The Consequences of Advances in Missile Technologies and Missile Proliferation on Warfare
A Submission to the Chief of Army’s ‘Contest of Ideas’
The basis of this submission is this cover note and the enclosed short paper authored by Dr Albert Palazzo and myself in 2016 titled Coming to Terms with the Modern Way of War: Precision Missiles and the Land Component of Australia’s Joint Force. Much of the Western military’s attention has focussed on developments in particular technological fields such as cyber, space, artificial intelligence and hypersonics; but, by focussing on the parts we may not be giving sufficient attention to the whole. The combination of these technological developments enables, first and foremost, precision long-range strike.
Recent advances in precision long-range strike have the potential to tip the balance between the offence and the defence in war in favour of the defender (if indeed they have not already done so). Long-range precision missiles, combined with advanced sensors, give the defender the potential to create killing zones with enormous depth encompassing the air, sea and land. The implications for the Australian Army are twofold: (1) the need for the Army to incorporate missiles more thoroughly in its doctrine and inventory, and perhaps more importantly, (2) the need to adapt with appropriate tactics and structures to the resulting changes to land warfare.
Like all technological developments, the capabilities of a new weapon system are not normally decisive in themselves; rather the adaptations made to the system of warfare in response to a new technology are normally more far reaching and decisive. For example, the introduction of technologies such as the breech-loading rifle and artillery, quick firing guns, machine guns and smokeless powder at the end of the 19th Century allowed a defender to create a lethal fire-beaten zone in front of their positions with a depth that would eventually reach several kilometres. For example, to close with their opponent, attacking troops on the Western Front in the First World War had to hazard a lethal and broad killing zone. Warfare became static and indecisive, resulting in stalemate and the slaughter of tens of thousands of soldiers until tactical and technological solutions were developed slowly and at great cost. The whole system of warfare changed in unanticipated ways during the war (see Stephen Biddell) and it evolved further by 1939.
In our 2016 paper, Dr Palazzo and I conjectured:
‘Changes in warfare resulting from developments in precision weapons are likely to affect tactics and force structures because precision weapons combined with advanced sensors will allow combatants to strike targets at great ranges with impressive accuracy. In fact, the effect of this combination on tactics is already being felt. From the former Yugoslavia to Gaza, Chechnya, Afghanistan and even the present war with ISIS, adversaries are seeking the cover of difficult terrain: hiding in features such as cities, mountains, caves, tunnels and jungles to avoid the firepower of their more powerful opponent. Moreover, hiding amongst targets that cannot be attacked such as civilians or critical infrastructure increases the potential political cost on an adversary. When a force fails to take such precautions the results can be devastating. In the Ukraine, for example, troops caught in the open have suffered greatly. Russian sensors easily found Ukrainian troops in exposed positions and coordinated rocket and artillery fire followed soon after. This seems to suggest that large battles in open country may become prohibitively expensive and increasingly rare.’
‘Some land forces, such as ISIS, have recognised the danger and adjusted their tactics to minimise the risk to their operations. ISIS forces now tend to move across open ground in small groups that are barely detectable and represent a small reward for the expenditure of expensive advanced munitions. This method contrasts with the large convoys of vehicles in which its troops once boldly and openly raced across Iraq and Syria. ISIS troops only form into larger groups when in the relative safety of close urban terrain, where they are more able to avoid detection and are more willing to accept combat. Land warfare (if not warfare broadly) seems to resemble the island-hopping campaign in the Western Pacific of the Second World War. Close terrain is akin to the islands from which the Japanese established their fortresses. Open terrain is like the oceans between except that now the ‘oceans’ are far more dangerous places to be and where troops are most vulnerable. It is no surprise, therefore, that the fighting to recapture territory from ISIS in Iraq is characterised by a series of battles for cities and towns.’
If these examples are indicative of the change that has already taken place in warfare then there are some immediate problems deserving the Army’s attention. For example, how do you resupply large units and formations without them concentrating in one place for long enough for the enemy to discover them and then launch a destructive barrage of missiles to destroy them? How do you protect large and static logistical echelons? Must they stay one bound behind the combat forces inside the last sufficiently large urban area or deep forest? The number of armoured vehicles needed to move rapidly across an open expanse and break into the next fortified urban (or mountainous, or densely forested) terrain might be too many for the type of fighting that might take place inside the rubble, cellars, alleys, tunnels, caves and the like in the fortified terrain? What do you do with them once you have broken in? In other words, how do you aggregate and disaggregate the different types of forces needed for quite different types of fighting from within the one force? How do you rapidly fortify an urban area once it is captured to protect the force from a counter attack? These are just a few of the meaty problems we might choose to solve.
Solutions will require the sort of open-ended experimentation of the inter-war period; the kind of trial and error that led to the major tactical leaps leading to Blitzkrieg, World War II carrier warfare and Pacific amphibious warfare. Consequently, a review of the suitability of our training areas might be necessary. Should we invest in creating large fortified urban spaces inside training areas to recreate the sort of warfare anticipated by Grosni, Mosul and Raqqa? Without changes to our training terrain and tactical dogmas we are potentially at risk of inculcating a 1970’s – 1990’s retrospective system of warfare based on residual knowledge of Cold War mechanised and armoured tactics, which envision fighting like-forces in relatively open terrain. By introducing into our training and exercises the appropriate mix of terrain, the right scale of urbanisation (Raspberry Creek is almost certainly way too small and simple), and an enemy well-stocked with high-technology missiles and sensors, and who is also well-versed in making use of terrain to prevent their own forces from destruction from our missiles (whether launched from the air, sea, land or space), we might be able to break free from corps-based dogmas.
We might also ask ourselves to what extent our exercise designs might be protecting us from facing our unexpected inadequacies and learning uncomfortable lessons. Failure illuminates and provides evidence for difficult force-design choices that might be necessary, such as what is the right mix of different types of forces and what is the right size of certain units. It tends to illuminate potential answers to difficult questions like whether more and simpler materiel might have advantages over fewer exquisite pieces, or vice versa (for example).
We also ought to reflect on the possibility that no single parochial background in a certain arm or service of the Army has a monopoly on the way to solve these problems. They are as much problems of long-range fires as they are problems of instinctive close-quarter battle. They are as much problems of rapid armoured movement as they are problems of static fortification and engineering. They are as much problems of satellite imagery as they are small robots inching down underground pipes and cyber espionage. Perhaps, most critically, ingenious solutions to the vulnerability of logistical and command echelons are most in demand. The solutions will come from all quarters. Our greatest challenge will likely be getting old dogmas out of heads rather than getting new ideas in.
We should do our best to resist the temptation to begin this work by writing a concept. Let people seek to solve parts of the set of problems, bring their innovations together and incorporate them into the existing and evolving system of warfare to realise something, in time, that is greater than a concept written now. A concept that is limited by the imagination of a few authors now limits the possibilities of the many in the long-term. Let the experiments and the new ideas of the operators and thinkers take us somewhere better than we can forecast now; but use the evidence of the changes in warfare that appears to be before us in places like Raqqa or the Eastern Ukraine to frame the challenges that in turn induce the problem-solving and thinking necessary for innovation.
About the author: Brigadier Chris Smith is currently serving as the Australian Defence Force Chief of Defence Force Liaison Officer to the United States, Chairmen of Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government. Further information.