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Asymmetrical air force opportunities in interstate and intrastate conflict


This asymmetrical air force series rose from a recognition of the operational similarities between the Air Tigers of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) against the Sri Lankan government and the Biafra Babies of the secessionist Biafran Air Force against the Nigerian government, forty years earlier. Apart from the "convergent evolution" of their operational profiles, there were also important differences in sourcing aircraft, pilots, ordnance and maintenance, not to mention understanding the value of going offensive against a superior power in an audacious, headline-grabbing manner.

The exercise to optimize the best characteristics of these asymmetrical attackers while reducing the retaliatory effect of the superior power leads quickly to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) operating in place of, or along side, manned aircraft.

This first note describes the intrastate conflict environment of the LTTE/Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF), still ongoing, and Biafran Air Force/Nigerian Air Force (BAF/NAF), 1967-1970. Such intrastate conflict environments create both a demand for asymmetrical air assets and offer certain operational advantages to an asymmetrical player.

This is not to say that an asymmetrical air force could not operate in certain parts of the US. It is quite conceivable for more than one group, say, in south Los Angeles to launch a UAV fleet, execute an attack and even recover aircraft before dispersing. Another case of when, not if. The curiosity is in the payload of that attack.

While I do not believe that al Qaeda has to be the first to launch a UAV assault on US soil, their critical patch focus on the cockpit is instructive to any asymmetric attacker. Writing in 2004:

Our analysis showed that from Mohammed Atta's arrival into the US, the goal was access and control of a flight deck, first with light twin-engine aircraft converted to 'crop dusters,' and only when that approached failed, did Atta and the group shift to commandeering flight decks of commercial aircraft. We have seen that argument extended to freight and cargo aircraft and we have since made the argument that flight deck control can be remote as in UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) here and here.

This series should include:

  • Asymmetrical air force opportunities in interstate and intrastate conflict, part I
  • Asymmetrical air force symmetries: Biafra Babies and Air Tigers, part II
  • Asymmetrical air force intersection with Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) and drone warfare, part III

Author note on standalone value: This segment can stand alone as an overview of the political and economic drivers of ethnic strife, or intrastate communitarian strife. Works cited in the bibliography of this note capture the flowering of critical reevaluation occurring in the late 1990s and early 2000s as to the causes of what had previously been written off with a shrug as 'The natives are restless.' 'Restless natives' are an impossible answer if the analyst is attempting to predict actions on the ground as part of what is known as Indicators and Warning (I&W). These works offer context for constructing a valid event timeline for pattern analysis. This analyst still sees too many journalists operating without this underpinning a decade on. All items cited here are now publicly accessible or mirrored to make them accessible. (Some items remain behind subscription walls or limited distributions and are not mentioned here.)

Drivers and indicators for ethnic strife and civil war

The work of Thomas Szayna, Paul Collier, Anke Hoeffler, and Michael Ross were central to my understanding of the drivers shaping "intrastate communitarian strife" (or "ethnic strife") and civil wars. Their hands are at work is this note and I remain indebted to works such as (and more in the bibliography below):

The post-colonial nation-state

The very nature of state sovereignty in Africa and other post-colonial regions is increasingly at odds with the nation-state of North America and Europe. There is speculation that we are witnessing the end of the state project launched in Berlin with the Congress of 1884-1885, a system that owed its origin to disputes rising over the Congo River basin. It is as if Africa is returning to the 1880s, and the age of the chartered companies, marking out their enclaves in an otherwise disorderly environment.

It is a mistake to apply Western assumptions about the nature of state security in areas such as Africa because the concerns for state survival are subordinated to the personal security and well being of the incumbent leadership. Rulers create a "shadow state," a parallel political authority, where personal ties and controls replace failing institutions. Furthermore, the court system and legal apparatus are appropriated to serve these requirements. The state ceases to be the provider of physical or social security.

These shadow power networks, underpinned by political and economic privilege, are potent enough to frustrate interventions by the international financial and donor community designed to undermine this informal sector and strengthen the structures of the nation-state. This is the environment in which military activities and interventions of state, regional and private security forces must be considered.

Current diplomatic and security arrangements are state-centered and predicated upon states being the primary actors in international affairs. This is just not so in Africa, where regional alliances are formed between private actors or leaders who expropriate the framework of the state to their own ends and in their own private interest. In such environments, the United Nations (UN) and Western states find themselves on soft ground, having to deal with individuals both as the source of power and wealth, and as the origin of ambiguous signals in a rapidly changing environment.

Criminalization of the state by the ruling elite affects both the productive sectors of the economy and the sovereign functions of the state, e.g., maintenance of customs barriers, concession of territories or harbor enclaves to foreign entrepreneurs, internal security and national defense, and peacekeeping. "Informal and illicit trade, financial fraud, systematic evasion of rules and international agreements" become the norm by which many Africans states cope. The conflict zones of Africa are stages where rivals seek to control scarce resources and the manipulation of business links, licit and illicit, to the benefit of entrepreneurs. On the back of these resource wars, vast profits are made in the transportation of items from guns to food.

While the lapse of bipolar confrontation was thought to improve the chances of post-colonial states by reducing the political and military incentives for outside powers to intervene on the continent, the opposite is the case. These states can no longer rely on outside assistance to end local wars that are no threat to vital foreign interests. Outside powers have less influence on the conduct, termination and outcome of these local conflicts. Driven by their remoteness and insignificance from world centers, Africa's local rivalries and antagonisms are given freer rein.

Neither precolonial states nor colonial administrations felt the need to justify their existence in terms of meeting the needs of security and welfare of individuals or to have some concern for individual liberty. This heritage of inattention to the security and welfare of its citizenry has been passed on to almost all post-colonial states.

Characteristics of these states need to be understood as different and needing risk management, rather than being bad and requiring flight:

  • Economic sovereignty diluted by transnational economic and financial actors able to shift operations almost at will, answerable to no one nation's political masters.
  • Kinship and allegiance remaining rooted in the local communities without a parallel at the national level.
  • Challenge to the state by regional groupings, often seeking to evade or ignore the state's claims to authority.
  • Growing intrastate conflicts of seeming racial, religious or ethnic origin.
  • Ethnic and racial cleansing combined with religious extremism, intolerance or pure criminality.
  • Increasing numbers of civilians becoming involved in violence for no obvious political reason.
  • External non-state actors have stepped into the void left by the international community, either as proxies or independent agents, able by virtue of their wealth and expertise to influence events to their local and often short-term advantage. International firms operating in marginal areas are increasingly providing enough of the apparatus usually supplied by the state in order to carry out their businesses in relative safety. (Shell Oil in the Nigerian Delta is an example.) Concerns focus more on competition among their rivals and co-opting whatever parts of the state's political apparatus remain viable.

Changing security environment in postcolonial and developing world

Security and security management can no longer be seen only in military terms. Various other threats such as crime, poverty, resource scarcity and disease must also be included as virtually any socio-economic ill may spill over into conflict, especially in areas like Africa where social and democratic development have been stunted. This has significantly impacted the kinds of threat environments that face potential adversaries.

Using Africa as a model for underdeveloped regions, some key characteristics of the emerging threat environment are:

  1. Conflicts are increasingly intrastate in nature, i.e., one internal faction against another -- although potential for spillover remains high.
  2. Conflicts are becoming increasingly unconventional in nature, as they are fought more often in developing countries with limited conventional forces.
  3. Rules of engagement are increasingly vague and diffused, often being tailor-made to suit specific operational requirements.
  4. Warfighting patterns are becoming nonlinear as parties advantage themselves with the greater availability of sophisticated weaponry on the world's arms market irrespective of the opponent's capabilities.
  5. Early warning is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain, especially among less technologically developed opponents (due to the unconventional nature of doctrines involved in combat, and the non-traditional triggers which often initiate conflict).
  6. Increasing pressure is being exerted on developed countries to become more aggressively involved in peace support operations.

Intrastate wars are increasingly assuming gray area characteristics, finding their origins in areas such as conflicts over scarce resources, ethnic and religious conflict, transnational crime (with links to terrorism and insurgency), migration and illegal immigration, border disputes, famine and state collapse. The instability and fluidity of the situation makes for a very hostile environment. Such conflicts manifest themselves primarily under the banner of low intensity conflict (LIC).

This analyst sees the following characteristics carrying through the next decade and perhaps longer:

  1. Conflict on the continent will remain endemic, a fact of "everyday" life, as the nature of Africa's problems are too systemic to disappear overnight.
  2. While many of Africa's interstate conflicts have been minor in size due to the lack of forces and sophisticated equipment, the effect on the affected populations has been, and will remain, devastating.
  3. The potential for spillover may rise along with the increasing interdependency between states due to an improved communications infrastructure, travel opportunities and economic ties. It will be difficult to contain conflicts in a region where artificial borders cut across ethnic, religious and ideological unities.
  4. Local military force compositions will reflect an increasingly confusing and difficult-to-predict mixture of old and new equipment as each passing year makes the previous year's weaponry increasingly affordable on the second-hand market. It is around this fusion of modern and older equipment that doctrines and tactics will become increasingly more difficult to predict.
  5. Developed nations will continue to target the developing world, Africa included, as an arms market despite the latter's relative inability to pay for those arms.
  6. "Grey area" groups will increasingly tailor their tactics to suit specific operational and technological requirements.
  7. Conflicts are especially likely to occur in the Central African basin along with parts of West Africa and Southern Africa.
  8. Developed nations will play an increasingly higher role in peace support initiatives and so will have to prepare for contingencies in this area.

"Intrastate communitarian strife" - or "ethnic strife"

This risk analysis has drawn extensively on the implications of "ethnic strife," more properly called intrastate communitarian strife, on African states. Intrastate conflict has been by far the dominant form of strife in the world in the 1990s. Only seven of the 108 world's armed conflicts in the 1989 -- 1998 period were interstate wars. Most of the remaining intrastate conflicts had a communitarian aspect. Szayna noted that there "will be more Somalias, Rwandas, Haitis and Burundis in the future."

While most interstate wars end in a negotiated settlement, the majority of intrastate conflicts end with the extermination, expulsion, or complete surrender of one side. Civil wars with a communitarian or ethnic dimension are especially difficult to negotiate and the most likely to result in protracted strife, and closely mapping to the African experience, often go on for years and sometimes decades. Szayna and Tellis note that the reason is straightforward:

"To end intrastate strife the warring sides must lay down arms and respect an agreement usually in the absence of a legitimate government and under conditions in which the agreement is generally unenforceable. In conditions of communitarian strife, where issues of identity are intertwined in the conflict (since ethnic bonds are psychologically similar to kinship bonds and involve perceptions of identity), it is especially difficult for the two sides to go on coexisting in the same state. Put differently, there are only two main pathways for the regulation of ethnic conflict:

  1. Eliminating the differences (genocide, forced transfer of population, partition/secession, and integration/assimilation);
  2. Managing the differences (hegemonic control, arbitration by third party, federalization, and power-sharing)."

Because the trust that would allow for management of differences is absent once conflict starts, it is understandable that elimination of the differences becomes the preferred choice and that many ethnic and communitarian conflicts end up in prolonged and bloody strife, sometimes mixed in with attempts at genocide and complete elimination of the other side:

"Because of the unenforcibility of an internal agreement to end intrastate conflict, third-party intervention is usually required to guarantee the agreement and, even then, the intervening forces easily may become caught up in the continuing struggle between the belligerents. But without an intervention, the simmering intrastate strife may well spawn an international crisis, either in the form of a humanitarian disaster or because a neighboring state becomes drawn into the internal strife and, as a result, creates a regional conflict and the potential for an interstate war."

Communal differences by themselves do not provoke conflict. The most widely discussed explanations of ethnic conflict are incomplete and, at worst, simply wrong. Ethnic conflict in not "primitive, atavistic, and irrational." It is not directly caused by inter-group differences, "ancient hatreds" and centuries-old feuds, the stress of modern life, or ethnic passions "uncorked by the end of the Cold War."

Individuals are goal-oriented and adaptive, and will attempt to reach their goals by what they see as the easiest and least costly or most efficient means. (Rationality does not have to be a universally agreed-upon mindset.) Ethnic action requires mobilization and direction. The popular image of a disadvantaged group rebelling spontaneously against state tyranny is a "romantic image not borne out in reality." There are many examples of severe group deprivation and repression that do not lead to rebellion, because the group is not mobilized for political action. Without mobilization, ethnically centered perceptions of injustice may exist but do not have larger political significance.

"Ethnic strife" has three stages:

  • First, a pattern of exclusion or dominance in the three areas of political, social and economic control. If one group dominates any or all of the three areas and other ethnic groups are systematically excluded, then the possibility exists of their resorting to violence to gain access, even though conflict is not yet imminent.
  • Second, group mobilization, where mobilization is for the purpose of capturing power and not necessarily for redressing past injustices. Leaders become "identity entrepreneurs" that exploit the ethnic card to gain access to the specific arena from which they are excluded, and are as essential as the resources at the disposal of the group and their capacity for organization.
  • Third, the addition of the element of strategic bargaining in which each side uses the tools available to it to bargain for the political space. The state has the weapons of finance, accommodation, and the ability and willingness to use force. The mobilizing group has the weapons of leadership strength, popular support, and available resources.

While prevention is the preferred course of action so that long-term strife does not escalate to major regional problems, it is often not initiated in time even though the costs of dealing with an ongoing conflict and its reconstruction are uniformly far greater than the small costs in prevention. Even when the drift towards intrastate strife is clear, it may not be possible to assemble the resources required to head off the conflict. In the absence of a direct threat, it is difficult for international or multinational organizations to expend substantial resources to deflect what might be a "phantom threat." Responses are therefore too often reactive and late.

Conflict diamonds - or "blood diamonds," market forces and civil war

Collier and Hoeffler found that conflicts occur when rebels respond rationally to market opportunities, much as entrepreneurs and investors do. Civil wars that are so often blamed on chaotic, irrational ethnic, religious and communal feuds now have a unifying thread:

"Rebels need to meet a payroll without actually producing anything, so they need to prey on an economic activity that won't collapse under the weight of the predation... Natural resources is a good one. The same characteristics that make a commodity readily taxable -- that it's rooted to a spot, it can't move -- makes it readily lootable, too."

Three economic factors were found to shape civil wars:

  • Countries dependent on the export of primary, or unprocessed, commodities such as minerals or coffee are more prone to civil wars. A country where such exports account for 28 percent of GDP has four times the risk of civil war as a country with no such exports.
  • Countries that are divided between just a few ethnic groups are much more likely to have civil wars than ethically diverse countries because the economic costs of pushing a highly diverse nation into conflict are so much greater.
  • Once a civil war has ended the chance that war will resume "goes up by a factor of six if there is a large and relatively wealthy population of natives living outside the country." This Diaspora has the money to fund rebel actions, World Bank says, "so the rebels sustain themselves by selling vengeance to diasporas during the 'lean' years of peace," when looting of resources isn't possible.

The new economics of civil wars starts with the premise that conflicts within countries begin if the incentive for a rebellion outweighs the costs of mounting one, i.e., that the "opportunity cost" outweighs other more familiar factors such as the intensity of ethnic differences or support for differing political ideologies. The World Bank authors say that it is "greed and not grievance that lies at the root of many violent conflicts within nations."

"Blood diamonds" becomes a special case of this resource-based means of civil war. To the degree that any primary extraction process can be sequestered by a powerful minority, the opportunity for conflict, extortion, and interruption rises. Coupling this concept with the fact that most wars today occur within nations rather than between them, the risk analysis of investing firms should be reevaluated.

Endnote: Readers now have an underpinning of conditions that lead to sustained asymmetrical responses. These same conditions permit the gathering, smuggling and hiding of operational assets, and the subsequent deployment of those assets against the established power. The characteristics that led two of those engagements taking to the air will be examined. As the cost of aerial responses plummet, more asymmetrical players will deploy air forces in various forms.

Part II: Asymmetrical air force symmetries: Biafra Babies and Air Tigers, part II

Global Pattern Formation and Ethnic/Cultural Violence
May Lim, Richard Metzler, Yaneer Bar-Yam
Vol 317, no. 5844, pp. 1540-1544
14 September, 2007

Supporting Online Material for: Global Pattern Formation and Ethnic/Cultural Violence
May Lim, Richard Metzler, Yaneer Bar-Yam
Supplement contains:

  • Methods
  • Reports of Ethnic Violence in the Former Yugoslavia and India
  • References
  • Bibliography on Ethnic and Cultural Conflict

Neo-Classical Counterinsurgency?
Frank G. Hoffman
Summer 2007, pp. 71-87

Sri Lanka: Rebels with an air force
Commentary by Animesh Roul
ISN Security Watch

Expecting The Unexpected
Terror Tactics Take A New Turn
Aviation Today/Air Safety Week
Monday, April 2, 2007

Air Tigers' Maiden Attack
Motives and Implications
N Manoharan
Senior Fellow, IPCS
Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies
NO 45
APRIL 2007

Ethnic polarization and the duration of civil wars
Jose G. Montalvo, Marta Reynal-Querol
Policy, Research working paper WPS 4192
Post-Conflict Transitions working paper No. 6
World Bank Development Research Group
April 1, 2007

Subversion and Insurgency
William Rosenau
ISBN 978-0-8330-4123-4
Prepared for the Office of the Secretary of Defense

by B.Raman
May 11, 2006

On ''Other War''
Lessons from Five Decades of RAND Counterinsurgency Research
By: Austin Long
RAND Counterinsurgency
ISBN 978-0-8330-3926-2

Terrorism and Civil Aviation Security: Problems and Trends
Jangir Arasly
Spring 2005

Primary Commodities Exports and Civil War
James D. Fearon
Department of Political Science, Stanford University
Forthcoming in Journal of Conflict Resolution
October 25, 2004

Primary Commodity Exports and Civil War
James D. Fearon
Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 49, No. 4, 483-507 (2005)
DOI: 10.1177/0022002705277544

Evidence and Analysis: The Role of Natural Resources in Fuelling and Funding Conflict in Africa
Hester Le Roux
London, September 2004

Measuring the Economic Costs of Internal Armed Conflict - A Review of Empirical Estimates
Göran Lindgren
Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Sweden
Paper for the conference Making Peace Work in Helsinki 4-5 June arranged by The United Nations University -
World Institute for Development Economics Research (WIDER)
June 2004

Greed and grievance in civil war
Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler
Oxford Economic Papers Advance Access originally published online on August 20, 2004
Oxford Economic Papers 2004 56(4):563-595; doi:10.1093/oep/gpf064
Oxford University Press


Breaking the conflict trap: civil war and development policy, Volume 1
Collier, Paul; Elliott, V. L.; Hegre, Havard; Hoeffler, Anke; Reynal-Querol, Marta; Sambanis, Nicholas
World Bank policy research report 26121
June 31, 2003

GO HERE for individual segments

Natural Resources and Civil War: An Overview with Some Policy Options
Prof. Michael Ross
UCLA Department of Political Science
December 13, 2002
Draft report prepared for conference on "The Governance of Natural Resources Revenues," sponsored by the World Bank and the Agence Francaise de Developpement, Paris, December 9-10, 2002.

On the Incidence of Civil War in Africa
Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler
Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 46, No. 1, pp. 13-28
DOI: 10.1177/0022002702046001002

The New Partnership for Africa's Development: last chance for Africa?
Richard Cornwell
African Security Analysis Programme
Institute for Security Studies, Pretoria
Journal of Development Studies
Vol 32 No 1 ISSN 0304-615X

Implications of ethnic diversity
Paul Collier
The World Bank
Working Paper 28127
December 17, 2001
Originally (?): Economic Policy, Vol 16, Issue 32, April, 2001, pp: 127-166

On the Duration of Civil War
Paul Collier, Anke Hoeffler and Mans Soderbom
World Bank Development Research Group
September 30, 2001

The GIobal Reach of Tamil Militancy: Sri Lanka's Security Predicament
P. K. Rao
Strategic Affairs
No. 0025/ Issue: August 1, 2001

Conflict Diamonds
Louis Goreux
Consultant, Africa Region, The World Bank
Africa Region Working Paper Series No. 13
World Bank
March 2001

Identifying Potential Ethnic Conflict: Application of a Process Model
By: Thomas S. Szayna
ISBN/EAN: 0-8330-2842-1

World Bank Blames Diamonds and Drugs for Many Wars
New York Times
Published: June 16, 2000

Paul Collier, Director, Development Research Group
World Bank
June 15, 2000

Market Forces Add Ammunition to Civil Wars --- Research Suggests Rebels Have 'Greed' as Motive; Primary Exports Count
By G. Pascal Zachary
Wall Street Journal (Eastern edition)
Jun 12, 2000. pg. A.21

Greed and grievance in civil war, Volume 1
Paul Collier, Anke Hoeffler
Policy, Research working paper WPS 2355
World Bank Development Research Group
May 31, 2000

Greed & Grievance: Economic Agendas in Civil Wars
By Mats R. Berdal, David Malone
International Peace Academy
ISBN 1555878687
Cited page

Department of Economic and Social Affairs
Division for Public Economics and Public Administration
United Nations

On the Economic Consequences of Civil War
Paul Collier
Oxford Economic Papers Vol 51, No 1, pp. 168-183
Oxford Universty Press
January 1999


The Changing Nature of Warfare: Implications for Africa
Ian van Vuuren
Deputy Director, Strategic Management Systems
Defence Secretariat, South Africa
Published in African Security Review Vol 7, No. 1, 1998

Anticipating Ethnic Conflict
By: Ashley J. Tellis, Thomas S. Szayna, James A. Winnefeld
ISBN/EAN: 0-8330-2495-7

Gordon Housworth

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