The Magazine

How We Lost the High-Tech War of 2007

From the January 29, 1996 issue: A warning from the future.

Jan 29, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 19 • By CHARLES J. DUNLAP, JR.
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WORSE YET FOR THE AMERICANS, advances in computer software eroded the demand for highly trained specialists to operate complex weapons. Easy-to-learn graphic displays allowed poorly educated soldiers to quickly master elaborate but user-friendly war-fighting machines, rather like a 15-year-old American figuring out how to dispense Coca-Cola at a fast-food restaurant by pressing the right pictograph. Praise The One Above, the microchip ended the educational and training advantage the American military had enjoyed.

Because the Americans believed their information technologies reduced the need for conventional combat forces, they disbanded such forces in favor of trendy "information" units. These were filled not with well-trained, physically fit combatants, but rather, as Szafranski put it, "mind-nimble (not necessarily literate), fingertip-quick youth" who tended to equate their success at video games with competency to engage in real war. Thank The One Above, the easy capture of a few of these self-styled "digital warriors" yielded a treasure trove of intelligence data.

We found we could contend with the light, supposedly high-tech combat units that completed most of America's remaining battle forces. Since we no longer had to concentrate our forces to oppose the now-defunct armored formations that dominated the First Gulf War, we took our cue from methods used by the North Vietnamese against the Americans and dispersed our army into small, mobile combat teams that combined only when required to strike a common objective. Not only did this make our troops harder to find, it also forced the Americans to expend their limited number of precision weapons on what were often tiny groups of soldiers.

In any event, we decided not to worry too much if we could not always match the high-tech equipment of the U.S. military. We consoled ourselves with the knowledge that reliance on cybersystems was not an unqualified virtue. The prescient Ryan noted that "technologically advanced, information-intensive military organizations are more vulnerable to information warfare simply because they are information dependent." Besides, our technical deficiencies inspired us to innovation--approaches overlooked by the gadgetry-obsessed Americans.

For example, we viewed the technology-spurred globalization of the news industry as a means of making war. By the mid-1990s, international news organizations using the latest electronic wizardry no longer had to depend on government help in war zones. Operational security became impossible as news groups launched information-gathering and communications satellites, monitored proliferating Internet transmissions, gave their reporters self-contained communications suites, and even flew their own unmanned aerial reconnaissance vehicles to transmit real-time views of battle areas.

This phenomenally valuable information was, of course, available to us. We had no need to build costly satellites or even pay spies; instead, we could rely on the free flow of data, because the Americans rarely achieved the necessary political consensus to interfere with these modern "news-gathering" techniques. Furthermore, whatever patriotic or legalistic pressure the Americans could bring to bear on their domestic news people was wholly ineffective against scoop-hungry foreign reporters.

In fact, the technology-empowered media made "information equality," not "information dominance," the key to the "revolution in military affairs." For example, when the U.S. tried their pathetic cyber-based psychological operations to mislead our people, the world press quickly exposed the American deceit.

We agreed with those, like George J. Stein, who said that information warfare "is fundamentally not about satellites, wires, and computers. It is about influencing human beings and the decisions they make." And we were confident we could influence the American public and its poll-sensitive decision-makers. Studying the Vietnam conflict, we were heartened by the remarks of a former North Vietnamese commander, Bui Tin:

"Support for the war from our rear was completely secure while the American rear was vulnerable. . . . The conscience of America was part of its war-making capability, and we were turning that power in our favor. America lost because of its democracy; through dissent and protest it lost the ability to mobilize a will to win."