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Gregory R. Copley

Gregory R. Copley

Historian, author, and strategic analyst — and onetime industrialist — Gregory R. Copley, who was born in 1946, has for almost five decades worked at…

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Water: the Key to a Strategic Victory in Any Conflict

Napoleon said that an army marched on its stomach. But he lost most of his Grande Armée to disease, much of it the result of poor water and sanitation. It might have marched on its stomach, but it was defeated by its water.  

Victory comes in many ways. Each epoch, each year, each day brings new technologies, new thoughts to make victory possible; even defining what it is which constitutes victory. 

We may argue as to what victory is, or what we wish it to be. We even define it by its apparent opposite — defeat — but we cannot even agree on what constitutes “defeat”. Indeed, “defeat” may be brief, tactical, or merely another opportunity. Russia may have found a path to victory in the defeat — the collapse — of the USSR. Egypt found a path to victory in the stalemate of the October 1973 War. 

I have for a lifetime pondered the meaning of victory, and wrote of it in The Art of Victory. But I later discovered that we take for granted the one element without which victory is impossible, and recovery from defeat unthinkable. It is water. 

Water, water everywhere, nor scarce a drop to think. Water is the one commodity, even in today’s electronic ubiquity, more important than energy; more important even, in some respects, than food. Modern society has taken it for granted; developing societies do not, and cannot move from a base of endemic poverty and inflexibility because of the absence of water. 

And yet it is water which, in large part, cost the West its final victory after World War II and after the Cold War. It was at the heart of the reason why the Western coalition spent itself into an unresolved strategic morass in Iraq and Afghanistan, and why, today, Western military thinking must be at a crossroad. 

It is the nature of human social evolution that our growth in numbers and prosperity has been enabled by the exponential progression of our intellectual and physical tools. The sustenance of large-scale societies and organizations is a function of abstract conceptions of management of complexity. Hierarchy, communications, and delegation become the spinal chord of human social flexibility and ability within this complexity. Complexity entails abstraction — which enables the management of great enterprises — but it also often leads to a neglect of fundamentals. I dealt with this in The Art of Victory and in the 2012 book, UnCivilization.
Let me take you back to the origins of this voyage of discovery. And as with all such voyages, it was the unexpected which opened my eyes, and the prosaic which marked the start of the journey. I had been asked to talk to US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and US Africa Command (USAFRICOM) at the Global Scout forum in Tampa, Florida, in mid-April 2011 on the nature of possible future wars in Africa, and how US forces could best prepare for them. What I told the Global Scout audience was, essentially, that to learn how to fight tomorrow’s wars, first learn why yesterday’s (and today’s) wars were lost. That was, in April 2011, fairly heretical, but I noted: 

“There is a need to move away from the concepts of ‘asymmetrical warfare’ in which wealth and technology determine the outcome in such operating environments as the extremely varied terrains of Africa, or Afghanistan. Indeed, if anything, the lessons of recent conflicts should have been that by insisting on waging asymmetric warfare as the superior force, the West has consistently failed to win decisive and lasting military victories, and has certainly — because of the protracted nature of the conflicts waged on high-tech, high-budget terms — been forced into strategic defeat.”

In one of my conclusions in those remarks, I noted: 

Water is the key around which most operations must focus. What Iraq and Afghanistan should have taught US (and other) special forces is that success is dependent on the ability to engage the adversary on his own terrain and on a sustained basis. In Iraq and Afghanistan — indeed, in Vietnam, as well — US forces attempted to sustain operations by virtue of a very, very long logistical tail and the ability to re-supply forces in the field. This belief that technology could overcome the difficulties of remote force projection has now been convincingly disproven by the reality that it was the desire for technological protection (ie: up- armoring of mobile platforms) which actually made US forces vulnerable. And the belief that force projection into combat areas could be brief and rotational based on logistical relief, and long logistical supply lines, proved costly and vulnerable. Now, economic realities are, apart from anything else, going to mean that if US Special Forces project into a region, they must do so without a long logistical tail and heavy equipment. Potable water is one of the most critical elements of sustained and successful deployment, and it is also one of the most logistically expensive and vulnerable. 

Essentially, in discussion after the presentation, I told the US forces that they had been defeated strategically because they had been dependent on untenable logistical lines to ensure — most importantly — potable water at the front lines, and this, in turn, had incurred an additional penalty in transporting diesel fuel to the front. Fuel which, when fully accounted, was costing anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 per US gallon, and at a time when the fuel apportionment meant that each front line combatant and support person was using some 22 gallons of diesel per day. And, even with that titanic expenditure, virtually the entire force was engaged in logistics — in the process of supporting forces — rather than in mission success. 

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The obvious question from the floor was: “How, then, do we rectify this?” 

My answer was that emerging technologies should be available to dramatically reduce the need for the huge diesel and water logistical chain and to be able to purify water without diesel in operational areas, and I promised to investigate. No doubt USSOCOM and AFRICOM have gone on to other things now, or have gone back to their old way of doing business, but I returned to Washington determined to find an answer. And in so doing, turned to my colleague, Tom Waite, a volunteer Senior Fellow at the International Strategic Studies Association (ISSA), and an engineer — Chief Executive and Chief Technology Officer of Strategic Assets Protection Systems (StrAPS) — and passed the challenge on to him. Tom and I had already conceived of a possible option to create a “High Maneuverability Resource Vehicle” for expeditionary operations, and that was to have combined some of Tom’s thinking about battlefield water and power needs. 

But within weeks of Global Scout, he had designed and built a prototype manually-operated small water purification system, which could clean water to an unprecedented level of purity: 0.01 microns of ultra-filtration, about five times better than the then US Army standard. It was operated by foot or hand pump, and weighed 47 lb., and it could produce — with some effort — one US gallon of water per minute. But no diesel was needed, and none of the sensitive replacement filtration membranes required by the massive, diesel-dependent, expensive and unreliable reverse-osmosis (RO) systems which took a truck to transport (more diesel) and some $70,000 a year in replacement membranes. 

Demonstrating our hefty baby (but still a lightweight compared with the truck-mounted RO units in service) by the Potomac River, other ISSA Senior Fellows and advisors started to weigh in. Two of them were steeped in the US space program: former Director of Life Sciences at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Dr Joan Vernikos, and former Space Shuttle astronaut and scientist Dr Paul Scully-Power. Before long, as a result of that collaboration, Tom found that we could adapt a NASA-developed pump for the unit, and that enabled us to think that perhaps we could also apply power — other than human effort — to the process. 

This in turn led to a collaboration with the developer of solar power blankets, and to continued miniaturization of the systems. By early 2012 the process had turned into obsessive preoccupation with the technology and the entire question of water, and the consequent diversion of larger and larger portions of Tom’s and my retirement funds. 

The goals remained: Firstly, eliminate all, or as much as possible, of the logistics chain so that the users can focus on their primary mission. Secondly, reduce — insofar as possible — all need for maintenance and spare parts. Thirdly, be able to defeat any disease-carrying bacterium or virus, and possibly also address other less-widespread water-related threats, such as metal-based contaminants (lead, arsenic, etc.). Fourth, dramatically reduce the cost per gallon or liter of water purified. Fifth, be able to take water from any source of ground/surface, even pools and brackish ponds (bearing in mind that RO kicks back 90 percent of the source water, meaning that very large amounts of water need to be available). And finally, dramatically reduce the weight — or dramatically improve the portability — of water purification. 

By early 2012, Tom and his team at StrAPS, working with ISSA, had produced a small, lunchbox-sized backpack system, weighing eight pounds (3.628 kg), capable of producing two US gallons (7.57 liters) of water a minute, powered by a small (90 Watt) fold-out solar blanket. It could create enough water to satisfy a company of troops or more, especially if the solar blanket was also used — while pumping water — to charge a small battery (such as the ubiquitous US military BB-295 or something similar) which could then power the unit through the hours of darkness. 

Finally, something small enough to be carried by a single soldier which could replace the lumbering RO vehicle, and yet not make demands on the supply chain. Logistics, this writer has long averred, is part of the process, not the solution in itself. 

I have outlined several points relevant to this (included in the 2011 article, “The New Rules of War”, cited above), namely: 

1. Nothing reduces the financial, casualty, and political costs of war as much as rapid mission success.  
2. At some stage in all anticipated conflicts of the coming decade or two, forces will be reduced to fighting the war which the host geography and society imposes on it. 
3. All steps forward are based on vision; all steps backward are based on budget. 
4. Preoccupation with process and means is tactical; preoccupation with outcomes and future context is strategic. 

You can see where this is going. We started addressing the theater operational process which had cost the West victory in the Northern Tier and Central Asia in a strategic sense. In other words, we started looking at the situation of “for want of a nail, a shoe was lost; for want of a shoe, a horse was lost; for want of a horse, a king was lost; for want of a king ...” Now, I began to look at it from the other sense: where was our post-World War II global supply chain preoccupation — one of the great underpinnings of Western strategic success through the Cold War period and beyond — now taking us, for good and for ill. This I addressed in a chapter in UnCivilization, entitled “Can the ‘Supply Chain’ Save Civilization?” 

In essence, this started to note that the “supply chain” of inter- state or inter-society dependencies, which center around shared technologies, build strategic relationships which can last a half-century or more. Witness the US construction of an international consortium to build and operate the F-16 fighter, and the attempt to replicate that alliance-building/sustaining model with the F-35. 

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This process starts to show that the appropriate relationship between technologies and societies can forge links and mutual support which can endure. And given the fundamental requirement for pure water — especially in a world in which water consumption per capita is on the rise due to increasing population and increasing wealth — it was clear that the new approach to water purification which we had devised had broader strategic ramifications. It could enable the stabilization of otherwise challenged societies. 

All through the process, another ISSA Senior Fellow, His Imperial Highness Prince Ermias Sahle-Selassie Haile-Selassie (also President of the Crown Council of Ethiopia), had been observing the development of what we now called the Argonaut water purification technology. He said repeatedly: “We must have Argonaut systems in every African community. We must have clean water supply not reliant on urban infrastructure, ongoing maintenance, and diesel fuel. This is the foundation of all successful societies: to have clean water. Nothing succeeds without it.” 

Tom Waite then began scaling up the technology which he had developed and had so focused on miniaturizing. He developed the Argonaut Villager system, still eminently transportable at — depending on configuration — around 150 lb. weight, but capable of producing a constant 16 gallons (60.566 liters) per minute stream of water, purified to that still unique level of 0.01 microns. That’s more than 87,000 liters per day, enough to supply a town of more than 4,000 people. Or a pretty heavy military base. 

Moreover, in looking at the modalities of water logistics, what was evident was that the amount of time spent by village women in developing countries around the world each day fetching impure water from wells, and rivers, and lakes consumed the equivalent manhours to build 28 Empire State Buildings a day. More than that, in many areas, walking the long distances to bring water home involved vulnerabilities to attack (witness the Darfur scenario), and, when acquired, the water needed to be boiled to reduce the risk of disease. To do that necessitated the gathering of wood, often from areas already facing aridity or desertification. But to avoid disease, the countryside had to be lain waste. 

Solar-powered Argonaut Villager units could operate in remote areas, without maintenance or fuel, and alleviate the need to burn wood or fossil fuels; they could provide not only pure water for drinking, but for drip-feed irrigated agriculture (500 times more efficient than open channel irrigation), enabling village vegetable and fruit production. 


One spin-off from the ISSA-StrAPS collaboration, then, was the creation by Prince Ermias of the Water Initiative for Africa (WIA), which began in late 2011 to use the Argonaut technology as the basis for creating a new approach to building the basics of community health and security in Africa. That initiative has begun to draw the attention of the non-governmental organization (NGO) welfare community, and a number of governmental foreign aid programs, as well as the attention of military organizations which focus on “civil affairs” and community relations, quite apart from the operational units dependent themselves on constant access to potable water in ways which are not logistics-heavy. This effort drew in the support of another ISSA Senior Fellow, Anthony Reed. 

From the military standpoint, however, we discovered that it was not sufficient to merely have “a better mouse-trap”. Technology is one thing; doctrine is another. Technology may endure in an armed force for half a century; doctrine lasts, quite often, a century or more, only reluctantly transforming out of absolute necessity. And when it comes to water, technology has gradually shaped usage so that the modern soldier often expects it to come, in plastic bottles, “from the sky” — from heliborne re-supply — or from a supply convoy. “Winning the water” was once an everyday challenge for tactical commanders; today, most troops, wary of IEDs and ambushes, prefer to wait for their rich governments to deliver it to them.

Western militaries and societies take it for granted that water is plentiful and safe. That assumption will increasingly become invalid. Not only are safe water supplies coming under threat of contamination, the cost of water purification is becoming a major cost and physical burden. Even in major established cities, water infrastructure is becoming stressed, obsolescent, and unable — because of economic constraints — to be readily replaced.  

Most non-Western militaries and societies operate under the assumption that water is a problem, but at least they do not base their options around the unrealistic expectation that they can “buy their way” out of the problem. 

Recent (21st Century) exhumations of many of the bodies of troops of Napoleon’s Grande Armée, who died on the melancholy retreat from Moscow in 1812 — following the collapse of that massive French invasion of Russia — were found to have died from diseases caused by poor sanitation, which favored the proliferation of lice. But poor water contributed to that lack of sanitation, and to the rapid spread of water-borne diseases, as it did in all protracted military engagements of the era. Today, even in peacetime situations, waterborne contamination accounts for some 80 percent of African disease infections.  

What is to be done? 

If water — clean water — is the solution, then what is the problem? It is no longer the technology, even if there is the natural reluctance to embrace changes in technologies and therefore changes in doctrine. It can no longer be the cost, because the new Argonaut systems can purify water for about one-ten-thousandth of a US cent per gallon over a decade-long lifespan for the unit. It can no longer be the long logistics chain required to support the water purification process, because it requires little in the way of care. 

The oft-misquoted US military maxim for success — “getting there firstest with the mostest”; ie: getting to the battle first and with the most manpower and firepower — may not be entirely apposite. In any event, Lt.-Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest of the Confederate Army in the American Civil War, did not say that, or even imply that. But his mis-quoted words live on. The reality is that being their first may be good; having the biggest numbers and the greatest firepower may also be desirable. But what is critical is that, once there, a force, or a society, must sustain itself in good health. 

This saga of water is not yet over. Perhaps not yet even really begun. 

But if I could find a prize big enough, I would give it to my friend, Tom Waite, for taking my questions and transforming them into miraculous technology. And get another prize to Prince Ermias who kept asking how this technology could be used to transform life in remote communities. And to all the team, including Dr Paul Scully-Power and Dr Joan Vernikos, for perceptive comments on how the new approaches to water could best be realized. And to ISSA Executive Director Pamela von Gruber for coordinating the entire process. 

In any event, I am not sure the USSOCOM and USAFRICOM communities knew what they were unleashing when they asked me to comment on how they could fight future wars in Africa

By. Gregory R. Copley

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