Saturday, May 21, 2005

Slight Return

The "Matador of Tumbledown" post from last weekend got quite a bit of attention, which is all good, and at least none of it came from bemedalled veteran Jocks claiming I'd misrepresented them completely and in fact it was a barrel of laughs. I'm just going to do a small return to it, and apply a little economics to the problem. Economic theory argues that for any given technology and business model, there is an optimal combination of labour and capital where productivity is maximised. The marginal productivity of capital curve, like its labour twin, displays first increasing and then diminishing returns to scale - once all the workers have shovels, adding more shovels will not dig a hole any quicker. At some point the two curves cross, and changing either of the two variables will only make things worse.

What is the point of all this? Recall the US soldiers who turned up at the petrol station brawl with a 155mm howitzer. Basically, the US Army and Marines in Iraq have a seriously non-optimal combination of capital and labour. The high technology, high intensity force built since the "big five" weapons projects of the late 1970s to smash back the Red Army's operational-manoeuvre groups from the Fulda Gap, and then repurposed as a world-wide intervention force, was conceived at least in part as a labour-saving exercise. NATO could never match the Red Army in numbers, especially after the end of US and British conscription, so it instead substituted capital for labour, and more intensive capital (attack helicopters, guided anti-tank weapons, complex ISTAR projects) for less intensive capital (more tanks), as well as human capital (investing in the training of professional soldiers) for numbers (conscripts).

The problem is that, in a world of messy small wars where almost all military activity has a political nature (peacekeeping, counter-insurgency, policing, special operations), not very much of this is useful, and the logistical requirements of the whizzies are a serious draw on the available labour. The AH-64 attack helicopter, as I blogged ages ago, needed the equivalent of one C-17 a day per aircraft during the invasion of Iraq. (Here - Helicopters are the new horses) The other problem is that although it's comparatively easy to move down the intensity scale, it's very hard to rebuild that capability - so we're committed to keeping on all the fancy stuff.

The British experience is salutary. Not that there is a radical difference in army structure, but the Northern Irish war meant that most of the army, not just the infantry, had to do duty in an infantry/military police role there - which means the option is open to rerole armour, artillery, signals and such as street patrollers once the high-tech battle is over. (However, it is worth noting that the UK order of battle in Iraq contains much less armour, aviation and artillery than the US divisions up north.) This isn't a real solution, though, as it's not enough to get the infantry overstretch down to tolerable levels. I suspect we're all going to be hunting back and forth along those marginal productivity curves for a while longer. After all, UN peacekeeping ops were taught several extremely bloody lessons about the danger of turning up with insufficient capital, in Rwanda (granted, the problem was more one of authority to act, but a few large and menacing tanks would have been deterrent) and Bosnia.

Is it time to think of how large formations might be re-organised for messy conflict? Granted there's no way of finding space for permanent "security" or "peacekeeping" brigades in the British Army at its current size, but it might be worth looking at how forces are composed for specific operations.

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