The Fog of War

The Prussian strategist and military observer, Clausewitz is oft quoted as is his French counterpart Jomini and their Chinese predecessor Sun Tsu. Permeating through their observations, strategies and writings is the inherent understanding that there are many unknowns and uncertainties even if one side in the conflict dominates in information, technology and forces. The uncertain and the unknown, or the fog in war, is the ultimate factor which determines the outcome. This is also the case in decisions about when to go to war. History is abound with cases of waiting too long or attacking too soon where the attacker losers but could have won if he had attacked at the right moment. So too is the case in decisions about Syrian chemical capability and Iranian nuclear capability.

The decision or lack thereof is not just military or political. Weather is an important factor as is the day and time of the attack. For example a strong wind blowing in the wrong direction could potentially cause many civilian deaths from fallout. Attacking on a working day during working hours could potentially cause many civilian deaths of those working in the facilities. So the best time of attack would be known to the defenders as well, should the attackers wish to avoid undue deaths and bad publicity. This is presuming that all other information is known, such as the exact location of all the chemical and nuclear targets and the defense systems surrounding them. It takes only one unknown or uncalculated factor for an entire mission to be jeopardized, as was apparent when American helicopters crashed because they had not been fitted with sand filters in the abortive rescue of hostages in Iran (1979/1980).

For many years Israel has urged for action against Iranian nuclear capability. In the case of successful demolition of Iraqi and Syrian facilities there was only one target area. This is not the case with Iran. As the years have passed it has become harder and harder to consider that a military attack on the Iranian facilities will have the fully desired effect. Iran has facilities at multiple locations and may now have additional facilities at unknown locations. Iran has strengthened the defenses of those facilities that Israel has highlighted in its media campaign. The notion of the fog of war determines that the longer the wait for an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities then there is the greater the potential for failure. So if the military option is to be used, then the sooner an attack is implemented the better. Both Israel and the United States can assess the success of an initial strike determining whether additional strikes are needed.

For some weeks now the United States has threatened action against Syrian chemical capability. The action against Syria is different from that on Iraq and Libya. A military attack on Syria is a reaction to unexpected events on the ground. The operations in Iraq and Libya were initiatives with many years of prior planning. The military had practiced many different options and the politicians had gathered their allies; where deals were struck on the local and national levels in many countries and globally. The notion of the fog of war is all too clear in the case of reactions and not long term initiatives typified by the British Parliament who voted against military action. There is no doubt that diplomatic endeavors against Syria will be protracted and that during them the Syrian regime may well be able to transfer or hide chemical capability for future use. The notion of the fog of war determines that the longer the wait for an attack on Syrian chemical facilities then there is the greater the potential for failure. The longer the wait the greater the potential for more incidents of chemical use in the civil-war. So if the military option is to be used, then the sooner an attack is implemented the better.

Too little too late is also an oft expressed statement when handling despotic bellicose regimes such as Iran and Syria. It is time for leaders to be leaders and to take action. The leaders have expressed concern, the leaders have shown their evidence and their concern has been experienced by their own populations. Any procrastination in action by the leaders not only reduces the potential for success but it also increases the fear in their own population. Undue delays in removing threats tend to influence the economy and social structure. The fog of Iranian and Syrian capabilities and facilities can be lifted with immediate and decisive strikes destroying them, while the military option still exists.

Dr Glen Segell, FRGS, is Researcher at The Institute for National Security Studies Tel Aviv, Lecturer at Bar-Ilan University and Senior Researcher for the Ariel Research Center for Defense and Communication

About the Author
Dr Glen Segell is Fellow at the Ezri Center for Iran & Persian Gulf Studies, University of Haifa.