Last Friday at Chaucer’s Bookstore, Benjamin Sutherland signed copies of his new book, Modern Warfare, Intelligence and Deterrence, an anthology of essays from The Economist on the evolution of modern military technologies.
The book, which will be released on February 1, has been called a “well researched, intelligently organized, and eminently readable rumination on our military’s future and its role in shaping our world” by Mark Lewis, former chief scientist of the U.S. Air Force, and “a must-read for all political decision-makers and military leaders” by Professor Azriel Lorber of the University of Tel Aviv.
Sutherland spoke to me over the phone about the future of military technology.
I was wondering how the idea for this book came about. Did you read these articles and see the potential for a book, or were you thinking about a book and found articles that fit the topic? I actually got the idea from my girlfriend. For three years I’ve been concentrating on defense and intelligence technology reporting for The Economist, and she would read my articles and say, “I really hate military stuff, but I enjoy these stories. They’re interesting, and they’re written in a way that I can understand them. Why don’t you make an anthology?” It was that simple. I liked the idea, so I pitched it to my editors, and they liked it too.
One of the reasons that they liked the book is because, hopefully, it will change people’s perception of The Economist. A lot of people don’t realize that The Economist is a general issues magazine. The name is essentially a misnomer — there are five pages each issue on economics and finance, but there is more general political, business, science, technology, books, and arts reporting than Time or Newsweek.
What do you want people, ordinary citizens, to take away from this book? The main insight of the book is that technology can reduce collateral damage by bringing in a level of precision to combat. There’s a qualitative shift in warfare that comes with this. I would call it “system against system” warfare. What happens is that even groups fighting with clearly inferior technology will benefit. In World War I, about half the central powers’ field troops had to be killed before they gave up. It was a massive war of attrition, a bloodbath. Then look at the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s army in Iraq. Out of his army of about 400,000, plus another couple hundred thousand reservists, the United States broke that army by killing about 10,000 people. Think about it as parts in a machine — if you knock out a couple of the parts, the machine ceases to function. System against system warfare allows you to knock out equipment or the experts needed to operate that equipment so that even if they don’t want to give up, they just can’t fight anymore.
What do you think readers will be most surprised by when they read these articles? There are two things. One is that with each of these technologies you have an increasing number of legal and political questions popping up. In this case, what does a middle-income country do that’s got a large arsenal of weapons, and suddenly precision bombs that significantly reduce collateral damage are put on the market? Are they legally or morally obligated to use these new bombs? If not, are they open to charges of war crimes? Even the existence of precision weapons can reduce casualties among armies that don’t even have them.
The other is that there are new kinds of asymmetric weapons. Asymmetric weapons are suicide bombers, ways that a low-tech insurgency can use civilians as human shields while exacting large tolls on a rich, advanced army. We’re now seeing what I call these asymmetric 2.0 weapons. They’re far beyond the technological, organizational, and financial capabilities of low-tech, non-state insurgencies, but they’re within in the power of even small governments.
There’s the Russian Sizzler missile that flies farther than any Western anti-ship missile. It can go 300 kilometers, and it maneuvers. It can be fired on one side of an island, it can curve around the island to avoid detection, and it can come into its target weaving to avoid being shot down, and for the last dozen kilometers it sprints at three times the speed of sound. Russia has exported that to China, which is upgrading it. It’s been exported to India. Syria and Algeria have requested them. Iran may have them. They can be fired from Iran’s kilo-class submarines, which are also made by Russians. Iran can set up batteries of Sizzlers in trucks along the Persian Gulf, which would be difficult to knock out or even locate if they’re moving around. They’re asymmetric in the sense that it is easier to sink a warship than it is to defend one. If a state can get these they will have the greatest amount of underdog firepower in history.
With military technology’s trend toward precision attacks, will we ever again see a war on the scale of, say, the two World Wars? There are scenarios that still exist where you can have a horrific war with that number of people dying, but those scenarios only involve nuclear weapons. Even a horrific war with North Korea, that pulls in South Korea, China, and Japan, won’t kill 10 million people, like World War I. Now with an EMP — the electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear bomb exploded in the atmosphere, which would knock out all electricity — you can have large numbers of people being killed. The EMP commission set up by the U.S. Congress said that 100 million Americans could die within the first year of an EMP attack. Without electricity we wouldn’t be able to deliver water, gas, and food. There would be social breakdown, starvation, dehydration. You can’t even move sewage out of your home without electricity. There are some scenarios, but they’re pretty much nuclear. Even if the U.S. had all-out war with China, and I’m not suggesting that that’s anything other than a remote possibility, you still wouldn’t have 10 million people dying.
One of the major themes of this book is how the increasing complexity of technology used in warfare leads to increased complexity in the conduct of warfare itself, as well as the politics surrounding it. How are political and military leaders dealing with this? There’s an example in an article in the book “Endangered Birds” about satellite warfare. As new technology comes online, politicians have to be briefed quickly. There are lasers used to hit satellites, it’s called dazzling, and it’s a show of force. There are a handful of countries that can do it. China dazzles U.S. and French satellites in low earth orbit not often, but regularly. What if a laser hits them, maybe lingers too long? A show of force can actually damage the satellite, knocks out some sensitive equipment. If that happens, and it’s from China, is that an act of war? What do you do? Political leaders have to be briefed on this. They have to make an effort to avoid escalation.
A portion of this book is devoted to computer warfare. How is cyber war evolving in the 21st century? There is surprisingly very little information on what the U.S. offensive capabilities are, as well as those of our allies, and other countries too. Very little of this info is in the public domain. As a reporter, I was able to get a lot of information for this book, but I wasn’t able to get much on U.S. efforts in this area. It’s telling that there’s hesitancy to say that there’s weaponizing of a new domain. There’s a chapter about how kill switches could be used to disrupt enemy systems. Think about the electronics on your phone. In theory a satellite can send a signal and shut your phone down. That technology exists. It even influences the arms trade. Iran has indicated interest in Russian air defense systems, but it appears that sales haven’t taken place. Some in the press say this is due to Russia bowing down to pressure from the U.S. and Israel, but according to David Kay, the U.N. arms inspector in Iraq, it may be because Iran is aware that Russia can just switch them off. This is something that can help with arms control. You don’t have to draft all these treaties and check up on them. You can do it with technology.