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« Nukes vs. Wood Fires | Main | Worldchanging: A Users Guide »

November 01, 2006


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Brian Wang

The case being made for the those fighting the USA in Iraq or for Al Qeada is overstating their level of current and potential success. Modern guerrillas and criminals do not have greater success than those who used such tactics in the past.

The fact that the current US administration was incompetent in its execution of the Iraq war and middle east policy does not mean that the enemy is hot stuff or that their tactics are a "new generation of warfare".

Those fighting in Iraq are being propped up and supplied by Syria and Iran. In the past, say WW2 (or Mongols or Alexander or Rome), the answer would have been an all out declaration and campaign of war against Syria and Iran. After the enemy had been utterly decimated then order would re-established and rebuilding would begin.

The modern choice to go with half-measures and partial war and ineffective execution and policy does not mean that the opposing policies and forces are invulnerable.

Fundamental mistakes:
The simple approach is utterly crush all enemies then rebuild.

The other aspect of properly minimizing how much fighting is needed is to make deals with enemies who are least opposed to you and who you can bargain with. Drawing ideological lines that leave more enemy outside the lines leads you to fighting more enemy.

In terms of a long term approach to the region: Choose the technological path to make it less important. Mass produce nuclear, wind and solar power so that you do not need the regions oil. It will take decades but substantial progress would reduce money flowing to the those with oil.

Use military tactics and policies that are to your strengths. Not cut and run. But crush and leave, return and crush and leave. Hit when it is to your advantage. Use planes, sensors and technology.

Two birds with one stone: Develop US latin American foreign legions. Those who participate can earn citizenship and other benefits.

Phillip Huggan

I can't wait until you Neoconservatives get MNT.

Brian Wang

I am not a neoconservative. For some reason you have a knee jerk reaction to opposing views to your own and a desire to label that view as neoconservative.

I am for pragmatic solutions, with deeper consideration of technological and historical aspects. If you can get what you want without fighting that is ideal. If you do not need to start a fight then don't. If you are going to fight then fight to win.

From where we are now, I am for containing the Iraq and Iran and terrorism situations using smarter politics and diplomacy. Unfortunately the current administration does not have the ability to carry that out effectively either. So they will have to muddle through for 2 more years. Hopefully then there will be some competent choices.

This is not evolved warfare. It is mostly the same old stuff. Some slightly different circumstances and technical details. One side should have all of the advantages but is screwing up. When Kobe, Shaq and the LA Lakers fell apart and started losing in spite of their talent was it because their opponents were evolving basketball or were they were not playing up to their potential, making mistakes and not working as a team?

Nato Welch

"By 2035, the plan is for the first completely autonomous robot soldiers to stride on to the battlefield."

A "completely autonomous soldier" is one that doesn't even take orders. In an important sense, a soldier is never "compeletely" autonomous; it's supposed to be accountable to those it is defending. Thus, a "completely autonomous soldier" is a contradiciton in terms.

Brian: I realize I'm lacking some history, but are you sure Huggan was referring to you? I'm sure, when you consider "them" neoconservatives with nanobombs, you'll be cringing right along with him.

Phillip Huggan

Brian, the Lakers still made it to the finals the year before they traded Shaq; injuries were also a contributing factor...

Your technical and technological knowledge base is profound but I find your political insights complete Neoconservative crap.

There weren't any terrorists in Iraq before April 2003 and 90% of the population hostile to American (and allied) invaders are indeginous Sunnis. If I were Iran I'd develop nukes as quick as possible to protect against a blood-thirsty America and to consolidate power with my Middle Eastern allies (I'm not saying this is a good thing). Any strategy of economic containment was lost when America didn't let China buy her oil. China turned to Iran.

The only reason there are (Taliban) terrorists is that they were trained by the USA in the 80s. Now the same thing is happening all over again. The USA (and allies) haved #$%^ed things up for the whole Western world over the next 50 years.

My reflexive objection is to the mindset that: we needed oil, that's why we destroyed a country and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians (over 100X the total lost on 9-11). Invading Iraq wasn't an economic necessity, it was and is pure evil, plain and simple. It wasn't an inevitable result of Real Politik... if American media wasn't so damn manipulative, if schools weren't so underfunded, if Americans weren't so nakedly capitalistic and self-interested, it wouldn't have happened. It barely happened by 800 votes. The # of civilians dead in Iraq is only an order in magnitude less than the number of civilians killed in the holocaust.

It makes me sick that the one group of people that attacked America (the Taliban housed Bin Laden) are almost being ignored by the American military. It makes me sick because the 2500 Canadian soldiers presently stationed there could be single-handedly saving 2 or 3 African countries that are falling to rag-tag radical Islamic militias, instead of freeing up 2500 extra American troop to further annihilate Iraq.

Your suggestion that utterly crushing Iran is possible, is laughible. All the American soldiers on earth aren't sufficient to occupy Iran, one of the largest nations on earth consisting of over a dozen (not just three) different ethnic sects. And even if Iran started successfully seizing Middle Eastern oil wells (like America has tried and failed to do) or bombed Israeli cities (like Israel has bombed Lebanon), you can't just carpet bomb the country with nukes. Otherwise, other military actors will do the same and we are back to the 1930s again.

Basically, a hundred million dumb and poor or wealthy and Machievellian Americans have elected a bunch of PNAC bible thumpers into power, and everyone but a few million wealthy Americans foots the bill....I hope for the Iraqi dead, that China unpegs their currency at exactly the moment they sell their T-Bills.

Brian Wang

I don't think a war with Iran is necessary and with better policies it could be avoided. However, if it did happen then the US should have and can have a strategy for winning it.

Even if Iran gets a few nukes in several years that does not automatically mean that they will be immune from being attacked.

I did not say occupy Iran, that would be stupid. I said use the US advantages repeatedly. You do not need to use nukes.
What would conventional carpet and fire bombing look like? btw: there is no need to go to the level that I will describe and I do not see the US doing it. The point is to illustrate that Iran can be crushed with just conventional air power using historically achievable levels. Dial it back to a lower more measured level.

Firebombing Tokyo killed 100,000 people World war 2. This was done with 1655 tons of napalm. One night and 300+ B29 bombers. 16 square miles of city was destroyed
B29 had max bomb loads of 20000lbs

We now have more effective napalm and thermobaric weapons. Fuel air explosions, cluster bombs etc... 5-10 times more effective

Operation rolling Thunder in Vietnam dropped 864,000 tons of bombs (mostly dropped on jungle)

Iran has these 50 cities
Average of 16,000 tons of bombs per city for a rolling thunder against city equivalent.

This is my point that a crush and repeat as necessary plan would work militarily. I think there are smarter and better and less damaging ways to do it. But Iran and you should not be under the illusion that if things go all the way that they end up anything but dead. It also goes to my point that "old war" is more powerful than evolved war.

btw: an utter crushing of Iran would not mean that the other countries would step in or that it would lead a rash of copycat tactics. There could be some proxy action.

Why is going back to the 1930's not possible ?

I also do not think that nanobombs add very much new to the equation. A good old fashioned bomb or bullet could kill me just as easily as new nanobomb. Nanowar will be different in that the potential is there to be more sneaky and precise (plus it extends the theatre of war out into space). Targeted attacks against leaders and command and control. I welcome it because it can be a shift to direct fighting between the rulers and less involvement with masses of civilians or soldiers.

The whole cold war was about potential warfare with the Soviets who had a lot more nukes and regular weapons. Why would it be inconceivable to fight far weaker opponents?

China and the USA should be closer allies. China is the main supplier of goods to the US. The US is their best customer. It is more money than the oil and Iran has less than 10% of the oil.

The US can wait until it has remote nuclear material detectors and the gear to find and remove just the nuclear programs of Iran and N Korea.

Since I do not think nuclear weapons are that much better than strong conventional, I also do not think that foreign policy needs to revolve around it or that we should be wasting that much money on it. Better governance, better economic plans, better technology policy, those would make far more difference. It is stupid that we should be fighting for scraps on earth. A better use of $300 billion-1 trillion would be to develop space, nuclear, solar power and get 100X the energy and resources.

If the US developed super-Orion. Colonized the moon and Mars with millions of people. Got nanotech first. And Iran just had a few nukes, would Iran have the illusion that they would have any success with their little games? By not grabbing the future, we are stuck messing around with unimportant regional games.

Iran- petro-politics are all a waste of time and ultimately a useless distraction. We should move on to the next level.

Phillip Huggan

I'm more pursuaded about your future super-Orion ideas than I was in the past Brian. It is friggin expensive but it may be the only way to lift big clunky (non-MNT) replicators into space or on the Lunar surface, once robotics and other technologies mature.

My revulsion in blindly considering Iran to be the boogeyman is that the same "education" (via mosks not CNN) is being used in Iran to make their citizens hate America and make Egyptians hate Denmark. But Americans have all the goodies and are a little better educated; her foreign policy should occupy a higher moral ground.

Regarding firebombing Iran, yes that would annihilate her cities. But not for instance, the underground nuclear facilities. If the USA uses its weaponry on her arbitrarily chosen enemies, China and Russia and North Korea and Israel *will* do likewise. Kiss Tiawan goodbye. Bye bye South Korea. Russia would roll over all the former USSR nations and probably I good chunk of the Middle East too. Israel would invade Syria and maybe even Eqypt. Everyone would withdraw all their USA securities holdings...

The 1930s was among the darkest time periods in recent memory. It is very conceivable we could have emerged from WWII with three superpowers (Germany, Russia, USA) instead of one and a half, if not for Hitler's reflexive Slavic racism. If we replay the 1930s with nukes, it is less than 50-50 civilization would survive long-term. Post-WWII Bretton Woods was a very nice gift given to the world by the USA. I mentioned NASA because it is the most significant gift to the world given by the USA over the last 30 years...

By the way, the largest trading partner with the USA is Canada, not China. We are also the USA's largest oil supplier too, a supply that is safe as long as America doesn't decide to invade the Arctic Archapelago Iraq-style in the decades ahead.

Brian Wang

Being from Canada myself, I should have been more precise on trade.

When we toss in Hong Kong and Macau which I consider part of China. The trade numbers become very close with China just short of Canada.

So I should have said that China is a main supplier not the main supplier.

I do not see a domino effect of all countries releasing mass destruction from the US crushing an enemy. Just as there was no domino effect in regards to Vietnam for communism.

Especially Taiwan. China wants a whole Taiwan not a blasted one. that is like shooting the x-wife you want to remarry because someone down the block murdered a neighbor.

A lot of these are not tightly connected. Russia (Putin and the ruling elite) is going to do its own thing based on its own agenda and interests.

But who is right on hypothetical guessing of what world leaders should not have to matter.
We can and should use an aggressive program of technological advancement and development to move past these issues. Similar to Reagan accelerated buildup showed that the russians were not in the same league


I just heard something on the BBC…an IDF artillery commander describing the procedure for firing cluster bomb armed rockets at Lebanon. Although there were human soldiers in the firing loop, their involvement was transfering a coordinate file from a message to a control computer and clicking execute. The coordinates derived from detections of Kyatusha launches. In other words, if this account is accurate, there was no human judgement in the firing loop. Frankly, this is much more alarming than the fact that cluster-bombs were used. Although this shows (what we knew) that mnt is unnecessary to the full automation of warfare, it also shows that we are late in dealing with this issue, which will likely become more widespread as automation technology in general and mnt in particular find uses in the conduct of warfare.

Brian Wang

How much human judgement goes into a landmine?
Or an underwater mine ?

How much judgement went into the Kaytusha firings ?
How much does judgement matter if you are firing off 40 rocket tubes in a general direction with weapons with poor accuracy ?


The judgement was lets try to land some hits on a particular city (roughly in a southerly direction), cause terror and hopefully kill some people.

I see nothing alarming or new in what that side was doing or the Isreali response. The only thing that matters in war is, how well is it working to overall goals. The niceties should be involved in finding ways to not start fighting to begin with or to stop fighting as soon as possible.

Note: the "4th generation" stuff also is not accurate and does not have judgement. It is let us try to use computer viruses to disrupt anything we can. If it happens to cut off computer systems in an elder care facility whatever.

Human judgement is for what? As an extra check that you do not accidentally hit something you did not mean to ? How much does that happen in war? Sometimes when a sniper is checking a target. But a machine gunner ?

Tom Craver

Hezbollah put rocket launchers in civilian homes and areas. But Israel apparently knew of some of the launchers hidden in private homes before the war - and fired on those targets before some of them could be launched.

So - the humans in the loop didn't better protect civilians - if anything, by attacking those sites before the rockets could be launched, the civilians had less warning.


That isn't the real point and it's not a broad discussion of Israeli targeting strategies (please let's not go there.) What you're talking about (Tom) is the product of intelligence, good or bad, where humans review imagery or signals or use humint. The account described firing on coordinates where rocket launches were detected by sensors. That might make sense if launchers were fixed targets or large (hence slow moving) mobile launchers, i.e. an asset of future value that there is some probability of destroying. That's more like symmetric warfare. The issue is a system of targeting in real-time based on automated procedures. The grave concern is that lethal force is being directed with virtually no human consideration in a given particular case.

As usual, create a system in conditions of hostility, exploits will be sought. Formidable weapons and the will to use them might make one tough, but they do not by themselves make one cleaver. Replicating a small bad decision in scores of automated systems used hundreds or thousands of times yeilds consequences which are other than small. The less human decision making there is in the system, the longer it takes to realize there's even a problem.

Asymmetric warfare in particular demands the most assiduous of human judgment. The present case illustrates this clearly. Most of the detections (based on both the range of Hezbollah armaments and the commander's account) were of Kyatushas launched from tubes on motorbikes--militarily not valuable (99% miss,) difficult to hit (decent chance of being gone by the time artillery reaches the launch point, even when it's all automated.) Strategically, Kyatushas were useful to Hezbollah to inflict terror on civilian populations. Their use was not stopped by direct military means.

But think about this: once Hezbollah, an actor not without domestic enemies, understands that launches are efficiently detected and attract significantly destructive fire, the absence of human judgment from the firing loop lets them effectively command IDF artillery to destroy sites of Hezbollah choosing. These can be sites associated with parties opposed to Hezbollah (the targeting of which is useful to Hezbollah both directly in harming those parties and also in enlisting them to retaliate against a common enemy even if they initially wanted no part in the conflict) and to direct fire against civilians to thereby gain political sympathy both domestically and internationally--which, whether or not this was actually their strategy or action, was exactly what turned out to end the immediate hostilities. (And again, it matters not to this discussion whether Hezbollah or the IDF are either noble or evil; we are concerned with the the shortcomings of a type of system and the exploits to which it is susceptible.)

The expediency of automated firing is more apparent (and then only before the fact) than real. From the pure perspective of efficiently using ammunition, this fails. From the pure perspective of winning tactically this fails (unless you're willing to effectively carpet-bomb, and then mainly the wrong targets, and probably still even then.) From the perspective of gaining military advantage or victory in a manner conducive to advantageous political settlement (win the peace) this kind of flawed system fails utterly.

Although it might be easier and more preferable to imagine oneself as always on the side with better technology, this is the same as contending that U.S. will always be the dominant global power AND it will always exercise its power toward benevolent or at least benign ends. Few historians would take the former bait, and not everyone agrees with the latter supposition. One factor affecting the continued dominance of the U.S. is whether other nations including traditional allies are willing to endorse or at least acquiesce to the more extreme actions the U.S. takes. The same would apply to any other would-be technologically enabled dominant-global power. Weapons systems that kill humans with trivial or no human judgment involved have a very high potential of being indiscriminate. With nuclear weapons, indiscriminacy was both unavoidable and incidental. For conventional weapons with automated firing decision (such as the artillery with is the premise), neither holds true: automation is avoidable, but the indiscriminacy is intrinsic to this kind of automation.

Powers, whether global or regional, tend to set the tone for both norms of warfare and conditions of peace. When a power does something that is seen as beyond the pale, they can expect the same in return, whatever advantages they may have. This is what asymmetric warfare is all about. Automated systems pose significant challenges to accepted norms of warfare (however poorly they are observed, it's better for everyone that we have them.)

To put it bluntly, just in one aspect: can you even surrender to a robot?



you might listen to the last episode of _This American Life_. It featured one of the people involved in targeting high value targets in Iraq in 2003. His comments rather contradict your view of attention to avoid collateral damage. Actually came as a surprise to me.

Just because one side in a conflict uses indiscriminate weapons or uses weapons indiscriminately neither justifies the same on the other side nor makes it a wise choice for the other side. In particular, the stronger of the adversaries in a conflict has more of an obligation to avoid transgressing the norms of war since its survival is less a t stake--they have more of a choice not to. Most people understand this on some level.

Tom Craver


Totally autonomous weapons started with the first rock thrown - once tossed, the thrower could not call it back. If the target dodged, it might hit an unintended target.

Most modern advances in weaponry have focused on increased control - more precise and consistent targeting, for example. The near-automatic retaliatory artillary fire in the case discussed, is an example of *increased* human control - it's just that the control - the deliberate limitation to firing at known launch points - has been imposed in the nature of the system, rather than on a moment by moment basis by the gun crews (who can't see their targets in any case, and so can't really contribute much to discriminating use of the weapon).

But the increase in weapon targetting has been so successful, that enemies now focus on hiding scattered among civilians, and staying mobile when they do attack directly. Anti-mortar radar has resulted in insurgents in Iraq firing a few shells, then bugging out.

The next wave of improved control may be continuously recorded wide-area surveillance, enabled by super-high-def, light-amplifying digital steady-cams mounted on blimps. This will have benefits against enemies planting IED mines for example - after such an attack, roll back the surveillance and track where the enemy came from and where they went. (Of course there are counter tactics to that as well - but tactics that more tightly constrain enemy action.)

Side point - even if a counter-attack doesn't destroy a useful target, it can serve a purpose. In this case, denying Hezbollah the luxury of sitting in one spot, repeatedly and rapidly firing missiles, and gaining accuracy through range feedback.

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