TCS Daily

Sink the Terrorists

By Arnold Kling - August 6, 2003 12:00 AM

Through the smoke Horton could see that the tide of battle was still flowing decisively in the Allies' favour. In this month, later judged by some commentators to be the one in which Britain's vital lifeline to North America came closest to being cut, important attacks were made on just four of sixteen convoys."
The Battle of the Atlantic, p. 248


Recently, I picked up The Battle of the Atlantic, by Andrew Williams, which is a history of the World War II struggle to protect merchant shipping from German submarines. I was interested because of what I see are parallels between the challenge posed by terrorists and the challenge posed by U-Boats during the second World War. For example, it may be difficult to assess accurately who is really winning.


The U-Boat menace frustrated the Allies in World War II in the way that terrorists frustrate their opponents today. The submarines were almost impossible to locate in the vast, stormy seas, they would strike without warning, and they aimed for unarmed targets. In World War II, the objective of the German submarines was to sink the merchant shipping that carried supplies to Great Britain. Admiral Donitz, the German commander, focused on the number of tons of merchant shipping sunk per day per U-Boat.


U-Boat attacks were not intentionally suicidal, but they had grim results for the attackers. Williams estimates that two-thirds of German submarine personnel died at sea.


Signal Intelligence and Technology


According to Williams, the Allies ultimately won the Battle of the Atlantic with superior signal intelligence and technology. The famous Enigma decoding was particularly important in the effort to locate U-Boats.


In the realm of technology, because U-Boats spent most of the time on the surface, radar proved to be the decisive tool for the Allies. Once the "boffins" had figured out how to equip escort ships and aircraft with radar, U-Boats found it much more difficult to hide.


Another technical tool was a radio direction finder that enabled Allied ships to home in on the signals sent by U-Boats. This made it difficult for the U-Boats to co-ordinate attacks without giving away their positions.


Similarly, I suspect that in the war against terrorists we will need to be able to intercept communications both to obtain advance warning and to make it difficult for terrorists to co-ordinate their activities. I also suspect that technology that enables us to track the movements of terror suspects will be critical. We will need to be particularly good at identifying when terror suspects are moving with explosives or are gathering in the vicinity of potential targets.


Bring 'em on


The Allies evaluated and revised tactics more frequently than the Germans. Tactical considerations ranged from narrow issues, such as the angle to drop depth charges, to broader issues, such as the role of the convoy system.


American navy leaders resisted the convoy system. They preferred a "search and destroy" approach, which would enable the navy to act independently of merchant ships. However, this proved inefficient, because submarines were difficult to find.


With convoys, on the other hand, the U-Boats would reveal their presence when they attacked. At that point, destroyers and other escorts could swing into action.


President Bush's reaction to terrorist attacks in Iraq ("Bring 'em on") is reminiscent of the convoy theory. We would prefer the terrorists to be active where we have the properly-armed, well-trained forces to fight them.


In fact, one of the ways that the Allies were able to gain control in the Battle of the Atlantic was to harass the U-Boats in and around their home bases. The attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq would seem to serve a similar purpose.




The Allies suffered periodic setbacks in the Battle of the Atlantic. When the United States at first refused to adopt the successful convoy system, the Germans took advantage. The analogy today might be with the Israeli offensives against terrorist groups. If those are successful tactics but the United States resists their use, will the result be increases in terrorist attacks?


Another setback occurred late in 1942, when the Allies overstretched their shipping to support campaigns in Africa and sending supplies to Russia. British Prime Minister Churchill had to refocus efforts on the Battle of the Atlantic, and he put in charge Admiral Max Horton (quoted above).


Similarly, I detected a loss of focus in the terror war when I read in the Washington Post that "A passenger-screening system designed to help capture terrorists could also be used to target people suspected of violent crimes, under a proposal approved by Department of Homeland Security officials." Unfortunately, this was not an isolated instance of "mission creep" on the part of the Department of Homeland Security, as Glenn Reynolds pointed out. I hope that it does not take a big setback in the war on terrorism to convince President Bush to step in and remind the Department of Homeland Security that it needs to stick to its core mission.


Even if we suffer no further attacks, it is an outrage to use data mining technology for any purpose other than fighting terrorism. Although I have supported data mining for a narrow purpose, I vigorously oppose any attempt to extend its use to fight other crimes or perceived threats.


When will we know?


At some point, would-be terrorists will become so demoralized that they will be reluctant to undertake missions. However, we are unlikely to know about this.


Williams writes that by the summer of 1943, the Allies could see a sharp decline in the fighting spirit of U-Boat sailors. They had solid intelligence reports that crewmen were refusing to go to sea. Others were sabotaging their boats in order to keep them in dock for repairs. However, Williams writes, "These secret reports were circulated to just a privileged few within the Admiralty."


In 1943, British intelligence was not trying to "sex up" the remaining U-Boat risk. The Germans hoped and the Allies feared that new submarine technology might shift the balance in favor of the U-Boats. Fortunately, this threat did not materialize.


Once again, the war on terrorist forces may present a parallel. When the terrorists become so demoralized that few are willing to fight, it may be difficult for intelligence agencies to confirm that fact. And the American public may be the last to know.


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