TCS Daily

What Would Sun Tzu Do?

By Dwayne Burnette - September 19, 2003 12:00 AM

The place of battle must not be made known to the enemy. If it is not known, then the enemy must prepare to defend many places.

- Sun Tzu: The Principles of Warfare, Chapter Six: Weakness and Strength


The terrorists who declared war on America live by this ancient principle. That leaves America and her allies in an almost untenable situation in the War on Terror, because the nature of terrorism and the nature of an open society place America and her allies on the side of having to defend an innumerable number of places from an innumerable type of attacks.


Terrorist organizations covertly plan to destroy targets of their own choosing by operating in cells isolated from each other, and they demand absolute secrecy from their members. They must do this if they are to achieve their goal of terrorizing civilian populations with impunity.


It should go without saying that secrecy allows terrorists to hide the "place of battle" and this level of secrecy allows terrorists flexibility in the choice of targets and flexibility in the timing of attacks. All the while, this secrecy curtails communication along a chain of command that could potentially be compromised by the United States' vastly superior electronic eavesdropping capabilities.


For the enemies of America in the War on Terror, the "places of battle" are places like hotels, embassies, neighborhoods, and other civilian gathering spots. These are places that are rarely if ever defended in a manner consistent with what is necessary to secure them from terrorist attack. Any attempt to defend every possible target against every possible attack diminishes our ability to defend any target anywhere.




So, with this in mind, what would Sun Tzu do? What principles from Sun Tzu's The Principles of Warfare would apply to this situation?


Getting the enemy to approach on his own accord is a matter of showing him advantage.

- Sun Tzu: The Principles of Warfare, Chapter Six: Weakness and Strength


In the War on Terror, the most important short-term objective is to reduce the possibility of any additional 9/11-style attacks on the United States.


In that light it's important to develop tactics and strategies that refocus the eye of al-Qaeda, et al. to different parts of the world; essentially we give them an easier target that's so enticing they have no choice but to pursue it.


The coalition is now fighting Saddam-ites, hangers-on, and other ragtag groups on a tactical level in Iraq. Similar elements exist in Afghanistan as well. These battles are short-term and localized, often requiring Special Forces to carry out atypical, asymmetrical battles.


On a strategic level it appears Iraq, and to a lesser extent Afghanistan, are being used as a lure to bring the enemy within reach by appearing to show the terrorists some advantage. Considering the nature of Sun Tzu's tactics it was probably planned that way from the get go.


Warfare is the Way of deception. Therefore, if able, appear unable, if active, appear not active, if near, appear far, if far, appear near.

- Sun Tzu: The Principles of Warfare, Chapter One: Calculations


It is said that "truth is the first casualty of war," but a more astute observation is that truth and lies are both weapons of war. Where the truth is more likely to deceive the enemy, the truth is presented; but where a falsehood is more likely to deceive the enemy, a falsehood is given. Either way, the point is to make the enemy believe what you want them to believe.


"Therefore, if able, appear unable, if active, appear not active, if near, appear far, if far, appear near."

The enemy has been deceived into believing that America and the rest of the coalition is unable to track their movements across the deserts, and news stories reinforce this false premise among the Islamist population. But where it appears America is unable, in comes the Air Force's JSTARS (Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System). This radar system can track objects as small as vehicles and as far as 150 miles away. It's rumored this radar system can be tuned to track an object as small as a person.


Then there is the AC-130 Gunship, which is capable of loitering over a specific area in all weather conditions, day or night. This aircraft can lay down firepower from a 40mm cannon and a 105mm cannon with such precision that it can target two separate people simultaneously from 25,000 feet and kill them in seconds, and then retarget within a few more seconds. The 105mm cannon can destroy most any ground target, including most tanks, troop carriers and even small buildings, so a technical vehicle would require little effort.


This specialized warfare leads to victory, and may not be transmitted beforehand.

- Sun Tzu: The Principles of Warfare, Chapter One: Calculations


America cannot blatantly advertise the fact that a JSTAR can track a small vehicle (or maybe even an individual person) crossing the vast deserts of the Middle East, nor can America advertise that a JSTAR can pass those coordinates on to an AC-130 so it can intercept and attack said vehicle without its occupants even realizing they were targeted. It is quite likely that this combination of aircrafts has already killed Jihadist and other assorted terrorists headed for Iraq or who were loitering in Afghanistan, and it is certain that such battlefield operations hardly ever -- if ever at all -- make the evening news.


Is this the true plan by which the military is carrying out the War on Terror? It's hard to say, but one thing for certain, many great minds at the Pentagon applied the philosophies of Sun Tzu to the situation before the first shot was fired in Afghanistan, so if one wants an inside track to the thinking of the military planners, you must ask yourself...


What would Sun Tzu do?


Mr. Burnette is a free-lance web designer, computer technician, and former naval aviation electronics / calibration technician. Other opinions of Mr. Burnette can be found on his blog,

TCS Daily Archives