War Kills: Understanding Military Capabilities in Context
Gassed, 1918, by John Singer Sargent.

War Kills: Understanding Military Capabilities in Context


As the defense editor at The Diplomat I very often cover defense deals (“Country X to Receive X Amount of Fighter Aircraft”), missile tests (“Country Y Successfully Test Fires New Z Missile”), and the commissioning of new military hardware (“Country Z Commissions New Carrier Killer”).  Most of these articles describe the number of items to be delivered, their unit or wholesale price, estimated delivery date, and the politics behind the deals.

In these pieces, I also sometimes refer to the strategic environment a country finds itself in and why it therefore needs a particular kind of weapon system due to its unique conditions. In this context, stock pundit expressions and concepts such as credibility, deterrence, and anti-access/area-denial all help qualify (perhaps even rationalize) the specific acquisition and reflect the country’s overall national security strategy.

Furthermore, I also describe the capabilities of weapon systems including range, payload, and ability to hit and destroy a target accurately. This is, however, where my job gets tricky: While I may spend some time discussing the circular error probability of a missile (a measure of a weapon system’s precision), I never go beyond euphemisms such as impact, kinetic effect, or damage to describe what the physical results are of an artillery round or missile on an actual human being in, for example, a main battle tank (MBT).

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I do not describe that should a T-90SM MBT’s reactive armor fail to stop an anti-tank missile fired from a Baktar-Shikan wire-guided anti-tank missile system and penetrate the crew compartment, the best thing the soldiers can hope for is a direct hit in the tank’s ammunition storage blowing up the entire vehicle, rather than being burned alive (not a rare occurrence in tank warfare). I do not elaborate when discussing a new drone model that shrapnel and the explosive power of a hellfire missile fired from an unnamed aerial vehicle can mangle a victim (another phrase I rarely use).

I do not wish to elaborate on other gruesome ways for soldiers and civilians to die; it suffices to say that a variant of Rule 34 not just applies to internet pornography, but also to war porn: If you can imagine an inhuman and cruel way to die, a weapon system exists, or will soon exist, to make it a reality. Indeed, the most elemental task of a defense contractor is to design and produce weapon systems that can kill the most number of enemies in the fastest possible manner, while minimizing your own casualties.

The same is true for military experts. For example, an Indian expert on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) studies Chinese, Chinese culture, PLA structure, and PLA weapons systems not only to foster a better understanding of the Chinese military, but also to advise policymakers and high ranking officers in India how to most effectively kill PLA soldiers and destroy PLA military hardware in the event of a conflict. An obvious point, but often a forgotten one in the “fog of peace” of security conferences and power point presentations.

The danger of not calling a weapon system by what it really is, i.e. a killing machine, are twofold. First, as I pointed out in a TedX Talk in 2015, we become blind to the true horrors of war and the destructive power of the weapons we create. This is an obvious point reinforced by our technological obsession (e.g. the Third Offset) to find cleaner and cheaper ways to fight war.

Second, and this a more abstract point, if “the concrete melts into the abstract” as George Orwell put it, there is a danger to slip into intellectual insincerity when doing analysis. The overuse of euphemism and theoretical concepts (“collateral damage” or “strategic deterrence”) often gives “solidity to pure wind” in which we discuss war and national security abstractly (remember the Domino Theory?) rather than in concrete terms.

For example, try to ask an expert why the Pentagon should risk the gruesome death of American sailors in the defense or conquest of islands in the South China Sea. Should she/he tell you because of a “rule-based order” or “credibility” whether that abstraction justifies the death of young American women and men in faraway waters?

The point of the exercise is to drive home that abstract concepts, national interests, and strategies for which new weapon systems are designed may shift over time and can be reversed; killing other human beings in the name of any national security abstractions, however, is irreversible.  Keep that in mind when you hear pundits say that the United States needs to get tough on China in the South China Sea, or when reading my next piece on the latest anti-ship missile.

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