“We are still in a world where military power translates into geopolitical power. If Europe wants to sit at the table, it needs military capabilities” – an interview with Ulrike Franke (ECFR)

Dr. Ulrike Franke is policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). Her areas of focus include German and European security and defence, the future of warfare, and the impact of new technologies such as drones and artificial intelligence.

What potential do you see for truly projecting a geopolitical Commission, especially in a post-pandemic Europe? What are the critical ingredients for a successful geopolitical Commission? Over the past years, France was very active in advancing bold visions for the future of Europe that were received with little enthusiasm in Berlin. Is a Franco-German alignment on a geopolitical Europe agenda more or less likely in a post-pandemic context? 

This is the big question for the EU at the moment. In my view, the first step in shaping a geopolitical EU would be for the Union to define in a clear way the interests it has in the world, and to communicate them. But this interest-focused thinking is something that the EU is not very comfortable with, and Germany in particular is neither comfortable, nor used to doing it. The second challenge is finding agreement among the 27 member states on various issues, whether it is on Russia, China or anything else. It is often difficult to get to a unanimous decision among the 27, which is why Ursula von der Leyen has proposed qualified majority voting on some foreign policy issues, especially in the areas pertaining to human rights, as she pointed out in her latest State of the Union speech. 

For now, the EU still struggles to be a geopolitical actor. And Germany in particular appears not ready for the EU to be a geopolitical actor. The current situation in the Mediterranean is a good illustration of this. There are still important voices in Germany who believe that the EU – even in this specific instance – should be an honest broker and an arbitrator rather than an actor. But this is a dispute between an EU member state and a non-EU member state! The idea that here the EU could be an honest broker is rather surprising, but that is what you hear from Germany. France is taking on a completely different vision; they argue that this is an EU member state, so of course we are taking sides and we are sending support to the Greek. This is a perfect example where you see the difference in approach between France and Germany when it comes to a geopolitical EU. 

With regard to COVID, I don’t think that it will have a major impact on European foreign policy, or that will contribute to a geopolitical awakening of Europe. Rather, at least at the moment, the consequence is that geopolitical issues have been pushed into the background  – and we’ve seen this in the von der Leyen speech – because there are other things that seem to be more important at the moment.

The three decades following 1989 have been extraordinarily  stable and, well, weird, geopolitically speaking. But for my generation this was normal. We are absolutely not prepared for a world where geopolitical power play is again the primary language.

To what extent are Europe and Germany ready for a world where the return of great-power competition is becoming the new normal? Thomas Bagger in Washington Quarterly was emphasising the lessons that his generation took on board from 1989 that influenced their worldview – convergence, multilateralism, the belief that Germany was no longer threatened and that the future was more about development aid and mediation. It is very much a mind set that slows Europe down in the geopolitical arena as opposed to all the other major players. Put more broadly, is a generation shaped by the ‘end of history’ mindset ready for a world in which the “jungle grows back”?

I very much liked Thomas Bagger’s article, and I am in the midst of writing a follow-up article which looks at the question from a Millennial point of view. I thought what he said about his generation, the legacy of 1989 and how it influenced the thinking of his generation was very interesting. But what he may not have thought about so much is what this means for my generation, who didn’t experience 1989, but grew up in the world that was shaped by it. The three decades following 1989 have been extraordinarily  stable and, well, weird, geopolitically speaking. But for my generation this was normal. We are absolutely not prepared for a world where geopolitical power play is again the primary language. This is true for Bagger’s generation, but it is even more true for my generation, as we never learnt this language. This, in my view, explains why Germans have so many problems with geopolitical, strategic thinking. 

But this is not solely a German problem. The EU, as an organisation, also struggles with this new situation, because it wasn’t built with a geopolitical mind set either. I like the rhetoric about the geopolitical EU but if you look at the State of the Union speech that Ursula von der Leyen gave recently, she didn’t mention defence with one word. And on geopolitics, she ran through the list of the foreign policy challenges but didn’t advocate a particularly strong position on any of them. Changing this will be difficult  and it will be particularly difficult as the biggest country in the EU is particularly unprepared  for this. 

Let’s unpack a bit the issue of strategic autonomy. How far from each other are Paris and Berlin on this issue? Which are the main disagreements? To me a very divisive issue, especially in the CEE space, is the French instrumentalisation of the Trump factor in order to push for strategic decoupling and become more independent from the US.

By now, more people are talking about “European sovereignty”, or European strategic sovereignty rather than autonomy. Many found that autonomy sounded too much as if it was directed against the US. So today the term is strategic sovereignty, rather than autonomy, although the idea broadly remains the same. But in any case, there is a certain level of ambiguity, which allows everyone in the EU to define the concept in a way that suits them.

The general idea behind European sovereignty is that the EU, that Europe, should become more of a geopolitical actor. In my view, this is a good ambition for the EU to have. But one can already see that different countries emphasise different elements. Germany for example, seems to support the idea because it is something that could help bring the 27 EU members closer together, which is a German priority. France, on the other hand, tends to be much more focused on concrete outcomes, even, sometimes, at the detriment of European unity. Plus, there is the defence question; European sovereignty includes a defence element, but the extent to which the EU should be or become a defence actor is controversial. In the European East, many worry that a too ambitious EU may undermine NATO. So there is still a lot of work to be done before the EU can claim sovereignty. 

To sum up, Germany seems more focused on process as a team-building effort, while France is more interested in the concrete ends.

It depends on the context, but this is something we are indeed seeing when it comes to the issue of defence and military cooperation. Germany has always focused more on the common part of common defence than on the defence part. Germany likes building up European defence because it helps strengthen EU unity.  Therefore, the creation of common security structures, from PESCO to the EDF was seen in itself as a victory. France, on the other hand, is more interested in the defencepart of common defence, and therefore points out that the establishment of common projects does not mean anything yet.

How realistic is a potential strategic convergence between Europe and the US in counterbalancing Chinese influence in the post-COVID world? Or will mercantilist pressures (very high in Germany for example) trump geopolitics?

Over the last few years, the EU, and Europeans broadly speaking, have woken up to the fact that China is not just an economic competitor and rising power, but an ideological and strategic competitor. For quite a long time, China has been seen primarily through economic lenses, this has only changed recently. For Germany, a big wake-up call was the acquisition of the German robot maker KUKA by a Chinese investor. More recently, the aggressive disinformation campaign on COVID by China reminded Europeans that China’s geopolitical power is an issue. 

There is now more cooperation between Europe and the US on the issue, although the US’s stance is much more clear-cut than the European one. Also, on this topic, the Trump administration has caused a big problem, in particular regarding public opinion. In some countries, there is such a rejection of the US under Trump that people have begun to wonder whether a more dominant China would really be so bad. European policy-makers are still broadly transatlantic in their thought process, but the last four years of the Trump administration have destroyed a lot of goodwill among the European population and this will come back and haunt the US when it comes to teaming up with Europe on China. If Trump is re-elected, I think that it is going to be much harder for Europe to work with the US on China.

Finally, Europe has a unity problem when it comes to China. Among the 27 EU member states, there are different views when it comes to China. Of course economic interests are big here. As long as there are countries in Europe that struggle economically and feel that they are being helped more by China than by the EU, the European bloc will have problems.

Germany has always focused more on the common part of common defence than on the defence part. Germany likes building up European defence because it helps strengthen EU unity. France, on the other hand, is more interested in the defence part of common defence.

Having in mind the broader trends impacting the character of contemporary war, what should Europe prepare for? There is the pressure of geopolitical rivalries and that of the high-end war. At the same time with everything that is happening in the broader MENA space, it may be a dangerous illusion to think that we are beyond the post-9/11 campaigns and the stabilisation operations.

The biggest problem is that Europe needs to prepare for all eventualities. I study new technologies and it is true that this is an area where Europe needs to do much more – but at the same time it can’t neglect more conventional threats. European countries need to retain a conventional military capability. They will remain important for operations, be it stability operations or for defence. Even if we don’t use it – we are still in a world where military power translates into geopolitical power. If Europe wants to sit at the table, it needs military capabilities. This is the reality with which a lot of people are not necessarily comfortable or don’t like but I very much believe that that is still the case. So the big challenge is that Europe needs all the above: conventional military capabilities and new technologies.

Over the past few years, the US has invested constantly in searching for a new offset strategy, going beyond a precision-guided munitions regime and focusing on what is often called algorithmic warfare (combat operations dominated by intelligent weapons and platforms using artificial intelligence as the core, but also enablers like big data, cloud computing, the Internet of Things, and intelligent control). Does Europe have a similar effort?

I don’t think Europe has a similar effort as the third offset strategy. But I don’t think that this is surprising, or concerning – even in the Cold War, even for the first and second offset strategies, the big ideas of reinventing, rethinking warfare and conflict always came from the US. 

That being said, of course there is a lot of thinking being done all over Europe about the future of conflict. It doesn’t necessarily happen at the EU level. But at the national level you do have quite a few people thinking of the future of warfare and conflict, especially in the UK and France, which makes sense, as they are the big military powers of Europe. One big challenge is how to continue working with the EU, what will new technologies mean for joint operations, such as within NATO. Interoperability will be a big challenge, and it is essential to figure out how to work together and make sure we don’t end up with an interoperability gap at the NATO level.

You are specialised in drones. What role will drones and swarms of drones play in enhancing deterrence? Such solutions could be contemplated in better securing the Eastern flank. 

I don’t think that the current generation of drones have a big role to play in the inter-state wars, or for deterrence. The current generation of drones are particularly good in asymmetric conflicts, where you enjoy air superiority, but they are vulnerable to contested environments. That being said, smaller countries benefit quite a lot from having more airborne capabilities, and this is something which we are seeing right now in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, where both sides have used drones extensively.

A lot of work is being done on the next generation of unmanned systems that have more autonomous capability, are harder to find, faster etc. This changes the situation, as it means that they will be more of a challenge for  air defence. Swarming especially is an area where a lot of work is being done. Swarms are particularly thought to be a great way of overwhelming the enemy’s air defences, which are not built and optimised against swarms of 100 or 1000 attacking drones. 

But what we should never forget is that it will not be only our side trying to get this technology. I do see a danger of an arms race when it comes to ever more capable AI-enabled autonomous systems.

Macron’s has simply looked at the map of the world, he has assessed Europe’s interests and Russia’s interests and he has concluded that we need to find some kind of modus vivendi with Russia and that the current situation is just bad for everyone.

It seems that there is a different mood and tone in Berlin vis-à-vis Russia, driven by what happened in Belarus and particularly by the poisoning of Navalny. Will such a stance last? Should we expect a change also in Macron’s plans of rapprochement with Russia?

This isn’t my primary area of expertise. If I had to speculate, I wouldn’t  think that Navalny’s poisoning is going to change the approach substantially. After all, it is not as if Macron had been saying “let’s work with Russia, they are going to be our friends.” I believe that the French government is entering into talks with Russia with open eyes. They are aware of the spoiler role that Russia has been playing with regard to European stability for the last 5 to 10 years. The poisoning of Alexey Navalny hasn’t changed this assessment.In my view, Macron’s has simply looked at the map of the world, he has assessed Europe’s interests and Russia’s interests and he has concluded that we need to find some kind of modus vivendi with Russia and that the current situation is just bad for everyone – which strikes me as a valid point. But France has not done well in explaining its approach, particularly to the Eastern Europeans. I think it was some misunderstanding among the Eastern Europeans that France wants a new partnership with Russia, but I don’t think this is what they are trying to do. 

Warfare in the age of dragons – interview with Dr. David Kilcullen

Dr. David Kilcullen is the author of the newly published The Dragons and the Snakes – How the Rest learned to fight the West, Oxford University Press.

The genesis of the book goes back to February 1993 with the confirmation hearing of James Woolsey as director of the CIA. At the time he captured well the strategic Zeitgeist of the emerging unipolar era – “we have slain a large dragon, but we live now in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes. And in many ways the dragon was easier to keep track of.” Today, the dragons (Russia and China) are back again.

Robert Kagan was talking about the (geopolitical) jungle that grows back. Your latest book has more of a Game of Thrones (GOT) vibe: the return of the dragons. In short, from GWOT [Global War on Terrorism] to GOT. The emerging changes to the character of war, the ways in which the dragons are practising warfare are at the core of your new book. Based on your observations, how did the character of contemporary war change?

The book is about military adaptation. It’s about how both state and non-state adversaries responded to us in the period since the Cold War. We created the fitness landscape within which all of our adversaries are adapting, and the event that created that was the 1991 Gulf War. It showed everybody how not to fight the US. The next big event was the 2003 invasion of Iraq that showed everybody that you can fight the US and you can succeed, but you need a completely different model – small modular low-profile groups that operate autonomously among people in a protracted conflict. What we’ve seen in the 17 years since we invaded Iraq is that adversaries have learned from each other and also reacted to the environment that we created by avoiding and going around our conventional strength. 

Today we live in a security environment where the dragons operate and fight like snakes (embracing non-state types of activities like cyber-militias, subversion, political warfare) and where the snakes have acquired the capabilities of traditional dragons and sometimes fight like a state. That poses for us a dilemma going forward. If we are thinking about the future of war, we can’t just decide to stop worrying about terrorism and to get out of dealing with the snakes, because that threat is real. We can’t just go for great power competition, because we are dealing with hyper-empowered non-state actors that now have access to all kinds of technology and capability that didn’t exist a decade ago. We can’t just ignore that. By the same token we can’t continue to primarily focus on non-state actors, because states have adapted and evolved specifically to exploit our tunnel vision on terrorism since 2003. I emphasise 2003 rather than 2001, because it was the invasion of Iraq that got us bogged down, not so much Afghanistan. The 2003 moment highlighted the limits of the Western way of war – a very high-tech precision-centric approach that emphasizes battlefield dominance and is characterised by a narrow focus on combat.

What we’ve got to do is cover a much broader range of threats with a much more agile approach, which suggests to me a lighter footprint, with greater emphasis on agile responses to a wider variety of threats in a wider variety of places. We have to become more capable of dealing with both state and non-state threats at the same time and in many of the same places. In Syria, for example, we have significant non-state threats but also state adversaries that are playing a multi-level game. That is actually pretty typical and is happening in many of today’s operating environments. The traditionally neat distinction between conventional and unconventional warfare is breaking down and we are going to need forces that are cheaper, more agile, more modular and are able to respond in a seamless fashion to a wider variety of threats. We need to be swing-role: a multi-role aircraft can do multiple missions but can do only one mission at a time, while swing-role aircraft can seamlessly shift in mid-mission to a different type of task. That is the kind of mindset that we need to be emphasising – forces that can do not only multiple things, but can transition seamlessly among tasks in the middle of a mission.

China has dramatically broadened its definition of warfare beyond what we consider to be war.

Is this more along the lines of what general Charles Krulak was arguing in the 1990s with his three-block war concept (humanitarian, peacekeeping, high intensity), shifting from one to another, but with a new dimension – great power competition?

It is beyond the three-block war. It is more like 16-block war with multiple domains – cyber, space, political and economic warfare, alongside the physical and electromagnetic domains. One of the points I make about China is that we are dealing with an adversary that has dramatically broadened its definition of warfare beyond what we consider to be war. In fact, what they do in practice is to mobilise multiple dimensions of national power that are way beyond our traditional military domains. Even if we could conceive of a lot of what the Chinese are doing as warlike, it is not clear that the Ministry of Defence of any Western country would be in charge of the response. We need to think carefully about reconceptualising what we mean by war.

Russian way of warfare

I think one important question that should be raised is what did the dragons learn from the snakes of the post 9/11? I mean the attacks on cohesiveness and legitimacy, subverting the rules of the road, shaping hearts and minds, the grievances they are cultivating and exploiting – all are features reminding of an insurgent repertoire. To me the dragons of the day behave like insurgents, they are really insurgent powers trying to overhaul a certain type of international order.

The clearest example here are the Russians that in the Western Military District have actively copied ISIS models of warfare to create super-light brigades that operate in a distributed fashion with small combat teams and a weapons mix similar to what we’ve seen from ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria]. They have directly copied the ISIS manoeuvre model in the way they are operating. Another example is also Russian: Moscow fielded a wide array of autonomous and new armoured systems into the Syrian campaign, learned important lessons and triggered a series of adaptations based on that operational experience.

In the book, following Stephen Rosen, I draw a distinction between wartime and peacetime adaptation. When you are in wartime adaptation mode, it’s a process of unconscious evolution (and actually co-evolution) between you and the adversary. Wartime adaptation is a direct response to enemy action and one result is that over time you come to resemble your adversaries. The process works both ways: states are borrowing non-state techniques and applying them in their own ways as an enabler to conventional military operations, while non-state groups are borrowing from states. One example is the way that Hezbollah evolved from a classical resistance movement to a regional actor that operates more like a state (both in the 2006 war against Israel, and later in Syria supporting Assad), combining conventional and irregular methodologies. Another example is the way we operate now in Afghanistan with CT [counterterrorism] pursuit teams that work on the ground in ways that are very similar to how the Taliban operate. It is one example of us evolving to look like the adversary. The flip side of this is that the modern Taliban, and in fact ISIS during the fighting in Iraq and Syria look a lot like us – the way they operate with artillery, tanks and vehicles in a light cavalry swarm. They are adapting to look like us. In a co-evolution environment we are in a tit-for-tat adaptive process with adversaries. 

By contrast, in a peacetime environment – and this applies to all the countries that haven’t been so heavily involved in the War on Terrorism: Russia, China, North Korea and Iran – they were free to sit back, watch us struggle, identify strengths and weaknesses in our approach, come up with concepts to enable them to improve and build capabilities that would counteract Western dominance. In the case of Russia it’s a bit of a combination – they watched us struggle in 2003 and learned a lot from that, but they also had their own adaptive learning curve from the internal conflicts in Georgia, North Caucasus or Ukraine.

Is fighting at the edges – a new type of out-manoeuvring and out-competing the West? What does a liminal warfare playbook like the one practised by Russia entail in a frontline ecosystem?

Liminal means threshold. Liminal warfare is about threshold manipulation. It is a style of warfare that the Russians in particular have perfected, which is about riding the edge of observability, surfing the threshold of detectability so a lot of their activity is literally sub-liminal (“below the threshold” of perception), and we don’t even notice what is happening. They manipulate their signature so as to only pop up into the ambiguous zone of operations long enough to achieve very specific short term goals and then to drop back down into the sub-liminal environment before we can respond. It is about manipulating their own signature, it’s about creative ambiguity and it’s about time – operating in the blur of the “gray zone” and surging rapidly to achieve key objectives and quickly getting back below the threshold of response before we can react.

There a few techniques that they apply. For example, reflexive control, a theory with a long history in the Russian political warfare. Another is decisive shaping, where the decisive phase of operation is not the manoeuvre phase, but the pre-manoeuvre shaping phase. Some Russian strategists  want to win the operation before the first tank rolls or before the first airstrike goes in. If they don’t believe they already won, the tanks will never roll. That means that a lot of liminal warfare is political warfare, economic warfare, weaponisation of oil and gas, the use of special forces in very small numbers to work with local groups, and then rapid strike ops.

At the core of liminal warfare is the integration of political, economic, legal, military, intelligence, cyber into a single seamless mix of activity emphasising the shaping before the operation. 

In the lead-up to the Georgian campaign in 2008, the Russians engaged in a “passportisation” program where they offered any Russian-speaking Georgian citizen a Russian passport. They did that for months before the operation. By the time the operation began they had a very large number of newly-created Russian citizens inside Georgia and were able to invoke the responsibility to protect their own citizens. This whole shaping phase happened before the operation began. When we think about the manipulation of oil and gas in the Crimea operation in February 2014, mid-winter, Russian political warfare was heavily focused on targeting Germany to prevent NATO from reacting. A big part of that campaign was to say to the Germans, do you really want to pick a fight with Russia in the middle of winter, when you depend on Russian oil and gas to provide heating to a majority of German population? At the core of liminal warfare is the integration of political, economic, legal, military, intelligence, cyber into a single seamless mix of activity emphasising the shaping before the operation. All built on the idea of escalating to de-escalate: they move quickly to seize a key objective early on, presenting an enemy with a fait accompli and later de-escalate their rhetoric in order to negotiate from a position of strength. Crimea is the perfect example of this. While “escalate to de-escalate” is an idea that originally came from Russian nuclear strategy (although Russia watchers disagree whether a formal doctrine in this sense ever existed), they’ve applied it in many other fields of activity since then.

Chinese way of warfare

So South China Sea, maritime and land Silk Roads, key strategic acquisitions in the West, A2/AD posture, 5G – what is the essence of the Chinese way of warfare?

The Chinese way of war is about “conceptual envelopment”, expanding the concept of war to the point where they are able to manoeuvre in a space that is outside of our definition of conflict. In contrast with the Russians, who favour a more vertical type of escalation, the Chinese embrace horizontal escalation by expanding the spectrum of competition and confrontation to the point that battlefield is everywhere and warfare is everything. In this sense, controlling the means of technology – 5G systems, strategic real estate purchases, ports and harbours all over the world, controlling certain kinds of supply-chain and critical infrastructure investments, these are all described in the 1999 Unrestricted Warfare (written by Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui) as non-military war operations. The two colonels dramatically broaden the definition of war going beyond battlefield dominance, emphasising “trans-military” and “non-military war operations” by leveraging society and the international system to achieve a military goal with non-military means. The authors of that document talk about combination strategies that mix lethal and non-lethal, military and non-military means (including criminal networks or civil organisations) bringing into play a whole variety of competitions and combining them in a seamless architecture, similarly to what we’ve been talking about with the Russians.

In contrast with the Russians, who favour a more vertical type of escalation, the Chinese embrace horizontal escalation by expanding the spectrum of competition and confrontation to the point that battlefield is everywhere and warfare is everything.

There are three broad strands in the Chinese way of war. One is Unrestricted Warfare, which later became the Three Warfares doctrine in 2006 – cyber warfare, public opinion/information warfare and lawfare. The second is the change of China from being a land-based power (which it has been since the middle of the 16th century) to being both a maritime and land power. This is a gigantic transformation. When Xi Jinping came to power, one of his first military announcements talked about the imperative to move away from the idea that the land is more important than the sea and become a real maritime power. It’s incredibly important to understand the geopolitical implications for the global security environment of China going from being a land power to now challenging the US at sea in the Western Pacific, building a militarised archipelago of islands in the South China Sea and bases elsewhere, toward being able to project power globally. The third is the conventional modernisation of Chinese land forces, which goes along cyber, space, and long-range precision fires, as well as advanced manoeuvre forces and special forces, and “informationalisation” of battle networks. If you contrast Russian with Chinese developments, Russia has a small, but very capable set of niche assets at the high end of the technology spectrum. The Chinese, in contrast, are doing high-tech at scale.

There is a sense of overlapping, in both theory and practice, between the Chinese URW [Unrestricted Warfare] and how Gerasimov is framing warfare. Do the dragons learn from each other? In the end, both are building A2/AD [Anti Access/Area Denial] zones in their immediate proximity or creating new facts on the ground (the bridge linking Russia with Crimea, the artificial islands) that give them the opportunity to claim entire regions (Azov Sea or the South China Sea).

We know that the Russians and the Chinese have exercised together, jointly, over the past few years, that they share information and compare notes. I don’t think it is clear that they are consciously collaborating, but I do think that like every other adversary that we have, they are all responding to a similar set of circumstances that we created, and even if they are coming from different starting points, they are co-evolving in a way that makes them to begin looking increasingly similar to each other. Yes, there is some collaboration, but in some ways it is more interesting than that conceptually, because they are independently co-evolving towards similar solutions, with a similar set of challenges. There is also a very significant element of territorial/spatial expansion in the way that both Russia and China think about what they are trying to do. We tend to think in a very manoeuvre-centric way, they tend to think in terms of shaping and in a spatial control way.

Obviously, China and Russia have a very different set of strategic circumstances. China is a rising power that is trying to cement its role as a major global player, whereas Russia is a power that is in a long-term decline. What the Russians are trying to do is create a sort of trade space, where they can expand their capabilities now while they still can, so that they have something to trade later, when China in particular becomes a major threat to them. One of the paradoxes here is that China and Russia are currently cooperating with each other against the West, but in the long term they are actually potential adversaries and geopolitical rivals. This is where any Western retreat is not going to result in peace and harmony, but in a new Cold War between China and Russia, rather than China, Russia and the West.

Beyond COIN

Professor Hew Strachan talked extensively in his writings about the danger of the strategic influence of operational level solutions. Is the failure to convert battlefield victory into strategic success and into a better peace the main lesson of the post 9/11 era?

I make the point in the book that we are extraordinarily good at achieving particular battlefield results, but extraordinarily bad at translating those battlefield results into long-term political outcomes. We’ve seen this in Afghanistan and Iraq, of course. The repeated failure to convert battlefield victory into a better peace remains a key reason for these inconclusive wars that ultimately contribute to internal unrest across the world.

The rise of populism in the West and the collapse of confidence in elites and establishments of all kinds are in some ways connected to the failure of our military models to deliver what they claimed. We told people for 25 years that they’ve got the best military in the world and yet they can see with their own eyes that that military isn’t delivering on the ground. So, this leads to a cognitive dissonance that results in a collapse of confidence.

There is a dynamic interaction between strategy, technology and tactics. You have a particular strategy, which leads you to develop particular kinds of tactics and particular kinds of technologies. Once you have those technologies and capabilities in place, they actually limit your choices of strategy. You are not able to just choose any strategy, but you are channelled by the kinds of capabilities that you have. Then you start adopting strategies that privilege and optimise the effect of your existing organisation, concepts and technologies and that is what we’ve been doing really since the Cold War. We have to step back a little bit from that dynamic interaction between operations, tactics, strategy and technology, to think about adaptation as a separate thing, consider how our adversaries are adapting, consider if it is possible to shape their adaptation in ways that favour us.

A key component of the security environment that you are describing are the dragons that learned to fight like the insurgents and embraced an insurgent toolkit to fight the West – competing and subverting the Western minds for example. In this sense, shouldn’t we act more like a counterinsurgent in our response? As a former COIN [counterinsurgency] practitioner, what do you think we should preserve from the COIN portfolio? A civil-military fusion maybe?

I think there is a lot of value in our Iraq/Afghanistan experience that translates directly to dealing with today’s environment: the need for integrated civil-military effects, the requirement for robust and properly-resourced civilian agencies to partner with the military, the need for political leaders to fully engage in the problem-set, and the importance of narrative. That said, one of my key points at the end of the book is that we need to get out of the business of occupying and attempting to govern remote places over the long term in a large-scale way: we can go long, or we can go big, but we shouldn’t try to do both. So, in that sense our approach should perhaps draw more from Unconventional Warfare and Foreign Internal Defense, rather than large-scale neoclassical COIN.

Going Byzantine

How should the Western way of warfare change in order to respond effectively to the adaptations and variations in the operational environment?

There are broadly three potential courses of action.

The first is doubling-down: keep doing what we are doing now, just do it harder, spend more money on the same kind of capabilities we are building now. That is not going to work because our adversaries have already adapted, so to continue what we’ve been doing is not going to change the environment.

Secondly is to embrace the suck – accept that our primacy will decline and just try to manage that in a way that achieves a soft landing. That is not going to work either, because for a soft landing to work you need a successor that is capable enough or willing to do the job of stabilisation and friendly enough to the US and the West that it wouldn’t be a total disaster for us to allow a handover. We don’t have any such successor.

Third is some sort of a Byzantine strategy – a holding strategy to enable a potentially acceptable successor to emerge. The Western Roman Empire collapsed in the 4th century AD, while the Byzantine Empire survived for another 1100 years until the fall of Constantinople. So how did they manage to achieve another 1100 years of primacy in the Eastern Mediterranean after the collapse of the Roman Empire? In the book I describe a number of things about how they operated. They were very capable of selectively copying from adversaries in terms of technologies, techniques, ways of operating, they learned from their wide range of enemies and incorporated those lessons into their own very adaptive, flexible way of operating.

Secondly, they got out of the business of occupying and governing entire provinces as the Romans had done, and focused instead on agile mobile forces that could react at long distances to a wide variety of threats, stabilise the environment and step back. They were also able to build constellations of capable local allies that could do a lot of the work in-between interventions. They maintained a selective edge and mastered some key technologies that other people couldn’t master, such as Greek Fire, a high-tech defensive tool. Most importantly, they focused very heavily on resilience at home, on building an effective civil and military and economic system that was resilient to shock, that was not optimised for efficiency in the absence of shock, but optimised for resilience to shock. We just need to look at what is happening to COVID-19 to realise that the modern world we’ve created with Western military systems since the Cold War is hyper-efficient but at the same time is also very fragile because it relies on efficiency in the absence of shock. A Byzantine model would ask how would we make all our systems more resilient to shock? This would possibly mean decentralisation, lower tech, more play space in our systems so they don’t rely on very precise integration of multiple moving parts. An urbanised world depends on very complex interlocking systems and when one part collapses, it all collapses. We are living and watching that happen.

In a world in which the West is no longer militarily dominant, a Byzantine approach would suggest ways to hold the line – in their case for more than a millennium – in order to allow the world to change, so that there is a viable successor and the adaptive approach of our adversaries becomes less threatening.

Lastly, we need to move away from a solely battlefield-centric conception of war and embrace a more holistic approach that broadens the notion of successful strategy beyond battlefield dominance, and adopt a more flexible model of statecraft. In short, as JFC Fuller would say, the object of war is not victory, but a better peace.

War in the modern world is fought simultaneously across all domains — air, space, sea, land, cyber and the electromagnetic spectrum. It includes elements of economic warfare, political warfare and narrative manoeuvre and involves cyber-kinetic operations (cyber-ops with lethal effects and kinetic ops with cyber effects) that favour forces which manoeuvre simultaneously in cyberspace and physical space.

Please describe the contours of a reconceptualised and expanded notion of war that should become the new normal for any Western strategist.

War in the modern world is fought simultaneously across all domains — air, space, sea, land, cyber and the electromagnetic spectrum. It includes elements of economic warfare, political warfare and narrative manoeuvre and involves cyber-kinetic operations (cyber-ops with lethal effects and kinetic ops with cyber effects) that favour forces which manoeuvre simultaneously in cyberspace and physical space. Modern war is fought in a crowded, cluttered, electronically connected, mostly urban and coastal environment, against a complex mix of adaptive state and non-state adversaries who copy each other’s techniques, and are often seeking to overwhelm us through a large number of small simultaneous challenges, rather than a single big threat. They tend to prefer decisive shaping (winning the conflict before the first shot is fired) and creative ambiguity (rather than fully covert or clandestine operations) as a way to avoid our conventional strength. The most important thing we can do to adapt to this kind of war is to get out of our defensive crouch, and begin operating aggressively to shape them rather than wait to be shaped ourselves.

When discussing a future posture of the West, I am wondering if you take into consideration the idea of a concert of democracies able and willing to defend the legacy and the Western order?

The transition from US primacy might be to another leading power, but it might also be to a concert of powers and ideally a concert of democracies, involving India, Europe, Latin America and Asian democracies. I don’t think this path is particularly likely, primarily because Europe and other countries (Australia is a good example) are so dependent on US security guarantees that these actually undermine their ability to fulfil that role. In some ways president Trump’s approach in forcing European allies to do more and withdrawing blanket American security guarantees, while unpleasant and done in a very vulgar way, actually is pointing to something important, which is that we have to have countries stepping forward and taking responsibility for their own resilience and their own defence. 

Firstly, the US will not be able to carry the burden forever and secondly, the American people have signalled now in multiple elections that they don’t want to do it anymore. In many ways the coronavirus shows the equally dangerous risk of being so dependent on China economically, and you could argue that in the military sphere there is a similar risk – which is allies’ dependence on the US. Our countries are so dependent on China economically and so dependent on America militarily: the coronavirus teaches us that we need to break out of our dependence on China in the economic sphere, while in the military sphere the last 20 years teach us that we need to break out of our dependence on the US. This will be good for everyone – it will allow the US to be more agile and responsive. Small allies are never going to compete with the US-led way of war but they can specialise in other forms of war that the US doesn’t have a good understanding of. The classic example would be Estonia, which is not a major player in the system-of-systems Gulf War-type warfare, but is leading the way in creating “defensive cyber home guards” within local defense associations or preparing a defensive guerrilla warfare/resistance warfare model. If we want to broaden the alliance response, we have to focus on our comparative advantages, with different nations doing different things.

Are you worried about the domestic resilience of the West? Are we already too far in this process of polarising ourselves and becoming more like Sunni vs. Shia/Hutu vs. Tutsi? Can we come back? Our internal cohesion seems to be an easy prey for the insurgent outside powers. General Mattis warned in the last chapter of his memoirs: ”What concerns me most as a military man is…our internal divisiveness…we are dividing into hostile tribes cheering against each other, fuelled by emotion and a mutual disdain”.

The short answer is I don’t know if it is possible to recreate that sense of unity and move past the polarising divisions that have really crippled our ability to respond to the current crisis. But it is imperative to do that. Otherwise we are going to be destroyed.

The interview was first published in Small Wars Journal, in May 2020.

Dr. David Kilcullen is a professor of practice in the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University and a professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of New South Wales. He served 24 years as an army officer, diplomat and policy advisor for the Australian and United States governments. In the United States he served on the writing team for the 2006 Quadrennial Defence Review, then as Chief Strategist in the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau, where he designed the Regional Security Initiative and served in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Southeast Asia and the Horn of Africa. He served in Iraq as a member of the Joint Strategic Assessment Team, and as Senior Counterinsurgency Advisor to Multinational Force—Iraq through 2007, before becoming Special Advisor for Counterinsurgency to the Secretary of State in 2008-2009. He was lead author for the U.S. Government Counterinsurgency Handbook, and founded the ISAF Counterinsurgency Advisory Assistance Team in 2009. Dr Kilcullen was named one of the Foreign Policy Top 100 Global Thinkers in 2009.

Iran would not lose a war. Everyone would

By Alec Bălășescu | Hong Kong

When Iran claimed to have downed a US drone for the first time in 2012, an Iranian friend gifted me a new toy bought in Tehran: a plastic, low quality model of the said drone, bearing on its box the inscription in Farsi and in English: “We will crush Amrican (sic!) hegemony!” My friend commented that if they were to use the same technology that produced the toy, the chances of success would be minimal.

“The US has an enduring interest in preventing Europe from falling under a potentially hostile hegemon”

Interview with Elbridge Colby, Director of the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security. He was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development from 2017 to 2018, during which time he served as the lead official in the development of the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) and the DOD’s principal representative in the development of the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS).