Technology in the Service of a Soldier

Lieutenant-General Jonathon Riley

DCOM ISAF Paris, June 2007


During this short talk I want to address four theses:

  1. That while technology advances, the human condition remains unchanged; and therefore warfare remains as much art as science
  2. That technology is, however, an invaluable servant, and there is an inescapable relationship between the advance of technology, and the employment of military forces
  3. That one major symptom of this is that questing for certainty, having long been regarded as undesirable in military operations, is now an absolute requirement
  4. That despite the advance of technology, especially information technology, organisations forget

Technology Versus The Human Condition

And so to the first contention. We have heard in this conference how technology has advanced rapidly over the last 10 years, and continues to do so. However against this background of rapid change there is one thing that has not changed: the human condition. Evolution works far more slowly, first through mutations, or accidents in reproduction, and then through natural selection that determines the fate of those mutations in the gene pool. However fast technology is changing, the processes in the human brain are still unchanged from the depths of antiquity: if time travel were possible, a child born in the Old Stone Age and brought to the 21st Century would grow up with precisely the same mental processes as if it had been born in 2007. We therefore evaluate information, and make decisions, in the same way that we did hundreds of thousands of years ago, and this brings me to my first theme: that despite the complexity of information technology, the decision-maker is still human.

That relatively unchanging human mental process called decision making, the prime business of a military commander, is now presented with a huge proliferation of information networks, webs, and media. But because the centre of that web is still human, no end of network-based capability can deny the personal factor in the business of command and because of that, military operations remain as much art as science. Moreover, the genetic inheritance which produced instinctive leaders like Napoleon, or his nemesis the Russian Tsar Alexander I, or the German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, or the American General George Patton; and the ability to make intuitive judgements, remain an inalienable part of the human condition.

To deny the place of instinctive leadership or of intuitive decision-making is to rely wholly on technology and process – or pure reasoning. To do this in the context of modern, complex emergencies is not only against nature, but dangerous. Instincts and intuitive judgements will always intrude on pure reasoning, and it is this that produces, among other things, unpredictability. It also produces the willingness to take risk, based on partial information, in the interests of out-manoeuvring an enemy. Thus in any contest between two opponents, one of whom relies heavily on process and technology, and one who relies on human ingenuity, may I suggest that the latter is more likely to triumph if all other things are equal. This is one dynamic now being played out in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It can, of course, be argued that precisely because of the sort of complexity encountered in modern war, and operations other than war, intuitive decision making is not possible: that the commander at battalion level and above is faced with so many facets of a campaign, that he will be forced to rely on some formal process of evaluation, fed by information technology, in order to be able to make rational decisions. I believe, however, that the converse is true, especially if one accepts that war and conflict are not rational. The commander who surrenders himself wholly to process, or who allows himself to be deluged by the massive amounts of data available from modern command systems, and who abandons intuition, becomes the prisoner of that process and predictability. Defeating an agile insurgent or terrorist, or dealing with a complex dispute in a peace support operation, requires a clear head and the ability to see the essentials.

Technological Advances and the Battlefield Employment of Troops

On to the second point, that technology is an invaluable servant, but there is an inescapable relationship between technological advances, and the employment of military forces. It is of course true that technologies do not advance in complete capability leaps: armies do not replace all their weaponry and equipment in one turn – cutting edge technologies and legacy systems continue to co-exist. Example: the pilot of a modern fast jet, 21st Century technology, wears boots held together by leather laces, Roman technology. Hi-tech modern media equipment is often moved over rugged terrain by camels or donkeys - a transport system favoured by Alexander the Great.

But there is, in warfare, a relationship between the introduction of new technologies, and the employment and deployment of troops. This relationship is not constant, and needs careful and frequent revision. When it is not attended to, trouble follows. By the time of the American Civil War, for example, although the armies were equipped with powerful, rifled muskets and heavy artillery, and could be moved by rail, the tactics were still those of Waterloo. The results, for Generals seeking the Napoleonic grail of the decisive battle were the casualty rates of battles like Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg - and the acceleration of trench warfare. One can argue that the same process continued through the Franco-Prussian war, the early stages of the South African War, and the first four months of the Great War, which cost the French Army 800,000 casualties. It was not until 1918 that this relationship was adjusted – and Blitzkrieg was born. It grew to maturity with the arrival of the battlefield radio.

During the Second Word War, the British realised that, having analysed German plans for Operation Sealion, and their own experiences in Madagascar, Dieppe, and North Africa, that in order to overcome beach defences, specialised armoured, and air, vehicles would have to be created in order for an entry to be made to Western Europe. Such vehicles would also help to reduce casualties, an important factor for a country that still bore the scars of the Great War, and where an invasion was viewed by many as “Gallipoli on the beaches, and the Somme once inland.” Thus was born the 79th Armoured Division, under Percy Hobart, and whatever the shortcomings of the campaign inland, no-one doubts the success of the landing phase on the British and Canadian beaches. The American forces, coming from a society that remembered war in a different way, chose not to use these vehicles. By an accident of time and tide they got away with it on Utah – but paid the penalty on Omaha: the 1st and 29th Divisions suffered casualty rates comparable with a British infantry division having a bad day on 1st June 1916. Nor was there any cross-over between the Pacific, South-east Asian, and European theatres.

Combating the IED threat in Afghanistan and in Iraq is a modern example. The IED is now the weapon of choice for insurgents, causing more than 60% of coalition casualties in Iraq over the past year. The advantages to the insurgent are obvious: relatively low technology, and therefore small cost and a low training bill; easy to conceal and hard to detect, low risk to the attacker; many commercially available components; thousands of tons of old munitions are freely available; and a variety of methods of initiation

All these methods are liable to counter-measures, either technical or tactical, or a combination of both, and there will thus develop a constant cycle of innovation and counter-measure – both up and down the ladder of technology. For example, effective counter-measures against remote control devices may either cause the bomber to go up to infra-red initiation, for which there are expensive technical counter-measures; or he can go down to command wire against which there is no technical counter-measure, but an increased risk of prior detection. In this context we must understand too that many electronic counter-measures, which are simply broad-spectrum jammers, have as much of an effect on our own communications capabilities as they do on the devices.

The IED as the product of a system, or network. This network has the many components to it: the ideological leadership; technical experts who develop and disseminate the technology; a production team; a network to transport components and complete devices; a training organisation; an intelligence gathering and targeting organisation; a protection/security team; and finally, at the tip of the spear, the bomber.

Despite having featured in our lives for so long, I contend that we do not counter this network with an effective, systemic approach of our own. Certainly, we exploit forensics and technical intelligence, we develop technical counter-measures, we train troops, and we kill bombers. But we do not do so in a concerted way that seeks to break the cycle, and we focus too much on defeating the device – with the resulting process of moves and counter-moves already described, rather than defeating the IED network. We have not yet developed capability – which I define as the product of intelligence, equipment, trained personnel, doctrine and procedures, and sustainability. We do not do this nationally, never mind internationally, and given that the IED network respects no national boundaries, we have to do this on a coalition basis.

The Quest for Certainty

The third contention leads on from this business of developing networks to defeat networks. In this, a key weapon is the use of intelligence-led operations, rather than framework operations or speculative sweeps. Sometimes, intelligence-led operations will be aimed simply at producing further or better intelligence; others at destroying or capturing particular objectives or people; in a PSO they may be aimed at setting conditions for non-military activities, like democratic elections or reconstruction. All will be in some way associated with particular decisive points in the campaign. Not seeking, therefore, simply to gain temporary advantage through violence, but rather changing the whole situation to advantage. These operations fall into the category of those needing to be explained through information operations, requiring careful coordination of the required effects with the messages given out. This brings me to the nub of my third point, that in modern war, questing for certainty is with us.

In our training for the conventional war, we continue to stress the need for high tempo in relation to our opponents: whoever makes, implements, reviews and sustains decisions fastest will surely win and on that basis, the best is the enemy of the good. Questing for Certainty in the uncertain fog of war will merely hand the advantage of tempo to the enemy – so better to make a decision based on partial information and thus gain the initiative. But counter-insurgency is the exact opposite of this. Our enemy has a very different view of tempo as we have already noted and the media will happily condemn us unheard, using the enemy’s version of events rapidly delivered and enthusiastically endorsed by the UN and other well-meaning agencies and NGOs. The BBC, for example, broadcasted as fact allegations of the murder of civilians by the Syrian government. It later turned out that these murders were tribal scores being paid off between different local factions – nothing to do with the government – but because it had been broadcast, it was fact and I for one never heard any apology or retraction. Given these factors, we, the forces of government and authority, are obliged to quest for certainty. Where destructive force is applied, it must be applied on the basis of excellent, multi-source intelligence and every commander must be his own intelligence chief to a greater degree perhaps than ever before.

The media factor is especially relevant, and you do not need me to tell you about the speed at which events on the ground appear in the news media, on web logs, or simply on mobile phone screens. The clue to managing this apparent dilemma lies in the definition of certainty in a military context, it being (in my view) the product of the amount of information available plus the nature of the task to be performed. The more complex the task, then logically, the more information is required to carry it out to a given degree of certainty. The matter of tempo is relevant. In war, tempo, like risk, is high, and less definition can be accepted from the certainty/information/complexity ratio. In counter-insurgency, humanitarian assistance, or peace support operations, tempo is generally low and so more definition is required. So like it or not, questing for certainty is with the modern commander – the question now is how much, and for what? This is one area where modern technologies do have a vital bearing on intuitive decision-making: sophisticated surveillance vehicles produce accurate, real time data on which to base decisions and thus give a high degree of certainty in a tight time-frame. Recent examples from Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that poor targeting produces public relations disasters which undermine consent for the whole effort; but the lesson was there from Northern Ireland and Kosovo.

Organisations Forget

And so to the fourth contention. Since the end of the Second World War, we have amassed around 100 times more information than in the rest of human history up to that time. We think of human knowledge as always increasing, “What is now known”, said Robert Blake, “was once only imagined.” But is it like that? Consider human knowledge, if you will, as a freight train pulling a long line of carriages. Each carriage contains the knowledge of a generation. We like to think that every generation couples its carriage behind the engine and thus the train gets ever longer. But in fact, as one carriage is coupled up, two or three others are dropped off the end and shunted into a siding. How else can we account for the fact that we do not know for sure why agriculture started, or how the pyramids were built. “Progress, said George Santayana, “far from consisting of change, depends on retentiveness.” There are aspects of the human condition which are part of this, as well as problems of collective memory, but I want to concentrate on the problems caused by the advance of technology. The advent of digitization seemed to indicate that everything written, filmed, photographed or recorded could be safely preserved; and there are a plethora of programmes concerned with translating earlier recordings in different media onto digital media in order to preserve them. Entire libraries, it seemed, could be fitted onto a memory stick, or a CD. But is this so? It appears to me that digital information is ephemeral and highly vulnerable. CDs disintegrate within 20 years, while vellum books written by monks in the Middle Ages will still be with us in another 500 years. Few people write letters, but email is too often the victim of the delete button – and what of the text message? Advancing technology has already consigned to the scrap heap several forms of electronic storage: the laser disk, the 5.25-inch compact disk, the 3.5 inch floppy disk, the Amstrad word processor and its authoring language – my first PC by the way – are all gone. Even if organizations had bothered to archive their material, if they had done so on these means, it would now have disappeared: why not more in the future?

Many accounts of the war in Iraq, for example, are currently contained on weblogs – blogs – but the average life of a modern website is around 40 days: the same as the life cycle of most insects. Yet in my family are the diaries and letters of Polar Explorers, soldiers, sailors and scholars that are recorded permanently, on paper. I have added to these. Can we be sure that in the future, technology will not leave electronically recorded material marooned and unreadable? If we want to remember things, it seems to me that the only safe thing to do is write them down.

And so I end where I started: that technology is a good servant, but an unreliable master. It provides no silver bullets to solve the problems of our world – because those problems are created by human beings. Only human ingenuity will solve them.


Copyright © 2007 Jonathon Riley

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