x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Soldiers, not their hi-tech gear, win wars

After a small band of fighters attacked the presidential palace and ministry offices in Kabul yesterday, the limits of technological superiority should be apparent.

General Sir David Richard, head of the British army, believes war has changed. Today's soldier is not faced by another soldier in a different uniform; he is faced with an enemy more difficult to identify, who can blend into civilian populations, strike quickly and melt away. Gen Richard believes that the success achieved by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan will lead like-minded groups to adopt similar tactics. Certainly, in today's world militant groups appear capable of adopting successful tactics with frightening speed, as indicated by the Mumbai-style attack on Kabul yesterday. But while Gen Richard is correct in his general assessments, his belief that the answer lies in more hi-tech equipment is off the mark.
The US military has led the way in embracing technological innovations in combat. The Abrams tank, covered in depleted-uranium armour and driven by a jet engine, is at the top of its class. The US possesses fighter jets almost invisible to radar. It has missiles that can destroy a target from 100km away. Yet none of this has been decisive in either Iraq or Afghanistan. What Gen Richard appears to be advocating is a "shock and awe" military. He seems to have forgotten the past decade.
Technology is an undeniable advantage that developed nations have in combat. One of the reasons that so few US, UK and other Nato soldiers have been killed is their superior armament. For example, one of the most deadly assaults on US troops in Afghanistan occurred in Nuristan province. Two hundred Taliban fighters attacked 50 US troops and half as many Afghan soldiers; nine US soldiers were killed, as opposed to as many as 50 Taliban.
But winning these tactical engagements won't win the war in Afghanistan. No amount of hi-tech equipment will prevent such attacks from happening. After a small band of fighters attacked the presidential palace and ministry offices in Kabul yesterday, the limits of technological superiority should be apparent. Better weapons may help you to out-kill your adversary, but if almost 10 years of combat have taught Gen Richard anything, it should be that out-killing no longer wins wars. Any progress that has been made in Iraq and Afghanistan has not come from 30,000ft, but on the ground: troops that interact with the population, protect them and earn their trust. There is no better defence against the weapons of insurgents. There is no better bomb detector than people willing to point out where they saw the Taliban plant an improvised explosive device.
Gen Richard is worried about funding his army, but national, and global, security cannot be assured on the cheap. Soldiers are costly, in terms of both treasure and blood, but they are still the best tools with which to fight wars.