Casus Chaos or Belli?

So, urban mayhem has been on my mind lately.

I’ve been reading up on the 2011 riots here in London and across the UK, particularly the official, service and government reviews. Coming from the perspective of sources in military affairs, it has been a comfortable foray into a familiar-seeming alphabet soup of agencies. In the medium to long term I want to do a military history of the disorder in London specifically. I knew the application of Clio to the subject was viable when I read a footnote in one of the reports which discussed the diversity of shield tactics for use in public order policing. The echoes of ancient warfare cannot be ignored.

However, at the current moment I am circling the contours of modern urban mayhem and conflict. Here my concern is with the implications of tactics, and one in particular, so I will throw the following question or concept out there for consideration:

At what point does a traffic accident become an act of war?

With a relatively small number of vehicles and trucks most of Manhattan’s river crossings can be choked off with relative ease using auto accidents. Jack-knife tractor trailers on the bridges, and take out fellow travellers in the tunnels and it’s done. These blockages would also have the further effect that the cascading failure caused by the traffic stoppages leads inexorably and tragically to gridlock across the city.

Manhattan is an island. It lives and dies in the short to medium term on the viability of a limited number of low through-put bottlenecks. I have, on terrible evenings, spent hours driving up and down Brooklyn or eastern New Jersey trying desperately to find a route through or around the island. And those were occasions where just a normal bit of bad news in a few spots had led to 2-3 hour back-ups to access the bridges and tunnels. A person could weep at such moments.

It must be clear, then, that the threat posed by intractable traffic jams should be a significant concern. And Manhattan is not the only city in the US or beyond which is in such potential peril. Whether the tactic as outlined here were used against only a few targets each week over the course of several as part of a slow-building disabling of a city or implemented against all as an asymmetric shock and awe opening to a larger campaign of attacks, in either case it clearly amounts to an act of war. But it could take time for this to become evident. And in any case, what do jets and tanks and soldiers matter against the unknowable guy in any vehicle who’s about to bumper cars in the Holland Tunnel? For that matter, what could law enforcement do? Without intentionally closing these bottlenecks and thereby committing an act of managed self-destruction, there are few courses of action which can mitigate the threat.

Consideration of what asymmetry will bring us next tends to focus on nightmare scenarios (the rogue nuclear weapon, chemical and biological horrors, and other familiar weapons of mass effect) and spectacular attacks upon standard pieces of important infrastructure. Less thought is given to what one could call ‘papercut’ tactics. I worry that such standard approaches might be dangerous if something as mundane as traffic can be turned into a weapon.

But I really want to know what others think. So, pass this along and let me know.

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8 thoughts on “Casus Chaos or Belli?

  1. W4rlord says:

    Unrestricted warfare by Wang and Qiao PLA senior colonels discusses this in some detail. IMHO a death by thousand cuts strategy is nothing but a couple bad days without a clear and widely communicated political message. After that it is an act of war. Without it loss of profit for insurance companies and incovenience for the population kind a larger scale storm or an electric blackout.

  2. A country where the population and industrial centres are dispersed will be hard to target. A thousand cuts is to say the least a fairly intense operational tempo. I’m not convinced that NYC or at least the parts that affect the ability of the whole country to function would be seriously impaired. Why would traffic accidents be more disruptive than a hurricane? Remember the blackout of 2003? That lasted here in Ontario and parts of New York , Michigan and Ohio for 48 hours. This kind of mundane strategy is better suited to territorialy small countries where a significant part of the population resides in one city that is also the political and financial centre. In that case I could see it used to create a diversion-to create strategic surprise.

  3. Jill Russell says:

    On the matter of China and the Unrestricted Warfare document:

    I read that document as an essay of potential future threats, not a roadmap to what the PLA might do. Which means they are grapppling with the same issues and fears.

    Identifying such threats as potential acts of war is one thing, and perhaps the first step. But can we define them, in law, as acts of war? If so, then what? In my gut I would call it an act of war, but that raises the problem of how a country can or will respond. What means do you use to fight an enemy using these tactics? What if they don’t have a center of political mass associated with a territory against to launch a counter-attack? And how do you pound ants (the attackers) with a giant sledgehammer (the contemporary armed forces)?

    We seem to be on a trend of increasing anarchy. Although there are seemingly more means by which the state and society can tie us down, I think there is far more potential energy which can fuel disintegration and disaggregation of traditional bonds. Perhaps it’s only a temporary phase as the global community comes to terms with the changes wrought by the end of the Cold War and within 10 to 20 years we will have settled down into the next system. But if you can’t navigate this period successfully then certainly cascading failures of societies by way of anarchic or revolutionary violence is possible.

    But here’s the biggest problem. There is virtually no means which guarantees prevention of such attacks and they will be very difficult to counter. How will states and/or the city involved respond? And knowing that there is no effective response to the act – but also recognizing that it will be difficult to turn such battlefield victories into political or territorial gains – it may be that such acts become the first step in a primitive and violent commercial act. Unleash a taste of chaos upon NYC and threaten more if money is not paid. It may be that this route is cheaper than manifesting the traditional means of military response.

  4. Alcibiades Von Clausewitz says:

    There’s so many directions to go with this, but as a firm believer in the “simplest answer” I’ll try to delineate a potential starting point. I’m of the opinion that asymmetric warfare favors those fighting from the strategic position of defense in a familiar “theater/realm”. Asymmetric warfare, in my opinion, favors guerilla tactics (or insurgency tactics as they are ‘fashionably’ called now), and these tactics have the appearance of being every bit offensive but they are every bit defensive. An IED is successful because it requires the victim to come to it, and that is quintessentially no different than flaming objects falling over the castle’s side during a siege or the Punji stick pits of Vietnam since they are all defensive weapons that rely on the element of surprise (I see them as nothing more than “tactical speedbumps”). How does this get any closer to “simple answer” as promised? It comes down to the “Three-Rules of Real Estate: Location, Location, Location.”

    Location always benefits those fighting on “home turf”, which is why guerilla tactics have been favored in asymmetric warfare. Knowledge of local economics, topography, geography, transportation routes, etc… all favor the local team, which is the defensive team, and not having knowledge of any of those things greatly hampers the offensive team. Additionally, logistics is another hinderance for the offensive team.

    Sure a modified version of a hit-and-run tactic similar to the one you purposed is like Pearl Harbor and 9/11 in that they make “splashes” but the former will make a “small splash” in a “big pool” and the latter made “big splashes” in a “big pool”. The U.S. benefitted because it has (past and present, future unknown) the ability to “absorb” such attacks due to many internal factors (political structure, infrastructure, etc…), but, moreover, it is the enemies inability/unwillingness to capitalize on such successes. The previously mentioned “big splashes” lead to war because of their symbolism and grandiosity, in my opinion. 9/11 for example killed roughly 3,000 Americans, but 100 days from now 3,300 Americans will be killed via gun violence (and yet still no war on guns, but maybe this will change since Sandy Hook).

    Continuing with your hypothetical premise that the island of Manhattan is temporarily cut-off, what then? Loose Nuke? Dirty bomb? Mumbai style attack? Naval bombardment from the newly aligned nations of Britain, China, and Argentina? Or nothing? The answer is unknown. But what can be assumed is that the possibility of any of these happening is incredibly low for all but the last, which is the most probable answer. The fact is that the “car accident” is a first cut, but what’s most import is what happens afterwards. 9/11 the first cut was hijacking the planes, their symbolic crashes caused the U.S. “War on Terror”

    To answer your question as you stated in bold I will say this: Always and never. Always if the attack is grandiose and some “symbolic” blow can be achieved. Never because pissed off NYC commuters will rip to shit any asshole that causes them problems, but more importantly the capability to deliver a definitive “symbolic” blow is severely limited due to logistical handicaps that ‘foreign’ operatives face in a new and unknown land (I live in Manhattan and attend university in the UWS).

    [6:30a.m. writing on 38hrs no sleep while writing a paper on U.S. Foreign Relations from 1945 - First Gulf War makes for many errors and lack of clarity. sorry for any confusion]

  5. Agron says:

    “At what point does a traffic accident become an act of war?”
    I do not see how a series of intentional disruptions of traffic/transport infrastructure could be seen as an act of war unless it is followed by a more traditional act, such as a declaration of war and all that stuff. I would say that action such as described in your text could be labeled under the so-called 5th column activities during war time, but still, as an isolated attack in peace time (comparable to cyber attacks etc.) I do not see its viability or likelihood. And if such an attack/attacks were to take place, it would most likely need to be on a scale of 9/11 to warrant a military response.

    Also, “a thousand cuts” approach to offensive operations seems a lot harder to pull off than on the defensive (asymmetric warfare, IEDs etc.)

    Barring a traditional declaration of war, 5th column etc. scenario, wouldn’t an asymmetrical paper cuts attack on infrastructure be more comparable to terrorism or criminal activity (destruction of public property). Even if the “puppet master” behind the scenes was a hostile state, just handle the perps as common criminals: criminal court and a decade or two in prison as common convicts instead of prisoners of war. And on that point, you do not counter ants (criminals) with brute force (conventional armed forces) but with precision (police, counter-terrorism agencies etc.)

  6. Hello Jill – a really fresh article and a good question at the heart of it.

    I’ve followed the comments on your post as well and there are some points that are pertinent and should be raised – for me, it is all about the hollow-back phrase ‘act of war’. In the ongoing policy dialogue between two states, the act of war is generally accepted as synonymous with casus belli (as you have rightly pointed out in your title and article). Once war had been declared (or at least accepted by both belligerents), the act of war simply meshes with the other actions that constitute the conduct of war. The point that I am trying to make, is that this act only serves a purpose during the ante bellum phase. We can therefore exclude acts of terrorism or acts during the prosecution of war from our consideration – the message behind the act is simple: war!

    On the basis of the above, the act itself proves to be a hydra: In the first instance, the instigator may not have intended the act to be perceived as a casus belli – i.e. the American quarantine of Cuba during the Missile Crisis, yet Khrushchev thought of it so in his Gordian Knot memo to JFK. Or more recently the joint American-RoK military exercises that only today propelled the DPRK into yet another fit of hysteria (although we suspect that it is all just posturing, there had been a steady increase in body-count from this part of the world). Equally, the act may be so intended, but either not so perceived, or having been perceived as such, not responded to in the anticipated manner – i.e. the Iraqi SCUD bombardment of Israel during Desert Storm.

    Following on this reasoning, a simple traffic accident (or any incident, for that matter – even old Jenkins’ ear) could be described as an act of war on condition that a) it was intended as such or, that b) it was perceived as such (or a combination of course).

  7. Brian Turner says:

    I had this type of conversation with a colleague back in ’92 when the IRA was being a pest. Our meme was pretty much why go to the bother of procuring explosives, which has a nice long jail sentence, when you could steal a petrol tanker or three and torch them on the main bridges across the Thames. Immediate problems for Londoners, but potential structural damage that could disrupt the city for months.

    Now you may say so what, but the IRA was never looking at killing too many people at that time as that was counter productive, they were always have maximum disruption, so why not do something along these lines?

    Other options are steal a big dump truck and ram into road or railway bridge stanchions. Preferably when they are motorway or main line bridges; even better when they cross each other – two birds for one stone, so to say. Or use a tractor to pull electricity pylons down; UK power plants are helpfully away from main conurbations so this would be a major problem for the national grid.

    And the list goes on…

    Now what does strike me around this thought is how analogous it is to cyber warfare; if you don’t think that a traffic accident, or a tractor attacking a pylon, is a form of warfare, then do you think that a cyber attack shutting the electricity grid down or changing the order of traffic lights to cause accidents, is a form of warfare?

    Outcomes are the same, disruption, hassle, not many dead, yet they are, seemingly seen in a very different light.

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