Brexit where art thou? In the most famous scene from ‘Downfall‘, Hitler is informed of the failure of Steiner to launch his counterstroke against the Russians advancing on Berlin. There is a pregnant pause at the beginning of the scene as Hitler, briefed on the Russian breakthroughs counters with “Steiner’s assault will bring it under control”, except Steiner has no manpower to launch the assault and everyone knows this except Hitler. The RUSI Land Warfare Conference felt somewhat akin to this pregnant pause, except the 250lb gorilla in the room that no-one was talking about was BREXIT and not Army Detachment Steiner. Be that as it may, the Land Warfare Conference was excellent on a number of fronts and these are my headline thoughts from the proceedings.
How Big is Big Enough? To my mind there was a degree of existential angst evident about the size of the British Army. Perhaps we have over focused on manoeuvre warfare as mitigation for our reducing numbers, and forgotten that warfare also has a very necessary attritional component? There is a sense that we recognize that we are now too small to be sustain significant casualties and therefore to take risk at the operational level; if we are too small, how useful are we? How much attrition can the British Army stand? This is important as the tenor of proceedings was of a drift to Great Power competition and existential struggle; of wars of necessity and not choice. There are ways to offset this. Rapid expansion is unlikely as we do not have the industrial base to support rapid expansion, but the points made by Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte and Major Kitty McKendrick about the possibilities use of AI to increase autonomy were very well made. Along with talk of autonomy I enjoyed the sense that we need to broaden the aperture of national security and make it everyone’s business to a greater extant than it is at the moment. Of course ‘national security’ and ‘defence’ are not synonymous, but the broadening of the conceptual framework is welcome.
The Changing Nature? Linked to this broadening sense of who needs to be involved in the national security business, is a sense that maybe the nature of war is going to change. I am not at all convinced of this, but I did feel that despite all the references at the conference to the impact if technology on warfare, we missed a chance to reflect on how technology is changing society. If the nature of warfare is going to change, then it is because the nature of society has changed (which is why I think a change in the nature of war is unlikely), but we have yet to explore fully how changes being wrought by technology and big data on society will in turn reflect on warfare.
Data is the new Oil. I enjoyed Dr Pippa Malmgren on data: “The new oil is data” and “we are now in an era of data power.” Dr Malmgren’s point on the requirement for speedier decision making is long overdue. Quite frankly our planning and decision making processes are no longer fit for purpose, they complicate the complex and increasingly reach decision too late. This is most evident at the operational and strategic levels, but is becoming more apparent at the tactical levels as well. We need to look at how best we adapt staff processes and use AI in order to enable commanders to make effective decisions.
All in all it was an excellent conference, with a notably broader and younger audience. The salient points were captured on Twitter (#RUSILWC) and for the British military the sessions are available through the Defence Gateway.
Good science fiction is often a great window in the future. One of the best science fiction books I have recently read is Linda Nagata’s ‘The Red:First Light‘ which is set in the near future. The book concerns the exploits of a US ‘Linked Combat Squad’ and explores in part the fusion of exo-skeleton technology and advanced data communications on the battlefield. This technology is already in development and is expected to be fielded in the near future; the book is worth reading from this aspect alone.
However what I found most interesting in the novel (the first of a trilogy) is its look at the impact on society of the diffusion of information through social media, and with increased reliance on Artificial Information, just how far we can rely on what we are told:
“People are dividing into smaller and smaller groups, while the number of widely shared memes – ideas or facts known to just about everyone in a large, related group, like the population of the US – is in steep decline…”
“It’s about perspective. It’s not that what we know is necessarily wrong or incomplete. It’s that what we know and what we believe to be apparent to everyone, isn’t.”
I have previously blogged about the impact of social media on societal cohesion and its attendant impact on military operations; ‘First Light’ illustrates this dynamic beautifully. Also worth listening to are three podcasts from RAND on what they term “Truth Decay“. For those interested in the information environment in which we operate these are a must listen.
Lastly I have not done ‘First Red’ justice in this blog, it is an excellent read and I enjoyed it immensely – get the book!
A few weeks ago there was an excellent thread by Mr Leonardo Carella (@leonardocarella), an MPhil candidate at Oxford University, about the crisis of liberal democracy and the role of information technology (sic) as a major source of destabilization. His thesis is:
The internet allows:
the organisation of political fringes
the fragmentation of the public sphere
the globalisation of nationalisms
the globalisation of grievances
Mainstream parties have lost control of the public agenda;
Fringe political interests can now be organised and co-opted in coalitions that were unthinkable in spatially determined cleavage politics;
The public sphere is increasingly global:
populist forces support and learn from each other
political debate is constantly targeted by foreign forces
Counter-narratives can develop their own evidence, facts and belief systems shielded from scrutiny
Traditional parties’ advantages – territorial presence, local elite networks, penetration of civil society “mezzo” (sic) structures have become undone, making them increasingly unable to act as gatekeepers between local and national level interests.
Mr Carellas then goes on to say that from his perspective, changes in the internet and social media are not ancillary to changes in politics, but fundamental to it; yet not enough is being done to understand the changes and address the issues. I found Mr Carella’s thesis the most concise explanation of the issues facing us that I have seen for some time.
This changing political landscape holds challenges. At the strategic level if we take a Clausewitzean view and regard war as the continuation of politics by other means, then the fact that the (national) public sphere has fragmented while issues and identities have globalized presents a significantly different operating environment. If the Main Effort becomes remains national cohesion and will to fight, followed by coalition cohesion and will to fight, then we may have to focus more on crafting a positive narrative of what we fight for, rather than rely on focusing on a positive narrative of what we fight against. If we look at the recent campaign against ISIL, crafting a narrative of what we are fighting against was much easier than crafting a narrative to support what we are fighting for. This problem becomes more acute when we start to inhabit the gray zone of polite men bearing cats, or straightforward inter-state conflict where the issue is national interests and cannot clearly be portrayed in stark moral terms such as the fight against ISIS.
My takeaways from this are:
We need to be better at understanding our changing strategic information environment and its impacts on us. Our politics are changing, our political contextualisation of operations has not necessarily kept pace.
As a state we need to be much better at Strategic Communications, recognising the nature of the threat we face.
If we can identify opportunities to exploit (and there are many) in this new environment, we need to accept that our adversaries have already identified them and are exploiting them against us.