LONDON — “A soldier’s life is terrible hard” goes the song, and so it remains today, but with some big differences.
Gone are the days of mass ground attacks and usually bloody battles between armies to gain territory. The modern soldier may still be shaped by the key ingredients of order and discipline but his, or her, role has changed fundamentally.
Today’s infantryman is no longer just one more name and number in uniform, a piece of cannon fodder. Each one is now, or has to become, a walking high-tech unit, an instant link within a network of super-advanced devices for detecting the enemy and coordinating and delivering, with devastating precision, an effective military response.
Since 9/11, governments and military authorities almost everywhere around the world have been busy rethinking the nature and role of their armed forces and how they can be realigned and refocused to meet the so-called asymmetrical threats of large-scale terrorist attacks on the lives of their citizens. British military experts and advisers, like others, have been going through this process and are reaching some startling, and revolutionary, conclusions.
For starters, not only does the armed individual now have to be part of a complex military network, based on land, sea and air, but the whole military network must be an integrated part of a much wider framework of political, diplomatic, humanitarian, economic, financial, law enforcement and, above all, intelligence activity . The military and the civil power are becoming intertwined as never before in common security purposes.
Military measures thus become just one part of a jigsaw of operations to deter, counter, disrupt and destroy terrorist threats. Armed personnel may be called upon not just to fight and deter, but to work closely with, and sometimes to actually serve as, policemen, humanitarian workers, firefighters, social workers, community builders or peace brokers.
Furthermore the new frontline is anywhere and everywhere. Ideally a society or nation — and especially an island nation like Britain or Japan — will need to protect itself by seeking out the potential threat at its source, which may be the other side of the world. It makes obvious sense to try to conduct fighting operations against terrorism in somebody else’s backyard rather than one’s own.
But that may not always be possible. Terrorists armed with enormous destructive power, possibly even nuclear or biological weapons, may come in ones and twos and strike from deep within. So another obvious conclusion is that defensive forces and military efforts must be deployed in depth across the home front as well as being ready to move rapidly to unfamiliar theaters in distant lands. Soldiers have to be trained and equipped for both roles. For historical reasons, Britain and Japan are perhaps coping with this new challenge from opposite directions.
In the British case, the lesson from the wars of the 20th century was that, in the age of the missile and nuclear warhead, homeland territorial defense seemed a rather low priority. Wars would be won and threats defeated far away on the NATO frontline in alliance with other nations and other armies. By contrast, Japan has long put self-defense first and is only slowly accepting that local protection has an inescapable global dimension.
The new terrorist age has eluded both perceptions. The battle for national security must now be fought both at home and away, and simultaneously. There is no dividing line. Any society that wants to protect itself from deadly assault now must think in terms of both swift overseas deployment, usually as part of a coalition or alliance, and of domestic security of the most intense kind.
The other major, perhaps overriding, conclusion from this new thinking is that it is all going to cost much, much more than ever before. Military reaction has to be precise and, above all, rapid. Massive increases in defense spending are going to be required to finance the new technology and reshape armed forces for their instant homeland and global roles. Support, backup and infrastructure for any fighting force have to be flown thousands of miles into place within hours and days, not weeks or months.
The United States now plans to spend $350 billions next year on its defense. Few other countries can match even a one-tenth of that. As defense technology becomes ever more refined and the single soldier’s equipment ever more sophisticated, the gap between America’s armed forces and the rest yawns wider and wider. The day may come when an operational alliance between U.S. forces and those of other countries lagging generations behind becomes impractical.
Perhaps the human factor is the saving grace. In the end, defense still comes down to the man or woman on the ground. However advanced and elaborate the machinery of military engagement becomes, it is the eyes, ears, senses, agility and initiative of skilled and highly trained military personnel that will ultimately protect the populace against new threats, whether in distant mountains and jungles or right in the heart of the hometown.
In a twisted sort of way, the rise of global terrorism has done us all a service by reminding us of that basic reality.
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