WASHINGTON: The American military isn’t ready “at all” for an “era of radical transparency…. where every single thing a US soldier or Marine does on the ground is recorded and tweeted,” Paul Scharre says.
In the past, I’ve mostly talked to Scharre about drones. He’s a technophile who thinks mini-robots, exoskeletons, and precision-guided rifles could revolutionize tactical infantry combat (more on that below). But as head of the Center for a New American Security’s new project on the future of ground forces, officially launched less than two weeks ago, he thinks the most strategically game-changing technology is something already in the hands of almost two billion people worldwide: smartphones.
“Apple has basically enough cash on hand to buy about half the US defense industry out right now,” said Scharre. “That’s crazy.” But iPhones and their kin can change military operations the way they’re changing civilian life. US commanders have gotten used to having a drones-eye view of the battlefield, transmitting data over far-flung networks, but that kind of intelligence is not going to be an American monopoly forever.
Imagine a future urban operation where one of the hundreds of people watching out their windows is an enemy informant using a cellphone — and maybe a cheap commercial drone — who sends ambush teams the exact strength and GPS-precise position of a US patrol. Imagine an outraged local — or a calculating propagandist — recording and then posting video every time American troops do something that looks bad. And a great deal of combat just looks bad on camera because it is.
The US had enough trouble with a few well-publicized incidents in Afghanistan and Iraq: Korans burned at bases, troops urinating on dead insurgents. But that was in a relatively low-tech environment, Scharre said. In future operations, everything US forces do may end up on YouTube. That might impact the military the way video of police brutality has affected law enforcement.
This new transparency isn’t just relevant to guerrilla warfare, Scharre emphasized. Russia, for example, is obviously a nation-state with a formidable regular military, but it also uses local proxies and “Little Green Men” with their insignia stripped off to conduct deniable operations. Confusing both Russians and Westerners, policymakers and the public, about what Russia is really doing is an important Putin stratagem.
It’s an approach “designed to cripple the decision-making cycle of the alliance,” Adm. Mark Ferguson said yesterday. “Their capabilities are focused on the creation of ambiguity.”
In Ukraine today, said Scharre, “Russia’s fighting in a way that is much more nuanced and subtle” than traditional American intelligence and policymaking can manage. Even if Russian tanks and uniformed soldiers get involved, “the kinetic violence aspects of the conflict will be absolutely critical, but it’ll also be fought against a broader milieu of Twitter and YouTube,” he said. “It may be about taking terrain; it may also be about sending a message.”
Iraq and Afghanistan have prepared many US troops to fight “war among the people,” in Mao’s phrase, but not in a smartphone-saturated environment. While new technologies may help handle the new environment, Scharre said, “the most important thing is probably training. It’s realistic training exercises that put people in an environment [where] everyone’s seeing your action.”
“I don’t think we’re there,” he said.
Scharre’s appreciation for smartphones and propaganda doesn’t blind him to more traditional kinds of combat power. “Violence is what makes war, war,” he said. “If you’re dead, you can’t gain influence.”
Ironically, however, despite all America’s technological advances, relatively little has changed for the troops who face the greatest danger and who have the greatest opportunity to influence local populations: the infantry. In World War II, “the three most dangerous jobs were bomber crews, submariners, and the infantry,” Scharre said. “We’ve been able to reduce casualty rates [for the first two] but life in the infantry seems as bloody as it’s ever been.”
New technologies may change that, Scharre said. If researchers can overcome the problems of powering exoskeletons, Iron Man-style suits could let troops carry much more weaponry and armor (flying just isn’t feasible, sorry). And there are already technologies like handheld Switchblade mini-UAVs to give individual squads their own air support, as well as precision-guided personal weapons that bring the smart-bomb revolution to the individual soldier. If you put these all together, he said, it’s a revolution in infantry tactics on a par with the machinegun in 1914.
Of course, the Army is struggling just to upgrade its current equipment, let alone field anything groundbreaking right now. The number of soldiers itself is much in question. “The debates on the size of the Marine Corps and Special Operations Command are more or less settled, but there’s a huge debate on the size of the Army,” Scharre said. But the Army has an unlikely ally, he added: “Putin’s doing his best to make landpower look relevant.”