To the American military, innovation means technology. Innovating on the battlefield is synonymous with more electronics, bigger robots and better fighter jets.
To non-state actors, insurgents and terrorists, innovation has taken on a fundamentally different meaning. Their tactics are moving away from technological solutions and into realms where technology does not play a role.
In the realm of military technology, the U.S. Defense Department and its host of contractors are the ultimate trump card. America’s military budget is greater than the next 10 largest state actors’ military spending combined. Any force attempting to develop technology superior to American forces will eventually be crushed under the weight of billions of dollars of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency contracts, Defense Department research grants and rapid fielding initiatives.
The Iraq and Afghan insurgencies have struggled valiantly to out-innovate American tactical forces. From 2001 until recently, these insurgencies believed they could turn to technological solutions to outpace coalition counter-Improvised Explosive Device efforts. The first IEDs were simple – a detonator, some copper wire and an old artillery shell. It didn’t take long for U.S. forces to answer. Humvees became armored, gunners’ turrets grew taller and more protected.
Soon, the insurgency evolved. They turned to pressure plates and infrared sensors triggered by an engine’s heat. Again, U.S. technological savvy answered. Cell phone and radio IED detonators were countered as well. The insurgents’ reliance on technology quickly became a hindrance rather than an advantage. U.S. forces could hunt them down on their cell numbers, via their purchases, texts and emails.
And so the terrorists began to innovate in the other direction. Insurgent techniques became simpler, low-tech. Military-grade munitions gave way to homemade explosives. Cellphone detonators regressed back to command wire. Suicide bombers and insurgents disguised as Afghan army or police proved more efficient than complex, electronic IEDs or expensive car- and truck bombs.
After nearly 13 years of war, the terrorists have learned that the best counter to a techno-savvy force is simplicity.
The gospel of the simple insurgent hasn’t just stayed in Afghanistan. In Kenya’s Westgate Mall, insurgents lightly armed with assault rifles, grenades and an active Twitter account were able to make the marginalized al-Shabab a global name in terror. They were able to instill fear in the citizens of Kenya and humiliate the Kenyan government as it bungled the response. The whole operation probably cost less than a used car.
Despite what defense contractors want to believe, the next war isn’t going to be fought or won with drones, biometric readers or robot suits. It will be won with smart, adaptive, culturally aware ground forces.
Non-state actors and peripheral militaries have learned not to fall into the technological arms-race trap again. The 21st-century insurgent won’t have a cellphone to tap. He will have a few trusted associates and a courier. Emails, texts and phone calls will give way to written plans, handshakes and hard currency.
The next-generation terror network will look more like a drug cartel: deeply embedded in the local culture, regional in focus and urban in operation. The new insurgent will be so low tech he will be virtually untraceable.
Another face in a sea of faces. No biometric data, no name on a government registry, they will be known to their associates as just a nickname. A ghost in plain view. They won’t be identified as terrorists until they decide to make their moves.
Their tactics will be crude but lethal, more befitting of medieval warfare than modern combat: stabbing a policeman in the throat, a bucket of chemicals in the reservoir, a soldier who suddenly turns on the unit. They’ll carry weapons that are innovative yet simple: The counterinsurgent could see them walking to their target, weapon in hand, and never register him as a threat. It could be a bucket of chemicals, a farmer with a sickle or even a rancher with his disease-infected cattle.
These low-tech, low-cost innovations are the insurgent answer to a modern, technologically-heavy force.
The 21st-century insurgent will be adaptive. He will seize opportunities as they break: A power transformer left unguarded, a truck full of food, even a herd of livestock are all opportunities for him to seize. His reaction time is minutes, not days.
The counterinsurgent will struggle to fight him. Governments, by their very nature, are bureaucratic institutions. They demand supervision, approval, review. The counterinsurgent can’t tap into the local, informal network the way the insurgent can. No one talks to the uniformed government official, but everyone talks to their neighbors.
It’s why the Autodefensa in Mexico can damage a cartel more in a week than the Mexican army can in a year. They react at the speed of the cartel and they glean intelligence straight from the source. They don’t just have their finger on the pulse of the community – they are swimming in its bloodstream.
The only way to fight and win as a state actor in the 21st century is to become as smart and as culturally sensitive as the insurgent. Forces will have to look at the herd of cattle and see the same target the insurgent does. The counterinsurgent will have to understand the culture of the streets the same way his enemy does.
No military can afford to outsource analytical, in-the-moment thinking. The future counterinsurgent must know the culture and the enemy so well that he can think one step ahead of him. The future of war demands predictive abilities that only a living, breathing, thinking soldier can bring to the fight.
A drone overhead would have done exactly nothing during the Westgate Mall attacks. Biometric scanners are useless after a food supply has been poisoned. An F-35 can’t put a bomb on a green-on-blue attack. These tactics cannot be countered by military technology.
Believing that technology will answer our problems, and that money spent developing robots is better spent than on developing smarter warriors is a dangerous fallacy. It serves only to play into the hands of America’s enemies.
Paul Lewandowski is a former Army officer and Operation Enduring Freedom veteran. The views expressed here are his own. This is a guest column for Thomas E. Ricks’ Best Defense blog in Foreign Policy.