19 July 2006

Rockets, Bombers and National Boundaries

World War II changed everything. But, economics and the relative peace of the Cold War put many of those revelations on ice.

Prior to World War II, there were no effective long range weapons. If you wanted to attack your neighbor you had to march your Army into his territory. Sure, there was some fuzziness at the boundary itself. Artillery, ancient and modern, allowed aggressors to lob projectiles a little bit over the border, and defenders could lob projectiles back at the attackers. In the eras of seige warfare, this meant hurling rocks and burning tar a few dozen feet over a wall. In World War I, it meant delivering howitzer and mortar shells a few miles. In theory, artillery could have gone much further, but that technology never got widespread use in practice. To make progress in that conflict characterized by trench warfare, you had to breach the enemy line and swarm your troops over land to enemy positions. Aircraft were used in World War I, but mostly as spotters and sniper weapons, not as the main instruments by which major damage was inflicted.

The same principles applied in naval combat. Prior to World War II, the dominant paradigm was to build large armored ships, with massive artillery batteries, called naval guns, and fire them at the other guy's ships at distances within the over the horizon visual range of about thirty miles. It was a natural progression from the era of sailing ships with cannons, and all the major powers from Italy to France to Great Britain to Germany to Russia to the United States has battleships displacing tens of thousands of tons on the eve of World War II.

The development that changed that paradigm in World War II was the airplane. The Battle of Britain marked the first time in the history of the world that a sustained military attack was perpetrated deep in the enemy country's territory, entirely from bases outside that territory. In the Pacific phase of the war, far more battleships were destroyed by enemy aircraft, often carrier based and usually launched from beyond the ranch of battleship naval guns, than by naval gunfire. Some of the most lethal moments in World War II, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Dresden, were carried out with bombs delivered by aircraft.

Rockets were still in their infancy in World War II. They were used to some extent, but were inaccurate and unreliable and didn't materially impact the outcome. But, not long after World War II, partially aided by a space race that was in some ways a peaceful display of potential military prowess designed to intimate potential military opponents, rocket technologies, like missiles, came into their own. While not one was fired in anger during the entire Cold War, the characteristic weapon of that era was the ballistic missile tipped with a nuclear warhead, each of which carried the ability to level a distant city anywhere in the world from distant land and submarine based launching pads in a matter of minutes. For better or worse, the United States and Soviet Union, the two superpowers with large ballistic missile stockpiles (although several other countries had them) managed to intimidate each other into not going to war with threats of mutual assured destruction, until the political scene changed with the fall of the Soviet Union and the Cold War ended.

Naval warfare also learned important lessons from World War II, and the development of accurate missiles further changed the equation. The primary weapons of all of the major U.S. surface combatants (i.e. warships) are missiles, which have a range far greater than naval guns, although they have small residual naval guns. No ship in the world has a naval gun with a barrel wider than 6", while naval guns as large as 16" and an order of magnitude heavier ammunition, were common place in World War II.

Now, not a single country in the world has a battleship. Outside the U.S. Navy which has twenty-four, only two countries, Russia with six and the Ukraine with one, have cruisers. Even aircraft carriers, the darling of the war in the Pacific, are scarce. Outside the U.S. Navy which has twenty four (including both supercarriers and amphibious assault ships), Britain has three, while France, Spain, Italy, Brazil, Thailand, India and Russia each have one. Only the Russian one rivals U.S. supercarriers in size. With the exceptions just noted, there isn't a single surface combatant in the world today over 10,000 tons, a stark reduction in ship size since World War II when many countries had battleships with more than 20,000 tons displacement and the largest reached 70,000 tons. Most countries in the world have frigate navies, if they have navies at all. This reconfiguration of world naval power is driven to a great extent by that fact that a surface combatant can be destroyed by modern anti-ship missiles from hundreds of miles away, and stealth technology for big ships is not currently viable, so large, slow, surface combatants, no matter how heavily armored, are basically sitting ducks in the face of a sophisticated opponent. In theory, sophisticated point defense measures limit this threat, but no one has put this theory to the test in real combat, and been proven right, since the missile threat arose.

During the Cold War, missile technology was contained by economic constraints. Only the bigger, more stable nation-states could afford to build or buy them. But, now the Cold War is over and everything about warfare is changing all over again.

This month has seen two developments that have brought the impact of the missile warfare era to the forefront. First, in early July, North Korea made a volley of ballistic missile tests. Then, a couple of weeks later, the Israeli-Lebanon war errupted.

North Korea

Without missiles, North Korea isn't much of a threat to its neighbors, and the threat that it does pose can be managed with conventional means.

The DMZ between North Korea and South Korea is the most heavily fortified land boundary in the world. And, while North Korea is the most militarized society in the world, few of its troops are quality soldiers, and much of its equipment is second rate. China, likewise, is more than a match of a North Korean land invasion. Also, unlike China, North Korea lacks the resources to transport its huge, if mostly second rate, Army to the shores of U.S. allies like Japan or Taiwan. It has no real amphibious assault or airlift capacity. It might be able to use submarines it has designed for that purpose to get a small number of commandos into territory it considers hostile, but that is it.

North Korea does have a couple of dozen small diesel attack submarines, most of 1950s vintage, which could profoundly muck up shipping in its vicinity for a few months until U.S., Japanese and South Korean anti-submarine warfare efforts took them out, one by one, in a painstaking process. Anti-submarine warfare is not easy work in the best of times, and North Korea has one of the largest submarine fleets in the world. In raw numbers, only the United States, China and Russia have more attack submarines. But, there is good reason to believe that North Korean training is subpar and that its submarines are not in top shape. Tracking down late model submarines is much easier than finding modern ones specifically designed to thwart modern technologies used to find them.

Compared to U.S. or Russian or Chinese or South Korean or Japanese air forces, the North Korean air force is a joke. I'd be suprised if the North Korean Air Force could stay in the air for a week in a conventional war. Its planes are mostly older, maintenance is an even more serious problem for aircraft, and its pilots lack adequate training.

Equally important, North Korea has no allies. Even China sees North Korea as much as a threat as it does as an ally. China recently closed its border with North Korea, not in a protest over ballistic missile tests or its nuclear program, but because North Korea refused to return a train that China had sent to North Korea delivering goods. There is no love lost between Russia and North Korea either.

North Korea seems destined, sooner or later, to see the sort of total collapse that took place in equally isolated Albania in the wake of the Cold War. While communist dictorship Cuba has continued to trade with the outside world, and has made addressing the needs of its people an urgent priority, for example, in a food shortage that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, and in developing a decent health care system, North Korea allowed millions of its residents to simply starve and die when it faced a famine and stood in the way of international efforts to provide relief.

Ballistic missiles, however, change the equation. This summer's missile tests mostly failed, but the whole point of testing is to find out what you are doing wrong so that you can fix it. The mistakes made this summer might not be repeated when missiles are fired in anger. Even if hitting Guam or Hawaii with a deadly missile might be a stretch for North Korea, wrecking havoc on Japan or China or South Korea, with a much shorter range ballistic missile, is not. Some of the short range missiles in that test worked. And, if it had even a handful of nuclear warheads, which most observers believes that it has, or could have in the near future, the damage could be unthinkably great. Millions or tens of millions of people could be killed before the news could make its way to CNN.

Essentially the only defense these nations have to such an attack is North Korean fear that there would be a counterattack. The United States doesn't have a workable missile defense system, and neither do its allies in the Pacific. But, the power of fear to stop a North Korean attack is hardly certain.

North Korea gets basically one shot. It doesn't have a Soviet sized nuclear arsenal. And, the rest of the world, knowing that once the trigger is pulled that the gun is empty, may not feel it is appropriate to kill millions of innocent every day North Koreans in retaliation for the mad outburst of a dictator who doesn't care much about his people either.

Also, a North Korean dictator may feel that it is in his own personal best interest to make such a brutal show of force, even though it is not in the best interests of his country. For example, he may feel that this kind of action is justified to fend off a brewing coup, or regime collapse at home. The threat of being ousted by foreign armies looses its sting when your going to be ousted, and possible executed, at home anyway. Gambling that the military brass and leadership group will rally around you in the face of a real threat of foreign invasion may be a personally rational decision, even though killing millions of innocent foreigners to hold onto your mismanaged regime isn't rational from the perspective of the nation as a whole.

In another scenario, if a North Korean leader was personally in poor health and near death, and knew that court politics were such that his chosen heir was unlikely to follow in his footsteps, creating a crisis to take control of those court politics might seem wise from the leader's perspective. His own life might be forfeit at that point.

The other down side of a dictatorship is that it is efficient. There is no opportunity for deliberation with competiting forces to slow down a hasty call for action that the dicator may later regret. Part of the message that North Korean missile tests sent was that the people in charge of implementing a North Korean missile strike are sufficiently loyal that orders will be followed.

The Israeli-Lebanon War

I'm not at all convinced that Israel has done the right thing in declaring all out war on Lebanon because it has failed to rein in the Hezbollah guerilla group on Israel's border, which has been lobbing rockets from Southern Lebanon into Northern Israel for years, just as some Palestinian groups have been doing with renewed vigor in Gaza since the Israeli withdrawal, prompting major Israeli military strikes into Gaza earlier this summer.

Ironically, Israel is in the process of building a wall between itself and the Palestinian territories which, where it has been completed, has proven effective at preventing the suicide bomb attacks that have plagued Israel for decades.

But, walls don't stop rockets, and rockets, unlike mortars and artillery shells, can go far beyond the immediate border region. Evil Mommy recently linked to a map that makes this point abundantly clear. All of Northern Israel, from the Lebanese border to the suburbs of Tel Aviv are within the range of the lastest missiles that Hezbollah has obtained from Iran, which, for its part, officially regrets current Hezbollah attacks with those rockets. If similar rockets made their way to Gaza or the West Bank, all of Israel would be within their range.

Hezbollah has also gained access to Chinese anti-ship missiles that rival U.S. Harpoon missiles, the primary anti-ship weapon of every cruiser, destroyer and frigate in the U.S. Navy, and of many of its allies. One of those missiles, probably launched from a truck on the coast, killed four Israeli sailors on the Israeli corvette Hanit. Admittedly, it didn't sink the sub-frigate sized ship. That attack also defeated Israeli countermeasures, in part, because countermeasures hadn't been implemented because no one in Israel knew that Hezbollah had this kind of capability. But, it does have them, and if a terrorist group can get them, there is no telling how many Syria or Iran might be able to muster. While point defense countermeasures might work against a small number of missiles, defeating a large volley is another matter.

Notably, while Israel does have a missile defense system, it isn't working. Even if it did have a system that did work, it might be hard pressed to stop much of the onslaught due to a dramatic increase in the number of rockets Hezbollah is sending in each wave of attacks. Instead of 3 to 8 at a time, it is sending as many as 70 an hour. This is a lot of small, fast moving targets for a missile defense system to keep track of and destroy.

It is estimated that of the 13,000 or so rockets and missiles in Hezbollah’s arsenal, 11,000 of them are of the Katyusha type. These rockets have a short range – maybe up to nine miles or so – and a small warhead of roughly 40 pounds. Based on vintage Soviet technology, these rockets can be rolled out of a hiding place, shot, and rolled back in before any detection can be made. Their flight is over in seconds, making tracking difficult, much less shooting anything down. A system would have to be in exactly the right place to detect the missile once it is launched, then the defensive system would have to make a nearly instantaneous decision to respond, after which the interceptor would have to get to the target quickly enough to destroy it. It is an exceedingly difficult proposition when the flight times are as short as those launched by Hezbollah.

If you fire enough rockets, some will get through and kill your citizens. The mere threat of this happening, moreover, leaves your citizens in a state of terror.


The lesson of both the North Korean ballistic missile threat and the Israeli-Lebanon war is that a nation can no longer keep its citizens safe by policing its borders, if enemies on the other side of those borders have missiles.

Versions of this reasoning were behind U.S. invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq. While Afghanistan's Taliban regime itself was no threat to the U.S., it was unwilling or unable to shut down al Queda terrorists in its territory, so the U.S. felt justified in entering Afghanistan to take down that regime. The justification for the Israeli war on Lebanon is almost identifical to that of the U.S. war on Afghanistan's Taliban regime.

But, there is one important difference. The Taliban was the most horrifically awful regime in the world, with the possible exception of North Korea. No one mourned its fall. The regime that is under attack in Lebanon, in contrast, was a fragile democracy, which had ousted Syrian influence over the country to a great extent and showed promise of restoring Lebanon to its former glory as a modernizing, ethnically diverse, intellectual and commercial hub of the Middle East.

Lebanon's government, like most new civilian democratic regimes, was a little short on competence and had certainly not figured out how to shut down the deeply rooted Hezbollah presence in Southern Lebanon yet. But, rather than working diplomatically with this new regime to achieve this goal, Israel reached a breaking point and has lashed out, not specifically at the Hezbollah forces, but, like the U.S. did in Afghanistan, at the entire regime that has permitted these forces to continue to operate.

The U.S. in Afghanistan basically put its weight on the scales of the resistance in a civil war that the Taliban had all but finished off, leaving it a ready friendly replacement for the Taliban regime. But, Israel has no viable alternative to the Palestinians in the Gaza and West Bank on one hand, or the current regime in Lebanon on the other. Wiping out an existing regime that tolerates terrorists doesn't get you very far if you can't replace it with one that will not do so. And, if there is no effective replacement regime, the removal of the past regime has created the ideal situation for terrorist forces, the vacuum of anarchy that we currently see in places like Somolia which is home to known al Queda operations.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the limited international support it received in that venture, was largely based on the now discredited U.S. intelligence claims that Iraq could threaten its neighbors with weapons of mass destruction delivered by missiles similar to those recently tested by North Korea. We needed to strike first, it was argued, because an unpredictable Iraqi dictator might strike in a way that could do real harm that might not be dissauded by a threat of retaliation.

Replacing the regime that the U.S. thought was a threat in Iraq with a successor, however, has proved to be a more daunting task than the U.S. anticipated. It has been thrust into a nation building enterprise it is inept at, trying to create a more or less Western style democracy from the bare bones up, with mixed results, and is stuck providing security for most of the country in the meantime. The result, in the meantime, has been to create a power vacuum that has provided fertile ground for terrorists and factions in a developing civil war, who have killed, by some estimates, more than 6,000 civilians in Iraq so far this year alone.

In short, missiles have brought us to a point in global history when well guarded national boundaries are no longer sufficient to guard a nation's citizens against foreign military threats. Unless all neighbors within missile range of your nation can be trusted not to fire missiles at your nation, your people are at risk. This does lend credence to President Bush's doctrine of pre-emptive use of military force, one that the historical accident of the timing of affordable missile technology has handed to him, as much as anything about President Bush personally. National boundaries are less relevant than they used to be in earlier ages of military technology.

But, what both President Bush and Israel have failed to appreciate, and have learned the hard way (as did President Clinton before him), is that transitory strikes at specific targets don't solve the problem. Often the problem is not the actual malice of the reigime that is home to the threat itself, so much as its indifference to its neighbor's fate, and its ineffectiveness at shutting down terror groups aimed at a foreign regime rather than it. Unless you can replace the regime that is a problem with a genuinely effective and internationally responsible regime, you still have a problem.

(Substantial copy edits completed on July 26, 2006; substance unchanged)

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