- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 6, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Given the size of the U.S. defense budget and the nation’s technological and military superiority, many Americans see winning in the Middle East as a no-brainer. However, a closer look at a recent incident involving Predator drones there may help us understand why the odds could be stacked against us.

The video signals the U.S. military uses to navigate these drones were not encrypted initially. The military apparently assumed that our adversaries lacked the knowledge and means to intercept these signals. Not so. Our opponents quickly discovered that a $25 piece of Russian software designed to pirate commercial satellite signals also could intercept Predator signals.

So why does the U.S. military continue to underestimate its adversaries in the Middle East? We have misunderstood the type of organizations and actors that engage us there. Let’s be clear. This is not the only reason we did not anticipate what happened with the Predator drones. Nor is it the only reason why roadside bombs in Afghanistan have had such a terrible impact on both the military and civilians.

Nevertheless, events like these do raise the question: How can our opponents continue to use Western technology and science - our own intellectual resources - against us to gain strategic advantage? The more we seem to know about our adversaries and the better our tactical responses become, the greater are the chances that we will still come out second-best. Military and government spokesmen as well as independent scholars tell us this occurs because of “stove pipes” and other bureaucratic inefficiencies. This has led the experts to argue that to defeat our opponents we need only build more efficient bureaucracies, ones that can deploy technologies and resources a step ahead of our adversaries. The irony is that the better the technologies we field, the more and better resources our adversaries will have to turn against us.

For each of our counter-IED (improvised explosive devise) advances, we have been met with effective counter-countermeasures. For example, when the U.S. military used garage remote signals in Irag to blow up bomb makers and their weapons, our opponents’ IED tactics changed. Again when their mobile-phone trigger signals were jammed, they turned to long-range cordless phones, which are more difficult to jam. Then, almost as a pre-emptive strike, they turned to mechanical or contact triggers. These, while relatively crude, are even more difficult for the military to locate and disarm. If these kinds of innovations do not make the point, consider that there is evidence that our opponents are funding and establishing cottage industries, an earlier variant, especially in the Middle East, on our industrial, factory-based munitions supply chain. The plan here apparently is to build low-tech but still effective drones and eventually robots to field against us and our own technologies. In short, as the Economist reports one National Security Agency colonel as saying, “We’re always one step behind them.”

In combat, our opponents in the Middle East have been able to make better use of Western science, social organizations and technology than we have. They have refined the art of bricolage, of picking pieces of Western culture from here and there, exploiting and reassembling them in ways that seem to us innocuous or primitive. It is through experimentation and observation, not just trial and error, that our adversaries have been able to creatively inspect, disassemble and reassemble Western technology and science. We all know that Iranian munitions have become roadside bombs and that cell phones can be used to trigger IEDs. But most of us are unaware that our opponents now have what amounts to a Wal Mart full of effective weapons from which to choose given the particular mission. This includes sticky (adhesive) and magnetic bombs. These small, lightweight explosives can be attached easily to car bumpers or chinks in blast walls or placed under coffee-shop tables. Another example is the flying IED. While these are not exactly V-1s, these IRAMs (improvised rocket-assisted mortars) can carry a large explosive payload, and this can have tragic effects for U.S. military forces.

Most of us still believe we can defeat Middle Eastern threats by more of the same - more money, more materiel, more troops and more technology and science. This belief, however, is seldom challenged. Instead, it is recycled continually and revalidated. This helps maintain our faith in our superior intellectual, organizational and technological resources. But it also blinds us to the opportunities these resources offer to our adversaries. These resources can provide us with opportunities, too, but only if we, like our opponents, can learn to take our own technologies apart. To give an example, almost all counter-IED research and development has focused on disarming (jamming) the device’s trigger. However, defense contractor XADS’ (Xtreme Alternative Defense Systems) research has focused on IED’s other circuitry instead. The result is that with XADS technology, IEDs can be effectively and safely disarmed no matter which trigger is used.

The threats we face in the Middle East do not just present us with a set of strategic, organizational or tactical issues, they also challenge our understanding of how the world works. To be successful in the Middle East, we must learn how to challenge and rethink some of our most basic principles, the ones we tend to equate with Western rationality and American common sense. It’s not just that our model of the world seems to have failed us in the Middle East. Our opponents have more successfully exploited than we have what we believe to be the West’s fundamental strengths of science, technology and reason. Our adversaries’ successes challenge more than anything else our understanding of the way the world works - especially who should win and lose, and by what means. Until U.S. civilian and military policy recognizes this, we will continue to be our own worst enemies.

James M. Nyce is associate professor of anthropology at Ball State University and a senior fellow at the school’s Digital Policy Institute. He is also visiting professor in military technology and war science at the National Defense College in Stockholm.

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