Transformation of war strategy in the 21st century

Transformation of war strategy in the 21st century
Colonel Christian Bühlmann, Dr Christina Schori Liang, Professor Martin van Creveld and Ambassador Christian Dussey

Transformation of war strategy in the 21st century

The character of war has changed forever.

By Dr Christina Schori Liang, Senior Programme Advisor and Senior Fellow, Terrorism and Organized Crime Cluster Leader

On 12 February, the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) conducted a public discussion with Martin van Creveld, Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. He shared observations on how military strategy has changed and remained constant in the new security landscape. According to van Creveld, military strategy still faces the difficulty of exercising political control over an event so fraught with emotion.  It still depends on a mixture of force and guile and has to deal with the Strapazen (stress and strain) of conflict. Uncertainty in situational awareness experienced by participants in military operations, the "fog of war" remains a factor, as does the need for leadership, organisation, discipline and cohesion. Van Creveld also stressed the continuing importance of strategic surprise and the need for quality over quantity in all aspects. 

Yet despite these constants, numerous aspects of war have changed, requiring new military strategies. Van Creveld noted the rise of air war, as well as at sea (submarine war), space war, and cyberwar, and the demise of Blitzkrieg, the introduction of new weapons and weapon systems in war raging from tanks and machine guns to Precision-Guided Munitions (PGMs).

However, according to the speaker, the real shift in strategy came with the introduction of nuclear weapons systems, which marked the greatest turning point in strategy. Nuclear weapons marked the moment when there could no longer be a real victory or even survival. No weapon has ever been invented that does not have a defensive counter-element, except for nuclear weapons.  With the possibility of a second strike, victory and defeat were no longer part of the equation or choices that were available. Van Creveld asked ‘Does this new paradigm shift mean that there will never be a nuclear war?’ He stated ‘not necessarily.’ The paradox remains: if it were certain nukes would not be used, they couldn’t deter anyone.

Van Creveld further highlighted that the unprecedented scope of World War II was also a turning point in world history. No part of the world remained untouched, and the casualties were horrific, ranging from 50 million to more than 80 million, with civilian victims somewhere between 50 to 55 million, including 19 to 28 million from war-related disease and famine. Three percent of the world population disappeared during World War II. In contrast, he noted that wars today are mostly waged between 'third or fourth rate countries.' Today, wars are much smaller in size if one measures them both in the number of countries and non-state actors involved and in the size of the forces. What has also changed is that wars since 1945 include many different actors and have now a variety of different names to describe them including: brushfire, guerrilla, people’s war, rebellion, uprisings, insurgencies, and terrorism. These new wars in comparison to WWII are relatively small in size and scope and they are becoming more intrastate conflicts as opposed to interstate, although such conflicts occasionally bleed into other states due the absence of clearly defined borders and well-defined fronts.

Van Creveld

One important aspect of war that has changed forever is the shift from Trinitarian war to non-Trinitarian war. The character of war has changed forever. Trinitarian war was based on a clear division of labor between the government that wages the war and directs it, the armed forces that fight it and die for it and the people who pay it for it, and suffer from it. Today wars are fought by a more complex array of actors with different motivations and strategies. What remains, is the huge number of civilian casualties (known as 'collateral damage') as well as the growing tendency that wars last much longer than ordinary wars. The wars in Algeria, Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique, Sri Lanka, the Congo, the Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iraq are ‘long wars that have brought with them an extraordinary amount of destruction.’ Many of these changes, van Creveld pointed out, ‘first originated in the so-called developing world. However, they now threaten to spread into the developed one as well.’ These threats combined with mass immigration, computers, data mining and the Internet are threatening more developed countries and increasingly also the West. Van Creveld maintains that these changes are well on their way to undermining liberal democracy. He believes these changes have also led to a rise in right-wing populist parties. At the end of his presentation, he challenged the audience: are liberal democracies fit enough to survive these new challenges without turning into a caricature of themselves?


Transformation of War Strategy in the 21st strategyINTERVIEW

This interview was conducted by Dr. Christina Schori Liang, GCSP’s Terrorism and Organised Crime Cluster Leader with Professor Martin Van Creveld, author of one of the most compelling books on military strategy ‘The Transformation of War,’ which has had an impact on its perceptive revision of Clausewitz’s model of Trinitarian War:


- Dr. Christina Schori Liang: During your presentation at the GCSP on 12th of February 2018 on the “Transformation of Strategy in the Turbulent 21st Century” we discussed how war has recently been exported to surrogates. We see more and more that surrogate warfare has become more the norm as opposed to the exception, we see now surrogates, both human and technological platforms that are being used by states in their new military strategies. What role do you think that surrogates should play?

- Prof. Martin Van Creveld: There is a danger these people face which was illustrated very well by the fate of IS. They are always tempted to turn into states as soon as they can, and once they do that, they are vulnerable. Mao Zedong wrote about the Three Stages of General Welfare. Their critical point is to know how to switch from the second stage to the third. If you do it too late, then your own people are going to be discouraged, if you do it too quickly, you’re going to be crushed. This is the dilemma: to time the operations just right or else either people are going to leave them or else they are going to be crushed.

- Dr. Christina Schori Liang: Thank you. How can the world protect itself from criminal states such as North Korea? The number of criminal state are increasing, there are more and more criminalised states in the world, what threat do these new ‘mafia states’ pose to the world?  

- Prof. Martin Van Creveld: This is one of the greatest dangers facing the modern world. I read what George Soros had to say about it. The road seems to be opening towards criminalised states. It already has several such and we seem to be creating more of those; this is part of what I have been talking about often. The danger to a modern liberal democracy, can it really survive in front of these groups, these technologies? Personally, I hope so very very much because I would like to see my children and grandchildren live in a better world. But I am fairly pessimistic.

- Dr. Christina Schori Liang: Revanchist Russia is raising all kinds of new military fears in Europe. Sweden has recently reintroduced conscription in its country and it is has distributed books to its polity that give them instructions on how to prepare for war. Do you think that the spectre of war is being raised in Europe or are these fears unfounded?

- Prof. Martin Van Creveld: One thing is clear, that if Europe could muster the will, it could easily deal with Russia. You have the Border States, population, economic resources, the military know-how. What Europe does not have is the will. And I do not see this changing.

- Dr. Christina Schori Liang: You do not see the Common Security Defence Policy (CSDP) as an effective new strategy for increasing stability and security in Europe?

- Prof. Martin Van Creveld: They have been talking about it for so long. I wish it would be a good solution. It would go a long way toward a solution. But is it going to help us? I don’t know. You are probably better positioned to answer that than I am.

- Dr. Christina Schori Liang: Many thanks for your confidence. I do believe the CSDP is becoming a much more effective tool for synchronization and planning since Federica Mogherini took the helm as the Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. She has proven to be more innovative in implementing CSDP decisions made by the Council. The 2016 EU Global Strategy has also given new impetus in building a better process of cooperation on defence matters. Recently, we have seen Russia has been preparing information campaigns on the United States. Do you believe they have had a significant impact on the US?

Prof. Martin Van Creveld: The accusations are difficult to prove. How many people really voted for Trump because they have seen something, or due to what was released to the media? My feeling is, not very many..

- Dr. Christina Schori Liang: In the absence of a world government -- as a global authority in the security of the global community --  the security still lies in the hands of individual states, they act as the legitimate rights holders and security providers in our current state-centric international system. Yet currently the state’s social contract provides the states authority with the dilemma of having to provide security as a potential global good beyond its boundaries. The state as sovereign, and trusted with the provision of public security, has to engage threats that are less tangible emanating from transnational actors who are increasingly posing a threat to communities far away and secondly, to society at home. How can governments maintain these wars against violent non-state actors outside of their state, while still maintaining the support of their people at home?

- Prof. Martin Van Creveld: It is all about intelligence, being able to distinguish the good from the bad, being able to distinguish from those you want to kill from those you want to protect. And I would argue that the protection is at least as important as the killing. This is something that most security services and most armed forces don’t understand. Protecting is as important, if not more important, than killing. I used to talk to the British Officers about this in the war in Northern Ireland. One of them, many years ago, here in Geneva, opened my eyes. As he said ‘Look at this struggle, at that time it was coming to an end, waging in Northern Ireland. About 3,000 people died, of those 1700 were civilians. Of the remaining 1300, 1000 were British Policemen or Military. Only 300 terrorists.  And that is why we are still here, because unlike practically all other counter insurgents, they knew where to stop. And the price of course was very high. You can only do that within an extremely professional and extremely disciplined force that is very proud of what it is doing. And so, the British model in Northern Ireland is a very good one actually and that should be followed. It is the best one we have.

- Dr. Christina Schori Liang: If we look at China and Russia, they have two methods of dealing with the sphere of states around them. China is creating ‘tribute states’ around itself that are beholding to it both economically, diplomatically and security. Russia is focusing more on creating a circle of instability of states around itself in order to protect itself, in a sense. Both models are dangerous, in a sense, that they are changing the global order. What, as a military strategist, would you recommend to prevent this type of erosion of the global order, both of states surrounding China and states surrounding Russia?

- Prof. Martin Van Creveld: Well certainly not unilaterally as Trump did for the Pacific Trade Agreement. That would seem to be a very foolish move. What you want to do is the exact opposite. Ok? You know, some years ago, I had a student from Nigeria and he said, ‘Look, when the Americans come to us, they talk about democracy and Human Rights. And when the Chinese come to us they give us 300 million dollars and say let’s build a new this and a new that.’ America no longer has what it takes to do that. So all they can do is to rely on talk and politics. Those were the days, when America was great.

 - Dr. Christina Schori Liang: What do you believe the US Administration has done to help stabilize the world? What can Europe do to bring back global order and give more hope to people in states who are still feeling vulnerable due to their neighbourhood?

- Prof. Martin Van Creveld: Look, as long as Europe is not united, there is not much it can do.

- Dr. Christina Schori Liang: Do you think Brexit has become a death nail on the European Union?

- Prof. Martin Van Creveld: As long as Europe is not united there are very strict limits to what it can do. It can give a little of money here and a little money there, it could provide some training here and a little training there and that’s about it. It cannot do more than that.

- Dr. Christina Schori Liang: The United States has recently created a special force within the Ministry of Justice to crack down on terrorist financing within Hezbollah. Do you see this as an important new gesture towards breaking down Hezbollah’s global traction?

- Prof. Martin Van Creveld: Let us hope so. But you know there were times when certain terrorists and guerrilla movements did not have enough money to pay for their telephone bills. I have a student, who did a study of the Rhodesian War for Independence, and you know, originally, Mugabe and his people, they did not have enough money to pay for its telephone bills. So they came to Israel and asked if we would pay for their telephone bills.

- Dr. Christina Schori Liang: But now we have terrorist organisations who are billionaires and they are even profiting by their close cooperation with transnational criminal groups who are also profiting from globalisation, information and technology, and economic liberalisation. How can we stop this ever-growing threat of global transnational organised crime and terrorist groups growing increasingly richer and more powerful?

- Prof. Martin Van Creveld: Well, they probably can be stopped but only at the cost of becoming like them. I think they can be stopped actually; they can be stopped for their spending, but the measures, they would have to be tough. The question is, is it worth it?

- Dr. Christina Schori Liang: If you wrote another book to follow up on ‘The Transformation of War,’ what would you include that you did not include in your first book?

Prof. Martin Van Creveld: What would I include? The most important thing I would include would be cyberwar. Nobody heard of that when I wrote the book. I would include cyberwar - I would have included hybrid warfare.

- Dr. Christina Schori Liang: Many thanks for agreeing to do an interview. 

Dr Christina Schori Liang - Senior Programme Advisor and Senior Fellow, Terrorism and Organized Crime Cluster Leader