Features Australia

The Boers and the bees

There’s more to the art of war than smart technology

2 October 2021

9:00 AM

2 October 2021

9:00 AM

Si vis pacem, para bellum, if you want peace prepare for war. So, after spending more on preparing for war than China, India, Russia, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, Germany, France, Japan, South Korea, Italy and Australia combined, even couch potato generals would expect the United States could open a can of whoop-ass and beat any country on the planet in a military engagement. Turns out, after a recent wargaming exercise to defend Taiwan, the US ‘failed miserably’. US Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Genral John Hyten, admitted, ‘an aggressive red team that had been studying the US for the last twenty years just ran rings around us. They knew exactly what we’re going to do before we did it’.

Which begs the question, hasn’t the US also been studying its opponents for the last twenty years? Even the laziest couch potato general can recite one of Sun Tzu’s most important lessons, ‘know thy self and know thy enemy…’.  Which might suggest a deeper malaise; a mindset trapped within a prism of their own logic and brilliance.

Australia’s very own retired major-general, Senator Jim Molan (one of our best generals), has been pointing to the flashing light on the dashboard for some time. If the US is knocked out defending Taiwan, or they decide not to engage because of what their war games revealed, Australia is on its own.

The US has been here before. In the 2002 Millennium Challenge (2002 MC), US Marine Corp Lieutenant-General Paul van Riper, was brought out of retirement to lead the Red Team (a rogue Middle Eastern regime) and demolished the Blue Team (the US military). In fact, the Pentagon establishment stopped the MC. The way van Riper fought just wasn’t fair. The 2002 MC wargame cost almost USD250 million; more than some countries spend on their entire defence budget in a year. Run by Joint Forces Command (JFCOM), it combined hundreds of military analysts and technical experts, involving real military hardware as well as computer simulations. If a Blue Team commander wanted a squadron of fighter jets in the air, somewhere in the US those jets would take off. Computers tracked every missile fired and every battleship deployed. Blue Team was armed with an array of acronym heavy frameworks. Everything from Operational Net Assessment (ONA) tools to real-time maps of the combat situation called Common Relevant Operational Picture (CROP). All merged with data drawn from any area within the US government. Blue Team’s computer-generated models could predict Red Team’s every move. From the inside, their prism looked brilliant. Van Riper did not have access to such wizardry.


The 2002 MC mimicked the usual pre-war rhetoric and threats. Blue Team even issued an ultimatum. The first aggressive act from Blue Team was to knock-out Red Team’s microwave towers and cut their fibre optic cables. Blue Team’s models predicted that van Riper would need to resort to satellite communications. Even people living in caves, (as Osama Bin Laden once did in Afghanistan), would not jump on their mobile phone, where plans could be easily intercepted. Instead, van Riper used couriers on motorbikes with messages hidden inside Korans. His pilots used a second world war lighting system and he deployed tiny boats to find and fix Blue Team’s battleships.

And because van Riper had also been studying his opponent, he knew they would make a pre-emptive strike. In contrast to Blue Team’s modelling, van Riper struck first, launching an hour-long cruise missile bombardment onto Blue Team’s battleships. Sixteen vessels were sunk in one go. Had this been real, over twenty-thousand US sailors would be dead. Van Riper had worked out how many missiles the Blue Team’s ships could handle and launched more than that from all directions. Think what a swarm of drones could do. As decision-making theorist Malcolm Gladwell reveals in his analysis of the 2002 MC, many of us are over-achievers when it comes to suppressing action; paralysis by analysis. As if a permission switch is wired in. Astonishingly, you will also find this to be true when running kidnap prevention programs. People will actually seek permission to save their own lives.

During the Boer War, as Norman Dixon observes in his exquisite work, The Psychology of Military Incompetence, the British faced an opponent who wouldn’t conform. In an era when war was often equated with sport, certain acts were ‘not cricket’. This had disastrous consequences. Lord Kitchener (1860 – 1916), later to become British War Secretary, wrote to the War Office in London and complained that the Boers don’t stand and fight like real men. Instead, he said, they shoot and then run off on their little ponies.

Constrained by governance and compliance, the West is now spoiled for wealth, technology and complicated solutions. It’s easy to sneer at simple tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs). Like a form of cognitive dissonance, the more we spend on complicated solutions and big data, the more we are seduced into believing they will save us. Just ask the French who built the Maginot Line in response to the first world war, only for the Germans to go around it or fly over it. In Afghanistan, no sooner had the United States  designed a system to target the point of origin from which rockets were fired (POO site), the Taliban started using ice blocks as a timing device: by the time the ice melted and the rocket launched, the illiterate culprit was long gone. It’s the same prism when it comes to innovation. An obsession with that which is complicated, logical and expensive combined with seeking permission.

Which brings us to back to where we started, by considering Gordon Siu’s beautiful metaphor. Sui said ‘if you place in a bottle half a dozen bees and the same number of flies, and lay the bottle horizontally, with its base (the closed end) to the window, you will find that the bees will persist, till they die of exhaustion or hunger, in their endeavour to discover an (opening) through the glass; while the flies, in less than two minutes, will all have sallied forth through the open neck on the opposite side…’. For the bees it is their very intelligence, their logic, that is their undoing.

While others continue to suffer the plight of the bees, let’s hope Australia’s political decision-makers allow our war-fighters to break from this prism.

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