.
A

lbert Einstein is alleged to have once said something along the lines that he didn’t know with what weapons the third world war would be fought, but he did know the fourth world war would be fought with sticks and stones. Every technological evolution is heralded as game changing, particularly in the art of war, and especially in the information-age—hypersonic weapons will shrink decision loops to mere seconds; AI will automate warfare and, ultimately, doom humanity; the Internet of Things will give generals unparalleled looks into the performance of individual soldiers (this from an institution that can barely migrate email or get a combined access card (CAC) to work).

The character of war may well change, but its nature—the political end state it aims to achieve—is immutable, whether it is fought on land, in the air, at sea, or now in space, both cyber and outer. Two recent books offer starkly different looks at warfare, the former as it is waged block-by-block and the latter byte-by-byte: “Urban Warfare in the 21st Century” by Anthony King and “Bitskrieg” by John Arquilla, both of which were kindly provided by the publisher, Polity.

Urban Warfare in the Twenty-First Century | Anthony King | Polity | September 2021.

King’s “Urban Warfare” is the most thorough exploration of the role of the city in combat operations. He systematically dissects the components of urban operations from complex fires, to the role of walls, the information domain, and everything in between. With a deep historical grounding, King charts how armies approached cities and urban operations.

In King’s telling, urban warfare has changed as the size and scale of forces have changed. In essence, as force structure has slimmed, the likelihood of urban combat has commensurately increased. In the days of the grande armée and its 20th century descendants (through at least the end of World War Two) cities were inconsequential and could be bypassed in favor of large, widespread fronts. As military forces shrunk in the Cold War and beyond, the likelihood of conflict within urban environments increased. It is an interesting and well-founded argument, and one that does not bode well for the future.

Information warfare, advanced technology, force-multiplying weapons systems, to say nothing of political pressures are all driving down the size of military forces. If, as King argues, that force structure drives the likelihood of urban warfare, the future holds greater incidents of combat in cities and mega-cities. Here, King closes with three apocalyptic scenarios for urban warfare: mega-city warfare, smart city warfare, and nuclear Armageddon. To be sure, the first is the most likely, even if King somewhat dismisses the possibility of such an urban conflict in Taiwan or Eastern Europe with China and Russia, respectively.

King’s approach is particularly instructive in that it dismantles the often-overblown expectations of how armies will operate in urban environments. Fast, swiftly moving, fluid operations predicated on maneuver warfare are not and will not be the norm. In fact, urban operations are slow, plodding, bloody, and often mini-sieges in nature. The lightning “thunder run” to Baghdad in which American forces bypassed Iraqi strongholds and fought only when necessary was an aberration. The conflict in and around Sadr City during the American occupation of Iraq and, later, the anti-ISIS fight in Mosul is much more reflective of the reality of urban operations.

This is a central point of King’s book and one that will certainly sit uncomfortably within the Washington defense establishment. Despite the 20 years of the war on terror, there is still an almost in-grained desire for large-scale battle, be it AirLand Battle, Multi-Domain Operations, or some other grand sounding concept for modern warfare and an institutional resistance to anything else. It’s the Fulda Gap just updated for the 21st Century, despite the proliferation of military operations in urban terrain (MOUT) schools and small-unit training programs on close quarters battle (CQB).

King’s analysis and exploration of the city as a domain of warfare has applicability beyond just combat. All of the points he raises, beyond the kinetic aspects of course, are relevant for disaster relief and non-combat operations within an urban environment. Understanding how a city operates, lives and breathes, and functions goes beyond military operations. In fact, as the most resources and most rapidly deployable entity, it is likely the military that will respond to major crises or disasters in an urban environment.

If there is a criticism of King’s analysis, and it is a minor one at that, it is the omission of the overtly political considerations in engaging urban operations. King does touch upon the necessity for precision in terms of fires and targeting—avoiding civilian casualties—and the need for governments to coordinate information operations across multiple domains, e.g. amongst the Muslim diaspora at the same time as Muslim populations in the Middle East etc. Going forward, one imagines that governments, particularly in the West, are likely to be increasingly loathe to enter conflicts in cities or otherwise.

While King focuses on the macro-level of conflict, the city, Arquilla looks at the smallest aspect of warfare—digital and cyber conflict. For Arquilla, a new, almost revolutionary way of thinking about warfare is needed, one that leaves behind the notions of Blitzkrieg in favor of Bitskrieg.

Bitskrieg | John Arquilla | Polity | September 2021.

At a macro-level, Arquilla’s analysis is certainly very interesting. It is in some way a corrective to the misinterpretation of his original, foundational work “Cyberwar is Coming.” It is also a call to arms about the current “cool war” being waged in cyberspace, arguing for a new approach to cybersecurity. Arquilla also appeal for digital arms control as a means to arrest the concurrent arms race, something in which he had a hand in disappointingly unsuccessful efforts. It does suffer, slightly, from a common affliction to visionaries in that it throws a lot of things against the wall, often jumping from the tactical to the strategic.

It is no fault of Arquilla’s that the original concept of “cyberwar” was reduced to its digital bits and bytes alone. As he recounts, the foundational idea was more about information dominance and overmatch, rather than just trojan horses and viruses. In his telling, it was super-informed and hyper-connected units that would achieve dominance on the battlefield more than anything else. This was, perhaps, most borne out in the early days of the Afghanistan war where the “horse soldiers” of the ODAs and CIA paramilitary units overthrew the Taliban in a matter of weeks. These units leveraged advanced communications, and precision airstrikes and close air support, all launched from horseback to unseat the Taliban and achieve victory.

Yet the wrong lessons were drawn from this success. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wanted a similar model for Iraq—the utility and necessity of that war being open to question—hoping to achieve rapid victory with as few troops on-the-ground. While the victory was unsurprising, it was the peace that never materialized and led to the costly, bloody counterinsurgent campaign across the country—a campaign that looked more like King’s analysis than that of Arquilla.

This is a theme that Arquilla returns to throughout the book—that the vision of defense leaders and policymakers is too narrow. Rather than look at new technologies as fundamentally transformative, they merely add the new tech or tool onto existing structures and strategies. This is not an uncommon refrain, but somewhat misses the mark that even transformative technologies take iterations before truly changing the strategic picture. Tools and technologies implemented at the tactical level are transformative well before the strategic thinking that underpins those capabilities. It is all well and good to say “we need to use more AI” in our defense strategy, but another entirely to stress test it and operationalize that tool in practice. This, ultimately, is the foundation of his idea of bitskrieg—upending the traditional notions of how wars are fought using information technology.

Arquilla is not wrong in arguing that our approach to cybersecurity is woefully insufficient. Firewalls and anti-virus programs are clearly not enough to protect data, especially with the rise of ransomware and the looming threat of AI cyber-attacks. He suggests that we should adopt heavy encryption at the lowest levels and shift to mobile data—e.g. data not resident on one computer or system, but floating around the cloud. While some providers are shifting to end-to-end encryption for services or apps, it is unlikely that the industry—barring consumer demand or government regulation—will shift to such kernel-level or chip-level encryption. Consumers want ease of access to their data and are challenged enough trying to adopt two-factor authentication.

His suggestion that a cyber arms control agreement should be sought and eventually reached is intriguing, as is his suggestion that the end goal be limiting the impact of such a conflict on civilian populations. There is a robust body of experts and processes for strategic arms control and one wonders how effective its application to cyber arms control would be in the end.

There is some risk in following Arquilla’s argument to its logical end. He is not wrong in the promise of hyper-connected, empowered units on the battlefield. The risk is in the over-reliance on technology and what happens when the data can’t be trusted, the batteries run out, or the environment is digitally saturated, jammed, or degraded. This is not unique to him by any means, and is almost endemic within the community of defense contractors—technology as the panacea to all of warfare’s problems. Unfortunately for the beltway bandits and the associated eco-system of supporters, warfare is less likely to be elegant and bloodless, and much more Hobbesian—nastier, brutish, but not always short.

King and Arquilla offer starkly different looks at warfare. Both books are exceptionally enlightening and thought-provoking, and leave the reader with more questions about the future than answers, and that is a good thing. The reality of warfare is that its character and conduct change, but its essence is immutable. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Just look to the trenches of Ukraine, the tank and anti-tank warfare of Azerbaijan and Armenia, or the block-by-block fighting of Mosul. While each conflict is leveraging advanced technology, it remains very raw and violent, and, at its core, aims to assert the will of one group over the other.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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Warfare by Bits, Bytes, and Blocks

Photo by Adobe Stock.

November 7, 2021

What is the future of warfare? Urban, nasty, and brutish? Or on the world wide web, bloodless, and enabled by mind-boggling technologies? Two books offer starkly different looks at warfare.

A

lbert Einstein is alleged to have once said something along the lines that he didn’t know with what weapons the third world war would be fought, but he did know the fourth world war would be fought with sticks and stones. Every technological evolution is heralded as game changing, particularly in the art of war, and especially in the information-age—hypersonic weapons will shrink decision loops to mere seconds; AI will automate warfare and, ultimately, doom humanity; the Internet of Things will give generals unparalleled looks into the performance of individual soldiers (this from an institution that can barely migrate email or get a combined access card (CAC) to work).

The character of war may well change, but its nature—the political end state it aims to achieve—is immutable, whether it is fought on land, in the air, at sea, or now in space, both cyber and outer. Two recent books offer starkly different looks at warfare, the former as it is waged block-by-block and the latter byte-by-byte: “Urban Warfare in the 21st Century” by Anthony King and “Bitskrieg” by John Arquilla, both of which were kindly provided by the publisher, Polity.

Urban Warfare in the Twenty-First Century | Anthony King | Polity | September 2021.

King’s “Urban Warfare” is the most thorough exploration of the role of the city in combat operations. He systematically dissects the components of urban operations from complex fires, to the role of walls, the information domain, and everything in between. With a deep historical grounding, King charts how armies approached cities and urban operations.

In King’s telling, urban warfare has changed as the size and scale of forces have changed. In essence, as force structure has slimmed, the likelihood of urban combat has commensurately increased. In the days of the grande armée and its 20th century descendants (through at least the end of World War Two) cities were inconsequential and could be bypassed in favor of large, widespread fronts. As military forces shrunk in the Cold War and beyond, the likelihood of conflict within urban environments increased. It is an interesting and well-founded argument, and one that does not bode well for the future.

Information warfare, advanced technology, force-multiplying weapons systems, to say nothing of political pressures are all driving down the size of military forces. If, as King argues, that force structure drives the likelihood of urban warfare, the future holds greater incidents of combat in cities and mega-cities. Here, King closes with three apocalyptic scenarios for urban warfare: mega-city warfare, smart city warfare, and nuclear Armageddon. To be sure, the first is the most likely, even if King somewhat dismisses the possibility of such an urban conflict in Taiwan or Eastern Europe with China and Russia, respectively.

King’s approach is particularly instructive in that it dismantles the often-overblown expectations of how armies will operate in urban environments. Fast, swiftly moving, fluid operations predicated on maneuver warfare are not and will not be the norm. In fact, urban operations are slow, plodding, bloody, and often mini-sieges in nature. The lightning “thunder run” to Baghdad in which American forces bypassed Iraqi strongholds and fought only when necessary was an aberration. The conflict in and around Sadr City during the American occupation of Iraq and, later, the anti-ISIS fight in Mosul is much more reflective of the reality of urban operations.

This is a central point of King’s book and one that will certainly sit uncomfortably within the Washington defense establishment. Despite the 20 years of the war on terror, there is still an almost in-grained desire for large-scale battle, be it AirLand Battle, Multi-Domain Operations, or some other grand sounding concept for modern warfare and an institutional resistance to anything else. It’s the Fulda Gap just updated for the 21st Century, despite the proliferation of military operations in urban terrain (MOUT) schools and small-unit training programs on close quarters battle (CQB).

King’s analysis and exploration of the city as a domain of warfare has applicability beyond just combat. All of the points he raises, beyond the kinetic aspects of course, are relevant for disaster relief and non-combat operations within an urban environment. Understanding how a city operates, lives and breathes, and functions goes beyond military operations. In fact, as the most resources and most rapidly deployable entity, it is likely the military that will respond to major crises or disasters in an urban environment.

If there is a criticism of King’s analysis, and it is a minor one at that, it is the omission of the overtly political considerations in engaging urban operations. King does touch upon the necessity for precision in terms of fires and targeting—avoiding civilian casualties—and the need for governments to coordinate information operations across multiple domains, e.g. amongst the Muslim diaspora at the same time as Muslim populations in the Middle East etc. Going forward, one imagines that governments, particularly in the West, are likely to be increasingly loathe to enter conflicts in cities or otherwise.

While King focuses on the macro-level of conflict, the city, Arquilla looks at the smallest aspect of warfare—digital and cyber conflict. For Arquilla, a new, almost revolutionary way of thinking about warfare is needed, one that leaves behind the notions of Blitzkrieg in favor of Bitskrieg.

Bitskrieg | John Arquilla | Polity | September 2021.

At a macro-level, Arquilla’s analysis is certainly very interesting. It is in some way a corrective to the misinterpretation of his original, foundational work “Cyberwar is Coming.” It is also a call to arms about the current “cool war” being waged in cyberspace, arguing for a new approach to cybersecurity. Arquilla also appeal for digital arms control as a means to arrest the concurrent arms race, something in which he had a hand in disappointingly unsuccessful efforts. It does suffer, slightly, from a common affliction to visionaries in that it throws a lot of things against the wall, often jumping from the tactical to the strategic.

It is no fault of Arquilla’s that the original concept of “cyberwar” was reduced to its digital bits and bytes alone. As he recounts, the foundational idea was more about information dominance and overmatch, rather than just trojan horses and viruses. In his telling, it was super-informed and hyper-connected units that would achieve dominance on the battlefield more than anything else. This was, perhaps, most borne out in the early days of the Afghanistan war where the “horse soldiers” of the ODAs and CIA paramilitary units overthrew the Taliban in a matter of weeks. These units leveraged advanced communications, and precision airstrikes and close air support, all launched from horseback to unseat the Taliban and achieve victory.

Yet the wrong lessons were drawn from this success. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wanted a similar model for Iraq—the utility and necessity of that war being open to question—hoping to achieve rapid victory with as few troops on-the-ground. While the victory was unsurprising, it was the peace that never materialized and led to the costly, bloody counterinsurgent campaign across the country—a campaign that looked more like King’s analysis than that of Arquilla.

This is a theme that Arquilla returns to throughout the book—that the vision of defense leaders and policymakers is too narrow. Rather than look at new technologies as fundamentally transformative, they merely add the new tech or tool onto existing structures and strategies. This is not an uncommon refrain, but somewhat misses the mark that even transformative technologies take iterations before truly changing the strategic picture. Tools and technologies implemented at the tactical level are transformative well before the strategic thinking that underpins those capabilities. It is all well and good to say “we need to use more AI” in our defense strategy, but another entirely to stress test it and operationalize that tool in practice. This, ultimately, is the foundation of his idea of bitskrieg—upending the traditional notions of how wars are fought using information technology.

Arquilla is not wrong in arguing that our approach to cybersecurity is woefully insufficient. Firewalls and anti-virus programs are clearly not enough to protect data, especially with the rise of ransomware and the looming threat of AI cyber-attacks. He suggests that we should adopt heavy encryption at the lowest levels and shift to mobile data—e.g. data not resident on one computer or system, but floating around the cloud. While some providers are shifting to end-to-end encryption for services or apps, it is unlikely that the industry—barring consumer demand or government regulation—will shift to such kernel-level or chip-level encryption. Consumers want ease of access to their data and are challenged enough trying to adopt two-factor authentication.

His suggestion that a cyber arms control agreement should be sought and eventually reached is intriguing, as is his suggestion that the end goal be limiting the impact of such a conflict on civilian populations. There is a robust body of experts and processes for strategic arms control and one wonders how effective its application to cyber arms control would be in the end.

There is some risk in following Arquilla’s argument to its logical end. He is not wrong in the promise of hyper-connected, empowered units on the battlefield. The risk is in the over-reliance on technology and what happens when the data can’t be trusted, the batteries run out, or the environment is digitally saturated, jammed, or degraded. This is not unique to him by any means, and is almost endemic within the community of defense contractors—technology as the panacea to all of warfare’s problems. Unfortunately for the beltway bandits and the associated eco-system of supporters, warfare is less likely to be elegant and bloodless, and much more Hobbesian—nastier, brutish, but not always short.

King and Arquilla offer starkly different looks at warfare. Both books are exceptionally enlightening and thought-provoking, and leave the reader with more questions about the future than answers, and that is a good thing. The reality of warfare is that its character and conduct change, but its essence is immutable. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Just look to the trenches of Ukraine, the tank and anti-tank warfare of Azerbaijan and Armenia, or the block-by-block fighting of Mosul. While each conflict is leveraging advanced technology, it remains very raw and violent, and, at its core, aims to assert the will of one group over the other.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.