The War Nerd: Driverless trucks can't mask the US military's problem with insurgent warfare

By Gary Brecher , written on February 20, 2014

From The War Desk

There’s an article in Wired’s “Danger Room” enthusing over the  US Army’s “Driverless trucks” which, according to the headline, will “keep [the US] Army safe from IEDs.”

Certainly, IEDs are a very real problem for US forces. Between 2009 and 2011, 59% of total US casualties from all causes came from improvised explosive devices. But no gadget will ever neutralize IEDs, especially not “driverless trucks.”

In fact, Wired’s story never really explains how these trucks are supposed to keep our troops safe from IEDs. The idea seems to be that, if there are no drivers in our supply trucks, nobody will get killed—no truck drivers, anyway. (It’s not clear how they’ll help soldiers doing other duty, such as foot patrol.)

That’s not much of a solution—particularly because Dick Cheney’s public-relations team already came up with a way to keep truck drivers out of the casualty lists in Iraq and Afghanistan. They didn’t use technology -- just money and trickery -- but it worked; many truck drivers died in Iraq, but few of their deaths were ever reported or added to the US casualty list.

Cheney simply went through mercenary headhunters like Erik Prince of Blackwater fame. By getting “Independent Contractors” to drive supply trucks on the most dangerous roads in Iraq, Cheney managed to keep their deaths unpublicized-- private company data, nobody’s business but shareholders and the next-of-kin.

Even now, we don’t know how many of these “independent truckers” died in Iraq, though we know that at least 63 of them had died by May 2006.

So we already have driverless trucks, without gadgets. A driver whose death is private company data is invisible, his death never making it to the casualty lists.

You’d think the people who wrote these overly enthusiastic stories on the driverless truck gadget would have known how Cheney managed to erase all those dead drivers. But there’s no indication of any such cynicism in these gadget-happy stories. They have a child-like faith in the latest over-hyped military gizmo as the solution to the IED problem.

Sometimes the gizmo in question is so ridiculous you have to wonder how anyone could take it seriously. Case in point: “Silly String” as the magic gadget that would neutralize the IEDs killing our soldiers in Iraq.

I’m not making that up. I wish I was, but those stories were real, and they appeared all over the place back in 2007, gushing about how “Silly String,” a kid’s party toy that sprays pink gunk, was protecting our soldiers against booby-trapped houses, because soldiers could spray it around a room before going in. The pink goo would drape over any “small, difficult-to-see” trip wires set to trigger an IED.

None of the reporters who talked up Silly String as the answer to IEDs asked the obvious questions, like, “Even if Silly String defeats trip wires, won’t the insurgents just switch to other trigger mechanisms, like pressure plates under the floor tiles, or motion sensors above the door, or somebody watching with a cell phone across the street?”

There’s something almost pitiful about the Silly String hysteria. 2007 was a terrible year for US troops in Iraq, thrown into a CI war they were never trained to fight, in a country none of them knew anything about. Kids from small towns where the Army was your only career option were coming home horribly maimed, blinded, paralyzed. And since the US Army has a long tradition of refusing to think about CI strategy, much less teach it to their soldiers, the low-ranking foot soldiers had no hope but emailing relatives at home and begging them to send another carton of Silly String.

This is the desperation behind all the gadget stories: The knowledge that since the US Army refuses to think about CI strategy, gadgets are all we have to offer the 19-year olds who step on, or drive over, the IEDs.

Unfortunately, gadgets will never solve the problem of IEDs. This is an insurgent weapon, and CI warfare is about people, not tech.

If you look harder at any of these gadget stories, you can see the weak points, and learn to ask the questions journalists should ask (but usually don’t.) Here are some of the obvious problems with the driverless truck as anti-IED device:

  • What if the insurgents decide that automated trucks aren’t worthwhile targets, and start planting IEDs where your foot patrols walk?
  • What if they start tracing the truck routes back to the supply base and plant IEDs there?
  • Driver or no driver, you’ll still lose supply trucks. Who brings ammunition, food, and water to the base  after a driverless truck is burning, blocking the route?
  • Ever hear of secondary ambushes? OK, a driverless truck is blasted, burning on the road. The road is now effectively blocked. Who clears it? Got any driverless tow trucks? And what stops them from hitting IED #2, fifty meters past the one that just blew up your truck?
  • Do you plan to stay inside your bases for the rest of the war? Because if you come out, you have to put your feet on the ground somewhere. And there’ll be an IED waiting.
  • Or this one, which should have occurred to anybody following the news from Aghanistan: If you did somehow foil all their IEDs, wouldn’t they just do one of those “green on blue” attacks like the ones that keep happening in Afghanistan?

Those “green on blue” attacks are the clearest evidence that we will never, ever come up with a tech/gadget solution to insurgent attacks. Insurgents have been so desperate to attack the “blue” US/NATO occupying forces that they have enlisted in the Afghan Army and Police, put on a “green” uniform they hate, followed orders and lived a complete lie, for as long as it took to get close enough to blow themselves up inside a “blue” base.

But not surprising. We’re dealing with an old mental illness that afflicts the US military here. They just can’t deal with irregular/insurgent warfare.

And when I say this has been going on for a long time, I mean, “Starting in 1864.”

The Memoirs of William Tecumseh Sherman, the most cold-blooded, clear-eyed strategist of all Civil-War generals, include a story about his first-hand encounter with an IED. And Sherman’s reaction to this unconventional weapon is very much like the reactions of American commanders dealing with the IED threat today: rage, disgust, and confusion.

If that’s what an IED did to Sherman, who stares out of those old photographs like Hell’s own viceroy, it’s not so surprising that other American officers (and journalists) can’t think coldly and clearly about IEDs.

December 8, 1864: Sherman’s 62,000 veterans were moving eastward across Georgia like a braided river, aiming for Savannah, where they could make contact with the US Navy.

The Confederates were far too weak to stop Sherman, who had gleefully reported that “The Confederacy is hollow, all hollow inside!”

This meant that Confederate Georgians found themselves in the classic insurgent position: a foreign army sweeping through their land with overwhelming numbers, superior weaponry and unlimited funding.

Conventional tactics were out of the question; John Bell Hood, a “gallant” and pea-brained lunatic, had virtually destroyed the Army of Tennessee with suicide sorties out of Atlanta, then taken the survivors northward in a failed attempt to lure Sherman after him.

With the Army of Tennesse following Hood on his quixotic detour, there were only a few thousand third-rate militiamen to harass Sherman, with another 12000 to hold Savannah.

That was the situation when the IED went off. Sherman’s account, written decades later, shows how intensely he reacted to this new weapon:

I [saw]…a handsome young officer, whose foot had been blown to pieces by a torpedo planted in the road… [which] had exploded, killing the horse and literally blowing off all the flesh from one of his legs. … [T]he rebels had planted eight-inch shells in the road, with friction-matches to explode them by being trodden on. This was not war, but murder, and it made me very angry.

It’s amazing, how little has changed in IED design in the 150 years since Sherman met his first one. Think of all the changes in military technology since 1864—and yet this 1864 “torpedo” had the same basic ingredient as most 21st Century IEDs, an artillery round. The detonating mechanism has changed; most insurgents now trigger their IEDs electrically, whereas these Confederates, living in the Dark, or pre-cell phone, Era, had to rig “friction matches” to light when stepped on. Otherwise, this is a classic IED of the sort found in Iraq and Afghanistan today. Even the size of the shell is roughly similar. The “eight-inch shells” used in Sherman’s “torpedo” were a little bigger than the 155mm rounds commonly used in IEDs planted in 2014 (I55mm is about 6.1 inches); but thanks to more efficient explosives, our 155mm rounds have a kill radius much bigger than those 1864 eight-inchers.

And IED design is not the only part of the story to remain constant in 2014. The reaction of US commanders and troops to this 1864 IED shows the same panic and confusion these weapons are causing today.

One eight-inch shell goes off, and the whole column reacted, according to Sherman’s account, by “…turn[ing] out of the main road, marching through the fields.”

That is a truly shocking testimony to the IED’s ability to sow terror. Sherman’s men were arguably the finest soldiers in the world in 1864. They had seen hundreds of thousands of eight-inch shells burst around them without panicking. In battle after battle, they had advanced in formation even while those shells were tearing gaps in the ranks.

Now they desert the road after the explosion of one such round—because it was used as an IED, rather than out of a cannon’s mouth.

US military treatises are full of the jargon term “force multipliers”; this single artillery shell may be the most effective force multiplier ever deployed. From a cannon, it would have done nothing. Buried in the road, it sent the finest army in the world veering away in terror.

Along with terror, IEDs generate rage. Sherman’s own reaction shows his fury. Not because the “torpedo” inflicted serious casualties. It killed one horse and wounded one man—a cavalryman at that, which, given Sherman’s contempt for horse soldiers, would have devalued the toll even further.

Yet he describes the victim’s suffering in detail, describing how the IED had literally [blown] off all the flesh from one of his legs…” That may seem like common compassion, but if you’ve read Sherman’s Memoirs you know it wasn’t typical of him at all.

Compare Sherman’s rage and grief for this wounded man with his reaction to the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain a few months earlier. It was a slaughter, with 3000 Union dead and wounded, after Sherman ordered his troops to advance uphill against a fortified Confederate line. Sherman’s reaction? Well, when subordinates suggested calling off the attacks, he said, “Our loss is small…” compared to those Grant was taking in Virginia.

So there wasn’t the casualties the “torpedo” caused, or any squeamishness on Sherman’s part, that made it such a fine terror weapon. It was something about this buried, invisible weapon that horrified US forces—and still horrify them today.

Sherman’s solution to the IED problem was correct, as far as it went: He ordered Confederate prisoners to the front of his column, making them human IED detonators:

“ I immediately ordered a lot of rebel prisoners to be brought from the provost-guard, armed with picks and spades, and made them march in close order along the road, so as to explode their own torpedoes, or to discover and dig them up. They begged hard, but I reiterated the order, and could hardly help laughing at their stepping so gingerly along the road, where it was supposed sunken torpedoes might explode at each step…”

Great sense of humor, that Sherman, chuckling at the prisoners “stepping so gingerly along the road…” This is a classic CI response to the IED threat: Counter-terror. And it seems to have been effective; Sherman notes that “…[the Confederate prisoners] found no other torpedoes...” on that stretch of road.

At the very least, Sherman’s use of counter-terror, rather than gadgetry, as a response to the IED threat shows that he understood the most basic law of CI strategy: CI warfare is a social problem, not a technical one. To adapt Clinton’s maxim to CI: “It’s the people, stupid.”

Everyone knows that--everyone except the US Army’s officer corps.  CI is their blind spot, and has been for a very long time. Vietnam, one of the most disastrous CI wars ever waged, failed in part because the top US commanders wouldn’t even admit that it was, in fact, a CI war. As far as these men were concerned, Vietnam was just another conventional war.

So we’re dealing with a sort of institutional psychosis. It’s not that people haven’t tried to persuade the US Army brass to learn the basics of CI warfare, starting with the maxim that it’s about people rather than gadgets.

You can see this psychosis in action, if you watch the promotional video for those “driverless trucks” that accompanies the Wired article.

In only 4 min. 18 sec., this video shows you a lot about the US Army’s confused, frightened reaction to the world of the insurgent.

I’m not talking about the trucks. Watch the video, but don’t pay any attention to the trucks. They’re a gimmick. Watch the mock-up “insurgent landscape” the trucks drive through in the video, if you want to understand how badly the US military misunderstands the context that produces IEDs.

If you watch this video like a psychiatrist listening to a patient’s fantasies, you’ll learn all you need to know about the US Army’s problems. So cue it up and we’ll go through it like the revealing nightmare it is.

The first thing you see is a convoy of driverless trucks, with a manned Hummer pacing them, rolling over brushy countryside. No buildings in sight. This is the US military’s preferred landscape: One with no civilians at all. That’s why they train in Nevada and own half the sagebrush west of the Missouri. They love those wasteland free-fire zones. Like Christian Slater said to his co-pilot in Broken Arrow, as they get ready to take their Stealth bomber on another practice run over the desert, “…These exercises are fantastic. When the day comes that we have to go to war against Utah, we're really gonna kick ass, y'know?”

So this is the happy part of the video. Next, the conflict, the problem—Act II. The bad guys. They show up together at the 1:10 point. First villain: Mosque, with minaret. It’s not a real mosque. This video was filmed, as far as I can  tell, somewhere on the grounds of Fort Hood. The mosque you see at 1:10 is plywood, like the rest of the Islamic town. A training mock-up.

So Problem #1: Muslims. Towns with mosques. The places we keep fighting, and losing, our CI wars.

The second bad guy shows up just as the minaret comes in view. It’s a person, a pedestrian, who zooms suddenly in front of the lead driverless truck. But this is where the whole video stumbles into Benny Hill territory. Because it’s not a pedestrian. It’s a dummy, a plastic mannequin, who floats across the street in front of Truck #1 like a green skater, arms out and legs no moving.

They couldn’t have found a better way to display their problem if they’d been trying. People. Civilians. Always getting in the way, getting themselves killed just to make the American forces look bad.

Our forces aren’t designed to deal with an environment in which civilians and irregular forces are all mixed up. In other words, a CI war zone.

Not that they call it that. This chapter of the video is titled “Complex Urban Mission.” But that euphemistic title says it all anyway—the Army’s aversion to this kind of war. It’s “complex” because of those pesky civilians; because it’s “urban,” that is. And as the minarets keep reminding you, because it’s full of the worst kind of civilians: Muslims.

Having lived in Saudi Arabia, which devotes more effort to building a mosque on every corner than the Spanish did to filling Latin America with cathedrals, I was surprised to find myself critiquing this US Army mock-up for having too many mosques to be realistic. It’s not easy to overdo the mosques, compared to Saudi.

But they did it. I don’t know how, but they built so many of these plywood mosques with identical minarets that they overdid it.

The other problem is so obvious you can easily forget it, because “obvious” things are easy to miss. It’s simple: There are no people in this town. Except for the skate punk who glides by the convoy on his dolly. Other than that, there are no civilians.

And that skater wasn’t a person either. He was a a machine demonstrating the effectiveness of the driverless truck.  A personless pedestrian for a driverless truck.

It’s stunning, the way this video shows you what’s really going on in spite of itself.

Without ever saying, “We hate the CI mission” or “Muslims seem weird and scary to us” or “We don’t have any idea how to deal with civilians—can’t we do the next war in the nice empty desert?” this four-minute video reveals all theinstitutional psychoses and phobias that make it so bad at CI warfare.

The IED shows up in the form of “blown-up” civilian vehicles along the streets of this depopulated “Muslim” town. The driverless trucks roll past one at the 2:33 mark: a white SUV in the middle of the road, its roof lifted up like an old Jiffy Pop on the stove.

Except that’s not what cars used in VBIEDs look like. Those cars are black chassis, with parts scattered in a huge radius. This white SUV looks like somebody tossed a dud M-80 into it, like it was produced with an  OSHA inspector standing by to make sure nobody got hurt.

It’s painful viewing once you watch it cold-bloodedly. From the mechanical pedestrian to the sanitized bombed-out cars, it’s such a grudging, squeamish try at reproducing the streets we’re talking about here, in Kabul or Baghdad.

And all to showcase the driverless truck, a person-free solution to the problem of cities, Muslims, and civilians. In other words: the problem of Counterinsurgency.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]