Brave New War — A Book Summary
A book by John Robb
John Robb’s brave new war tells you why many states, despite their immense military resources, consistently lose battles to small cells. You’ll also discover why the safe life that nation-states provide today is totally dependent on a number of systems that could topple like dominoes if struck on the right spot.
Large, resourceful nation-states can no longer rule the battlefield.
Most wars during the last 400 years have been fought between two or more nation-states over control of a geographical region. In such confrontations, the bigger powers with the most military resources tended to win.
However, with the development of nuclear weapons and the rising global interconnection of the world, larger powers no longer largely dominate combat.
Since the development of nuclear weapons in the mid-twentieth century, it has become more uncommon for two developed nations to engage in direct combat. This is due to the Mutually Assured Destruction theory, which states that no nuclear-armed state can be attacked without the attacker being destroyed in a couple of hours. In the shadow of these weapons, large armies were basically ineffective.
Nation-states have grown increasingly intertwined through commerce, for example, which means that any conflict would harm their economy. Simultaneously, international organizations such as the UN try to maintain peace by refusing to legitimate most wars, thereby diminishing the utility of massive armies.
Another factor reducing the advantage of nations with huge armies is the move toward proxy wars, which are fought by proxies such as guerrillas rather than genuine governments.
When large and tiny governments could not directly confront each other, they used proxy warfare. In Afghanistan, for example, the US deployed guerrillas to fight the Soviet Union, while Iran and Syria utilized Hezbollah terrorist proxies to strike a US Marine barracks in Lebanon.
Guerilla warfare is eschewing huge battles in favor of small-scale operations that gradually wear out the adversary, eliminating the advantage of massive armies, which may be drained dry in this manner.
Over the last half-century, huge nation-states’ advantage in fighting has steadily diminished to the point that large armies in battlefields such as Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan have fought severely against guerillas.
New technologies, such as the internet, are eroding the nation-influence
The sovereign nation-state has been the most powerful institution in global civilization since the notion was first established in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. States have exerted control over their economy, security, people, and communications while smashing potential rivals, such as religions, tribal affiliations, and empires.
But the emergence of new technologies has begun to erode the power of the state. The internet is the most obvious illustration of this, since it allows individuals to freely communicate ideas and buy goods and services from practically anywhere on the earth. This means that states can no longer exert control over their economies or populations’ access to fresh ideas.
As a result of such modern technology, nation-states’ influence is dwindling.
Consider the sphere of security: nation-states have historically prioritized safeguarding residents from threats. However, new technologies have resulted in complex and strong terrorist and rebel networks that are difficult to track down and have the ability to cause great harm. To combat such constant threats, the government would need to devote vast amounts of money to security, which it does not have.
To fill this void, the private sector is increasingly being tasked with providing security services, as seen by the amount of private security organizations employed in Iraq and Afghanistan to guard leaders and corporations.
The incapacity of nation-states to ensure security for their own populations is evident proof of their dwindling authority as a result of new technology.
Criminal and terrorist groups purposefully undermine the nation-state.
The nation-eroding state’s authority and security issues may be observed in its ongoing effort to keep terrorists, drug cartels, and transnational gangs at bay. This trend is expected to continue.
Various criminal organizations are expected to consolidate their authority over the world. Terrorists and rebels, as well as transnational gangs involved in people smuggling, counterfeit products, narcotics, and so on, are examples of these groups. These organizations are known as global guerillas.
They can prosper because of the massive and expanding worldwide black market, which is today valued between $1 and $3 trillion and increasing at a rate seven times that of the legitimate economy. This growth is being fueled by new technologies such as the internet, which considerably facilitates cross-border trading.
Although each global guerrilla organization has its own objective, they occasionally share a goal and can collaborate.
The great majority of these organisations have a strong desire to destabilize the state.
Previously, this meant taking over and replacing the present state authority, but that is no longer the goal. Instead, global guerrillas want the state to fail because a dysfunctional infrastructure provides them with a plethora of opportunities: weak or failed states provide terrorists and insurgents with a steady stream of disillusioned supporters, and their feeble public institutions and laws allow criminals to thrive.
Often, the organizations seek to completely dismantle the nation-state entity. This is evident in Al-desire Qaeda’s to eliminate all nation-states in the Middle East and replace them with an Islamic empire.
Global guerrillas are increasingly targeting nation-states throughout the world, with the goal of hollowing them out.
Global insurgents maximize their harm by attacking society’s critical systems.
Iraqi rebels decided to damage an oil pipeline in their nation in 2004. They proceeded to blast a hole into it after careful preparation, resulting in a massive oil leak. It took Iraqi officials a week to repair the pipeline, by which time the missing oil had cost the country’s ailing economy more than $500 million in export profits. The militants had spent just a few thousand dollars on the expedition, thus their effective return on investment was a staggering multiple of 250,000.
This is an excellent illustration of a method that global guerillas are increasingly employing: system disruption. Targeting key locations in critical societal processes is what systems disruption entails. This may not necessarily refer to oil, but might also refer to sectors such as transportation, power, and communication networks. Rather than attempting to maximize losses, as was their prior strategy, systems disruption enables the groups to inflict the most damage on their target nations while incurring the least cost to themselves.
This strategy works so well because nations rely on linked networks. The power network, for example, is linked to a variety of other systems, including transportation and communication services.
Such linked networks are prone to collapse because there is a point in the system that, if destroyed, will pull the entire system down with it. This is referred to as the systempunkt. When it’s destroyed, it sets off a so-called cascade of failure, a chain reaction that kills all the other systempunkts as well.
This was demonstrated by the Iraqi rebels’ operation, in which they brought the whole Iraqi oil sector to a halt by punching a single hole in the pipeline. Even small-scale operations, if skillfully targeted, have the potential to cripple whole governments and destroy their legitimacy in the eyes of their inhabitants.
Global guerillas, like software developers, develop their tactics and weaponry through open-source networks.
The adoption of open-source networks has substantially expedited software development during the last decade. In such networks, one individual or group may create a piece of software and then share it with others so that they may improve it as well. Apache, a prominent web server created by hordes of programmers cooperating via open source networks, is an example of this.
Global guerillas, like software developers, are increasingly using open-source networks to share and develop their methods. This is known as open-source warfare (OSW), in which diverse organizations publicly debate prospective strategies, targets, weaponry, and so on, with each group testing, developing, and sharing successful ideas. The internet allows global insurgents from all over the globe to share ideas and build mutual plans, making this possible.
Because OSW networks may quickly encompass hundreds of people and are continually developing, it has become extremely tough to combat global guerillas. Security agencies could previously destroy terror groups by infiltrating them or eliminating their leadership, but OSW means there is no apparent group leader to murder, and any knowledge gathered via penetration would quickly become obsolete.
For example, in 2006, US soldiers assassinated Iraqi insurgent commander Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and hailed the operation as a critical step toward crushing the insurgency. But it wasn’t because of OSW. While Al-Zarqawi was a key commander in the early phases of the insurgency, by 2006, the group had progressed and no longer required overarching commanders. Al-Zarqawi had devolved into a mere figurehead, and his death had little effect.
Because of the internet’s “long tail,” even small global guerrilla organizations can now pose a threat.
Following the coalition forces’ invasion of Iraq and overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s administration, an insurgency against the occupying forces and the new Iraqi government erupted. Despite government numbers indicating that one to three thousand rebels were killed or arrested each month, the conflict continued. With such losses, how could they do this?
To grasp this phenomena, consider an illustration from the business world, where globalization and the internet have transformed the way markets operate.
Consider that a typical major shop in the United States holds roughly 130,000 titles, but a worldwide online retailer such as Amazon carries more than a million. The distinction has a significant impact, since Amazon derives more than half of its book sales from “niche” titles other than the 130,000 that normal retailers stock.
This demonstrates how, as a result of globalization and the internet, marketplaces today have long tails, i.e., it is not a few dominating items that grab the bulk of the market, but rather a number of less-dominant products that share it.
Similar long tail effects may be observed in insurgency and warfare: instead of a few dominating organizations, there are numerous minor groups and factions spreading their message through the internet, seeking followers, and sharing ideas. As a result, instead of dealing with a few large homogeneous terrorist cells, society now has to cope with a plethora of little ones.
The Iraqi insurgency is a prominent illustration of this. At the height of the insurgency, there were at least 75 distinct organizations of rebels, each with their own set of goals, such as devotion to Saddam Hussein or tribal or religious convictions. Each gang had its own specialty, but they were all working toward the same goal: opposing coalition forces.
This fractured character of the groupings explains why coalition troops were consistently targeted by rebels, regardless of how strong their numbers appeared. Even if one rebel organization was defeated, there were always more eager to fight.
Nation-states’ conventional approaches to security are rigid and ineffectual.
For centuries, the nation-state has provided protection for its inhabitants through centralized agencies such as the military, police, and security services. However, this strategy is getting less and less successful nowadays.
This is due to the fact that the dangers we face change on a regular basis, making it impossible for our present security measures to stay up. We appear to be one step behind the global guerillas, learning from previous strikes but never expecting the next.
This phenomena is akin to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s black swan concept: humans have a tendency to delude ourselves into believing we can forecast large, unexpected occurrences, and hence are constantly utterly astonished by such essentially unpredictable events.
For example, no US government agency was prepared for the September 11th attacks, and if they had been, the assaults would not have occurred. Nonetheless, in the aftermath, people began to believe that the attacks were foreseeable, thus airport security was reinforced in an effort to prepare for future assaults. But, as we’ve seen, the next assault will most likely not be like 9/11 because, as we’ve seen, system disruption will be a more likely technique.
In the face of adaptive global guerrilla organizations, security authorities have begun to employ very dubious and ineffective measures. Some individuals believe that many countries are becoming police states as security forces tighten their grip on terrorist and criminal groups.
For example, the National Security Agency (NSA) of the United States analyzes individuals’ personal data both domestically and internationally, while its other agencies have been accused of using “advanced interrogation methods” and torture.
Such legally and ethically dubious techniques do little to deter terrorists, but they do harm the credibility of the state, particularly in countries like the United States, which pride themselves on being moral leaders.
These occurrences show that we can no longer rely on the government to keep us secure. We must seek for new solutions, particularly for the protection of our critical social systems.
To deal with future dangers, we must decentralize our critical systems.
As we’ve seen, today’s society is too rigid and interwoven to cope effectively with the threat of global guerillas who may do huge damage while incurring little cost to themselves.
Fortunately, there is a solution: we can decentralize our critical systems. This would make them more resistant to an attack.
We don’t know where the next assault will come from, and we can’t expect to safeguard all of our critical systems from interruption. However, if we decentralize the systems, isolating them and making them more self-contained, any assault will be less catastrophic since it will not be able to produce a cascade of failures.
Platforms are one example of how this may be accomplished. These are technologies that provide many individuals with two-way access to a system, allowing them to serve as both users and producers in the system. The internet is an excellent example of a platform where anyone may create and publish software, as well as receive software created by others.
Let’s take a look at the power grid, which is one of society’s most important systems. This notion may be put into practice by, for example, allowing all users to input electricity from their own sources, most likely solar panels. The increased number of producers would make the network significantly more resilient, as removing one producer would have little effect.
This type of decentralization would prevent systems from collapsing even if we had no knowledge what the next attack’s target would be.