Belmont Club

Offensive defense

Recent news articles outline the extents of the debate over what constitutes a licit national defense. Those who are against using war as an counterterrorism method have argued that the US ought to use police and intelligence methods — rather than military solutions — when fighting al-Qaeda. An article in Wired, for example, describes a national “hit squad” that can be used instead of expeditionary forces.

CIA director Leon Panetta got into hot water with Congress, after he revealed an agency program to hunt down and kill terrorists. A recent report from the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations University argues that the CIA didn’t go far enough. Instead, it suggests the American government should set up something like a “National Manhunting Agency” to go after jihadists, drug dealers, pirates and other enemies of the state. …

Sometimes, that will mean operating “in uncooperative countries.” In those cases, the teams must be prepared “to act unilaterally, with no support or coordination with local authorities, in a manner similar to that employed by Israel’s Avner team in response to the Munich Olympics massacre.” … Such a group wouldn’t just go after terrorists. “Human networks are behind narcotics trafficking, arms proliferation, piracy, hiding war criminals from authorities, human trafficking, or other smuggling activities,” Crawford writes. “Human networks also lie at the core of national governments, offering an increased potential to nonlethally influence state actors with precision. A robust manhunting capability would allow the United States to interdict these human networks.”

The idea that America will replace Sergeant Rock with Jason Bourne may at first seem like an enlightened one. But hold on. Weighing in on the other side was Italian Judge Oscar Magi, who sentenced 23 CIA agents to jail in absentia for allegedly taking part in the kidnapping of Abu Omar in 2003 and rendering him to Egypt. Jason Bourne had better be prepared to stay on the run from the Italian authorities.

At first glance defending one’s territory against bombardment may seem unambiguously legitimate. One threat that Israel now faces but which other countries may face as available missile ranges grow longer is the threat of bombardment from nonstate actors. Space War reports that rockets from Gaza can now hit Tel Aviv. An Iranian system being supplied to Hamas can reach out to Beersheba and possibly Dimona. The Hezbollah has also been supplied with up to 250 Iranian-designed Fateh 110 missiles, which have a 160 mile range. Israel has been widely criticized for trying to take out Hezbollah and Hamas in order to stop bombardments.

What abut interdicting arms supplies? Surely that’s better and exactly what Israel has just done. MSNBC reports that the Israeli navy has seized a ship carrying hundreds of tons of munitions bound for Hezbollah.

“It’s a cargo certificate that shows that it was from a port in Iran,” military spokeswoman Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich said. “All the cargo certificates are stamped at the ports of origin, and this one was stamped at an Iranian port. … Israeli military officials said the ship’s journey started in Iran, and it arrived a week ago in Beirut. The next stop was Damietta, Egypt, where the weapons were loaded, they said. Ben Yehuda said the ship was headed for Latakia, Syria.

But the Israeli action was branded “piracy” by the Syrians. And the Egyptians maintained that simply because the weapons were loaded in Egypt, it was illogical to think that Cairo was shipping weapons to Hezbollah. Israel has demanded that the UN investigate the “war crime” perpetrated by Iran. Good luck to them on that.

What about diplomatic measures? Hope has been held out that the West can stem “the hatred” directed against it by employing confidence building measures to communicate that it means no harm to anyone. Recently the US dismantled a missile defense system that would be based in Poland. But the message has been slow to sink in. The Telegraph reports that Russia simulated a nuclear attack and offensive amphibious operations against Poland’s Baltic coast in September.

The armed forces are said to have carried out “war games” in which nuclear missiles were fired and troops practised an amphibious landing on the country’s coast.

Documents obtained by Wprost, one of Poland’s leading news magazines, said the exercise was carried out in conjunction with soldiers from Belarus.

The manoeuvres are thought to have been held in September and involved about 13,000 Russian and Belarusian troops.

Poland, which has strained relations with both countries, was cast as the “potential aggressor”.

The documents state the exercises, code-named “West”, were officially classified as “defensive” but many of the operations appeared to have an offensive nature.

The Russian exercise highlights the seamless way that “defense” can segue into “offense”. Even using the high ground of space to defend against missile attack is seen as provocative. The NYT called space defenses “folly”.  This line was repeated by candidate Obama who pledged not to “weaponize space”. But a high Chinese defense official has now gone on record as saying that this is inevitable and argued that his country should agressively pursue the capability to fight outside the earth’s atmosphere. The Telegraph reports:

A TOP China air force commander has called the militarisation of space an “historical inevitability”, state media said today, marking an apparent shift in Beijing’s opposition to weaponising outer space.

In a wide-ranging interview in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Daily, air force commander Xu Qiliang said it was imperative for the PLA air force to develop offensive and defensive operations in outer space.

“As far as the revolution in military affairs is concerned, the competition between military forces is moving towards outer space… this is a historical inevitability and a development that cannot be turned back,” Commander Xu told the paper.

What about disarmament efforts? What about building “a world without nuclear weapons”? In 1922 President Warren Harding tried something simpler: creating a world without battleships. He convened a Naval Conference in Washington DC ostensibly for the purpose of scrapping useless and expensive fleets. But not only did many of the signatories cheat (the mightiest battleships in the world, Bismarck, Tirpitz, Yamato and Musashi, were built in violation of the treaty) the development of the aircraft carrier dates in large part from conference. Denied one avenue of advance, the militaries of the world simply pursued another and more deadly method. When the Second World War broke upon the America nineteen years later it was carrier borne aircraft which led the attack on Pearl Harbor.  A world without battleships became a world of super-battleships and the aircraft carrier.

There is no universally held consensus on what it means to keep the peace. What is sauce for the goose is not always sauce for the gander. All across the board there is dispute over what actions a nation can take, in time of peace, to prevent or forestall a wider war.  A “national hit team” may prevent war, but it ‘undermines international law’. Letting Israel go after shipping may avoid the need to go into Gaza or Lebanon, but what about ‘freedom of the seas’? Hamas’ missiles can reach Tel-aviv, so shouldn’t missile defenses be pursued instead? But missile defense ultimate requires sensors, radar and possibly outer space. And we can’t go around weaponizing space can we?

Whatever course is taken some risks must be run. The problem is that national politicians are afraid of risks and are quick to denounce even rational and proportionate actions at the first sign of criticism. But the dilemmas remain and it is not always possible to forever escape from their horns.

Update: a reader writes:

I read with interest your post today about the fine line between offensive systems and defensive systems, which I found (as usual) informative and thought-provoking.

I have to urge a correction on the factual and interpretive details about Harding and the Washington Conference, however. The conference is called in 1921, and meets from November 1921 to February 1922. It’s easy to lambast the conference and its outcome as silly, because they hoped that by getting rid of battleships they’d get rid of war, but it worked remarkably well. The impetus for the conference was Great Britain and the United States not wanting to sink enormous quantities of money into a pointless arms race (since it would have been directed, on both sides, at each other) AND Britain being bound by its 1902 alliance with Japan, up for renewal in 1922 (but now aimed only, ever really, at the United States, which the Canadians and Australians deeply opposed). And in the context of the great war just having ended, no one thought that war was likely. It’s a model for a successful arms control process, in fact, because it lasted more than a decade, the powers held to the limits they were given (while putting their energies into less significant weapons systems) and substituted a political-diplomatic framework in Asia that substituted for a power-
based relationship (i.e. the size of fleets). Only with the Great Depression, and the concomitant Japanese and Chinese internal political chaos, does the system really break down irreparably. You mention the carriers, and of course no one at the time thought about using carriers as the exclusive method of offensive attack–that doesn’t come until after 1929 (with the U.S. thinking about it in the fleet problems of that year and the next) and with the British attack on the Italians in 1940–which we now understand to have been the model for the Japanese plan of attack on Pearl Harbor. Some analysts of the Washington system have faulted it for preventing the U.S. from building up a large enough force for the outset of the war in 1941 (which is a little anachronistic) but the general agreement among scholars of the subject is that it +saved+ the U.S. from sinking inordinate amounts of money in the 1920s and possibly the 1930s onto weapons platforms that would have been, by the standards of the 1940s, obsolete. So the U.S. built much more modern stuff instead of wasting money on attempting to upgrade legacy systems. Finally, the Germans did not really “cheat” with their pocket battleships because they were not signatories in the original conference; the Japanese built the Yamato and Musashi in 1937 and 1938 (respectively) +after+ Japan had left the Washington system in late 1934, free to begin construction on the warships it wanted after two years…and thus in early 1937.

Jonathan Reed Winkler
Associate Professor of History

I think there is a lot of justice in this comment. First of all, I had forgotten, but now remember that the British were deeply afraid the US would outbuild their exhausted economy after the Great War ended and wanted to freeze the ships to near enough where their stock of battleships lay. I think the most telling point was that the arms control effort was driven by the interests of the parties. Countries can sometimes wish to control arms, a wish which coincides with disarmament.

One interesting difference is that while older ship ties lose their utility with age, nuclear weapons do not become less useful to the same degree. An exact copy of Little Boy, for example, would have a lot of utility in 2009 in ways that an exact copy of the Enola Gay would not. But this should not obscure the fact that I was thinking very sloppily when I used the example of the Naval Conference.

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