In this issue:
- POLEMICS: The future of armed conflict is hi-tech
- REVIEW: Grand Strategy is Attrition: The Logic of Integrating Various Forms of Power in Conflict
- SITUATION REPORT: Promising Libyan peace process shattered
The future of armed conflict is hi-tech
Rapid technological development has been changing the nature of the world around us and the way we live our everyday lives. Can the technological changes revolutionizing our civilian society mean a change in the nature of warfare too? Non-lethal weapon systems, advanced software, and computer systems, drones or other hi-tech weapon systems seem to be indeed taking over the militaries of the most powerful countries in the world. On the other hand, there are many conflicts, especially the low-intensity ones, that are still fought by machetes, pick-ups and old Soviet-era military equipment simply because the warring parties cannot afford expensive hi-tech weapons and equipment.
In this week’s polemics, we discuss whether the future of armed conflict really is hi-tech or not.
The Future of armed conflicts is not hi-tech
From popular culture pieces, general staff, and decision-making bodies around the world to research and development labs of leading military-industrial corporations, we can find a strong conviction defining the face of modern warfare. Armed conflicts of the future will be defined and decided by superior hi-tech technology.
This conviction is understandable. Wars are always fought by the means of its era. At the same time, our deep fascination with modern technology and curiosity about things to come is clearly stated by the broad and lasting popularity of the sci-fi genre. Directed energy weapons, autonomous intelligent platforms, cyberweapons, quantum computing, artificial intelligence or nanotechnology are directions in which we are usually looking while discussing next gen, state of the art, edge crossing systems set to rewrite how the humankind leads its wars.
The extensive destructive power of modern hi-tech weapon systems and its budget breaking (for many bankruptcy threatening) costs should be considered as major conflict deterrence factors. Peer-to-peer (the USA vs. China) or close-to-peer (NATO vs. Russia) conflict in the league of states, able to employ high-end tech base weapon systems and platforms, would mean a world-shaking event with a great potential of going truly global. Such a conflict is, by definition, a low probability/high-impact event. The aftermath of such a conflict would be devastating and drastic. But the “everyday conflicts” of tomorrow, the typical and unusual, will look differently.
Reviewing armed conflicts since the end of the Cold War leads us to a different picture. Technological superiority proved itself as a deciding factor in terms of ending armed conflicts in just a few cases – in Kosovo, the Gulf war or the first phase of the war in Iraq. On the other hand, looking at Libya, Syria, Yemen, Eastern Ukraine, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and many more armed struggles of our days we can observe something ancient. Physical control of territory and population control realized through “boots on the ground” is still the thing. Whose are these boots? Are we speaking about highly trained professional soldiers equipped with hi-tech gear and weaponry? No, not really.
In most of the cases, we will observe various rugged militias, paramilitaries, local home defence forces, and other irregular formations. Sometimes as autonomous non-state actors, sometimes as state bounded forces, these formations themselves are becoming stakeholders or serve as armed proxies for other conflict stakeholders.
They are cheap and it is easy to replenish their losses. They are capable of remarkable resistance and resilience, especially if fighting on home soil. But most of all, they present a tangible manifestation of power on the ground, just and legitimate or corrupt and violent representation of a ruling entity. They present the face of armed conflicts we are going to fight in our neighbourhood. How fighting this type of actors from the point of technical high grounds looks like we have already had an opportunity to try in Afghanistan, Gaza or Syria. This means that we will have to deal with ethnic cleansings, forced migration, blurring every imaginable norm and line we are trying not to cross during armed conflicts. Because war never changes.
The Future of armed conflicts is hi-tech
Not so long ago our kids used to play with toy cars. Then we were introduced to remote controlled cars. Now you can buy a drone that can fly all around your neighbourhood and thanks to the embedded camera you can basically spy on anybody. Sure, these cheap Chinese drones are not as advanced as professional military ones but you do not need them if you can utilize their malicious potential.
In 2016 militants from the so-called Islamic State used a drone loaded with explosives to attack Kurdish fighters and French troops. They killed two Kurds and seriously wounded one French soldier.
Last year, rebels attacked Russian military bases in Syria with a swarm of homemade drones. Thirteen so-called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were armed with several small rockets. Fortunately, in this case, the Russians managed to shoot them down with anti-aircraft missiles before they could harm anybody.
Although still limited in the extent of damage, such technologies will definitely pose a threat and they are deployed during armed conflicts in the future.
Firstly, such devices remove the imaginary line between an individual and a state. Basically, everybody has access to them and can abuse them. In contrast to aircrafts such as F-35, they are publicly available. When adjusted, even cheap homemade solutions can pose a serious threat in the hands of our adversary.
It is also necessary to realize that we do not live in a world full of interstate wars anymore. Many current conflicts include non-state actors. As demonstrated, such low-cost hi-tech solutions come in handy for insurgents and rebels in an attempt to copy and get closer to the state’s capabilities.
This fact is as well applicable to the fifth domain of warfare – cyberspace. All you need to conduct a cyber attack is knowledge of IT systems and a piece of code which can be bought on darknet markets (although the question here is whether the attacker can physically harm a man via computer). We have seen such attacks by the United Cyber Caliphate or Al-Qaeda Electronic.
Secondly, possession of such devices gives you an advantage over your adversary. You can spare some time, money, and lives thanks to the surveillance capability of the drone. Such practice can be seen, for example, in Turkey’s southeast region where Kurdish separatist groups rely on the cover provided by rugged mountains to evade Turkish security forces. It would be too risky for the Turkish forces to search every mountain pass, so, instead, they send drones to get footage from the field. After sending the footage to the operation centre for evaluation, officers can decide whether to deploy troops to the specific location or whether to fire from drones on the target immediately. The latter choice seems to be more convenient as the Turkish government has killed at least 400 Kurds in such airstrikes since 2016.
Future conflicts will and have to be fought with advanced weapons, tools and devices, which are convenient, economical and efficient. They will not have the strategic importance of the nuclear bomb, but they will be able to change the course of the fight.
There is only one very important condition – a man has to be able to control them and decide when to use them.
Authors: Matej Kandrík & Viliam Kaliňák
Grand Strategy is Attrition: The Logic of Integrating Various Forms of Power in Conflict.
STRATPOL Brief Review
“Grand strategy is often invoked within strategic studies and related disciplines, less often defined, and almost never explored at the level of conceptual logic.” Lukas Milevski, a prolific scholar of strategic studies, has a long history of critically examining the concept of grand strategy. He continues with the trend in his most recent book but instead of focusing purely on criticism, he also tries to make the concept at least somewhat useful for contemporary strategic practice. Since the criticism of the concept has already been sufficiently explored in Milevski’s earlier works, this review focuses on the evaluation of the latter task. Milevski first considers several distinct interpretations of grand strategy in terms of their analytical utility and then selects the one he considers the most useful. He chooses the concept of grand strategy that conveys the simultaneous employment of military and non-military (economic, informational, diplomatic) instruments of power to achieve desired goals. The rest of the book then elaborates on the internal logic of this specific concept.
Milevski’s argument is clear and concise. He argues that to successfully combine military and non-military instruments is a daunting task, full of often underappreciated perils. These perils reside in the distinct logic which is at the root of military and non-military instruments respectively. The employment of military instruments, in general, can occur within a broad spectrum of strategies, from quick annihilation to prolonged attrition. However, when one chooses to combine the military instrument with non-military ones, this presupposes the strategy of attrition. Non-military instruments can produce a wide array of effects when employed during the peacetime. However, when employed alongside the military instrument in war, they can only reduce the adversary’s freedom of action by constraining his access to resources. The very presence of the military instrument, and the inherent violence it conveys strips the non-military instruments of some of their former power. Thus, the fact that one chooses to rely on combining military and non-military instruments, predicts that one will seek the defeat of the adversary through prolonged attrition, which is supposed to result from the slow draining of enemy’s resources.
Despite his argument being delivered in a clear way, it may be difficult for some to accept it due to the fundamental assumptions upon which it rests. Milevski is an irredeemable Clausewitzean, which is just another way of saying that he understands the nature of war and strategy better than most. Nonetheless, this simple fact may stigmatize him in security communities around the world, where Clausewitz is often considered as irrelevant to contemporary warfare. However, those willing to consider Milevski’s arguments may find out that the Clausewitzean legacy is not a burden, but a torch. It sheds much-needed light on the many misconceptions about war, peace, and strategy while burning down the most fallacious ones. A good example is the emphasis he puts on the unequal relationship between military and non-military instruments. Milevski understands that violence, which is the inherent characteristic associated with the military instrument, is the real deal-breaker and the true cause of the inequality. Violence, and the emotions it inevitably ignites, completely changes belligerent’s frames of reference. As such, it is the essential element, which differentiates not only military from non-military instruments, but also war from peace. This may sound like a cliché for those educated in strategic theory, but it is true regardless. Popular concepts such as “new wars” or “hybrid wars” have at their centre the claim that it is hardly possible to distinguish between war and peace anymore. A greater appreciation of the unequal relationship may have prevented, or at least slowed down, the recent spread of these flawed analytical concepts.
Though Milevski’s treatment of the phenomena may seem as too abstract so far, the implications of his argument cannot be more relevant for political practice. The use of the various instruments of power in war and in peace has different consequences and those who equalize the two states bring more problems than solutions to the table. Recently, many voices emerged warning about how the West finds itself in the midst of a hybrid war. Despite the honest security concerns that may motivate the warnings, these comments may easily produce more harm than good. The reason for this is that they make it much harder to understand the real nature of security threats. The West is of course not in any kind of war with Russia. West is at peace with Russia and that is precisely why the non-military instruments the latter uses hurt the former so much. The same logic, by the way, applies to the non-military instruments the West uses against Russians. These instruments are so effective because we are at peace, not at war. This simple point should motivate security experts to think more clearly about the challenges we face, and the tools we possess. Alas, recent trends indicate that the general discourse is going in the opposite direction.
The book is essential reading for all who prefer understanding real wars (and peace) to playing at imaginary ones. Milevski confirms once again that he is one of the few voices in strategic studies who dare to question, and to correct, the mainstream orthodoxies, regardless of their popularity. The book is short, free and available online, so there is no excuse for anyone interested in the big security questions of our age to ignore it.
Author: Samuel Žilinčík
Situation report: Promising Libyan peace process shattered
Three years ago, the Libyan Political Agreement came into existence. The goal of the agreement was to unify warring factions inside Libya under the so-called Government of National Accord (GNA). It proved to be unable to unify the country and threw it in another three years of civil war stalemate. As of today, there are two major factions competing for power – the Tripoli-based and UN-backed GNA and its Tobruk-based rival, currently represented mainly by general Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA).
In 2018, the UN came to the conclusion that the situation in Libya had matured and the necessary conditions to enable an effective solution to the crisis through political settlement had been met. However, the planned Libyan National Conference that was supposed to produce an electoral roadmap was postponed due to an unexpected renewal of fighting.
After years of deadlock, this year brought a surprisingly rapid advance of Haftar’s LNA in southern Libya. Its campaign, which mostly comprised of negotiations with local militias and tribal authorities, managed to avoid bloodshed and prolonged fighting. This played well into Haftar’s image of reconciler and protector of Libya. By the end of March, the Tobruk government forces finished its campaign, which significantly shifted the power balance and left them in control of all the country’s important oil fields.
GNA’s only remaining oil fields are offshore Bouri and al-Jurf, which produce 100,000 barrels per day, less than ten percent of Libya’s daily production. The problem for Tobruk and Haftar is that while they control the oil, they are not in control of the revenue. As GNA enjoys its international recognition, it also enjoys all the revenue from the sales. Haftar tried to bypass the GNA and sell the oil himself, however, the UN blocked this attempt and he eventually backed down.
After a very successful campaign in the south, Tripoli, the last stronghold of GNA, remained the only obstacle in Haftar’s path towards control of Libya. On April 4, the campaign codenamed Operation Flood of Dignity with the goal of taking the city by force started by capturing the town of Gharyan, few miles south of the capital. The offensive proved to be much more difficult than expected and Haftar’s forces were unable to breach the city’s southern defences. So far, the World Health Organisation reported that at least 345 people have been killed and OCHA reported 34 000 people internally displaced.
The offensive might prove to be a crucial misstep in Haftar’s calculations. The planned Blitzkrieg might turn into a prolonged siege as western militias seem to be uniting against the eastern aggressor. Not only might this aggressive step break his fragile alliance with other militias and tribes in the country, but it might also push away his international backers on whom Haftar relies heavily.
In recent years, Haftar worked hard on posing himself as a conciliator, defender of Libya’s oil fields and fighter against hardline Islamism, creating a popular image amongst Libyans and the international community alike. But in recent weeks, this perception has changed and Haftar is seen rather as a power-hungry aggressor.
A strange coalition of France and Russia, who have been strong backers of Haftar so far, have already publicly called for immediate de-escalation and condemned Haftar’s offensive. The sincerity of these statements, however, remains questionable as France blocked EU’s call to condemn Haftar’s actions.
The position of Haftar’s main regional allies – UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia – seems to be clear. Although UAE joined the UN in condemning the offensive, in last few days, reports of weapon shipments and UAE fighter jets supporting the offensive emerged. Saudi Arabia remains silent on the topic, nevertheless, two weeks before launching the operation, Haftar met with the Saudi royalty and supposedly obtained badly needed financial support, making it hard to imagine that the Saudis did not know about his intentions. Neighbouring Egypt is actively participating in Haftar’s offensive citing the risk of the resurgence of the so-called Islamic State in the region.
Although the GNA also has its supporters, mainly Turkey and Qatar, they seem to be less able and willing to actively participate in the conflict. Erdoğan seems to be focused on domestic politics and the situation in Syria and Qatar remains in political isolation.
Positions of the U.S. and EU are confusing, to say the least. The EU has been unable to come up with a unified stance, particularly due to France. Mixed messages are coming from the U.S. The State Department released a statement condemning the offensive and calling for a ceasefire, however, two weeks later president Trump announced his call with Haftar in which he supposedly praised the strongman.
With the recent development, the future of Libya is uncertain. In the current state, a ceasefire is unlikely as it is practically synonymous with the defeat of Haftar. If Haftar will not be able to conquer Tripoli soon, reigniting a full-fledged civil war is a real possibility. With so many regional players having their hands on Libya, a scenario similar to Syria does not seem so farfetched.
Author: Dominik Novosad
Responsible editor: Matúš Jevčák
Language editing: Ondřej Zacha
Cover photo: “Explosive Remnants of War in post revolution Libya” by: UNDP | Flickr
STRATPOL ViewPoints is a project which seeks to address the most important international politics and security affairs of today. In every issue, you can find a Polemics, a controversial thought that one author supports and the other opposes, a thought-provoking opinion piece and a Brief Review of a recent study from well-known research centers and think-tanks worldwide.