Tag Archives: war

“Wired for War” by P. W. Singer


Interesting overview of the developing use of unmanned systems in warfare.  The vast majority of the book focuses on the ethical, social, and legal implications; all fine and good but the engineer in me did wish it got more into the details of how some of these systems worked.  Some of the specific systems it did mention frequently are iRobot’s PackBot, Foster-Miller’s SWORDS, and Predator.  (Note that the book was published in 2009, so it is missing 6 years of unmanned system development … practically an eternity!)

I am hesitant to agree with calling all these systems “robots” though.  I suppose I fall more into the (Star Trek’s) Data or (Star Wars) C-3PO camp of what constitutes a “robot” – intelligent yes, but more importantly independent.  The unmanned systems used by the military do not think or act for themselves; they are all remotely controlled by a human.  There is quite a big step between that and creating Skynet-style robots.  And personally, I know just enough about software engineering to be very hesitant to subscribe to a “strong AI” future.  Computers are not smart; they are just fast.

Anyway.  Unmanned systems in war.  There’s some discussion in the book on military doctrine for using unmanned systems.  First is the “mothership” or control center idea – one where a single operator is able to control an entire robot army.  Kind of like someone playing Starcraft, but each unit on the screen is really an actual robot, ready for battle.  Second option discussed is the “swarm” doctrine.  There is no explicit control over each unit here; rather the robots as a group are given an objective and they work together to complete the mission.

One of the most impressive uses of remotely-piloted aircraft in a real war was by Israel during the opening of its 1982 war with Syria, Operation Mole Cricket 19.  The Syrians had the latest and greatest Soviet radars and SAM sites.  The Israelis first sent in a wave of drones.  This caused the Syrian SAM radars to track the drones and shoot them down.  Thus they were down a few rounds of ammo…but the real secret was that the drones relayed the radar frequencies being used by each individual radar site back to the main Israeli force.  Soon after, Israeli fighters went in with radar-homing missiles locked to the SAM frequencies.  The Syrian air defenses were demolished with few Israeli losses, and the war was pretty much decided since Israeli air superiority was assured.

Another interesting note on the pace of technological development, particularly in military tech.  Paradoxically, being the tech leader is a difficult position.  The leader shoulders virtually all the development cost, whereas others coming in later can easily copy their designs.  (Witness: about a bajillion types of Chinese UAVs on this Wikipedia page)  Also it is easy for the leader to pigeonhole themselves into non-optimal solutions – the newcomer can apply lessons learned and avoid problems, whereas the tech leader may be too invested to change.

Some things to think about for unmanned warfare policy managers (if such a beast exists):

  • Robot warfare is seen as cowardly by the enemy, plus it signals that we are very loss-averse – if they can kill enough soldiers with IEDs then we will give up (even though those IED strikes are usually tactically useless)
  • Robot warfare makes U.S. public more disconnected from war and also make leaders more likely to use force.  For military operators themselves, they are like a video game – too easy to forget that people are dying on the other end of the Predator missile strikes.
  • Ethics and legality of robot warfare: who is responsible for accidental targeting of civilians?  Military user?  The programmer who made a mistake in the code?  (I hope not!)

“The Price of Admiralty” by John Keegan



Oceanic naval history, with the usual in-depth Keegan look at a few case studies.

First, Trafalgar. British strategy during the Napoleonic era was to maintain a strong presence in the Mediterranean, specifically so that France would also have to split its own forces to defend the SE coast. Nelson was slightly outnumbered when a combined French/Spanish force left the Mediterranean to support a pending invasion of the British Isles. Nelson gambled on superior British gunnery and surprised the enemy with basically a point-blank rough and tumble fight. His great realization was that the typical battles of the day, with each line of ships firing volleys across long distances, didn’t really work. The only way to produce a decisive battle was to close up and really get in their face, with Marine sharpshooters and boarding parties.  The ships themselves were more or less unsinkable by cannon, unless a powder room was hit. He understood that effective Naval warfare was necessarily a man-killing business.  Nelson’s ships started upwind, then “crossed the T” of the French-Spanish line, risking the initial broadsides to their unprotected bow, but the poorly trained gunners missed.  Once Nelson was in the midst of the enemy, the situation was reversed, with British broadsides pointed to the French bow and aft.

I don’t have much to comment about Jutland. Now weaponry really was of the ship-killing variety. The battle seemed really confused … well, I guess Trafalgar was too but that was kind of by design.

At Midway, the U.S. really had some incredible luck. The morning was not going well — several U.S. attack waves were dashed on the Japanese carrier defenses. Then, yet another wave managed to catch two carriers right before they were sending off an attack of their own. Their fighter cover had been temporarily landed and was refueling when the U.S. dive bombers struck, unopposed. Four Japanese carriers were sunk, at a cost of the Yorktown. Truly a turning point in the Pacific War. Amazing how naval warfare can be so governed by chance… it really is just about probabilities, and “calculated risk.”

Finally the Battle of the Atlantic, of course not a single battle but rather the drawn out U-boat campaign to cut off British shipping. The Germans had tried the same thing during WWI, where 378 U-boats has sunk 5708 ships, 1/4 of global tonnage at the start of the war. But, increased wartime building meant that total tonnage in 1918 actually exceeded that of 1914. The campaign was thus a failure. The second time around, Donitz came up with the wolf-pack strategy to counter the Allies convoys. The logic of convoys was simple and probabilistic. The hard part about submarine warfare was finding a ship to torpedo. If all the Allied ships go on their own, then there are far more targets for subs to find than if they joined together to form a single (large) target. Even if a lone sub found the convoy, it still wasn’t likely to torpedo more than one vessel, as the escorts would quickly move in and drive off the sub. The wolf-pack idea was to coordinate the submarines actions and hit the convoys from multiple angles at different times, so the convoy was pretty much under attack during much of the voyage, at least during the portion when it was in the “air gap” with no land-based air coverage.  The intermittent attacks, every few hours over several days, must have been terrifying and incredibly wearing for the merchant marine.

Keegan ends with his opinion on the undisputed king of future naval warfare: submarines.  Even the mighty aircraft carrier plays seconds fiddle.  Carriers are the undisputed masters of the surface; but they are exposed to many threats, including to submarines. Keegan predicts a multiplicity of submarine types to follow the pattern of specialization which occurred with ironclad surface ships. It makes me wonder what’s going on in the secret drawing rooms of naval strategy now.  Unmanned technology has progressed quietly undersea just as it has in the air… I could see large swarms of automated, unmanned subs (each one basically a “smart” long-range torpedo) doing some incredible devastation to a convoy. Like, sinking all the ships at once.  The twice-failed German strategy may succeed on try #3, for some navy, somewhere.

“River of Stars” by Guy Gavriel Kay


Can we call this historical fiction?  The names of places and people are changed, and I’m sure many other details are changed, but this is mainly a retelling of the fall of the Northern Song Dynasty.  The imperial court is a hotbed of intrigue — the Emperor occupies his time in expanding his marvelous garden, the Genyue, in the capital Hanjin.  He’s generally ignorant of the day-to-day goings-on in the Empire, which is how his advisers like it.  Competing factions jockey for control of the Emperor’s favor.  When a member of one group is installed as prime minister, the other group is sent into exile.  Then vice versa when power flips.

Everyone at the court is very wary of a powerful military.  Past dynasties have usually been overthrown by ambitious military commanders, so the court tries to keep the generals incompetent and the army weak.  This all generally works out ok … at least in times of peace.

When the Kitan Empire hears of war amongst the northern steppe people, some smell an opportunity for advantage.  The loss of the Fourteen Provinces to the barbarian Xiaolu a generation ago still stings.  Now that the Xiaolu are facing their rebellious vassal, the Altai, one faction plans an alliance aimed at recovering the lost territory and thus bringing further imperial favor (which is what really matters).  The Altai are offending at the Kitans’ arrogance, but warily accept on the condition that the Kitan army take the Xiaolu Southern Capital.  When they fail miserably, yet still Kitan officials demand the Fourteen Provinces, the Altai decide to attack Kitai, too.  Not a good idea to piss off a nation of horse warriors accustomed to drinking blood from their enemies’ skulls.  Especially when your army is worthless.

Kitan territory rapidly falls beneath the mighty Altai.  Fortunately, there is one savior – Ren Daiyan, former marsh outlaw, a military genius, and a believer in a personal destiny to defend the dynasty and win back the lost provinces.  His army is the only one to stand up to the Altai.  He manages to rescue a single son of the Emperor when all the rest are captured by the Altai during the fall of Hanjin.  Then he begins to fight back, pushing them north.  Meanwhile, the rescued son tries to regroup the nation by setting up court in the south.  After a year of victories, Ren has the Altai on the run and is just about to retake Hanjin and continue pushing onward to the Lost Fourteen, but the new southern emperor sends urgent word to stop.  A peace treaty has been agreed on.  Ren is incredulous — Kitai is ceding the northern half of the country to the Altai.

Ren’s love for his country threatens to tear him apart.  On the one hand, he is so close to driving out the invaders and retaking long lost territory.  But on the other hand, he has received a direct order from his emperor to stand down.  He wants to press on, but that would be rebellious — he briefly considers starting his own dynasty, with Ren as emperor.  But in the end he yields, and loyally submits.  Part of his reasoning is that if he took power, he would further confirm the court’s stereotypical wariness of ambitious (ie competent) generals that has put, and would continue to put, the army and nation at the mercy of outside forces.

This part gets me angry — Ren was the savior of Kitai, but what is his reward?  Prison.  Turns out that there was a secret deal behind the peace treaty . . . If Ren had pressed on and crushed the Altai, then he would have undoubtedly recovered the captured Emperor and others in the imperial family … others ahead of the new Southern emperor in the line of succession.  The new emperor (and his advisers) would surely be deposed and likely executed for prematurely snatching the reins.  The Altai agree to end the war, and keep the imperial family hostage for the rest of their days, thereby keeping the new emperor safely in power.  Along with gaining a good chunk of territory, the Altai also demand that Ren, who they consider to be the spoiler of their total victory, is executed.  Luckily, a sympathetic prime minister allows Ren to escape, commanding him to go far away and live an anonymous life.  Well, he actually gives him the choice of that or drinking poisoned wine; the book is ambiguous about what choice Ren makes.  But his love interest is known to have traveled far to the west after all this — probably to be with Ren.

I was surprised at how much of the book was based on actual events.  The barbarian invasion, fall of the capital, splitting of the country in two, the captured emperor, the loyal general commanded to turn back — truth is stranger than fiction.  Here’s a cheat sheet:

“The Face of Battle” by John Keegan


Keegan spends the first hundred pages or so going into various methods of military historiography, in particular the writings thereof.  His purpose of doing so is to point out that everyone has missed a key point of view: that of the common man on the battlefield, the guys literally “in the trenches,” doing the dirty work.  Much traditional military history focuses on the decisions of generals and the big picture, which is important, but frequently it is difficult to grasp a true understanding of what occurred and why unless one digs deeper and examines what the individual soldiers actually saw and felt.

Keegan then goes into three battles: Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme.  The choice is purposeful; each was a major English/British engagement which took place in roughly the same geographical area, but are separated in time by some 500 years; so we get three snapshots of what warfare was like during these vastly different periods.

A few main points stood out to me.  One was that cavalry, those knights in shining armor or the “medieval tanks,” as they are sometimes depicted, were actually quite ineffective against foot soldiers.  At Agincourt, each longbowman counted a long, sharpened stake as part of his battle equipment.  When they got in position to await the attack, they pounded these stakes into the ground, forming a formidable forest of pokey sticks, more or less randomly spaced and very difficult for the attacking horsemen to navigate at speed.  A slow moving guy on a horse is kind of easy to pick off with a longbow, go figure.  Again during Waterloo, the cavalry attacks were tried again and again but were uniformly ineffective against the infantry square.  And during trench warfare in WWI, no one even attempted cavalry maneuvers against enemy machine gun emplacements, or at least they didn’t attempt them for very long.

Second interesting point is the crux of the matter, why do soldiers fight?  They face deprivation, starvation, exhaustion, discomfort and disease, and that’s even before the actual fighting starts!  Once in battle, of course, they face death or grievous wounds.  So why would any rational human being face such risks?  The answer is probably different for each soldier, but in general a few themes seem evident.  First, before the fighting begins, there is some motivation to join up.  Medieval soldiers could become wealthy with ransom monies obtained after a successful battle in which prisoners were taken.  Throughout history, cutthroats facing prison were pardoned to serve in the military.  And closer to our day, recruiting efforts focus on pride and honor, both individual and national.

Ok, so the boys join up and head off to war.  Then the real battle comes.  Suddenly faced with the all-to-real risks of battle, the envisioned rewards don’t seem quite as enticing anymore.  Now what rules is, ultimately, fear.  Fear of death certainly, but also fear of seeming a coward or fear of the risks wartime buddies will face if one shirks from fighting.  There is also fear from the fate of a deserter; in Waterloo there were some units whose job was to push others back towards the front line, and during the Somme more than one deserter was summarily shot when discovered.  Another kind of fear that propelled the men forward was that sometimes it was perceived to be safer — during the assault on German trenches, the Brits who made it past no-man’s land were better off pressing on, following the rolling artillery barrage rather than retreating back through the maze of barbed wire they had just traversed.

But even still, there is an almost built-in abhorrence in man to taking a life.  There’s an oft-quoted (but sometimes disputed) assertion that only 25% of Western soldiers during WWII actually took a shot towards the enemy.  This is presented as evidence that the common soldier really doesn’t want to fight; he recognizes that the “enemy” on the other side are really just guys like him.  A lot of what generals and armies try to do is overcome this innate respect for human life; look at human silhouettes used for target practice, or man-shaped practice dummies which are stabbed with bayonets in training.  But maybe times are a’changing?  Are violent “shooter” video games inoculating future soldiers against a reluctance to take the enemy’s life?  What about unmanned systems?  When taking a life is accomplished through clicking your mouse 6000 miles away, ….. whoa.

“The Forever War” by Dexter Filkins

I think anyone who has listened to the news over the last few years knows that the situation in Iraq is pretty bad.  This collection of experiences living and working in Iraq by a New York Times journalist confirms that statement.  Dexter Filkins has been there more or less from the start of the invasion and was in Afghanistan before that.

One anecdote from the book that stood out to me was a woman who described pre- and post-invasion Iraq with a diagram.  Before the invasion, you could draw a dot on a page and then a large circle around the dot — the dot is Saddam, and the circle is where you don’t want to be.  Stay out of the circle (out of Saddam’s way) and you don’t get hurt.  After the invasion, the page is virtually covered with dots, each with a small circle around it.  Most of the page is covered by some circle, meaning that most Iraqis are in danger from the myriad of terrorist groups fighting for their various causes.

When Saddam was first toppled, Filkins says, there was much rejoicing from many people throughout society.  Several reveled in their new freedom and eagerly set about working for democracy and progress…sadly, these were the people first targeted and assassinated or driven out by the insurgents.  Filkins indicates that there are now few such visionaries remaining in Iraq.

The chapter on suicide bombers was interesting.  They aren’t always willing martyrs.   Most are misled by their religious leaders and fed false ideas.

According to Filkins, a lot of Iraqis take American money with one hand and then (literally or figuratively) shoot at or bomb Americans with the other.

Kind of a grim country.  It seems like America isn’t doing a whole lot of good being in Iraq, and when we do leave it seems destined for more violence (civil war?) as the Iraqis straighten things out for themselves.  Hopefully they can and Iraq can become a nice place in the future.