Up until February 23, 2022, military analysts all over the world were engaged in ruminating over the future of conflict, the nature and character of wars in the 21st century and notions of victory/defeat in modern day warfare. Admittedly there were influential dissenters, but the majority opinion tilted towards the concept of non-contact warfare with preponderance of disruptive technologies in the cyber and space domains. In collective imagination, future wars were viewed as science fiction, with drone-swarms, space assets and high-technology crippling the adversary state’s ability to conduct routine business of governance with minimal physical damage to infrastructure/human lives and debilitating the society to the extent of its eventual capitulation. Blood, gore, devastation and human suffering were viewed as reminiscences of a distant past, one that the developed world had evolved beyond and was only restricted to the far away metaphorical South, in dictatorial, murderous regimes of Asia and Africa.
On February 24, 2022, that mirage was shattered as the world witnessed on its tech-enabled smart devices, the ruin brought on by a war few imagined could happen in this era of inter-connected globalisation and unprecedented alleviation of poverty and standards of living. As the war nears the end of its second week, the world is looking at images of masses huddled in underground bunkers as overground, entire neighbourhoods are devastated, human migrations at a scale unseen in several decades, lumbering armies in miles-long convoys threateningly descending on cities, siege warfare evocative of the World Wars and rockets/missiles knocking down tanks, aircraft, buildings or whatever else stands in their path. The idea, that weapons have evolved to such an extent in their destructive power that the very thought of their use and resultant bloodshed will be a deterrent against war, has been well and truly buried and Clausewitz remains as central to the conceptualisation of war as he ever was. So, what are the lessons that military men can draw from this war? The aim of this article is to identify relevant lessons, from the admittedly early stages of this war, that must influence the thought process on modern warfare.
The Power of Propaganda
Jus ad bellum, or the justification for going to war against a sovereign state, is relevant today as much as it ever was. Thus, the an indispensable need to build a narrative. The narrative in support of going to war has to be very intricately planned. The outlandish claims of the Nazis on the Jewish question may have won Hitler some supporters at a time when information was controllable by state restrictions and manipulations. But, the multiple avenues available to consume information in contemporary times make the job of the propagandist extremely difficult. The power to control channels of information flow has become extremely limited, due to the explosion of information avenues, and if one tries to restrict these channels, one opens up to suspicion and doubts about the narrative, for any discerning audience. The more extreme and one-sided the narrative, the more inquisitiveness in the recipients to check out the other side of the story. Recall of history is available at the click by touch and is no longer the preserve of a select few, privileged academicians painstakingly pouring over documents in haphazardly cataloged archives over years. Propaganda is no longer about belching out a narrative, it has to be gradually administered in small doses over a sustained period of time, days and months before anyone begins to suspect that a mis/dis-information campaign is underway. It has to slowly evolve into a multi-headed hydra, till it becomes all-pervasive or at least is able to match the reach of the other side. So, while propaganda has become easier to propagate, it has paradoxically also become more difficult to make credible.
War in the Information Age
The Iraq-war of 1991, brought the everyday battles into people’s houses as embedded CNN journalists broadcast the war on satellite-enabled TV. People huddled in front of TV sets to see, for the first time in history, a war being fought in a far-off part of the world. In the 2020s, every individual with a smartphone, 78% of the global population1 and certainly higher in the European continent, is an embedded journalist broadcasting the war to every other individual globally, observing the war not just in front of the TV set in the evening after work, but while commuting to/from work, at the workplace, during meetings and even in the restroom at midnight, awoken from sleep by an itch. War in any part of the world is all-pervasive. The horrors of war are being seen and felt live, as they happen and not just as events of the past. The imagery is not very pleasing for any side and is difficult to conceal behind coercive censorship. Information dominance is essential but near-impossible to achieve.
Cyber and Space Domains
Reams have been filled by analysts about devastating cyber-attacks coordinated through the ground and space-based assets to break an adversary’s will to fight. Cyberwarfare can be extremely disruptive, undoubtedly, but the cyber domain is only an enabler and not a replacement for physical destruction, yet. Cyber disruption has its limitations in time and space. IT-enabled systems have taken over most systems that make life easier. But they only replaced systems that existed previously and did not eliminate them. There is, and should be built into any system the redundancy to fall back to legacy practices that ensure the disruption is temporary and can be worked around. Moreover, IT also provides numerous alternatives. When terrestrial internet breaks down, there is Starlink; when satellite communication is disrupted, there is short-wave; when electronic communication is jammed, there is semaphore. Cyberwarfare disrupts, but whether it disables is extremely doubtful.
The very idea that escalation can be controlled needs re-examination. The only thing definite is that escalation is in one’s control. But escalation control falls into the adversary’s hand the moment escalation begins. Escalation control presumes certain reactions from the adversary under the threat of escalation. This is based on variables that are measurable and risk-assumption is factored into planning. However, there are numerous intangibles that are capable of nixing these calculations. Morale, the extent of acceptable sacrifice, will to resist, bonds of community beyond narrow, divisive opinions about ethnicity/language, and the emergence of previously unrecognised leadership are just some of these intangibles which cannot be measured with any degree of certainty. Escalation is thus a risky game of brinkmanship and is beyond any one party’s control.
Nuclear weapons provided a degree of strategic stability so long as the fear of miscalculation was ingrained into the thinking of policymakers. However, the near-global consensus about the futility and cost of a nuclear exchange has essentially ensured that the risk of a nuclear exchange in inter-state conflicts has become inconceivable on all sides. This has opened up a vast space for conventional military conflicts below the nuclear threshold. Strategic stability has thus moved back to where it always was before the advent of nuclear weapons, parity in conventional means of waging war. The numerical balance of boots on the ground, armament, technology, and industrial base to support the war effort are the modern-day metrics of stability. Self-reliance, modernisation, and increased budgeting for capital expenditure are more relevant than ever.
Logistics-planning, often derided as subordinate to operational planning, has for the umpteenth time displayed its predominant influence on warfare. True or fake, the sight of derelict tanks out of fuel, soldiers short on food, miles-long convoys stalled for days due to enemy action or logistic failure are lessons that any military planner must take from this war. The very fact that a large convoy is road-bound and bunched up for days, in broad daylight in the age of satellite surveillance, is reflective of a logistical blunder. Perhaps the best brains should be responsible for logistic planning, which has far too many variables and contingencies, and the operational planning can be left to the second-best, if, in any case, operations have to follow an orthodox and templated course.
There has been much debate on the changing demands on leadership in the cyber age. The manner in which this war is panning out thus far, on both sides, harks back to the conventional qualities that are at the core of successful military leadership. The character of war on the ground has not changed as much as military planners fancifully imagined. There may be newer dimensions to the values of ‘Professional Competence and Know your Job’, but at the core, the essentials of ‘Know the Ground, Know your Men, Share their Hardships, Lead by Example, Courage, Determination, and Stamina’ continue to be as relevant today, if not more, because the intelligence, awareness, and ability to face adversity of the soldiers, is of a different order than their counterparts even two decades back. The value of realistic training cannot be over-emphasised in the dynamic battlefield as situations are capable of evolving rapidly and disruptions of communication may lead to temporary isolation or severing of the chain of command.
It is early days yet as this war may persist much longer and evolve into a sub-conventional insurgency resulting from regime change. Or it may not. In either case, this war needs to be studied and analysed in greater detail after the fog lifts as it has once again brought the focus back to conventional set-piece battles, whose epitaph had nearly been written by many an analyst. For much of the world which is yet to achieve technological advancement to scale, industrial age warfare continues to be the way inter-state war is waged. Many a strategic analyst may think otherwise, but one doesn’t have any way of knowing the adversary’s notion of victory- seizure of territory and destruction of war-waging potential, may yet be the parameters he counts on. One of the putatively greatest military powers in the world today, still does. For all those looking to analyse the future of military conflict, the past may be a better place to search.
- Statista (2022), “Global smartphone penetration rate as share of population from 2016 to 2020”. Available online at https://www.statista.com/statistics/203734/global-smartphone-penetration-per-capita-since-2005/ , accessed on 09 Mar 2022.