Geography, Culture, Technology and Conflict through the Ages: Part III

Part III

John M. Lane

The Cyber Revolution, Asymmetry, and Conflict: 1991-2009

                        The last war of the second industrial revolution (1850- 1990, oil, steel, natural gas, and coal, the “commanding heights” of economic development dominated by the Americans, British, and Western Europeans)was fought in the Persian Gulf in the winter of 1991. Later that year the Soviet Union would collapse, completing a process that had accelerated in the late 1980s. The Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, had decided to acquire the oil fields of neighboring Kuwait; to rebuild his depleted financial resources resulting from the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran War. Saddam calculated that the West and the United States would not intervene because they no longer had the stomach for combat that might involve heavy casualties. He calculated wrong. The West needed access to Persian Gulf oil to keep their economies going.

                      Britain, France, and the United States sent an overwhelming force to Saudi Arabia and along with significant contributions from Arab countries. The American force alone numbered close to 500,000. For whatever reason, Saddam had decided to engage the West in decisive battle and in turn he was decisively defeated. The armies created by the United States, Britain, and France to fight a massive battle of decision on the plains of Central Europe against the Soviet Union was instead unleashed on Saddam. This war happened because the now decrepit Soviet Union could do nothing to stop it and the Chinese looked the other way.

F-16A, F-15C and F-15E flying during Desert Storm. (U.S. Air Force photo)

                      The victory was spectacular in its swiftness; however, it was not decisive. A large portion of the best Iraqi units escaped and were relatively untouched when a cease-fire was declared. The decision was made not to march on to Baghdad. The Iraqis had been ejected from Kuwait. The mission had succeeded. For the West two unsettling phenomenon emerged from the Persian Gulf. First, there had been” fewer than 300 deaths, unprecedented for an operation involving half a million troops. This had unexpected side effect: the American public promptly decided this was a new development in warfare, and that all future American military operations should have equally low casualties.” (Dunnigan 369)

                       Second, the advent of high-tech video war changed how people viewed combat. The video images from the cameras of PGMs (programmable guided missiles) were stunning and at times surreal. It was clean, antiseptic, and oddly beautiful. Only the “bad guys” were hurt. This was arguably the beginning of the age of modern video-gaming. Finally, the euphoria over the victory, particularly in the United States, went beyond what the war had been about. There were victory parades in New York City and Washington D.C., the first such military parades since World War II. It was as if the war had been a psychological catharsis for Korea, Vietnam, Iran, and Lebanon.

                           The Cold War was over, and the “ghost” of Vietnam was dead. By the end of 1991, the United States stood alone as the world’s superpower. The Americans, and to a lesser extent the Europeans, saw this fact as the opportunity to spread “Jeffersonian democracy” and free markets into the former Soviet bloc of Eastern Europe, indeed to those parts of the world that had not seen the light of “liberty and freedom”. NATO was expanded into countries bordering the former USSR and those countries were encouraged to subject their populations to the shock treatment of instant capitalism, instead of applying a transition period. The expansion of NATO, the European Community, and later the European Union right up to borders of the former USSR, humiliated, and angered Russian nationalists. By the second decade of the 21st century, through various means, they would exact their revenge on the West, especially the Americans. 

The expansion of NATO since the end of the “Cold War”

                              The end of the Cold War was supposed to mean peace. However, peace would be elusive. After 1973, the United States ended conscription (“the draft”). The mechanisms have remained on the books to bring it back if needed. After thirty-six plus years, however, if any American politician (regardless of party) seriously proposed bringing back conscription, their political career would end at the next election. From the 70s through the 90s, all Western countries ended mandatory service. The consensus was and remains that it is no longer needed. The days of mass western citizen armies are over, at least for the foreseeable future. Another significant change began in the early 80s. The second industrial revolution was ending, and the cyber age was beginning. 

                       By the mid-1990s a revolution was taking place that would change how people communicate, conduct business transactions, and live their everyday lives. Like every other technological breakthrough, it would also affect how people conduct their wars. The telegraph, telephone, steam ship, airplane, and jet engine shrank time zones and made the world smaller. The Internet, the World Wide Web, made the world interconnected and one. Space had been reduced to cyber space and the virtual had become real. The addition of mobile (cell) phones and digital communications truly made for a global, interconnected world.

                         The Cyber Revolution was also made for asymmetric warfare. “Cyber war can range from the planting of viruses within computers (where both means and target are cyber) to physical attacks… where aircraft bomb buildings that house the computers that control, for instance, a telephone system or a radar that feeds a computer. Cyber war can have non-military targets and be sourced to non-military actors (such as terrorists).” (Thornton 57) By the late 1990s, potential enemies of the West realized that the Internet had the potential to equalize their chances for success against Western forces. (Dunnigan 372) 

Photo by Pixabay on

                              The United States heavily relies on low-orbit satellites. “In recent years, the Chinese military has shown that can neutralize or destroy satellites in low-earth orbit (where most satellites are located) by launching anti-satellite ballistic missiles or firing ground-based lasers.” (Krepinevich, Jr. 25) Attacks on American military computer systems have increased steadily since the mid 1990s. The origins of the attacks have ranged from teenaged hackers to massive, coordinated efforts. In 1994, a 16-year-old in the Britain hacked into 100 US defense systems. (Thornton 60) “Another Briton carried out the biggest military computer hack of all time and made the U.S. military district of Washington…inoperable in 2001-02.” (Thornton 60) Both Russia and China are suspected of engaging in cyber war. “Russia has been accused of conducting cyber warfare campaigns against Estonia in 2007, Georgia in 2008, and Kyrgyzstan in 2009. China is reputed to have been behind cyber-attacks that disabled computer systems at the Pentagon, as well as cyber-attacks against France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.” (Krepinevich, Jr. 25)

                      The United States military has a massive cyber presence. “The Department of Defense runs some 10,000 different networks using 1.5 million P.C.s. Most are linked to the Internet, providing access to malicious hackers worldwide. Some 2,000 of the Pentagon’s nets are critical, controlling essential functions like command and control, logistics, nuclear weapons, research, and intelligence.” (Dunnigan 373) The United States is having a difficult time retaining highly trained systems administrators and cyber warriors in uniform. The lure of private sector riches is very enticing. (Dunnigan 375) As the first decade of the 21st century approaches its end, it appears the “the cyber warfare competition is so shrouded in secrecy that it is difficult to determine the United States’ level of vulnerability, let alone options for addressing it. It may be that a defensive strategy cannot be successfully pursued and that the United States will be forced to develop its cyber weapons and rely on deterring the worst sorts of cyber-attacks. In short, the potential for a surprise of the worst sort in this realm remains a real possibility.” (Krepinevich Jr. 30-31)

                      It appeared that the United States decided to centralize its cyber war efforts in response to a growing threat. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates ordered the creation “of a new military cyber command that will coordinate the Pentagon’s efforts to defend its networks and conduct cyber warfare”, it is scheduled to be operational by October 2009 (Associated Press) American command authorities have decided on an defensive and offensive strategy: “The Obama administration  moved ahead with efforts to protect the nation from cyber-attack and to prepare for possible offensive operations against adversaries’ computer networks .” (Shanker and Sanger 1) In plain language, the United States will attack, if given probable cause, the computer networks of identifiable non-state entities and state adversaries to decisively cripple them. The “western way of war” has entered cyber space. 

                        Where the United States has a clear technological lead is in the military application of robotics. They are currently being used in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, on the ground and air. MARCBOTs are used to scout the road ahead for explosives devices, hand-held, four pound “Ravens” can be launched by an individual soldier and fly low over nearby terrain on reconnaissance missions and Predator aircraft are flying attack missions, piloted from bases in Nevada and Missouri.  Robotics and cyber war fit into the mindset of the 21st century western citizen. “Whether it’s watching wars from afar or sending robots instead of fellow citizens into harm’s way, robotics offers the public and its leaders the lure of riskless warfare. All the potential gains of war would come without the costs, and even be mildly entertaining.” (Singer 48) This is a cautionary tale as the memory of the price of war fades, generation by generation. 

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Works Cited

Anderson, Duncan. The Falklands War 1982. Oxford, England: Osprey Books, 2002.

Archer, Christon I., John R. Ferris, Holger H. Herwig, and Timothy H.E. Travers. World History of Warfare. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

Black, Jeremy. War and the World: Military Power and the Fate of Continents, 1450-2000. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998.

Black, Jeremy. * Rethinking Military History. New York and London: Routledge, 2004. 

Dunnigan, James F. How to Make War: A Comprehensive Guide to Modern Warfare in the 21st century. New York: Quill, 2003.

“Gates Approves Cyber Command.” Cincinnati Enquirer 23 June 2009: 2

Hanson, Victor Davis. * The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Hanson, Victor Davis. Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power. New York: Doubleday, 2001.

Keegan, John. A History of Warfare. New York: Knopf, 1993.

Krepinevich Jr., Andrew F., “The Pentagon’s Wasting Assets: The Eroding Foundations of American Power”, Foreign Affairs, Vol.88, No. 4 (July/August 2009) 18-33. 

Liddell Hart, B. H. History of the Second World War. New York: Putnam’s, 1970.

McPherson, James M. Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief. New York: Penguin Press, 2008.

Shanker, Thom and David E. Sanger. “Privacy May Be a Victim in Cyber Defense Plan.” New York Times 14 June 2009: 1-3

Singer, P. W. “Robots at War: The New Battlefield”, The Wilson Quarterly, Vol.33, No. 1 (Winter 2009) 30-48.

Thornton, Rod. Asymmetric Warfare: Threat and Response in the 21st century. Cambridge, England: Polity, 2007.

Weigley, Russell F. The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973. 

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