Dragons vs. snakes

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Dragons vs. snakes

Yeom Jae-ho
The author is a professor emeritus and former president of Korea University.

The United States withdrew its forces from Afghanistan — 20 years after occupying the country to punish al-Qaeda for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The pandemonium from the pullout last month was an eerie reminder of Operation Frequent Wind in Saigon, South Vietnam in 1975. Just like Vietnam turned into a socialist state after 20 years of civil war, Afghanistan was seized by the Taliban after two decades of U.S. occupation.

Many scholars with expertise in military affairs, including Richard Lachmann, a professor of historical sociology at the State University of New York in Albany, raise serious doubts about America’s war strategy and capability. Such views are shared in “Dragons and Snakes,” authored by Prof. David Kilcullen of the University of New South Wales, Australia. In the book, Kilcullen argues that Uncle Sam’s war strategy is not effective anymore. The mobilization of cutting-edge weapons such as precision-guided missiles, aircraft carriers and stealth fighter jets can be useful in a war between “dragons,” but not in irregular warfare with “snakes” such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda, he says. Such warnings for a drastic paradigm shift in U.S. military strategy are also echoed in “The Kill Chain,” a book by Christian Brose, the Chief Strategy Officer at the Aspen Institute.

Regrettably, however, U.S. President Joe Biden is poised to fight with dragons like China and the Soviet Union. Since World War II, civil wars or war on terror has been a predominant form of warfare mostly thanks to nuclear deterrence — and America suffered one defeat after another — and yet its war paradigm has not changed.

In his 40-year bestseller “Essence of Failure: Organizational Study of the Japanese Armed Forces during World War II,” author Ikujiro Nonaka, an emeritus professor at Hitotsubashi University, insisted that Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) owed much to the supremacy of the Japanese Navy’s guns and Japan’s triumph in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) also was possible largely thanks to the Japanese Army’s rigid military discipline.

In the Pacific War, however, the invincible Japanese battleship Yamato armed with the world’s largest guns helplessly sank without engaging in full-fledged sea battles with the U.S. Navy because of its radar. The Imperial Japanese Army, too, suffered a crushing defeat in a number of battles with the U.S., including the Battle of Guadalcanal, after sticking with its old pattern of decision-making, strategy and military organization. A sweet taste of success is a shortcut to a failure.

Israel was no exception. After being elated by its victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, the country lost one fifth of its Air Force power — and 200 sophisticated of 300 tanks— just 24 hours after the breakout of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, or the fourth Arab-Israeli War, after Egyptian and Syrian attacks. The Talpiot program, an elite Israeli Defense Forces training program since 1979, is a direct result of the country’s painful reflection of the crushing defeat. “Israel’s Edge: The Story of The IDF’s Most Elite Unit — Talpiot” by Jason Gewirtz, an executive producer for CNBC and an expert on Israel, shows the secrets of a dramatic paradigm shift in the Israeli forces.

Modern warfare boils down to one thing: Brains. The Talpiot program recruits excellent high school graduates as cadets, allows them to earn a bachelor’s degree in three years during their military service, and encourages them to serve for five more years to help develop high-tech weapons for the Israeli Defense Force. Talpiot, which means a “fortified mountain fortress” or “the best of the best” in Hebrew, signifies elite leadership. The program aims to discover the top five percent of students with intelligence, creativity and concentration and educate them on mathematics, physics and computer science at Hebrew University, together with military trainings such as parachuting. Based on diverse-yet-specialized experiences accumulated in the program, the cadets later develop cutting-edge telecommunication systems, satellite cameras and cyber and missile defense systems.

In Israel, being a Talpiot cadet is more attractive than a celebrity. The world’s best unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, combat robots and drones, as well as unmanned ground vehicles are being developed by the graduates from Talpiot. The outstanding group of military elites has been attracted to Silicon Valley en masse thanks to their expertise, pride and professionalism built in Talpiot.

Check Point, a global leader in cyber security solutions, and Mobileye, the developer of self-driving cars and advanced driver-assistance systems, were founded by Talpiot graduates, not to mention AirPatrol, Anobit and Waves Audio. No wonder Talpiot graduates are called the “idea machine.”

The time has come for the Korean military to launch a paradigm shift after a parade of controversies over violence, sexual assault and substandard meals in the barracks.

Korea must stop boasting that it has the 10th largest defense budget and 600,000-strong armed forces and instead start to foster a real military elite that can develop sophisticated technology for the armed forces. The country must turn the military into a path to success after service is finished, as the war paradigm is quickly changing.
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