At the end of WWII some 3,000 bombers were required to guarantee just one bomb on a target the size of a football pitch; now, with modern Western technology, just one bomb can destroy whichever goal post you want. The change in effectiveness is remarkable and laid the foundations since Gulf War I of the belief that modern warfare could deal effectively with anything thrown at it. In the 1990s this one-sided asymmetry produced essays on “peace enforcement” and the belief that after a high intensity air and surface bombardment, armed forces would only have to undertake the roles of policing and counter-insurgency with “boots on the ground”. The Kososvo confrontation, Iraq and Afghanistan all reinforced these notions. In Libya the West provided the barrage, but expected native Libyans to do the policing.
Since then war has moved on several stages. In Syria, what began as a counter-insurgency operation, rapidly evolved into a major civil war with civilians as prime targets and, at times, with the employment of chemical weapons largely for (media) effect. Now, from Syria to the Euphrates, ISIL has taken this manipulation of civilians one stage further, threatening to decapitate any unbelievers it captures in a manner more redolent of the terror hordes of Genghis Khan or Tamerlane. Gruesome butchery of innocents is again, it seems, a recognised method of war. Certainly it seems the only facet likely to catch the public’s jaded imagination, with demands for action from even the most war-weary.
And now, closer to home, the modus operandi of European contestants has evolved too. In Ukraine, the murder of innocents continues to have a powerful effect, but for the first time in recent memory a major European state is using proxy warfare as a means of hiding its aims. Even though a state of armed conflict exists de facto between Russia and Ukraine, the Kremlin employs the full range of its control of the media, both in and outside Russia, to deny any involvement, thereby driving a coach and horses through the Geneva Convention and its Additional Protocols, as well as flouting the Charter of the United Nations. If this is ‘plausible deniability’ one wonders what constitutes implausible deniability! Such ‘special’ operations certainly do not bode well for NATO, and potentially threaten any member with even a small Russian diaspora.
Perhaps all these warfare changes are, in reality, a response to the asymmetry represented by effective high technology warfare. It would of course simply be suicidal to drive a massed tank army across an enemy’s frontier against modern Western forces. And such an obvious attack could not go unnoticed by the world, or be supported by even the most ardent ally. So other, more underhand, methods must be found that get around the asymmetry, and yet still yield effective results that force an enemy to negotiate or capitulate.
The effect is that warfare is becoming far more complicated - and unpredictable. No longer is it fighter versus fighter, ship v ship, or tank versus tank, the modern battlefield extends from space to air, land and sea, to cyber, diplomacy, media and economics, and even beyond. Deterrence and coercion have become interwoven, and with every national lever having at least some use. This novel modern panoply requires new fighters, new authorities and a new understanding. Perhaps Maréchal Maurice de Saxe had it right when he asked “de quoi s’agit il?” – what’s it all about? And maybe we should expand Clausewitz’ famous dictum to read “war is politics by all other means”.
Of course, nothing has been taken off the warfighter’s table and the simple knife at one extreme, or the thermo-nuclear weapon at the other, are all still valid and effective weapons of war, each with its place. But the challenge now is to understand how to use the full range of weapons in a way that defeats the inventiveness of the enemy while, unlike the enemy, remaining within the bounds of morality, legality and public acceptance. This is a major conceptual and intellectual challenge but it requires the understanding not just of the soldier on the ground or the airman in his cockpit, but of the whole chain of command right up to the Prime Minister or President of the United States. And this understanding needs to be mutually agreed and mutually understood. It cannot be a checklist for ignorant politicians but an approach based on a common yet evolving appreciation of how and where a particular part of the panoply of options should be employed, and how and when other levers might be pulled. When, for example would economic sanctions yield results, but when might only military action do the trick?
Inexperienced Western Leadership
Sadly, despite all the other calls on a new leader’s time, understanding this dynamic is actually the most important. If he gets it wrong the results could be incalculable. It cannot be left to deputies, assistants, tactical experts or even worthy academics. None of today’s politicians have any realistic war or combat experience, or it seems any deep knowledge of the lessons of history. So each new leader must, in humility, devote a significant amount of time to learning the ropes, learning which lever in his panoply is likely to yield which result, and which other lever might perhaps yield unintended consequences, and of all of them which carry the greatest risks. Just like a game of chess, his understanding needs to grasp the options open to his adversary but, unlike a game of chess, he needs to carry the approval of his spectators - his allies and his public. And this is no simple intellectual challenge. In the past, straightforward analysis of force ratios might predict results; but now, even though his adversary may seem to have weaker weapons, if the adversary understands the game rather better than him then the adversary may well win, and win easily, against such a novice.
And so we come to the present day, to September 2014. On 4th and 5th September the Heads of Government of all the NATO nations meet in Wales. They face a world more unstable, more unpredictable and more dangerous than at any time since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Their adversaries range from the simple warlord, interested only in his own self-aggrandizement, through religious zealots whose worst acts are accountable only to their God, to crafty manipulators who understand the West’s weaknesses, its war weariness and obsession with electoral cycles or social programmes.
Sadly, successive leaders of NATO have, each in their turn, brought this largely on themselves. Too distracted to devote time to their security responsibilities, too shallow to think through the likely effects of their complacency, too weak to see the job through to the end and too political to give priority to achieving the necessary and agreed level of defence spending. These weaknesses have failed to signal sufficient resolve or determination, and have - so far - failed to deter the many adversaries that are currently taking advantage of the West’s complacency.
Western Leaders, individually and collectively, must now rise to the challenge and this summit requires and must mark a new direction in understanding the complexities of the modern world and their nations’ place in it. They will need, despite the current economic stagnation, to raise their level of defence expenditure to at least the 2% GDP previously agreed, and more if required by a particular nation’s commitments; they must agree to set work in hand immediately to elaborate new strategies to meet the complexities of the modern world; they must establish coordinated strategic decision making centres through which the full panoply of weapons can be controlled; and they must agree personally to participating in decision-making exercises against the most fearsome and difficult challenges that they might ever face. After all, politicians could manage it during the Cold War – so why not now?
Such robust actions would signal the West’s determination to make the world a better place, and NATO’s resolve to become actively involved in pursuing policies to deter adventurers and promote peace. Anything less will be mere window dressing.
Air Commodore Andrew Lambert MPhil is a former Director of the UK National Defence Association, a Deputy Commander of NATO Air Norway and a Commander British Forces for the Northern No Fly Zone of Iraq.