By: Dr. John Arquilla, US Naval Postgraduate School

In 1942, not long after the United States entered World War II, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox gave a speech in which he said, "Modern warfare is an intricate business about which no one knows everything and few know very much." He spoke at a time of great adversity, when the German Army's blitzkrieg on land and the Imperial Japanese Navy's aircraft carriers at sea had transformed the face of battle. U-boats were decimating shipping along the East Coast of the United States, and Stuka dive-bombers had already turned many European cities into rubble. To Knox, whose battle experience was as a member of Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War back in 1898,1 the technology of war had made quite startling advances and brought to life remarkable, if vexing, new military doctrines.

But one thing had not really changed: the nature of the adversaries. The Axis powers were still recognizable nation-states, with finite production possibilities and manpower. This made strategic assessment relatively easy, because it was possible to reckon the potential of the threats clearly and to map out a design for victory along the well-known, well-worn paths of previous wars. Thus, if the Germans were able to win the Battle of France in 1940 with no more than 10 panzer divisions in the field, then the United States would deploy more than double that number of its own armored divisions—which it did. If the Luftwaffe could keep just a few thousand fighters and bombers in the air, then American aircraft production would rise to tens of thousands annually. In December 1941, the US Navy had just seven aircraft carriers, but by the summer of 1945 it had built a hundred carriers—many times more than Japan could produce.2 And this was just the American contribution; the other Allies were producing mightily as well. Thus it became clear that, no matter the skill of German panzer generals and Japanese carrier admirals, they were going down in utter defeat. As historian John Ellis so succinctly described the German dilemma, "Once Hitler arrayed himself against the material might of both Russia and the USA, his battle, even for mere survival, was hopeless." 3

This simple, reassuring straightforwardness about strategic affairs was bound not to last.

In the 70 years since the end of World War II, the process of assessment has become much more difficult. This may be less true for nation-vs.-nation calculations, in which numbers of tanks, planes, ships, and missiles are still thought to matter to some degree, but it has been the reality in the area of "peoples' wars," in which irregular concepts of operations and the sheer grit of committed insurgents swept the world clean of colonial rule during the postwar decades. This first wave of anticolonial nonstate actors proved able to fight on—and more often than not, to win—despite deep material deficiencies. Today, they are being followed by a second wave of guerrilla and terrorist movements that is particularly distinguished by its networked organizational forms. These violent networks are, to borrow David Weinberger's very elegant phrasing, "small pieces loosely joined." 4 They pursue common goals with little central control or even coordination. They are hard to detect and track, much less to disrupt or destroy. They include al Qaeda and ISIS, Hezbollah and Hamas, Boko Haram and the Houthis, Jemaah Islamiyah and the Moros. The Taliban, too. If the Muslim thread that runs through these groups suggests that religious zeal is a source of strength, then one might ponder why the vast numbers of the world's devout Muslims, who actively oppose and vastly outnumber the jihadis, have had so little effect to date in quelling them.

But religion is simply one aspect of culture. Given that, from the seventh to the seventeenth centuries, successive Muslim powers were both aggressive and highly innovative, there may be some value in assessing insurgent and terrorist jihadi networks today in light of the amazing achievements of their forebears. For example—and this is perhaps the single best example—consider the half century of Islamic expansion after the Prophet's death (in 632 CE), which featured loose-jointed, highly flexible military formations that won an empire stretching from the Strait of Gibraltar in the west to Samarkand, more than 6,000 km to the east in Central Asia. Field Marshal Viscount Bernard Montgomery, in his sweeping History of Warfare, ascribed this stunning success less to force majeure than to "morale, mobility, and endurance." 5

These same qualities have been very much on display across the violent jihadi networks that have bedeviled allied armies in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade, against which technological and material advantages have proved of little value. Indeed, the fact that current-era networks of jihadis have sustained protracted campaigns from West Africa to Southeast Asia—and have been able on occasion to mount strikes much farther afield—is prima facie evidence that these groups' opponents must develop newer, fresher approaches to strategic assessment in order to fully understand and ultimately counter them. Here, too, there are lessons to be drawn from seventh-century events, when the two most advanced militaries of the time, those of the Persian and the Byzantine empires, were bowled over by the armies of Islam—the former being conquered outright and the latter rocked to its roots. In the words of Sir John Bagot Glubb, who did some soldiering with Arab armies in his time, the first Muslims "swept irresistibly forward without organization, without pay, without plans, and without orders. They constitute a perpetual warning to technically advanced nations who rely for their defence on scientific progress rather than the human spirit." 6

Glubb thus prefigured Montgomery's first factor for success: morale, an element which itself goes far toward explaining his third factor, the sheer persistence of these fighters. The implication is that strategic assessment processes today must focus on the psychological dimension of irregular warfare with both energy and insight. Although the fighting spirit of German and Japanese soldiers late in World War II remained high even when defeat was inevitable, this factor was less important to the outcome of that material-driven conflict. Today, by contrast, the resilient morale of insurgents and terrorists is undoubtedly crucial to their successes in the field, and understanding the foundation of this tenacity—which is likely to be more than just blind religious zeal—may prove to be the single most important task of strategic assessment.

Present-day jihadis seem to be as much motivated by the real power of a compelling narrative about reducing the shadow cast by infidel influence over the Muslim world as by the promise of Paradise. When this narrative makes explicit links to the great victories of the early caliphs, the later Muslim triumphs over Crusaders and Mongols, and more recent successes against the Russians in Afghanistan, the Israelis in Lebanon, and so on, including the fights that are ongoing, the strength of the story grows exponentially.

As to the remaining key factor mentioned by Montgomery, the sheer capacity to get around, insurgent mobility today is more a product of stealth than of the swift horses and durable camels that took the soldiers of the early caliphates across such a wide swath of the world in such a short time. If the jihadi today cannot be detected and tracked early on, then he can "ride the rails" of globalization to get wherever he wishes to go, whether by turning a commercial airliner into a long-range cruise missile, or traveling by whatever varied means to reach the fight in some far-off land. Stealthiness destroys distance—yet another factor that turns classic strategic assessment on its head. Again, think back to the Second World War. Both the Germans and the Japanese conquered vast territories, but the farther they went, the harder their efforts were to sustain, and the more utterly vulnerable they became to counterattacks. The Axis reverses at Stalingrad and Guadalcanal were no mysteries; they were the consequences of overextension. Not so today. The greater the geographic spread of contemporary jihadis, the greater the problems they pose for counterterrorist forces. This, too, is an area in which concepts of assessment must evolve.

Clearly, traditional modes of strategic assessment do not work well when it comes to understanding the capabilities of non-state networks of insurgents and terrorists. The further possibility that nation-states may enter into dark alliances with such networks—including ones that prey upon the world in and from cyberspace—complicates the assessment of more traditional adversaries. One cannot view pro-Russian actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine without great concern for the possibility that nations are opening up a whole new form of covert aggression by linking up with and motivating networks of non-state actors. What is more, both Russia and China have shown remarkable perspicacity in cultivating hacker networks.

Thus, in addition to the eruption of the world's first great war between nations and jihadi networks, ongoing since 9/11, there is yet another conflict emerging, one in which coalitions of nations and networks will increasingly face off against each other. Not a cold war, but a "cool war." Unlike the Cold War arms race to build nuclear weapons, however, the principal dynamic is now an "organizational race" to build networks. Hoping to understand and master this new dynamic, many researchers in our Defense Analysis program at the Naval Postgraduate School, along with colleagues at Pennsylvania State University and at the National Counterterrorism Center, are looking at new ways to assess non-state actors.

This special issue of CTX is a major step that may help to guide the process of developing an innovative, much-needed new approach to the whole process of strategic assessment of non-state actors. Both the potential of and the challenges to this undertaking are well exposited by the authors herein. At this point, I can only add that, in addition to the value of the many substantive insights to be found in this issue, our hope is that a real sense of urgency will arise about the need to develop more network-oriented modes of assessment. It has been almost 20 years since David Ronfeldt and I first pointed to the rise of this threat from networks, and to the odd new mode of conflict that would come along with them. As we put the matter then,

Power is migrating to actors who are skilled at developing networks, and at operating in a world of networks. Actors positioned to take advantage of networking are being strengthened faster than actors embedded in old hierarchical structures that constrain networking. … Non-state adversaries—from warriors to criminals, especially those that are transnational—are currently ahead of government actors at using, and at being able to use, this mode of organization and related doctrines and strategies.7

We lag far behind in an "organizational race" in which non-state actors have been given quite a head start. Now it is time to start catching up.

About the Author(s):
Dr. John Arquilla is professor and chair in the Department of Defense Analysis at the US Naval Postgraduate School.

  1. Before Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt became the 26th president of the United States in 1901, he led a regiment of irregular cavalry in the Spanish-American War. Their most famous engagement was a bravado charge at the Battle of San Juan, an act that made the Rough Riders and Roosevelt national heroes. 
  2. For details on carrier and other ship production, see Samuel Eliot Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, vol. 15, Supplemental and General Index (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1962), 29–35. 
  3. John Ellis, Brute Force: Allied Strategy and Tactics in the Second World War (New York: Viking Press, 1990), 30. 
  4. David Weinberger, Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web (New York: Perseus Books, 2002).  
  5. Bernard Montgomery, A History of Warfare (Cleveland: World Publishing Company, 1968), 138. 
  6. Glubb trained and led Transjordan's Arab forces between 1939 and 1956. John Bagot Glubb, The Great Arab Conquests (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1963), 359. 
  7. John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, The Advent of Netwar, MR-789-OSD (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, 1996), 43. 
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