Monday, July 03, 2006

The "Butterfly Effect" in Wars Past and Present

The ongoing revelations by the U.S. media about the various secret programs being used to prosecute the war on terror are defended by the media (and much of the left) with the unbelievable claim that since terrorists already know we are using secret methods to track them, it makes no difference for the media to report about them. Apparently your common terrorist thug is smart enough to figure it out but not the average American. This is, of course, utter nonsense as I express here. In that post I mention the macro effect that the press revealing information has had in the past, during the Franco-Prussian War. There is also a micro effect that can quite impact the macro situation. This is more commonly known as the “Butterfly Effect” (or, if you prefer, Chaos Theory). Even should these programs not catch many terrorists, or stop many plots (as some have suggested), they can have singular successes that can affect the entire war.

In the late 19th Century, the Russians were preparing for a war with Great Britain. To attack British commerce, the Russians developed a very expensive commerce raider, the IRN Rurik. However, she would never get a chance to prey on the British merchant marine as she was in the Pacific when war broke out with Japan. Due to the powerful Imperial Japanese Navy, the Rurik would only have one minor success in commerce raiding. In August of 1904 she managed to sink a single Japanese transport vessel before being driven off by the convoy’s escorts. The Rurik would only survive another week before she was sunk by a Japanese squadron. Her career would seem to have been an utter waste of Russian resources as she only sank a single cheap Japanese transport. Yet, had the Russians leadership been more capable, this sinking was probably their greatest opportunity to win the war.

The Japanese knew they were racing against time in any conflict with Russia. The Russian Army was some 4 times bigger than Japan’s and the Imperial Russian Navy was twice as powerful. Japan’s advantage was that she could concentrate all of her power against Russia in Manchuria while the Russians only had small divided forces in the Far East. If the war lasted too long however, the Russians could transport vast numbers of soldiers to Manchuria and send their powerful Baltic fleet to the Yellow Sea ending any hope of a Japanese victory. The Japanese had to capture Port Arthur as quickly as possible and destroy the Russian military forces there while also holding off the Russian army in Manchuria and Vladivostok squadron. After that, they could concentrate their entire army and naval forces and (hopefully) defeat whatever forces the Russians had sent to reinforce the Far East, ending the war in a victory for Japan.

The key to this strategy was the investment of Port Arthur. If it took too long then the dreaded Russian reinforcements would arrive. To defeat the Russian fortifications, and sink the warships at anchor in the harbor, the Japanese needed their battalion of heavy artillery, 18 11" artillery pieces. They planned for the guns to arrive in early August so they could begin the end stage of the Port Arthur operation. However, the convoy carrying the artillery ran into that unlucky Russian raider on its lucky day in early August. Unfortunately, the single transport lost was the one carrying the only heavy artillery in Japan. As a result, the Japanese were forced into a series of exceptionally bloody infantry assaults on Port Arthur that only resulted in the loss of 60,000 soldiers. It was not until October that Japan was able to replace the lost heavy artillery and begin the siege in earnest. By the end of December the Russian fleet was mostly at the bottom of the harbor and the soldiers could take no more. The garrison surrendered and the Japanese were able to concentrate just in time for the decisive Battle of Mukden (the army from Port Arthur arrived just before the battle).

Ultimately, the Japanese were still to win the war despite the one lucky success of the Rurik. Even so, the Rurik did greatly change the path of the war. The three month delay in ending the Siege of Port Arthur gave the Russians a chance to destroy an outnumbered Japanese army covering them in central Manchuria. Alternately, they could have left an army to cover the Japanese covering army, and moved a third army to strike the Japanese army at Port Arthur in the rear, destroying it. They could then combine their entire force in Manchuria and destroy the remaining Japanese army. Even doing nothing as they did, it forced the Japanese to fight the decisive battle with a smaller force (due to the extra 60,000 casualties at Port Arthur) and during the Manchurian winter. This made Mukden a much closer affair (that the Russians could have easily won) than had it been fought 3 months earlier. The fate of nations, empires, and millions of soldiers and sailors turned on one unlucky ship having one lucky sortie, which produced one lucky sighting, which yielded one lucky shot.

In the modern context this means that any possible success of any one of these anti-terror programs could have a major impact in the current war on terror. A terror program that tracked banking transactions overseas could have one success that catches a single transfer by a suspected terror financier to a suspected terrorist in Pakistan, who upon being picked up had time-sensitive info on the location of a local terrorist bigwig who is arrested with all his information including a scheduled meeting the next day with a major terrorist that leads to his capture and the unveiling of hundreds of plots and lower level terrorist operatives. Who knows how major an impact this could have on the wider war? There are of course a million other ways these programs could cause major effects. Abu Sabaya was tracked in the Philippines for 3 years before the chance discovery that he frequently ordered pizza from a certain pizza shop led to his death and the destruction of his particularly violent faction. Such effects are especially important in an intelligence war where the enemy is extremely hard to find. Though the odds of these major events happening are small, they become exponentially smaller the more of these programs our media foolishly reveal. It may be decades before we learn just how many died and how long the struggle was extended for the Pulitzer Prizes of certain journalists.

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