Problems with Limited Warfare

drone strikeRecently, I defended Daniel Kuehn on drones, against Brian Doherty. Doherty compared the use of drones to the Sandy Hook shooting, and I thought this misleading — some people consider certain wars legitimate, and if collateral damage is a byproduct of war then drones help minimize this collateral damage. But, on Facebook, Daniel J. Sanchez brings up a very good criticism of the use of drones: by making wars less personal, they also help the government bypass accountability. That is, the use of drones gives government a wider range of military action. Attacks which otherwise would receive negative feedback don’t, because the thresholds which generally trigger a negative response no longer apply.

I think this is true beyond the use of drones. It’s a trade off that comes with more limited warfare, including modern occupations. I suggested, on Facebook, that an all volunteer military might have the same effect. If volunteer military personnel have a higher propensity to come from pro-military, relatively hawk families, then most of those with something personal at stake aren’t likely to be the ones protesting the war. The anti-war crowd, which has a lower probability of having family in the military, don’t have anything personal at stake — at least, that they recognize (the present expenditures on Afghanistan are relatively low) —, therefore they are more likely to be less vocal in their criticism. Limited warfare, more generally, helps government avoid account,ability, by reducing the numbers of fatalities associated with the conflict. Had Iraq been more similar to Vietnam, for example, I’m sure we’d see a much more widespread, more activist, and more recognized anti-war movement.

U.S. counterinsurgency efforts are likely to become even more secretive, as the military shifts to using drones and special operatives much more often (both CIA operatives and military special forces). On the one hand, the benefit is much less exposure of American human life. Also, conceivably, there is much less exposure of enemy human life — there is much more precision in military operations —, if the same attack were to occur through conventional means. On the other hand, it’s less likely that the same attack would be carried out conventionally, meaning that without its new tools the government would probably not commit to the attack at all.

It should be recognized that this describes the intentions of the military’s and government’s procurement efforts. I’m not saying that the government buys drones and switches to special operations with the intention of committing obviously illegal strikes. I’m sure that their intentions are far more noble. The problem is that before the public had a much greater stake in war, and therefore was more interested in policing the state and making sure that it applied its force on enemies widely recognized as such. This is no longer the case, so the government is less likely to be leaned against when they commit to less agreeable conflicts.

Tangentially, and only briefly, the other day I was discussing the upside to the increase in the cost of military technology (because of its increasing quality): it is very unlikely that major military power will go to war with each other. And, I mean independent of nuclear stockpiles. The context of the discussion I was in was China, and I noted that it would be so expensive to fight even a minor naval battle that both sides were unlikely to enter into conflict. Just to give you an idea, an Arleigh Burke class destroyer has a price tag of roughly $1.8 billion, with engines and armaments included the F-35 costs more than $200 million each (the F-18 is cheaper, at $29–57 million each [depending on the model]), and an aircraft carrier can cost up to $4.5 billion. Any war that makes it likely that much of this equipment will be destroyed is unlikely to occur, because both sides would go into severe financial distress. (A Spanish general told me that if Morocco were to invade Ceuta and Melilla, the main problem would be the costs of the use of firepower.)

  • RJ Miller

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  • Silvano

    “Tangentially, and only briefly, the other day I was discussing the
    upside to the increase in the cost of military technology (because of
    its increasing quality): it is very unlikely that major military power
    will go to war with each other.”

    Cross your fingers: Engels wrote something like that just some years before WWI…

    • JCatalan

      I suppose that if a government is willing to shell out $800+ in stimulus spending then it might be willing to afford multi-billion dollar losses in destroyed equipment.

  • Dan(DD5)

    The unlikely hood to go to war due to costs is a great argument for pure Capitalism. Not a very good argument for the State. I think this can be substantiated by two methods:

    Economic reasoning, i.e., praxeology, can demonstrate the difference in incentives that will prevail in each type of society, and also empirical historical accounts of countless States that had bankrupt themselves mostly due to conflicts and wars.

  • Dan(DD5)

    Also, another good example that demonstrates that “Precision” technology does not necessarily mean “more humane” or less civilian casualties is the Iron Dome recently demonstrated in the recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Israelis [wrongly] assume this dome protects them, but in fact, this dome and its expected ability to intercept rockets, can also drive the Israelis to take more risks, i.e., engage in more military operations, due to the expected increase in tolerance by Israeli populations to take fire. The end result can be just the same as without the dome, or even worse – more military operations-> more rockets fired -> more Palestinian causalities, etc….

    There is no evidence that these technologies add anything but make the State more trigger-happy!

    • JCatalan

      …also empirical historical accounts of countless States that had bankrupt themselves mostly due to conflicts and wars.

      This isn’t a case against capitalism (as opposed to one against the state), but one of the unfortunate consequences of capitalist development is the creation of better financing for large scale wars.

      That’s a good point regarding Iron Dome. Also, I wonder if a decrease in the efficiency of the use of rockets (and their undoubtedly increasing costs, since Hamas will have to buy better rockets) will increase the number of attempted suicide attacks.