Weapons and Tactics: ISIS and the Japanese Navy

July 19, 2016–The latest horror, this truck mow-down in Nice, France, last week is worth more attention– it goes to the theme that terrorism is less than the sum of its parts. I have written about this here before, but the appearance of my new book Storm Over Leyte  permits me to illustrate this point in a way that I could not before. The point is to show the difference between a movement and a war.

First, for background, suicide tactics are artifacts of desperation. A victorious belligerent wants to be around to enjoy the spoils. One resorting to suicide attacks is using the determination to die as a way to increase fighters’ combat effectiveness.

But suicide tactics represent just another element in determining outcomes. All the other aspects that produce outcomes still apply. Think of each as an independent variable. The adequacy of weapons and munitions, the status of equipment, the readiness state of both attacker and target, the alertness or expectations of the target, environmental conditions, we could continue, but that’s not necessary.

In the Nice slaughter the assailant drove a truck to run people down, finally was reduced to using a weapon outside the vehicle, and was brought down. The weather had been perfect, with crowds gathered to watch Bastille Day fireworks, so the targets were unsuspecting and mostly unarmed. The toll currently stands at 84 killed and more than 230 injured, over 40 of them critical or in intensive care.

We are told the assailant had recently fallen under the spell of ISIS, and during the preceding interval had been trolling extremist websites. The perpetrators of the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels did that too. Let me add to what I said about those incidents–in addition to targeting the least protected, we can add that the events take place as one-off incidents.

That is, ISIS and its brethren troll just like our Nice assailant. They attract the attention and approbation of individuals–from sermons, on the web, in readings, in speeches. For the most part the eventual suicide attackers have had only sporadic–or less–contact with the real ISIS network. Their links have been minimal–and, for post-incident investigators, the assailants’ affinity for ISIS has been mostly imagined. The attacks can only be one-offs–like the 9/11 attacks themselves–because the assailants end up dead, while the target population contrives a greater degree of protection.

Contrast this with the Imperial Japanese Navy in World War II. With Japan increasingly on the ropes and unable to lay a glove on the Allied forces, in late 1944 the Japanese Navy made a plan to deliberately sacrifice most of its strength in order to put a strong fleet up against an Allied force invading the Philippines. The Japanese coordinated their warships and used their planes to help reduce the scale of Allied resistance. The fascinating tale of how the Imperial Navy accomplished the feat of threatening a U.S. task force in the face of every imaginable disadvantage of strength, supply, intelligence, and combat power is told in stunning detail in Storm Over Leyte, but the point is that the Japanese succeeded in coordinating, that a command presence led their forces. More than that, the Imperial Navy created a corps of suicide aviators and made efforts to regularize the use of these tactics. This was a systematic effort.

So long as ISIS and its brethren can do no more than mobilize random recruits for one-off attacks the period we are in should not even be called a “war.” We need deeper thinking and less hysteria.