by Gary Sick
The Global War on Terror (GWOT) has operated from the start on the unspoken assumption that the enemy—usually scattered and primitive—was unable to strike back effectively. U.S. drones keep watch 24 hours a day over al-Qaeda hideouts in the wilds of Waziristan, occasionally launching missiles at suspected leaders, with little worry about being shot down, much less about retaliation in kind. Al-Qaeda may mount a suicide attack, but American forces and their allies own the skies.
Is that about to end?
The vast technology gap has given the modern Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) battlefield a lopsided appearance. Highly trained U.S. soldiers have the advantage of the world’s most advanced equipment and techniques, from night vision devices to attack helicopters to pin point intelligence to an array of remote controlled weapons—all backed by air power and virtually unlimited resources. The greatest shock of 9/11 was the technological jiu jitsu of turning the West’s own advanced technology into weapons to be used against it. But turning civilian aircraft into missiles, like bombs in shoes or underwear, are essentially one-time events: insidiously clever but not endlessly repeatable.
The military doctrine is simple and was summed up with admirable brevity in recent testimony by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: the U.S. military should “never face a fair fight.” There is nothing new or at all cowardly about that. If the object is to win, then enter the battle with the odds in your favor. Sun Tzu wrote more than 2,000 years ago: “If your enemy is in superior strength, evade him.”
But there is a danger of complacency when the United States has the world’s most formidable and best-equipped military. The United States has some 600 overseas military bases, with many other outposts of various sorts. How much thought and attention has been given to their security from air attacks, as opposed to perimeter security on the ground?
Policy-making is susceptible to the same unspoken assumptions. When the United States gives full support to Saudi Arabia in its relentless air campaign against Houthi forces in Yemen, is there a tacit belief that the pain would largely run only one way? For several years, Saudi aircraft and bombs were able to hit targets, including many civilian sites, with impunity. Despite a few border skirmishes, it seemed unlikely that the Houthis could do any serious damage to Saudi Arabia itself or to any facilities affecting U.S. interests. That began to change over the past year, with largely ineffective strikes against airports. This weekend’s events reversed the calculation. Some five percent of the world’s oil supply was at least temporarily removed from the market by two devastating strikes on highly protected Saudi oil facilities.
The U.S. policy of maximum pressure against Iran, which effectively wiped out its ability to sell its oil, was undertaken with a presumption of impunity. Despite the shrill rhetoric about the Iranian threat, did U.S. decision-makers actually believe that Iran, a middle level power with very limited military capabilities, would or could do real damage to U.S. interests?
The first major indication that that calculation may have been wrong happened on June 20, when an Iranian missile shot down an unmanned American reconnaissance drone. President Trump says that he decided to respond with military strikes against Iranian targets but then called it off just minutes before launch, after learning how many Iranian casualties would result. Was there also a realization that the United Arab Emirates, one of the strongest U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf and the host of the base where the drone flight originated, might have to pay a price for a U.S. action taken without UAE permission? The UAE has subsequently announced the withdrawal of its combat forces from Yemen and has sent a delegation to Iran.
Is the era of one-way pain coming to an end? It was probably never sustainable. As other forces begin to master the relatively inexpensive technology of drone warfare, the assumption of total air superiority by the United States and its allies is going to be challenged. Cruise missile technology is more complex, but it is only a matter of time. The effect will certainly not be military defeat, but it does mean that others can raise the cost of U.S. policies in ways we had not previously anticipated.
Unfortunately, the answers to such challenges tend to be military escalation and ever-greater investment in expensive countermeasures. Both of those solutions seem obvious, but both have dangerous consequences.