Revisiting "Are we already 'at war'?"

We should not let the Trump twitter storm obscure the big picture.


“…Mr Mueller’s report hints at more dramatic possibilities by corroborating contents of the ‘Steele dossier’….”

Edward Luce, Financial Times, 17 February 2017

Writing just hours after Robert Mueller’s investigations into alleged interference in the US election had led to the indictment of over a dozen Russian individuals and groups, Mr Luce continues:

“…nobody except Mr Mueller and his team has inside knowledge of what will happen next…. But it is very clear that Mr Mueller is leaving no stone unturned.”

In other words, President Donald Trump’s claim (supported by numerous Republican legislators) that these indictments exonerate him and his team from any suggestion of ‘collusion’ is just as much of a stretch as the Democrats’ seeming conviction that they were “another nail in Mr Trump’s coffin”. As the BBC’s Anthony Zurcher opines:

“What this indictment, if it is substantiated, does do is devastate Mr Trump's past insistence that allegations of Russian meddling were a hoax”.

Mr Trump's twitter barrage over the weekend is, to my mind, at least implicitly confirmatory of this (and of his believing that there is more to come from Mr Mueller). And from this I would single out his dissing of his own National Security Advisor HR McMaster, who stated clearly and firmly at the Munich Security Conference over the weekend that evidence of Russian interference in the US election was "incontrovertible".

In this context in particular, a weekend column in the Observer by security expert and former National Security Agency analyst John Schindler is well worth reading as it puts the Mueller indictments and Mr Trump's reaction(s) in context.

This being said, there is, in my view, method in what some (many?) readers may see as the President's 'madness'. Mr Trump is a master of distraction, as he demonstrates every time he comes under pressure. And his tweets are an essential tool as this morning's headlines - moving away from the 'big picture' of the threat which Russia poses, including to the 2018 midterms - readily underline. Some may think I give Mr Trump too much credit but I can't help but think that this is calculated on his part.

I am therefore put very much in mind of a quote I used in an article about US trade policy published by The Global Lead just yesterday, ie George Orwell's: "We have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men". Mr Schindler's article goes some of the way on this score. But I think we need to step back still further if we are really to see - and understand - the big picture.

I thought about writing something new to try to achieve this. But before I started I looked back at something I wrote in mid-2015 as part of a lengthy paper on geopolitics for Aon Benfield's biennial Hazards conference. As a result I have decided that, rather than writing something new, it has stood the test of time well enough to be worth reprinting here (noting that an earlier section, not reproduced here, dealt specifically with cyber warfare), as set out in the remainder of this article. It started by asking the question...

Are we already 'at war'?

“Although the United States is still by far the world’s strongest martial power, others are catching up. America’s ability to project overwhelming force around the world, which it has taken for granted since the end of the cold war, is now threatened.”

The Economist, 13 June 2015, A Sharper Blade

By general consensus - including (at least privately) within the regime in Moscow - Russia’s conduct over Ukraine has been labelled ‘hybrid warfare’, which the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London defines as follows:

“Sophisticated campaigns that combine low-level conventional and special operations; offensive cyber and space actions; and psychological operations that use social and traditional media to influence popular perception and international opinion.”

As a recent paper by Eve Hunter and Piret Pernik underlines:

“Currently, we lack a legally or politically-recognized division with which to determine at what point network intrusion and sabotage becomes an act of war.”

The Hunter/Pernik paper goes on to focus on the central role of information warfare conducted principally in cyberspace in Russia’s hybrid war model, including as a precursor to possible ‘conventional’ military action either by Russia itself (Abkhazia, South Ossetia in 2008) or through proxies (as is certainly partly the case in Ukraine today). It concludes as follows:

“What can be done? Hybrid warfare is the future of warfare. Each state (and ideally the entire international community) must embrace this uncertainty in its policy and doctrine. The current lack of legal and political means for addressing cyber operations leaves the international community vulnerable to these kinds of coordinated attacks. Because there are essentially no precedents with which to address cyber warfare, most states shy away from directly addressing a nation’s misbehaviour in cyberspace. If there had been a response to aggressive behaviour within the Ukrainian network sphere, perhaps the West could have had a more expedient and cohesive response to the Russian physical invasion. As it is, there are very few binding legal documents that would serve as guidance when dealing with cyber operations; there is not even any clear legal consensus on whether or not accessing the system of an attacker is permissible.

The kinds of operations that Russia is conducting in Ukraine are not terribly novel, or even that sophisticated; rather, they exploit the fact that any operations in the cyber domain are befuddling to Western nations. The ensuing debates leave them plenty of time and leeway to continue their aggressive behaviour.”

The one point which I would nuance is the assertion that this is “the future of warfare”, not to disagree but to underline that it appears to me also to be the present - especially given that Russia’s current military doctrine explicitly states that for “future conflicts” war will never be truly declared. But I would certainly agree totally that, even some 17 years after I personally participated in early UK/US dialogue on addressing the cyber threat, there are no agreed international ‘rules of the game’ (as there are for, say, chemical and biological weapons) and there is no clear Western strategy over how to respond.

This being said, the debate in the West is now clearly under way, as the US Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, intimated on 28 July (when talking about the threat posed by China and Iran) by underlining that cyber attacks on the West would continue to get worse "until such time as we create both the substance and psychology of deterrents”. For the reality is that the very large sums of money spent on both defensive and offensive (think Stuxnet) capability in the West appear to be having zero deterrence effect even on other states let alone potentially much harder to target non-state actors.

James Lewis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), cited in the same article, confirms that there is an ongoing and very serious debate going on in defence circles in the US Administration about the possible need to retaliate in order to deter. But it will not be easy. As Mr Lewis goes on:

“The Russians and the Chinese and the Iranians are deliberately looking to avoid the tripwires in the current international system. After the Cold War the West defined a game of international security where, oddly enough, we would tend to win. Well, these guys are playing a different game altogether now. We are lining up on the football field. And they are outside the stadium.”

Then there is the issue of what the consequences of retaliation would be, ie how the adversary would respond.

In short, whether we are actually 'at war' today or not, there appear to be no easy answers to address the cyber assault being perpetrated against Western targets.

Should We Count Carriers Or Computers?

I reflected earlier in [the original] paper as to whether the hyperbole about China’s increased military expenditure was really justified or not. One way or the other, it would be true to say that conventional ways of thinking about defence budgets do not always give an accurate picture. For example, for the cost of one American F-22 Raptor fighter (US$670m) one could buy around 300,000 of the machines on which I am currently typing [ie the same MacBook Pro I am using today]. And this machine is - potentially - a weapon: arguably, in the ‘right’ hands, one which is at least as destructive as an F-22.

Looked at in this light, a balance of power equation based on laying America’s ten aircraft carrier groups alongside China’s single training flat-deck offers a potentially very skewed and misleading picture indeed.

A recent novel by P W Singer and August Cole foretells a future war between China and the US in the Pacific, with considerable attention being given to new doctrines - including China’s use of hybrid warfare - and weapons systems. But the authors avoid - I suspect deliberately - offering any clear view on the utility in this future world of aircraft carriers, the platform on which the US currently depends above all at present for its ability to project power worldwide.

As The Economist recently noted, the US has sustained its military edge in the post-1945 era by “[harnassing] technology to offset its rivals’ advantages”. However, despite growing concern among US strategists over China’s development of weapons designed explicitly to prevent American carriers from operating close to its shores, significant political and bureaucratic obstacles persist in Washington on top of the technical difficulties inherent in the realisation of the Pentagon’s response, ie the “third offset strategy”. Unless or until these obstacles are overcome, the new military balance appears destined to continue to tilt against the US. As The Economist concludes:

“American power is not always wielded wisely. But it remains the best guarantee of the rules-based international order, from which nearly all countries benefit - and not just America’s allies. That order is already impaired. If America loses its technological edge, it will only fray faster.”

Alastair Newton