The View From Olympus: The Houthis Teach a 4GW Lesson

The recent Houthi attacks on Saudi oil facilities at Khurais and Abqaiq, which are more than 500 miles from Yemen, offer a number of Fourth Generation war lessons.  Although the U.S. is saying the Houthis, a non-state entity, don’t have the ability to undertake such a sophisticated operation and that Iran must therefore be responsible, I think the Houthis and some other 4GW entities are fully capable of this and similar actions.  Why is no one considering that the Houthis might have launched their drones from the sea? It does not require a warship to launch drones; a dhow would serve quite nicely and be a “stealth” platform because it looks like all other dhows. The Quds 1 drone, which the Houthis have used previously, is large and capable enough for the mission.  The dhow could have been positioned north or northwest of the targets. Iran probably supplied the drones and expertise, but we have been doing the same for the Saudis in their air campaign against the Houthis. Turn about is fair play.

The first lesson here is that states tend to underestimate the capabilities of non-state, 4GW players.  We did so with al Qaeda and paid for it on 9/11. The Israelis did it with Hezbollah and paid by being fought to a draw last time they invaded Lebanon.  Now the U.S. is doing it again with the Houthis, as did the Saudis when they launched what they thought would be an easy war against them in 2015. This chronic underestimation will probably continue until a 4GW player sets off a nuke somewhere inconvenient.

A related lesson is that all the latest technology has not altered the limits on air power.  From Douhet onward, the (often well paid) advocates of air power have over promised and under delivered, as General McPeak, then Air Force Chief of Staff, said on my Modern War TV show years ago.  Each time air power used for strategic bombing fails to win a war, the hucksters promise a new airplane or system they claim will finally work.  It never has and never will, including in Yemen.

The most important lesson is that the technologies that matter for future war are mostly not the baroque, hyper-expensive “systems” state militaries squander billions on but cheap, simple adaptations from the civilian market.  The most effective cruise missiles ever were the civilian aircraft used by al Qaeda on 9/11; all that cost was a few thousand dollars in pilot training. The Houthis’ Quds 1 drone costs much less than multi-million dollar models we buy, not to mention the $100 million-plus F-35 or the $15 billion Ford-class aircraft carrier that is supposed to launch the F-35 but can’t.  If I’m right and the Houthis launched their attack from a civilian-type ship, compare the cost of their dhow to a U.S. Navy destroyer. Then ask which one has actually destroyed something.

This vast disproportion between what states get for their money and what non-state, 4GW actors get is typical of a change in generations.  The German Panzer divisions of 1940s were much cheaper than the Maginot Line they bypassed. The bicycles the Japanese used in their campaign to take Singapore in 1942 cost a tiny fraction of the defenses of Singapore.  The hi-tech sensors of the “McNamara Line” in Vietnam cost infinitely more than the cans of piss the VC hung from trees to fox them, and the ratio was about the same for the microwave ovens the Serbs used in defense of Kosovo to decoy our multi-million dollar anti-radiation missiles.

Smart state militaries will learn this lesson and start using their greater resources for lots of small, 4GW-type procurement programs in which they modify products for sale in the civilian market.  That will not happen here, because the worst thing you can say about a proposal in the DoD is that it is inexpensive (that’s why our troops are still marching instead of riding bicycles). In Washington, the budget, not a weapon, is the product.  And so Fourth Generation war and the non-state entities that wage it are the future, not because they are so competent but because we are so corrupt.

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