Motto: Europe’s elites have not forgotten their history, they are just ignorant of it.
We sat down with Professor Julian Lindley-French, Senior Fellow of the Institute of Statecraft, London.
Q: Two years ago, in Norway, NATO organised one of the most important exercises since the Cold War, and especially since the security environment shifted dramatically in 2014. What does Trident Juncture 20181 tell us about NATO’s readiness and ability to reinforce an exposed ally?
A: We have a dangerous asymmetry between General Gerasimov’s “30 days crash force” and NATO. The issue is that in 30 days the Russians can cause chaos. Beyond the Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP), the Tailored Forward Presence in South-Eastern Europe, the Very High Readiness Joint Taskforce (VJTF) and even in the case of the NATO Response Force (NRF), we are looking at 30 days’ notice to move. The NATO dilemma is that the bulk of its forces could not move in any strength prior to “D plus 30”. The problem with the Kremlin is that there is a direct link between its sense of domestic vulnerability and this huge Russian force of arms.
It is a mixture of political weakness and local military superiority. My great fear is a worst-case scenario in which Russia would present Europe with a territorial fait accompli. It would achieve a limited political and military victory [editor’s note: e.g. crossing the border into one of the Baltic states and seizing a piece of territory] before NATO would mobilise and would ask: do you want to go to war over the Baltic states?
My sense is that European politicians, faced with such a scenario, would not act. It is important to demonstrate that we can again undertake Article 5 operations, but you’ve got to look at how long it takes to get everything in place. That is the weakness. We should never underestimate General Gerasimov and his staff.
Military power still has a major role to play in influence. We’ve got to understand that Realpolitik and Machtpolitik is back.Professor Julian Lindley-French
They’ve looked systematically at our weaknesses, at our seams, and worked how to exploit them if the President gives the “go ahead” order. Vostok 182 was testing aspects of this. The problem is that our forward-deployed forces are simply not backed up with anything to get there in time. If you can’t move the heavy forces quickly, to wherever you need them in an emergency to back up your forward-deployed forces, you lose deterrence value.
That is why the latest NATO initiative – the so-called Four Thirties3 (developing 30 mechanised battalions, 30 air squadrons, four combat vessels ready to use within 30 days or less) – will plug a dangerous gap between the spearhead forces, the immediate follow-on forces (the NATO Response Force), and the bulk of NATO forces, which would take up to 120 days to mobilise in an emergency.
Q: “Fort Trump” in Poland or “Fort NATO” on the broader eastern flank? What should be prioritised – political cohesion in NATO or, for the sake of a credible bilateral deterrent message, a Fort Trump in Poland? In a way Warsaw is tired of waiting for Old Europe to provide credible security guarantees. Another solution is the proposal of Gen. Ben Hodges to fix the mobility problem in Europe.
A: It will take years to fix the mobility problem. Let me be really radical. Do you really think that the Americans and the British will use NATO in an emergency? The Americans plus the three major European powers (Britain, France, Germany) wouldn’t wait for a committee meeting in NATO to act. The bilateral US-Polish thing makes sense in terms of dealing with the issue. It doesn’t make sense in keeping NATO together.
But if NATO is not actually delivering deterrent value, what’s the purpose? If it is all about being nice to each other when being nice makes us more insecure, there comes a point when that is simply too dangerous. I would strongly argue that the Polish have a point.
But the key issue here is Americans not being overstretched. The Chinese and the Russians are coordinating, and they will make life for America as difficult as possible. The problem with this equation is a weak Europe. If Europe would be stronger that wouldn’t be an option, but it is. It all comes back to Europeans not doing enough. The only option is to make the trans-Atlantic relationship work.
Q: The collapse of MENA and the massive influx of immigrants into Europe massively changed the political climate; to some extent it has produced a tribalisation of Europe. On the one hand we have this need to prepare for the return of great-power competition, while at the same time Europe should have the operational ability to wage post-9/11 campaigns to stabilise fragile and failed states.
A: This is NATO’s “360 degrees” dilemma. It is not only geographical (east, south, north and west); it is also across the conflict spectrum. If you are not prepared to invest in high-end power projection capabilities, then at least invest in mass. The UK is investing in highend assets.
What you need for stabilisation is a lot of mass. The Italians, the Spanish, even the Germans should be investing in mass. If you cannot be the top of the spear force, then you provide the bulk behind it. This cannot go on. It is a Groundhog Day.
We have this range of threats – from mass movement of people, terrorism, instability, to high-end strategic peer competitors. We have to cover both. Britain is investing in essentially a high-end small force built around a maritime amphibious Navy to go with the Americans. But we are not investing in a continental army. In a sense we are going back to a very British, 19th-century army – a small professional expeditionary force.
It’s like a SWAT team for high-end operations. But the real bulk is in the Navy. The Queen Elizabeth4 is a good way of buying influence with the Americans, but not a very efficient way of defending Central and Eastern Europe. What this means for continental Europe is that you need France and Germany to lead the defence of the continent. Europe is too dependent on over-stretched American combat forces.
Q: The conclusion of the bi-partisan Congressional Commission on the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy is that “deterrence is weakening and war is becoming more likely” as the perception that the US can decisively defeat military challenges is fading. The background is the return of great-power competition, as well as the erosion of the US’ military edge. Why this crisis? What are its implications for Europe?
A: It’s classic IR (international relations) theory. Robert Gilpin talks about cycles of systemic change. What happened is that the cycle of systemic change has accelerated because of the nature of globalisation.
The reality is a hegemon at the end of its time. For about 20 years after the end of the Cold War we thought about America as the hegemon and us like the hegemonites, and we’ve become complacent. Revisionist powers with anti-status quo agendas have emerged.
The trouble is that we in Europe are living in a community fantasy. Everyone outside Europe understands spheres of influence, balances of powers, zero sum-game geopolitics. That is the stuff of statecraft. Europe is the exception.
Military power still has a major role to play in influence. We’ve got to get our heads around that because of what happened in history, and understand that Realpolitik and Machtpolitik is back. I would love the world to operate in the community logic so central to the idea of the European Union. But the essential struggle in South-East Europe is a struggle between zero-sum Machtpolitik and the community concept of international relations.
Q: How would you describe the changing character of war and conflict today? What is driving it? How should we describe the Russian and Chinese ways of war? The British Chief of Defence Staff usually quotes Chris Donnelly (at the Institute for Statecraft) who said that Russia aims at creating “new strategic conditions. Their current influence and disinformation campaign is a form of “system” warfare that seeks to de-legitimise the political and social system on which our military strength is based. And this undermines our centre of gravity, which they rightly assess as our political cohesion.”
A: The revisionist powers are practising what I call a systematic fight of 5D warfare – the use of force to underpin a strategy of Disinformation, Destabilisation, Disruption, Destruction, and all leveraged together by Deception.
The unfree world is engaged in a continuous war at the seams and margins of the Alliance, employing all the above for comparative strategic advantage. They combine to form a new method of warfare that spans the hybrid, cyber, hyper warfare spectrum.
Future war will be a complex matrix of coercive actions, all of which will form part of a new escalation of conflict designed to blackmail the target into accepting what could be perceived as unacceptable actions. China and Russia are studying our societies; they are looking at our alliances and working on our vulnerabilities to apply pressure, in pursuit of revisionist ends, using a myriad of coercive means.
The Russian objective is a sphere of influence, an implicit rebuilding of a Warsaw Pact, in forcing countries in Central and Eastern Europe to look back at Moscow, instead of Brussels or Washington. Russia’s strategic goal is to conduct a continuous low-level war at the seams of democratic societies, and on the margins of both the EU and NATO, to create implicit spheres of influence.
China’s objective is the domination of its near abroad and keeping the Americans out. For both Russia and China this is a strategic competition and military power is the key ingredient. In many ways it is an arms race similar to the pre-WWI world where we have these autocratic regimes determined to change the international system.
Q: Are you worried about the imbalance on the Eastern Flank, especially in the Black Sea region?
A: What we need to carry out is a series of mega-exercises where we develop the capacity to move large amounts of forces quickly. The primary weakness of the Alliance’s deterrence posture is the lack of a heavy conventional reserve force able to support front-line states in strength, quickly, and across a broad conflict spectrum, if the threat comes from several directions at once.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is revolutionising warfare to such an extent that future war will be conducted simultaneously from the low end of the conflict spectrum to the high end.Professor Julian Lindley-French
We need a big exercise in Central Europe that will move in different directions, able to support the national forces under pressure. We need a rapid-reaction heavy force. That is the plug that is still missing between our forward deployed forces and the whole NATO command structure; that could take between 90 and 120 days. The American presence in Europe is not big enough (around 3 BCTs – Brigade Combat Team5). The Europeans are going to be effective first responders in a crisis. But such an answer should be built around mass.
If we can demonstrate to an adversary that the threshold is too high to act – that is what deterrence is all about. It is not Russia that worries me now. Russia is being aggressive in its near abroad because of the nature of the regime. Russia is not systemically threatened. It is because Russia is so vulnerable domestically that it becomes more dangerous and its actions become really threatening. The simple fact is that the Russian military is too big for an economy half the size of the UK. This is dangerous.
Q: In your writings you talk about “coercive escalation” as a way for Russia to intimidate its victims and prey [upon them]. What role do these very specific investments in A2/ AD capabilities play in this broad, coercive escalation ladder? What is their implication for deterrence calculus, and for the ability to defend the most exposed US allies?
A: The anti-access/area-denial bubbles in Kaliningrad and Crimea are the basis of coercive operations. Let’s take the Suwałki Gap. Imagine the Russians gradually putting more pressure.
We have the Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) in the Baltics, an information campaign started, a destabilisation operation started; we see the wrapping-up of the forces in Kaliningrad and Belarus, and you got this increased pressure that basically says to NATO, “pull your troops out, we are going to close the Suwałki Gap, take the Baltic states back and there is nothing you can do about it.”
What we could do about it is start holding exercises which give the impression of neutralising Kaliningrad or even Crimea. The problem for the Russians and Gerasimov is that they don’t have sufficient mass themselves to cover the huge Russian borders. What we are not doing is being systematic in our analysis of how we would make life uncomfortable for President Putin and General Gerasimov.
Q: How would the Fourth Industrial Revolution (with AI and big data) change war?
A: A revolution in military technology is underway that will be applied in future on the twenty-first century’s battle space by enemies armed with AI, big data, machine-learning and quantum-computing. The impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on changing war is incredible.
It is revolutionising warfare to such an extent that future war will be conducted simultaneously from the low end of the conflict spectrum to the high end. The new technologies and the interactions between them are changing the character and conduct of war. They accelerate the pace of warfare, accelerate the speed of conflict and shorten the decision action cycles.
When you’ve got machine learning so fast that when humans intervene, it actually makes the whole process less efficient; when you have swarms of drones actually talking to each other about how to exploit vulnerabilities in defence systems – this is going to completely change warfare. Quantum computing will be essential if we are going to be able to defend against hyper-war.
It is about understanding and seeing the patterns. One of the big problems in 5D warfare is understanding when an attack is actually an attack. That will need high-level computing power. Add the hypersonic weapons and we will have the perfect storm.
I made this film about the sinking of the HMS Queen Elizabeth. It was about swarms of intelligent drones launched by an unmanned underwater Russian vehicle backed up by Iskander anti-ship missiles, and it showed how vulnerable a contemporary deployed NATO maritime task-force can be because they haven’t invested in proper defence systems.
This is the message I come back to. Europeans need to demonstrate firepower, but it should be 21st-century fighting power. The Fourth Industrial Revolution will change the nature of fighting power. The Americans, the Russians and Chinese are driving this forward. The Americans are offsetting the future and the Europeans are not, and this could create a massive interoperability gap. The true test of solidarity is that we need to invest in the right capabilities.
This interview is published in conjunction with Small Wars Journal.