Rule 3: Swarming Is the New Surging.
Terrorists, knowing they will never have an edge in numbers, have pioneered a way of war that allows them to make the most of their slender resources: swarming. This is a form of attack undertaken by small units coming from several directions or hitting many targets at the same time. Since 9/11, al Qaeda has mounted but a few major stand-alone strikes -- in Bali, Madrid, and London -- while the network has conducted multiple significant swarming campaigns in Turkey, Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia featuring "wave attacks" aimed at overloading their targets' response capabilities. Such attacks have persisted even in post-surge Iraq where, as Gen. David Petraeus noted in a recent speech, the enemy shows a "sophistication" among the militants "in carrying out simultaneous attacks" against major government targets.
Perhaps the clearest example of a terrorist swarm was the November 2008 attack on Mumbai, apparently mounted by the Lashkar-e-Taiba group. The assault force consisted of just 10 fighters who broke into five two-man teams and struck simultaneously at several different sites. It took more than three days to put them down -- and cost the lives of more than 160 innocents -- as the Indian security forces best suited to deal with this problem had to come from distant New Delhi and were configured to cope with a single threat rather than multiple simultaneous ones.
In another sign of the gathering swarm, the August 2008 Russian incursion into Georgia, rather than being a blast from the Cold War past, heralded the possibility that more traditional armies can master the art of omnidirectional attack. In this instance, Russian regular forces were augmented by ethnic militias fighting all over the area of operations -- and there was swarming in cyberspace at the same time. Indeed, the distributed denial of service attack, long a staple of cyberwarriors, is a model form of swarming. And in this instance, Georgian command and control was seriously disrupted by the hackers.
Simultaneous attack from several directions might be at the very cutting edge in conflict, but its lineage is quite old. Traditional tribal warfare, whether by nomadic horse archers or bush fighters, always featured some elements of swarms. The zenith of this kind of fighting probably came with the 13th-century Mongols, who had a name for this doctrine: "Crow Swarm." When the attack was not carried out at close quarters by charging horsemen, but was instead conducted via arrows raining down on massed targets, the khans called it "Falling Stars." With such tactics, the Mongols carved out the largest empire the world has ever seen, and kept it for a few centuries.
But swarming was eclipsed by the rise of guns in the 15th century, which strongly favored massed volley fire. Industrial processes encouraged even more massing, and mechanization favored large flank maneuvers more than small swarms. Now again, in an age of global interdependence replete with advanced information technologies, even quite small teams of fighters can cause huge amounts of disruption. There is an old Mongol proverb: "With 40 men you can shake the world." Look at what al Qaeda did with less than half that number on Sept. 11, 2001.
This point was made by the great British strategist B.H. Liddell Hart in his biography of T.E. Lawrence, a master of the swarm in his own right. Liddell Hart, writing in 1935, predicted that at some point "the old concentration of force is likely to be replaced by an intangibly ubiquitous distribution of force -- pressing everywhere, yet assailable nowhere."
Now, swarming is making a comeback, but at a time when few organized militaries are willing or able to recognize its return. For the implications of this development -- most notably, that fighting units in very small numbers can do amazing things if used to swarm -- are profoundly destabilizing. The most radical change is this: Standing armies can be sharply reduced in size, if properly reconfigured and trained to fight in this manner. Instead of continually "surging" large numbers of troops to trouble spots, the basic response of a swarm force would be to go swiftly, in small numbers, and strike the attackers at many points. In the future, it will take a swarm to defeat a swarm.
Almost 20 years ago, I began a debate about networks that blossomed into an unlikely friendship with Vice Adm. Art Cebrowski, the modern strategic thinker most likely to be as well remembered as Alfred Thayer Mahan, the great American apostle of sea power. He was the first in the Pentagon power structure to warm to my notions of developing fighting networks, embracing the idea of opening lots of lateral communications links between "sensors and shooters." We disagreed, however, about the potential of networks. Cebrowski thought that "network-centric warfare" could be used to improve the performance of existing tools -- including aircraft carriers -- for some time to come. I thought that networking implied a wholly new kind of navy, one made up of small, swift vessels, many of them remotely operated. Cebrowski, who passed away in late 2005, clearly won this debate, as the U.S. Navy remains heavily invested in being a "few-large" force -- if one that is increasingly networked. In an implicit nod to David Ronfeldt's and my ideas, the Navy even has a Netwar Command now.
Swarming has also gained some adherents. The most notable has been Marine Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, who famously used swarm tactics in the last great Pentagon war game, "Millennium Challenge 2002," to sink several aircraft carriers at the outset of the imagined conflict. But rather than accept that something quite radical was going on, the referees were instructed to "refloat" the carriers, and the costly game -- its price tag ran in the few hundred millions -- continued. Van Riper walked out. Today, some in the U.S. military still pursue the idea of swarming, mostly in hopes of employing large numbers of small unmanned aerial vehicles in combat. But military habits of mind and institutional interests continue to reflect a greater audience for surges than swarms.
What if senior military leaders wake up and decide to take networks and swarming absolutely seriously? If they ever do, it is likely that the scourges of terrorism and aggression will become less a part of the world system. Such a military would be smaller but quicker to respond, less costly but more lethal. The world system would become far less prone to many of the kinds of violence that have plagued it. Networking and swarming are the organizational and doctrinal keys, respectively, to the strategic puzzle that has been waiting to be solved in our time.
A networked U.S. military that knows how to swarm would have much smaller active manpower -- easily two-thirds less than the more than 2 million serving today -- but would be organized in hundreds more little units of mixed forces. The model for military intervention would be the 200 Special Forces "horse soldiers" who beat the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan late in 2001. Such teams would deploy quickly and lethally, with ample reserves for relieving "first waves" and dealing with other crises. At sea, instead of concentrating firepower in a handful of large, increasingly vulnerable supercarriers, the U.S. Navy would distribute its capabilities across many hundreds of small craft armed with very smart weapons. Given their stealth and multiple uses, submarines would stay while carriers would go. And in the air, the "wings" would reduce in size but increase in overall number, with mere handfuls of aircraft in each. Needless to say, networking means that these small pieces would still be able to join together to swarm enemies, large or small.