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Arquilla on the New Rules of War

John Arqilla, along with David Ronfeldt, was the pioneering military and security theorist who forseaw the rise of networked non-state adversaries, which they detailed in their now classic book, Networks and Netwars. Below, in a Foreign Policy mag article, Arquilla expounds on the failure of the Pentagon to adapt sufficiently to leverage the power of networks or counter those opponents who have done so.

The New Rules of War

When militaries don’t keep up with the pace of change, countries suffer. In World War I, the failure to grasp the implications of mass production led not only to senseless slaughter, but also to the end of great empires and the bankruptcy of others. The inability to comprehend the meaning of mechanization at the outset of World War II handed vast tracts of territory to the Axis powers and very nearly gave them victory. The failure to grasp the true meaning of nuclear weapons led to a suicidal arms race and a barely averted apocalypse during the Cuban missile crisis.
Today, the signs of misunderstanding still abound. For example, in an age of supersonic anti-ship missiles, the U.S. Navy has spent countless billions of dollars on “surface warfare ships” whose aluminum superstructures will likely burn to the waterline if hit by a single missile. Yet Navy doctrine calls for them to engage missile-armed enemies at eyeball range in coastal waters.
The U.S. Army, meanwhile, has spent tens of billions of dollars on its “Future Combat Systems,” a grab bag of new weapons, vehicles, and communications gadgets now seen by its own proponents as almost completely unworkable for the kind of military operations that land forces will be undertaking in the years ahead. The oceans of information the systems would generate each day would clog the command circuits so that carrying out even the simplest operation would be a terrible slog.
And the U.S. Air Force, beyond its well-known devotion to massive bombing, remains in love with extremely advanced and extremely expensive fighter aircraft — despite losing only one fighter plane to an enemy fighter in nearly 40 years. Although the hugely costly F-22 turned out to function poorly and is being canceled after enormous investment in its production, the Air Force has by no means given up. Instead, the more advanced F-35 will be produced, at a cost running in the hundreds of billions of dollars. All this in an era in which what the United States already has is far better than anything else in the world and will remain so for many decades.
These developments suggest that the United States is spending huge amounts of money in ways that are actually making Americans less secure, not only against irregular insurgents, but also against smart countries building different sorts of militaries. And the problem goes well beyond weapons and other high-tech items. What’s missing most of all from the U.S. military’s arsenal is a deep understanding of networking, the loose but lively interconnection between people that creates and brings a new kind of collective intelligence, power, and purpose to bear — for good and ill…..”

Read the rest here.

It was nice to see Arquilla give some props to VADM Art Cebrowski, who is underappreciated these days as a strategic thinker and is much critricized by people who seldom bothered to read anything he actually wrote. Or who like to pretend that he had said a highly networked Naval task force is a good way to tackle an insurgency in an arid, mostly landlocked, semi-urban, middle-eastern nation.

It also occurs to me that one of the reasons that the USAF resisted drones tooth and nail is that robotics combined with swarming points to en end ( or serious diminishment) of piloted warplanes. Eliminating the design requirements implicit in human pilots makes for a smaller, faster, more maneuverable, more lethal aircraft that will probably be infinitely cheaper to make, more easily risked in combat and usable for “swarming”. Ditto attack helicopters.

Of course, nuclear bombers will probably stay in human hands. Probably.


Contentious Small Wars Council thread on Arquilla begun by “student of war” and defense consultant Wilf Owen. I have weighed in as has Shlok Vaidya.

6 Responses to “Arquilla on the New Rules of War”

  1. Arherring Says:

    The article os very well written, and I like the army men visuals, but if he is advocating the abandonment of the few/large mentality in favor of a many/small approach then he is setting down a path, with all the right intentions, that leads to the very same sin of overspecialization.
    There is nothing really new about these "New Rules," they are just as flawed as the old rules, and for the same reasons. What is required is flexibility and adaptability, an approach to conflict that is multi-spectral (military, diplomatic, economic, social ect.) not just multi-axial.

  2. J. Scott Says:

    Zen,  After following Wilf and Dunbar at FB—and finally having opportunity to read the essay, my impression is more aligned with "nothing new under the sun." Arquilla is absolutely correct w/respect to the Navy’s continued love affair with super carriers and rejection of modern diesel electric submarines, but the new rules are found wanting from a national security perspective in one key area; the ability of the Army to fight at a Division/Corps level against a national enemy. I know the common wisdom says in a world of globalization, we won’t fight that sort of war. I’m not so sure. The article seems more geared toward flexible/adaptable tactics than some new paradigm.

  3. zen Says:

    Hey guys
     "but the new rules are found wanting from a national security perspective in one key area; the ability of the Army to fight at a Division/Corps level against a national enemy"
    I agree the rules do not scale at every level of conflict. Fair criticism. Moreover, even absent Arquilla’s rules, we are losing the ability to fight at the division, army and army corps level regardless because we have gone "modular", shrunk the size of the military since 1989 while having more operational commitments and fewer opponents who will stand up and fight us that way . I see North Korea doing that for lack of options but it is a capacity we need to retain.
    That said, the pile on at SWC is blindly one-sided, I will comment there later tonight after the kids are in bed and the house is a little quieter 🙂

  4. Younghusband Says:

    This article presents nothing new. Arquilla uses many of the same examples in his book. Modularity has been submitted as a flexible solution mentioned by arherring above, but mostly this has been a series of buzzwords. Fact is, in expeditionary warfare the military has to take everything including the kitchen sink for contingency’s sake. Until the fuel problem is solved, and we have instantaneous transport (or return to living off the land like the warriors of yore) military deployment will always be big.

    At the other end, the brilliant aspect of a working network is the fact that none of the nodes are identical. For example, look at the artwork accompanying the article: all the soldiers are the same. Our militaries are based on soldiers being a cog in the machine. To have a true heterogenous netwok we need to abandon the staff system we have now. Good luck with that. To get the kind of transformation that Arqilla envisions will require a true Revolution in Military Affairs.

  5. Shlok Says:

    I suspect privatization will yield the extreme decentralization that Arquilla is prescribing, independent of a nation-state host though.

  6. Younghusband Says:

    That’s what I was thinking Shlok: privateers.

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