Clausewitz, Jihad, and Non-Lethal Weapons
Carl von Clausewitz famously observed that the objective of war is to impose one’s will on the enemy. Earlier military philosophers such as Sun Tzu and Machiavelli would probably not have disagreed, nor would some of history’s great Moslem practitioners of war ranging from Mohammed himself to Saladin and Suliman the Magnificent. This traditional view of war has it that the destruction of an enemy or the imminent fear of death and destruction of his force will cause an opponent to capitulate. Of late, some modern thinkers such as John Boyd and William Lind have postulated that placing the enemy in a psychological position of hopelessness by maneuver or other means is far more efficient than mere attrition in compelling an opponent to do one’s will. None-the-less, the ultimate consequence of final resistance -even in maneuver warfare- is the threat of death.
What none of these military philosophers foresaw was an enemy that actively seeks death, and who may see death in war as end in itself while rejecting war as merely a means to a political end state. To be sure, some military forces in history have fought to the death even when the possibility of victory became hopeless. The defenders of Thermopylae and the Alamo knew they were buying much needed time for Greece and Texas respectfully, and the defenders of Masada knew that surrender at the hands of the Romans would surely be worse than death. However, “death before dishonor” has generally been an exception to the rule.
In the Pacific in World War II, the Japanese chose death to surrender due to the Bushido code; but strategically, their objectives were decidedly Clausewitzian. Even the Kamikaze pilots and sailors late in the war saw their sacrifice as only a last resort. Overall, the Japanese military man would have preferred to win and live than to die losing.
The Radical Jihadist Paradigm Shift
The advent of apocalyptic groups such as al Qaeda, ISIS, and their world-wide franchises does not negate Clausewitz. Their views represent a perverted interpretation of Islam that will hopefully be a passing trend; but enough young Moslems have joined such movements that we would be justified in finding a special paradigm to combat them.
Radical jihadists view death as an end in itself separate from political ends. In their view, if one achieves some earthly good on the way to Paradise, it is an added bonus. Certainly, the senior leaders of such movements have earthly goals, even if they are apocalyptic; and few of them willingly strap on a suicide vest, but they actively encourage the rank and file to martyr themselves. This renders Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, Lind, and Boyd irrelevant in a jihadist context. This also make fighting them particularly nasty in urban areas as they wage battle among noncombatants and justify the loss of innocent lives in that the civilians will also become martyrs and join the fighters in Paradise, however unwillingly.
Attrition and Maneuver
It is very difficult to use the concepts normally associated with maneuver warfare against the jihadists because they are not prone to fear being surrounded or threatened with defeat in detail. These are only viewed as other routes to potential martyrdom. Conversely, this leaves the attritional approach as the only effective military strategy against them. Due to their proclivity to fight among civilians, this also makes defeating jihadists a particularly gruesome undertaking as the battle for the last ISIS stronghold Baghouz on the Iraqi-Syrian border is currently showing.
Ironically, maneuver warfare became an effective offensive tool in the hands of ISIS in their glory days of 2014-15. ISIS deliberately cultivated a reputation for barbaric handling of prisoners or other adversaries who somehow fell into its hands. Consequently, even the rumor of being surrounded or outflanked could cause opponents -particularly the Iraqi security forces- to flee in terror. Maneuver warfare depends as much on psychological maneuver as physical movement.
Is There a Role for Non-Lethal Weapons (NLW) in Restoring Offensive Maneuver in the War on Radical Jihadists?
Perhaps the worst thing that can happen to a jihadist who has hunkered down among civilians in a defensive position would be to somehow not die and be ignominiously dragged out and publicly be put on trial as a war criminal. Deprived of martyrdom, the jihadist becomes a non-person and faces a fate worst than death from his perspective.
When faced with the certain prospect of dishonor before death, the would-be martyr has two choices; he can launch a suicidal frontal attack as the Japanese did in islands such as Tarawa and Saipan in World War II, or he can attempt to retreat or exfiltrate in an effort to fight again someplace else. Either choice serves the objectives of his adversaries. Unfortunately, we don’t have the tools today to force our jihadist adversaries into such a position.
When Baghouz falls, it will not be the end of ISIS. In addition, al Qaeda franchises still exist in many places; and once their forces infest a region, we and our allies in the nation impacted still have the unpalatable choice of letting them stay there or destroying the towns or villages to save them. However, if we can develop a non-lethal alternative that could temporarily incapacitate all persons in an area to allow friendly forces to go in and separate the non-combatants from the armed fighters, we would be able to save both lives and infrastructure.
The Current State of NLW
Those of us who fought in Somalia in 1993 witnessed first-hand the devastating consequences of situations where fighters are deliberately intermingled with civilians -willing or unwilling. Readers unfamiliar with the tactic are referred to the motion pictures Black Hawk Down and Rules of Engagement for graphic visuals. When the Lieutenant General Tony Zinni returned to Mogadishu in 1995 to evacuate what was left of the UN mission there, he took some nascent NLW with him that the Marine Corps’ Experimental Unit found in various labs around the country. They weren’t particularly effective, but General Zinni made creative use psychological operations via the BBC to convince the Somali militias that the NLW were more potent and exotic than they really were. The operation was conducted safely with a minimum of Somali casualties.
Following that operation, Zinni and other Marine lobbied Congress to provide funding for far more effective NLW. As a result, a Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate was funded. Eventually, the Directorate came up with a system that would address the problems that our forces faced when crowds were intermixed with fighters. It was a directed energy beam that made people feel unbearably hot without actually burning them. It was called the Active Denial System (ADS). Further research showed that an even more potent directed energy weapon could be developed that would have the capability to actually incapacitate all occupants of structures and temporarily giving them the possibility of heat prostration allowing the combatants to be separated from civilians and/or hostages.
A number of factors conspired in the early part of this century to ensure that ADS never became operational and that the more potent application was never developed. First, human rights groups objected on the grounds that the technology might be used by abusive regimes to stifle dissent or even as an instrument of torture. Second -and more important- the events of 9-11 caused us to become much more bloody-minded about our non-state adversaries, and non-lethal means went to the bottom of the priority list.
NLW as a Maneuver Enabler
It is time to reconsider the use of NLW, not as stand-alone tools to wage “kinder and gentler” conflict, but as tools in the combined arms kit. We should reinvigorate advanced NLW development and place advanced NLW in the tables of organization of our ground and air combat units.
Having the weapons alone won’t be enough. Our commanders must be trained and educated to use them properly in a combined arms approach to conventional combat against unconventional foes such as jihadists and other enemies who deliberately use civilians and other noncombatants as human shields. This means taking a page from Zinni’s book and using psychological and information operations to convince dug-in jihadist-like foes that they face capture rather than death, thus forcing them into a choice of moving elsewhere or resorting to a suicidal banzai-like attack in order to meet their virgins. The purpose here is not to protect the combatants, but to save civilian lives and infrastructure that would otherwise be lost to conventional air strikes or artillery fire.
If any of this is going to happen, one of the key elements must be to change the perception of NLW in the minds of both human rights groups and more conservatively minded senior military leaders. Ironically, some of the same human rights organizations that object so strenuously to directed energy NLW are the same ones who are now protesting the fact that so much firepower has been used against ISIS-held urban areas. Senior military commanders who oppose NLW on the grounds that they don’t kill people and break things are another matter. It will take a leader with imagination and persuasive skills to break that logjam with both groups. Unfortunately, there don’t appear to be any Zinnis on the immediate horizon.