World Naval Developments: Launching Tomahawks at Terrorists: To What Effect?

By Norman Friedman

It may well be that many governments will shrink from testing the effects of such attacks. An Afghan-based terrorist in a mountain hideaway, however, may be a very different proposition—and he, rather than a rational Western-type government, may be typical of future enemies. In many cases the only "center of gravity" may be the enemy ruler himself; that was certainly the case with Saddam Hussein. His calculation of advantage and disadvantage may well not match ours even vaguely. In the past, we calculated, in effect, that no ruler willingly would risk the destruction of his people. That was the basis of nuclear deterrence against the Soviets. A few skeptics pointed out that Soviet rulers often seemed rather indifferent to the fate of their people. Maybe deterrence worked during the Cold War mainly because the Soviets were not all that interested in risking any sort of war. Maybe the bombs frightened them not because they would kill many Russians, but because they might tear up Soviet society so badly that political control would be lost.

Nuclear deterrence was a way, admittedly very crude, to threaten the "center of gravity" of the Soviet Union, one that we never quite managed to identify. Although their thinking was certainly alien, the Soviets were part of the traditional Western world; they were, it seemed, more or less comprehensible. If it was so difficult to be sure of just what would deter the Soviets, how can we identify the "center of gravity" of a profoundly non-Western man like bin Laden? More to the point, he clearly wants to fight, so deterrence (or defeat) really matters. The terrorist problem does not invalidate Joint Vision 2010, but it emphasizes that the issue is much more one of comprehension and intelligence than of precision targeting. We can fire a Tomahawk to hit a small area hundreds of miles away. That is a technological triumph, but it is one already in hand. There is no evidence that we have accepted the more profound challenge. There is no outpouring of scholarly work on the Third World comparable to the Soviet studies the U.S. government funded during the Cold War. Yet the details of Third World thinking are probably more important for our future than were the details of Kremlin thinking.

There seems, moreover, to have been little question but that Mr. bin Laden did indeed order the bombings in Africa. The question must remain whether cruise missile attacks were the best way to deal with him, which returns us to the question of the efficacy of raids like the ones undertaken in August. In the past, the key to defeating guerrilla or terrorist organizations has been a combination of intelligence and personal attacks. For example, Mr. bin Laden is effective both because of his personal prominence as a warrior, and because he controls a large fortune. Particularly in the Third World, that fortune buys illegal entry into key places and, probably, access to explosives and other substances. One would imagine, then, that the most effective assault on Mr. bin Laden would have been a financial one, perhaps by hacking into financial computer systems. As far as the military end of the attack is concerned, probably the only effective blow would have been a surprise commando raid on the training camp, to capture Mr. bin Laden (or his chief assistants) and, above all, to seize evidence of his future plans. It is possible that, to the administration, the attacks were signals rather than substantive blows at the bin Laden organization. They certainly proved that the United States has a very long arm, reaching all the way into the remote Afghan mountains. The attack on Sudan may, moreover, have been intended to convince the Sudanese government (which is fundamentalist) to abandon any ties to bin Laden. It is possible, for example, that the African attacks were mounted from Sudanese soil.

Signals were a very popular concept in nuclear targeting during the Cold War. They are dangerous, however, because they may not be read as intended. That seems, for example, to have been Saddam Hussein's conclusion after the Gulf War. We defeated his army, but we did not take the natural next step of destroying his regime. Probably the only reason that Saddam could see was indecisiveness on Washington's part. Saddam may feel that he was right. He has now stopped all U.N. weapons inspections without suffering the devastating attacks both the United States and Britain threatened in January.

The Sudanese case is more complex. The U.S. explanation of the attack on the chemical plant is that it was making precursors for VX gas under contract to the Iraqis. In Khartoum, a prominent opponent of the fundamentalist regime pointed out that the United States had made enemies by its ham-handed action. The Sudanese government actually had moved toward the United States in recent years, for example expelling Mr. bin Laden two years ago. But, instead of being rewarded in any way, it was struck.

Most likely, our hope in the Sudanese case was to discourage further assistance, probably unofficial, to terrorists like Mr. bin Laden. Readers may remember that the Sudanese Mission to the United Nations supplied key documentation to terrorists planning to destroy key tunnels and bridges in New York a few years ago. The administration's unwillingness to go beyond the claim that the factory was making chemicals related to nerve gas may indicate some back-channel diplomatic effort, which would be squelched if it became public; the Sudanese pointed out that the U.S. government made little or no diplomatic attempt to close down the plant it later destroyed.

Moreover, the dramatic U.S. response to the embassy attacks may have made Mr. bin Laden a hero to many Moslems. That may well actually gain him the sort of assistance he needs to extend and continue his terrorist activities.

Had the United States found some way to insert commandos into the bin Laden camp (perhaps under cover of the confusion bred by a missile strike), they might have achieved a good deal. They also would have been at considerable risk, and some of them probably would have died. If the administration considers world terrorism enough of a threat to be worth killing foreigners (as it certainly did in Afghanistan), then presumably it ought to consider the threat worth American lives, too.

The bin Laden affair also affects the administration in another way. After Pakistan exploded a series of nuclear devices, the government ordered a variety of economic sanctions. But Pakistan has been under a U.S. cloud for years because of its nuclear program. Thus, for example, F-16 fighters that it ordered have not been delivered; P-3s were only delivered a short time before the Pakistani missile and nuclear tests. Pakistanis rightly can point out that they were being punished while India clearly was pursuing a far more vigorous nuclear and missile program without being denounced (let alone punished).

Now the Pakistanis have something with which to push back. Pakistan is the main support of the current fundamentalist (Taliban) regime that rules most of Afghanistan and that acts as host for Mr. bin Laden, who in turn has acted as banker and supporter for Taliban. As an Arab, he might have expected to be expelled by that violently nationalistic group; but instead he has been welcomed. The Afghan regime, moreover, has felt compelled to support bin Laden in response to what it sees as a U.S. violation of its sovereignty. Clearly the U.S. government is unable to deal effectively with Taliban. The Clinton administration already is finding itself forced to decide between its antiproliferation policies and its need to deal with the immediate threat of terrorism.

One way out of this particular dilemma would be to abandon the non-proliferation policy (which clearly is not working well) and to opt for some form of U.S. national missile defense. Many in Congress already are pressing for a revived missile defense policy. It is not yet clear that the technology is entirely mature enough, at least for a non-nuclear defense. It may be that the administration also will have to swallow its prejudice against nuclear weapons; a defense using nuclear-armed missiles is almost certainly practicable. Then there is the diplomatic issue. As their economy sags, the Russians are being forced to admit that for at least the next decade they will have to depend on nuclear deterrence for their defense. They may see a massive U.S. missile defense system as a means of neutralizing that vestige of their superpower status. Certainly there is some intermediate level at which the United States is reasonably safe against minor nuclear powers (including China) but not against a full-scale Russian attack. Or, perhaps, there is room for a shared U.S.-Russian antimissile technology.

This is a vital point, because if we need friends in the Third World, many of them also will feel that their own nuclear/missile programs are their only viable means of self-defense. Our attempts to enforce non-proliferation are unlikely to deter them, but they will stand in the way of relations friendly enough to induce them to help us deal with terrorists, who are probably much more immediate threats. Pakistan is only a case in point; there will soon be many others. As it is, our current attempts to limit missile proliferation lead us into paradoxes like trying to limit South Korean missile development (while North Korea develops missiles and exports them) because we fear that a South Korean threat to Japan would ignite a Far East arms race. Are we really wise enough to make judgments that subtle?


Norman Friedman is a consultant on global naval strategy, naval trends, and naval warfare. An internationally known military technology analyst and naval historian, he worked for a decade as an advisor to Secretaries of the Navy, and for another 10 years with a leading U.S. think tank. Dr. Friedman travels the world speaking to military and defense industry leaders, and appears frequently appears on television as a guest commentator. He has authored more than 30 books, and has since the 1980s contributed regular columns analyzing world naval developments for Proceedings magazine. His PhD in Physics was earned at Columbia University.

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