Complex crises call for adaptable and durable capabilities
At the beginning of 2015, defence and security planners were reflecting on a preceding year that added extra crises to an already increasingly complex and fractured global security environment. European security faced its most significant challenge since the end of the Cold War with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and fomenting of instability in eastern Ukraine. In the Middle East, meanwhile, rapid advances by ISIS in Syria and Iraq threatened the Iraqi state and led to greater military extroversion by regional states. The year ended with the US again committing to deploy troops on a training mission to Iraq; at the same time it was also leading a broad multinational coalition in offensive operations against ISIS.
The broader, long-term strategic trend of China and other Asian states’ growing economic and military power, and the parallel US rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, continued. While the US and, to a limited extent, some other Western states still possessed dominant military capabilities, there was growing awareness that in some respects the West was not only at risk of losing its military-technological edge but could also, with continuing budgetary reductions, see some military capabilities further eroded or excised altogether.
Russia’s assertiveness, notably its actions in Ukraine, refocused attention not just on Moscow’s policy objectives and military capabilities, but also on the impact of financial constraints on Europe’s armed forces. In real terms, European defence spending continued the downward trajectory seen since the 2008 economic crisis. Real European defence spending in 2014 was cumulatively 7.7% lower than in 2010. However, there were signs that the more challenging strategic environment in Europe had shifted budgetary priorities in some places, particularly in Northern and Eastern Europe. One way that European states had previously thought of boosting capability amid budgetary pressure was to do more together; NATO was at the forefront of such initiatives.
Many had expected NATO’s September 2014 Wales Summit to be largely administrative and pre-ordained – the Alliance would mark the end of its combat operations in Afghanistan and agree measures to improve cooperation – but instead NATO’s Eastern European members pressed the Alliance for reassurance amid concern over Russia’s actions in Ukraine and more widely. Any earlier hopes that some NATO leaders might have had of a post-Afghanistan ‘strategic holiday’ evaporated. At the same time, Russia’s assertiveness reinvigorated the Alliance’s core purpose of collective defence. The effectiveness of Russia’s actions led some member states to question whether NATO would be able to defend them, should they be the target of actions similar to those in Ukraine. The Alliance realised this, reaffirming the Article V commitment to collective self-defence and embarking on a range of reassurance initiatives, including exercises and rotational deployments that will essentially lead to a permanent, though small, US presence in Eastern Europe.
Rediscovering ‘hybrid warfare’
The politico-military methods employed by Russia gave NATO and its members pause for thought. Moscow successfully employed a broad range of traditional and non-traditional instruments to achieve its goals in Crimea, and to some degree in eastern Ukraine. The first problem for NATO was to define the nature of the challenge, and there was some concern in the West about possible gaps in its ability to counter Russia’s employment of what was generally labelled ‘hybrid’ warfare. The methods applied included the use of military and non-military tools in an integrated campaign designed to achieve surprise, seize the initiative and gain psychological as well as physical advantages utilising diplomatic means; sophisticated and rapid information, electronic and cyber operations; covert and occasionally overt military and intelligence action; and economic pressure.
Although this problem is not new, some of the means used by Russia, and potentially others, to support proxies and subvert governments are innovative. Indeed, operations in Crimea in early 2014 showed that Russian thinking and capacity in these areas has matured. Russian forces demonstrated integrated use of rapid deployment, electronic warfare, information operations (IO), locally based naval infantry, airborne assault and special-forces capabilities, as well as wider use of cyberspace and strategic communications. The latter was used to shape a multifaceted and overall effective information campaign targeted as much at domestic as foreign audiences; one where continual denials and rebuttals from Moscow that it was militarily involved, even if increasingly implausible, had the potential to create a sense of cognitive dissonance in foreign decision-making circles. These operations demonstrated some of the fruits of Russia’s military-reform process, although too much focus on the new personal equipment, weapons, vehicles, electronic-warfare (EW) and tactical-communications equipment seen in Crimea could be misleading when assessing the effects of military reform on the wider force.
For the West (and, indeed, other states seeking to preserve the rule of law and the existing international order), improving the ability to defend against these threats applies beyond the challenges posed by Russia. Policymakers may anticipate that some current or potential state or non-state adversaries, possibly including states such as China and Iran, will learn from Russia’s recent employment of hybrid warfare. Potential adversaries might discern what tactics worked and what capabilities are required to effect results; other lessons might derive from perceptions of how Western governments and armed forces react and adapt, politically as well as militarily. These lessons might not necessarily be applied in conflicts with Western states, but their potential to rapidly destabilise the existing order could, if applied in other zones of political and military competition, mean they have global ramifications.
Coping with the threat of hybrid warfare will require Western and other governments to invest in relevant capabilities. Investment could be made to bolster long-term strategic-intelligence capabilities, such that the de-prioritisation of, for instance, broad language skills that can result from a focus on current operational requirements is minimised. Some armed forces are looking to address this problem by regionally aligning selected units, but it is also an issue that could be considered by other government departments with international interests. Other capabilities include cyberspace, law-enforcement, information and financial tools as well as precision-strike and persistent ISR; but they still include deployable and adaptable sea, air and land forces. Meanwhile, the deterrent effect of high-readiness armed forces and pre-positioned forces and capabilities should not be underestimated.
Additionally, Western states and indeed NATO might perceive that better coordination of the informational efforts of member nations and international organisations, such as strategic communications, might improve speed of action while amplifying a common position. However, in many Western countries these capacities have been reduced since the Cold War; rebuilding and updating them will take time and political commitment.
This aspect of hybrid warfare was also evident in the media operations of ISIS in the Middle East. Fusing modern social-media savviness with sharp broadcasting techniques and even computer gaming to recruit, inspire and intimidate in equal measure, the actions of ISIS in this regard demonstrated some thematic similarities with the application of hybrid warfare in Ukraine, even if in another geographical area and a different operational environment. These similarities required an understanding that, while traditional military capabilities such as mobility, firepower and protection remain relevant and important, the application of force must also be effective on the ‘battleground’ of perception, particularly against enemies that can operate in and among populations and extend operations beyond physical battlegrounds to the realms of perception and subversion.
Indeed, this hybrid, adaptable nature of ISIS proved key to its advances: it has been part insurgency; part light-infantry; and part terrorist group. In the areas it captured, it relied on a minimal bureaucratic structure at the same time as repressive rule, enforcing strict codes and ruthlessly eliminating dissent. It adopted a decentralised structure to create greater flexibility on the ground and strengthen internal security, and has a core of highly motivated commanders, some of whom are former al-Qaeda or Sunni insurgents, while in Iraq some are former Saddam-era military officers. While ISIS’s advance in Iraq led to a military collapse in that country’s north, in Syria it combined with other factors, like the US decision to call off air-strikes in September 2013 in exchange for Damascus relinquishing its chemical arsenal, as well as continuing Western reluctance to back the armed rebellion. This created a situation by late 2014 where the position of President Bashar al-Assad seemed stronger than at any time since 2012.
The actual and potential threat to international security posed by ISIS triggered a degree of military engagement and political alignment by regional and international states that had not been seen for some time. Indeed, some Arab states, particularly in the Gulf, demonstrated their increasing strategic extroversion. The actions of both the United Arab Emirates and Egypt over their reported activity in Libya in 2014 marked something of a watershed in regional politics, illustrating a potential to use force and the capacity to operate independent of Washington. For all that, the US remained the strategic guarantor for most regional states, and still brought to bear unique military and political capabilities. The US was successful in enlisting the political and military support of key Arab states to join the coalition to defeat ISIS. Some Gulf states calculated that ISIS was becoming an ideological and security threat; they also believed that their involvement was essential to shape US strategy in Syria and to ensure that Iran would not be a principal beneficiary of the campaign. Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE all contributed aircraft and other military capabilities.
The potential for ‘hybrid’ incidents also worried states in other parts of the world. In Japan, the government expressed unease at possible ‘grey-zone’ contingencies, short of actual conflict and possibly not involving regular armed forces, with the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands a likely area of concern. For all that, and despite some Asian defence establishments’ continuing concerns with internal security and a growing interest in improving capacity to deal with HA/DR and other human-security challenges, most regional defence programmes were driven by state-on-state threats and conventional capability procurements. Attempts to strengthen capabilities in the Asia-Pacific have focused particularly (though not exclusively) on the maritime domain, reflecting worries about conventional naval threats, as well as concerns over the need to defend natural resources, territorial claims and freedom of navigation.
Defence budgets in Asia have continued to rise, by an estimated 27% between 2010 and 2014. The biggest spender remained China. By 2014, China’s share of Asian spending had risen to around 38%, up from 28% in 2010. This increased spending has provided for growing military procurement, the most newsworthy being in the maritime and air domains, while China and some other Asian states have increased their investment in defence science, and research and development. These states are making greater efforts to acquire and absorb foreign technologies and they are overhauling their existing defence-innovation systems.
China’s technical advances in the defence sphere are legion, and are leveraging the resources of the defence as well as, in some cases, the national commercial sector – even if gaps remain, such as in advanced turbofan engines for high-performance combat aircraft. This rapid progress has led some in the US defence establishment to claim that the technology gap that hitherto allowed the US armed forces technological dominance is closing. Mindful of the differing trajectories in the two countries’ defence budgets, US officials emphasise the need for continued innovation and the Pentagon is attempting to minimise potential vulnerabilities in its weapons systems arising from other states’ technical developments. For instance, Washington is assessing its dependence on space, including GPS, and there has been greater attention to developing more resilient space systems and satellite constellations, as well as scrutiny of established technologies (such as inertial navigation) that could minimise the effects of these vulnerabilities on weapons systems.
While many countries will only have been affected tangentially by events in Ukraine, Syria and Iraq, even if there might have been incidents inspired by events in the Middle East, the lessons that potential adversaries could draw from these might be of greater long-term relevance. As such, their military planners will study these lessons in detail; but there will be as much interest in how the defence and security establishments of key states – in the West and the Gulf, as well as in Russia and Eurasia – react and adapt. For the US, unanticipated events like these were among the possible ‘risks’ to the country’s armed forces highlighted in the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review. Though the QDR, according to the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, largely protected certain capabilities, it also ’takes risk in the capacity of each service, but particularly in land forces’.
On current trajectories, cuts to land forces will continue in many states – and US Army chiefs are reported as saying that personnel strength might drop to around 450,000. That total, of course, dwarfs many other armed forces, but calculations change when the numbers are teased apart. According to General Raymond Odierno, 55,000 are deployed troops, and 80,000 are stationed abroad in 150 countries; others will doubtless be forming part of the deployment cycle. Previous strategies had assumed that the demand for land forces would decline, but 2014 has seen additional – even if small-scale – Western land forces deploy to Eastern Europe and Iraq, and Russian ground forces played a key role in shaping operations in eastern Ukraine. The complex nature of some of these tasks might also lead to further questions about whether armed forces are even best suited for some of these complex crises, certainly those that require security attention short of war fighting; in some cases this might lead to a reassessment of the relative utility of paramilitary forces like gendarmeries.
It is unlikely that budget realities in the West will see forces grow once more, but that places a premium on policymakers and defence planners providing a suitable force mix and spectrum of capabilities, and generating adaptive military and security capacities able to deploy rapidly and operate across all domains. States also have to ensure nimble EW, IO, cyber and strategic-communications capacities so that they can operate in the information realm as well as in military theatres.