The return to Big Wars.

After the Cold War the consensus among Western military strategists was that the era of Big Wars, defined as peer conflict between large states with full spectrum military technologies, was at an end, at least for the foreseeable future. The strategic emphasis shifted to so-called “small wars” and low-intensity conflicts where asymmetric warfare would be increasingly carried out by Western special forces against state and non-state actors who used irregular warfare tactics in order to compensate for and mask their comparative military weakness vis a vis large Western states. Think of the likes of Somalian militias, Indian Ocean pirates, narco-guerrillas like the Colombian FARC, ELN and Mexican cartels, al-Qaeda, ISIS/DAESH, Boko Haram, al-Shabbab, Abu Sayyaf and Hezbollah as the adversaries of that moment

Although individual Western states configured their specific interpretations of the broader strategic shift to their individual geopolitical circumstances, the broader rationale of SOLIC (Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict) made sense. The former Soviet Union was in disarray, with Russia militarily weakened, diplomatically shrunken, economically plundered and political crippled. Its former Republics were yet unable to independently exploit their material resources, and some of its former vassal states in the Warsaw Pact were seeking NATO membership. NATO itself had lost it main purpose for being, since the threat of major war with the USSR (the original rationale for its creation) no longer existed. The PRC had yet to enjoy the economic fruits of fully embracing capitalism in order to buy, borrow and steal its way to great power status and thereby shift away from its defensive land-based strategic posture. In a swathe of regions “failed states” awash in local armed disputes replaced proxy regimes and propped up despots. In other words, there were no “big” threats that required “big” wars because there were no “peers” to fight. The strategic emphasis shifted accordingly to countering these types of threats, often under the guise of “peace-keeping” and nation-building multinational missions such as the ill-fated ISAF mission in Afghanistan.

More broadly, the strategic shift seemed right because the world had moved from a tight bipolar system during the Cold War, where the US and USSR led military blocs armed with nuclear weapons, to a unipolar system in which the US was the military, economic and political “hegemon” dominating global affairs. At the time US strategists believed that they could single-handedly prevail in 2.5 major regional wars against any adversary or combination of adversaries.That turned out to be a pipe dream but it was the order of the day until the sequels to 9/11. Even then, the so-called “war against terrorism” was asymmetric and largely low-intensity in comparative terms. Other than the initial phases of the invasion of Iraq, all other conflicts of the early 2000s have been asymmetric, with coalitions of Western actors fighting much weaker assortments of irregulars who use guerrilla tactics on land and who did not contest the air and maritime spaces around them. As has happened in the past, the longer these conflicts went on the better the chances of an “insurgent” victory. Afghanistan is the best modern example of that truism but the persistence of al-Shabbab in Northern Africa or emergence of ISIS/DAESH from the Sunni Triangle in Iraq’s Anbar Province in the aftermath of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime demonstrates the validity of the notion that guerrilla wars are best fought by insurgents as protracted wars on home terrain. In other words, apply a death by a thousand cuts strategy to foreign invaders until their will to prolong the fight is sapped.

When I was in the Pentagon in the early 1990s the joke was that bomber pilots and tank operators would need to update the resumes in order to become commercial pilots and bus or truck drivers. Money moved away from big ticket items and into the SOLIC community, with a rapid expansion of SEAL, Green Beret, Ranger and Marine Recon units designed to operate in small group formations behind or within enemy lines for extended periods of time. If the Big War moment culminated in “Shock and Awe,” the SOLIC strategy was two pronged when it came to counter-insurgency (COIN) objectives: either decapitation strikes against “high value targets” or a hearts and minds campaign in which cultural operations (such as building schools, bridges and toilets) supplemented kinetic operations led by allied indigenous forces using the elements of military superiority provided by Western forces. This required familiarisation with local cultures and indigenous terrain, so investment in language training and anthropological and sociological studies of societies in which the SOLIC units operated was undertaken, something that was not a priority under Big War strategies because the objective there is to kill enemies and incapacitate their war effort as efficiently as possible, not to understand their culture or their motivations.

SOLIC turned out to be a mixed bag. The US and its allies found out, yet again, that much as like in Viet Nam, indigenous guerrilla forces were often ingenious, inspired and persistent. They learned to get out of the way when Western forces were massed against them, and they knew how to utilise hit and run tactics to frustrate their enemies. It was only when they made mistakes, like ISIS/DAESH’s attempt to create a territorially based Caliphate in Northern Irag and Northern Syria, and then engaged in a protracted defence of its base city Mosul, that they were decisively defeated. Even then remnants of this group and others continue to regroup and return to the fight even after suffering tremendous setbacks on the battlefields. As the saying goes, it is not who suffers the least losses that wins the fight, but instead it is those who can sustain the most losses and keep on fighting that ultimately prevail in a protracted irregular warfare scenario. Again, the Taliban prove the point.

During the time that the West was engaged in its SOLIC adventures, the PRC, Russia and emerging powers like India invested heavily in military modernisation and expansion programs. While the US and its allies expended blood and treasure on futile efforts to bring democracy to deeply entrenched authoritarian societies from the barrel of a gun, emerging great powers concentrated their efforts on developing military power commensurate with their ambitions. Neither the PRC, Russia or India did anything to support the UN mandates authorising armed interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in fact Russia and the PRC funnelled small arms to the Taliban via Pakistan, another yet nuclear armed but unstable state whose utility lies in its strategic ambiguity when it comes to big power conflicts. That fence-straddling posture will eventually be called.

However the future specifics unfold, that move to new or renewed militarisation was an early sign that the unipolar moment was coming to an end and that a multipolar order was in the making. Meanwhile, politics in the West turned inwards and rightwards, the US withdrew from Iraq and ten years later from Afghanistan without making an appreciable difference on local culture and society, with the entire liberal democratic world responding weakly to the PRC’s neo-imperialist behaviour in its near abroad and increasing Russian bellicosity with regards to former Soviet states, Georgia and Ukraine in particular (to say nothing of their direct influence operations and political interference in places like the US, UK, Germany and Australia). The challenges to US “hegemony” were well underway long before Donald Trump dealt US prestige and power a terminal blow.

Things on the strategic front came to a head when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. The West and NATO had responded weakly to the annexation of the Donbas region and Crimea by pro-Russian separatists and Russian “Green Men” ( professional soldiers in green informs without distinctive insignia) in 2014. The same had occurred in Georgia in 2008, when Russian forces successfully backed pro-Russian irredentist groups in the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Vladimir Putin read the West’s response to these two incursions as a sign of weakness and division within NATO and the liberal democratic world in general. He figured that an invasion of Ukraine would be quick and relatively painless because many Ukrainians are of Russian descent and would welcome his troops and prefer to be part of Mother Russia rather than a Ukrainian government presided over by a comedian. NATO and the US would dither and divide over how to respond and Russia would prevail with its land grab. And then, of course, Russia has a legion of hackers dedicated to subverting Western democracy in cyberspace and on social media (including in NZ) and better yet, has acolytes and supporters in high places, particularly in the US Republican Party and conservative political movements the world over.

In spite of all of these points of leverage, none of the Kremlin’s assumptions about the invasion turned out to be true. Russian intelligence was faulty, framed to suit Putin’s vainglorious desires rather than objectively inform him of what was awaiting his forces. Instead of a walk-over, the invasion stiffened Ukrainian resolve, ethnic Russians in Ukraine did not overwhelmingly welcome his troops and instead of dividing, NATO reunified and even has begin to expand with the upcoming addition of Finland and Sweden now that the original threat of the Russian Bear (and the spectre of the USSR) is back as the unifying agent.

Meanwhile the PRC has increased its threats against Taiwan, completely militarised significant parts of the South China Sea, encroached on the territorial waters and some island possessions of neighbouring littoral states, engaged in stealthy territorial expansion in places like Bhutan, clashed with Indian forces in disputed Himalayan territory and cast a blind eye on the provocative antics of its client state, North Korea. It has used soft power and direct influence campaigns, including wide use of bribery, to accrue influence in Africa, Latin America and the South Pacific. It arms Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua in spite of their less than splendid regime characteristics. It violates international treaties and conventions such as the Law of the Sea, the sovereignty of airspace over other nation’s territories and various fishery protection compacts. It uses its state-backed companies for espionage purposes, engages in industrial espionage and intellectual property theft on grand scale and acts like an environmental vandal in its quest for raw material imports from other parts of the world (admittedly, it is not alone in this). It does not behave, in other words as a responsible, law-abiding international citizen. And it is now armed to the teeth, including a modernised missile fleet that is clearly designed to be used against US forces in the Western Pacific and beyond, including the US mainland if nuclear war becomes a possibility.

All of this sabre rattling and actual war-mongering by the PRC, Russia and allies like Iran and North Korea were reason enough for Western strategists to reconsider the Big War thesis. But it is the actual fighting in Ukraine that has jolted analysts to re-valuing full spectrum warfare from the seabed to outer space.

Since 2016 the US Defense Department has begin to shift its strategic gaze towards fighting Big Wars. In its 2022 National Defense Strategy and related documents, this orientation is explicit, mentioning north the PRC and Russia as main threats.For its part, the PRC has responded in kind and warns that US “interventionism” will pay a heavy price should it interfere with China’s rightful claims on its near abroad (which on Chinese maps extend well into the Pacific). The DPRK is accelerating its ballistic missile tests and openly talking about resuming nuclear warhead testing. India is going full bore with aircraft carrier and submarine fleet expansion. Germany is re-arming as its supplies Ukraine with increasingly sophisticated battle systems while the UK and Australia are raising their defense spending above 2 percent of GDP (the much vaunted but until recently ignored NATO standard). France has withdrawn from its SOLIC operations in North and Central Africa in order to prepare for larger conflicts involving its core interests. Japan has revised its long-standing pacifist constitution and has begun to add offensive weapons into its inventory as well as more closely integrating with the 5 Eyes Anglophone signals intelligence network.

The arms race is on and the question now is whether a security dilemma is being created that will lead to a devastating miscalculation causing a major war (security dilemmas are a situation where one State, seeing that a rival State is arming itself seemingly out of proportion to its threat environment, begins to arm itself in response, thereby prompting the rival State to increase its military expenditures even more, leading to a spiralling escalation of armament purchases and deployments that at some point can lead to a misreading of a situation and an armed clash that in turn escalates into war).

The race to the Big War is also being fuelled by middle powers like those of the Middle East (Israel included) and even Southeast Asia, where States threatened by Chinese expansionism are doubling down on military modernisation programs. A number of new security agreements such as the Quad and AUKUS have been signed into force, exacerbating PRC concerns that its being ring-fenced by hostile Western adversaries and their Asian allies. As another saying goes, “perception is everything.”

None of this means that large States will abandon SOLIC anytime soon. Special forces will be used against armed irregular groups throughout the world as the occasion requires. But in terms of military strategic doctrines, all of the major powers are now preparing for the next Big War. That is precisely why alliances are being renewed or created, because allied firepower is a force multiplier that can prove decisive in the battle theater.

One thing needs to be understood about Big Wars. The objective is that they be short and to the point. That is, overwhelming force is applied in the most efficient way in order to break the enemy’s physical capabilities and will to fight in the shortest amount of time. Then a political outcome is imposed. What military leaders do not want is what is happening to the Russians in Ukraine: bogged down by a much smaller force fighting on home soil with the support of other large States that see the conflict as a proxy for the real thing. The idea is get the fight over with as soon as possible, which means bringing life back to the notion of “overwhelming force,” but this time against a peer competitor.

The trickle down effects of this strategic shift are being felt in Australasia. Singapore has agreed to hosting forward basing facilities for a US littoral combat ship and its shore-based complement as well as regular port calls by US Navy capital ships such as aircraft carriers. The Philippines have renewed a bilateral defense pact with the US after years of estrangement. Australia has aligned its strategic policy with that of the US and with the signing of the AUKUS agreement on nuclear-powered submarines and adjacent military technologies has become a full fledged US military ally across the leading edges of military force (Australia will now become only the second nation that the US shares nuclear submarine technologies with, after the UK). Even New Zealand is making the shift, with recent Defense White Papers and other command announcements all framing the upcoming strategic environment as one involving great power competition (in which the PRC is seen as the regional disruptor) with the potential for conflict in the South and Western Pacific (with a little concern about the adverse impact of climate change of Pacific communities thrown in). In other words, the times they are a’changin’ in New Zealand’s strategic landscape. For NZ, comfort of being in a benign strategic environment no longer applies.

It remains to be seen how long New Zealand’s foreign policy elite fully comprehend what their military commanders are telling them about what is on the strategic horizon. They may well still cling to the idea that they can trade preferentially with the PRC, stay out of Russian inspired conflicts and yet receive full security guarantees from its Anglophone partners. But if they indeed think that way, they are in for an unpleasant surprise because one way or another NZ will be pulled into the next Big War whether it likes it or not.

14 thoughts on “The return to Big Wars.

  1. For discussion sake, my friend, I would say that Quad is not an alliance, it’s a format for consultation, with working groups in numerous areas. Neither is Aukus an alliance, it’s an agreement for sharing technologies.
    I would also disagree with you that Russia and PRC are belligerent or aggressive. PRC feels under threat, and therefore acts defensively. Russia has actually been under considerable threat, and has therefore acted defensively, also in a reactive manner. However, I fully appreciate that your training and experience can make it difficult for you to see the situation this way. However, distance can bring perspective, and the difference between a reactive defensiveness and aggressive belligerence is perhaps a fine distinction, which perhaps can only be seen by looking at things from other’s perspective. But, I don’t wish to quarrel, I simply wish to state it as I see it. I fully respect and understand your viewpoint. And I’m only being emphatic in this regard, because I really don’t enjoy you dismissing me from the discussion.
    Nevertheless, I fully agree with the overall picture you paint that preparations are underway for a major conflagration. It seems to be proceeding by individual actors for their own reasons, without knowing or fully considering where it all might be leading.

  2. Scott Hamilton, who I admire greatly, recently on twitter in a bit of an OTT reaction to a Hawkish North and South piece demonstrated that most of the left’s geopolitical analysis and military understanding is like a dog’s understanding of quantum physics, not worth thinking about. The frightening thing from the Ukraine is the reminder just how much human flesh is horribly vulnerable to explosives, bullets, fire and shrapnel – and yet, it also demonstrates also how much lack of training and equipment that unthinking pacifism is paid for on the battlefield in the lives of often your bravest and most idealistic young men and women. It is hard to imagine, though, how we could begin to prepare our highly mobile, highly foreign born neoliberal society which prizes narcissism, hyper-individualism, globalism and which has made traditional martial traits a source of virtual scorn for the sort of values displayed by Ukrainians every day. The idea of dying defiantly uttering “Glory to New Zealand” is foreign to most people here.

    The other question, of course, is what should our force structure be, would it (given how unpopular military service is) require some sort of conscription, and how on earth do we have an informed debate is a society two generations deep into a near complete demilitarisation and rampant ignorance of military affairs? We live in a country where anything painted green is a tank!

  3. Sanctuary:

    I agree that the North-South article was pretty poor, more of a cheerleader’s call to militarisation than a dispassionate analysis. I happen to think that rather than mobilise a population NZ needs to configure its armed forces with an eye towards providing second tier support to its major allies in the event of a Major Regional War. I have no doubt that public will be divided and perhaps largely opposed if, say, the PRC engages in an armed clash with Australia, perhaps in the waters off of Vanuatu where they have competing interests, that requires NZ and the US to join the fray.

    Not saying it will happen but that is what contingency planning is all about, and our contingencies have traditionally been focused on operations other than major war.

  4. William,

    As you expected, we will have to disagree. I would ask Russia’s and the PRC’s neighbours how they feel about the claim to them acting in a “reactive defensive” manner. The expansion of PRC claims to the entire South China Sea does not look very defensive, nor does its de facto annexation of Bhutanese territory. I really do not see who is seriously threatening PRC sovereign integrity or core interests, and Russian claims that NATO has been plotting and scheming to use its expansion as a prelude to aggressive attacks on the Motherland seem a bit far-fetched to me. Both Russia and the PRC have strategic “depth” that makes it near impossible for adversaries to gain full control of their territories or all of their critical infrastructure. That is why I am perplexed and disagree with your reactive defensive characterisation of their strategic responses in recent years.

    I understand that the QUAD is not a formal alliance but a series of ongoing subject discussion formats, and that AUKUS is not a military alliance per se (although the US and Australia already have an alliance framework in place.See

    As I noted at the end of one paragraph, to paraphrase, “perception is everything” and I have zero doubt that the PRC perceives both arrangements as part of the ring-fencing project that the US and its allies want to erect around it. I thought that it was interesting that Paul Keating slammed the AUKUS deal, saying that the PRC would have to invade Australia with thousands of troops in order to conquer it. I believe that Mr. Keating misses the point of the subs which are to be used as stand-off weapons and intelligence gathering platforms far away from coastal defense roles. Again, it is about the ring-fencing project, not defending Australian territory (which subs are not designed to do beyond protecting ports and chokepoints).

    In any event, thanks for keeping things in a courteous vein.

  5. Thank you for that very comprehensive history and analysis of how we’ve got to where things are at globally right now, Pablo. These are very troubling times and I don’t remember lying awake at night as I have been lately, worrying about how potentially dangerous our world seems, since the Cuban missile crisis.

    On that note, I’ve been wondering how NZ will manage its current relationships with China, and AUKUS. Chris Hipkins has reaffirmed we will remain nuclear free (thankfully!) but if there is an invasion of Taiwan by the Chinese our allegiances and our response will be put to the test. Best to hasten our trade alliances away from China as soon as we possibly can and I think there is some progress being made, but if things continue down the path they appear to be it won’t be fast enough. We know which side we’ll pick, but how will we manage our defence?

    Picking a side is vital in the Russia/Ukraine war too. Russia is the aggressor here and Ukraine should be given all the help it can to contain the aggressor. The war has dragged on due to Ukraine being given arms, but only enough to slow the battles down, not to win the war. That needs to change and I think Ukraine’s allies now realise this, but it is heartbreaking seeing and hearing about the losses of their talented people and the complete destruction of their cities the war has brought.

    I read this yesterday, and even though it doesn’t quite address your topics it has relevance given what is happening in Ukraine (for anyone who follows Russia’s line that Ukraine belongs to Russia, I highly recommend Professor Timothy Snyder’s history of Ukraine which is free and on YouTube) as well) :

  6. Oh dear Pablo, its all doom and gloom in your scenarios ;-)
    Time for a wee walk in that cool, refreshing and safe, non-threatening NZ bush I think. Down to the beach :-)

    There was a recent announcement by our NZ govt that despite Australia acquiring nuclear submarines, NZ would remain nuclear free and they would not be allowed here. I did wonder if that now somewhat old-fashioned/outdated and essentially I think – idealistic – policy stance might perhaps require some review; given the obvious changes in the geopolitical/threat landscape. Might we not need the protection of an Australian nuclear-powered submarine now? It is all seeming a bit quaint to me now, though I long loved to see David Lange taking it to the Oxford Union Debate. Times have def. changed. We may need the Aussies, or the Americans, and nuclear subs are par for the course.
    Kind regards.

  7. Pablo,
    All ok.
    I would briefly refer to the following matters that in part inform my views:
    1. yes, China understands the efforts to encircle or contain it, and has made several statements to that effect. They have also said, we are ready for any eventuality. Meanwhile US continues its ‘strategic ambiguity,’ particularly on Taiwan; e.g., Biden says, “We will give Taiwan all the arms it needs.” Then the State Dept. backtracks and says that the President was ‘perhaps a little emotional.’ (or something to that effect).
    2. Nuland’s visit to Moscow 11-13 Octo. 2021, during which she stated that ‘if Putin doesn’t leave office, we will wreck your economy.’ Then very soon afterwards announced from Beirut that Russian troops were amassing on the Ukraine border. Burns rushed to Moscow to try to fix what Nuland had broken. Lavrov later reported that Nuland was unwilling to support the Minsk accords. Refer also Nuland’s 2020 article in Foreign Affairs, ‘Pining down Putin.’ And the 2019 Rand Corp plan to draw Russia out of its borders as a way to exhaust it. The 17 Decem. 2021 Russian proposed US-Russia bilateral ‘Treaty to Safeguard Peace,’ which sought to uphold UN Charter principles, but to which the US simply didn’t respond. Previous Russian statements that expansion of NATO membership per se wasn’t a problem, but the forward placing of NATO weapons was. Including statements that the placement of NATO weapons in Ukraine would be unacceptable. Then, the admission by Merkel (in about September-Octo. 2022, I don’t recall exactly when) that the Minsk Accords were entered into primarily to allow time for the Ukraine military to be built up, presumably as a means towards drawing Russia into a cauldron.
    A friend is waiting on me just now. Good night!

  8. Considering all the above, and to bring this to address the main topic, the current situation re Ukraine (and Iraq, Syria, Libya) shows us quite clearly that the major powers are fully willing to either indulge in or even to directly provoke major world conflicts, and therefore I fully concur with your main point.
    However, though Ukraine is clearly a proxy great power conflict, I don’t expect that it alone will provoke or lead towards a bigger war.

  9. With regard to the 2.5 wars military prep of the USA, I thought that dated back to the late 1940’s but had been largely abandoned by the 1970’s as unrealistic in the face of Soviet military power, and was followed by a 1.5 wars approach, at best?

  10. Tom,

    That is news to me. Between the nuclear stand-off, the stalemate in the Korean War and the quagmire of Vietnam, my impression is that the US did not believe that it could fight and prevail in 2.5 major regional (conventional) wars on its own until the unipolar moment of the 1990s. The fall of the USSR and ease with which Saddam’s army was pushed out of Kuwait in 1990-91 emboldened the neo-con factions in the US security apparatus, including in the Pentagon and Langley, to the point that they came to believe in the 2.5 MRWs scenario. They would came to regret that once Bush 43 ordered the invasion of Iraq on a pretext 20 years ago, having already invaded Afghanistan. Even with many partners, it did not ultimately “prevail” in either.

  11. Every war since WW2 has in some sense been a civil war. The only exceptions I can think of are US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and possibly the USSR war in Afghanistan.

    Since the end of the Cold War proxy wars have also dramatically decreased. There are fixed limits to how big a war can get these days.

  12. Ah James,

    Spoken like a true general–always planning for the last wars. The point of my post was simply to note that Western war planners have moved away from the small/civil/irregular war/counter-insurgency focus and on to peer conflict between big States and their allies. The PRC has already done so. The Russian assault on Ukraine is an object lesson in what not to do, and all interested peer competitors as well as their allies have taken note of that.

  13. If I’m a true general why I saying the opposite of what the actual generals are trying to do?

    Yes, war planners have moved back towards open battlefield planning. I don’t think this is necessarily a mistake, but direct war with other great powers will only ever be wars of choice, never necessity. (True, China and India share a border but they only seriously dispute unoccupied lands, making escalation to full war very unlikely.)

    Russia is not a threat to any of the developed democracies at this point, little other than keeping weapon stocks up needs to be done. China is a bit different, they will eventually have a substantial military, but they are interested in little else than Taiwan—an extremely defensible location.

    Military power isn’t the weak point. Politicians are. They could easily put 100,000 troops on Taiwan or directly enter Ukraine. They don’t though, because they don’t want to piss off Russia or China too much. This is the real limit. Building up militaries for Big War situations is just posturing, it matters little because China for example just has no interest whatsoever in conquering the Philippines for example. They only care about Taiwan because there are Chinese people there. That drastically limits what scenarios need to be planned for.

    The West can massively outspend China or Russia and has a large defenders advantage. They can end this before it has already began by massively reinforcing the forward points of the Baltic states or Taiwan. They don’t because they want China’s trade. China might make a reckless attack against bad odds, but they wont make a useless attack with zero odds.

    Sure, it’s good to keep capabilities up. You have to let the other side know you can punish them if they test you. But these capabilities will never fully be used because no-one is interested in doing that any more. The industrial revolution and international trade fundamentally changed the game. Starting with Napoleon and reduction of the Spanish empire, reaching the turning point with WW1, and finally ending in 1989.

    Human nature isn’t static. War isn’t eternal. Civilisation didn’t always exist, it was created and with it “big war”. There is no fundamental law of the universe that says war will always be with us.

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