x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Defence experts brainstorm in Abu Dhabi on IEDs, video games and Donald Rumsfeld

To better understand how wars are likely to be fought in the future, defence experts gathered in Abu Dhabi to exchange ideas, writes John Henzell

US marines use metal detectors to find improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Afghanistan's Helmand province. Manpreet Romana / AFP
US marines use metal detectors to find improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Afghanistan's Helmand province. Manpreet Romana / AFP

Not one of the brigade of modern warfare analysts who met in Abu Dhabi last week was either brave enough or foolish enough to mimic the former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld's infamous observation about unknown unknowns.

But the point about uncertainty that Rumsfeld was pilloried for making in 2002 ahead of the invasion of Iraq is essentially the same as the one for which Nassim Nicholas Taleb has earned lavish praise for expressing in his 2007 book on the subject, The Black Swan. The Lebanese-American academic had given a lecture on that topic to the US Department of Defense shortly before Rumsfeld made his comment, although the concept had been in currency in military circles since the 1960s.

And at the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research's annual conference on the future of warfare, uncertainty quickly emerged as one of the themes, even if those taking part avoided emulating Rumsfeld's choice of words.

One of them was Dr Peter Singer, the director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, who embraces the theory that the next gamechanger in how wars will be fought is likely to be something entirely from left field. It's all part of how the nature of warfare now is undergoing a change as profound as the one that occurred around the First World War.

"In what comes next, we invariably get it wrong," he explained.

"Rather than throwing our hands up in the air, saying the future is inherently unpredictable, we can identify key changes which are happening in the world today and what this means for the future.

"We don't know exactly what the future of the world is going to look like, but we can identify some, if not all, of the key forces that will shape the world."

Singer's own CV illustrates that concept. Besides having taken a conventional career path - a doctorate from Harvard and involvement in various think tanks focusing on the Balkans and the Islamic world - he also works for entertainment companies such as Warner Brothers and Activision, the latter being a games manufacturer responsible for Call of Duty.

As part of that latter role, he thought about introducing a small and armed remote-controlled helicopter into the game and decided he had to try it out in real life to see if it was feasible.

"We envisaged it for a video game so we thought we would make sure it was correct," he added.

"For under $1,000 we built something better than any military in the world has."

That illustrates his greater point. The helicopter had the potential to be a gamechanger, but no military had developed it.

However in a general sense, Singer said it is widely accepted that robotics will play a greater part in future conflicts and that was confirmed by the creation of the mini-helicopter.

Another priority at the conference was analysing one of the first conflicts of this century - the invasion of Iraq by a US-led coalition - to predict the nature of future wars.

The invasion was the focus of a withering assessment by Khaled Abdullah Al-Bu-Ainnain, the retired Major General who commanded the UAE Air Force and Air Defence and who now heads the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.

He said "the failure of the US in Iraq" meant the US had lost its pre-eminence as a superpower in the region, with nations like China and Russia increasing their influence.

"They [China and Russia] have exploited the Syrian conflict. They are drawing out a new strategic position, a new geopolitical position in the Middle East, competing with America," he said.

According to Al-Bu-Ainnain, history will record the strategy mistake made by the US and the trillions of dollars it spent invading Iraq, when there was insufficient pretext to warrant the invasion.

"There were no weapons of mass destruction and no close relationship between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. They didn't provide any evidence. They invaded Iraq and they withdrew without realising any political or security [goals].

"They didn't achieve democracy. They also failed to achieve stability and progress. Iraq was a buffer state which has become an open arena for different powers."

The US has also lost some of its interest in the Middle East, shifting its focus to East Asia.

Meanwhile, Austin Long, an assistant professor at Columbia University's school of international and public affairs, gave the example of IEDs - improvised explosive devices - in Iraq. The roadside bomb was an unanticipated and underappreciated response from Iraqis to the invasion that was responsible not only for most of the coalition deaths but has also left a deadly legacy for conflicts around the world.

It fitted into a major trend of a "diffusion of capability", where the improved communication and access of the modern globalised era has allowed insurgent groups to copy, develop and spread counter-warfare technologies.

"A big example of diffusion is suicide bombing and IEDs. Suicide bombing in the 1980s was entirely new," he said.

"It wasn't widespread in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Suicide bombing has become [commonplace].

"For IEDs, the sophistication of these devices has grown substantially over the last few decades. There's an arms race of IEDs in Iraq. It was in some way a laboratory.

"When IEDs started to be used in mid-2003, they were very crude. They were frequently artillery shells wired up by a tripwire. Because the US wasn't really prepared for this technique, they were effective.

"The US started spending billions of dollars to defend against this and they started developing very small portable jammers. The response came almost immediately. You'll get a radio trigger which goes to a phone.

"We saw a continual arms race. In terms of value for money, the proposition was clearly on the side of the IED and not on the defences against the IED. These were still killing US soldiers late in the war. Iraq had been a real laboratory of those techniques."

That development of IEDs might be placed into Rumsfeld's category of unknown unknowns, which he described as "things we do not know we don't know", even though they have been used effectively in assymetrical conflicts since the Second World War, when Belarusian guerrillas used them against the Germans.

US forces faced them in the Vietnam War but the failure to predict their importance in the Iraq conflict was less to do with being an unknown unknown and more likely reflected the views of the then US vice-president Dick Cheney, who said he believed the coalition "will be greeted as liberators" by the Iraqis.


John Henzell is a senior features writer for The National.