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I saw active service in conventional, clandestine and covert units of the South African Defence Force. I was the founder of the Private Military Company (PMC) Executive Outcomes in 1989 and its chairman until I left in 1997. Until its closure in 1998, EO operated primarily in Africa helping African governments that had been abandoned by the West and were facing threats from insurgencies, terrorism and organised crime. EO also operated in South America and the Far East. I believe that only Africans (Black and White) can truly solve Africa’s problems. I was appointed Chairman of STTEP International in 2009 and also lecture at military colleges and universities in Africa on defence, intelligence and security issues. Prior to the STTEP International appointment, I served as an independent politico-military advisor to several African governments. I am a contributor to The Counter Terrorist magazine. All comments in line with the topics on this blog are welcome. As I consider this to be a serious look at military and security matters, foul language and political or religious debates will not be entertained on this blog.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

HAS “STRATEGY” BECOME “GADGETRY”?

Looking at how modern wars are being fought, I have come to suspect that “strategy” has somehow been replaced with “gadgetry”. There seems to be a misguided belief that whoever has the most technologically-enhanced gadgets will definitely win a war. But gadgets do not replace the commander’s aggression, initiative, leadership or ability to be flexible on the battlefield. Nor do gadgets enhance the soldier’s adaptability.

The art of strategy development – and it is an art – ought to give cognisance to technology but it should never be replaced with technology. Nor can poorly-developed strategies be rectified by adopting a technology-superior posture. This fallacy leads to a flawed military strategy and impacts negatively on the subsequent doctrine, operational level command structures and ultimately on the tactics to overcome an enemy.

In parallel with gadgets comes “troop surges” – another mistaken approach to winning wars. Both of these “concepts” create a false sense of security and raise false battlefield expectations. When these expectations are not met, questions are directed at the wrong causes for mission-failure.

Many strategists and planners view the modern-day battlefield as a giant computer screen and the battles nothing other than a detached computer game. This game, however, costs lives and the more reliance the forces have on technology, the more they seem to get stuck in a rut, unable to seize the initiative or adapt to rapidly changing battlefield scenarios.

Whereas technology ought to be regarded as a realistic force-multiplier and casualty-reducer, it is not a primary approach to warfare. Gadgets and technology do not replace disciplined, well-trained and well-led men – they merely enhance their mission-success and open other options for engaging the enemy. The belief that technological gadgets will make war faster, more efficient, more precise and more decisive is proving to be somewhat erroneous. Gadgetry does not constitute the “magic bullet” to winning a war.

The fixation on technological superiority and its associated gadgets has led to a decline in discipline, training, leadership and battle drills and subsequently, a neglect of the human and psychological dimensions of war. Soldiers are no longer prepared for battle. Their belief that their gadgets will allow them to win is a doomed appraisal of the coming battle. When their gadgets and technology fail, their fighting spirit rapidly declines, unit cohesion is lost and morale is negatively affected.

Whereas it can be argued that both strategy and gadgetry are focussed on achieving a defined goal, the two concepts employ vastly different approaches. On the modern battlefield, technology ought to be used to enhance tactics – and not to define strategy.

The character of warfare, present and future, is continually changing. These changes are brought about by the changing weaponry, technology, counter-measures and so forth. For soldiers to cope under these unpredictable circumstances, they need to be well-trained thus allowing them to make the necessary battlefield adjustments to survive and win the battles.

Despite all the technological advancements that have been made and the gadgets available, basic intelligence on the enemy is still lacking. This has led to planners misunderstanding the nature of the looming battle and underestimating the enemy. Appreciation and plans become based on guess work. Yet, the enemy appear to learn from their mistakes and they use technology to enhance their tactics – not to determine their strategy.

It is time for the modern military machine to go back to the very basics of warfare. The enemy, his weapons and combat capabilities need to be fully appreciated and understood. Battle appreciations and plans need to be based on realistic assessments of the fighting forces that will be committed to battle. Technology must be realistically factored into all tactical plans but it should never become the driving force behind the tactics.

Nor should “strategy” ever be substituted by “gadgetry”.

28 comments:

Robby said...

Hi Eeben ....Man has always gone for “GADGETRY” in war ...standoff weaponry saves the grunts from seeing and killing up close and personal always been a problem for the military....it took me better than 20 years for the desire to pick up a firearm after I left the SADF.

willywinky said...

With all due respect Eben you are forgetting that many of the modern day gadgetry is there mainly to sell the idea of war to the public. How many victims do you see on television?

With all the modern missiles it took the US how long to realise in Desert Storm that their helicopters could no cope with the sand in the desert. In Iraq how long did it take them again to reliase that they needed "V" shaped hulls on their vechiles for IED's.

Odd for a superpower when you consider that South Africa had and used that equipment in Angola 20 years ago. I note that a US arms producer is now making an improved Casspir for the US forces. The Apache engines had been adapted for the sand to similar to that of the --- Rooivalk.

Say what you want but under apartheid South Africa manufactured some of the best weapons system to fight in the desert.

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Gadgets do have their place on the modern battlefield Robby. My concern is that the troops are becoming over-reliant on gadgets and losing the ability to be real soldiers. Commanders need gadgets to meet their battlefield objectives.

Of course certain technology is a real bonus: NVGs, GPSs, encrypted VHF and so on. But gadgets also add to the weight-load of soldiers and hamper their ability to move correctly.

As for up-close fighting, that is the lot of the soldier but I know what you mean about the SADF.

Rgds,

Eeben

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

A lot of gadgetry will work fine in a controlled environment, willywinky. Yet, alter an element of that environment and it fails. Using untested gadgetry is irresponsible and criminal and instead of reducing casualties it increases casualties.

We were using V-shaped hulls more than 30 years ago, our then-ancient helicopters flew mission after mission in dust, heat, rain and hell but never left us in the lurch…all of these things were possible because we had to fight with the little we had. We could not rely much on hi-tech or gadgets. We used maps (when they were available) and called in artillery and air strikes using compasses.

Given the situation the SADF found itself in (international isolation, sanctions, etc) we were forced to improvise. That taught all of us to use initiative. Which brings me to the point – over-reliance on gadgets has reduced improvisation. Reduced improvisation reduces initiative – something soldiers need to have on any battlefield.

Rgds,

Eeben

graycladunits said...

Dear Eeben:

I can attest a recent lack of discipline in US army training owing to the gadget craze. Someone else mentioned "stress cards" and a friend of mine in the army confirmed that each one comes with five punches for free stress-related breaks. For the record, my friend said he never used his card. There was a time when an unscheduled break during training meant severe punishment in the US army. I have also encountered an arrogance among the officers in training in JMU's ROTC program some years back when I confronted some of them about what units in action would do if technology failed them. I was told that I did not know what I was talking about because our logistical systems would never fail to bring our men the necessary replacement gadgets when and where they needed them. Any advance could be halted or slowed to wait for any gadget resupply needed. I found that to be a highly dubious statement considering our logistical systems now rely on piles of computerized gadgets themselves. Besides, how often do supply trucks pull up next to a foxhole under heavy machine gun fire to deliver a new pair of night vision goggles? Herein lie our weaknesses: lack of discipline, arrogance among young officers, an unshakable faith in a circular argument that gadgets will always be able to aid men in the replacement of gadgets in any situation.

Regards, GCU

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

I believe that we need to place all military gadgets within the correct framework for deployment GCU. I consider gadgets as casualty-reducers – if applied correctly. My problem is when gadgets are used to dictate strategy and subsequently doctrine and tactics. This folly leads to a massive fall-out down the line as soldiers are given unrealistic expectations of their own abilities – and a false sense of security is created.

All of this can be traced back to short-cuts during basic training, a lack of focus in specialised training and misunderstanding the enemy. By misunderstanding the enemy and his capabilities, we open ourselves to a major weakness – what do we do when the enemy attacks our gadgets? The snowball effect of such attacks may lead to defeat on the battlefield.

A breakdown in discipline is something every commander needs to guard against. But in these times of political correctness, the politicians and public at large seem to have a say in how troops should be disciplined. However, discipline is the thread that holds a unit together under fire. That and leadership. But as long as we faf around and worry what the politicians or the public will say, we are doomed.

I believe we should go back to strict discipline, hard training and then we will fight easy.

Rgds,

Eeben

Robby said...

Hi Eeben You may find this article of interest written by Chalmers Johnson bear in mind although Chalmers is on the left of political discourse I always find his stuff informative...the break down of discipline can be traced to the growth of the "military Industrial Complex"

I have often spoken about how stupid it was to develope multi-billion dollar weapon systems which can be made ineffective with a $100.00 worth of explosives as was the case with the USS Cole.

Heres a snippert

In December 2008, Franklin "Chuck" Spinney, a former high-ranking civilian in the Pentagon's Office of Systems Analysis (set up in 1961 to make independent evaluations of Pentagon policy) and a charter member of the "Fighter Mafia" of the 1980s and 1990s, wrote, "As has been documented for at least 20 years, patterns of repetitive habitual behavior in the Pentagon have created a self-destructive decision-making process. This process has produced a death spiral."

As a result, concluded Spinney, inadequate amounts of wildly overpriced equipment are purchased, "new weapons [that] do not replace old ones on a one for one basis". There is also "continual pressure to reduce combat readiness", a "corrupt accounting system" that "makes it impossible to sort out the priorities", and a readiness to believe that old solutions will work for the current crisis.

DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA
Crisis looms at the Pentagon
By Chalmers Johnson

Like much of the rest of the world, Americans know that the United States automotive industry is in the grips of what may be a fatal decline. Unless it receives emergency financing and undergoes significant reform, it is undoubtedly headed for the graveyard in which many American industries are already buried, including those that made televisions and other consumer electronics, many types of scientific and medical equipment, machine tools, textiles and much earth-moving equipment - and that's to name only the most obvious candidates.They all lost their competitiveness to newly emerging economies that were able to outpace them in innovative design, price, quality, service and fuel economy, among other things.

A similar, if far less well known, crisis exists when it comes to the military-industrial complex. That crisis has its roots in the deceitful practices that have long characterized the high command of the armed forces, civilian executives of the armaments industries, and Congressional opportunists looking for pork-barrel projects, defense installations for their districts, or even bribes for votes.

http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Front_Page/KB04Aa01.html

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Thank you for the very informative article and link, Robby. I agree wholeheartedly with the author, despite whatever his political leanings may be. Your reference to the USS Cole touched a raw nerve because the US was warned (myself and an agent) before it happened and could have prevented it. Sadly, no-one was willing to listen – that episode left me thinking that the US wanted a reason to act and to get there was willing to sacrifice some of its own. A very poor situation, indeed.

I have always maintained that soldiers should NEVER rely on gadgets. In order to develop these gadgets costs millions, some for R&D and some for bribes. Instead money should be spent on training and more training. Of course, one needs to look at how technology can be used effectively to reduce casualties and act complimentary to tactics, but I fear we are going too far with technology. As you correctly say, the best technology can be made ineffective with a small amount of explosives – or some other form of neutralisation.

Discipline has gone down the plug as the human rights of the recruit now gets priority. Soft soldiers, lacking in discipline, guided by poor strategies, unable to use initiative on the battlefield and overloaded with gadgets will cost the West dearly one day.

Rgds,

Eeben

Robby said...

Not so sure about the "looking for a reason" theory ala Vietnam but I'm sure you will agree that the US response was timid at best I tend to think that it was a certain amount of American arrogance.

It strikes me that most military brass have not come to grips with the fact that outside of one exception that I can think of none of the worlds super powers and their standing armies have ever defeated an "insurgency" we can start in 1776 with Francis Marion aka "the swamp fox" considered one of the fathers of modern guerrilla warfare not sure if he read Sun Tzu but I suspect he did,the list is long as you know from China to Vietnam to Ireland,Rhodesia etc and now the Middle East when will they ever figure it out?

PS...The only exception of a super power defeating an "insurgency" was the Boer War and had the Brits not set up concentration camps "insurgency" would have a perfect record

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

You make some interesting observations, Robby. Re USS Cole – all I know is what I know – and it could have been prevented. Personally, no-one, as anywhere else in the world, will acknowledge that and take responsibility for that lack of action.

Defeating an insurgency is a topic for another day but the fact remains that whereas the standing armies are expected to follow “rules of engagement”, the insurgents/terrorists don’t have to. Talk of shooting oneself in the foot. But, an even deeper analysis shows that insurgencies cannot be fought with gadgets and technology. When someone doesn’t clutter the ether with radio traffic, how can you monitor him? When someone follows no rules, how can you computerise his future intentions? The list goes on.

To defeat an insurgency, one needs to think like an insurgent. Period. I go back to what the men of EO did in Angola and Sierra Leone. In both theatres, the rebels/insurgents sued for peace. When it was not immediately forthcoming, they begged for it. When that didn’t happen, they called on the insurgent’s friend – the UN - to help them. Enough said.

Rgds,

Eeben

Robby said...

Or further review I should of separated western "insurgency" from third world "insurgency" :-)...big difference

PS Thanks again for a intellectual blog....

TCO said...

Hi Eeben,
Great stuff. I keep coming back to a point that I find myself making with people a lot and one I know you agree with and that is the the fundamental difference between strategy and tactics. Too often these are used, incorrectly, as synonyms.

Some gadgets have offered the U.S. a tactical battlefield advantage which helped achieve some strategic targets. One example is our use of electronic signature tracking of cell phone use. Many of these gadgets are used effectively to track insurgent movements as well as to document their networks. If the gadgets are used effectively they provide short-term tactical advantage and initiative thus achievement of a particular strategic objective.

I always told my troops that 'anything we did not have...we simply did not need.' There was no use in grousing about how some other unit had better kit. There is real pride in doing more with less. It gives you a sense of self reliance that is invaluable as you know when the bees start buzzing you can adapt and overcome based on fundamentals and not a reliance on technology.

Which brings me to my last point and that is commitment. We in the west always think that gadgets will trump the enemies commitment and will to fight. It never does. Gadgets can fail, they can be defeated, they can be made obsolete by the invention of countermeasures or actions. But they can never take the place of a real commitment to win. Who ever has the highest commitment wins, regardless of how many gadgets they have.

SF

Jake

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

But the basic concepts remain the same Robby.

Thanks for visiting and for the compliment.

Rgds,

Eeben

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Perhaps I ought to write something about the difference between the two, Jake? I get really mad when so-called leaders confused the two and use the terms interchangeably.

Your point on gadgets being used to achieve a tactical advantage is precisely the point I am trying to make. In the instance you quote, the technology is being used to enhance tactics. Successful tactics lead to meeting strategic objectives. It is when the gadgets determine the strategy that I become fearful.

Commitment is something we seem to be losing at a rapid pace. Perhaps we have come to view commitment as politically incorrect – I don’t know. But, it shows in how we approach things but then we keep wondering why we didn’t make the grade.

Rgds,

Eeben

TCO said...

Yes Eeben. I think it would be very worthwhile to recalibrate people on the differences, or more precisely the relationship between tactics and strategy. As you well know, there is a very clear distinction, at least in military terms, between the two.

Jake

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Thanks, Jake. I shall do something on the differences between strategy and tactics.

Rgds,

Eeben

SD said...

simply bravo and thank you for your blog which is very interesting.
http://pourconvaincre.blogspot.com/

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Thank you for your comment SD. It is a pleasure to have you stopping by. I will find someone to translate your posts for me as they do seem very interesting.

Rgds,

Eeben

John said...

Eeben, i agree with you! If you take something simple - the M4 the US use in Iraq and Afghanistan. The soldiers probably doubles the weight of that gun with all the gadgets they attach to it. This contributes to the gun being very unbalanced and a weapon designed to be light weight and easy to handle becomes totally the opposite.

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Very true, John. In an attempt to give the soldier the best chance of survival on the battlefield, he gets overloaded with “life-saving” technology which hampers is movement, makes him slower to react and ultimately, makes him an easier target. But, we have become so reliant on this technology that without it, we don’t feel “safe”. Some gadgets may be necessary but a lot of them are not.

Rgds,

Eeben

E Richard said...

Hey Eeben,
One day it may become more acceptable that all disputes cannot be settle through dialogue. Trying to attach a different face to killing that war generates is what I believe is behind the "GADGETRY". There was a time when the cannon ball was considered gadgetry, flying through the air unannounced. Maybe it becomes a bit more palettable if the way they are dying is other than that of small arms fire or bayonet.
Another aspect to look at is the economic involvement of the nation that is developing and producing the sophisticated weapons. Not just the soldiers are involved in the process, regular citizens and their jobs are also effected by their deployment.
A good friend of mine told me that a mere 2% of men are gifted with the ability to use their common sense.
Doing more with less is a good idea for those who can, but for the rest, less with more will have to do.

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

You may raise a valid point, ER, but I believe the West in particular has become too reliant on gadgetry and in the process neglected the fundamentals of warfare – strategy, doctrine and tactics. It is the sound application of those three fundamentals that can lead to victory or defeat and not the associated gadgets.

Rgds,

Eeben

E Richard said...

Hey Eeben,
The snow ball rolling down the hill gains momentum by gathering mass.
Our system in the US Is about adding spending and trying to associate some sort of manpower equation to justify it all. This is the strategy that we have evolved into. There is no call for accountability when it comes to spending the taxpayers money.
The Pentagon mind set is on its won time zone.
Trying to associate traditional military tactics to our missions just won't work.
Minus the active wars we are involved in the US spends about 1/2 trillion dollars per year on the military as of 2009. Who needs effeciency with those kind of numbers. Now the end game becomes unloading he money.

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Thanks for those comments, ER. But money is the driving force behind it all and therefore, as you rightly comment, there is no accountability.

Rgds,

Eeben

Greenbar said...

I must agree.
In this army food is guaranteed and plenty, so is water. There were even energy drinks. Any supply from ammo to batteries was excessive. Heli medevac was guaranteed as well so was quick reaction backup. Mind you I am not talking about entire army, just what I've observed. Soldiers expected air conditioned units granted there wasn't much sleep. Most of all information on the locals culture was zero.
At least soldiers from the vietnam era remembered to read maps and navigate day or night.

I could go on and on. What happens when no NVGs? No radio? No fuel/vehicle? No bottled water or trucks? No med evac? Then again nobody would enlist if they knew it would be like this. It is a generation of video games and instant gratification.

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

You raise issues I too am concerned about Greenbar. I am worried that there is an over-reliance on technology and a disregard for “soldiering skills”. This will still cost the West dearly.

Rgds,

Eeben

AndreasKrieg said...

Dear Mr Barlow,
first of all I have to like to agree with you that technology cannot replace boots on the ground in contemporary asymmetric warfare.
As a PhD student at the War Studies Department at King's College in London I am trying to legitimize the use of PMCs for military humanitarian intervention from a Just War theoretical point of view. The main argument is that private military companies have a competitive advantage over conventional public armies due to their smaller degree of risk or casualty aversion. While state armies have been seriously obstructed in their performance in humanitarian intervention by their aim to minimize or avoid casualties, PMCs, in particular EO, seems to have primarily focused on attaining the military objective in the operation despite suffering casualties. From years of experience working with conventional armies I am convinced that outsourcing the soldier on the ground to any technologically advanced gadget (i.e. UAVs, high altitude bombers, tanks etc) will neither help winning the wars of the 21st century nor increase the level of proportionality from an ethical point of view. It seems to me that EO, as the most successful Private Military Company, has presented an alternative to public intervention in humanitarian crises both in Angola and Sierra Leone, relying on highly specialized and experienced professional ground forces with minimal hardware support.
Even though you refer to the role of casualties in EO’s operations in Soyo, in Angola and in Sierra Leone in your book, I would like to know to what extent the fear of casualties and risk had an impact on EO’s operations on the ground. Is it safe to say that EO had the ability to apply force more determinedly and more outcome-oriented because minimizing casualties was not the primary objective?
Thank you very much in advance
Best regards,
Andreas Krieg

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

You raise some very valid points, Andreas, regarding technology, PMCs and armies.

However, I still have reservations about some PMCs as they are not really private but rather extensions of state. Contracts are handed on a plate with no regard to past performance. When as PMC has to earn its contract, things become a bit more tricky.

Everyone wants to avoid casualties as much as possible. Good intelligence, sound strategies, tactics applied according to terrain and flexibility are all important. If not, we risk increasing casualties.

EO had contracts to fulfil and the only way that could be done was to ensure our host-government troops were well trained, that a sound military strategy was developed that would allow us to attack the trinity of gravity and apply maximum focussed force to achieve all military objectives.

Only once all military objectives are achieved can negotiations begin – from a position of strength.

Good luck with your PhD.

Rgds,

Eeben