By Haig Hovaness
Despite the gross failures of a 20-year “War on Terror,” American foreign policy in 2021 showed no change from the militaristic ideology which has characterized it since WWII. Indeed, in 2021 the U.S. government approved a record $750 billion defense budget, rewarding the armed services for enabling a remarkably costly and fruitless series of foreign misadventures. The Washington policy elite is handling the debacles of the post-9/11 regime change wars with media messaging intended to make their “mistakes” disappear through public amnesia. Meanwhile, this establishment (now regularly referred to as the Blob) has found new targets for military confrontation in Russia, and China, while remaining in a state of economic war with Iran.
Based on current events, a casual observer might conclude that U.S. militarism is an invincible ideology impervious to any contrary developments. However, the relentless advance of technology has changed the character of armed conflict in ways that render militaristic foreign policy futile, dangerous, and ultimately doomed. The reasons for this assertion are the increasing infeasibility of large-scale use of modern weapons, and the instability of sustained conflict brinkmanship.
The supreme irony of the vast efforts made by major powers to develop and deploy advanced weaponry is the increasingly self-limiting character of much of this arsenal. Over the last decade, non-nuclear weapons have achieved a potential for mass destruction rivaling that of nuclear weapons. This has resulted from dramatic advances in the range, speed, and targeting precision of guided missiles and the emergence of cyber-warfare. Today, even a non-nuclear war between advanced nations would result in rapid and widespread destruction of military and civilian facilities, imposing an unacceptable cost on the belligerents. Moreover, such a devastating “conventional” war could easily escalate into a nuclear conflict if vital defense assets were destroyed.
In the recent regional war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Karabakh, the use of sophisticated drones and precision-guided munitions by Azerbaijan resulted in the destruction of almost half of Armenia’s military assets in Karabakh in the first hour of the conflict. On the modern battlefield, there is no place to hide, and anything that can be detected can be targeted and destroyed quickly by precision weapons. A large-scale conflict between two modern armies would entail massive destruction and heavy casualties, but unlike world wars 1 and II, this would take place in days, not years. Unfortunately, the new realities of high-tech warfare have outpaced the political thinking of leaders committed to militarism. The telescoping of the time domain in which modern wars would be fought could enable events to outrun political deliberations and raises the possibility of runaway escalation of hostilities. Leaders persist in believing that they can control the scope of armed conflict and avoid catastrophe, but this is a dangerous delusion.
The conventional wisdom in national foreign policy circles is that a state of antagonistic foreign relations on the brink of war can be maintained indefinitely because prudent leaders will carefully modulate provocative behavior to avoid war while preserving the benefits of militaristic policies. These benefits accrue to the military leadership, arms makers, and politicians, but the general public bears the heavy financial cost of militarism and would pay the bloody price of war. Despite ample evidence that accidental nuclear war has been narrowly avoided many times since 1945, the fortuitous avoidance of nuclear war is considered “proof” of the success of militarism in maintaining peace.
The advent of increasingly destructive non-nuclear weapons, and their continued unrestrained deployment will make the brinkmanship required to sustain militaristic policies unsustainable. The new weaponry is destabilizing because it magnifies the consequences of human error; increases proliferation danger; introduces greater potential for malfunctions; and amplifies the dangers of escalation.
Human error in military use of anti-aircraft missiles has been responsible for the destruction of three civilian airliners in recent years: Iran Air flight 665 (1988); Malaysia Airlines flight 17 (2914); Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 (2020). A total of 764 civilians died in these incidents. They were killed by militarism. In each case, a military officer mistakenly responded to a perceived threat from a military adversary without a declared state of war. The high-tech weaponry being developed and deployed today will increase the probability of erroneous use because it amplifies the destructive power available to local military commanders. Junior officers can now control weapons with a range of hundreds of miles. A fear of “decapitating” pre-emptive strikes by an adversary will motivate leaders to disperse launch authority widely through lower ranks of the military hierarchy. Today, a single precision-guided missile or torpedo can sink a ship in a matter of minutes. Sustaining a high level of international tension in a world flooded with hair-trigger, high-speed weapons is a recipe for disaster.
Proliferation of weapons technology is an inevitable process that raises the potential for global violence as weapons fall into the hands of rogue states and non-state organizations. Precision-guided missiles are slowly entering the arsenals of groups like Hezbollah, and cyber-weapons leaked from U.S. government agencies have already been used by criminals for ransomware attacks. The longer unrestrained high-tech arms racing continues the more danger exists of reckless actors using these weapons to wreak destruction.
Malfunctioning of weapons is a function of their complexity. An unfortunate characteristic of computer programming is that non-trivial software cannot be exhaustively tested, and military software is extensive and complex. (The U.S. F35 fighter jet is estimated to have eight million lines of software code.) Moreover, the competitive pressure of arms racing can cause new high-tech weapons to be rushed into production with hidden software failure modes that can have catastrophic consequences.
Escalation in military conflict occurs when adversaries exchange progressively more damaging blows. In the past, the pace of escalation was limited by the slow movement of troops and supplies necessary to expand the scale of fighting. Today, the speed of high-tech weapons delivery and the efficiency of command-and-control communications makes possible an accelerated tempo of escalation. This speed-up of combat is especially dangerous for nuclear-armed powers because the end of the escalation ladder is a massive exchange of nuclear strikes. If future weapons and battle management systems are increasingly computer-controlled, there will be a danger of runaway escalation.
The long era of militarism is approaching an end. Enormous expenditures on advanced weaponry and large military establishments have no practical value if the consequences of employing such weapons are intolerable. Thus, the elimination of militarism should be a high priority in the agenda of all political parties and national governments. If militarism persists, with its need to sustain dangerous international tensions, disastrous armed conflict is inevitable, by design, accident, or error. The end of militarism will come – either from policy reform or military disaster. The only question is how many will die needlessly before this pernicious ideology vanishes.