Dazzling new weapons require new rules for war

Posted: November 12, 2010 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

The David Ignatius article Dazzling new weapons require new rules for war in the Washington Post leaves a lot to be desired from the messaging and consistency points of view.

Mr. Ignatius first sets the stage…

A year ago, Saudi Arabia was fighting a nasty border war against the Houthi rebels across its frontier with Yemen. The Saudis began bombing Houthi targets inside Yemen on Nov. 5, 2009, but the airstrikes were inaccurate, and there were reports of civilian casualties.

The Saudis appealed to America for imagery from U.S. surveillance satellites in space, so they could target more precisely. Gen. David Petraeus, who was Centcom commander at the time, is said to have backed the Saudi request, but it was opposed by the State Department and others. They warned that intervening in this border conflict, even if only by providing targeting information, could violate the laws of war.

So the Saudis turned elsewhere for help – to France, which has its own reconnaissance satellites. The French, who were worried that imprecise Saudi bombing was creating too many civilian casualties in Yemen, agreed to help. The necessary details were arranged within days.

Here’s both a summary and a question for Mr. Ignatius: so if the U.S. intervenes, it could violate the laws of war.  But the French do it and…what?  It’s OK, or is it not OK?  And do the French operate under different laws of war than the U.S.?  But never mind, the story continues…

Using this precise satellite intelligence, the Saudis were able to monitor the Houthis’ hideouts, equipment dumps and training sites. Saudi warplanes then attacked with devastating effectiveness. Within a few weeks, the Houthis were requesting a truce, and by February this chapter of the border war was over.

Again, what is issue here?  That devastating effectiveness is bad?  Or that it ends wars quickly and that it’s good?  We don’t know, nor can we tell.  However…

But the Saudi incident raises larger questions about the transfer of technologies that have demonstrated their deadly effectiveness during the past decade in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas. These weapons are seductively attractive; they offer the promise of destroying an enemy from a safe distance of 10,000 or 20,000 feet in the air.

Mr. Ignatius appears to be mixing the issues of intervening by providing overhead imagery (which by the way is buyable on the open market down to 20 inch resolution) and the issue of applying weapons against targets from aerial platforms.  I think aircraft with air to ground capabilities have been around for some time – and in the Saudi inventory — so where’s the technology transfer issue?

The lid on Pandora’s box is coming open: The Saudis, understandably, now want their own satellite capability, and they will soon request bids from Western companies for such a system. Riyadh also wants drones that can see and attack enemy targets in remote places. Washington has been weighing whether to include versions of its Predator drones in an arms sale to the kingdom. Such weapons would boost Saudi ability to deter Iran, but they could also threaten Israel.

Goodness.  Satellites that have been taking pictures have been around for almost fifty years.  Additionally, if the Saudis can buy satellite products from the French, what’s the big deal about them having their own organic systems that provide the same product?  And drones…they’re considered high-tech?  If your car’s engine makes more than 116 horse power, it’s more powerful than a MQ-1 Predator.  UAVs are good for those dull, dirty, and dangerous mission areas, but they aren’t (yet) all that.  As of today, how about an F-22 versus a UAV?  Game over in about 15 seconds from 40 miles out.  Now, onto more “high-tech” confusion…

Consider the case of Turkey: For years, Ankara has sought U.S. technology to fight what it sees as an insurgency by Kurdish rebel groups, especially the “PKK” that hides in northern Iraq. Now, that high-tech help has arrived.

The United States has quietly created a joint “centralized command center” with Turkey for surveillance drones flying over northern Iraq. Turkish officers look over the shoulders of their U.S. counterparts at the imagery and are free to target suspicious activity when they see it. The United States doesn’t pull the triggers; it just shows the pictures.

It isn’t clear how the Turkey scenario is any different from Saudi one which ‘might violate the laws of war.’  Oh well…

These weapons are so good that they can become addictive. They make possible precise acts of war that, in another time, would be called “assassination.” Other countries want to protect themselves from terrorist rebels just as much as the United States does. This means the demand for such weapons will grow.

Addictive, eh?  That’s kind of a weird way of describing the situation and it goes without saying that demand for capable weapons will grow.  But in the situations described, satellites and UAVs aren’t assassination, they’re combat systems (even if they are no longer part of the Global War on Terror, but are now merely a part of our Overseas Contingency Operations) being applied for combat effect.

The “laws of war” may sound like an antiquated concept in this age of robo-weapons. But, in truth, a clear international legal regime has never been more needed: It is a fact of modern life that people in conflict zones live in the perpetual cross hairs of deadly weapons. Rules are needed for targets and targeters alike.

Is an ICBM a robo-weapon?  We’ve had those for 50-plus years and we will until we can think of a cheaper/better/faster robo-weapon.

So, Mr. Ignatius here’s the summary.  The truth is we have laws of war and terrorists don’t abide by them.  The U.S. military does.  Satellites and UAVs are here for the duration of the planet.  Technology and allies and the complexities governing the battlefield will continue to be an issue just as they have since times immemorial.

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