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MIT Technology Review

The end of high-tech war

In an excerpt from his new book, The Dragons and the Snakes, a leading military strategist explains how the West is losing its technological edge over guerrilla insurgencies.

book coverbook cover
book cover

David Kilcullen was an Australian Army officer who became a senior strategic advisor to the US Departments of Defense and State, specializing in counterinsurgency, and was one of the primary architects of the 2007 troop surge in Iraq. He is the author of four previous books: The Accidental Guerrilla, Counterinsurgency, Out of the Mountains, and Blood Year. His new book argues that the highly technological way of waging war that the US and its allies have refined over the last quarter century is no longer viable. While the American military became too narrowly focused on counterterrorism, China and Russia devised strategies to counteract American power. At the same time, new technologies like the Global Positioning System—originally created for the US military—have given non-state actors like Hezbollah, ISIS and Al Qaeda capabilities that were once unique to the most high-tech armed forces. On several evenings in early March, as NPR's Tom Bowman reported, a West Virginia National Guard patrol in northeast Syria was attacked by drones like those Kilcullen describes in this excerpt.


One of the fundamental changes that has taken place since the end of the Cold War is the spread of smart, handheld consumer electronic systems.

Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites, so central to virtually every aspect of modern life worldwide, are a constellation of US military space platforms, while Google Earth, originally known as “Keyhole Viewer” in a coy reference to the special security system for US spy satellites, was created with CIA funding in 2001 before being acquired by Google in 2004. By 2011, Google Earth had been downloaded a billion times and was running on laptops, iPads, Android and iOS smartphones, and a host of other devices around the globe. By 2017, there were more than five billion global navigation system satellite (GNSS) devices worldwide, and that number was expected to grow to eight billion by 2020.

When GPS was first introduced in 1993, civilians could not use the full military-grade version of it; only a degraded-accuracy version was available. In May 2000, the US government stopped degrading civilian GPS and, in September 2007, announced that future GPS satellites would no longer have the ability to do so. In effect, bipartisan decisions by the Clinton and Bush administrations made military-grade precision available to everyone on the planet at US government expense. The application has been increasingly obvious in recent conflicts.

We in the West oriented ourselves to the main threat, continuously improving our capability for precision strikes, drone warfare, counterinsurgency, special operations raids, and a host of other tools and techniques.

During the Libyan and Syrian uprisings of 2011, rebels used Skype, Google Earth, and GPS-enabled smartphones (then in relatively short supply) to support their operations. A photo from the period shows Syrian rebels using the compass app from an Android cellphone to determine where to point a homemade multi-barrel rocket launcher. This is not particularly innovative—a magnetic compass would, of course, be thrown off by such a large chunk of metal, so it makes sense to use an electronic one while keeping the rest of the traditional firing system unchanged. But within a few years, technology and connectivity had advanced to the point where guerrillas could construct an entire smartphone-based precision firing system for mortars and rockets.

By 2014, mortar teams in Aleppo could use their iPad or smartphone’s GPS (which told them their mortar’s precise location) along with its compass app to determine the azimuth for a given target, then refer to firing tables downloaded over an internet browser, or use a ballistic computing app (also on the phone) to determine the correct elevation and propellant charge for a particular range. They could then set that elevation using the smartphone’s inclinometer and fire their first ranging shot. A remote observer—on the scene or, more likely, located elsewhere but in contact via phone or secure messaging app with someone able to see the target—would place a pin in Google Earth to mark the fall of shot. This pin could be made to appear on the version of Google Earth running on the mortar team’s smartphone, and they could immediately launch multiple rounds to destroy the target after just one ranging round. For comparison, this fire- control system lets nonstate armed groups attain a level of precision equal to, or better than, what most state-based military forces can achieve. And the fire-control system that enables that precision sits on a cellphone—a far lighter, cheaper, more discreet, and less bulky platform than used by conventional forces.

By 2016, Ukrainian artillery officers using the venerable D-30 122mm howitzer (a Soviet-era artillery piece in widespread use across the former Warsaw Pact nations) had created a similar system using Android smartphones—which, like the mortar app, relied on knowing the phone’s, and therefore the gun’s, location with a high degree of accuracy—enabling them to deploy in dispersed and camouflaged positions while converging and timing their fire to ensure that multiple rounds from dispersed gun positions arrived on target simultaneously. Thus, in the space of six years, individuals repurposing consumer smart systems had gone from simply using civilian tools in a combat setting (Libya, 2011), to developing precision-fire systems better than many militaries (Syria, 2014), to engaging in integrated cyberkinetic combat in ways conventional militaries are yet to do (Ukraine, 2017).

The better we adapted to the nonstate enemy, the more specialized and focused we became, making ourselves less fit for other adversaries, even as state-based threats multiplied.

Hobby drones offered similar opportunities to repurpose consumer technology and combine it with existing military hardware to generate something new and better than most states had. From a standing start around 2007, autonomous air vehicles—powered by the same suite of technologies driving development in smartphones—exploded in numbers and improved exponentially in quality. Every smartphone improvement drove a related advance in drone technology. By 2015, “kamikaze drones” carrying explosives were targeting troops and installations; by 2016, Islamic State had fielded quadcopters that could drop grenades and then return to base to rearm like miniature bombers; by 2017, purpose-designed bomblets were being dropped by larger fixed-wing drones in Syria and Iraq, and by 2018, swarm attacks with multiple drones had occurred in Syria.

A report late in 2018 by the US National Academy of Sciences noted that modern hobby drones increasingly operated without radio, using automated target recognition and tracking, GPS chips, obstacle avoidance, and other software that made them relatively invulnerable to jamming—and hence much more survivable. By 2025, the same report predicted, commercially available capabilities would enable nonstate adversaries to field coordinated groups, swarms, and collaborative networks involving tens to hundreds of weaponized, miniaturized drones.

This favored adversaries who engaged in technological “hugging” of Western systems, using capabilities (Google Earth, smartphones, hobby drones, iPads, GPS) that advanced military forces also relied on, and thereby making it extremely difficult for governments to shut these systems down without also hampering their own operations. By piggybacking on the same systems that advanced militaries were using, nonstate adversaries improved their survivability. Groups that successfully did this proliferated and their techniques were replicated by others, while those who failed to adopt these techniques died out.

In the space of six years, individuals repurposing consumer smart systems had gone from simply using civilian tools in a combat setting, to developing precision-fire systems better than many militaries, to engaging in integrated cyberkinetic combat in ways conventional militaries are yet to do.

The kinds of adversaries who could successfully apply this strategy tended, by definition, to have access to connectivity (which, since cellphone reception is better in cities, meant they were generally urban) and to the technical and mechanical skills needed to hack hardware, repurpose consumer technologies, or integrate military hardware into improvised systems. They also usually had some familiarity with computer coding, electronic systems, and software hacking—again, implying an urban population and a degree of technical education. Thus, the urbanization of the battlefield in the twenty-first century favored such groups, even as their emergence also accelerated the already existing tendency for combat to take place in cities and among urban populations.

We in the West oriented ourselves to the main threat, continuously improving our capability for precision strikes, drone warfare, counterinsurgency, special operations raids, and a host of other tools and techniques. As the threat evolved, so did we—each side taking its evolutionary cues from the other in an adaptive two-part dance. This was absolutely necessary to deal with dangerous adversaries in the moment, and it made us operationally better, of course. But each innovation brought a corresponding improvement in the enemy, in a tit-for-tat evolutionary arms race that seemed never-ending (and increasingly costly) even as other challenges proliferated. And the better we adapted to the nonstate enemy, the more specialized and focused we became, making ourselves less fit for other adversaries, even as state-based threats multiplied.

The erosion of Western military effectiveness since the Cold War is not of merely military importance. Rather, that ineffectiveness—our repeated failure to convert battlefield victory into strategic success or to translate that success into a better peace—is a key reason for the seemingly endless string of continuous, inconclusive wars that have sapped our energy while our rivals prospered, tied us down while new threats gathered, and contributed to internal unrest across the world. In evolutionary terms, not only is our existing military model ineffective, it is maladaptive—that is, our approach is now so ill-suited to the environment that it is actively harming us.


Adapted from THE DRAGONS AND THE SNAKES: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West by David Kilcullen. Copyright © 2020 by David Kilcullen and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.