Future wars (12): “Modern victory is won and lost in the information space, not on the physical battlefield”

The Economist runs a series called ‘Open Future which they describe as “A global conversation on the role of markets, technology and freedom in the 21st century.” Recently they featured a book excerpt by Sean McFate, a former American Army officer, and mercenary (private military contractor) and now a scholar (at the National Defense University and Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Washington) and author of “The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder.”

Dr McFate posits that “There is a view that a fractured global order can be mended like a broken leg, and over time might emerge stronger for it. But this is probably a naive fantasy … [instead] … the West needs to look opened-eyed at a new “durable disorder”—a period which, like the middle ages, is typified by a complex and occasionally violent interplay of state and non-state powers … [and] … Modern conflicts — be it Trump’s rise, the annexation of Crimea or even Brexit — don’t look refugee-crsis-608086like classic battlefields … [thus, he says] … “When Russia wants to destabilize Europe, it does not threaten military action, as the USSR did. Instead, it bombs Syria. This tactic drove tens of thousands of refugees into Europe and exacerbated the migrant crisis, instigating Brexit and stoking anti-establishment politics across the continent.”

The points which follow are from a Question and Answer session with Sean McFate.

  • “The Economist: What is the age of “durable disorder”? And what are the implications for how we need to interact if we’re in a new political setting?
    • Sean McFate: Durable disorder is what’s left behind after the Westphalian system of nation-states retreats. It’s not anarchy. Rather, it is a global system that contains rather than solves problems. It is the new environment for war, and we are unprepared for it. Old strategies fail, and armed conflicts smolder in perpetuity. Much of the world is already experiencing disorder, a trend that cannot be reversed. Mercenaries are resurrecting globally, and war is becoming privatised once more. This allows the super-rich to become super-powers, and we can expect to see wars without states. Warfare is changing but we refuse to recognise this new reality—or adapt to it. We buy, train, deploy and fight according to rules that don’t apply anymore, and then are frustrated by the outcome.
      • I think this is a, perhaps THE key ‘take away:’ the global strategic environment changed, after the Second World War but we, a big “we” that includes, politicians, admirals and generals, and ordinary people like you and me, want the old, comfortable model.
  • The Economist: You often say in the book that wars will be fought “in the shadows”. What do you mean by that? Is the West prepared for it?
    • Mr McFate: Plausible deniability is more decisive than firepower in the information age, and this is driving war into the shadows. Russia could have blitzkrieged through Ukraine, but instead used covert means: special forces, “little green men,” proxy militias and mercenaries—all while waging a disinformation campaign. The Kremlin’s “kill ’em with confusion” strategy worked. By the time the international community figured it out, Russia’s conquest of Crimea was a fait accompli. Moreover how can the West rally the world to defend Ukraine when the basic facts are in question? It can’t. War is becoming epistemological: telling what is real from fake will decide winners and losers. Meanwhile, the West is stuck in the past. NATO remains tooled to fight the Soviets in the Fulda Gap with tanks and other weapons of conventional war. No wonder we struggle.
      • This is an example of the key point, made above … everyone understood the ramifications of the  “face off” in Germany, for example. The strategic and operational level calculus were comfortable because we knew how to win.
  • The Economist: You’ve argued that America is at war right now with China only it doesn’t know it. In what way is it at war—and if so, how does America win?
    • Mr McFate: Traditional strategists view war like an old-fashion lightbulb: it’s either on or off. But this is wrong, and cunning adversaries like China exploit the space between war and peace for victory. The trick is keeping the American war switch flipped to “off” so it remains docile and at “peace.” For example, Beijing goes right up to the edge of war—or what America thinks is war—in the South China Sea and then stops, but keeps what it captures or creates. They engage in “lawfare” that bends—or rewrites—the rules of the international order in China’s favour. This is not the rule of law, but rather its subversion. They have also bought much of Hollywood, making it impossible to cast China as a villain in movies—a brilliant strategic move for the international court of public opinion. China slowly conquers yet we believe we’re still at peace; that’s by design. Curiously, we once fought this way too—the Cold War.
  • The Economist: How do you de-escalate a potential conflict when it starts to creep up—and what do people think works but in fact doesn’t?
    • Mr McFate: There is more to war than warfare, and more to warfare than killing. Understanding this is the key to de-escalation, but many do not get it. Battlefield victory is obsolete now, yet America still invests trillions of dollars in aircraft carriers, fighter jets and killer robots—and ponders why no one is deterred or defeated. The West suffers from strategic atrophy. We yearn to fight conventional wars like it’s 1945, our glory days, and then wonder why we have stopped winning. War has moved on, and our enemies have moved on with it. Today, war is decided in the information space, before the first shot is fired. Diplomacy and traditional statecraft are not enough. We need information dominance and strategic subversion to prevent problems from becoming crises and crises from becoming conflicts.
  • The Economist: Democracies are messy ways to get things done, and seem to be particularly vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation in an age of durable disorder. Autocracies seem to flourish under these conditions. Does this mean that the West needs to loosen its democratic rules, norms and values to withstand the challenge from autocracies?
    • Mr McFate: War is getting sneakier and victory is found in the complicated shadows. However, secrets and democracy are incompatible. The solution is not sacrificing our democratic ideals. Instead, the West should get into the shadows and punch back (and the book explains how). Autocracies are equally vulnerable in durable disorder and there are unique strategies to subvert them. For example, autocrats are often paranoid because rivals are everywhere, ambitious and deadly. The West can exploit this by engineering dissent in the autocrat’s camp. Moscow fears “colour revolutions,” so the West should create them. Traditional warriors will reject a Western version of shadow war, but this cannot be helped. Warfare evolves before warfighters do.
      • This is also something I have discussed in the past.
  • The Economist: With respect, I don’t think you’ve answered my previous question—and you’ve offered a “Hollywood ending” that sounds a bit too neat and tidy. So let me press you. Can the West really respond to the challenge as an open society, or will it need to winnow its liberal values to counter the threat?
    • Mr McFate: Done poorly, shadow wars harm the soul of democracy, as the Church Committee on intelligence activities made clear to Americans in 1975. Done well, it need not compromise an open society. Undermining autocracies is easier than undercutting democracies. For example, ridicule is a powerful weapon against dictators, who must manufacture a cult of personality and fear to stay in power. Democracies should “un-manufacture” it. Russia can focus on the Middle East only because it is undistracted by pushy satellite states. It’s time that the West started supporting those satellite states again, as we did in the Cold War, and it will pull out of the Middle East. Distract Beijing by facilitating an insurgency at home, and the Nine Dash Line will fade. Shadow wars require secrecy and subversion abroad. Does it risk blowback at home? Of course. But current responses are not working, and hacked elections compromise democracies too. We must balance freedom with security, as all democracies have done since Pericles’s Athens.
      • This is an awful lot easier said than done.
  • The Economist: If politics in the West is failing to confront the challenges posed by the disorder, how can responsible leaders from outside of politics—such as business, NGOs, think-tanks, academia, media and others—work independently of the frayed political system to tackle the modern threats you identify?
    • Mr McFate: Modern victory is won and lost in the information space, not on the physical battlefield. This means civil society rather than government may prove more decisive in future wars. It’s absurd that the West has lost information superiority, given the heaps of talent in Hollywood, on Madison Avenue and in London. If governments can make strategic communication profitable, the private sector can get creative about lampooning Putin riding bears. Academics, think tanks, NGOs and media can help populations become savvier consumers of information, so we don’t fall prey to trolls and bots. Technology can help here; rather than investing in overpriced fighter jets, let’s develop ways to identify the true origins of what we see on the internet. The real power of cyber is influence, not sabotage. Would we fall for click-bait if we knew it was made in China, Russia or North Korea? Of course not. In durable disorder, victory belongs to the cunning and not the strong. This shouldn’t be a problem for us.”
      • This is a point that really does bear some consideration … but he is really talking about mobilizing the private sector ~ the media, think tanks, etc ~ as if we were in a major shooting war and I’m not convinced that civil society will go along.

I agree with Dr McFate on his view that the global order is “fractured” and we are now in a period of “durable disorder” which does, indeed, look a lot like Europe in the high middle ages. I also agree that dreaming about how we won the Second World War or even the Cold War is not too helpful. Our opponents include fanatical religious movements, rogue states, like Russia and emerging superpowers like China; the religious fanatics will never want to face allied military forces in pitched battle but they will use terror tactics to disrupt and destabilize us. Russia, as Sean McFate pointed out, uses an oblique approach and China is trying rewrite the rule of the global order to suit its own needs … and likely succeeding, due to American stumbling and fumbling.

What Sean McFate wants is to do is mobilize the information community … that goes way beyond what Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jon Vance, described as the “weaponizing of public affairs.” I am not convinced that such an enterprise can be managed in our society. I would be very happy to see RT, which is akin to Putin’s private 08Swisher-articleLargenews service, exposed for what it is and I expect that e.g. the New York Post and the Washington Times and the Daily Mail might be willing to go along with a Fallows-news-headlinesconcerted effort to attack China or Russia but I’m not so sure that the New York Times and Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal can be as easily conscripted. Additionally, we are learning that our opponents are mastering technology to shape our peoples’ opinions by using e.g. social media more than conventional new outlets … recent data says that ⅔ of Americans get their “news” from social media, even though they doubt its accuracy.

I’m very agreeable to attacking our opponents, in public, in the media when they lie, as tfive-eyeshey regularly do; I also support covert information operations to gather intelligence, conduct propaganda campaigns,  disrupt our opponents’ social media attacks and, especially in the case of radical non-state movements, disrupt their financing, too. We, and our allies, have agencies that can do some or all of that and we should not hesitate … I hope we are, already, doing it and that we, ordinary citizens like you and I, very properly, know nothing about it.

But I worry that advocates, like Dr McFate, only persuade people like Michael Wernick, Katie Telford and, therefore, Bill Morneau and Justin Trudeau that conventional military forces are passé and they are right to starve them to death.

3 thoughts on “Future wars (12): “Modern victory is won and lost in the information space, not on the physical battlefield”

  1. Meh…folks have been calling the end of the Westphalian state for decades now just to sound current, but I don’t see the system going anywhere fast. Mr McFate gets a lot wrong, in my view. Modern victory is won when the other guy doesn’t want to fight anymore, and that has how it has always been. The physical battlefield and whatever the “information space”is are only contributing factors to whether an actor decides to fight on or throw in the towel. Its funny how he he talks up the information space, and in the same yarn references Syria – one only has to read the Russian General Staff lessons learned bit to know they achieved their goals in Syria on the physical battlefield and the information space….

    1. Excellent points and it’s why I worry that advocates for ‘information warfare,’ like McFate, may make decision makers less willing to invest in real, hard, military power. Don’t get me wrong: cyber and info-ops and so on are all important and all can be force multipliers and, sometimes, they can play huge roles ~ think Bletchley and Enigma and so on ~ but they never replace ships and tanks and infantry and combat air power.

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