December 17, 2019

Casting your eye over international news these days is a confusing activity: major conflicts such as the war in Yemen still rage on but there are far more small-scale attacks across the globe, where it is hard to attribute culpability — or even motive. These so-called “non-violent threshold events” include drone attacks on Saudi oil installations, where the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels shut down half of the country’s oil production; cyber-attacks on Baltic countries, purportedly by Russian-backed cyber-collectives, which led to an October 2019 partnership agreement with the USA to protect the regions energy grid; and GPS spoofing of South Korean ships and planes.

Many are arguing that global warfare is changing; but is it really, or is this part of a much longer cycle?

Small-scale attacks are usually a deliberate strategy by less powerful actors who do not have a choice: rebels and insurgents, global protest groups, and weaker states such as North Korea or Iran. Often, they seek to challenge America and her traditional allies, but to do so in a way that sits below the threshold of overt warfare — by operating in the so-called “grey zone”, as the Chief of the Defence staff, General Sir Nick Carter, outlined his annual address to the Royal United Services Institute. These actors do not want to provoke a response, particularly a military one.

For a minimal outlay, a small player (relatively speaking), can have an outsized impact on an adversary, where it otherwise could not. In warfare this is known as asymmetry. General H.R. McMaster, former US National Security Adviser, once said: “There are two ways to fight the US: asymmetrically and stupid.”

But, in fact, asymmetry is a key, if not the key, dynamic that all sides try to utilise in warfare. It is the most effective way to have a psychological effect on (or to send a message to) your enemy. This, throughout the ages, has been the whole point of warfare.

There are two types of asymmetry: with overt military power (tanks, infantry, and suchlike), one wants to amass as much force as possible against a weaker enemy force to shatter its cohesion (think of the D-Day amphibious operations in 1944). With covert, or non-traditional military activities, one is trying to generate a large impact, often against a big target, with a small outlay. The best example of this in recent times is, of course, the attacks of 11 September, 2001 in New York, which reportedly cost al-Qaeda $400,000 to carry out (compared with the $6tn cost of the “Global War on Terror”).

The question of which type of asymmetry predominates waxes and wanes through the ages. Critically, it depends upon the types of technology used in warfare and their relative costs (and not necessarily military-specific technology, either), and not just the overwhelming dominance of one actor.

Today you can, for example, buy drones on Amazon, and shut down major international airports, as Extinction Rebellion threatened to do to Heathrow. You can also write malware in your bedroom, and cripple governments, as Ukraine found to its cost in the ‘Petya’ malware attacks of 2017. This is an accelerating trend: malware attacks against states have doubled from 2018 to 2019.

Eras that have a democratic availability of technology lead to fragmented patterns of violence and warfare where it is hard to distinguish who is attacking, or what the psychological message is that they are trying to deliver.

This hasn’t always been the case. For much of history, the cost of technology, and hence its concentration in the hands of a few, made warfare an elite sport. The cost and complexity of dreadnoughts, huge battleships with extensive firepower, at the turn of the 20th century, meant that only a few states could compete. On land, the perfection of the chariot on the Russian Steppes from around 2000 BCE had a similar effect. The elite nature of warfare meant that who was fighting, and what messages they were sending, were clear. Warfare tended to be clear and concentrated.

But is this of more than passing, academic interest?

It is, because fragmentation in warfare makes it hard to make sense of what’s going on. And if you can’t make sense of what is going on then it is hard to make decisions. And wining in war is a question of wartime leaders making good decisions, in good time, about how to respond to the enemy’s moves.

It is very hard to make decisions in warfare and international affairs at the moment because we are in an era of ultra cheap and available technology. For the next 20 years or so this trend is likely to accelerate: think of 3D printers churning out weapons systems remotely; nano-drone swarms paralysing automatic air-defence systems; or mega-cheap genome sequencing enabling actors to create organisms that can make a city’s water smell of, say, pear drops, or turn it purple — what better way to create a psychological effect on your enemy?

It will become increasingly hard to pick apart actors and motives, leading to confused decision making and, most likely, strategic errors on the part of large, rich countries. This is already happening: look at American and European paralysis over Syria, or the inability of governments to respond effectively to the multiple protests that are occurring around the globe currently.

But where does this process end? Most probably with the complete reshaping of warfare brought about by artificial intelligence. Advanced proprietary AI — the type that rich governments are investing heavily in, assuming that it will give them the edge in conflict — will help to make sense of the fragmentation in the contemporary strategic environment; it will enable better decisions to be made with clarity; and warfare will become an elite sport once again.