In the wake of recent terrorist attacks in England, many in Western policy-making circles appear to be grasping desperately for ways to prevent similar violence. One proposed solution, according to retired U.S. Army Col. Stefan Banach, lies in the ability to out-maneuver the enemy in the “Virtual Battle Space.”
As the United States and its allies continue and in some cases escalate their direct and indirect involvement in a wide range of long-running conflicts throughout the Middle East and elsewhere in the world, keeping track of Western foreign policy commitments and objectives becomes increasingly complicated. This complexity is reflected in the convoluted explanation Banach gives for “the new normal” of U.S. military engagement around the world in his recent article for Small Wars Journal, “From 9/11 to London: The Need for Virtual Battle Space Maneuver Doctrine.”
“The U.S. military is now confronted with a mounting number of strategic and operational negative externalities, given the growing cognitive dissonance relative to VBSM [Virtual Battle Space Maneuver] and Physical Battle Space Maneuver (PBSM), in an unprecedented 21st Century global conflict space,” Banach writes. “The velocity and viral nature of these evolving dynamic factors often overwhelm existing industrial-age cognitive processes and leadership approaches, which are proving to be inappropriate for contemporary complex problem-solving.”
The problems of military strategy facing the U.S. and the broader West may be complex, but to Banach, apparently, some of them can be reduced to simple terms. The U.S. faces a “System of Opposition,” he writes.
“The current System of Opposition is defined as everything that is working against the attainment of U.S. policies and objectives,” according to Banach. “The System of Opposition is a complex global entity that is at war with the United States every day in Virtual Battle Space and, at times, in Physical Battle Space. The System of Opposition to the United States is growing in power and now includes nation-state actors, global companies, radical organizations and technically capable individuals who are all ‘virtual combatants’ that collectively outgun the U.S. military in Virtual Battle Space.”
Despite Banach’s somewhat dubious assertion that forces opposed to the U.S. form a singular “complex global entity,” however, he also repeatedly refers to the “wars” (undeclared, of course) the U.S. is involved in, which seems to imply that the “System of Opposition” is actually less of a cohesive conspiracy than the name he gives it suggests.
When it comes to the terrorist attacks featured in the title of his article, meanwhile, (September 11, 2001 and the recent U.K. attacks) Banach is no believer in controversial conspiracy theories — except the contention that Sharia Law is gaining a foothold in the West.
It’s been reported that several of the suspects in the U.K. attacks — as has often been the case in the U.S., where authorities have been accused of “manufacturing” terrorism schemes — had been in contact with various law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Nevertheless, Banach attributes failure to apprehend them not to government malfeasance or incompetence but to their living “in western Islamic Sharia Law enclaves” where they were “enabled daily by the veil of political correctness.” (Although some U.K. Muslims do appeal to community “sharia councils” for guidance on what is acceptable in their religion, these are not actual courts with any legal standing or official enforcement powers).
Not all of the ideas Banach brings up are novel. The concept of the “virtual” or “cyber combatant” has been raised before, for example, while there are no doubt some in official circles who feel that the “System of Opposition” to U.S. aims would provide the ideal case study for the budding “Science of Resistance” proposed in another article for Small Wars Journal earlier this year.
Other points brought up in Banach’s article seem to border on the absurd. “The U.S. military has framed and named four Revolutions in Military Affairs (RMAs) in the past 118 years,” Banach notes, before going on to point out that none of these RMAs — including the two that started and finished before U.S. entry into World War II — “produced amorphous global groups of civilian terrorist hackers and attackers in both virtual and physical space.” That could be because “terrorist hackers” didn’t exist at the time and — if all they are doing is hacking and we are using the common definition of terrorism as the use of violence against civilians for political ends — they still don’t.
Nonetheless, Banach seems sure of what must be done to counter the “System of Opposition” threat. “The U.S. government must mobilize the industrial base of the country to combat the [Virtual Battle Space Maneuver] threats that are emerging across the world today by a growing carte du jour of actors,” he writes. “If the aforementioned national mobilization does not occur, a ‘Virtual 9/11’ will indeed follow.”
The specter of a virtual or “Cyber 9/11” is one which the government has been invoking for years, and which it reportedly fears could take the form of a massive cyber attack on the U.S. electrical grid, financial system, or infrastructure. Yet like Banach’s concept of the “System of Opposition,” the idea of “Virtual 9/11” seems vague and potentially counterproductive.
“The Internet is the primary virtual weapon system that is employed by the System of Opposition against the United States and its allies,” Banach writes. It should be obvious that viewing different factions opposing the U.S. for different reasons and not necessarily allied with each other as some kind of monolithic force is a vast oversimplification that could lead to terrible strategic mistakes. In the same way, talk of a “Virtual 9/11” may eventually prove to be an outdated model for describing threats posed by the broadening of warfare into the “Virtual Battle Space.”
The U.S. national security establishment seems to still be in the process of figuring out what cyber warfare is supposed to mean and what it’s supposed to look like, as evidenced by ongoing organizational shake-ups in the agencies responsible for waging it. As military leaders become more familiar with this unconventional form of warfare, perhaps they will come up with more appropriate terminology to fit it. For the sake of what should be basic, common-sense strategy in pursuit of U.S. foreign policy goals, we should at least hope so.