Old trends & weak signals may herald shifts in warfare
Weaks ignals hide in noise

In times of transition, weak signals about big changes can be missed. And obvious things can be obscured because of existing assumptions.

Written by

Lesley Seebeck

We are in a febrile period of transition in terms of global politics, as well as the development and deployment of technologies, and ways of bringing effects to bear, whether in economics, warfare, or politics.

Just when defence ministries were starting to refocus on conventional and great power conflict post-Afghanistan, we have been reminded of how the old can resurrect itself in new conditions and with new tools. In such an environment, small, apparently localised actions—the flap of the butterfly’s wings—may carry greater weight. Many such effects will dissipate. But a few will be picked up, adapted, and amplified.    

To that end, it is worth considering some of worrying indicators apparent in the Hamas attack on Israel. Some reinforce emerging trends in the war in Ukraine. Others may signal broader, worrying shifts. 

First, there is the use of proxies.  Non-state actors are imperfect proxies for nation-states, as with both Hamas and Hizbollah—and with the cyber criminals sheltered by Russia. But they can innovate and take risks, unconstrained by nation-state rules and conventions. They provide a shield for the sponsoring nation-state, which may able to deny attribution or dispute involvement. 

There’s always the danger that such groups may elude control or ignite a wider conflagration.  Sponsoring states will place constraints over their activities as a result—much ransomware used by criminal gangs such as CLoP and REvil, for example, is geofenced, and won’t attack Russian targets.  Where there’s broader interests in play—such as fracturing the Saudi accommodation with Israel, for example, or discrediting a western-dominated rules-based order or democratic election systems—such disruption may be worth the risk.

And there is a spectrum.  At one end, as even well-off established states are pressured by economic and social change, it’s likely that adversary regimes will seek to influence, suborn, and corrupt more powerful individuals and institutions in a society. Disenfranchised groups—by ethnicity, location, or economic opportunity—may be co-opted. At the other, there are established proxies such as Hamas and Hezbollah, private military contractors such as Wagner, cyber-criminal gangs, and various militias that emerge in the wake of protracted conflict. 

These latter are often the brigands of lawlessness and statelessness.  They tend to be disregarded by defence bureaucracies focused on conventional warfare, but proxies innovate. Understanding the threat they pose will take imagination, skills and capabilities that will challenge conventional force postures and institutions. 

Second, as has been apparent already in a conventional war, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, small, democratised, readily available, and adapted tools of the modern world can be deployed to disrupt conventional models and expectations of warfare. 

We’ve known this for a long time, but Western militaries have been slow on the uptake, preferring establish orders of battle, capability and concepts, and slow, risk-averse means of procurement. 

That order is being challenged.  Weight of numbers, the bloody-minded use of men and iron, mines and trenches, still has value, as the Russian defences have shown, slowing the pace of conflict to great effect. Conventional militaries have considerable inertia and weight that can generate a coercive presence or withstand concerted attack. 

But there are many ways of coercing a wavering government, a weak economy or fractured society.  Speed and surprise can drive openings and advantage—as well as better situational awareness to bolster defence. And there, a ‘hacking’ ethos, imagination, and new, digitally enabled tools—many and cheap, because of their disposability—are needed.

The use of drones, digital apps, and capability inconceivable only 10-15 years ago in the form of Starlink—an entirely commercially-held global satellite system with capabilities beyond that of nation-states—have enabled Ukraine to fight back, if not fully repel, an invasion by one of the world’s nuclear superpowers. Powered hang-gliders, drones and armed militias targeting civilians were used by Hamas to attack a technologically advanced, nuclear-armed state. Low-tech tools—bulldozers, motorbikes, and machine guns—caused most of the deaths and injuries in the attack.

In short, this is a time to consolidate conventional weight—with reach, speed, and survivability—but not at the expense of the new, the possible, the innovative. Given the pace of change in commercially available and driven technologies, including sensors and drones, and the rate of use of munition, western militaries should be exploring fast, cheap production across a broad spectrum of possible applications.

Third, that said, unconventional tools in the hands of slow, and slow to adapt, conventional states seem to fail their promise, even as we see their application by the Ukrainians. That points to political and institutional failings.

Part of the issue may be one of imagination. In the case of the Gaza attacks, there may be something to the comparison with the September 11 attacks: a failure of intelligence. General Clapper, former US Director of National Intelligence, suggests the Israeli military may have fallen prey to a stereotypical view of Hamas as unable to undertake such an action. Others have suggested over-confidence on the part of the Israelis.  

Overconfidence was likely in play in Putin’s misjudgement on Ukraine’s weakness, on NATO’s willingness to back Ukraine, and on Russian capability. Given failure of an anticipated cyber blitz leading into or complementing the initial invasion by Russia’s previously much vaunted cyber capability, there are inevitable questions about how such tools can be best used for effect—or how militaries can adapt themselves to their use.

Such judgements about events are clearly better in hindsight. However, it is patently apparent now that, in western defence governments, scanning for capability options, testing and procurement activities present major logjams. Without ministers willing to do the sustained heavy lifting of administrative change, it’s likely that all the best intent around innovation and adaptation of our militaries will wither.

Last, there is something about the explicit targeting of civilians and the increasing levels of abusive sexual targeting evident in both Russian treatment of Ukrainian prisoners, with one soldier being gelded online, and reports of Hamas fighters singling out Israeli women that makes current conflicts particularly chilling.

These are direct attacks on the rules-based order, western understandings of civility, and democratic norms of human rights.  The former fits into Putin’s fearful narrative about homosexuality and the supposed weakness of the West; the latter appeals to misogynistic regimes in Iran, Afghanistan, and groups such as the Islamic State and ‘incels’ in the West.

It is worth recalling that the focus on the spectacle—beheadings, burnings, torture—is a terrorist tactic, aimed at instilling fear. It is not a hallmark of professional soldiers, as opposed to brigands and, yes, terrorists—one reason why allegations of such war crimes are necessarily pursued with vigour by governments. For the Russian military to indulge in such behaviours suggests a degraded military, potentially a loss of civilian control, and that Russia is a terrorist state.  And that’s deeply worrying for a nuclear superpower.

Western democracies need to double down on the case for, and the promise of, democracy—individual freedoms, the rule of law, basic institutions, and opportunity. Avoiding the temptation of repression will be difficult when under attack, and as has been the case in the Baltic states, Taiwan, and Ukraine during the Maidan protests of 2014, it can be done, and in doing so, strengthen society. 

The trends are concerning. In a tempestuous, unpredictable environment, such disturbances may forewarn of major shifts. The signals themselves are hardly weak—many are indicative of old behaviours in strategy and warfare.  But they may also portend straws that may break the back of a safe, comfortable, conventional strategy.