Technology, of course ... but let's not forget the “man” factor!

(To Antonio Li Gobbi)
19/07/22

The rapid evolution of the international scenario and the start of the conflict in Ukraine question many beliefs in which we have been lulled over the last thirty years.

We had mistakenly deluded ourselves that we would no longer have to foresee a “classic” conflict that would pit us against armed forces with a technological level comparable to ours. Of course, our soldiers would have been engaged around the world, however in limited numbers, within the framework of a crisis management managed by some supranational body (UN, NATO, EU), to conduct activities of peacekeeping, peace-enforcing or even to the limit of counter-insurgency (as happened in Afghanistan), but we removed the problem by calling them all indiscriminately "Peace operations".

And, in any case, it would have operated in a context in which we could have availed ourselves of an undeniable technological superiority, which, while deploying few men on the ground, would have guaranteed us superiority in the information sector, cyber, air support, fire support, where had been necessary. In short, to be a bit brutal, a vaguely colonial conception of the conflicts that could await us, where in any case our technological superiority would have made the difference.

Events in Ukraine require us to quickly change this reassuring approach.

We must realize that we Italians and NATO are also at war and we strongly stated which side we are on. It is certainly true that, unlike thirty years ago, our eastern border no longer coincides with NATO's eastern border. It is also true that for the moment we are "fighting" only with economic sanctions and by sending weapons to the Ukrainians.

Moreover, we must also take into account the possibility of a direct NATO intervention where, despite the "indirect" support provided so far, the forces of Kiev fail to reject the Russians beyond the pre-2014 borders (goal declared by Zelensky and by Biden, which however appears unrealistic) or even should be on the verge of succumbing (a hypothesis that in the light of the facts cannot be totally excluded).

A scenario that is perhaps not sufficiently taken into account is that it is not NATO as such (on the unanimous and "conscious" decision of all its members) that decides to intervene alongside the Ukrainians, but only some Allies (for example, British or Poles who appear to be the most convinced that direct war against Moscow must be reached and are already pawing to drag NATO onto the battlefield). Subsequently, as happened in Afghanistan in 2003 (an operation that since 2001 was conducted by a Coalition of the willing led by the US), or in Libya in 2011 (which was initially only a daring Franco-British initiative), the entire Atlantic Alliance could be involved, almost in spite of itself to assist a member in difficulty. This technique could basically also be a clever ploy to allow the most skeptical countries to face the fait accompli.

In the event of a conflict, take into account that Russia has a footprint military not indifferent in various countries bordering the Mediterranean and this should worry us. The enemy would not only be in distant Ukraine, but in the Mediterranean and certainly in Benghazi.

In this context, Italy has also decided to increase defense spending to 2% of GDP by 2028.

This news makes the representatives of the Defense Industry gloat and conferences and debates are intensifying on the importance of individual domains (terrestrial, naval, air, space and cyber) and of the most technologically advanced components of the individual sectors.

Quite right. There are many, too many sectors that have been neglected for too many years (for the terrestrial instrument, think of both ground and anti-aircraft artillery, the armored component, the bridge component of the genius, etc.).

We welcome the renewed interest in these sectors which require urgent modernization. Let us abandon once and for all also questionable concepts such as the "dual systemic" use theorized a couple of years ago for purposes perhaps more political than functional to the military instrument.

The armed forces are used above all to allow the state to use force, unfortunately also lethal force, when the other instruments of pressure (political, economic, diplomatic) have failed to achieve the desired results. However, all this cannot and must not overshadow the human factor!

Technology, without the man who knows and is motivated to use it, is useless. You can acquire the most sophisticated war technology, but if you don't have the right staff, it's a waste of money. The experience of the armament, even of excellent quality, supplied in quantity to the Afghan army that vaporized in front of the Taliban or the Iraqi one that vaporized in front of ISIS should make us reflect.

The human factor is essential in all FAs, but in the terrestrial instrument it must be remembered that often the fighter himself becomes a "weapon system".

The human factor cannot ignore two variables: quality and quantity.

Quality requires that the potential fighter is suitable, trained and motivated to fulfill a duty that may involve the risk of life.

Eligible, to be understood also physically fit to cope with onerous tasks. Here one cannot fail to highlight the dramatic aging of our Armed Forces. The average age of permanent service personnel is now around 40 years old. If this factor already raises many concerns in the event of a conflict, in a few years it could be unmanageable.

This situation is not unexpected. It is the result of short-sighted choices, tending to satisfy the electoral benefits of the current political leadership, rather than looking with foresight at the efficiency of the military instrument over time. In practice, it is the result of a system inspired by a concept that privileged the employment factor over the functional one. To remedy this, it may be necessary to reconsider not only the criteria but also the philosophies behind the recruitment.

A paradigm change that would not be painless and that would encounter not a few political resistance, but which today appears not to be postponed.

Plus the staff must be trained, and this requires the availability of polygons (even if environmentalists and anti-militarists do not like the idea), funds for training (given the shortcomings of the past few years this is a sector that has often been sacrificed).

Moreover, this aspect cannot fail to be affected by the bad national habit of using the Army as a low-cost labor pool. It is obvious that in the event of an emergency or natural disaster, the Army is there as it has always been. But it cannot become a substitute for making up for shortcomings in other sectors.

Think of "Strade Pulite" (replacing the garbage collection) or even Safe Roads (photo) which continues to absorb thousands of soldiers. The use of the army in support of the police began in September 1992 after the murder of Borsellino with the operation "Vespri Siciliani". That was a necessary operation and one that made sense at the time. After 30 years, if there must be a continuous transfer of forces from one structure to another, it is difficult to speak of "emergency" and we tend more to think of disorganization.

If it is necessary to increase the police force, recruit more policemen, but safeguard the military peculiarity. This continuous distraction of the military for an operation that has little or nothing to do with their specialized training (think of anti-aircraft or ground artillery units or armored or specialist engineering units employed as "police aid") also inevitably compromises the preparation of the military for their specific tasks and it seems to me that the message that comes to us from Ukraine is that it is a malpractice that we can no longer afford.

Regarding the motivation, it is worth noting that within the Armed Forces personnel should be paid on the basis of the services actually provided and the responsibilities assumed. We realize that it would not be easy as the Defense Section is bound by the legislation of the public sector, where seniority is a premium over meritocracy, but to safeguard the efficiency of the military instrument it is necessary to accept the principle of exceptionality. Furthermore, it would be advisable at least to avoid impromptu measures aimed at obtaining consensus by depressing the deserving, as in the case of a questionable competition wanted by a recent minister, which led to the promotion to the rank of marshal of VSPs and sergeants with requirements lower than those up to then. required for access to this degree.

Coming now to the quantitative aspect, it is now evident that the organic volumes designed for the terrestrial component in a totally different geopolitical context cannot be adequate to the potential needs we face.

In particular, the Model of Law 244 of 2012, which aimed to exchange quantity (or personnel) for quality (or technological innovation), must certainly be put aside as in the immediate future it is likely that they will serve the terrestrial component of the military instrument. both quantity and quality. This Model provided for a ceiling of 89 thousand units for the land forces, which today it does not appear adequate. Moreover, while the cuts in personnel for good or ill have been made, the savings achieved have not always returned to the availability of the defense to be reinvested in technological innovation.

In the near future, the "quantity" will be used in a diversified measure according to age. Especially in the lower hierarchical levels, young staff will be needed. The model to aim for cannot therefore be, in reference to the age of the personnel, a cylinder that leads us in a short time to perhaps have troop personnel close to sixty years of age, difficult to use in operational positions of one's rank. Instead, it would be necessary to be inspired by a conical or truncated cone model, where the personnel enlisted as a young person after a certain number of years leave the Armed Forces to be assigned to another job.

Furthermore, for thirty years, we, like many Western countries (some more or less), have rightly looked at the model of "Expeditionary operations". Model that required military tools characterized by high projection capacity, supported by sophisticated war technology and based on voluntary recruitment, with smaller organic volumes but with highly trained personnel, great professionalism and motivation. Why not? Greater "spendability" of military personnel in the event of human losses in operations outside the national territory (losses that probably would have been perceived differently by public opinion if they had involved conscripts rather than professionals).

If we have to go back to thinking in terms of "article 5" operations, of Defense and deterrence, as the Strategic concept of NATO just approved in Madrid also by Italy requires us, perhaps it could be useful to start thinking about how to reconvert our military instrument .

It is also evident that in the event of a hypothetical "Article 5" conflict of the Alliance, in addition to the forces sent to the front, it would be necessary to strengthen all forms of what was once called "Internal defense of the territory" (security of communication routes, anti-sabotage activities, protection of sensitive targets, coastal patrols, etc.).

It would therefore be advisable to consider a reopening of enrollments, perhaps with different criteria. That is, there is not necessarily a need for those looking for a "permanent job". We also need people who are willing to challenge for a limited number of years, and then ready for something else.

Let it be clear that a generalized return to compulsory conscription could be neither militarily necessary nor practically feasible (and in any case certainly not in the short term) nor socially acceptable.

Instead, it would be necessary to provide for the establishment of trained and readily callable reserves to cope not only with any public calamities or health emergencies (a requirement that appeared evident even in the first months of the COVID 19 epidemic), but also able to integrate the operational capabilities of the "permanent" army in the event of a conflict, which would remain primarily "professional".

Such an approach would involve the adoption of adequate legislative provisions that allow (as has always been the case in other countries, think of the US National Guard or the British Army Reserve), the recruitment, basic training and periodic recall of personnel without he is penalized in his "civil" employment relationship.

The process to reach such a solution would not be simple or quick, it would impose not insignificant costs and a review of the current military instrument. Certainly this task should fall on the regular Armed Forces and one cannot realistically think of attributing this function to some meritorious weapon association in search of expanding the pool of its members.

Also to adapt the quantity and quality of the "human component" of the military instrument requires long-term planning, legislative activity and commitment of financial resources.

With regard to the now not postponable modernization of the military instrument, it is hoped that we will not only look at the technology but also at the men and women that that technology will have to use on the battlefield, often at the risk of their lives.

Photo: ministry of defense