Monday, January 27, 2014

Urban Warfare



David Kilcullen's latest book makes a decently provocative claim about the future of warfare although he hedges quite a bit throughout. The basis of his projections are the facts that humans are clustering in cities to an extent never before seen. Along with urban migration, these mega-cities (Mumbai, Rio, Lagos) are also increasingly littoral. Kilcullen asks us to think of these cities as organisms or environmental systems with flows of people, energy, infrastructure, etc. Cities encounter problems when overpopulation strains the local government's ability to provide sewage, electricity, trash, security and other basic services. This can create criminal or insurgent groups which compete for control of a city sector or sub-population. He explains this in the third chapter of the book, "The Theory of Competitive Control". This section I found to be most interesting.

The claim that more warfare will take place in urban and littoral settings is not that far-reaching. Warfare is about humans. If humans accelerate their living patterns to these types of habitats then it seems logical, ceteris paribus, that more warfare will occur in these settings. However, Kilcullen's claim is stronger. Cities offer refuge and resources, an asymmetric advantage, to sub-state groups. Their comparative advantage vis a vis the US and the nation-state system is in the city. Warfare will be less Afghanistan and more Mogadishu. Fighting village-to-village on the mountainous border with Pakistan is an anomaly. We will fight these groups for competitive control but it will be in dense urban areas.  

The appendix promised some proscriptions about how to prepare a military to deal with the security challenges of urban littoral settings. This section under-delivered but to be fair it was not intended to be part of Kilcullen's main point.       

Aside from the third chapter, which I found insightful and provocative, the rest of the book felt like a long-form article that went to 200+ pages. It was all mostly useful but the length of the book (290pgs) didn't justify itself. That said, it wasn't as if the work was 500 pages. Still easily digestible in a few days. Recommend for strategists and those interested in warfare...YMMV otherwise.     

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

White SOF v. Black SOF

"To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not 
the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill"
Sun Tzu


This morning, deviating from my 2014 plan, I finished reading Linda Robinson's One Hundred Victories. I was drawn to the book because of her work at RAND and some great articles she recently penned about Special Operations. She knows what she is talking about and did the research. The result is a fantastic book about the efforts of Special Forces (and SEALs) to build up the Afghanistan security forces through heavy engagement, training and mentorship. It gives the reader a much better sense of the herculean task these small teams face in creating and sustaining local and regional police and military forces. Dealing with others cultures and language barriers makes their task all the more difficult. Surviving the unforgiving human terrain with Taliban all around makes their task perilous.

NYT review here

This book is not a gunslinger tale of night raids and kicking-ass. The big victories arrive when the teams are able to get local village leaders to provide for their own defense and reject the Taliban. The big victories are when Afghan forces repel Taliban attacks and come to each other's aid. This is White SOF. It is political-military warfare. It is population centric and it is a long hybrid game of chess and Chutes and Ladders.

The narrative was excellent but I wish the author had cut that down by 30-50 pages and instead expanded the last chapter about the future of Special Operations and American warfare. It is here where she provides the "what does it all mean" synthesis but it is far too short. More analysis and insight and this book would have hit the sweet spot.

There are lots of great books about daring raids, killing Osama, and all the missions that make great stories. Those books describe what special operators call Black SOF. Capturing a terrorist or a bomb maker is a great feeling but those raids rarely produce strategic results....they are the one hundred victories. Training and equipping an ally or partner to do it themselves is the acme of skill.