryker and MRAP are major innovations in ground combat. The sheer amount of innovation in the UAV field during these wars has been astounding. You might want to look at this list. Not to mention the innovation being displayed in novel uses for existing platforms.

We've seen great advances in the effectiveness and lightness of body armor and other protective equipment.

Finally, the communications infrastructure that the military uses has advanced greatly over the year. It seems like every year new equipment makes it to line units.

Seriously, if we had committed the manufacturing resources like you suggest we should have, with even more of a focus on technology and not people, we probably would be suffering greater material and strategic losses than we are now.

Posted by: Shane | Oct 20, 2009 12:29:07 PM

Link to comic: http://www.doonesbury.com/strip/dailydose/index.html?uc_full_date=20091011

Posted by: ohwilleke | Oct 19, 2009 3:04:45 PM

There has been no shortage of technological innovation in the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some highlights:

1. The debute of widespread use of guided artillery round (Excaliber) returns artillery to usefullness (particularly in Afghanistan) and "smart bombs" that have dramatically reduced the number of shots fired per target destroyed. Indeed, the dramatic defeat of the Taliban early on in the Afghanistan campaign when they were at the brink of winning a domestic civil war was mostly due to CIA directed use of smart bombs in decisive battles, mostly from B-52s.

2. Drone aircraft were used for the first time on a widespread basis both for small strikes and for recon. A "viper strike" missile was introduced to allow these drone strikes to be smaller than the prior "Hellfire" missile designed to blow up Russian tanks. This has been a characteristic tool of the war.

3. M1 tanks were upgraded for urban combat when shieldless machine gunners suffered excesive casualties.

4. The Stryker armored personnel carrier was introduced as a middle ground between tanks and Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and unarmored Humvees. The MRAP program and the armored Humvee program also filled this middle ground.

5. Use of night vision goggles and high tech sensors (often from fighter aircraft working primarily in a recon role) has greatly increased.

As the Doonsebury strip of 10-11-09 portrayed in an exaggerated but mostly accurate way when a U.S. soldier destroys an urban insurgent base with a remotely guided missle with a few buttons touched on a PDA after receiving a tip, the problem is not technology. The U.S. has never before been able to deliver ordinance with such pinpoint accuracy in real time. The strip closes with the local informant asking, "why aren't you guys winning?" And, the answer has nothing to do with high tech, and everything to do with soft power.

War is politics by other means. In a counterinsurgency, you have to know who to strike before an ability to do so is useful. Casulties in this war (like most counterinsurgencies) has been grossly disproportionately borne by the insugents. But, the goal is really establishing a regime with legitimacy, not killing insurgent.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Oct 19, 2009 2:26:24 PM

Eric, I think the sentiment is noble but misplaced. First, as terrible as the Taliban is, it is not yet in Axis or Soviet Union territory, and we shouldn't be devoting the enormous chunk of our GDP to it as we did in World War II. Second, the marginal gains from technological as opposed to other types of innovation (e.g. strategic) is pretty slim here, because the technological disparity is already enormous. Our soldiers are already beating the insurgents to a pulp whenever there is a direct confrontation. The problems we face are the typical problems of asymmetric warfare that have plagued large armies since forever, and have rarely been solved with technology.

Put it this way. Suppose tomorrow we find $10 trillion of money lying around somewhere that we can use to fund the war effort. Would you spend the money: (1) coming up with a new super battle robot science fiction style, or (2) putting a million soldiers on the ground? I guarantee that we can pacify Afghanistan in a year if we have Option 2. Option 1 probably won't get you very far.

Posted by: TJ | Oct 16, 2009 3:53:56 PM

Eric, I read your post with great interest.

It appears to me, if I may be so bald, that you are putting the cart before the horse. What do I mean by that? If you look at how Great Britain - which had decades worth of disciplined IRA terrorism, and should of had a good deal of mechanization in its combat - fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, you will note that the Royal Army and Marines, who are supreme fighter, fought with "boots on the ground" using hand to hand combat. Similarly,Germany - which also had a good deal of terrorism during the 1970s and 80s and post 9/11 - and has one of the best military-industrial complex, used non-robotic combat in Iran and now Afghanistan. Finally, Israel. The Israel Defense Forces use robots, etc, in very limited situations, e.g., to defuse bombs. Playing on this type of court, requires a different disciplinary approach.

The problem is not ingenuity. It is the type of combat that is being engaged in. As you so correctly note, pre-2001, the U.S. military wanted big toys, like bombers and tanks. The generals forgot that to win any war but especially one that is being fought against insurgents or terrorists, or freedom fighters, etc., it is the infantry that will be the front line of combat and will take the lead in casualties. Big toys don't work in that type of situation. So the Pentagon, urged on by Congress's need for pork, i.e., jobs for their districts, didn't plan for small arms combat. They preferred BIG stuff.

In a war against insurgents and terrorists one needs good intelligence and soldiers on the ground to use or exploit the intelligence against the people who are doing the attacking, like the Taliban. But the bigger problem is that no army, indeed no person, can take any measure against a suicide bomber. The only time one can take any action is if one knows who the suicide bomber is. This is not an issue for technology or ingenuity in the sense of engineering.

The correct response during the Bush era was to listen to General Garner, who advised that the "Coalition" must keep the Iraqi police and military in place, until such time as the U.S. military felt that it could go it alone. Since the neo-cons were clueless about the military because not one of them served in it, they felt that their great idealism would carry the day. The problem or the fact of the matter was that the situation was analogous to dropping a large jar of honey. It takes a second or two to hit the ground. But hours to clean up. And this is where the U.S. is currently in Iraq.

Afghanistan is a different fiasco. First, there were just not enough soldiers deployed to control the situation. But I also believe that the military had and still has a good deal of ambivalance about the fight in that country. The reason I say that, is that a few groups of sepcial forces, e.g., Army rangers, Navy Seals, etc., can cause such much havoc if they are allowed to work that the Taliban would be begging for mercy. Here, no mechanization is needed. Rangers and Seals just need to be deployed and let them do their job.

Finally, in combat,as in any endeavor, one must take the game, if you will, to the opponent's court. The aim in war must be to be punitive or disciplinary against an enemy. You have to show them who the boss is! Intimidate and conquer!


Itzchak Kornfeld

Posted by: Itzchak Kornfeld | Oct 16, 2009 2:18:28 PM

I think, to some extent, Kenneth Anderson over at Volokh and Opinio Juris might disagree with you as he seems to frequently come up with posts about this or that new military technology.

From my perspective, I think it's important that we have some moral criteria by which we assess the intended and even unintended uses of such technologies, the various purposes to which they may be put, and so forth and so on. It seems developments on these front have a momentum all their own and thus the various parties involved never take the time to think through myriad consequences of their fascination with the fire of Prometheus and their bewitchment by military power. Every time we appear to make at most incremental progress on the jus in bello front, technological development outruns our attempts and ability to circumscribe the barbarism of war, as in the case of aerial bombing and the development of nuclear weapons (See, for instance, Yuki Tanaka and Marilyn B. Young, eds., Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth-Century History, 2009).

Scholars are increasingly finding persuasive the argument that Truman did NOT need to drop nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (nor engage in incessant firebombing of Tokyo and other cities; see, for instance, Tsuyoshi Hasegawa's article in the Bombing Civilians volume cited above). The repeated contention throughout World War II and the Vietnam War, for example, that intensive aerial bombing (which invariably involved violation of jus in bello rules on all sides) would destroy enemy morale proved not to be true although it did exemplify the sanitization of slaughter and wartime technological fanaticism.

Of course the regnant assumption here is that the conflicts you cite are best terminated with a military solution. True or not, perhaps we might think through EVERYTHING that might entail and whether or not such a solution is the only solution, the best solution, the next-to-best solution....

And I don't think it's true, and it's certainly arguable, that "Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is pushing Iran to be able to threaten Israel and other countries with nuclear weapons."

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Oct 16, 2009 11:12:30 AM

"America used technological innovation to attain victory in World War II and the Cold War. Why haven't we done the same with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?"
Because, unlike Germany and Japan in 1939 the Taliban in Afghanistan are currently no comparable military threat to the US. Japan and Germany were the technological equals of the US back then and winning required using every means available (now, if there ever where an islamic califat with a few hundred million people keen on destroying / conquering the US, that would be another matter).

"By now, we should have been sending whole armies of remote-controlled machines into insurgent-filled neighborhoods. What's our excuse?"
Um, maybe someone came to the conclusion that sending over killer robots wouldn't be useful to win the hearts and minds of the locals? If you just want to kill lots of Pashtouns, the current weapons will easily do. If you want to save Afghanistan, killer robots won't help. Soldiers who can speak the language might ...

Also, there HAS been lots of change - where it makes sense:
- The personal gear of US infantry (weapons not included) went from a few hundred bucks in 2000 to US$ 17.000 today:

"Isn't this a pretty shocking transformation over such a short period of time? I suppose it tells you something about the sophistication of personal protective gear, about the devolution of communications equipment and electronics down to the squad and team level, about the relatively recent proliferation of night-vision devices to every individual, and so on, but I just can't help but draq any more complicated conclusions than "dude, that's a lot." None of which is to suggest that it isn't worth it, obviously, but rather to express my surprise that our guys were so under-equipped on 9/10."


- Also, battlefield medicine has made huge strides.

Posted by: Positroll | Oct 16, 2009 10:08:03 AM

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