George Friedman's Thoughts: War and a New Geopolitical Age

By George Friedman


It is time to end this series of philosophical ruminations and turn instead to something that is at the center of geopolitics: war. The roots of my philosophical mumblings and my thoughts on war are from two of my books. The first is from my early academic work, “The Political Philosophy of the Frankfurt School.”

The second, called “The Future of War," came later. This is the book of which I am proudest.

It is also the book that sold the fewest copies; its great moment came when the Brazilian war college adopted it as a text. I am proudest of this work because of the forecast. I wrote it in the early 1990s but envisaged a future of war that has since emerged – war waged by unmanned aircraft and hypersonic missiles and in outer space. So, I turn now to talk about the book on war in the hope that I can link the nature of enchantment to infantrymen wearing armored and powered suits.

Let me begin at the beginning.

The introduction of firearms created a new culture of weapons – what I call ballistic weapons. Once fired, the round goes where the initial explosion of energy drives it, with nothing to control it but gravity and the elements, and since it is fired through hand-eye coordination, the probability of it hitting the target is low.

The solution to this problem in war was to dramatically increase the number of weapons fired, compensating for inaccuracy with many rounds from many guns, thereby saturating the horizon and increasing the probability of killing the enemy. All weapons until around 1965 were ballistic; rifles, tanks, howitzers and the like grew into a vast enterprise, centered on the industrial plant that produced them.

The solution to this, in World War II, was to mass bombers, saturating a city with bombs to destroy a single factory. Bombing was so inaccurate that the probability of any bomb load hitting a factory was near zero. This kind of war required many ballistic weapons, many soldiers to use the weapons, many factories to produce them, and many bombers to destroy the factories.

Nuclear weapons grew out of this logic. Massed bombers dropping ballistic weapons were inefficient. One ballistic missile with a nuclear weapon could increase the probability of destroying a factory to near certain. The inaccuracy of pre-nuclear weapons had created total war, and the intercontinental ballistic missile solved the problem of inaccuracy by increasing the size of the explosion.

Between 1967 and 1973 three minor events signaled the end of the ballistic era. In 1967, a Soviet team fired Styx missiles at the Israeli destroyer INS Eilat, sinking it. In 1972, American aircraft used laser-guided bombs to destroy the Thanh Hoa bridge in Vietnam, which had survived conventional air attacks since 1965. In 1973, a brigade of Israeli tanks driving south, parallel to the Suez Canal, was obliterated by a hail of rockets fired by Egyptian special forces.

The three events were linked. In each case, the attackers used projectiles whose trajectory could be changed after firing. The Styx missiles used in the attack on the Eilat were guided internally by a radar seeker that homed in on the ship, maneuvering as needed.

The Thanh Hoa bridge was attacked by a small number of aircraft firing Bullpup missiles, which the air crew could guide to the target using a television system that fixed on the bridge.

The Israeli tanks were destroyed by AT-3 Sagger missiles (note that these are NATO, not Russian, designation).

The missile trailed a wire back to a control system that allowed the shooter to guide the missile to the target. In all cases the probability of any missile hitting the target was about 50 percent, vastly higher than with ballistic weapons.

This changed the mathematics of war. It’s said that in World War I it took 10,000 rounds to kill one man. I don’t know how they counted that but it was a lot. The number of projectiles that had to be fired to hit a ship, a bridge or a tank plummeted to one or two.

This meant that traditional weapons – tanks, aircraft and ships – were not likely to survive on the battlefield in a war of equals, at least not without fiendishly expensive and doubtful defenses. The cost of defending yourself from a weapon soared while the cost of attacking plunged.

During Desert Storm, an American cruise missile could be fired from a ship off shore at a building on land and hit the second window in, on the third floor. This is not a theoretical example, and it exemplifies how the calculation of war had changed.

Rather than firing large numbers of inaccurate weapons firing, committing massive collateral damage, combatants could fire a much smaller number of weapons to destroy a target without having to saturate the surrounding areas. These precision-guided munitions, as they were called, shifted the structure of warfare.

But precision-guided munitions have one critical requirement: intelligence. You can hit a window on a building in Baghdad if you want to, but you have to know which window you want to hit; in some cases, as with the Tomahawk, which is guided by pictures of the terrain and target, you needed to get the pictures of the target first. The challenge of firing non-ballistic weapons at a target a thousand miles away was partly a technical problem but mostly an intelligence problema.

Collecting the intelligence with the requisite level of detail was not easy. Figuring out where a specific individual was in Baghdad, for example, required a combination of humans on the ground, technology to track a huge number of phone calls, and aerial surveillance, which might spook the target.

Intelligence was always at the heart of war, but now it had become the enabler of tactical combat. Fighting the Iraqis in 1991 was relatively easy. But fighting a more sophisticated enemy required more sophisticated technology.

The United States had the National Security Agency for electronic intelligence, the National Reconnaissance Office for satellite imagery and the Central Intelligence Agency for human intelligence. But the evolution of warfare put a heavy burden on them.

The traditional forms of intelligence did not always provide the data needed to launch a precision-guided missile. There were ships for intercepting data and submarines for tapping into underwater lines, but the speed of tactical warfare with PGMs outstripped their capabilities.

The emergence of an alternative to ballistic warfare demanded a different source of intelligence. As with Desert Storm, no one knew they were going to war until after it began. Building intelligence capabilities when war is a surprise means that you have to develop intelligence on a global scale with a high degree of geographic specificity on call. And it had to combine imagery, electronic surveillance and the ability to move data from sensor to shooter.

The microchip was invented for ICBMs and fighter planes and has become the center of new technology. Satellites that had looked for static missile launchers now need to be far more flexible and dynamic.

Computers’ data flows – the internet – were essential to tell the launcher where to fire. Technologies that were emerging were force-grown by the Department of Defense, much like the microchip. Space-based sensors had to take digital photos long before Apple put that technology into the phone. And space became far more important for electronic and visual capabilities.

The emergence of precision-guided munitions drove war’s center of gravity into space. Other causes came later, but space became indispensable for managing PGMs, and any serious war has to begin there. If the U.S. and China ever go to war, the Chinese will need to fire PGMs at American ships, and therefore the Americans must blind them before they can do that by destroying China’s space-based system.

Just as the ballistic era required a vast support network to function, the PGM era needs a far smaller but much more sophisticated system to sustain it. Those systems do much more than define targets for PGM, but that is a core mission.

I can’t overemphasize the importance of the 1967-73 incidents. They opened not only a new age in war but also required a new technological platform. But the most important change was the requirement that wars begin in space, in space-based Pearl Harbors. And I suppose that is enough of a link to enchantment. 

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