A new variation on an extremely old method of warfare has emerged. This new method is called systems disruption -- which has been a major theme of this weblog since its inception. Based on extensive analysis, I believe that systems disruption will become the dominant method of warfare for non-state networks against nation-states.It consists of simple attacks (using ad hoc weapons) on critical nodes of infrastructure -- oil, gas, electricity, water, etc. These attacks, if properly targeted, can cause cascades of failure that sweep entire systems. The result is a paralyzed economy that produces costs that far outstrip the costs of the attack (this is a guerrilla version of the American air power method called effects-based operations). This new method vastly improves on the three other ways non-state entities have fought strategically with states in the past:
- Moral conflict. 4th generation guerrilla war. A slow and difficult process of erosion.
- Strategic symbolic terrorism. A variant of moral conflict that can be projected. Pushed to a new level by al Qaeda. Limited in its long term impact. Requires extensive pre-planning and flawless execution.
- WMDs. Limited and flawed attempts in the past. Requires extensive knowledge and likely state support to accomplish correctly.
In Iraq, systems disruption is the 'secret sauce' of the insurgency. A series of relatively infrequent and small attacks have held the Iraqi electricity, oil, and water systems at nearly pre-war levels despite a massive reconstruction campaign. This success has fueled the insurgency by creating economic chaos and radically decreasing the legitimacy of both the US occupation and the new Iraqi government. These attacks boast the following attributes:
- Easy, inexpensive, and safe. Almost none of infrastructure attackers have been caught or killed. Infrastructure networks are notoriously easy to destroy using ad hoc weapons and have a vast number of vulnerable points.
- Fuels fragmentation. The decimation of primary services provides a way to fragment the target state's population. If cultural fault lines are present (Huntington), this will accelerate the descent to primary loyalties and conflict.
- Fantastic ROIs. The network effect of infrastructure attacks can produce returns on investment in the thousands of percent (a rate of return recognized by bin Laden)
Over time, systems disruption will become the most effective method by which virtual states subvert or coerce target nation-states. It does this by:
- Leveraging external connections. Systems disruption uses the ties of globalization against the target state. By making it an unreliable business partner it hurts its ability to compete globally and retain relationships. These partners (often morally ambivalent markets), will put heavy pressure on the target state to resolve the crisis.
- Minimizing moral opposition. Symbolic or body count centric attacks increase the moral staying power of target states. In contrast, the blame for sustained systems disruption typically rebounds onto the state itself. Since almost all wars in the future will be over marginal objectives (external to the life and death of the state or the central well being of its populace), attacks that radically increase costs without a corresponding increase in moral commitment have a high likelihood of success.
- Riding urbanization. The growth of urbanization is a global megatrend. These urban centers are the economic lifeblood of a nation-state and typically the key points of connection to the world. Large cities, however, offer a green field of vulnerability to this method of attack. The larger the cities, the more reliant it is on key systems. Systems disruption can quickly collapse urban environments into disaster zones.