Tactical Depth

There is an interesting consequence of military drones and other (semi)autonomous war machines that I have not yet seen described anywhere else.

An urgent question for military planners throughout history has been: should we attack first (thereby gaining initiative and the element of surprise) or wait for the enemy to attack (thereby claiming moral superiority as not the aggressor, or having the opportunity to fight on familiar terrain and with in-place logistics networks).  Sometimes, the choice is dictated by political goals more than military preference.  Often, chance, fate, and questionable luck appear to take the question from both sides’ hands.

In the past, states sought Strategic Depth – time in which to react, reorganize, and realign in response to an attack.  Historically, the standard Russian doctrine was to retreat, burn the fields, destroy the bridges, and wait until winter and/or the massive behemoth of the conscript army could be brought to bear.  The Russian example highlights Strategic Depth’s key element – vast tracts of borderland that the state can afford to – temporarily – lose.  Today, however, Strategic Depth is obsolete.

These days, the question of pre-emptive attacks has been re-framed as, ‘can we afford to wait?’  Since World War II, humanity’s ability to destroy has far outstripped our knowledge of how to protect.  There is no armor that can protect against a modern high explosive missile, should it make contact.  Active anti-missile systems exist to destroy missile before they hit, but live-fire tests of even the most modern versions (Israel’s Iron Dome system) have been controversial and questionable, despite targeting unguided rockets with neither stealth materials or active countermeasures.  The previous major test (US Patriot system deployed in the First Gulf War) was such a definite (if long-hidden) failure one wonders why Ratheon wasn’t brought up on charges of false-advertising and failure to fulfill the contract.

For this reason has the focus of military technology has been on avoiding being seen – camouflage uniforms, stealth bombers, stealth fighter jets, vehicles designed to disperse or distort their heat signatures, silent submarines.  To be seen is to be targeted, to be targeted is to die.

Of course, the ultimate example is nuclear weapons.  A war between major powers with access to thermonuclear warheads is not a war to victory, it is an accelerated war of attrition that lasts mere minutes – and so the element of surprise is all.

Nation-States dislike loss, but in nuclear war they see death, and fear it as only a technically immortal entity could.  (People are willing to die for their state – what is a state willing to die for?)

Nuclear weapons and supersonic bombers and long range missiles are too fast, too powerful for Strategic Depth to mean anything anymore.  There is no distance that provides the sort of time required for a meaningful mobilization.  The result is a lot of tense people wondering if they can dare wait for the other guy’s move.

The Cold War solution was Mutually Assured Destruction, a guarantee that there would be no winner.  This guarantee was backed up by Second Strike Capabilities – silent submarines idling in the depths, or orbiting airplanes, armed, ready, and mobile, or hardened missile bunkers.  All of these could return fire though the entire home country was utterly destroyed.  This provided a strange sort of peace of mind, as even in the event of an apparent attack, governments could afford to wait and see.  If it was an attack, they’d be dead either way, but could still have revenge.  If not, then they didn’t prematurely start World War III by striking first.

Drones offer a new solution to the problem of pre-emptive strikes – at least in limited warfare for which population centers are not an explicit target.  If Strategic Depth was dependent on distance, terrain, and control of the land, then Tactical Depth is dependent on relative arrangement of assets, and what can be sacrificed.  If Strategic Depth depended on land that could be temporarily given up in return for time, then Tactical Depth depends on assets that can be temporarily lost.

There is nothing to fear if a bunch of patrolling drones at the border are destroyed in a surprise attack.  Replacing a drone is, for a modern industrial state and depending on the ridiculousness of the budget, far cheaper than replacing a human being (which, after all, requires lengthy training and practicing periods before being battle-ready).  Now, the expensive, hard to replace element (human pilots) can be safely beneath bunkers or otherwise hidden in places where, in prior ages, such assets would be useless.

Many military technologies have been invented with the goal of saving lives (well, one side’s lives at least), but often ended up causing wider destruction.  It may be possible that properly used military drones will actually succeed in saving lives, if only by offering a replaceable target that the enemy still must destroy, giving leaders the opportunity to handle crises with greater patience and cooler thinking.


1 comment to Tactical Depth

  • DoD

    I think there is a lot of potential in the idea of tactical depth, but the example may not be the strongest. Who would attack border patrol drones? What scenario would make sense of this kind of attack? Maybe attack on satellite imagery would be more realistic?

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