Liminal and conceptual envelopment: warfare in the age of dragons
SWJ Interview with Dr. David Kilcullen, author of the newly published Dragons and the Snakes - How the Rest learned to fight the West, Oxford University Press, March 2020. He is a professor of practice in the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University and a professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of New South Wales.
This interview is dedicated to Dave Dilegge’s legacy, the founder of Small Wars Journal, “a scholar, warrior and agitator who gave the counterguerrilla underground a home.”
Robert Kagan was talking about the (geopolitical) jungle that grows back. Your latest book has more of Game of Throne (GOT) vibe: the return of the dragons. In short, from GWOT [Global War on Terrorism] to GOT. The emerging changes to the character of war, the ways in which the dragons are practicing warfare are at the core of your new book. Based on your observations, how did the character of contemporary war change?
The book is about military adaptation. It’s about how both state and non-state adversaries responded to us in the period since the Cold War. We created the fitness landscape within which all of our adversaries are adapting, and the event that created that was the 1991 Gulf War. It showed everybody how not to fight the US. The next big event was the 2003 invasion of Iraq that showed everybody that you can fight the US and you can succeed but you need a completely different model – small modular low-profile groups that operate autonomously among people in a protracted conflict. What we’ve seen in the 17 years since we invaded Iraq is that adversaries have learned from each other and also reacted to the environment that we created by avoiding and going around our conventional strength. Today we live in a security environment where the dragons operate and fight like snakes (embracing non-state types of activities like cyber-militias, subversion, political warfare) and where the snakes have acquired the capabilities of traditional dragons and sometimes fight like a state. That poses for us a dilemma going forward. If we are thinking about the future of war, we can’t just decide to stop worrying about terrorism and to get out of dealing with the snakes because that threat is real. We can’t just go for great power competition because we are dealing with hyper-empowered non-state actors that now have access to all kinds of technology and capability that didn’t exist a decade ago. We can’t just ignore that. By the same token we can’t continue to primarily focus on non-state actors because states have adapted and evolved specifically to exploit our tunnel vision on terrorism since 2003. I emphasize 2003 rather than 2001 because it was the invasion of Iraq that got us bogged down, not so much Afghanistan. The 2003 moment highlighted the limits of the Western way of war - a very high-tech precision-centric approach that emphasizes battlefield dominance and is characterized by a narrow focus on combat.
What we’ve got to do is cover a much broader range of threats with a much more agile approach, which suggests to me a lighter footprint, with greater emphasis on agile responses to a wider variety of threats in a wider variety of places. We have to become more capable of dealing with both state and non-state threats at the same time and in many of the same places. In Syria for example we have significant non-state threats but also state adversaries that are playing a multi-level game. That is actually pretty typical and is happening in many of today’s operating environments. The traditionally neat distinction between conventional and unconventional warfare is breaking down and we are going to need forces that are cheaper, more agile, more modular and are able to respond in a seamless fashion to a wider variety of threats. We need to be swing-role: a multi-role aircraft can do multiple missions but can do only one mission at a time, while swing-role aircraft can seamlessly shift in mid-mission to a different type of task. That is the kind of mindset that we need to be emphasizing – forces that can do not only multiple things but can transition seamlessly among tasks in a middle of a mission.
Is this more along the lines of what general Charles Krulak was arguing in the 1990s with his three-block war concept (humanitarian, peacekeeping, high intensity) shifting from one to another but with a new dimension – great power competition?
It is beyond the three-block war. It is more like 16-block war with multiple domains – cyber, space, political and economic warfare, alongside the physical and electromagnetic domains. One of the points I make about China is that we are dealing with an adversary that has dramatically broadened its definition of warfare beyond what we consider to be war. In fact, what they do in practice is to mobilize multiple dimensions of national power that are way beyond our traditional military domains. Even if we could conceive a lot of what the Chinese are doing as warlike, it is not clear that the Ministry of Defense of any Western country would be in charge of the response. We need to think carefully about reconceptualizing what we mean by war.
Russian way of warfare
I think one important question that should be raised is what did the dragons learn from the snakes of the post 9/11? I mean the attacks on cohesiveness and legitimacy, subverting the rules of the road, shaping hearts and minds, the grievances they are cultivating and exploiting - all are features reminding of an insurgent repertoire. To me the dragons of the day behave like insurgents, they are really insurgent powers trying to overhaul a certain type of international order.
The clearest example here are the Russians that in the Western Military District have actively copied ISIS models of warfare to create super-light brigades that operate in a distributed fashion with small combat teams and a weapons mix similar to what we’ve seen from ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] . They have directly copied the ISIS maneuver model in the way they are operating. Another example is also Russian – Moscow fielded a wide array of autonomous and new armored systems into the Syrian campaign, learned important lessons and triggered a series of adaptations based on that operational experience.
In the book, following Stephen Rosen, I draw a distinction between wartime and peacetime adaptation. When you are in wartime adaptation mode it’s a process of unconscious evolution (and actually co-evolution) between you and the adversary. Wartime adaptation is a direct response to enemy action and one result is that over time you come to resemble your adversaries. The process works both ways: states are borrowing nonstate techniques and applying them in their own ways as an enabler to conventional military operations while nonstate groups are borrowing from states.One example is the way that Hezbollah evolved from a classical resistance movement to a regional actor that operates more like a state (both in the 2006 war against Israel or later in Syria supporting Assad), combining conventional and irregular methodologies. Another example is the way we operate now in Afghanistan with CT [couterterrorim] pursuit teams that work on the ground in ways that are very similar to how the Taliban operate. It is one example of us evolving to look like the adversary. The flip side of this is that the modern Taliban and in fact ISIS during the fighting in Iraq and Syria look a lot like us – the way they operated with artillery, tanks and vehicles in a light cavalry swarm. They are adapting to look like us. In a co-evolution environment we are in a tit-for-tat adaptive process with adversaries. By contrast, in a peacetime environment (and this applies to all the countries that haven’t been so heavily involved in the War on Terrorism – Russia, China, North Korea and Iran) they were free to sit back, watch us struggle, identify strengths and weaknesses in our approach, come up with concepts to enable them to improve and build capabilities that would counteract Western dominance. In case of Russia is a bit of combination – they watched us struggle in 2003 and learned a lot from that but they also had their own adaptive learning curve from the internal conflicts in Georgia, North Caucasus or Ukraine.
Is fighting at the edges - a new type of out-maneuvering and out-competing the West? What does a liminal warfare playbook like the one practiced by Russia entail in a frontline ecosystem?
Liminal means threshold. Liminal warfare is about threshold manipulation. It is a style of warfare that the Russians in particular have perfected, which is about riding the edge of observability, surfing the threshold of detectability so a lot of their activity is literally sub-liminal (“below the threshold” of perception), and we don’t even notice what is happening. They manipulate their signature so as to only pop up into the ambiguous zone of operations long enough to achieve very specific short term goals and then to drop back down into the sub-liminal environment before we can respond. It is about manipulating their own signature, it’s about creative ambiguity and it’s about time – operating in the blur of the “gray zone” and surging rapidly to achieve key objectives and quickly getting back below the threshold of response before we can react.
There a few techniques that they apply. For example, reflexive control, a theory with a long history in the Russian political warfare. Another is decisive shaping, where the decisive phase of operation is not the maneuver phase, but the pre-maneuver shaping phase. Some Russian strategists want to win the operation before the first tank rolls or before the first air strike goes in. If they don’t believe they already won, the tanks will never roll. That means that a lot of liminal warfare is political warfare, economic warfare, weaponization of oil and gas, the use of special forces in very small numbers to work with local groups, and then rapid strike ops.
In the lead-up to the Georgian campaign in 2008, the Russians engaged in a “passportization” program where they offered any Russian speaking – Georgian citizen a Russian passport. They did that for months before the operation. By the time the operation began they had a very large number of newly-created Russian citizens inside Georgia and were able to invoke the responsibility to protect their own citizens. This whole shaping phase happened before the operation began. When we think about the manipulation of oil and gas in the Crimea operation in February 2014, mid-winter, Russian political warfare was heavily focused on targeting Germany to prevent NATO to react. A big part of that campaign was to say to the Germans, do you really want to pick a fight with Russia in the middle of winter when you depend on Russian oil and gas to provide heating to a majority of German population? At the core of liminal warfare is the integration of political, economic, legal, military, intelligence, cyber into a single seamless mix of activity emphasizing the shaping before the operation. All built on the idea of escalating to de-escalate: they move quickly to seize a key objective early on, presenting an enemy with a fait accompli and later de-escalate their rhetoric in order to negotiate from a position of strength. Crimea is the perfect example of this. While “escalate to de-escalate” is an idea that originally came from Russian nuclear strategy (although Russia watchers disagree whether a formal doctrine in this sense ever existed), they’ve applied it in many other fields of activity since then.
Chinese way of warfare
So South China Sea, maritime and land Silk Roads, key strategic acquisitions in the West, A2/AD posture, 5G - what is the essence of the Chinese way of warfare?
The Chinese way of war is about “conceptual envelopment”, expanding the concept of war to the point where they are able to maneuver in a space that is outside of our definition of conflict. In contrast with the Russians, who favor a more vertical type of escalation, the Chinese embrace horizontal escalation by expanding the spectrum of competition and confrontation to the point that battlefield is everywhere and warfare is everything. In this sense, controlling the means of technology – 5G systems, strategic real estate purchases, ports and harbors all over the world, controlling certain kinds of supply-chain and critical infrastructure investments, these are all described in the 1999 Unrestricted Warfare (written by Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui) as non-military war operations. The two colonels dramatically broaden the definition of war going beyond battlefield dominance, emphasizing “trans-military” and “non-military war operations” by leveraging society and the international system to achieve a military goal with non-military means. The authors of that document talk about combination strategies that mix lethal and non-lethal, military and non-military means (including criminal networks or civil organizations) bringing into play a whole variety of competitions and combining them in a seamless architecture similarly to what we’ve been talking about with the Russians.
There are three broad strands in the Chinese way of war. One is Unrestricted Warfare which later became the Three Warfares doctrine in 2006 - cyber warfare, public opinion/information warfare and lawfare. The second is the change of China from being a land-based power (which it has been since the middle of 16th century) to both being a maritime and land-power. This is a gigantic transformation. When Xi Jinping came to power, one of his first military announcements talked about the imperative to move away from the idea that the land is more important than the sea and become a real maritime power. It’s incredibly important to understand the geopolitical implications for the global security environment of China going from being a land power to now challenging the US at sea in the Western Pacific, building a militarized archipelago of islands in the South China Sea and bases elsewhere, toward being able to project power globally. The third is the conventional modernization of Chinese land forces which goes along cyber, space, and long-range precision fires as well as advanced maneuver forces and special forces, and “informationalization” of battle networks. If you contrast Russian with Chinese developments, Russia has a small but very capable set of niche assets at the high end of the technology spectrum. The Chinese, in contrast, are doing high-tech at scale.
There is a sense of overlapping, in both theory and practice, between the Chinese URW[ Unrestricted Warfare] and how Gerasimov is framing warfare. Do the dragons learn from each other? In the end, both are building A2/AD [Anti Access/Area Denial] zones in their immediate proximity or creating new facts on the ground (the bridge linking Russia with Crimea, the artificial islands) that give them the opportunity to claim entire regions (Azov Sea or the South China Sea).
We know that the Russians and the Chinese have exercised together, jointly, over the past few years, that they share information and compare notes. I don’t think it is clear that they are consciously collaborating, but I do think that like every other adversary that we have, they are all responding to a similar set of circumstances that we created and even if they are coming from different starting points they are co-evolving in a way that makes them to begin look increasingly similar to each other. Yes, there is some collaboration, but in some ways it is more interesting than that conceptually, because they are independently co-evolving towards similar solutions with a similar set of challenges. There is also a very significant element of territorial/spatial expansion in the way that both Russia and China think about what they are trying to do. We tend to think a very maneuver-centric way, they tend to think in terms of shaping and in a spatial control way.
Obviously, China and Russia have a very different set of strategic circumstances. China is a rising power that is trying to cement its role as a major global player whereas Russia is a power that is in a long-term decline. What the Russians are trying to do is create a sort of trade-space where they can expand their capabilities now while they still can, so that they have something to trade later when China in particular becomes a major threat to them. One of the paradoxes here is that China and Russia are currently cooperating with each other against the West, but in the long-term they are actually potential adversaries and geopolitical rivals. This is where any Western retreat is not going to result in peace and harmony but in a new Cold War between China and Russia rather than China, Russia and the West.
Professor Hew Strachan talked extensively in his writings about the danger of the strategic influence of operational level solutions. Is the failure to convert battlefield victory into strategic success and into a better peace the main lesson of the post 9/11 era?
I make the point in the book that we are extraordinarily good at achieving particular battlefield results but extraordinarily bad at translating those battlefield results into long-term political outcomes. We’ve seen this in Afghanistan and Iraq of course. The repeated failure to convert battlefield victory into a better peace remains a key reason for these inconclusive wars that ultimately contribute to internal unrest across the world.
The rise of populism in the West and the collapse of confidence in elites and establishments of all kinds are in some ways connected to the failure of our military models to deliver what they claimed. We told people for 25 years that they’ve got the best military in the world and yet they can see with their own eyes that that military isn’t delivering on the ground. So, this leads to a cognitive dissonance that results in a collapse of confidence.
There is a dynamic interaction between strategy, technology and tactics. You have a particular strategy which leads you to develop particular kinds of tactics and particular kinds of technologies. Once you have those technologies and capabilities in place they actually limit your choices of strategy. You are not able to just choose any strategy but you are channeled by the kinds of capabilities that you have. Then you start adopting strategies that privilege and optimize the effect of your existing organization, concepts and technologies and that is what we’ve been doing really since the Cold War. We have to step back a little bit from that dynamic interaction between operations, tactics, strategy and technology, to think about adaptation as a separate thing, consider how our adversaries are adapting, consider if it is possible to shape their adaptation in ways that favor us.
Is the West in danger of over-learning the lessons of the post 9/11 campaigns in the sense of never again? Everyone is running away from the liberal interventionism, stabilization operations or R2P [Responsibility to Protect] today. But sometimes they might be needed.
It’s a recurrent pattern. We repeatedly say that we are never going to do this stuff again and yet we do do it on a very regular basis. We do a large irregular warfare campaign, on average, once every 20 years and small ones once every 5-10 years. This historical pattern is continuous back to the mid-19th century and has nothing to do with the preferences of policy-makers or whether the army wants to do it or not, and yet still the army does these campaigns — and I suggest will continue to get drawn into these campaigns on a regular basis, until the underlying systemic features in the environment change. It may be that the COVID-19 pandemic and the threat of a collapse of the international world order that we have known for 25 years does result in a change, but that is not the way to bet. One of the things we talked about in the counterinsurgency period was the need to make a clear distinction between understanding how to do a certain kind of conflict versus advocating for that kind of conflict. People who understand urban operations are not advocates for more city fighting, they are actually more aware than anybody else how horrible urban battles are, yet they recognize the need to understand this form of warfare and how to do it. Likewise, as a counterinsurgency guy I am not advocating more counterinsurgency campaigns, I think we should avoid them wherever possible, but if we are going to do them we need a better understanding of how to operate. I think that is true here as well: we are going to be engaged in these kind of conflicts and we should be aware that, to paraphrase Trotsky, “you may not be interested in war but war is interested in you.”
A key component of the security environment that you are describing are the dragons that learned to fight like the insurgents and embraced an insurgent toolkit to fight the West – competing and subverting the Western minds for example. In this sense shouldn’t we act more like a counterinsurgent in our response? As a former COIN [counterinsurgency] practitioner what do you think we should preserve from the COIN portfolio? A civil-military fusion maybe?
I think there is a lot of value in our Iraq/Afghanistan experience that translates directly to dealing with today’s environment: the need for integrated civil-military effects, the requirement for robust and properly-resourced civilian agencies to partner with the military, the need for political leaders to fully engage in the problem-set, and the importance of narrative. That said, one of my key points at the end of the book is that we need to get out of the business of occupying and attempting to govern remote places over the long term in a large-scale way: we can go long, or we can go big, but we shouldn’t try to do both. So, in that sense our approach should perhaps draw more from Unconventional Warfare and Foreign Internal Defense, rather than large-scale neoclassical COIN.
How should the Western way of warfare change in order to respond effectively to the adaptations and variations in the operational environment?
There are broadly three potential courses of action.
The first is doubling-down – keep doing what we are doing now, just do it harder, spend more money on the same kind of capabilities we are building now. That is not going to work because our adversaries have already adapted, so to continue what we’ve been doing is not going to change the environment.
Secondly is to embrace the suck – accept that our primacy will decline and just try to manage that in a way that achieves a soft landing. That is not going to work either because for a soft-landing to work you need a successor that is capable enough or willing to do the job of stabilization and friendly enough to the US and the West that wouldn’t be a total disaster for us to allow a handover. We don’t have any such successor.
Thirdly is some sort of a Byzantine strategy – a holding strategy to enable a potentially acceptable successor to emerge. The Western Roman Empire collapsed in the 4th century AD while the Byzantine Empire survived for another 1100 years until the fall of Constantinople. So how did they manage to achieve another 1100 years of primacy in the Eastern Mediterranean after the collapse of the Roman Empire? In the book I describe a number of things about how they operated. They were very capable of selectively copying from adversaries in terms of technologies, techniques, ways of operating, they learned from their wide range of enemies and incorporated those lessons into their own very adaptive, flexible way of operating. Secondly, they got out of the business of occupying and governing entire provinces as the Romans had done and focused instead on agile mobile forces that could react at long distances to a wide variety of threats, stabilize the environment and step back. They were also able to build constellations of capable local allies that could do a lot of the work in between interventions. They maintained a selective edge and mastered some key technologies that other people couldn’t master such as Greek Fire, a high-tech defensive tool. Most importantly they focused very heavily on resiliency at home, on building an effective civil and military and economic system that was resilient to shock, that was not optimized for efficiency in the absence of shock, but optimized for resilience to shock. We just need to look at what is happening to COVID 19 to realize that the modern world we’ve created with Western military systems since the Cold War is hyper-efficient but at the same time is also very fragile because it relies on efficiency in the absence of shock. A Byzantine model would ask how would we make all our systems more resilient to shock? This would possibly mean decentralization, lower tech, more play space in our systems so they don’t rely on very precise integration of multiple moving parts. An urbanized world depends on very complex inter-locking systems and when one part collapses it all collapses. We are living and watching that happen.
In a world in which the West is no longer militarily dominant, a Byzantine approach would suggest ways to hold the line – in their case for more than a millennium – in order to allow the world to change so that there is a viable successor and the adaptive approach of our adversaries becomes less threatening.
Lastly, we need to move away from a solely battlefield-centric conception of war and embrace a more holistic approach that broadens the notion of successful strategy beyond battlefield dominance. and adopt a more flexible model of statecraft. In short, as JFC Fuller would say, the object of war is not victory, but a better peace.
Please describe the contours of what a reconceptualized and expanded notion of war should become the new normal for any Western strategist.
War in the modern world is fought simultaneously across all domains — air, space, sea, land, cyber and the electromagnetic spectrum. It includes elements of economic warfare, political warfare and narrative maneuver and involves cyber-kinetic operations (cyber-ops with lethal effects and kinetic ops with cyber effects) that favor forces which maneuver simultaneously in cyberspace and physical space. Modern war is fought in a crowded, cluttered, electronically connected, mostly urban and coastal environment, against a complex mix of adaptive state and non-state adversaries who copy each other’s techniques, and are often seeking to overwhelm us through a large number of small simultaneous challenges, rather than a single big threat. They tend to prefer decisive shaping (winning the conflict before the first shot is fired) and creative ambiguity (rather than fully covert or clandestine operations) as a way to avoid our conventional strength. The most important thing we can do to adapt to this kind of war is to get out of our defensive crouch, and begin operating aggressively to shape them rather than wait to be shaped ourselves.
When discussing a future posture of the West, I am wondering if you take into consideration the idea of a concert of democracies able and willing to defend the legacy and the Western order?
The transition from US primacy might be to another leading power but it might also be to a concert of powers and ideally a concert of democracies involving India, Europe, Latin America and Asian democracies. I don’t think this path is particularly likely, primarily because Europe and other countries (Australia is a good example) are so dependent on US security guarantees that these actually undermine their ability to fulfill that role. In some ways president Trump’s approach in forcing European allies to do more and withdrawing blanket American security guarantees, while unpleasant and done in a very vulgar way, actually is pointing to something important which is that we have to have countries stepping forward and taking responsibility for their own resilience and their own defense. Firstly, the US will not be able to carry the burden forever and secondly, the American people have signaled now in multiple elections that they don’t want to do it anymore. In many ways the coronavirus shows the equally dangerous risk of being so dependent on China economically, and you could argue that in the military sphere there is a similar risk - which is allies’ dependence on the US. Other countries been so dependent on China economically and so dependent on America militarily: the coronavirus teaches us that we need to break out of our dependence on China in the economic sphere, while in the military sphere the last 20 years teaches us that we need to break out of our dependence on the US. This will be good for everyone – it will allow the US to be more agile and responsive. Small allies are never going to compete with the US led way of war but they can specialize in other forms of war that the US doesn’t have a good understanding of. The classic example would be Estonia which is not a major player in the system-of-systems Gulf War type warfare but is leading the way in creating “defensive cyber home guards” within local defense associations or preparing a defensive guerilla warfare/resistance warfare model. If we want to broaden the alliance response we have to focus on our comparative advantages with different nations doing different things.
Are you worried about the domestic resilience of the West? Are we already too far in this process of polarizing ourselves and becoming more like Sunni vs. Shia/Hutu vs. Tutsi? Can we come back? Our internal cohesion seems to be an easy prey for the insurgent outside powers. General Mattis warned in the last chapter of his memoirs: ”What concerns me most as a military man is...our internal divisiveness...we are dividing into hostile tribes cheering against each other, fueled by emotion and a mutual disdain”.
The short answer is I don’t know if it is possible to recreate that sense of unity and move past the polarizing divisions that have really crippled our ability to respond to the current crisis. But it is imperative to do that. Otherwise we are going to be destroyed.