A NEW YORK TIMES OP-ED today reminded me of the ongoing debate on the part of military forces over the growing effectiveness of "swarm" attacks — use of multiple, expendable attackers against a far larger foe to evade, degrade, and overwhelm its defenses — against peacekeeping forces designed to face similar-scale enemies. It also reminded me of previous coverage this issue has received right here.
Whereas the Iranian incident I cited a year ago eerily echoed a 2002 Navy wargame result, the current article, by author and Naval Postgraduate School instructor John Arquilla, takes as its points of departure two land assaults: the Mumbai attacks of November 2008 and last week's trio of government-ministry suicide attacks in Kabul. He fits these into a pattern that includes multiple al Qaeda actions since (and, in his thesis, including) 9/11. We've heard repeated warnings from commentators about the vulnerability of our industrial, commercial, and transportation hubs to attack from a team of guerrillas, small enough to evade the intelligence and counterterrorism hierarchies we've enhanced since 2001. Arquilla's point: We rightly ought to anticipate a swarm of such assaults.
How to counter such a nebulous foe? Arquilla credits use of smaller, widely distributed military strongpoints across Iraq with the recent drop in violence there. Our police forces would fulfill this role here, in similarly deployed "counterterrorism posts," along with agreements between state officials and the feds to ensure that if a situation requires the National Guard, arrangements for its deployment would be smoother than those that bollixed the Katrina response. He also argues that "Reserve and National Guard units should train and field many more units able to take on small teams of terrorist gunmen and bombers. Think of them as latter-day Minutemen."
I would want some clarification on this last point. At what point in the scale of a swarm attack, or the nature of the target, do we decide we need the Guard? A Mumbai-style action at the Mall of America? Pipe bombs along the parade route at Mardi Gras? Six simultaneous bank robberies in the suburbs of Denver? Perhaps the desire is to ensure a quick response in those areas of the country that lack the SWAT and counterterrorism forces and rapid-deployment capabilities America's major cities have developed, often with post-9/11 federal funding. Local communities often found it difficult to fit the mandate of these Washington dollars with their perceived terror threat (I believe Fahrenheit 9/11 brought this sort of thing to light).
If we want to defeat swarms, we have to assess and cater to local needs, and not impose a blanket defense plan across the entire United States. I think assigning SWAT-like duties to Reserve and Guard units — both straining as it is against the American national-disaster cycle and the demands of two wars — would lack the necessary nuance. The "clear rules in advance for using military forces in a counterterrorist role" that Arquilla cites ought to be used to define the needs of each area considered vulnerable across the land. Major farmlands might require local police to work more closely with the community airports more common away from big cities, to catch possible crop saboteurs via background checks of new pilots. Do the chemical plants and refineries from Edgewater to Elizabeth need to improve their grounds access? Maybe the police could set up a substation near critical sites if their station houses haven't already acquired CBW/hazmat gear and set up evacuation plans.
State and municipal police forces already have the distribution and intimate knowledge of their communities to sense something is amiss. It's their sensitivity we ought to enhance, rather than refocusing the rightly broader purview of domestic military forces. And always within the bounds and penumbra of the Fourth Amendment. Safety from clouds of nimble attackers means little if we're watching through the windows of our figurative cells.
Counterterrorism and national security planners play a cold game of math when judging the cost and effectiveness of responses to threats, versus the probability that such threats will manifest or even take the forms our defenses anticipate. Innovative tactics like agile swarms are the stuff of planners' nightmares. Arquilla is smart to highlight the expanded danger that swarm attacks could represent to the target-rich environment that a free and open society like ours presents. With some definition of role, his plan to apply the lessons of Iraq to America — via our existing police hierarchy — could be a minor investment, compared to the crippling catch-up cost that responding to an American Mumbai could incur. We would have to walk a thin line between effective defense and personal freedom, between concrete effectiveness and Schneier-style security theater, to ensure its success.