COMMENT: Conflict in the modern era —Shahzad Chaudhry - Monday, March 21, 2011

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COMMENT: Conflict in the modern era —Shahzad Chaudhry
Clinton’s time as president brought about few significant changes in how the global environment shaped up. Global economies, global culture and global interdependence became a reality on the back of a greatly more interconnected world, facilitated through a profusion of air travel and that ultimate revolution, the internet

My piece, ‘States and conflict’ (Daily Times, March 14, 2011), left some questions unanswered. These deal primarily with how I had intended to divide the modern era into its significantly important sub-divisions to understand better the nature of the threat that states are faced with and hence the ultimate intent to determine if those states and their forces were suitably equipped and structured to confront those threats. I had posed three different time blocks as generic frames to measure against the evolving threat. These were: the modern era — almost 50 years beginning with the period between the two World Wars till almost the end of the 1980s; the short period of the neo-modern era saddling a decade each on either side of the turn of the century, while the post-modern is here and now, particularly based on the threats that have become the norm in the new century. The neo-modern slips into the post-modern period in inter-state conflict.

It remains the most enigmatic derivation that the Napoleonic wars and Clausewitz, despite both being creatures of the 18th and the early 19th century, continue to underwrite most strategic thinking spanning the pre-to-post modern era. It is likely to continue to guide strategy for the foreseeable future because of its generic applicability to corporate or organisational issues to political, military, social or economic issues. Napoleon was an assiduous practitioner while Clausewitz, in the opposing forces, remained the ardent observer. It was Clausewitz who however developed the dialectic of contending strategies and evolved the philosophical base for developing strategic thinking on modern lines. He had to wait till technology could deliver the means to give meaning to his words.

Clausewitz’s strategic premise is based around the concept of neutralising an adversary’s centre of gravity though superior time and space management resulting in overwhelming force at the point of application; such correlation in both mass and firepower bestows victory in a relatively linear comparison. Superior mass and firepower at the point of application is gained through a combination of both superior manoeuvre (mobility), and technology — which delivers both speed and firepower as a continuous and incremental process.

World War I was a sad depiction of how Clausewitzian principles lay utterly irrelevant to a conflict. Massed armies desperately lacked mobility and hence ended up in a static war of attrition. The central forces ran out of steam earlier and capitulated. Technology failed to give meaning to Clausewitz. Around the end of the war, two innovations, the tank and the airplane, made their appearance as amusing contraptions but never made the impact that was to gradually make its mark in war-fighting and bring into focus what Clausewitz had intended through his work.

Both the airplane and the tank were keys to bringing in the desperately needed mobility. As a consequence, the Second World War seemed greatly more purposeful. The armies deployed in large arcs enveloping both adversary forces and wide spaces intended to be conquered. The aeroplane delivered firepower at the points of decision and in quantities that helped a side prevail over the other. Airpower evolved in its own right as a separate entity with its own character and ability to influence the battlefield. Strategic bombing emerged as an independent employment strategy, which in many ways tolled the death knell for the enemy. In pursuance of finding an early conclusion to war through a well aimed campaign that would deliver an enemy’s centre of gravity and help realise the political aims of the war, this goal became increasingly possible, though the emphasis in war-fighting remained principally army-led. Regional conflicts since WW II have tended to use airpower the WW II way, mostly subordinate to the land or naval forces and crafting support to both as an entrenched role around which the air forces developed. That was okay then. The Indo-Pak war of 1965 remained a stalemate for other reasons, but in 1971 India routed Pakistan and helped East Pakistan secede as Bangladesh. The 1967 Arab-Israeli war delivered huge areas to Israel. The armies delivered both force and space with air and naval forces in a support role. But around this time the modern era of conflict was coming to a close as newer determinants of war and the operational environment dictated different political objectives that wars needed to deliver.

Clinton’s time as president brought about few significant changes in how the global environment shaped up. Global economies, global culture and global interdependence became a reality on the back of a greatly more interconnected world, facilitated through a profusion of air travel and that ultimate revolution, the internet. That meant more aware globalised sensitivities too. By then the US, the only superpower of the world, assumed the leadership of now a connected world in all spheres, cultural, social, political and indeed military. A moral undertone of the assumed role brought about an aversion for conflict, war and deliberate strife. It was then that the Balkans erupted and soon after Kosovo happened. While there can be as many spins on how the process degenerated into ethnic cleansing and how was it allowed to play out before any concrete action was initiated, when military intervention was resorted to it came in an entirely new packaging. Use of land forces meant continuous embroilment except when UN peace-keeping was concerned, but armies as elements of war for winning the peace, as the new mantra, were out; instead the reliance came heavily on airpower. With an aim to punish and coerce — the new political objectives — airpower was used to overwhelm the enemy in his mind and cause a paralysis of both action and thought through pervasive and lethal application of force and proximity. Airpower delivered both, Serbia and Kosovo, without the armies becoming a part of the action.

Before this, the first Gulf War in 1991 had already given prevalence to the role of air power when a month long air campaign crippled Saddam’s forces, giving the US allies the famous 100-hour victory on land. The second Gulf War as indeed the Afghan War have both been rather poor attempts at reversing the trend of air forces holding sway as tools of preference in a conflict, but the end result has been sadly the same — armies tend to keep nations embroiled in wars for unaffordable lengths of time. Prolonged conflict in an interdependent world is frowned upon and loses credence very soon. Any surprise then that Robert Gates, US Secretary of Defence, has to call anyone suggesting the use of armies in Asia, Africa and the Middle East as someone out of his mind. Any surprise then that when they are considering armed action in Libya, the tool of choice is the air force. Does this explain, partially, why NATO/the US tend to depend heavily on drones in FATA and Afghanistan? Does that indicate what India means through surgical strikes in response to any act of terrorism? Should that also explain Israel’s dependence on airpower in Lebanon; should that also explain how the Israeli army failed badly in the same war in Lebanon? These considerations and evolving philosophies in war-fighting denote the neo-modern era in conflict.

Next week we shall take up conflict in the post-modern world and how it imposes the need for restructuring the armed forces.

The writer is a defence and political analyst

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