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Reflections on Information War, Casualty Aversion, and Military Research and Development After the Gulf War and the Demise of the Soviet Union

by Charles Knight, Lutz Unterseher, and Carl Conetta
(excerpted from "Military Research and Development after the Second Gulf War"
in Smit, Grin, and Veronkov, Military Technological Innovation and Stability in a Changing World,
VU University Press, Amsterdam, 1992)

The sudden end of the cold war and the dissolution of the Soviet Union has created something of an institutional crisis for the large research and development establishments of the West. There is very considerable investment in systems already in the R&D pipeline that are predicated on a Soviet opponent. A generalized national "need to stay ahead" could substitute for Soviet competition and would have considerable political currency, especially in the United States. However, even this rationale will not stand if there is no serious competition. Although some third world countries have very substantial military establishments and some technologies could proliferate rapidly, there is no third world military that can compete qualitatively and quantitatively in air-land midintensity warfare with the armed forces that the large industrial nations can field.

We can ascertain the limits of third world military power by examining third world military expenditures per active duty military personnel, a measure of the intensity of military investment.1 With the single exception of South Korea, all major third world military powers have military investment intensities that range from 2-12% of that of the United States. Certainly, many third world nations could increase their military investment intensity by reducing the size of their standing armed forces, but they simply can not afford to have both the quantity and quality to compete with the industrial countries.2

This was vividly demonstrated when Iraq, with one of the third world's best equipped and largest armies, fought a coalition of Western and regional forces in the Second Gulf War. Despite its nominal size, Iraq's army had less than a sixth of the investment intensity of its principal adversaries in the coalition. Regarding the coalition members, the integration of high-tech systems in their arsenals accounts for a part, but only a part, of their high investment intensity. The level of military investment intensity effects much more than an army's table of equipment. It also has significant impact on the quality of support infrastructure, combat and technical training, quality of military leadership, and the extent of national military-industrial base.3

Looking at the outcome of the Second Gulf War one could conclude that as long as the advanced industrial countries are not contemplating fighting each other they can afford to substantially reduce their R&D investments. Third world countries may be able to selectively acquire a few advanced weapons and systems to equip a small fraction of their forces, but they can not become broadly competitive for the foreseeable future.

This, of course, is not the Gulf War lesson favored by the R&D establishments. Basking in the glow of media fascination with the performance of high-tech weaponry in the war, they argue for continuing high investments in military R&D. The systems they are now working on are one or two generations beyond most of those displayed in the Gulf. As the after-glow of the war fades, more and more citizens may ask: Why continue high levels of R&D investment if your competitor is no longer one generation behind and closing, but rather two or three generations behind? A provisional answer to this question is found in the idea that technology can be used to minimize "our side" casualties in warfare.4

Casualty Risk Aversion and A New Role for R&D

Since the Vietnam War it has been a political imperative for the U.S. to keep casualties to its soldiers minimal in foreign interventions. The extraordinary low casualties in the Second Gulf War has reinforced this requirement and set a new standard.5 With this precedent now set, the political consequences of likely combat casualties much above a few hundred in a foreign intervention will be considered a grave risk.

All nations with any degree of responsiveness to their citizens are casualty averse, but wealthy democratic countries have acquired a particularly low political tolerance in this area; their political elites can be said to be risk averse in regard to war casualties. This does not necessarily mean these elites are always averse to war, but it does mean they feel a growing pressure to achieve military aims at very low casualty rates.

There are two respects in which the Gulf War experience connects the imperative for low casualties with R&D. One is that nearly half of the battlefield deaths of U.S. soldiers were from "friendly fire" or fratricide.6 Reducing these incidents, common throughout the history of warfare, has become a new priority for policy-makers. The problem of fratricide is being used to justify continued investments in technologies such as positioning integration, situation awareness, optical improvements, and non-cooperative target identification that are principally of use in maneuver control and target acquisition. The evident move to link so much of the U.S. Army's command, control and communications R&D program to identification of friend or foe supports the hypothesis that casualty risk reduction will be used more and more to rationalize future R&D investments.7

The other connection is that many of the recently introduced or planned tactical/technical developments originally intended to produce battlefield advantage over Soviet forces are now seen as providing ways of keeping our soldiers from harm in combat against far less capable adversaries. The prospective foe may be incompetent, but the requirement of extremely low casualties is much more demanding than the obsolescent goal of simply winning the conflict. Theoretically, there is no limit to the military investment requirement if the goal is ensuring nil casualties. This proposition is not lost on the military R&D community. Already plans for new heavy armor platforms are being sold to the U.S. Congress on the basis of survivability enhancements rather than overall combat capabilities.8

Information War

In the Gulf War a major contributing factor to keeping friendly casualties low was the coalition's ability to blind the Iraqis' operational surveillance and reconnaissance capacity. A blind opponent doesn't know where to counter-strike. The campaign to blind one's opponent while seeking to optimize one's own surveillance and reconnaissance has been termed "information war." It is characterized by attempts to extend and enhance one's information acquisition, processing, and communication capabilities while degrading or destroying those of the enemy. It also requires mounting countermeasures to block the opponent's efforts to disrupt and degrade one's own capability. The U.S. and its allies have aggressively pursued superior information war capabilities for the last 25 years in a historical context of competition with the Soviets.9 The rationale has been that the West could overcome Soviet quantitative advantage by putting Western forces and firepower in the right place at the right time while simultaneously causing the disruption and disorganization of the operations of the larger Soviet forces.

Information war effects all levels of the conflict: strategic, operational, and tactical. The acquisition, processing, and dissemination of information was the leading role for advanced technology in the war. The claim that General Schwarzkopf operated with the best information of any commander in modern times while the Iraqi generals were operating blind is not much of an exaggeration. This differential was evident right down the organizational chart to the artillery captain or the tank gunner.

Following the Gulf War there will be continuing efforts toward integration of all available reconnaissance data -- from forward observers, manned or unmanned aircraft, or satellites using radar, infrared sensors, electro-optical or film cameras. This will put prodigious demands on data processing and distribution, and will require careful prioritizing of data flow and analysis. Although such multi-source integration has been a goal of the U.S. forces, it was not in place during the Gulf War. Nevertheless the information production of intelligence and reconnaissance sources was enormous; for instance, the Defense Mapping Agency produced circa one hundred million map sheets during the war. It is noteworthy that there were relatively few complaints from commanders of information overload. Apparently intelligence officers and commanders have developed methods to shift through this blizzard of information for what they need. How well these methods would have worked if coalition forces had been under great pressure from the enemy is an open question.10

Historically there has been a tendency for higher level commanders to try to micro-manage the battlefield. Rapidly improving access by theatre commanders to detailed battlefield information may exacerbate this tendency and stifle initiative at lower levels of field command.

Information war systems -- and many long-range weapons -- rely on technologies that by their nature are not robust. Their electronics are delicate, and their sensors often attuned to a narrow range of frequencies or wavelengths. They may be able to make calculations many times faster than a human being, but they don't have the flexible intelligence, survival wit, or will power of a human being. In addition, they will be more vulnerable to technological surprise and we can expect vigorous measure/counter-measure cycles.11

There are several factors that limit our ability to evaluate the success of information war in the Second Gulf War. First, most information flow (especially if associated with target acquisition) is terrain sensitive. The best settings for long range engagement are air and sea. Probably the best terrain on land for informational war is desert where there is very little to interrupt the line-of-sight. While harsh temperatures in the Gulf tested the reliability of electronic components and sandstorms sometimes obscured objectives, for the most part conditions were close to ideal for the new technologies. It is certainly an open question whether a similar performance could be achieved in a typical European setting.

The other factor to consider is that the Iraqis had very little capacity to disrupt the information gathering and processing capabilities of the coalition forces. They could not make strategic strikes at coalition communication nodes, and they had little or no effective electronic warfare capability. What they could do with some success (especially with their mobile Scud launchers) is hide and deceive, but this had little effect on the outcome of the conflict other than marginally delaying defeat. All in all, the war experience does not tell us much about the effectiveness of advanced technology weapon systems in a more differentiated environment and against a more electronically sophisticated opponent.


Nearly all available armoring of mechanized ground forces was used in the Gulf War: U.S. divisions with the M1A1 tank were brought from Germany; M1A1s were loaned to Marine brigades; Marine amphibians and light armored vehicles were equipped with applique armor kits; and British vehicles donned side skirts of Chobham armor.

It is difficult to assess what contribution this up-armoring made to the very low vehicle-loss rates for coalition forces, because for the most part the Iraqis were unable to return much fire. The Pentagon does report that in a minimum of seven instances Iraqi shells bounced off M1A1 tanks and there are no reports of coalition tanks being lost to enemy guns. In the near term, the apparent success of modern armor in helping avoid losses will encourage further development of "threat-adaptable" modular armor packages. These can be transported separately to the staging ground and used only when conditions require.

Adding armor extracts a cost in power-to-weight ratios and thus reduces battlefield agility. Studies have shown that even tanks with the highest power-to-weight ratios would need 50%+ increases in power to gain true protection through agility. The rush to up-armor vehicles preparing for operations illustrates that in actual military contingencies commanders will tend to choose armor over agility. Moreover, casualty risk aversion will likely reinforce this preference for armor, and this may lead to a classic weapon development dead end. With hypervelocity guns on the development horizon, agility may prove far more vital than armor for protection.12

Agility is the essential survival tactic of combat helicopters for which practical weight limits require very light armoring at best. In the Gulf War, helicopter pilots preferred to launch anti-tank missiles from beyond the range of counter-fire and to "pop-up" over the horizon only briefly to fire. However successful in Gulf War, this is quite different from the combined-arms assault tactics envisioned by air cavalry advocates, in which helicopters would be more exposed to shorter range anti-aircraft fire.

Where armor force competition with the Soviets would have once sufficed as a rationale for extending the range and power of cannons, casualty risk aversion is now likely to help drive development of longer-range tank guns. Work is proceeding on mating 140-mm guns to tank platforms and on developing hypervelocity guns which can deliver much higher firepower at lower caliber.13 There are engineering problems of weight and size with both options; but it is likely that hypervelocity will be favored for the development of line-of-sight guns and missiles of the early 21st Century because it has the potential power to overcome any practical armor options, including advanced active types. Although development is likely to proceed, hypervelocity weapons will not necessarily be fielded unless they are needed by the large powers. If a new arms race in hypervelocity appears it will a consequence of the up-armoring proceeding currently. In this regard the proliferation of active armor systems out of the former Soviet Union is of particular concern.14 This technology, together with top armoring, might render anti-tank guided missiles largely ineffective and give new life to the tank gun as the only effective tank killer.

Target Recognition

Avoiding enemy fire by firing first and then maneuvering places a premium on good target information, rapid processing, and fire control. In an attempt to gain advantage in the targeting process, Automatic Target Recognition (ATR) systems are in development. They will likely attract greater investments despite their high cost. Without a "man in the loop", this target system, using high-speed computer processing to recognize image patterns, is quite susceptible to spoofing. In manned platforms such as tanks, ATR systems could be adapted to allow human confirmation of targets before fire. In such semi-automated configurations the function of ATRs would be to speed up the identification of targets and help prioritize them.

For anti-armor applications it may prove possible to develop relatively cheap autonomous systems that can loiter over target-rich areas awaiting identification of their specific programmed target. Although prone to failure for a variety of reasons, the success/failure ratio against certain high-value targets, such as tanks and self-propelled artillery, might be found cost-effective. To help avoid spoofing, fiber-optic cable can be employed to keep "men in the loop" and override "dumb" automatic targeting.

The Search for Scuds

Probably the most difficult task for the coalition forces in the Gulf War was the hunt for mobile Scud launchers. Commanders admit that it went much slower and required the diversion of more resources than anticipated.15 Why did the coalition have such an easy time targeting most of the Iraqi forces and so much trouble with the mobile Scuds? There are several interrelated reasons. The launchers moved frequently (allowing only short exposure time) between numerous dispersed, well-camouflaged, and often fortified positions. Also the Iraqis built many dummy launchers and positions for deception. Radio communications were short and infrequent, as were radar emissions. Perhaps most important, the pattern of Scud movement and deployment was more random compared to that of Iraqi armor, artillery, and infantry units.

Special Operation Forces

The success of Special Operations Forces (SOFs) in moving widely in Iraq is one of the remarkable stories of the war. They are credited with locating 40 mobile Scud launchers that had not been found by numerous overhead reconnaissance means.16 They also located and frequently designated with lasers, many other targets for coalition aircraft. Intensive training and advanced communications were no doubt key in allowing these extremely light and agile troops to operate with impunity in enemy territory.

Right on Track?

For U.S. military technologists the Gulf War experience served mainly to confirm that they were on the right track. Not much in their thinking is likely to change other than emphasis and priorities. Even minor changes are likely to be driven more by the assessment of likely future opponents than by the need to correct tactical or operational military deficiencies discovered in the war. For instance, Identify Friend or Foe (IFF) will get more attention because the primary war scenario is no longer an all-out struggle with the Soviet Union in which high casualties would be inevitable, but rather a variation of the war with Iraq, in which the object would be quick victory with minimal close combat and U.S. casualties. In such a war, the political consequences of "friendly fire" casualties are much higher.

Because the U.S. continues in this high-tech direction does not mean many other countries will follow. For many, lack of access to advanced technologies and their expense will preclude deployment. If poorer nations act rationally -- for that there is no guarantee -- they might select a few advanced technologies that can serve as force-multipliers for their general forces and more fully modernize only a few small units for specialized missions.

In the advanced industrial countries the established patterns of military technological development tend to emphasize high precision weaponry, autonomous systems, and removal of men "from the loop." However, seeking military advantage through layering complexity into systems may increase vulnerability to accumulating systems failure.17 In such a one-sided contest as the Second Gulf War, there is a danger that the potential for this kind of failure will not be discovered. One time success will likely lead to greater investments in complexity and efforts to take human beings "out of the loop" with an eye to reducing casualty risks. This, in turn, may lower the threshold for future interventions and reduce the political space for non-violent conflict resolution. Rather than acquire a guarantee of military superiority, the leading industrial countries may unwittingly modernize toward increased vulnerability as they become dependent on the overly-complex technological solutions which they have substituted for robust military structures and sound doctrine. In time, an ongoing pattern of distorted investments could result in catastrophic failure and high casualties in war against a more sophisticated opponent. The quick victory in the Gulf War may nourish the illusion that such technological investments are a guarantee of future superiority and low war casualties.


1. See Conetta, Carl and Charles Knight, Adapting the US Army and Marine Corps to the New Era, Part 1, "The Measure of Third World Military Power," Section 3.2, pp. 35-38, Commonwealth Institute, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1992.

2. Another way to view this differential is to consider if the U.S. were to cut its expenditures on R&D which currently run about 13% of defense budget authority in half. This would change the ratio of military investment intensity with the highest of the third world countries by less than 1%.

3. Conetta and Knight, 1992, pp. 35-38.

4. There are two other answers to this question that deserve mention. One is that if the industrial powers continue to sell their best military technology they may have to invest in new technology to keep ahead of their customers. Without arms sale restraints this could easily be a self-generating cycle. The other possibility would be a deliberate attempt to pump-up the military-technological threat from Russia at some point in the next decade, although this is not likely to be very convincing given the structural political and economic constraints Russia faces.

5. 148 Americans died in combat during the war or .03% of the Americans soldiers in the theatre. Noncombat casualties to troops were on the order of four times higher. Schmitt, Eric, "U.S. Seeks to Cut Accidental War Death," New York Times, 9 December 1991, p. A12.

6. Ibid.

7. See "Army Fratricide Solution Puts Tech on Friend/Foe ID Over Seven Years Away," Inside the Army, January 20, 1992, pp.1-2.

8. See "With Comanche Facing Cuts, Army Re-Looks ASM; Eyes Speed Up of AFAS, FAARV-A," Inside the Army, January 20, 1992, p.5.

9. The pursuit of information war capabilities presents several problems for arms control efforts. Many of the technological advances in this area are embedded in sub-systems which can greatly increase capabilities of older weapon systems and platforms when they are retrofitted. In addition civilian technology development in micro-processed communications is outpacing military development making control of proliferation extremely difficult. It is also noteworthy that in a period of low military tensions between the major powers that leading military technology developers such as the U.S. may find it in their interest to skip a generation of development. There would therefore be a danger of arms control efforts helping the U.S. codify restrictions on a generation of weapons the U.S. does not plan to build in any case. It is likely that about the time any arms controls measures were signed the U.S. would be ready to produce a follow-on generation of systems. The result would be to allow the U.S. to further its deployable technological lead.

10. Command, control and communication staff can become unnerved and confused quite quickly if under military pressure. In the Second Gulf War, coalition command staffs suffered none of the degrading effects of such pressure. Therefore this war cannot be considered a good test of C3 capabilities.

11. Inherently vulnerable techno-structures will tend to encourage technologists to pursue counter-measures. One experience in the war gave a suggestion of the continuing momentum of measure/counter-measure cycles which survive the end of the Cold War. Although the F-117 stealth fighter performed impressively in its first large-scale operational employment, apparently avoiding detection by most all Iraqi radar, it was, on at least one occasion, picked up at 40 nautical miles by the broad-beam surveillance radar on a British ship over the Gulf and subsequently tracked by the ship's fire control radar at 10 nautical miles. Interestingly, this incident and others similar are prompting a counter-measure/counter-counter-measure effort among allies: France is pursuing counter-stealth radar and the U.S. is looking to make future stealth designs less detectable by broad-beam radar. Apparently the impetus for this sort of military technological development cycle will persist even if there is no competition from a prospective "enemy." See Brower, Kenneth, "Technology and the Future Battlef ield: The Impact of Force Structure, Procurement and Arms Control," RUSI Journal, Spring, 1990, p. 57 and Norman Friedman, Desert Victory: The War for Kuwait, US Naval Institute, Annapolis, Maryland, 1991, pg.183, note 10.

12. According to Gen. John W. Foss, retired commander of the U.S. Army's Training and Doctrine Command, with hypervelocity "you knock [the tank] over...[or] it takes the turret off." "Electrothermal Cannon Aims at Giving M-1 Tanks 140-mm punch in 120-mm Gun," Armed Forces Journal International, October, 1991.

13. The U.S. Army's development goal is "a 140-mm punch with a 120-mm system." Ibid.

14. See "U.S. Planning to Test Advanced Soviet Active Armour," International Defense Review, March, 1992, p.211.

15. Schemmer, Benjamin, "Special Ops Teams Found 29 SCUDs Ready to Barrage Israel 24 Hours Before Cease-Fire," Armed Forces Journal International, July, 1991, p. 36.

16. Ibid.

17. See discussion of success chance of multi-variable systems in Simpkin, Richard, Antitank, Brassey's, Oxford, 1982, pp. 158-162.

Knight, Charles, Lutz Unterseher, and Carl Conetta, "Reflections on Information War, Casualty Aversion, and Military Research and Development After the Gulf War and the Demise of the Soviet Union," excerpted from "Military Research and Development after the Second Gulf War" in Smit, Grin, and Veronkov, Military Technological Innovation and Stability in a Changing World, VU University Press, Amsterdam, 1992. Internet publication March 2000: http://www.comw.org/pda/0003refl.html.

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