The Current Revolution in the Nature of Conflict
Revolution or Evolution?
1. The nature of conflict changes constantly.
But every so often the economic, social, political and technological
pressures which force that change build up, and the suddenness,
the pace, breadth and extent of change reach such a pitch that we
can call it a 'revolution' rather than evolution.
2. Such revolutions in the nature of conflict
I would identify as having occurred around 1648 (the peace of Westphalia
and the coming-of-age of the nation-state), 1789 (The French Revolution
and Napoleonic Wars) and 1914 (the industrialization of warfare).
In my view, we are currently experiencing just such a revolution
in the nature of conflict.
3. These revolutions have certain characteristics.
Firstly, although we label these revolutions with a convenient date
(eg. 9/11 2001), in fact, as Clausewitz reminds us, they take place
over a long time and their real consequences only make sense through
4. Secondly, we think of them as 'military
events'. But in fact the principal drivers tend to be economic,
social or political rather than military-technical. They are not
just "revolutions in the nature of battle".
5. Thirdly, in any revolution, only a fraction
of things will change. The other fraction will stay the same. The
problem for those of us who are living through this revolution,
as with other revolutions, is that it is very difficult without
the wisdom of hindsight to identify which things will change and
which will stay the same.
6. As a result we are faced with a major problem.
In a period of stability and slow evolution our greatest asset is
our experience. But at times of revolution our experiences can be
fatal baggage. We can no longer assume that, because something we
did worked well in the past, it is likely to continue to do so in
current circumstances. If we are to survive living in a revolution,
we will need to make a correspondingly revolutionary shift in the
way we think about both the risk and the response.
Causes of the Current Revolution
7. The main drivers of today's revolution in
the nature of conflict, in my view, are: (a) the growing gap between
rich and poor countries, (b) the uncontrollable proliferation of
technology, and (c) the information explosion.
8. For an example of the growing gap between
rich and poor countries, a map of the Mediterranean basin is a good
place to start. Write on the map, for each of the countries to the
north and south of the Mediterranean, the UN figures for the population,
GDP and per capita income for 1990, today and projected to 2020.
The trends are clear. The demographic implications alone are very
dramatic. Another example: The combined wealth of the richest 250
people in the world is equal to the combined annual income of the
poorest 2.5 billion people in the world. Above all, the poor are
now aware of the disparities.
9. The proliferation of technology refers to
all modern technology not just to the technology for weapons of
mass destruction. Technological advantage in war and conflict is
normally transient, and always depends not just on the available
technology but also on our ability to learn how to use it and to
incorporate it into our systems. In the Franco-Prussian war of 1870,
the French had an effective machine gun. Wheras the Prussians did
not. German Radar technology in 1939 was actually superior to the
British. But in both cases the losers failed to integrate their
technology into a system which would exploit it and as a result
threw away their technological advantage. Note Al Qaeda's effective
asymmetric use of technology, or the skill with which criminal gangs
use modern communications technology. Not only can we sometimes
not match the flexibility of these organisations and their ability
to learn, but it can cost us £1000 to defeat what it costs
them £1 to do.
10. The 'Information Explosion' has two aspects:
IT and Media. Today's rapid developments in IT are well known. But
with this presumed efficiency comes serious potential vulnerabilities.
The ability to launch attacks on information systems depends not
on wealth but on the cleverness of the attacker, and our opponents
are just as clever as we are. As to media, I would argue that media
(in all its forms) has become so out of control and all pervasive
that it now constitutes an additional environment in which we must
operate. To use a military example: a soldier planning a battle
is taught always to give first consideration to the "ground",
ie. the environment in which the battle will be fought - open countryside,
rivers, towns, mountains, etc. "Ground" affects both sides
- not necessarily equally. It cannot be changed very much, if at
all. But it can be exploited by either side. To ignore the ground
is unthinkable to a soldier. To fail to prepare the ground is unforgivable.
To underestimate its influence is usually disastrous. Today, media
is like a new environment in which we operate and which affects
everything we do in policy making as in armed conflict. Yet many
of us still do not usually give in the attention it deserves.
11. Of course the key to understanding the
dynamics of today's revolution in the nature of conflict is to understand
how all the above factors interact with each other and with the
world around us. The spread of information and technology gives
weapons, and the ability to use them effectively over a long period
of time, to those with a grievance to redress.
Defining Security Today
12. During the cold war, the term 'national
security' was synonymous with 'defence'. The more tanks and planes
a country had, the safer it felt. Today the terms are no longer
synonymous. For example, Israel is militarily stronger today than
ever before. Israel could defeat convincingly a simultaneous military
attack by all its Arab neighbours combined. Yet today the Israeli
people feel more insecure than they have felt for half a century.
Today we need to redefine what 'security' is and what we need to
do to achieve it. Likewise we need to redefine terms which depend
on security, such as 'deterrence'. How we deter today's threats
will not be the same as how we deterred the threats during the cold
13. A lot of very good work has been done to
identify strategic trends, new risks and challenges and potential
threats. From these, I would conclude that the major source of problems
for us lies in bad governance. By this I mean (a) the incompetence
of governments in weak or failing states which cannot cope with
their internal pressures or resolve local and regional disputes,
and (b) our own inability to change our national and international
systems of governance to cope with the new challenges. This includes
not just the competence of national Government, but the effectiveness
of corporate governance, the efficiency of non-governmental organisations
etc, and how we use and control the non governmental bodies that
today play an ever increasing role in security.
14. The products of poor governance - organisational
inefficiency, corruption, obscure and ambiguous domestic legislation,
outdated international law - themselves help generate bad policing,
insecure borders, inappropriately structured armed forces, etc.
These in turn facilitate the manifestations of the threat or create
the actual problem, viz: organised crime, ethnic conflict, religious
extremism, terrorism and, of course, actual war.
Responding to the Challenge
15. To respond effectively to the security
challenge we face during the current 'revolution', we need to:
a) change our mental approaches to the problem
b) change the tools with which we respond -
The question is, how?
16. Firstly, we need a better understanding
of our society today: how it has developed and how these new issues
interact with it. For example, the efficiency of electronic banking,
combined with the efficiency of 'just-in-time-delivery' processes,
creates the real susceptibility to catastrophic disruption that
was first noticed in the fuel drivers protest 6 years ago. The volatility
of the now-global stock exchange and our economic susceptibility
to disruption (eg. by terrorism elsewhere on the globe) is another
17. Secondly, we need a better understanding
of the nature of the real issues that now face us. This is not easy.
The issues are complex, and the UK, like most countries, has limited
resources to study the new issues, and the implications take time
to sink in. If we do not understand the real threat, and base our
defence and security planning solely on our own perception of our
vulnerabilities, not only could we be very surprised by an opponent's
different perception (and exploitation) of our weaknesses, but we
will also be prey to wasting effort and money on unnecessary defences
- worthless, but very profitable to those lobbying for them.
18. When tackling today's security problems,
qualities such as 'vigour', 'sincerity', determination, and 'firmly
held convictions' are only a good basis on which to proceed if they
are based on a real deep understanding. Otherwise they are dangerous
attributes. We will only be able to get a deep understanding of
the new issues if we get our whole 'thinking community' (officials,
academics, technologists, social scientists, economists, etc) thinking
and working together, focussed on the new issues, each contributing
their bit to the overall understanding. It will not be quick. It
will take us time, money, effort and humility. Above all, it requires
that we see ourselves through the eyes of others (eg, the Arab Street).
19. Most important to appreciate is the declining
role of government in the international arena. Just as we are increasingly
seeing non-state actors as generating serious security threats,
so also we now see tasks being done by NGOs and private military
companies in conflict zones and in the post conflict recovery phase
that, in 1990, would have been entirely the prerogative of the state
and its armed forces. This trend is likely to increase (if only
because these firms and NGOs have a better business model than does
the state). But we have not yet developed the tools of governance
to handle this new partnership adequately.
20. At home, our societies are losing their
trust in government at the same time as they are losing traditions,
beliefs, family values, roots. For the first time in human history
it is common for people in western societies to live alone in a
house or flat. As they lose their traditional psychological support
mechanisms (family, religion, ideals, ritual and tradition) people
become more easily influenced by external information (and a media
which gives respectability to uninformed opinion). With no-one to
share ideas with, people are more easily given to over-responding
and intemperate reaction. Society is losing its resilience - it's
ability to keep its balance, not to overreact, to recover after
a shock, to withstand hardships.
21. To compound this situation, there is today
an almost total lack of media correspondents and editor who really
understand defence and security issues. The widespread popularity
of violent video games, films, etc. means that young people no longer
understand what pain and death really mean. It is not difficult
to imagine that there might be serious implications for the public's
response to defence policy issues, or in the event of a military
setback or defeat. Long term, these social developments certainly
impact on recruiting and retention in the Armed Forces.
Changing the Mechanisms of Response
22. This has two components, (a) changing how
we do things (b) changing the actual institutions with which we
respond The most important aspect of changing how we do things refers
to the way we respond to the new threats (risks, challenges, etc).
We can no longer divide threats to security neatly into internal
and external threats. We can no longer guarantee national security
by military means. (armies plus diplomacy and spies)
For a military intervention to be successful
we now depend on the ability of other departments and agencies to
make their successful contribution. If The Foreign & Commonwealth
Office (FCO) cannot deliver the support of the international community
(via UN, NATO, EU or other), and if The Department for International
Development (DfID) cannot deliver adequate post conflict reconstruction
and capacity building (including controlling and directing NGOs
and private contractors), then the Armed Forces' success in battle
(eg. in Iraq) will be for nought. MOD's contribution to joined up
governance becomes vital.
Moreover, if FCO, DfID and other departments,
and big private companies such as BP, cannot deliver serious improvements
in social conditions and economic prosperity, for example in North
Africa and the Middle East then, in 10 years time, our Armed Forces
might well be having to fight to ensure our energy supplies.
23. Similarly, in domestic security, MOD now
has a large vested interest in ensuring that the Home Office, Police,
Security Service, the Department of Trade & Industry (DTI),
Health, and Transport Department, etc. all make their essential
contribution to security. Domestic support for military policy,
recruiting, the acceptance of military aid to the civil power in
mainland UK, all will be affected. What our troops do today in Basra
has an immediate impact on the attitude (eg. towards the government
and its policies) of a large proportion of the population of Bradford.
24. The principle task over the next 2-3 years
will be to develop MOD's collaboration with other Government departments
in researching and tackling new security, resilience and development
issues. Most important are the relationships with the Treasury,
FCO and DfID; the Treasury because it will need to be convinced
of the fitness of the MOD's business model for its changing role
in the security equation. FCO and DfID because they will have to
play the main role in 'winning the peace' and ensuring that British
forces do not need to stay indefinitely after a conflict, or do
not need to go there in the first place.
25. A second element that must be considered
is the government's relationship to the corporate world. The corporate
world has a great to deal offer Whitehall in helping to deal with
new security issues of all sorts, and the business community would
benefit greatly from more input from government, eg. advising on
what countries offer the best prospects for security and stability
for long term investments, etc.
26. The third element of "how we do things"
relates to technology. During most of the cold war, defence research
led national technological research. This is no longer the case
in most areas. Furthermore, technological developments are outstripping
our capacity to learn how to exploit them and how to incorporate
them effectively into our systems. For this to happen, educational
systems and force structures need to be more flexible. This affects
all aspects of force generation - procurement, manning, training
& education, structuring, tactics, organisation and equipment.
We do not want our potential enemies to 'beat us to the drop' when
it comes to using new technology effectively - an issue shared across
government and out to the NGOs and Civil Society.
27. Fourthly conflict is a 'hot house' for
forcing change. But that change - in societies, institutions, armed
forced etc, occurs in direct proportion to the impact the conflict
has on each side. As a society we have not yet understood that the
current conflict in which we are engaged is vital for us. It does
not yet cause us enough pain for us to learn and change. But our
opponents do see this conflict as vital and they are learning quicker
than we are.
28. We therefore face the crucial task of ensuring
that our Armed Forces are appropriately structured, trained and
led to meet the new challenges that will confront us. That includes
ensuring their support by the population at home and their protection
under international law abroad.
29. Deployed and employed to fulfil new, post
9/11 style operations, our forces will need a very high degree of
cultural sensitivity, and the ability to operate at short notice
in parts of the world where we may have little experience or infrastructure
support. They will need to work smoothly at tactical level with
locals, non governmental organisations and private companies. They
will need to be able to operate within a variety of ad hoc coalitions,
and cope with the fact that coalition partners may not be competent
to operate in the difficult circumstances pertaining. Above all,
individual soldiers will have to understand that a tactical success
can also be a strategic disaster. The soldier on the scene may know
the situation better than the senior commanders, and may have to
act contrary to their orders.
30. This brings us back to our starting point.
We are in the middle of a revolution in the nature of conflict,
the impact of which reaches from top to bottom of our defence, development
& security structures, home and away. Preserving what is good
in our system and changing what needs to change is our second great
challenge. Our first challenge is identifying which is which.
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