The Rebirth of Limited War

Originally written in 1996

Limited war in the true sense of the term experienced a rebirth during the Falklands and Gulf Wars. This rebirth is one of the many impacts which the combination of the Information Age and Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs) has had. As more countries obtain access to this combination, limited war will occur more frequently, without warning. Limited war is a conflict which occurs between professional armies for limited political goals and has little or no impact and collateral damage on the civilian population. The rebirth of limited war has its historical antecedents in the 18th Century, before the beginning of total war.

The Era of Wallenstein

Wars in Europe during the 18th Century were limited in scope and impact. Battles were fought by professional, mostly mercenary armies for limited objectives and sometimes by mutual consent. Some battle were even decided without a shot fired in anger. If a commander was outmaneuvered by his opponent, physically or psychologically, he would often concede defeat and withdraw from the field without bothering to fight. Wars, as such, often hinged on the outcome of one battle, with the end result being neither a conquering victory nor a vanquishing defeat. Professional armies, because of their mercenary nature, could not afford to be wasted on frontal assaults or subjected to withering firepower in the "do or die" tradition. Good commanders did not like losing their most precious resource: Their soldiers. There was also an unwritten code of conduct regaarding civilians and civilian property. For the most part, civilians went about their daily lives unconcerned and unaffected by the guerre du jour, unless the chosen battlefield was their town or farm. Professional armies did not "live off the land." Instead, they had their own logistics structure and a system of magazines to supply their movements. The exchange of territories between rulers only affected the population by virtue of their paying taxes to someone else.

Napoleon Bonaparte ushered in the era of total war, which was only enhanced by the technological capabilities offered by the Industrial Revolution. The nationalization and industrialization of total war came to fruition during the American Civil War. Its complete impact was not seen, felt, or understood until the First World War. Total war took more than a century in reaching maturity. Its awesome potential was demonstrated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hopefully never to be realized in the future. However, the polarization of the Cold War guaranteed that the context of war was total in nature.


Back to the Future

There are several aspects of limited war which have re-appeared in a modern context:

-The fragmenting of nation-states and lack of regard for national, traditional borders.

-Decreased identification by indigenous people with their traditional nation state identity.

-Growth of volunteer, professional armies and a decrease in conscription.

-Increase in public disfavor for incurred collateral damage, including opposition to land mines.

-Political refusal to engage in conflicts of a total, unlimited nature, with open ended commitments and no specific goals.

Added to this equation is the technological advantage of PGMs.


The Information Age and PGMs: Paradigm for Conflict

As both the Garden Canyon operation and the Israeli strike against Iraq demonstrate, nation-states have the increased capability to conduct limited war for limited political/strategic purposes without committing ground forces. The proliferation of Information Age technology and PGMs will give this capability to an increasing number of nations in the coming decade. Information technology provides both policy makers and military planners with specific information on critical infrastructure nodes which can be targetted and estroyed by PGMs. The potential of these operations was harvested during the Gulf War. Our ability to target and destroy military targets in Baghdad gave us a positive world public image because there was so little collateral damage. Those incidents of collateral damge were thoroughly massaged for CNN cameras by the Iraqi government. Following the ceasefire, selective strikes against Iraqi targets did not result in a resumption of hostilities. This occurred because of limited political goals, i.e. punishment for the assassination plot against President Bush.

An increasing number of nations and non-state organizations are obtaining the capability to conduct limited war. The combination of information and PGMs provides potential opponents the ability to wage limited war against wach other for short term goals. These goals may be political, economic or territorial. The increased capability to conduct limited, surgical military strikes will probably create an atmosphere of confidence necessary to provide the intent to turn capability into execution.

The counter-argument for this increased likelihood for military action is that diplomacy between rational nation-states will negate the possibility of conflict. While the UN and the ICJ have great diplomatic prestige and power, decisions made by these bodies often do not satisfy all parties. "Politics by other means" allow dissatisfied countries to apply their means to achieve their goals. Dealing with so-called "rogue" nations requires no illumination. The only thing we do need to consider is the next generation of rogue states.

So where does this cycle of history leave us? If we have come full cycle back to limited war in the classic sense, what are the implications? It is important to bear in mind that as the Industrial Age assisted the development of total war, so will the Information Age have an impact on limited war. Conventional war between nation-states will be conducted more often with less of an impact on the civil population. Targets will be restricted to military, natural resource, or territorial targets. These strikes will be conducted with lethal and non-lethal information technology, PGMs and small, mobile, combined task forces. Some of these strikes will be conducted for punitive, pre-emptive or territorial acquisition purposes. Because these operations will be conducted quickly, with little or no impact on civilians, there will be less international reaction or time required to build a coalition to react at all. Diplomatic and political action will be limited, because the impact of such strikes will be limited.

Where will these strikes occur? Disputed border areas, disputed territorial waters and islands, natural resource areas and the electromagnetic spectrum. Likely areas of conflict besides the obvious ones like the Falkland and the Spratly Islands include: Antarctica, Turkey-Greece and the Chinese periphery.

While many of these areas do not currently possess the required technology, as the West's technology continually evolves and improves, the sale of current technology will give many countries the capability to conduct limited war. The French Apache cruise missile goes on sale on the open market in 1997, and India already has a spy satellite for sale. As we continue to focus on the non-proliferation issues concerning WMD, we must be prepared for an increase of limited war. Our foreign policy and our diplomatic/ military posture need to be focused to react to situations as they develop immediately. On a more strategic scale, this adds yet another plank to the national interest debate. We are more likely to be surprised by limited war operations, so the time window for deciding on a coherent policy reaction will be limited. Our intelligence process, while unable to totally prevent surpise, will at least be able to provde policy makers with a near real time view of these operations. Since a policy of no policy is a policy unto itself, signalling U.S. interest in a clear, decisive manner is our best preventive measure.

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