Wars of the future will be very different from wars of the past. Everyone gets that. What many do not grasp: The present war also is very different from wars of the past.
Among the ways: Those defending the West try hard to abide by the laws of war. Those attacking the West say clearly that they will not be bound by any “infidel” rules. They are committed to what they call a “Koranic concept of war.”
That provides them with an advantage. The West’s advantages include sophisticated and continually advancing technologies. We can now track and kill enemy combatants without boots on the ground or pilots in the skies. Such missions can be accomplished using unmanned aerial vehicles: drones, of course, but there’s also a kind of blimp that can achieve dominance on a battlefield — if we’d only deploy it. (More on that in a moment.)
Meanwhile, the “age of cyberwar” is not ahead of us — it is “upon us,” as former foreign correspondent and Pentagon official David Jackson recently wrote. Curiously, these historic changes are causing confusion, not least among those tasked with understanding them.
For example, last week, I found myself on an al-Jazeera television show defending President Obama’s use of drones to eliminate al-Qaeda commanders. Both Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst and a man of the Left, and Shihab Rattansi, the show’s BBC-style host, took the view that the use of such weapons in the ungoverned areas of Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia violates international law and fundamental morality. They presented no evidence, much less proof: They simply asserted that those killed — most recently Abu Yahya al-Libi, al-Qaeda’s number two — are entitled to more “due process” than a Hellfire missile delivers.
Meanwhile, The Diane Rehm Show on NPR last week featured Matt Frei of Britain’s Channel 4 News who said that most Europeans find it “quite appalling, actually” that President Obama maintains a “kill list.” He did not say what policy most Europeans would prefer when it comes to such terrorists as al-Libi. Should Obama be sending strongly worded letters instead?
Cyber warfare was discussed, too. Indira Lakshmanan, a generally sensible Bloomberg reporter, argued that if Americans use cyber weapons, “let’s not think that the Iranians themselves won’t learn from what we’ve done to them and couldn’t release similar bugs on us with potentially devastating consequences. So that’s something we really need to think about.” Yes, and let’s start by considering whether it is remotely plausible that Iran’s rulers, the world’s leading sponsors of terrorism, would conclude that it’s not quite cricket to use such weapons — if only Americans would refrain from using them first.
Lakshmanan’s thinking was befuddled on another score as well: “If we’re sitting at the table with [Iranians] in Moscow next week, how are they going to believe that we’re actually trying to negotiate a nuclear deal with them if at the same time we’re admitting openly that we’re engaged in outright cyber warfare with them?”
Maybe because that cyber warfare is aimed at preventing Iran’s rulers — who openly proclaim it their sacred duty to rid the world of such “evils” as Israel and America — from acquiring nuclear-weapons capability. And maybe because what we’re offering, in exchange for a halt to their nuclear-weapons program, is an end to such cyber warfare, as well as the lifting of economic sanctions, a form of economic warfare. What other deal (a) has not been offered and (b) could have the slightest chance of appealing to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei?
The New York Times’s David Sanger, a skilled reporter, chimed in with this dubious analysis: “If a drone is very good at taking out a living room full of terrorists, if a cyber weapon is very good at taking out an underground centrifuge site, over the long term, do you really solve the problem or do you raise such resentments that you drive the Pakistanis to end up supporting al-Qaeda more, that you drive the Iranians further underground with their nuclear program?”
Ah, yes, it was “resentments” that provoked the attacks of 9/11 as well as the bombings in London, Madrid, Bali, and literally thousands of other places over recent years. Of course, such resentments also are raised whenever we speak out against the hangings of homosexuals in Iran, the mass murder of black Muslims in Darfur, and the burning of Christian churches in Egypt; also, whenever we “insult Islam” with a novel or a cartoon, or applaud “satanic” performers like Lady Gaga. Can Sanger actually believe that those who call themselves jihadis would put aside their antipathies and put down their weapons if only we’d curb our freedoms and stop defending ourselves against those committed to our destruction?
Not that we’re doing such a crackerjack job of defending ourselves. One striking example would be JLENS, the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System: essentially, tethered blimps that float above a battlefield (or potential battlefield) tracking everything below, including air, ground, and surface-water threats, and integrating all that information with missile defense and other intercept systems.
The Department of Defense has invested close to $2 billion in JLENS and it would be useful to have this capability in place, as soon as possible, over such hot spots as the Strait of Hormuz, a vital corridor for oil from the Persian Gulf that the Iranian regime has threatened to close if we continue to ratchet up sanctions.
JLENS “fills a vital military need,” Pete Hegseth, who served as an infantry officer in both Iraq and Afghanistan, recently wrote in The Hill, a congressional newspaper. “Technology like this levels the playing field and allows our troops to deal with threats, known and unknown,” providing “hundreds of miles of around-the-clock, 360-degree defense against enemy aircraft, cruise missiles, and unmanned drones.”
Congress has approved $40.3 million for a JLENS exercise necessary prior to deployment, an exercise approved by the secretary of defense. “Amazingly, this is insufficient to dislodge the needed funding,” Hegseth added. “JLENS performs as promised, is successfully tested, is needed by field commanders, lowers the cost of combat operations, is consistent with smaller troop contingents . . . What else must a program do to proceed?” Mark Pfeifle, a former deputy national security adviser, agreed, calling the situation “a bureaucratic morass. . . . Cutting through this Gordian Knot of bureaucracy involving JLENS is a no-brainer.”
There was a time during World War II when Winston Churchill believed the West was close to defeat. For free peoples to prevail against determined despots, he said, would require that they regain their “moral health and martial vigor.” In that sense, perhaps the war of the present is not so different from wars of the past.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and Islamism.