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.