Military Power in an Age of Raiding

I was lucky enough to be invited to speak as part of the Ministry of Defence’s new ‘Force Exploration’ Cadre. Here it is.

I’m so grateful and honoured to be invited to speak. It’s a privilege to be with our military, and I can’t think of a more important time since the Cold War to ask these questions.

We might be living through the twilight of the West. At least we can contemplate it in such a beautiful part of England.

You’ve asked me to riff on ideas from my books. So my main purpose tonight is to move some product.

We’re here to worry about the problem of access, and access denial, and distance.

All against a wider backdrop, a feral new order of geopolitical struggle opens up before us. A world of contested neighbourhoods, projects of domination, and the shift of wealth and power eastwards. And that’s just the cricket.

Tonight I’ll offer three simple points:

  • The world isn’t a global village, exactly. Technology and the new distribution of power doesn’t kill distance, it also creates it, and even while our inventions can compress distance physically, it can enlarge it strategically;
  • We are moving into an age of raiding and disruption; and we too (the Brits, and maybe the Anglo-French led West) have to be raiders and disrupters; the environment we are in should make us think again, what is military force for?
  • We aren’t ready for this: that the orderly convenient world we wishfully forecast has not come; we have to get better at imagining the things we don’t want to happen. And wasn’t 2016 a year for that.

No global village

Of course, in some ways world is smaller physically: hijackers, hacks, pace of news media. And there’s cyber, though making this more than a nuisance often involves real in-person human intelligence too, and there is much about the cyber debate that sounds like the air power debate of the 1930’s.

Every invention is double edged, and our inventions now have the ability to raise costs dramatically over space. What really counts is not physical space but strategic space – the ability to project power affordably over the earth, against resistance. Our world in that sense is getting larger.

Four days before 9/11, the former Secretary of NATO George Robertson said, ‘In the global village, I am the bobby on the beat.’

In a very British way, this is an ambitious world view.

The world as a village- a shrunken and bounded place, so familiar and knowable, the planet as a thing you can reduce to your smart-phone to rotate in your hand, and patrol at will.

That, we discovered, became hard enough in zones of resistance – Helmand, Anbar, Damascus – the unfamiliar, the unknown, the shocking

These days bobbies may find it harder to go on the beat, from Eastern Europe to the South China Sea. In the age of access denial, and bubbles that barricade against intruders, projecting power affordably over space against resistance is getting harder. That’s why we’re here.

Consider one of the ultimate attempts to overcome the barriers of geography and translate forces from one medium to another, conquest over water and the opposed amphibious landing. Increasingly costly, nautical radar and striking range of defenders growing. US Marine Corps ‘Expeditionary Force 21’ concept ‘will force the fleet to stay at least 65 nautical miles offshore, a dozen times the distance that existing Marine amphibious vehicles are designed to swim.’

And then, there’s the image of the US-led West as the global constabulary. It suggests a level of power, authority and knowledge that we cannot have.

I was lucky to go to work at the British staff college in that prehistoric era, the baroque days of the War on Terror.

Understandably, the gravest fears were about defeating or converting insurgents, out-governing militants on the frontier, rebuilding failed states to cure the diseases that spawned terror, and getting home. There were crises, but bounded ones.

The broader picture was optimistic: the world economy was booming; the Pax Americana was locked in; China and Russia would adopt our norms; if there was a coming superpower, it was the European Union; globalisation and the interlocking of economies phased out great power rivalries. The hardest task on the agenda was Iran’s nuclear programme.

The level of America’s relative power was the permissive cause of how we viewed military force: defence or deterrence mattered, of course, but in the background, like insurance. The edge of debate was military force as a tool of nation-building and winning the people and fixing broken states. Counter-insurgency, one guru from the Strand told me at the time, was the only game in town.

When a colleague wrote an article forecasting Russia’s revisionist aggression in Georgia and the Ukraine, and the return of great power rivalries, she was dismissed for her outmoded RealPolitik.

If there was one refrain, it was that the world was shrinking, interconnected and turbulent, where empowered non-state actors were the true danger.

There is a great confidence below that claim. Atlantic powers could tame that world back into order, with their reach and far-sightedness. The agenda became upstream, to get in early and spread around the good governance, shift forces in the right direction.

This was the language of power. It reflected an enduring assumption in our defence reviews: an expeditionary ambition, we go to places and bring order into chaos. Made possible by fact that unipolar superpower had its reach unchecked. That ease of movement and power projection was the big reality of South and East Asia too, an American lake.

Today: we don’t know exactly what’s going on, but the world is not an orderly patrollable village. Neither are we the disinterested and respected bobbies.

In particular, we should be wary of the conceit that ours is an ever more virtual and liquid world, where distance and geography hardly matter, no meaningful ‘over here’ and ‘over there.’

Never before, claims the ever-cheerful Daniel Hannan, has physical proximity mattered less in our globalized commercial age, where the internet’s distance-closing properties puts everything nearby.

For the internet itself to work, our ability to protect sub-marinal cables and sea lanes vital.

The fact that the EU is nearby, and Australia and China far away, means its weight counts.

Even in more electronic age – physical geography and the ability to secure it and the vital chokepoints and arteries – cannot necessarily get supremacy but can deny supremacy to others

Janan Ganesh, Financial Times: ‘the Heathrow debate is wonderfully grounding in its tactical basics. We are talking about a line of concrete, and aircraft no faster than a generation ago. The world economy still rests on jet engines, container vessels, warehouses, US Navy-policed shipping lanes. People and things still need to move around in real time and space.’

In Asia, where the capability balance has shifted, no longer a world of sea control but sea denial. With long range anti-access weapons systems and sensors, states with a higher stake in a contest can raise costs on interlopers, to inhibit their freedom of action. Ability to project maritime power regionally without being navally supreme.

The information domain, too, will complicate our ability to go to places and impose our will. Fragmented media environment, manufacture of news to the advantage of locals, complicates movement in the night and fog of war.

Not only can sides playing at home  project power. What is closer to home is usually more vital, and cost tolerance higher.

World not a village even in the case that is supposed to be the ultimate globalised threat, of terrorism. After the Berlin market truck atrocity, my friend Raffaelo Pantucci at RUSI argued that in the age of globalisation, nowhere is safe and civilians have no borders. Maybe we aren’t safe anywhere, but the distribution of threat is uneven, and I’d still rather take my chances in a western capital than Aleppo. Globalisation is a choice, not a fact, and there are things we can do to disrupt, block, and constrain international terrorism.

After  9/11 and after Paris 2015, globe trotting jihadis struck hard in our heartlands only to be gradually strangled over space and time. For Al Qaeda, losing a state sponsor and scattering into a network may have purchased resilience, but it sacrificed control and cohesion. Territorial organisation matters, and we can contain it into being a nuisance.

We should remember Lord Salisbury, who once argued that to prevent threat inflation, we need bigger maps.

The Age of Raiding

Let’s now reverse the picture, and step back from the mindset that we are the ones being disrupted.

We do have an ‘expeditionary bias’ in visions of future operating environment. That we are having to overcome access denial, ‘going’ a long way to project power, through theatre entry, raiding or stabilisation missions.

It is not hard to understand why this is the case: this has been the dominant pattern for some time, as the UK mostly in coalition has projected power over far distances as an interloper, enforcing its will in hostile environments far from home.

Might it not be that Britain may have to practice access and area denial as well as overcoming it? A revisionist Russia has for some years now been probing and harassing British offshore waters and airspace. Escalating rivalries between NATO states and Russia, or even major war, could lead to confrontations in the Baltic or North Seas. Western forces may need to be able to impose access/area denial in these cases, as well as attempting to ward off Russian naval offensives from there and the ‘GIUK gap.’ We should think more about obstructionist and ‘defensive’ tasks of our North European neighbourhood.

This suggests we should return to a basic question. What is our military force for?

I would suggest that it is not primarily an instrument for political solutions, if that means solving and eliminating problems.

It was hard enough to make that work in earlier more unipolar days. It is not primarily suited to the elaborate purposes often ascribed to it: as a means for influence, or signalling resolve, or credibility, or status. It is not, as John Nagl once insisted, there for the transformation of whole societies – at least not the way he meant.

In the age of access denial, and multipolarity, and a redistribution of power and wealth, we should recognise three core tasks: defence, deterrence, and disruption.

If we are skilful and lucky, we can contain and limit and reverse threats, ward off aggression, dissuade predators, not usually eradicate them.

The Chinese called it Barbarian Management.

The Byzantines, too, conceived force in these terms: ‘Replace the battle of attrition and occupation of countries with lightning strikes and offensive raids to disrupt enemies, followed by rapid withdrawals.’ Not only conserves power, but preserve a multiplicity of enemies to become allies, or fight one another.

Or today’s IDF: ethos of limited war, where problems are rarely solved, only managed. They put it brutally, like ‘mowing the lawn’ or ‘cutting their nails’, and sometimes forget their own teachings. But there is a more focussed effort to align ends with means. More violent, in a way, or more conscious of its own violence, but also more self-restrained.

This will be difficult, because for us military force is often conceived an instrument only justifiable against a fictitious standard borrowed from the atypical circumstances of world war two, the desire to end threats decisively. The end result, however, is rarely final.

Beyond defence, deterrence and disruption, using force effectively is wildly difficult. Signalling one’s toughness and resolve to impress others can too easily look like threatening action. Wars of credibility, like Vietnam, appear to onlookers as failures of judgement, and only add to the pressure to look strong and make extrication harder.   In any case, it doesn’t usually work. We’ve fought many defensible wars, but they didn’t have the added bonus of scaring off thugs. We stopped Galtieri but then got Saddam. We stopped Saddam but then got Milosevic. We got Milosevic but then got Bin Laden. Bush got Saddam, and Putin struck Georgia anyway. Almost as though the whole world isn’t about us.

We are not ready for this

Habitual thinking, built-up cherished, unexamined assumptions that we don’t want to probe too closely

As someone says in The Big Short: ‘The truth is like poetry. And most people fucking hate poetry.’

In particular, our failure to take Russia seriously, on both sides of the Atlantic, and our illusions about the permanence of the liberal order

 Russia as a serious great power, not the ten foot tall monster but neither an inconsequential fading force

In SDSR 2010, the government understandably looked to make savings in the wake of a fiscal crisis. Britain’s credit-worthiness was a strategic priority.

This desire, however, encouraged a wishful assumption that the security environment would be benign, or benign enough, to take a breather and rebuild the economy. Security problems there would be, mostly in the realm of failed states and terrorism. A return of great power rivalries was an unwelcome suggestion.

SDSR 2010 mentioned Russia twice: once about reducing energy demand, and one about general ‘security dialogue.’

Consider, the multiple warning signs that had flashed by 2010:

  • In March 2009, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that NATO enlargement was a source of threat, and that Russia might find gas customers in Asia.
  • In September 2009, Russia’s Zapad Military Exercise rehearsed a clash with NATO around Belarus, spreading and culminating in a first-use nuclear strike on Warsaw.
  • Russia frequently probed Britain’s airspace and offshore waters. The highest number of contacts with Russian submarines since 1987.
  • Russia military doctrine in 2010 designated NATO a source of military danger.

This was not a new Soviet Union or Cold War. It was the return of history. Russia was determined to dominate its back yard, to restore some imperial stature, to oppose Western expansion into its orbit. We can disagree about the wisdom of trade and military expansion into the region. We have no right, though, to be shocked.

Why then, did we miss these signals? Recall that this was the time of gestures, the ‘reset’ button, and high-minded NATO concepts. When Mitt Romney claimed Russia was a geopolitical foe with imperial ambitions, President Obama cheaply quipped that the 1980’s wanted their foreign policy back. Chancellor Osborne scoffed at the suggestion that we should retain kit designed for a clash on the German plains. Security minds assured us that interstate confrontation was an outmoded fallacy.

The state scrapped the Advanced Research and Assessment Group. ARAG’s Russia Analysis Section forecast that Russia with its mixture of subversion, force and propaganda would reassert itself in the Ukraine. Its loss was a blow to our intellectual ability to analyse the region. ARAG had to go, because, in the words of the Commander of Joint Forces Command, ‘the world had changed at that time’ and ‘the decade of campaigning around Iraq and Afghanistan’ overshadowed other things.

Because we wanted a commercial, rules-based peace, combating only guerrilla insurgents of the Third World, we fancied other states did too.

Two blunders came together, mirror imaging (the belief that others defined their interests the same way) and presentism (the hopeful delusion that the future resembles the present).

Personally, I think we shouldn’t have expanded our alliance up to Russia’s frontiers, and that we have provided opportunities for cynical Putinism. We did it, though, NATO is a vital strategic interest, we must make it work, and Moscow’s adventurism must be opposed, just as both Russia and NATO have to find a way to co-exist, with a stable deterrent, across a dangerous front line.

The Defence Select Committee, rightly, suggests that a new Conflict Studies Research Centre be created to remedy this blindness.

Harder still is recognising the shocking return to normality in the big diplomatic picture, the nature of this emerging multipolar world, where rival states compete and collaborate at the same time. Russia, like Britain, is an important part of the effort to prevent an Iranian nuclear programme. China is vital to the restraint, if there is to be restraint, on North Korea. There are hard years ahead.


We’re in a Dark age: not just in familiar sense of bad things happening, but we lack evidence and reliable knowledge about what’s happening and why. It’s hard to talk with a cool head when we’re in dark and the tectonics are shifting violently under us.

When dangerous multipolarity last menaced this country, and the United States wasn’t sure this was a horse with backing, it was the words of an affectionate and critical foreigner – Alice Miller- who helped swing American opinion:

I am American bred

I have seen much to hate here – much to forgive,

But in a world in which England is finished and dead,

I do not wish to live.


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