EVENT TRANSCRIPT: The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West
DATE: 6pm-7pm, 6th March 2020
VENUE: Millbank Tower, 21-24 Millbank, Westminster,SW1P 4QP, United Kingdom
SPEAKER: Dr David Kilcullen
EVENT CHAIR: Dr Paul Scott
DR PAUL SCOTT: Good evening everybody.
Welcome one and all to the Henry Jackson Society. Thank you for joining us this evening. For those who haven’t met me before, my name is Dr Paul Scott and I work here in the Centre on Radicalisation and Terrorism and I will be chairing the event this evening.
In terms of housekeeping and procedures we’ve got Dr David Kilcullen, our main speaker, who will speak this evening and after David has spoken there will be a question and answer session. If called to ask a question, please give your name and any affiliation you may hold.
By being joined by David Kilcullen this evening, I think we are joined by one of the most prominent public intellectuals in the West. David has worked in government, the military and academia at the highest levels. I will leave it to you to work out which is the most important and which is the least important of those three areas. And as someone who was sought to assess the event challenges and threats to our century for everyone, from the lay men to generals in the field in Iraq and Afghanistan.
His fifth book, available this evening, is entitled “The Dragons and the Snakes: How The Rest Learned To Fight The West”. And the book assesses how the west’s opponents and enemies are adapting their techniques in order to mitigate the west’s military advantage. So I pass the microphone now to David and he floor is all yours.
DR DAVID KILCULLEN: Thanks Paul. Everybody hear me, alright? Thanks for making the effort to come out. I know it’s a beautiful early spring evening in central London, apart from the rain and zombie virus mutants out there. I appreciate you guys making the effort. So let me tell you a bit about the book.
What I thought I would do is spend maybe 20, 25 minutes to just laying out some of the bigger ideas and then I’m sure some of that will be interesting to you and some won’t be. So I’ll let you guys pick out what is most interesting and we can kick that around in a discussion.
So the title of the book, The Dragons and the Snakes, comes from James Woolsey, who was President Clinton’s first CIA director. And in February of 1993, about 14 months after the end of the Cold War, he was giving his confirmation hearing testimony to become the CIA director and John Carrey, who was on the Intelligence Committee at the time, said to him: “look it’s the end of the Cold War, we just defeated the Iraqis in the 1991 Gulf War, what do you think is going to be the threat environment that the US needs to deal with in the future?” And Woolsey said, “We slayed a large dragon, talking about the Soviet Union, but now we find ourselves in a jungle, filled with a broad variety of poisonous snakes and in many ways the dragon was easier to keep track of.” And he goes on to lay out a vision of the post-Cold War threat environment, which is extraordinarily impressive and you can see it online and download his testimony. He talks about weak states, failing states and non-state actors as the principal threat. And he talks about terrorism, narcotic smuggling, the need for peace keeping, break up of former Soviet States, a whole litany that we all dealt with in the 1990’s. I don’t know if anyone knows John Woolsey, he is not a hugely modest chap. I met with him in his club once when I was in Washington when I was beginning to write the book and I asked him “So, is it okay when I name an entire era of global national security history after you?” and he said “Well, yes it is”. So I use the term with permission but essentially I’m suggesting that from 1993 when he gave his testimony and until 2003 we, in the West, focused on snakes, the non-state and weak state threads. From 2003 onward when we invaded Iraq, we narrowed our eyes to just one snake, international Islamic extremism and the terrorism is associated with that. For all sorts of good reasons, this was our tunnel vision from 2003 onward. While we were doing that the dragons, the state actors, were adapting, revolving, they were watching us struggle in the war on terrorism and figuring out different ways to fight us. So if the 1991 Gulf War showed everybody how not to fight the US and its allies, like if you go out in the open in broad daylight in straight lines, in tanks in the desert the result is going to be the highway of death. Don’t do that. But 2003 showed people how to fight the West. If you are amorphous and you blend into the background and you have a cell-bare structure and you can hide in urban terrain or amongst local population, it’s very hard for the Americans and the Allies to see you and target you. And so a lot of state actors began to copy non-state techniques after 2003. I have a detailed key study of Russia in the book and another of China and smaller studies of Iran and North Korea, where I go into some of the ways that they have learned from non-state actors and copied them. But another thing was happening at the same time as well, which was this massive explosion of electronic connectivity starting in about the year 2000, the emergence of hand-held smartphone devices around the middle of the 2010’s or around 2000’s, the explosion of social media, which didn’t even exist until around 2005 and the proliferation of GPS devices. So today there is more than one GPS device per person on the planet. And that made a huge difference to the way that non-state actors operated. So even in the same time frame while the dragons, the state actors, were learning to operate like the snakes, non-state actors were acquiring levels of lethality and precision that you used to need to be a government to own. So now individual small groups of terrorists are able to do things that you simply weren’t able to do in the past. I will call that by two examples – one being drones and the other one being the use of precision systems. We’ve all seen pictures of hobby drones that are being repurposed by groups like HDS or ISIS in the Middle East, probably one of the most well-known examples during the battle of Mosul, in 2017. Iraqi counter-terrorism forces kind of captured DJI hobby drones that had small plastic tubes glued to the base of the drone with a magnet in the head of the tube and a battery connecting to a remote switch. And what they would do is take a grenade, stick in the tube, pull the pin. The tube will hold the pin in place, you fly over the target, turn the magnet off, the grenade falls out and you fly back and get another one. You’ve got a little miniature bomber. That’s repurposing of consumer electronic technology circa 2017. By 2018 we see multiple drones coordinating with each other, swarming a Russian air base in Syria and carrying factory-made bomblets that were manufactured in a backyard factory by a similar terrorist group. So we’ve gone from a single repurposing of a hobby drone to multiple swarm drones coordinating with each other with purpose built devices rather than just, you know if you happen to have a bunch of grenades lying around, you’re actually building your own bomblets. We’re now seeing drones that are carried on backpacks, that people are using to attack other drones such like a hawk attacking a falcon and we’ve got this new form of activity going on, that just didn’t exist in the past. Another example would be, in terms of precision systems, Al-Qaida and ISIS mortar teams in Syria increasingly using iPads with an inclinometer, a compass, an altimeter to figure out exactly where the device is and coordinate fire, running a version of Google Earth, which by the way used to be called keyhole viewer because it was originally built for the US military intelligence Key Hole satellite system, so an American intelligence programme originally. Using Google Earth, they would fire a shot. A remote observer, who might be sitting in an internet café in Belgium, is talking to multiple people who have cell phones, who are phoning in the fall of shot, he is then putting a pin in Google Earth, which appears back on the iPad that the mortar team are using, and they go to fire for effect to destroy a target with just one adjusting round. That’s better than most regular militaries in the world can do. And with a hand-held iPad rather than some big chunky computer system bought for you buy for the government acquisition bureaucracy. While we’ve seen non-state actors copying the kinds of levels of lethality and capability of states, we have seen state actors like the Russians and Chinese going outside the traditional boundaries of western-style conventional warfare, realising that they are going to lose if they take us on in that environment. In the case of the Russians I talk about what I describe as liminal warfare or subthreshold manoeuvre, figuring out the detection threshold at which we are going to become aware of their activity, figuring out the decision parameters about how long it will take us to react and very carefully playing that in order to do just enough to achieve what they want to do but be out of the way before we can respond. And I liken it to one of these Hollywood heist movies where the bad guys hit the bank vault and then they start the stop watch saying the cops will be here in seven minutes, get out of the bank before they arrive. That’s exactly how the Russians manipulate western decision making processes and the Russians have also taken it to another level of applying political warfare that directly targets western political decision-makers in order to delay the response and make it take longer and longer for us to figure out what’s going on and then react, which then allows them to do what they want to do on the ground.
In the case of Chinese we’ve seen something somewhat different where the Chinese have gone sort of horizontally, outside the boundaries of what we define as warfare. So focusing on strategic real estate acquisition, on building control of 5G systems, of advanced communication devices in the west, building systems that allow them to militarise and occupy unoccupied rocks and shoals in the South China Sea and turn them into islands, which then have an economic exclusion zone but also happen to form a barrier behind which the new fleet of Chinese submarines can survive. The whole series of things that are in part military but are in part about avoiding the definition of what is military. In the book I talk a lot about unrestricted warfare, document written by two Chinese senior colonels in 1999 that’s explicitly about how China can adapt to avoid the kinds of US dominance that were telegraphed in 1991. Few years after that book was written China officially adopted something called the Three Warfares doctrine, focusing on political warfare, legal warfare or law fare, and information warfare. There is also a number of new developments that I didn’t have time to put into the book precisely because it’s an academic book and it takes a while to get through the publishing process. But the way that the Iranians and the North Koreans have manipulated western preferences in warfare shows that they are doing some of the same things that China and Russia are doing.
At the end of the book I sort of talk about how should we respond and I lay out three basic courses of action to use the military term, three basic options that we might want to consider. One of them is doubling down, recognising that the military model that we double down, recognising that the military model that we pioneered in 1991 that created a sort of unprecedented western military dominance over the globe is failing and doing more, spending more, getting more stuff in order to re-establish western military dominance. I suggest in the book that that’s not going to work. If our adversaries have already adapted in ways that invalidate our traditional military model, doing that military model harder is not going to make any difference. It is just going to make spend more and run out the clock faster.
The second model that I talk about or the second course of action that we might want to consider is, to use in an American military slang term, is just embracing the suck. Recognising that we are going to decline, it’s unfortunate, it’s going to be unpleasant but better we deal with it sooner rather than later. And you can see elements of that in President Obama’s idea of pulling back from imperial overstretch and trying to lead from behind, not engaging in the sorts of things he would criticise President Bush for doing. I think you can also see it very strongly in President Trump’s approach. The two of them would probably hate to be compared in that way and they talk about things in very different ways. But both of them are sort of saying “look, we can’t afford to keep doing this anymore. We need to pull back and we need to sort of accept that decline at some point is inevitable and make the best of it”. I think Obama was explicitly going for a soft landing. President Trump is trying to be selective about what he chooses to engage with, but it amounts to more or less the same thing. I actually suggest that that model is not going to work either. For a couple of reasons: one is that, if you think about successfully seeking a soft landing, probably the two best examples we have in history are the Greek city states being overtaken by Rome and yet having a pretty decent life in the centuries that they existed under Roman dominance. Another example would be the UK handing the baton, as it were, after WW2 to the US and yet preserving the special relationship and a very important global role and maintaining and in some ways recovering from economic problems that existed at the end of the British Empire period and actually doing pretty well out of the deal. Those kind of things really only work though if you have a successor state that has two characteristics. One; they are actually powerful and willing enough to take the baton and to be the dominant player and secondly, they are friendly enough that life under that circumstances is going to be acceptable. I don’t think that one of those candidates exist right now. Russia is not strong enough, China doesn’t want to and neither China nor Russia would be friendly enough that western powers would be comfortable living under a circumstance where we were no longer dominant but the Chinese were. So I don’t think that is an acceptable option. And there is no one else on the horizon that might even compete in that area. So I think that the idea of a soft landing is a bit of a wishful fantasy and isn’t the way to go.
The third course of action that I talk about is going Byzantine. I look at the Byzantine Empire and you know we consider Byzantium to be something rather different from Rome but if you ask a Byzantine anytime in the 1100 years that they existed, they would have described themselves as the Roman Empire. They just thought of themselves as the continuation of Rome. Rome collapsed in the fourth Century, Byzantium lasted another 1100 years until the 29th May 1453 when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople. So 1100 years of extended power in the Eastern Mediterranean is nothing to sneeze at. And if you look at how the Byzantines operated there are a number the things they did. Firstly, they selectively copied from their adversaries and learnt some techniques and approaches from their enemies and were able to selectively and carefully apply them to serve their own interest. Secondly, they got out of the business of large-scale power projection into other people’s territories and focused instead on a very agile defence of their own very extended perimeter. They built diplomatic relationships, they applied economic power, they engaged a lot in, what we would probably call political warfare now, divide and conquer, but also building strategic relationships in order to specifically limit the need to use military power. They developed certain key niche technologies that were very hard for their adversaries to acquire and that gave them selective dominance in certain areas. And then I think perhaps most important they put a huge amount of effort into social cohesion, political stability, unity of the polis at home in order to have a strong and resilient society sitting behind a pretty light-footprint military structure. I think there’s a lot we could learn from that. And it may seem like I’m saying that’s the one we should pick because that’s more like to work. I actually don’t think it is guaranteed to work. I think it could just as well fail as the other two but I do think it’s probably the best of the bad lot in terms of options that we have right now.
So let me stop there. I have hopefully offended enough people that we can get a good discussion going. So I’m going to hand over to Paul and I guess you want to drive traffic in terms of questions.
DR PAUL STOTT: Okay David, thank you very much. Let’s throw things open to the floor. Questions please. Front row straight away.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yeah thank you very much. I tell all of my students they should read the first 70 pages of The Accidental Guerrilla because in just those 70 pages you actually do a very good job of cutting through all the crap. The question I have is explicitly about British strategy and defence policy. It concerns the fact that our special forces assets have got noticeably larger at a time when our conventional army has shrunk. We are seeing a situation where they are being used as a first resort. This is often traced back to what JSOC did in Baghdad in the mid-2000’s. Some people would argue that it did a far better job at creating facts on the ground than the surge did. What’s your view of this? Is it a plan or is it an answer?
DR DAVID KILCULLEN: We can talk about the surge in detail if you want to. I happen to believe the decisive event was the Awakening, and all the other events enabled that but it’s not a majority point of view. But I do explicitly address that question you just raised in the book. So Roger Beaumont who is a military sociologist wrote a wonderful book in the 1970’s about Military Elites. One of the ideas he puts forward is what he calls the Selection Destructive Cycle. His argument is if you are special forces, and he doesn’t just mean SF he means elites of all kinds, if they become too big for the broader military structure, a destructive cycle emerges where you select the talent from the big organisation, you sequester it off into a separate area where it’s not available to everybody else and then you throw that elite element into higher-risk operations where you actually lose more people. So an individual who would have been a regular squad leader in the German military in 1918 and would have done a wonderful job and would have been the backbone of a world-leading infantry battalion gets pulled out of there and put into a Stormtrooper battalion, killed in a week and lost to the overall organisation. Beaumont’s argument is that over time if you look at the evolution of these organisations, they are selectively weeding out their best people and killing them off. We’re not at that point. But there was a joke kicking around the Australian military that Special Operations Command should just be renamed Operations Command because they are the ones who do the operations and everyone else is just a feeder team to provide recruits to them. I don’t think the Aussies are there yet but if you want to look at a military that is there, the Afghan military is already there. A&A Special Operations are now actually so big that they are sucking the talent out of the ordinary kandaks who need to be doing the protective jobs on the ground and they are also losing more people than any other organisation. The loss rate of the Afghans is currently unsustainable. They are losing about 12,000 people a year, and if you look at who they are losing a lot of them are elite police and special ops people who would otherwise be senior NCOs or junior officers stiffening the rest of the organisation. So I do think it’s a risk; it’s a real risk. But if we may talk about British strategy, I think the big imbalance to be honest in the British strategy right now is that we have sunk so much into the carriers. There’s a really good reason for doing that but they soak up so much of the defence budget going forward that it distorts the balance between different forces. I also talk about that in the book. I make the point that American military dominance isn’t just a problem for adversaries, it is also a problem for allies. So the Aussies for example have tried to keep up with the US by being very selective. Very high-end fighter aircraft, advanced submarine fleet, world-class special forces. That’s all they really try to do to keep up. The rest, they don’t try and keep up in armour, they don’t do that. The UK has taken a different approach, it’s to keep up across a wider range of areas and it certainly does keep up qualitatively with the US. But with the given size of the defence budget, you end up with less stuff in each category so there is now a capacity problem. And when you take one category of carriers which is in itself totally legitimate, sink so much into it, now you have to ask what it does to the capacity in other areas. It’s not an unmanageable problem but I think it just worth one thinking through, what does it mean?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: The snakes. Snakes, we are talking about dragons. How big really? China and Russia are actually somewhat brittle societies. They are very much afraid of nuclear warfare. They are very much afraid of American conventional dominance and what it can buy. Their responses are interesting but not necessarily effective. The Chinese Belt and Road initiative. It’s a lot of money. It’s the savings of the Chinese economy going into very extended positions and economically probably very unfulfilling ones. Russia’s nukes and special forces are unclear in what they can achieve. Nuclear weapons are self-deterring and Russia’s moves have spawned a Western obsession with hybrid war. Is there not a significant danger, especially to the UK, when it thinks about its defence review, that we are likely to be bedazzled by both dragons instead of correctly estimating their weaknesses?
DR DAVID KILCULLEN: So I talk about this a lot in the book about China, a little bit less so about Russia. I make the point that we might be warming up to fight each other when no one really wants to fight each other. And we are talking ourselves into a conflict by overstating the capabilities of the threat of the adversary. In the Chinese case in particular. China owns the port of Piraeus. It runs the port of Rotterdam, COSCO, Chinese state enterprise is the port operator in Europe’s busiest port. It is buying huge chucks of real estate in Trieste and Genoa. It’s all over the 5G networks of the continent. And you can look at that and say, ‘it’s a threat. There’s a Chinese intelligence officer under every rock.’ There’s another way to think about it as the Chinese have just very helpfully given us a set of hostages who we can hold at risk in the event of conflict. And if China were to do a major cyber-attack on the port of Rotterdam, a Chinese company, COSCO, would be losing billions of dollars. Maybe that’s actually protective; the economic situation might be protective. What I suggest in the book is that the biggest problem with the Chinese is that we all tend to overrate each other and overstate each other’s capability. The Chinese think we have this extraordinarily sophisticated ability to manipulate the world economy and that we do it on a regular 16-year timetable. Qiao Lang, who is the guy who wrote Unrestricted Warfare gave this bat-shit-crazy speech at the – I think that’s a technical term – at the Chinese war academy where he said: America started the war in Kosovo in order to tank the Euro as a way of limiting the power of the EU. And it’s like, no mate, you are misunderstanding everything that we think about warfare. And it’s worth thinking then, are we also, in fact, misinterpreting the Chinese in the same way. I do think, I am going to quote Rob Johnson, who runs the Changing Character of War programme at Oxford. He pointed out something that is knid of obvious the other night but I actually hadn’t thought about it. He said, ‘The biggest civil war on the planet in the 17th century was in China. The biggest civil war in the 18th century was in China. It was also in the 19th century, the Tai Peng rebellion. The biggest civil war in the 20th century was in China.’ So it’s not wrong for the Chinese to be worried about internal stability. They actually have three or four centuries of evidence to suggest that they really do need to be worried about that. And you are right, it is a brittle society that is worried about internal unrest and is worried about how it sustains control. And it’s not necessarily wrong to be worried about that. So I think we should really think twice before talking ourselves into a conflict with China. Having said all that I am going to caveat that by saying I think the Americans are leaning a little too hard into the potential for a fight with China. In Europe I think there is a bit of a blind spot with respect to Chinese activity. On 5G, strategic real estate purchases, economic and political interference, the Confucius Institutes, a bunch of things that a lot of people have woken up to and said ‘that’s a bit of a problem’, still sort of go down without any challenge in Europe. I think it is worth considering whether there is a balance between being too Hawkish and basically whistle past the graveyard.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I always enjoy your presentations and your writings. I want to go back to the question on your thesis that just doubling down on the traditional military model is not going to solve the problem of new forms of warfare with which I agree. However, I think there is a tendency to argue that just because there are new forms of warfare which require new measures to deal with them, the threats from the older forms of warfare have gone away. Unfortunately, it’s possible, wouldn’t you agree, to have both. What I have in mind for example is going back to the arguments about strategic nuclear deterrence. In those days before consensus was reached across the parties that we should keep the strategic nuclear deterrence, there was a huge anti-nuclear movement and it was often argued, ‘well, Trident didn’t stop Argentina from invading the Falklands for example and so forth.’ The argument to that always was: the purpose of nuclear weapons is not to be a panacea but it is to deal with that kind of threat that only nuclear weapons can deter, doesn’t mean to say that we don’t need other weapons systems. How does that relate to this? Well it relates to it in this way. Quite rightly, in the United Kingdom at the moment, they are trying to say, ‘we have got to look at all these different methods of warfare as part of a seamless whole and that is why we are trying to have a combined security, defence and foreign policy reviews. But if they then say there is a fixed pot of money, you get into the situation that we got into with the National Security Review when every extra pound that we want to spend on cyber or unconventional warfare means a pound less to spend on the Royal Navy, the Army or the Royal Air Force. You said in your response to cyber at one point, given the defence budget that we have, can I just urge you to not easily accept that, precisely because we have new threats that the old methods have not gone away, that we need to have a much larger defence budget of the order of 3% of GDP which is not fanciful given that is how much we used to spend as late as the 1990s, half a dozen years after we had taken the (inaudible).
DR DAVID KILCULLEN: I think that’s a very valid point and in fact when I talk about China in particular, this is probably true of Russia as well, the Chinese were very explicit about this. They make the point Unrestricted Warfare and also in their military doctrine that they are not going asymmetric. They are running a combination strategy that has both conventional and unconventional elements. So they are not just doing political warfare and economic warfare and buying the hotel at the entrance to Faz Lane. What they are also doing is buying the submarine fleet, creating what I would call a nuclear missile bastion in the South China Sea, doing all that traditional, conventional stuff. They talk about a side principle rule. Their argument is that you want to soak your adversary up and exhaust them in an area of main confrontation which is the conventional but then you want to have surprising or unconventional capabilities that you can bring in from the side to defeat them once you have weakened them. So what they suggest is: we just can’t get out of the business of conventional warfare and go fully asymmetric. We can’t just copy the snakes. And say, ‘we’ll have terrorist networks too’, because if we do that then they will just move into the conventional space and we will have just swapped one for the other. We need to be agile and it means we need to be able to switch from one category of threat to the other. I think that it’s a very valid view for someone in parliament to say we need to expand the defence budget. I think in the day to day basis for civil servants and the military we are sort of stuck with what we’ve got. I think people have an obligation to show tax payers and political leaders that they are actually using the money efficiently. But then it has to be a conversation. What is the threat picture? So what I’m partly trying to do here, and maybe I am an academic but I still regard myself as a professional soldier, what I am trying to do here is sort of layup, tee up the issues so that well-informed people in parliament can have that debate and discussion and decide what to do about it. I don’t think it is for people like me to say what the answer should be, but we can nominate what some of the questions ought to be discussed.
DR PAUL STOTT: Ok, there are three more hands up. I just want to, before I take those three questions, rather abuse the position of chair by asking a question myself if I may. Obviously, part of the title of the book, you have the term, the word, ‘The West’ in there. When we talk about the West in military terms what really are we talking about because 3% was mentioned there as a potential contribution towards defence. We have on the European continent, the greatest economic power Germany which is, in military terms, is a weedy pigeon. Within NATO we have perhaps three or four countries with substantive forces but one of those, Turkey, we’re perhaps starting to have a few little doubts about so, I’d like your views on that please.
DR DAVID KILCULLEN: Yeah so, it’s interesting. I didn’t realise this was going to be an issue when I wrote the book but I ended up having to add a note on terminology at the beginning of the book where I explain what I mean by the West. And I guess that I am slightly unusual in that I was born in Canada, grew up in Australia, served with the British Army in the 1990s, became an American. I’ve been, I guess, the Anglosphere, when I use the term we I mean all of us. A lot of people don’t mean that. When I first gave a talk on this subject in Sydney a number of people said to me, ‘why are you lumping us in with the Americans?’ I was like, ‘they are your closest treaty ally and all the adversaries think you guys are aligned, so maybe, you know…’. But turns out that people don’t think of it that way. What I’ve said in the book is that when I use the term West, (capital w) I’m talking about a collection of countries that operate in the same military style as the United States and I sort of lay out what that style is. And it’s battlefield-centric, it’s focused on precision-guided munitions, high-capability surveillance and reconnaissance, a system of systems approach, that’s very high tech, that seeks to minimise not only our own casualties but civilian and in many cases enemy casualties to achieve relatively bloodless objectives and focuses on high-intensity battlefield manoeuvre and I sort of spell out exactly what I mean. At the end of the book I also say, you know we might not want to think about warfare, to quote Trotsky, ‘you might not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.’ But the fact is that the modern western world with democracy and free media and freedom of speech, rule of law, all these things that we sometimes take for granted, we don’t actually like to look at the underpinnings of that but actually it’s based on two centuries of British and then American naval supremacy and you can broaden that out to military supremacy. If you have a military model that doesn’t work anymore then the world as we know it right now isn’t just going to go on forever without being supported by anything, it’s going to collapse. So, I think the tendency to take the modern world for granted without realising at that it’s underpinned by hard-power military is very dangerous and we have got to realise that the British Empire and then the American Imperium have been central to the creation of prosperity, freedom, democracy that’s unheard of in the history of the planet. That doesn’t mean that we should keep doing things the same way because sometimes when your adversary adapts the old ways are not going to work anymore. But I think it does mean, to quote JFC Fuller, we need to remember that the object of war is not victory, but a better peace and we need to be thinking about how do we do that.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I wonder whether you could share your thoughts, now that we have a defence and foreign policy review going on in the UK about how the policy should be formed and delivered. Because the examples that you gave, the Chinese, the Russians, terrorist organisations; they are adapting new strategies very very quickly and they are nimble. Whereas our policy-making structures are sclerotic. We drown in acronyms; it takes a long time. Essentially, we will never be inside the strategy formation circle of our adversaries. I’m sure you have been skulking around the corridors of Whitehall. How is the review going and how would you recommend it be shaped?
DR DAVID KILCULLEN: I have no insight into how the review is going. No one in Whitehall cares what I think, I’m sure. I would make three comments on this idea, how do we formulate policy? One is something that Julian mentioned which is having a much more integrated and joined up theory of policy making in the first place. And in the Chinese example in the book I talk about how the Chinese definition of warfare is now so much broader than our concept of warfare that even if we realise that real-estate purchases and drug smuggling and cell-phone networks and all of those things seen by the Chinese as part of a war strategy. Even if we were to realise that it’s not in the MOD’s remit to do anything about that stuff. So, you could have military officers who are fully aware of Chinese war-fighting doctrine and how they are operating in the South China Sea and how they are operating in Europe but if your treasury officials and foreign office people don’t think the same way then it doesn’t help you. And so I think to have that cadre, to use the term, multi-disciplinary professionals that all know each other’s business and all have a common way of thinking about the problem set is really important. Second thing I think is there is no substitute for having agile political leaders who are able to actually think in this space. I have to say, and this is not a political comment, it’s just an observation as a professional, I think both the US and the UK are both rather lucky in this respect. I think President Trump is heavily underestimated in terms of his ability to act in an agile way. He is one of the first presidents I have seen, and I am not a Trump fan, who thinks about economic warfare in an agile fashion. And one of the (inaudible) things about Trump is that he treats every military question as a financial issue: how much did that base cost us and how much is this costing us? But the flip side of that is that he thinks in economic warfare terms about adversaries. Iran, in particular, is a good example of where he is basically applying an economic strategy to deal with Iran and refusing to be drawn into a military confrontation and putting them back in the economic box all the time. I also think that he is running a pretty good offshore balancing strategy in the Middle East, getting other people to do the heavy lifting, pulling back from direct military confrontation, basically executing the strategy that Walt and Mearshimer, the two people most associated with offshore balancing, have been calling for for years, and they would probably hate me for saying that, right, because they are not fans of Trump. I also bet if you sat down with President Trump and said ‘you are running a wonderfully nuances offshore balancing strategy’, he’d say, ‘what the hell are you talking about?’ I don’t think he’s educated in this stuff, I don’t think he thinks about it. I think it’s pure instinct, which in some ways makes it a little bit better. And then you have people like Boris Johnson and President Trump who are both people who are, let’s just say, somewhat kindly, less predictable in their decision-making style than a traditional Western technocrat politician. And if you are the Russians that actually makes it really hard to play that sub-threshold warfare game because you can’t predict who we are going to react and that makes it harder to do that. So I think we have some advantages but I think we have to really educate policy-makers. We’ve got to encourage them to understand how the new warfare works so they are not stuck in a mental model from twenty or thirty years ago. And then my third and final comment is: it’s got to be a public discussion. We’ve got to have, you know, in a democracy, people like me with a military background shouldn’t be the ones setting the agenda for what the policy is going forward. It has to be elected officials and members of the public deciding what we as a nation want to do about the problem set. It’s just like counter-terrorism. If you let counter-terrorism people decide what all the counter-terrorism measures should be and didn’t put it out for discussion amongst voters and the politicians, we would live in a police state. You’ve got to have that constraint in there of democratic process. So I think that’s, educating policy makers, getting the public involved in the debate, and then joining up the policy process is a really important three things that we could do. And yes, of course, breaking the procurement system and making it act in a more agile way is a great idea. We’ve been trying to do that for a long time and it would be great if we could do it.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you very much that was excellent as always. Can I first of all thank you for the earlier conversation in response to the point about the defence budget. Every time government sees something sexy like cyber (inaudible) and there is an excuse to do less. And unfortunately Iraq and Afghanistan did that as well. The cost of doing operations (inaudible) spending and a lot of the long-term capability (inaudible) was ignored while the main effort was on dealing with those particular. Can I pick up, you know I was going to do this, on the carriers. In my last life and in the Navy I remember looking at the costings of putting a carrier group into the Gulf, which happens all the time. And to put the equivalent army unit into the gulf for six months was going to cost ten times more. To put an air-force squadron into the Gulf for six months was going to cost twice as much as putting the army in. And when you put the army in and when you put land-based air in, and you want the men to go somewhere else, you start doing the sums again whereas the carrier turns and goes. Let’s take a couple of examples. You mentioned Desert Storm, which is the last time we had a coalition. Imagine we had the Syrians and the Egyptians, but for the Un we wouldn’t have the Israelis, it would be extraordinary, never to be repeated. 2003, were it not for all the carriers we wouldn’t have had a campaign because Turkey said no and the Gulf states ran out of capacity and willingness to assist. And an even better example from Afghanistan: £20 billion spent on Camp Bastion, running it for seven years, and it’s now been handed over to the Taliban. And in Afghanistan, a fair amount of the air support was provided from the sea. Probably the best example, the USS George W Bush was tasked by Obama to move from the Northern Arabian Sea to the Northern Gulf to go on ISIS and was doing so within three days, and it would take land-based air 51 days before any other air was brought to bear against the targets. So I think that there is a compelling case, now that we have the aircraft carriers, which were built to within half a percent of the cost they were quoted in 2012, after the government made bad decisions about spending which added cost. But now that they have got them can I come back to the issue of Europe. What’s the potential you see for the UK outside the EU within the European group, within NATO, keeping Europe interested in spending, to use the carriers and our strategic air and other military capabilities as a framework for a credible European intervention capability, a credible conventional European deterrence.
DR DAVID KILCULLEN: Yip, so, this is a huge topic. And let me just say straight up that I am a big fab of maritime aviation; I think you know this but others may not. I was one of the principle advocates for the Australian maritime strategy and for actually getting Australia back into the maritime aviation game. As a light infantry officer I was able to make that argument without seeming self-interested but it actually is self-interested because if you want to be able to operate within the littoral operating environment around Australia you have got to be able to get there, you’ve got to be able to poise a force for a lengthy period of time which I think only maritime assets can do. And you’ve got to be able to project power without having to hold ground. So I’m a huge fan in a vacuum, all other things being equal , of having really capable anphibs, big-deck anphibs, submarine and carriers; I think they add a huge amount to do things you wouldn’t be able…Julian Corbett laid this out 100 years ago and I don’t have to go into it in great detail but, joint forces power progression, you can’t do it without maritime assets. And I actually use the Bush example that you brought up in my last book Blood Year talking about how incredibly useful the carriers were. But I think, and I’ll get to your Europe point in a second, I think there’s three things to think about with carriers that are not countervailing exactly but just thing to add into the mix. One is, if you lose a destroyer, it’s a bad day out. If you lose a carrier, it’s like the Prince of Wales and Repulse on the first day of the war with Japan or the Belgrano and suddenly it has a really significant campaign-level effect on your ability to operate. So what that suggests is that the carrier has got to be embedded in a task group, probably a joint-coalition task group in order to be survivable or else you are not going to be able to risk it in certain environments, say the Baltic for example. So, I think the question is: do we have all the other assets, will they be there at the right time? What are the limits that it imposes on our ability to operate? And also, is there a sort of psychological impact on policymakers which makes them more vulnerable because they are unwilling to risk the carrier? Then there’s the, and again this goes back to the issue of educating policymakers on how this stuff works. I think that’s a question that is worth considering. The second point is, China was almost entirely a land-based power from the middle of the 15th century until about twenty years ago. And I make the point in the book that the single most transformative thing that’s happened in the post-Cold War environment is China becoming a maritime power. And with China building carriers, I mean they are not carriers in the way that we would describe them, but you know aviation-capable anphibs that can also perform a carrier role, the Chinese are competing with us in that carrier space to some extent, or the maritime aviation space. But more importantly they have created an entire new class of weapon system, the anti-ship ballistic missile, which can knock out a carrier at 2500 miles range and potentially while on the move and at sea, depending on how you take in the DF26 vs the DF21. So if they are not there yet they certainly will soon be in apposition where they can build carrier-killer missiles faster and much more cheaply than we can build carriers. So, in the Australia case, one of the big issues for Australia now is ballistic missile defence and do we have the envelopes of ballistic missile protection that we need to make the carriers survivable in an environment where adversaries have those kind of missiles? And then the third point is to reinforce what you said, and what Julian said earlier, which is that when you run the numbers it is absolutely much more cost efficient to do things from a naval platform than to try and do things from the land with the need to protect land-based lines of communication and getting food and water and those kinds of things that are needed with a physical foreign presence. But that’s all other things being equal. I’m not in any way against carriers, I’m just suggesting that, and maybe Julian’s suggestion is right, it’s not that the carriers need to be smaller, it’s that we need to put more money into everything else to rebalance the force back to something that is not going to be distorted in that way. I’m going to give you the opportunity to respond because I know some of that stuff is controversial.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: What I would say is carriers are designed for fifty years. You’re right to look at the worst case scenarios like the south China Sea or the Baltic but actually if you look at our employment of the carriers over the last four years whether in the Gulf or in Sierra Leone or in The Philippines or wherever they have been used, they’re usually not up against that type of threat. So they have incredible ability and efficiency for almost all of the operations that you can realistically envisage. But there’s a responsibility, you’re right, for task group employment and I’m not sure you’d be much worse in a carrier than if you were in Guam with one of those missiles coming towards you because the carrier can move. And with the task group up against that kind of threat, you are right. Which is what brings me back to our European allies. In my last life, when we sent our carriers on operations east of Suez, we persuaded Germans and Dutch and Danes and others to put ships in our task groups, to train in our task groups to add their capability. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t go eats of Suez.
DR DAVID KILCULLEN: And I think you were implying earlier that with the new carriers we might be inviting F35-capable allies to put their aircraft on the carriers as well which I think is a great idea from an alliance standpoint, your other point about a European group in NATO. One of the points to reinforce your point, and I think people probably know this, to mention it: if you go for a period without a carrier in the fleet, it is extraordinarily hard to recreate the skillsets that are required to run a carrier. We’ve seen the Russians struggle massively with their lone carrier-like vessel. The Aussies going forward to helicopter carriers and now F35 carrier having not had a carrier since 1982 have really really struggled to build those skills back. So once you lose the ability to operate carrier aviation, it’s a generation’s effort to get it back. That’s a really strong reason for maintaining the carrier capability.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thanks for the discourse, lot’s of red meat, but I’d love to bring you back to the three corridors or three pathways, to maybe resolution of the big picture. I was interested in the Byzantine model. What I picked up that piqued my interest was the civil cohesion, civil society resilience. At the moment, this sort of debate is very rarefied, it’s very specialised, the great majority of people in politics, in civil society, in media, influencers online, you name it, they are not really tackling this because defence seems to be too hard. There seems to be some interest in security because we have lived with the terror issue for such a long time and that gets caught up very much in civil liberties, a debate that never goes away anyway. So how do we, in a pluralist, quite free society bring back that discourse in a way that some smaller societies like Estonia and Latvia, a larger society like Sweden or Finland seem to get right. They talk about hybrid warfare, they talk about modern deterrence, they talk about resilience and it’s not just in rooms like this. It’s high school last-year people.
DR DAVID KILCULLEN: It’s a great point and you brought up the example I was about to use which is the Nordic states and the Baltic states have really shown the way on this, I think. The Swedish government and Norwegian government have put out civil defence pamphlets that are extraordinarily good. They are raising awareness among high school kids and normal citizens about the need for societal resilience and the need for civic defence but also political resilience. The Swedish defence college just issued a resistance warfare manual for whole of society talking about how they might deal with some sort of Russian or other grey zone operation. So it’s certainly out there. Perhaps one of the best examples is a Norwegian soap opera called Occupy which was written by a guy called Jo Nesbo who is a famous Scandinavian author. And if you haven’t seen it, it is worth checking out. In the first episode the Russians invade Norway and nobody notices because they do it in such a way that it is in the grey zone and people don’t detect what is going on. And over the course of the series you get to have a really good sense of what it would feel like to be subjected to one of these grey zone type operations. Interestingly, that was written before Ukraine. It’s not reflecting what happened in Crimea it’s much ahead of the curve, yeah. Well worth checking out. And some people would argue that if you want to communicate to a Norwegian audience, soap operas are a pretty good way to do that. Maybe we need some sort of football-related thing in the UK. I think, and this is going to sound like a weird thing to say, but there’s a gift in coronavirus and it’s two-fold. One: it’s really exposing the brittleness and weakness of China and other states that are struggling to maintain the loyalty and cohesion of their population as a result of that. That’s not to criticise them, we don’t want to see them suffer, but it certainly reinforces the benefits of living in a democracy where you can trust what people say and you can trust the data you get from the government and all that stuff. The other thing is, it isn’t some subset of the population that’ the threat, it’s this bug. So we can all rally around, figuring out ways to deal with it that don’t involve welding the door of your apartment shut and not letting you out, but also don’t involve hoarding toilet paper which has become a thing. To sort of say to people, ‘look, you’ve got to balance your own freedoms with an understanding that the government is not going to be there to protect you. You’ve got to look after each other. And that self-reliance and community self-help stuff which we all remember fondly from stories of the Blitz and so on, I think that’s in the British character, we know that. It’s certainly in the Australian character, it happens every year with bushfire season. We need to unleash some of that on this problem set and it’s about rediscovering some of that national self-reliance and resilience and community self-help and not expecting the government to do absolutely everything for you which makes us all victims in waiting.
DR PAUL STOTT: Time, I think, for one final question so if you could make it snappy because time has rather defeated us.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: It’s very interesting what you talked about, the Chinese economic hostages in Europe, whether that’s the way we saw them. I was wondering what you think about Huawei and whether they were also vulnerable to that use? Whether we could use that.
DR DAVID KILCULLEN: Have you been tracking the AG Crpto story here in the UK? I mean, American intelligence agencies have been saying for a very long time that one of the big threats of Huawei and Chinese-owned 5G systems is that China might build a back door that would allow it to collect traffic and have a jump on everybody else in terms of intelligence collection and now with the AG Crypto story we know why they think that because they did it. They actually purchased a Swiss company and everyone bought their devices and they were able to do it. So we know it can be done because we did it. And so leaving aside any potential hypocrisy there, I think it is certainly true that this could be a real threat. Could it be the hostage situation? Yeah, it’s possible. The EU seems to be figuring out a position where they are essentially saying, ‘we will allow Chinese participation in our 5G systems that prevent China from exploiting that potential back door.’ And by having 5G that is in some part Chinese-derived, there is an incentive for them not to attack the system because there is an economic reason not to do it. I’m not sure I necessarily agree with that, but it certainly seems to be the emerging European position. I think arresting Huawei executives and holding them in jail, which is what the Candians did at US behest, is a little more problematic in terms of the likely Chinese response. Australia went through a real awakening in the last two years when there was a scandal of Chinese intelligence actually hacking the entire cyber system of the Australian parliament and routing all those communications through a Chinese server for a ten-day period and only stopping when it was discovered by the Aussies. And also, the discovery of a scheme whereby China was paying off political candidates in one of the main political parties in the parliament. So that made Australians really wake up very suddenly to a potential risk and there was a really strong push towards Chinese-made 5G systems and Huawei in particular and it was a sudden rude awakening to that threat. I don’t think people in Europe have been in that situation yet, so I think it’s a different stage of the debate. One final comment. I think we sometimes overestimate the protective effects of economic integration. Sometimes being economically integrated with a potential ally does prevent conflict but sometimes it just makes conflict much worse when it does happen. And the example I like: Ali, who wrote that wonderful book Lords of Finance about central banks and the great depression, he has this wonderful vignette at the beginning of the book when he talks about how, I think it was in 1908 or 1910 maybe, Lloyds of London went to the High Court and said, ‘Look, we need a legal opinion. Lloyds of London insures approximately two thirds of the German merchant fleet. In the event of war with Germany, if the Royal Navy sinks the German merchant fleet, do we have to pay up?’ And the law lords said, ‘Yes. Yes you do.’ So back in the pre-WW1 period, we were hoping that strong economic integration with Germany would prevent conflict. It didn’t. I’m not sure whether Lloyds had to eventually pay up or not. I suspect they didn’t have to. But that’s just an illustration of how sometimes being economically integrated with a potential ally can just make it worse when it does happen.
DR DAVID KILCULLEN: OK. David, thank you so much. You have given us enormous food for thought. Thank you.