Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Sat-phone technology and guerilla warfare

Alex de Waal has posted an interesting piece on the fantastic Making Sense of Darfur blog in which he explains how communication technology is further transforming the face of warfare in locations where communication used to be far more time consuming. In the piece, De Waal analyzes the specific impact of the Thuraya satellite phone on conflict in Darfur; rebel leaders can now communicate with each other from the remotest of areas.

"The advent of the Thuraya phone has radically changed warfare in across the Sahara desert, as illustrated in the case of Darfur. Twenty five years ago, I remember travelling across Darfur with no phone lines, with telecommunication possible only through ageing two-way radios in the police stations. The mail was slow and unreliable. The only way of communicating anything other than the tersest instruction or question was to meet face to face, or send a messenger. On top of the cellphone, which has transformed communication in urban areas, the Thuraya phone has made it possible for people in the remotest locations to communicate instantly. In other places, this has transformed long-distance trade. In Darfur, it has transformed warfare. Desert warfare, as practiced by the Chadians and Darfurians, is based on mobility and surprise. The Landcruiser is the basic unit of military force. The possession of a Thuraya elevates a commander into a potential leader.

guerilla use of satellite phone

Tactical coordination is key to a successful operation. Before the Thuraya phone, guerrilla operations needed tight discipline and extremely careful planning. More often, the commanders gambled on surprise and the momentum of battle, relying on their prowess in combat to carry the day. Today, with the Thuraya phone, commanders in distant theatres can coordinate their actions. Or they can assemble forces from different places at very short order. They only need to agree on that day’s operation—tomorrow’s can be planned tomorrow. A commander with a handful of Landcruisers and a Thuraya is essentially autonomous at a tactical level. It is possible for commanders who formally belong to different factions to coordinate a joint operation at very short notice. Their superiors can do little about it. And it happens.

Airtime is a precious commodity and can be transmitted from one Thuraya to another. Money can be sent too. Instant communication can be backed up by instant resources. Hierarchical command and control over a dispersed force becomes difficult.

Warfare in these places is also a livelihood and a means for political bargaining. Before telecommunications, political bargains had to be negotiated face to face. And once a bargain was made, say between a tribal leader and a provincial governor, it was difficult for the chief to renegotiate or to seek out another patron. The pace of political renegotiation was slow. The Thuraya has revolutionalized the bargaining process, and allowed the chief, or rebel commander, to conduct several negotiations in parallel. He can monitor the marketplace, weigh up his options, and renegotiate his deals rapidly.

The Thuraya war is a facet of globalization and the information technology revolution. It is a deregulation of violence, and developed much more rapidly than the mechanisms for managing and resolving conflicts."

Then again, satellite phones also make it easier for information to be conveyed between warring parties. Misconceptions about an opponent’s capabilities are a major reason behind the unnecessary continuation of a given war. As de Waal has explained, satellite phones ease the difficulty of negotiations and could therefore shorten the course of war by making it more difficult for commanders to withhold private information. This could provide groups with more opportunities to end a war.

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