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The Most Effective Weapon on the Modern Battlefield Is Concrete (2016) (usma.edu)
142 points by jspencer508 10 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 85 comments

Although this article highlights soldiers as building barriers, the majority of base construction on the modern battlefield is done by contractors.

This article from 2013 is, well, "interesting" to put it lightly: https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/05/contractors-385...

A company controlled by Dick Cheney made the most money in the Iraq & Afghanistan wars. It's probable that those wars would have been logistically impossible otherwise, considering how many contracts they held and how vital a role they played.

Someone said that control of a superior supply chain wins wars [or at least, delays their resolution]. But private contractors, not the US Military, control the supply chain. They supply virtually every aspect of the temporary-cities that are U.S. wartime bases. Without them, we can't have these wars. And the people who run them work in the highest levels of government. It's less conspiracy theory than blatant war profiteering.

I think this brings up two interesting points. (1) If you control the corporations that profit, and you influence the government's war policy as well as budget, you can create wars for profit. Would we even have these wars if contractors weren't involved? And (2), if the contracting companies "went away" tomorrow, would we still have the military might we imagine we have?

Interesting article:


Its basic thesis is that the modern nation-state is being hollowed out by a twin insurgency: criminals and terrorists from below, and plutocratic corporations from above. Neither of these actually seeks to destroy the state; rather, they act as parasites, using the vestigial remains of the state for their own purposes while fulfilling none of the duties that membership in a nation-state has historically entailed. The criminal insurgency uses the state for infrastructure, wealth, and a trusting population whose productivity it can siphon off. The plutocratic insurgency uses the state for its legal framework, populist legitimacy, and social services. Both populations seek to create zones of autonomy & comfort by taking advantage of the national population, who continues playing by the rules even though the former group ignores the rules and the latter stacks them in its favor.

Seems somewhat apropos here, given that we were fighting the terrorist insurgency in Iraq and doing so to enrich the plutocratic insurgency, all at the expense of the taxpayer.

> the majority of base construction on the modern battlefield is done by contractors.

Not initially in war zones or any hostile areas. Contractors come in later to provide base support services. It is military personnel who first establish the base.

Navy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seabee

Air Force: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rapid_Engineer_Deployable_Heav...

> They supply virtually every aspect of the temporary-cities that are U.S. wartime bases. Without them, we can't have these wars.

I don't believe this at all. We don't need these 'green zones' to run a war, as the US has done many times before. We did need them to run a specific kind of war, which was a blitzkrieg occupation. Not saying it was a bad plan, it certainly achieved some measure of success, but pretending that it's the only way to engage in war is unwise.

I’d argue that the company controls Dick Cheney. Brown and Root was the patron of LBJ in the 40s, and was a big part of his rise and the huge military buildout in Texas — uniquely profitable due to the unique ownership structure of vacant land in that state.

Whoa! I did not realize that Halliburton was Brown and Root.

Major General Smedley Butler on war profiteers back in 1935:


If there are no private contractors then the US Military would just takeover those duties itself.

I believe that was the OP's point. If these roles are filled by soldiers instead of contractors, the profit motive for war goes away. At the time, the VP's company was providing billions of dollars of support for the war in the Middle East. While he had divested himself while in VP, to think there was no influence would be naive.

To rephrase: lack of private contractors would not affect military might.

As far as profits, there will always be contractors and vendors to buy stuff from. The military is not going to be making everything from scratch.

As of 2016, there were 3 contractors for every 1 military personnel in Afghanistan, which is a titanic inversion from a few decades ago. Removing contractors would limit the availability of our military to fight in other engagements. We also get less recruits these days, in poorer condition. The states where we normally recruit the most soldiers has also had the highest incidents of accidents incurred during basic training, due in part to steadily dropping physical fitness rates in trainees.

We rely on contractors to buffer our ranks not just logistically but also politically. Due to a lack of reporting on contractors and their budgets, we don't know exactly how much we spend on our wars, nor how many people get killed (more contractors have died than U.S. personnel in past 2 wars). Our military may not be able to wage wars of tacit public approval without the use of contractors to hide the true cost.

Of course we will always contract for things the military isn't specialized in, such as manufacturing. But this isn't about manufacturing, it's about a logistical supply chain and service industry, in addition to [what appears to be] an approaching mercenary army. Without these services, the military would probably take years to build up the same specialization, and would have to use less money than the contractors use, with more volunteers.

Indeed, there are more contractors than US personnel in Afghanistan and formerly Iraq.

These are not only used in logistic and services but also as combatant troops.

And this not always has been the case, during the first Golf War, the percentage of contractor was much lower at 10 to 20%.

This is a recent evolution (around the 2000s).

It also raises a number of questions like:

* legal loopholes when atrocities are committed (one example is the Blackwater case in 2007)

* the very damaging conflict of interests that arise from privatizing war (conflict of interests in a public contract for let say a bridge can cost money to the collectivity, a conflict of interest in for waging war can destabilize a region, kill a lot of people and damage a country reputation for decades).

* This can be also be liked to the fact that contractors have an incentive to have their contract extended ie not ending a war quickly but pouring gas on the fire.

In my opinion, privatizing wars is really dangerous. War is a kind of violence that only a state should be able wage and preferably with a lot of checks from outside (UN) and within (governments, public opinion, votes and laws).

That isn’t true. There are not enough military age males available to fill a voluntary army that sustains combat operations for two decades. Full stop.

We’re following the British colonial model. The military demographically is rural white and minority. It’s seen as a way out or up, and there is a saturation point for that market. Nobody has the political capital to push a draft, so we make do with mercenary entities hiring cheap local help and charging usurious rates for non-core tasks.

Who are the contractors, if the rural white and minorities are the recruits? Former military? Rich white dudes and local labor?

We don't know for sure, because the Pentagon likes to play don't ask, don't tell with contractor stats. But it seems that around 70% of contractors killed are not U.S. citizens. But the number of killed, injured, or even employed is not accurately reported, according to GAO reports. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_private_contractor_dea... https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casualties_of_the_Iraq_War#Con...

Thanks, wasn't loading for me.

Hesco's drag-a-container-to-deploy product[1] is quite clever.

[1] https://www.hesco.com/products/mil-units/raid/


These 30 foot jersey barriers (they called them t-walls) went up around Bagram Air Field when I was there on vacation in 2010.

Before that, all that they had was a 16 foot chain link with concertina on top. Not really great at stopping bullets.

Didn't think I'd ever see "Bagram Air Field" and "vacation" in the same sentence.

Perhaps there is some sarcasm there. Maybe a certain amount of playfulness.

Well played sir.

> In response to the situation, the US forces basically engaged in siege warfare. But atypical to historic examples, instead of attacking to break through fortified wall, they imposed the siege on the enemy by building walls.

This concept is about 2000 years old. [1]

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Alesia

So common there's even a word for it: circumvallation.

Not just that, but it's also fairly common for the besieging army to also have to worry about an enemy field army trying to relieve the besieged area, and so have to build a contravallation - another wall facing outwards outside of the circumvallation.


The only really new and interesting part is the challenge of besieging a single neighborhood within a larger conurbation - historical examples usually include a large open space between the defender's fortifications and the circumvallation.

> The only really new and interesting part is the challenge of besieging a single neighborhood within a larger conurbation.

Ghettos in the third reich come to mind. They were less an element of conventional warefare but definitely an element of extermination warefare. Without the ghetto the killing would have happened less orderly. Sick.

Tactically, the "element of extermination warfare" made the character of that fighting very different than what's going on in Iraq.

Another famous example:


The Romans seemed to have been particularly fond of this technique.

North Korea uses concrete traps in the DMZ: https://99percentinvisible.org/article/hostile-terrain-tank-...

>At over $600 a barrier, the cost of concrete during the eight years of the Iraq War was billions of dollars

Does anyone have any insight as to why resistance forces are seemingly so much more effective today compared to the past? Rebels were able to bleed the US of billions with the threat of a cheap car bomb

In the past there didn't seem to be situations like Vietnam and the middle east with guerrilla warfare being able to drag things out for years and making things so costly.

Is it because the US isn't willing to go total war and massacre civilians until they give up Mongolian style or what?

It's because we're not actually fighting the Taliban, or ISIS, or whatever other insurgent flavor is getting attention at the moment. Many, if not most, successful insurgencies through history have had extensive backing and support of 3rd party nation states.

It's a common political move for a country to back the insurgencies against their enemies. As examples, the United States had the backing of France during the revolutionary war, North Vietnam had the backing of both China, and Russia, and Afghanistan had the backing of the United States during the Soviet invasion. None of these insurgencies would have been successful without the intervention and assistence of the major nation states.

So in truth, these never ending "insurgent resistance" situations we've found ourselves in are actually proxy wars against at least Iran, Pakistan, and Russia. Countries like China and Saudi Arabia are also certainly involved to some extent. These countries provide funding, equipment, training, and refuge to these groups, providing the insurgents with the capability to continue operating indefinitely.

As long as these countries continuing to support the insurgencies we're fighting, there is no viable way to actually end the insurgencies.

I think “operating indefinitely” is a bit of an exaggeration. Proxy wars do eventually come to a conclusion, and the results can be dramatic. To your point, France backed the American War of Independence against the British, and once the American side won, the course of history was completely changed by the founding the United States. And the American insurgency in Afghanistan partly led to the collapse of the USSR, which also dramatically changed the global strategic chessboard. The level of proxy warfare in the world has clearly increased in the past few years, and the question is how will it end.

I imagine this had a huge impact on the drug trade too:

In the 1980s, the US and the USSR were fighting numerous proxy wars in countries like Nicaragua.

When the USSR collapsed, you had thousands of trained soldiers who stopped receiving a paycheck. If you've spent the last ten years fighting in a war, you're not just going to put down the AK47 and go work on a farm.

Regarding Irak, the US shut down the army, putting thousands of trained soldiers out of a job

> Does anyone have any insight as to why resistance forces are seemingly so much more effective today compared to the past?

What past are you referring to? Armed insurrection is essentially endemic throughout human history. If you look during the Middle Age's, there's pretty much a peasant revolt going on somewhere, sometime. Of course, you don't hear much about it because such insurrection was rarely effective. The general populace was incapable of mounting a threat to well-trained armies.

That changed with the introduction of the arquebus, which is essentially the first effective gun. Training someone to wield a warbow took a lifetime; training someone to use an arquebus took a few weeks. Serious revolts no longer meant having to sack an unpopular lord; they meant having to flee the country for fear of your life. With the rise of European colonization giving large groups of people motivation to maintain resistance for a long time, it took determined application of overwhelming force to actually dislodge them. The Mapuche, for example, resisted Spanish (and later Chilean/Argentinian) colonization attempts for 350 years. The US took 4 months to wrest the Philippines from Spanish control, and spent the next 14 years trying to put down independence rebellions.

What has changed in the past 30-ish years is that wars have diminished. Especially in the big, neat, "clean" wars you think of, such as the Crimean War. That means that the messy, interminable low-level war that's been with us for 500 years is largely the only wars you hear about, whereas the retrospective look at historical wars, both within and outside of the military, focuses fairly exclusively on the big wars of history.

It's not that they're new, or more effective; it's that they're simply much, much more visible.

For individuals and families it’s going to be a huge deal, but less so for nation states.

Total war is part of it, but militarily guerrilla warfare is mostly meaningless. Compare all US military dead from Iraq vs. one day of the battle of the bulge. These tactics generally extend the fighting, but don’t accomplish that much.

Also, a lot more people where involved than you might think. “From June 2003, through September 30, 2011, there have been 26,320-27,000+ Iraqi insurgents killed based on several estimates.” Yet, “4,424 total deaths (including both killed in action and non-hostile) and 31,952 wounded in action (WIA) as a result of the Iraq War.”

Vietnam had more US dead, 58,220 including disease and suiside. But, again individual battles in other wars killed more Americans. https://www.archives.gov/research/military/vietnam-war/casua...

>These tactics generally extend the fighting, but don’t accomplish that much

Maybe not in the conventional sense, but financially it's costing the US hundreds of billions that could have been invested elsewhere.

I'm pretty sure the cost of the war in the middle east is what helped sink the Soviets

The U.S. spends more on military than the rest of the world combined. The money would not have been invested elsewhere. Somebody's costing the US lots of money, but it isn't guerillas.

It's a principle agent problem. Overall it's a drain on the US, but the people making the decisions are moving money from outside their constituencies to inside their constituencies.

> US hundreds of billions that could have been invested elsewhere.

We destabilized Iraq as an excuse to spend all that money on war. It was a fantastic stimulus package for northeast Virginia.

IMO, that’s a separate issue. If we had grabbed the oil fields as territory following the empire model then the war could have been a net financial gain.

The major cost was not the fighting, it was having that many people in a foreign nation without any national gain.

> Is it because the US isn't willing to go total war and massacre civilians until they give up and stop aiding rebels or what?

Or maybe because we did stuff like that, and it lead to more resistance.

You can't murder your way to peace. Killing for peace just leads to everyone being dead.

> You can't murder your way to peace. Killing for peace just leads to everyone being dead.

(Assuming “everyone” includes the attacker here.)

The Mongolians did. You just had to be willing to thoroughly finish the job. Fear of guaranteed annihilation kept the rest in check.

And we all know the Mongolian Empire lasted for centuries using this method (Hint: they collapsed relatively quickly)

The Mongolian Empire lasted for centuries as a series of successor states. It wasn't a collapse. It was just divided among the family. Those states stayed stable for quite awhile, with one of them taking over China.

I'm not sure I would classify "disintegration into competing entities" as a "stable" empire.

0. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mongol_Empire#Disintegration_i...

Not from revolt though but from succession issues.

The idea that brutal, evil tactics don't actually work is something we may certainly like to believe or want to be true, but that doesn't make it true.

Part of human nature is the near-universal paradoxical behavior of digging one's own grave at gunpoint. It is breathtakingly easy to subjugate people through brute force. In 1860, there were large stretches of the American South where the majority of the population were enslaved. How do you think that order was maintained? How do you think the SS--an organization that at no point had as many as a million men--was able to murder tens of millions of people in the Holocaust (of which the well-known six million Jews were, at most, slightly more than half)?

Neither of these subjugations were stopped by the valiant resistance of oppressed people inspired by the unquenchable thirst for human freedom--they were stopped by some other group applying even more brute force to the oppressors for largely unrelated reasons.

Sure you can murder your way to (temporary) peace. Empires did it all history long. But they could do it (mostly) openly and did not had to pretend to be nice, so they could do it consequently. Killing until the rebell spirit was crushed and enslaved.

The problem empires face today is that this behavior is not acceptable anymore and the empires have to act like they are there for the local people. So conquering, but not calling it like that and pretending to be nice while doing it. Hypocrite. And does not work so effective in terms of control. Because if you kill only those who indeed fight against you, than yes, their relatives are your next enemies etc.

Related: What Ghandi achieved in India he probably could not have done if the Nazis would have been the enemy empire as the british empire allready was bound by human rights. The Nazi Empire was not.

Yeah, Empires have used intimidation to subjugate people for millennia, but they've also been prone to rebellion and collapse because nobody wants to live in fear. All it takes is a show of weakness and the fringes of the empire are up in revolt again. If you want an empire that can last you need to assimilate the people, which is difficult to do if you're trying to keep them afraid.

There are many forms of “assimilation” ...

One form invoked killing all military age males then selling of the woman and children as slaves scattering them.

Pretty common back in the day from what I read. Very low chance of revolt.

"Pretty common back in the day from what I read. Very low chance of revolt."

Yes, but then you have to build up everything yourself. So to have a working province that can be milked soon, quite often local structures were also left intact. Important is to crush their culture/religion if you want to crush their spirit to revolt. Thats why the romans killed the druids of the gaulls and took away children of the nobles to make little romans out of them.

You can also kidnap the children and raise them as your own.

Fear is also a factor to force people to assimilate.

> Does anyone have any insight as to why resistance forces are seemingly so much more effective today compared to the past? Rebels were able to bleed the US of billions with the threat of a cheap car bomb

Many reasons, but certainly one of them is the asymetry in the cost of materiel. For the $30 it costs[0] to make an IED, you can put at risk anything from an APC costing $300,000 [1], to a tank costing over $6,000,000 [2] i.e. a difference of 10,000 to 200,000 times.

Further to this, one can factor in the cost to the US of maintaining security with "boots on the ground", where those soldiers can cost anywhere from $400,000/year to over $2,000,000/year [3] (depending on who you ask).

Finally, the insurgents have a very different aim to the US troops. An analogy might be useful here. Consider the result to an elephant of stirring up an ants' nest [4] (no spoilers - go read it).

(EDITED to fix formatting)

[0] https://www.npr.org/2011/12/18/143902421/in-iraq-fighting-an...

[1] http://www.military-today.com/apc/m113a3.htm

[2] https://www.therichest.com/rich-list/the-biggest/top-10-most...

[3] https://www.yahoo.com/news/it-costs--2-1-million-per-year-fo...

[4] https://www.voanews.com/a/ants-take-on-elephants-in-african-...

In the past it was acceptable to lose thousands of soldiers in a battle. So nobody cared if some guerilla ambushed and killed a squadron.

Today if you lose 10 soldiers in a day the President is on TV.

Vietnam was almost as expensive as the (second) Iraq war after adjusting for inflation...

It's difficult to compare exact figures though since the Iraq war, the the "war on terror" (i.e., Afghanistan, Africa, etc.), and the post-war occupation costs are usually consolidated together. Currently that number stands at roughly $2.2 trillion (and Vietnam at roughly $700 billion, inflation-adjusted).

I've wondered this for a while, and there doesn't seem to be any real consensus anywhere that I can find. Some blame the lack of political willingness to kill and oppress as many people as needed to keep order. Some blame superpower rivalries - any territory you want to control, there's a rival superpower prepared to supply essentially unlimited numbers of weapons to any resistance force that cares to fight, and attacking the rival superpower directly is too dangerous to contemplate. It could also be that weapons technology - ready availability of bombs and firearms - makes it much easier for small groups with minimal training to inflict casualties upon a superior force. Maybe it's all three of them, and more reasons besides. I'd be interested if there's any way to conclusively prove or disprove any of them.

The modern US is not willing to mow down civilians (firestorms in WW2), is not willing to attack the food supply (Sherman's march to the sea), and is very parsimonious in putting US troops at risk (8th AF offensive in WW2).

It's not just massacres and brutality. Earlier societies had more acceptable political compromises. Look at the Russian war in their south. Grozny was carpet bombed to flat, but what ended the war was agreeing to substantial autonomy for Chechnya: in exchange for personal loyalty to Putin, Chechnya is allowed transfer payments, and Kadyrov (the ruler of Chechnya) has a personal police/army force. Dealing with guerilla warfare is easier if you mostly agree to their demands. If the US had agreed to let the North run Vietnam, the war would have been easy; if the US hadn't pursued de-baathization and left power structures in place, Iraq would have been easier as well. But of course you don't pursue regime change to lift the regime in place. Compare with Desert Storm, where regime change was not pursued.

> Is it because the US isn't willing to go total war and massacre civilians until they give up Mongolian style or what?

Home field advantage and the ability to use guerrilla tactics have always been a tremendous advantage, and often it's enough to make it prohibitively expensive to conquer or subjugate a given population rather than just leaving them alone. This, combined with terrain, is what makes Afghanistan in particular so defensible in parts.

For the US in particular, there are also levels of brutality that we're not willing to resort to, which only helps to tip the scale towards "too expensive to be worth it". Russia had much better luck with their counterinsurgency efforts in Chechnya, but then again, Russia is willing to resort to measures that the US is not. Though even then, the desire to maintain Russian territorial integrity probably justified higher costs than the desire, in the 70's and 80's, to maintain communist domination of Afghanistan.

Compared to which past? Context matters a lot. And are you thinking of battles, or occupations? Resistance forces are basically useless in actual battles, most of the time, but they can make occupation miserable.

The traditional solution to annoying resistance forces has been genocide. But we're too civilized to do that these days.

restraint. More brutal societies would carpet bomb an entire city that allowed enemies shelter within its streets. We do not do such. We fought with our hands tied by ethics, thank goodness.


That was an Iraqi and Kurdish forces offensive against ISIS in Mosul, which they heavily occupied. We did assist that offensive with missile strikes. The satellite photos your article shows are located in a specific region of the city. Did they bomb the rest of the city? War is terrible, but I am not sure your example is a good one.


This style of bombing continues to this day. There are numerous citites in the middle east that have been reduced to rubble in the 21st century by aerial area bombing.

The U.S. has not for many decades, as far as I know.. We have sent missiles at installations, but not leveling entire cities.

The latest on-the-ground footage I saw of Kabul, Afghanistan suggests we're still leveling entire cities. There wasn't a single building intact except for the one being reported on that had just been constructed, which stood out among the vast fields of rubble.

How recent? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8MJc9xCzabA seems relatively intact to me.

Probably shouldn't have enjoyed an article on concrete this much

Hedgerows served the same purpose in the past. I thought one of the justifications for the English enclosure acts was national defense, but now I can't find a reference. In any case, French hedgerows certainly made the D-day invasion difficult.

French hedgerows were a typical property-boundary mechanism long before retreating Germans utilized them for defense.

Interesting Rebuttal:

Concrete Barriers: A False Counterinsurgency Idol (2017)


Previous discussion with 192 comments:


General Smedley Butler's "War Is A Racket" is every bit as relevant today as it was when he published is it in 1935.


For those of you who have never heard of Smedley Butler, he was a rare kind of American hero. WWI commander, advocate for veteran's rights, and single handly thwarted a Fascist coup in the United States.

The title made me think of the killdozer.

so, an autonomous self-propeller 3d printer using sand and solar to build the walls is the weapon of the future.

Wouldn't AI be cheaper, With recognition + automated interdiction likely being more effective in the long run?

This is what I don't understand about Trump's "border wall", aren't there more effective means like drones and advanced surveillance of the border?

The most effective weapon on the modern space battlefield is boron-nanotube foamed concrete, though it'll probably work on earth too. (PhoamBCon)

Currently, the most effective weapon is false news, and other tools of information war. Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube will spread them almost for free.

Can anybody explain why this comment has so much downvotes, please?

Because this article is about concrete.

Article is not about concrete. It's about effectiveness of concrete on modern battlefield (especially in guerilla-like war), with false claim that it's most effective weapon.

As officer of army at war, I know that concrete will not help much at battlefield. Hard concrete causes ricochet, soft concrete spreads fragments. Concrete is not movable. Concrete is hard to recycle. Concrete is hard to destroy in case of retreat.

In case of guerilla-like war, propaganda, agents, double agents, and false news are much more effective, about thousand times more effective than concrete. Make double agent in a guerilla, then spread false news about his glory, then shot in the back everybody who will join him. Problem solved.

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