Speculations on Armed Conflict

In a Time of Free Silicon


Chapter 5


The expected triumph of information-based warfare over industrial warfare does not automatically imply its ascendancy over pre-industrial warfare. Nevertheless, better surveillance and communications for both sides will alter the character of such conflict.

If U.S. forces fighting in Korea had had twenty-first century information capabilities, the Korean War would have gone far differently. The original invasion would have been rolled back far faster and the Chinese counterattack would have met far tougher resistance. By and large, the Korean War was conventional. The same capabilities backfit into the Vietnam War, however, would have made far less difference, especially prior to Tet 1968, while the war remained largely unconventional. Information-based warfare works best against industrial-based warfare and much less well against pre-industrial warfare.

Nevertheless, the ability to catch platforms in a Mesh is not entirely unrelated to the ability to catch other things in the Mesh, bearing in mind that similar powers may be put into the hands of insurgent forces as well.

Rural Conflict

Information technologies will have limited but distinct affects on rural irregular warfare. Villages in the South, after all, are likely to be affected last by information technology. In such realms warfare is light on platforms and heavy on cover -- physical (e.g., jungle canopies) and virtual (e.g., peasant by day, fighter by night).

If nothing else, both guerrilla and state forces are becoming better connected. Digitally encrypted cellular systems can yield greater reach, much faster responsiveness, and better security for guerilla communications. Reach improves the command and control of dispersed forces. Responsiveness permits flexible synchrony of operations. Security nullifies the value of signal intelligence to state forces. Since state forces tend to have relatively good command-and-control systems today, the relative improvements from information technology will be modest, and their advantage over irregular forces will decline.

Movements of both irregular and state forces would be better tracked through both sides' use of cheap disposable sensors. Here, the change in relative advantage is harder to predict. State forces are already easier to track; they tend to move in larger units on well-known paths. Jungle feet need far more sensors to detect than do road trucks. Thus, until sensors become absolutely ubiquitous, information technology may, if anything, increase the vulnerability of state forces.

Information technology makes free-fire sensor-mined barriers around "protected enclaves" easier to establish (even though the problem of filtering the good, the bad, and the ugly remains). Using theft from state arsenals to arm guerrillas would also be complicated if weapons were to come with built-in radio emitters. Emitters coupled with arsenal security systems could monitor their own movement and broadcast alarms if theft takes too far from where they should be. Weapons can be recovered faster if they have such devices (until disabled or removed sufficiently far away).

Increased use of overhead surveillance will also allow state forces to track agricultural cycles more closely. Knowing the onset of crop harvests would permit tighter control over resource flows in the rural economy. In nations with scattered and unpredictable harvest times (due to varying crop conditions or topography), for instance, state forces to be dispatched to places where they can have the greatest impact.

Urban Conflict

Over the next several decades, urban conflict is likely to become more important than rural unconventional conflict. Cities in the Third World are not only growing much faster than their rural hinterlands, but in most parts of the world they are growing increasingly independent of them as well.

To illustrate why, consider the world's nations in one of three categories. A billion people live in the demographically stable (if not declining) West: OECD nations plus the former Warsaw Pact nations (less Soviet Central Asia) and the Asian Tigers; Western cities eke out one percent higher growth rates than their countries as a whole. Another billion plus live in China, whose population growth is decelerating but whose urban growth is accelerating to near four percent. The rest live in the "South"--the Third World--whose population growth, at two percent, is rapid, and whose cities grow two to three percent a year faster. The following table compares 1990 and 2010 total and urban populations of over one million souls. Bear in mind that everyone who will be sixteen or older in 2010 has already been conceived.

Population by Region and City Size: 1990, 2010

(in billions)

                    1990                   2010
               Total    Big Cities    Total    Big Cities
West             1.2        .4          1.2         .5
China            1.1        .1          1.3         .4
Other South      3.0        .4          4.5        1.5
TOTAL            5.3        .9          7.0        2.4
By 2010, one of every three will live in cities of greater than a million; these cities will account for over half of the national income in all three groups. Total city folk (including those in smaller cities) will exceed total rural folk.

Cities of the South will also evolve in another respect. A tenet of Chinese guerilla warfare presumed that such cities lived off the country, making agriculture the only true source of wealth. Cities only served countryside, created markets for their goods, provided low-technology manufactures (often imposed on rural consumers through trade restraints), and housed their masters (and those who served them). Third-World nations entered global trade largely by selling commodities originating from farm, forest, mine, and oil patch. Thus with the countryside taken, cities -- deprived of their livelihood -- would fall.

Southern cities are now becoming export centers in their own right and depend less on their hinterlands. One reason why is demographics. The larger the percentage of city dwellers in a country, the harder it is for them to live off the countryside. Extracting greater surplus value through taxation, price controls on foodstuffs, command transfers, or import restrictions just retards the entire economy. Conversely, the same factors that boost world trade (cheaper transportation and communications) create export opportunities for low-wage urban manufacturing (as well as contract services, and tourism). As Western economies open to Southern manufactured exports, Southern cities are opening to Western investment capital.

Prototypical Third-World cities are becoming weaned from their hinterlands and are participating more in the world's trade network of things (ports), people (air traffic), and information (telecommunications). Physical and virtual networks are complementary. Although talk can replace travel, the more people talk the more they want to meet. Cheap travel lets bright Third-World students go to American universities and return; the experience makes them want to stay plugged into America's Net. Networks linking cities of the South to those of the West will lag those which connect the West's cities (and their hinterlands). Yet fiber optics, cellular and satellite networks, combined with data manipulation and compression techniques make the former better all the time. Trans-Pacific air travel keeps growing at 10 percent a year; trans-Pacific telecommunications, perhaps twice as fast. Miami is, if anything, strengthening its status as the capital of Latin America.

Because cities are better networked than hinterlands, the growth of Southern cities, in and of itself, puts a larger share of Southern populations onto networks. Moreover, capacity in the Net is getting cheaper to build. With the increasing participation of third world cities, the world is increasingly becoming a network of networks.

When Southern cities were a smaller fraction of the national total, basic insurgent strategy was to exploit village resentment of urban elites to first win over and next control rural populations (taking advantage of their relative isolation). The occupation of enough rural territory left cities ripe for takeover. Urban growth and autonomy hits this strategy on two counts: the strategic mass of the countryside is relatively smaller, and rural cut-offs have less impact. To conquer a country requires taking a city on its own terms.

As with rural conflict, information technology can help (and thus hurt) both sides in urban conflict. The methods of urban unconventional conflict -- on both sides -- mirror those of crime fighting, notably gang warfare. Organized political assassination is not too different from random assassination here. Terrorist acts resemble vandalism and arson. Many urban guerrillas are financed, in part, through crime against property. Street gangs fill their arsenals by robbing gun shops; guerrilla factions could do the same.

Such analogies have their limits. Although urban gangs vie for control over certain facets of urban life (e.g., protection) -- and thus challenge the state -- they rarely seek to displace all state power. Gangs have little interest in certain acts -- seizing radio stations, calling out street mobs, creating an alternative legitimacy -- otherwise undertaken by insurrectionists. Where law has broken down entirely and many urban services have ceased to function as in Beirut, urban warfare more resembles rural conflict. Active control over neighborhoods under such circumstances is analogous to active control over village districts and is as hard to pull off.

How states combat urban terrorism depend on the values of the body politic. Certain techniques that technology permits may nevertheless be forbidden by a sincere belief that certain methods are entirely too intrusive. Totalitarian societies are rarely bothered by such scruples, but, as Eastern Europe's recent history suggests, a lack of scruples does not guarantee the long-term security of the state. Over time, if an organized threat -- if identified as such rather than ascribed to general urban chaos -- starts to pinch, the body politic may tilt toward harsher security practices. Conversely, in states opposed by a sufficiently vocal urban sub-class, arguments for civil liberties may mask a more fundamental desire to overthrow the state.

The greatest help in identifying both criminals and insurgents is a body populace sufficiently outraged and uncowed to turn opponents of the state into the police. Failing that, information technologies can do only so much, but what they can do is worth noting. By 1995, systems in the United States will let police identify anyone from fingerprint records within a minute. GPS transponders in police cars are capable already of recording their position in real-time. DNA fingerprinting is becoming more reliable, and ever more minute samples can link perpetrators to crimes. Voiceprinting can also be used as a form of identification. Both will become more efficient as larger data-banks become available. Similarly, key documents such as drivers' licenses and passports can be made forgery-proof (today's methods use holographic imprinting). In addition, large, easily accessible card-to-face data banks could make it extremely difficult for one person to hold two cards.

Although sufficient computer power to link identifying information, certificate information, financial records, and telephone records exists today, the American consensus holds that such linking would sharply reduce individual privacy. Even those who trust the government understand that such data repositories can be broken and entered by individuals and corporations with even fewer scruples. The value of such correlations in fighting crime and insurrection is limited. Law-abiding citizens are much more likely than criminals -- who, for instance, pay cash -- to leave large data files in their wake. However, other countries are less concerned about either civil liberties or such distinctions than we are.

Certain computer technologies may afford the state greater control over those captured by state forces. Virtual reality technologies, for instance, could make interrogation and brainwashing, if not more efficient, then at least less costly (since human attendants need not be present for such sessions).

Sensors can also be used more intrusively in the urban environment even though such moves may be resisted. Many toll booths take snapshots of license plates driven by toll evaders. A system that could read (rather than take a snapshot of) the tags automatically could be easy to add. Putting such systems on heavily used streets coupled with computers powerful enough to correlate license plate (and car make) permit organized tracking of people's vehicles. Similar overhead surveillance can be used on battlefields and in urban settings. Image recognition software that could identify faces inside cars or on street corners will come, albeit in a few decades.

Other sensors of use would be aural sensors for picking up stray gunshots or explosions. Sensitive ones might also recognize voices. Olfactory and other chemical sensors could also pick up traces of violent crime as it occurs (e.g., gunpowder). If sufficiently sensitive they could determine identities much as well trained dogs can. Seismic and acoustic sensors could determine the weight of a passing vehicle. Lasers reflected against windows can hear conversations inside. Again, the deployment of such devices in various cultures will vary according to national mores. Such mores differ. Supposedly, while Americans during the Cold War were particularly incensed at the Soviet eavesdropping; Soviets, in turn, were outraged by our overhead surveillance.

Yet all is not lost for those who would conspire. Its literal manifestation -- to breathe together -- may be anachronistic when video teleconferencing can replace face-to-face conspiracy. As earlier noted, such conferences can be digitally encrypted to a fare-thee- well. Telephone tapping may, under such circumstances, become a lost art. Sufficiently motivated conspirators can even avoid records of their having talking to each other by using a private switch that does not log ultimate call destination. Computer technology facilitates establishing highly compartmentalized cells in which no one knows the entire organization. Indeed no one need know anyone else unless face-to-face contact is essential. Using E- mail removes most identifying features of the respondent compared to voice. Even if police informants could enter a conspiracy and learn implicating data, the degree of infiltration can be far better limited than in the past.

The disadvantages of stealth, of course, are irrelevant for conflicts that go public. The political use of crowd psychology still requires a physical crowd. As more political discourse takes place via two-way television and E-mail technologies, gathering people for political purposes becomes that much harder.

Another relic of previous urban conspiracies may be the old trick of storming the local radio or television station. Not only does storming the core node of a cable system (often separate from the multiple contributing broadcasting studios) lack the panache of storming a radio or television station, but it may be ultimately irrelevant. The proliferation of multi-node cable, direct broadcast satellites, redundant cellular systems, and video-on-demand through the phone system will put to rest to any notion of a centrally controlled source of information. Such infrastructure makes it is difficult to shut up a government, its rivals, or any splinter group. One of 500 channels out there will always feature someone.

Net States?

The information revolution, acting through multinational corporations and transnational communities, may weaken many powers of the state anyway. Would it be much of an exaggeration to posit a nation's expression, not through government, but as a local ganglion of the world Net. That being the case, might not the decline of the state coincide with the rise of the Net, the newest venue for crime, conflict, and chaos?