In February of 2015, the dais was packed with Iranian officials called together to witness an exclusive event. They were among the select few invited to a highly orchestrated naval exhibition meant to demonstrate the viability of Iranian “swarm” tactics against a U.S. aircraft carrier. Their patience was rewarded with a mock engagement in which the static, knockoff carrier was beset on all sides by fast attack craft, its self-defense confounded by the multiple angles of attack. Although the results were a highly optimistic assessment of Iranian capabilities, the broader concept at play generated much analysis. Is the era of “large, expensive, and few” military platforms drawing to a close, pundits asked? If so, why?
Upon examination, there are separate tactical and economic issues that have caused combatants to explore asymmetric tech. Tactically, it remains to be seen if sophisticated platforms can truly be overwhelmed by multiple, smaller attackers. Economically, the world’s militaries are also pondering if investments in large and expensive platforms such as main battle tanks and advanced piloted fighters still delivers a comparatively good value versus cheaper, more rapidly produced pieces. I’ll call these spears (big, expensive) and arrows (smaller, cheaper).
Significantly, the second dilemma above does not necessarily hinge on the first. Regardless of the shifting tactical strengths of spears and arrows due to changes in technology, advanced militaries may also independently decide that the procurement, manufacturing, manning, and sustainment of spears is not a good investment compared with the cumulative effect of many arrows. Lose one spear, and you’ve suffered a significant tactical and economic hit. Lose multiple arrows, and the attack continues. Thus, we have tandem considerations, tactical and economic, that must be squared.
Unfortunately, much of what is written about the spear vs. arrow phenomenon focuses exclusively on the tactical aspect, with less attention paid to the broader economic context. This is an incomplete picture. Consider the current Russian frustrations with the next generation stealth fighter. Production issues have created multiple delays to date, order quantities have been slashed, and economic sanctions have forced Moscow into alternate, more disruptive means of financing. These frustrations have occurred before a single aircraft has taken flight or been tested against a potential swarm attack. Might these compounding economic hindrances force Moscow toward an arrow solution?
The forward thinkers at DARPA are already seeking to marry solid tactical tools with economically supportable production by harnessing the effect of current sophisticated manned aircraft at a fraction of the cost. A Popular Science article quotes a DARPA project manager on the advantages of firing scores of arrows at an adversary: “We wouldn’t be discarding the entire airframe, engine, avionics and payload with every mission, as is done with missiles, but we also wouldn’t have to carry the maintainability and operational cost burdens of today’s reusable systems, which are meant to stay in service for decades.” Alas, the modern marriage of viable tools and economic practicality is drawing near.
A note on the “modern” part. Viewed from a historical perspective, it is clear that the Iranian military, Russia, and DARPA are not facing unprecedented challenges. Strategic thought suggests that victors align strategy, operations, and tactics in mutually supporting fashion, with tactics subordinate to strategy. History also suggests another, more direct imperative: the marriage of one’s tactical tools and one’s economy. This is not an all encompassing strategic ends-ways-means formulation, but a more direct reconciling of one’s tools, their viability in a modern context, and one’s ability to generate and sustain them.
The Vietcong were quite proficient in their understanding of this principle. In the book Inside the VC and the NVA, authors Michael Lee Lanning and Dan Cragg explore dozens of VC attributes, from organization to rations to equipment. The lessons of the Tet Offensive were particularly effective in teaching the North Vietnamese the important harmony between effective tactical tools and economics. The authors recount, “[Tet] was a reminder that it was better to be occasionally hungry or short of ammunition in a jungle hideaway than to have a full stomach and extra ammo and attempt to slug it out with Allied units toe to toe”.
North Vietnam was not awash with internal financial resources. They also lacked the numbers or the equipment to fight organized U.S. formations in the open. Thus, they selected an effective tactical and economic union – an affordable mix of land mines, small arms, and booby traps – to help wear down U.S. resolve. Commitment to this approach was fully nested throughout the economy to maximize what economic advantages they did possess. Labor was one asset, with defense plant workers toiling between 12-16 hours a day for ten days at a stretch. External economic support from the People’s Republic of China, some $225 million in 1967 alone, also helped. Despite these benefits, the North Vietnamese successfully resisted the temptation to push their tools and tactics into unsustainable areas.
The linkage of tools and economics is not just an imperative for the economically disadvantaged. The German Army of WWII had a robust economy, larger than any other combatant besides the U.S. as of 1939, yet still made multiple blunders. The German ballistic missile program provides a fairly fascinating illustration of one such miscue. Michael J. Neufeld’s book The Rocket and the Reich details the “munitions crisis” that Germany brought upon itself by pursuing the tank-intensive Polish campaign, massive domestic construction projects, and long range rocket production in rapid fashion. The constraining factor? Steel. There simply wasn’t enough supply to support the demands of the ambitious German agenda. The missile program in particular was a dangerous obsession for German leaders, who were more concerned with could they develop reliable ballistic missiles in time to win the war, than wondering if they should, given competing demands. Thus, in contrast to the VC, there was a central disharmony between the tools deemed necessary to win and the economic output required to supply them.
The lessons we can draw are simple, yet important as ever for planners to understand. The factors of tools, technology, and economics engage in a perpetual dance, luring combatants to emphasize one ahead of the others. In fact, all must be considered in concert. A seemingly can’t-miss advancement in technology cannot be pursued if it will lead to economic ruin. Alternatively, a robust economy does not immunize one from technologically simple tools of the adversary. Planners must balance the factors of tools, technology, and economics to determine an optimal mix, ready to trade reliable but outmoded spears for arrows when the next conflict dictates.