Posts Tagged ‘Strategy’

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The Increasing Allure of Nukes

In Warfare on July 23, 2010 by Filmosaur Tagged: , ,

Nuclear weapons are commonly viewed as the ultimate military capability that a state may possess. Those countries that have developed and constructed nuclear weapons, no matter how limited their numbers or capabilities might be, are set apart from those that have not in the calculations of leaders and foreign policy establishments charged with managing conflict. The possession of even a single functional device is often assumed to mark a quantum shift in that state’s global standing and military position. Yet if one looks beneath the surface and examines more carefully the realistic options available of nuclear-armed nations, the limitations are found to be quite significant for those countries with small, newly-developed nuclear arsenals. Indeed, minimal nuclear capability may in some ways serve to impose restrictions on policy options that might not otherwise be present while at the same time creating external pressures that might not otherwise develop. In the interest of understanding the strategic implications of states with limited nuclear capabilities on diplomacy and conflict, we must examine the effect of development on the state’s international relations, the conditions in which such weapons might be used, and what exactly can be expected from both their employment as well as mere possession.

Ascendancy to the small circle of nuclear-armed states brings with it considerably baggage. States which have developed their capabilities have done so either outside of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or, if signatories, in direct contravention of it. Neither condition is likely to contribute to widespread support among the global community, at the very least introducing unwelcome complication, and opening the door to possible sanctions or other measures intended to punish the transgression. Naturally, this is likely to be haphazard and contingent upon the specific circumstances of the current balance of power; for example, the United States has made extraordinary efforts to assist India in normalizing their nuclear standing (thus making available to it civilian nuclear technology) in spite of that country’s nuclear program operating outside the NPT, with the U.S. intention being to strengthen diplomatic ties in the interest of longer-term security interests. It is of course much easier to overlook the violations of a potential ally half a world away than those of a known enemy or potential short-term rival.

Known nascent programs, such as Iran’s, are more likely to be targets of direct action, as the possibility of arresting the development prior to weaponization greatly simplifies the equation (though, with a nod to Clausewitz, one should not mistake simplicity for ease). Israeli strikes against the Iraqi and Syrian programs forestalled development of nuclear weapons in those countries, allowing Israel to maintain regional dominance in the nuclear arena, a cornerstone of her security strategy. In lieu of military action, stiff sanctions and other measures short of war may also be employed. If the state or coalition doing so are militarily dominant in relation to the nuclear aspirant, these efforts may be carried out in relative security (though not without consequence); in the face of a direct challenge, the aspiring nuclear power can be counted on to redouble its efforts in what amounts to a race to see if the sanctions can have a meaningful effect before the development process is completed. Even if it succeeds in building weapons, the costs of doing so under such external pressures will likely be severe. For all of these reasons, states seeking nuclear weapons have strong inducements to keep their programs secret for as long as possible.

The nuclear weapons themselves are only part of the equation; delivery systems must also be available if the state is to have meaningful nuclear capability. Surface-to-surface missiles are the most common method for delivery, as they have traditionally posed the greatest difficulty for defensive systems (though this is changing somewhat) and do not require the extensive air force capabilities necessary to contest air superiority in order to reliably deliver weapons to the target by that method. Submarine-launched missiles offer the most secure method of maintaining a nuclear force for both offensive and deterrent purposes, but this technology is not generally available to new nuclear powers. The range of whatever delivery systems are in use will dictate to a significant degree the extent to which the state will be able to employ (actively or passively) its nuclear weapons; conversely, states outside that range that may oppose the new nuclear state may increase the level of their resistance with relatively limited concern, though regional allies may find themselves more exposed.

Assuming a successful program, the newly-minted nuclear power will now have to determine what it may do with its new capabilities. To have acquired militarily-viable nuclear weapons, that is to say weapons that can be delivered effectively and reliably against relevant targets, is a significant achievement, but it is not the same as having an arsenal capable of offering the full gamut of nuclear strategic options. While a great deal of thought was dedicated to nuclear strategy during the Cold War, and some very useful theories and doctrines generated, little of this is relevant to a state with a handful of low- to medium-yield nuclear weapons, especially if its rivals have larger and more versatile nuclear arsenals.

The Cold War calculus applied to nuclear war incorporated such sophisticated approaches as counter-force and counter-value targeting, secure second-strike capability, and eventually mutually-assured destruction; for a state possessing perhaps a few dozen warheads, many of these options simply do not exist. Counter-force targeting, aimed at an opponent’s nuclear weapons, is not likely to be possible, especially if that opponent has dispersed their warheads and has multiple methods of delivery available. Counter-value strikes against cities, intended to raise the cost of fighting to unacceptable levels, are the only realistic option for the small nuclear power, and then only if its delivery systems have sufficient reach. Counter-value targeting works primarily as a deterrent, in effect holding an opponent’s population centers hostage as a guarantee against an attack. If, however, this option is exercised, the state will draw the wrath of both its opponent and likely that of a significant portion of the world community. Having expended even one weapon thusly is very likely to provoke retaliation on a scale it cannot hope to match. Lacking both sufficient first-strike capability to inflict catastrophic losses on an opponent and its allies (while casualties and costs would be massive, catastrophic loss must be defined here as sufficient to persistently obstruct the ability of a state to function economically, politically, and militarily), and sufficient survivable second-strike capability to deter massive retaliation for limited nuclear first use, mutually-assured destruction does not apply in this case. In effect, then, any use, and particularly first-use, of nuclear weapons by a small nuclear power against another nuclear power would very likely amount to self-assured destruction.

If first-use against another nuclear power is simple suicide, it must be inferred that the possession of nuclear weapons is viewed as a primarily defensive measure to be held as a final reserve to prevent existential national defeat, or that they are intended to attain dominance over non-nuclear rivals. The logic of the former case is self-evident, if fatalistic: a government facing obliteration in a non-nuclear contest may attempt to forestall the result by escalating the conflict in order to so dramatically increase the cost to its opponent that unconditional surrender or regime change become less attractive than simply ending the conflict, or simply to reap final vengeance on an otherwise-victorious rival. Obviously such an approach is extremely high-risk, but for a state in extremis this risk is no greater than accepting otherwise inevitable defeat. If a state is the first in a region to seek nuclear weapons, doing so will probably trigger a race by regional rivals to develop arsenals of their own in the interest of maintaining the balance of power. This has been seen most notably in the acquisition of nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan, and previously in the early years of the Cold War. If the regional rivals succeed in building viable nuclear arsenals of broadly similar size and capability, the result may in fact be ultimately stabilizing; the possibility of a nuclear exchange has historically had the effect of causing leaders to willingly limit conflict so as to minimize the risk of escalation. The proliferation of weapons to additional states, however, must nonetheless mathematically increase the chance that they will be used.

We must infer then that those states that acquire nuclear weapons perceive a threat significant enough to endanger the existence of the government, and that the threat is compelling enough to offset the diplomatic and economic costs involved with development. Once acquired, nuclear weapons are only of practical value if they can be used to intimidate non-nuclear opponents, or to prevent nuclear-capable rivals from taking action. The possession of roughly equal nuclear arsenals will likely act to reduce the chances of all-out war between rival states, as neither will be willing to risk the costs of either first-use or being the victim of a first-strike, given that both will be restricted to counter-value targeting strategy. The moment of greatest danger for the nuclear aspirant, then, is the period between the decision to develop nuclear weapons and the point at which they become operational, when vulnerability to both nuclear and non-nuclear opponents peaks because they may seek to disrupt the effort before it succeeds. For non-nuclear rivals of a newly nuclear-capable state, the risk persists for as long as the imbalance remains. This of course encourages them to develop nuclear capability of their own, or to at least build stable alliances with nuclear powers. The inevitable conclusion is that, in lieu of a strong and reliable nuclear partner, states facing potential regional nuclear rivals will seek such capability of their own. During the Cold War, the presence of two nuclear superpowers made alliance with one or the other the preferred option for the vast majority of states. In the increasingly divided multipolar global system, however, with power becoming more diffuse and shared more equally among more states, governments are ever more likely to perceive that they must look after their own security, as the threats multiply and alliances become less stable. For all its drawbacks, indigenous nuclear capability provides, if nothing else, reasonable assurance that the regime will not be destroyed from without, and this alone is enough to make it increasingly desirable in a dangerous and uncertain world.


			

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We’d like to help, really we would, but…

In Diplomacy on July 9, 2010 by Filmosaur Tagged: , ,

Recent candid comments by the Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to the United States first reported by the Washington Times have shown that the problem of a nuclear-armed Iran is very much on the minds of other nations in the region, backpedaling and official “clarifying” statements to the contrary notwithstanding. The ambassador’s statement was not formal, which explains its unusual clarity and directness. Simply put, he indicated that a military strike might be necessary in order to halt Iranian nuclear development. In no uncertain terms that he recognized that there would be blowback in the form of economic, social and political pressure, but that all of these short-term issues were less dangerous than the long-term threat posed by a nuclear Iran, calling it the result of a “cost-benefit analysis.”

The problem here is not support for a strike from Persian Gulf nations; it is quite likely that, behind closed doors, there are few leaders in the region who would be even remotely troubled by a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. The calculus is the same: Which is more dangerous in the long-term – a strike against Iran, or a nuclear-armed Iran? No country in the Gulf region wants to see Iran take such an enormous step toward becoming a hegemonic power, and they are likely to accept that there is little that can stop them short of a military strike or sanctions so onerous that they would probably provoke an Iranian military response.

The real difficulty is that there are very few countries capable of conducting such a strike, no matter how necessary it is deemed. The United States and Israel would have the best chances, as each has a modern air force in the region capable of conducting a complex attack under difficult conditions. The Russians might be able to pull it off but have virtually no motivation to do so, and the British, French and Germans have the technology but not the numbers, regional presence or political will. The firestorm created by an Israeli strike would be tremendous, and would very likely cause Israel to face a major increase in terrorist activity from Iran’s Hamas and Hezbollah proxies in Gaza and Lebanon respectively. The simple fact is that, should the U.N. Security Council resolve tomorrow to destroy Iran’s nuclear program by force, everyone at the table would turn to the U.S. Ambassador.

Thus the U.S. seems once again to be the first, last and only resort. Most of the leaders in the Persian Gulf probably secretly hope the U.S. will simply do the deed and get it over with. This is their ideal set of circumstances: Iran’s power is diminished, the regional balance is restored, and the U.S. gets blamed for everything, allowing them the flexibility to manage popular discontent in their own countries. One hopes that American policy-makers are cognizant of how this scenario would play out; their reluctance to act more directly suggests that they are.

Yet American reticence and the inability of virtually every other interested country to carry out their own attack means that the Iranian program is able to continue. Increasingly strict financial sanctions against Iran and companies that deal with it will no doubt complicate Iranian planning, but as long as the world petroleum market provides an outlet for Iranian oil, resources to continue will be available. American efforts to build support in the U.N. are doomed to limited success, as the Russians and particularly the Chinese have too much to gain by staying on Iran’s good side; attempts to build a formal regional coalition to oppose Iran seem to be non-existent. Time is on the side of the Iranians, and the longer the crisis builds without strong direct opposition, the greater the chance that Iran will be able to successfully construct a weapon before the U.S. can move to stop it.

That leaves the Israelis, who are truly the wild card in this situation. There is little doubt that Israel regards a nuclear-armed Iran as nothing short of a mortal threat. How far are the Israelis willing to let Iran progress before they determine that they can wait no longer? One suspects that the Mossad is funneling support to the Iranian opposition movement, the Kurds, and any other group that might create trouble for the Iranian government, but suggesting that this alone could forestall the nuclear program smacks of desperation and wishful thinking of the first order. If Israel strikes, it will do so because it is doing the same exact calculations that led to the conclusions mentioned by the U.A.E. ambassador; the only difference being that Israel, unlike every other country in the region, can actually do something about threat posed by Iran.

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We’re Not Here to be Liked…

In Warfare on July 5, 2010 by Filmosaur Tagged: , ,

As General Petraeus takes command in Afghanistan, it is perhaps worth considering the lessons offered by historical example in trying to envision the end-state of the conflict in that benighted country. The outlook is not encouraging.

The strategy put into place by the outgoing General McChrystal, which will evidently continue under Petraeus, revolves around the idea of conducting a counterinsurgency campaign, which in short entails employing a set of highly restrictive rules of engagement and a minimum of force in order to maximize opportunities for building support for a new local civilian government among the populace; the rather more destructive approach employed during much of the Vietnam War, best summed up in the convoluted logic of the famous statement by a soldier that “(w)e had to burn the village in order to save it,” has not proven to win much backing. This sort of approach is usually applied in a limited area first, and when it has been pacified, efforts are shifted to adjacent areas; this is known as an “inkspot” strategy, as single drops slowly spread across the map, eventually joining to create a singular secure state. Needless to say, building trust among the people, sufficiently weakening the enemy and strengthening the local government, all with limited resort to force, is an expensive and time-consuming process that depends at least as much on perception and belief as it does on material resources.

There is an inherent tension in this sort of conflict for the Great Power involved. How does one address a military escalation by one’s opponent if a commensurate increase in violence will only serve to further isolate the population upon which success ultimately depends? Is the only approach to “kill them with kindness (and development aid)?” If so, how can such a program be carried out if the civil administration is incapable of supporting such an effort? For soldiers trained to fight, as all soldiers must be, this sort of conflict presents one of the most frustrating and difficult challenges of service. For commanders and policy-makers, the problems present a similar (if not greater) conundrum.

Vietnam is naturally the most common example used in comparison to the current Afghan conflict. American strategy in Vietnam was famously confused, when it was in fact present at all. General Westmoreland’s approach in Vietnam represented what is termed the “ tacticization of strategy,” wherein the tactical objective is erroneously applied to the strategic level; in other words, Westmoreland viewed battlefield defeat of the enemy as an end in itself, but this tactical success led not to victory, but down a strategic cul-de-sac. Westmoreland is only partly to blame, as his civilian superiors gave him precious little strategic guidance, having no idea how to frame the conditions of victory except to identify ending the war as the primary objective.

American leadership largely attempted to ignore the asymmetry of the conflict, assuming or pretending that the Vietnamese people wanted to be free and democratic, that there was no tension between Western ideas and religion (American backed the Catholic Diem regime, to which the majority Buddhist population was generally opposed, if not openly hostile, until Diem’s assassination in 1963) and those native to the region,  and that the Communist opposition could be swayed from its primary purpose by carrots or sticks. Fighting the war on with a strategy based on these premises was a recipe for disaster, as no evidence supported the assumptions that underpinned this approach, while the Vietnamese communists had both a sound strategy and the means to effect it, as well as a far greater commitment to an object that was fundamental to their survival as a state.

Yet the greatest error of America’s war in Vietnam may be that it attempted to build the South Vietnamese state into a self-governing entity even as much of its territory was still contested, if not strongly held by the enemy. Further, the insistence that the South Vietnamese assume the Western form of government, with democratic elections and Enlightenment concepts and ethics lending it legitimacy, only weakened the real power of the South Vietnamese to build a viable nation from a people wholly unfamiliar with these concepts. The desire for rapid success (defined by the American people and government as getting out, presumably without the Communists winning control over all of Vietnam) created tremendous pressure to quickly stabilize the South Vietnamese state; the blind faith in the universal desire for democracy and freedom, combined with the rush to promote self-rule, severely undermined the ability of successive South Vietnamese governments to assume the burden of the war and to build a government that was ultimately sustainable.

In his landmark book Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, Lt. Col. John Nagl (USA, Ret.) compares the U.S. experience in Vietnam with that of the British in Malaya during the Emergency, 1948-57. Both situations saw Communist insurgencies pitted against Western forces that had to deal not only with the immediate problem but with the broader circumstances of the Cold War as well. After confronting the insurgency for several years without success, the British turned to General Sir Gerald Templar, who was, to paraphrase Field Marshall Montgomery, “the man with the plan.” Templar was instructed that a self-governing unified non-Communist Malaya as the object of British efforts. With this in mind, the British government gave him “exceptional civil and military powers to defeat the insurgency,” appointing him not only High Commissioner (the highest civilian representative of the British government) but also commander of all armed forces in Malaya. Thus Templar was given full control over all assets, civil and military, that could be applied to defeating the insurgency in a singular unified effort prior to establishing a Malayan government, rather than trying to accomplish two difficult tasks at once. He used them to good effect; only when the Communists had been badly weakened did he begin to relinquish control to the nascent Malayan government.

Templar admittedly did not have to face the same bewildering array of political problems that the Americans did in Vietnam – Malaya having been a British colony for some time – but the fundamentals were similar. Securing the civilian population, isolating the insurgents, minimizing casualties and costs, and resolving the conflict expeditiously were all part of Templar’s brief. Without the problem of managing both the war effort and relations with a new and inexperienced local administration with no experience of the government model into which they have been thrust, Templar was free to apply techniques that would have prompted strong local resistance, such as strictly controlling the food supply and limiting movement.

This unified command approach was not pioneered by the British in Malaya, however; indeed, Americans had come to similar conclusions years before, as evidenced in the Marine Corps Small Wars Manual of 1940. This book, the culmination of decades of experience in fighting small wars, was forgotten in the wake of the Second World War, reentered the military’s consciousness as a result of the failure in Vietnam, and has been claimed to be influential in developing post-Cold War policy, yet its lessons have been applied haphazardly and piecemeal. The Small Wars Manual makes quite clear that there must be an effective administration in place while the military objectives are in question: “Military government…is sanctioned because the powers of sovereignty have passed into the hands of the commander of the occupying forces and the local authority is unable to maintain order and protect life and property in the immediate theater of military operations” (emphasis added). The latter state is quite clearly present in Afghanistan today.

The American effort in Afghanistan is badly weakened by the presence of the Afghan government. Corruption, infiltration by supporters of the Taliban insurgents, and general ineffectiveness all undermine popular support, which is critically important to create legitimacy, not least because of the insistence that the government be elected. If the counter-insurgency strategy is to succeed beyond simply allowing the United States to extricate itself from the conflict, the American commander should be invested with overarching civil powers as well as military command. This would clearly be a temporary condition, and may prove unpopular among the Afghan people, but it is necessary if the first precondition of a successful counterinsurgency effort – security of the populace – is to be established. As noted by the Marine authors of the Small Wars Manual seventy years ago, “(i)t should be remembered that the inhabitants do not owe the military government allegiance; but they do owe it obedience.” The American-led coalition of forces in Afghanistan are the only power sufficient to have even a hope of compelling the latter condition, which by our own doctrine is a necessary prerequisite for the former.

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Reading Between the Lines in Asia

In Diplomacy on June 30, 2010 by Filmosaur Tagged: , ,

Asia represents perhaps the best current example of a region in which rising powers are competing with each other as well as the existing powers for increased influence and power in a convoluted web of diplomacy. This behavior is not at all unfamiliar to those who have studied diplomatic history, but for those uninitiated in the twists and turns of competitive peacetime diplomacy in an anarchic world system it might seem that the countries involved were trying to make things as confusing (and thus unstable) as possible. Further, the dots of individual policies might seem so diffuse and without clear direction as to be impossible to connect. Yet connections may be inferred; it is these first threads of linkage between behavior and possible outcome that underpin the development of long-range strategic policy. While strategy always relies upon prediction and speculation, these are not applied without basis, at least by responsible practitioners.

Witness the developments of the last few days in East and Central Asia. The Economist reports that China has agreed to supply Pakistan with two additional nuclear reactors for its existing Chasma facility. (The Economist, The Power of Nightmares, 24 Jun 2010) With Pakistan being a non-signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and already possessing nuclear weapons, as well as having an extensive history of proliferation and significant links to radical Islam, this is obviously of concern, particularly to India, Pakistan’s major regional rival. India, also a nuclear-armed power outside the NPT, is now engaged in preliminary discussions with both Japan and South Korea to expand its nuclear facilities, according to the Wall Street Journal. (The Wall Street Journal, Japan and India Launch Talks on Civilian Nuclear Pact, 29 Jun 2010) While there are legitimate energy needs to be met by nuclear power in both countries, these moves come too close together and raise too many questions to be simple coincidence.

China’s willingness to assist Pakistan is nothing new – it has provided arms in the past, as well as nuclear technology and even a nuclear warhead design. China views Pakistan as a useful client state that helps to balance India (China’s biggest regional rival in South Asia) and, indirectly, the United States (China’s biggest global rival). China is not particularly concerned about nuclear proliferation among Middle Eastern states or even Islamic radicals, as it appears to operate on the Machiavellian assumption that there are other powers that will suffer more from these developments, perhaps allowing China room to maneuver diplomatically.

Japan’s possession of peaceful nuclear technology has long been considered not only safe from domestic weaponization (opposition to nuclear weapons is understandably high among the Japanese people), but also from proliferation beyond its borders. Japan has had a strict policy of refusing to export nuclear technology to non-signatories to the NPT; the discussions with India vigorously cast aside that policy. Not only is India not a member of the NPT, but it has produced and tested nuclear weapons outside of it. Why has Japan suddenly altered its position, and why is it choosing to help India?

Part of the answer is mundane: the Indian market for energy is lucrative and growing, and the Japanese see opportunity. The willingness of South Korea to assist the Indians has only increased the market pressures on Japan to relax its nuclear policies. This alone, however, seems rather weak as the sole explanation for such a radical ideological shift.

The strategic calculus involved is somewhat complex, but when considered it provides a stronger rationale for Japan’s rather sudden change of heart. Both Japan and South Korea are very concerned by China’s rise. Neither is capable of containing China on their own; China’s population is too big and its economy and military too large for either to confront directly. The United States has taken a very weak position on China’s growing power, accepting it in no small part due to the huge amount of U.S. debt that China buys; Japan and South Korea rightly fear that the U.S. may not be willing (or in fact able) to act assertively to protect their interests when they come into conflict with those of the Chinese. Thus both recognize that they must seek to protect their own interests and balance China by cultivating additional strategic alliances: India is the obvious choice for such a relationship.

India and China are major rivals in Southeast Asia, economically and diplomatically. While China’s industrialization and economic development is more advanced than India’s, India has made considerable strides and looks poised to continue, particularly in the information technology field. In current policy as much as reputation, India’s democratic government is considered less threatening than totalitarian China’s, affording India some advantage in dealing with other governments. Both compete for influence in such economically and strategically important countries as Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam. China’s aggressive attempts to penetrate these markets are increasingly seen as economic imperialism, while the region’s policymakers are all too aware that China’s military could easily dominate the region if the U.S. Navy’s presence were reduced.

China’s naval build-up has been going on for some time, but India too has been attempting to increase its naval power, most notably by developing a useful aircraft carrier force, the centerpiece of a blue-water navy capable of conventional power projection ever since the Second World War. While there is no joy at the prospect of India eventually becoming a regional hegemon or any sort of major armed conflict breaking out in the region, the idea of India rising to meet the primary challenge of the moment – a hegemonic China – is likely to be quietly welcomed in capitals from Tokyo and Seoul to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

The nuclear deals with Pakistan and India are all part of the ongoing diplomatic maneuvering. Selective nuclear proliferation has long been used as a tool to bind alliances together more tightly, and to offset the rising power of rivals both directly and indirectly. China is trying to maintain its advantage over India, Japan and South Korea; Japan and South Korea are trying to balance China; Pakistan and India are seeking advantage in their own more localized rivalry, and are happy for the possibilities offered by the broader regional situation. Nuclear technology is one of the few things that the more developed powers can offer those nations whose assistance they seek; as noted, Pakistan and India both have burgeoning energy needs, and China, Japan, and South Korea otherwise have little to offer in this regard. The secondary possibilities – in this case, weapons falling into the hands of Islamic terrorists or technology into the hands of other states that seek nuclear capabilities outside the region – are too vague and too remote to receive significant value in the calculation.

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Can Limited Wars Still be Won?

In Warfare on June 25, 2010 by Filmosaur Tagged: , ,

Limited wars, and in particular such conflicts where one of the belligerents is a Great Power, have been the most common form of interstate conflict for more than a century, arguably first developing their modern form during the Age of Imperialism, and evolving further during the post-colonial period. These conflicts have always posed a particular challenge to the Great Power involved, as they specifically demand successful resolution without the employment of all available resources, whether because of greater threats that must be guarded against or political pressures from a variety of sources that compel moderation of effort. Striking this balance has become increasingly difficult, to the point that we must question whether these conflicts can still be won. Victory is of course defined, here as elsewhere, by achieving the political object of the effort; military success alone is not sufficient.

The nature of strategy and the options available to nations in developing their own strategic approaches in any conflict are bound by a directly proportional relationship between the means available and potential negative outcomes; the greater the potential for damage to the national interest in the event of failure, the more unrestricted the means that are considered justified. A conflict in which there is no existential threat to nation, government or population must always be confined at least to the limits of what is considered reasonable in terms of cost and risk. In other words, the costs of success – financial as well as political and military – must not outweigh the value of the object of the war.

From the mid-19th Century to the early 20th, the heyday of the European imperial powers, this equation was usually fairly easy to balance. The ability of industrialized European nations to employ limited yet sufficient means to overwhelm virtually any non-European opponent was almost a given; the costs of such efforts were generally small, with proprietary technology offering tremendous economy of force. Though it is admittedly an extreme example, the 1898 Battle of Omdurman, the culmination of the British expedition to avenge the death of General Gordon and crush the Mahdi Army in the Sudan, gives an indication of what was possible: after an exhausting journey up the Nile, a force of some 8,000 British soldiers and 17,000 local auxiliaries supported by artillery and gunboats was assaulted by over 50,000 poorly-armed and ill-trained dervishes. When the battle ended after roughly six hours, approximately 10,000 dervishes lay dead, and another 13,000 were wounded, many of whom did not survive. The British lost 48 dead and fewer than 400 wounded. Omdurman represents the pinnacle of industrial warfare against a non-industrialized foe, and was rightly lauded as a great triumph of British arms.

The Sudan Expedition represents very well the easy strategic calculus of the period. Even though the obstacles to be overcome were significant (the problems of travel up the Nile were far more difficult than those posed by the enemy), there was relatively little concern that the British-led force would come to grief. Modern rifles, machine guns, and artillery had proven their worth in battle, and the force was large enough that that chances of it being overwhelmed were almost nil. With more than twice their number of local allied troops, the British force was large enough to be militarily effective, yet small enough not to represent a major political risk even if more significant casualties had been incurred (the casualties taken by local allies had almost no negative political value for the British). The financial cost of the expedition, while not insubstantial, was far outweighed by the control of territory achieved by success (reinforced only days later at Fashoda, where the advantage of the British position checked a French challenge from the west), not to mention avenging the death of the unfortunate Gordon.

In considering the situation in the Sudan, the British concluded that the potential of success afforded by modern technology and organization outstripped the relatively remote risks of failure, measured in casualties and objectives unattained. To both the British government and people, the losses inflicted on the Mahdi Army were of generally little concern, and the use of technology in doing so was a triumph of industrialized civilization over barbarism. There was thus very little potential political cost to the expedition provided that it achieved its primary object, an entirely attainable goal; means and methods played almost no part in the equation, as the level of commitment required to succeed was far below the political tipping point established by the value of the object.

Yet the calculation was not always so simple; immediately following the success of Omdurman, the British were forced to confront a far more difficult challenge in South Africa – the Boer War. Here the enemy was well-armed with European rifles and refused to fight the British in a manner that emphasized British strengths; instead, they fought a guerrilla war, never allowing the British forces to employ their advantages of organization and technology to good effect. Unable to win a quick and decisive victory, the British were compelled to invest more troops, more money, and more political capital in an effort to break the Boers. When this failed, more drastic measures were taken: huge swaths of countryside were sectioned off with barbed wire and blockhouses to restrict movement, and many Boers were moved into the first concentration camps in history.

Even though the British did successfully conclude the war in 1902 after three years of constant struggle, the political costs were substantial, making the victory far less clear-cut. The treatment of the Boers, who were of course of Christian farmers of European origin, was considered an outrage by some. The inability of the vaunted British Army to see off a relatively small force of poorly trained irregulars seemed inexplicable, especially since that same army had just enjoyed such success in the Sudan. The difficulties of fighting a limited war against an enemy that was far less willing to cooperate by fighting in the manner the British expected them to, and that did not occupy a distinctly lower place in the racial and social hierarchy generally accepted at the time (it was difficult to classify the Boers as “barbarians”), were made clear. The lessons were promptly forgotten with the advent of Great Power conflict that dominated the world until 1945, only to be rediscovered during the waves of post-colonial struggles for independence, which occurred in a vastly different political climate.

Modern limited wars look far more like the Boer War than the Sudan Campaign, but the limitations are becoming ever more restrictive. No longer can labels of “barbarian” lessen the political impact of losses inflicted on an opponent; no longer can the latest technology be employed without consideration of the consequences. Yet the threshold for failure has continued to fall; even limited numbers of casualties in an all-volunteer force or failure to achieve success in a short span of time can be enough to significantly weaken political resolve and popular support. For the Great Powers, limited war presents a paradox: for all the power they possess, the means that can be employed in limited wars are increasingly restricted by the political costs of using them. The technological disparity between the leading powers and their lesser opponents remains significant, but the costs involved in using that technology have increased. Thus the political costs of committing manpower and time to a limited war effort cannot be offset by victory ensured by technology as they were at Omdurman. At the same time, those opposing the Great Powers are often fighting for a far more valuable political object, and are thus willing to commit far more of their available means, and with fewer regards for the political costs, as failure in the conflict could be fatal to the regime. The end result is that limited ends are increasingly difficult to achieve at acceptable cost to the Great Powers. Has limited war become too limited to win?