Western IT and the Non-Western Way of War

Friday, January 30th, 2015

Mao’s style of war relied on dispersed troops coming together when the time was right:

In perhaps one of the strangest potential ironies of the future, Western information technology may well provide non-Western armies solutions to two vexing problems. First, cellular technology and the internet may allow them to maintain a concert of action for long periods among widely dispersed units. Second, these same technologies will allow them to orchestrate the rapid massing of dispersed units when opportunities arise to transition to the offensive.

(From Adaptive Enemies: Dealing with the Strategic Threat after 2010, from 1999.)


  1. Victor says:

    Signal Intelligence would make it easy to stop these kinds of attacks before they happen: cell phones and internet communication are easy to intercept.

  2. William Newman says:

    Victor, I think that will be less true if you don’t have an overwhelming advantage in technical skills. If the people you are monitoring know how to use encryption half as well as you know how to use cryptanalysis, you might be able to read their traffic only when you get rather lucky. If the people you are monitoring put 25% as much effort (budget, technically skilled personnel, willingness to compromise operational efficiency a bit in order to achieve strategic deception) into confounding your traffic analysis as you put into collecting information, the reliability of the tells from traffic analysis will go ‘way down. And if you have such overwhelming physical dominance of the theatre that you can prevent the enemy from sending signals that you can’t intercept (landlines, couriers, line-of-sight stuff…) then the signals intelligence might become somewhat less valuable just because of diminishing returns: even without any signals intelligence at all you could probably understand quite a lot of what’s going on merely by using your physical advantages to conduct extremely effective physical reconnaissance.

    If intact formations from NATO or China or Russia fought a desperately-regrouped ragtag formation of Israelis improvised from a mixture of refugees and survivors of stomped military units in some postapocalyptic future in which the Israelis were reduced to using scavenged civilian gear for communications, it would probably be unwise for the well-equipped modern force to promise signals intelligence of the quality (“easy to stop [...] easy to intercept”) that you do. Modern electronics used properly are not only an advantage for the eavesdropper. (I pick the Israelis because they seem like likely candidates for doing the Wehrmacht-on-the-Eastern-front thing of improvising effective units from survivors, and because I’ve run into a disproportionately large number of Israeli things that are close to signals intelligence, e.g. http://www.cs.huji.ac.il/~nati/PAPERS/expander_survey.pdf .)
    Decades of demonstrated success when using modern military tech to prevail against third-stringers is a tempting but unreliable guarantee of success against capable adversaries (see muddy bloody trenches in WWI France) or even against second-string adversaries (as in muddy bloody trenches in the Gallipoli campaign).

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