Over the past few months the editors of European Geostrategy have been undertaking a number of interviews with various individuals who are involved in thinking about European foreign, security and military policies. In this seventh interview, Daniel Fiott talks with Jamie Shea, the Deputy Assistant Secretary General of the Emerging Challenges Division, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. The second part of this interview was published on Thursday, 7th March 2013.
DF: Lord Ismay remarked in 1949 that the Atlantic Alliance’s goal was ‘to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down’. What is the Atlantic Alliance’s rationale today? Does anyone or anything replace the Russians and the Germans in the equation?
JS: The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s mission is quite simple. It is to provide security for its member states. As the threats to the member states change, then so must the alliance or it will ultimately lose its relevance. During the Cold War, the threat came in essentially one single form – that of the Soviet Union – and in one specific geographical location – the Fulda Gap and the northern plains of Germany. It also came in a limited number of categories – essentially tanks and armoured personnel carriers and, also, potentially, nuclear weapons. So although it was a very significant and highly dangerous threat, it was also a relatively easy threat to counter. The balance of power was easy to calculate and as the Soviet Union was a rather cautious adversary that did not want to take too many risks, deterrence worked. Also the Soviet Union did not change very much, which meant that weapons introduced in the 1950s were still more-or-less able to uphold deterrence into the 1970s and even 1980s.
The problem today is that there are many more threats to the Atlantic Alliance and they tend to affect populations rather than territory and borders. They are also harder to get at, as instead of originating just over the Atlantic Alliance’s border they can come from faraway places such as Afghanistan or Yemen or Mali. They also come in the shape of small groups which can not be so easily deterred as the Soviet Union. These groups also have a capacity to harm well beyond their actual numbers because they have access to missiles, offensive cyber capabilities, chemical and biological agents, sophisticated and encrypted communications and international networks for acquiring funding and advanced technologies. As a result, the need for the Atlantic Alliance to provide a collective response, and to give its members a degree of security that they could never achieve alone, remains. But, as the new threats are much more complex and will not disappear, unlike the Soviet Union, if just one country in the world happens to disintegrate, it is harder for the Alliance to come up with effective solutions. Also, nations may be tempted to try to deal with these problems alone (as with terrorism, energy security or cyber threats) rather than to adopt collective approaches. So the paradox is that there is the same need for the Atlantic Alliance but it has to work harder to unite its members when they do not necessarily share the same sense of urgency regarding particular threats as they did when it came to the Soviet Union. Also, it is not so easy to concentrate simultaneously on multiple threats instead of just one – no matter how large. But this is the nature of security policy in the twenty-first century and to remain relevant, the Atlantic Alliance will have to adapt. It will have to adjust its capabilities to meet new threats rather than hope that these threats will somehow adjust themselves to meet the alliance’s traditional capabilities.
DF: The Atlantic Alliance’s re-adjustment to contemporary security problems such as cyber warfare implies the need for a complete re-think about military training and planning. In the past, states would train soldiers to ‘aim and fire’ but what does high-tech warfare imply for the way the alliance’s members train their armed forces? Are we to replace our generals with computer hackers?
JS: The immediate answer to this question is: ‘No’. Cyber will not replace traditional conflict nor the need for generals and admirals. It is unlikely that a war will be totally won or lost in cyberspace without the need for military forces to undertake kinetic operations. What cyber will do, however, is to give a belligerent an initial advantage of surprise by disrupting the communications and information systems of his adversary. However, because the cyber threat is so great, most major military establishments in the world today are investing heavily in cyber defence, redundant networks and the ability to recover quickly. So the advantage of a cyber attack is likely to be quite short and not long enough to allow a belligerent to gain a decisive and enduring advantage. A second aspect of cyber, however, is that cyber attacks are likely to go on a long time before, during and a long time after a conflict has taken place. This is because they are easy to initiate and very difficult to stop. So military establishments will have to learn to be able to operate in permanently degraded cyber environments where at any given time they have access to some of their information networks but not to others and are constantly patching up those networks. The paradox here is that military establishments as they increase their dependency on military technology and computerisation will simultaneously have to learn not to become overly dependent on these same networks. This said, and even if generals and admirals still have a guaranteed future, political and military leaders will need to become more conversant with the nature and rules of engagement of cyber conflicts and learn how to escalate and de-escalate in cyber space as they once had to learn to do in the nuclear domain. They will have to have a better idea of how to determine when cyber espionage becomes so intense that it crosses the red line into actual aggression and how they can respond to cyber campaigns without being drawn prematurely into actual conflicts. We are still at a very early stage in learning how we can integrate traditional notions of conflict and deterrence into the cyber domain.
There is also certainly a larger role for cyber specialists in our defence establishments and these are as likely to come from the private sector as from within the military itself and also from the intelligence community. Thus, military establishments are likely to take the form of public-private partnerships much more than they have done in the past. Yes we need better software and we need more technical support; but it would be a great mistake to believe that cyber is something that can be left to friendly ‘hacktivists’ or technology or technical processes alone.
DF: To say that international relations has become more complex is a cliché, but there is no doubt that we are faced with security challenges that threaten to re-write military history completely. This is not just a question of cyber technologies or remote-controlled aerial vehicles but also of scientific developments in the field of nanotechnologies. What is and can the Atlantic Alliance do to stay ahead of the military-technology curve?
JS: There are two aspects to this issue. The first is how we use emerging technologies to improve our military capabilities and posture. The Atlantic Alliance has always prevailed through its technological edge over potential adversaries. Indeed, the recognition that it was not able to compete with the West in the field of missile defence and new military technologies was a key reason why the Soviet Union gave up the Cold War and accepted major cuts in nuclear weapons and other arms control agreements in the late 1980s. Thus a technological edge is an important aspect of deterrence, as well as an enhancement of war fighting capabilities. Moreover, at a time of budgetary constraint, the better use of technology where it can compensate for major reductions in troop numbers becomes all the more important. A key area is in intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance which becomes all the more important when the Atlantic Alliance’s allies are no longer engaging major state armies but rather small groups of militias often hiding among the local populations, as in Afghanistan, Libya or now Mali.
Moreover, international law no longer allows the kind of carpet-bombing of cities indiscriminately which was such a feature of the Second World War. Today, precision-guided missions are a must in any Atlantic Alliance operation which seeks to avoid inadvertent harm to civilians, or excessive damage to infrastructure which then has to be expensively rebuilt once the operation is over. Some of these technologies are comparatively cheap. For instance, it is possible to buy dozens of reconnaissance remote-controlled aircraft for one modern jet fighter aircraft. But in the main, these technologies are too expensive for individual Allies. That is why the Atlantic Alliance is procuring five United States-made Global Hawks in order to have constant battle surveillance in any future operation and better data processing real time of the information that these remote-controlled reconnaissance aircraft will offer. The lesson of Libya is also that the Atlantic Alliance’s European allies did not have sufficient supplies of precision-guided munitions, nor sufficient in-flight tanker refuelling capability.
Cyber capabilities are also another area where the Atlantic Alliance is now catching up with a rapidly evolving more sophisticated threat. Therefore a key challenge for the alliance in the future will be to identify these critical emerging technologies (although some are quite old but still relevant technologies, such as air transport or in-flight refuelling) and then come up with imaginative cost-sharing solutions so that as many allies have access to these critical capabilities in future operations. This can be done through pooling and sharing, role specialisation, common funding, but it is clear that unless the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation takes the lead in promoting multinational cooperation, many allies will increasingly fall behind not just the United States but countries such as China, Russia, Brazil, India and many others whose military spending continues to rise while military budgets in much of Europe are falling.
The second aspect to this issue is that the new technologies are becoming increasingly accessible to non-state actors and even private individuals. The average computer user now has in their iPad more computing power than the whole of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the mid-1960s. How long will it be before insurgent groups or even private individuals have their own remote-controlled combat aircraft? This is reducing the gap between state power and a capacity of non-state actors to cause major disruption, as we saw in 11th September 2001 with the combination of a well thought through attack plan carried out with very simple instruments such as box cutters and transforming a civilian aircraft into a missile. It will not be possible to reverse globalisation and stop this democratisation of destructive power so the Atlantic Alliance will increasingly have to become involved in efforts to slow the spread or try to contain it. For instance, it is extremely expensive to protect troops and vehicles against improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan but relatively cheap and more effective to prevent Afghan insurgents from getting access to the critical ingredients such as triggers, detonators and ammonium nitrate in the first place. In the cyber area, we are also going to have to build security into new software from the outset of the design process rather than try to add it on as an afterthought later. As our vulnerabilities increase because of the spread of new technologies, and as the private sector increasingly moves into the security business, we are going to have to think more about security at every level of society, from the individual protecting their identity on the internet to the bank investing in cyber security, or to the government ministry deciding which information to keep and which to delete. This is not something which can be handled any longer at the government strategic level alone. The alternative is that the miniaturisation of robotics becoming more cheaply available and the continuing vulnerability of cyberspace will produce a nightmarish world in which anyone could be targeted by anyone anywhere and at any time, randomly and anonymously.
NB: The views expressed in this text are those of the author alone. They do not represent an official position of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.