CCLKOW: Part 2 – The Military Must Inevitably Take the International Lead In HADR

And this, dear CCLKOW readers, is the second instalment. In it, the necessity for the military response is argued. Take note, do-gooderism is not the driving force behind this argument. Rather, the linkages between these events and security drive the need for proper consideration, while the needed capabilities already held within the armed forces argue for their appropriateness. So, now that you have read both, it is for you all to consider which side of the argument you fall down on and join the conversation on Twitter at #CCLKOW.


While the spectre of global conflict is a daunting proposition to the human condition, the looming potential for disasters, both man-made and natural, to wreak similar havoc and impose like consequences upon humanity should equally concern societies. If the migrations of late from conflicts abroad are but the mildest preview of what might be faced in the aftermath of any significant humanitarian event, at the worst end is the magnitude of managing communicability on a global scale or contested salvation. The disaster flashpoints in the world centre around points of great population densities, and too often correspond with populations already on the brink. Taking the other side from my dear colleague, then, this piece will argue the inevitably necessary leading role for the armed forces in HADR. Although their efforts are important, and must continue, private and NGO capabilities will not be sufficient to the growing demands. As humanitarian crises are likely to be an increasing feature of the international security landscape, armed forces must plan and prepare robustly for the spectrum of contingencies it will confront.

The top end scenarios matter. Contrary to the dismissal in the first piece of the armed forces for their utility in the extreme circumstances only, it is exactly for contingency’s sake that these organisations must prepare for humanitarian operations. We do not, for example, put aside the armed forces role in conflict because war is an extreme iteration of organised violence. Furthermore, I would argue that HADR is the top end of emergency response. ‘Disaster’ is not your every day ‘sticky situation.’

The Faceless Bureaucrat is correct to note that many emergencies do not require a military response. However, as the capabilities, doctrines, and tactics are developed, it will certainly be useful for them to face live testing in lower echelon events. Exercising the skills, equipment, and approaches will make for improved performance in larger, more critical events.

I am ever mindful that the militarisation of activities is a slippery slope. However, the security ramifications of human suffering is not a new or extravagant concern. Wellington certainly understood that the humanitarian disaster of the strategy at the Lines of Torres Vedras would have to be mitigated. So too did the Western Allies connect humanitarianism with security after WWII. And the population upheavals wrought by natural and conflict disasters of late serve only to highlight this point. The matter is, and has been for at least two centuries, of geo-strategic concern. The armed forces are not the only response that must be readied, but it is the critical one.

The armed forces encompass the broad spectrum capabilities necessary. The armed forces maintain the far and away edge in contingency logistics that can endure. While civilian capabilities have their niche specialisms, across the breadth of demand it is the armed forces that are best placed to answer. And in disaster operations this will be wider than most contemplate – see for example, the panoply of marine demands required in the Haiti earthquake relief operations. (1)

It bears considering as well that at some point the need for security and force will be necessary. Most obviously, this will be a need in R2P HADR scenarios. Thinking more pragmatically, to maintain order against the worst circumstances, whether destruction or disease, will be a necessity. It is not a pretty thing to admit, but its distasteful nature does not absolve us of our requirement to prepare for such contingencies.

The security implications demand serious response.

HADR is neither optional nor altruism. At both ends, sceptics would like to dismiss the necessity for armed forces in these events. From the military there is often the sense that these are ‘nice to have’ operations that can be disregarded as necessary, whereas the civilians dismiss the effort for being self-serving. Both are wrong. The security risks of humanitarian disasters are already manifest and will only worsen. And it is for this reason that the debatable altruism of such actions is irrelevant: such a sentiment will no longer be necessary to save lives and rebuild.

In the 21st century, saving lives will no longer be the province of the do-gooder. Rather, this metric of effect is about to assume strategic proportions. The struggles of at least the near future will be decided by the lives saved, not taken, in conflicts averted not won. Looking only to the realm of natural disasters, both weather/environmental disasters and communicable disease scenarios demand the state take this planning on board with the armed forces. Dealing with these contingencies must become part of the domestic and international defence and political discussions. Not only must strategies and plans be in place and practised, but international agreement must be achieved. When considering that the use of forces might be necessary in some instances, international agreement on the standards must be agreed.

Delicate circumstances, robust response. The human condition in these circumstances is delicate. This does not mean that a robust answer is not the best response. One could easily blanch at the practices found in an emergency room. However, in such circumstances, delicacy is not necessarily helpful. So too in the first phases of a disaster. Squeamishness will not assist our response to the worst of human calamities.

This does not mean that the armed forces should not adopt and practice an approach for such circumstances that includes the recourse to gentility wherever practicable. And returning to the medical analogy, it will be in the recovery phases, once the trauma has been passed and the long path to recuperation is begun, that issues of ‘bedside manner,’ of the attention to the social, political, and cultural delicacies will come to the fore. It is at this point that the provision of care from the civilian sector will be most effective and useful.


Thus, given its demands and security implications, the armed forces are best suited to lead the delivery of capabilities in HADR. Accepting this reality and responsibility sooner will mean the international community is best suited to deal with this emerging and critical contingency.






1 “Haiti Earthquake Port Rehabilitation” from Think Defence.


CCLKOW: Part 1 – In HADR Humanitarian Principles Mean Civilians Must Lead

Greetings CCLKOW readers. This week we bring you something different. Rather than a single post on a theme, today we present two sides of an issue for your consideration. In this case, we are discussing HADR, and more specifically the proper lead for this growing contingency. Below, The Faceless Bureaucrat argues the case for the civilian and public sectors, largely short of the armed forces. Against the demands of the circumstances, both tangible and otherwise, these actors are the ideal lead. The second piece, from me, will argue the opposite. It will be for the Twitter discussion to consider both perspectives and debate the merits of each. So, enjoy this blog, and then move on to the next one! (JSR)


While many (mostly Western) military forces may consider themselves the best candidates for conducting Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief missions around the world, I posit that, in circumstances short of Level 3 mega-disasters, they are not.  I base this argument on three main ideas:

1.  Military action is an extension of politics and is, therefore, at odds with humanitarian principles.

Humanitarianism is meant to address affected populations on the basis of need alone.  Military intervention is usually carried out to further a particular foreign policy goal, whether it be improving a country’s image on the world stage or winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of a particular society.  I am not saying military delivered or facilitated aid cannot do material good, but it cannot be seen as being purely altruistic, either.  The simple fact that international militaries respond to emergencies based on a set of strategic calculations means that they are not, by definition, humanitarian.

Furthermore, given that foreign militaries are political actors, sometimes their enormous technical capabilities are overshadowed by political considerations.  Following the Katmandu earthquake last year, for instance, USMC Osprey aircraft could not operate in many parts of the country, due to the sensitivities of Nepal’s neighbours. Hence, the humanitarian value of these aircraft was severely limited because of their political significance.

2.  The militarization of humanitarian aid has knock on ethical implications for the beneficiary population.

When a hungry or displaced population is ‘rescued’ by a military force, rather than by its own state apparatus (ideal) or another civilian entity (second-best), it perpetuates the notion that the military provides the best solution to difficult problems.  In most parts of the world, there is considerable effort  being made to de-militarise essential services (through DDR and SSR programmes, for instance) and to normalise the state’s ability to provide for its citizenry.  Much of this effort is erased if the cavalry (quite literally) comes over the horizon to save the day.

3.  There are alternate mechanisms that can and do work, most of the time.

While the military is capable of providing logistical services quickly and effectively at short notice and with global reach, the civilian humanitarian system (composed of host countries; the International Red Cross/Red Crescent system (ICRC, IFRC, and national societies); Agencies, Funds and Programmes of the UN system; and national and international NGOs) manages to provide a wide-range of humanitarian and disaster relief services to millions of people around the world without military assistance.  For instance, the World Food Programme (part of the UN family) is a world leader in humanitarian logistics, fielding an impressive Air Service with 70 cargo aircraft and operating a fleet of over 5000 trucks every day, in places like Somalia, Syria, and Central African Republic. The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs provides the necessary ‘command and control’ (to use a not 100% apt military term) mechanisms–such as planning, liaison, information management–to help make the myriad actors work effectively to support the affected states and their populations.

In mega-emergencies, military assistance is required and very much welcomed, but it, too, must be coordinated and subordinated to the needs of the affected people.  It should be as humanitarian as possible (given the political realities) and disappear when it is no longer needed.  Commercial providers, such as DHL, are also starting to play major roles in logistics provision in HA/DR scenarios.  While they are also not entirely humanitarian actors (and may engage in HA/DR missions for PR reasons) they can offer services that were once only available from military sources.

Yes, the humanitarian system is imperfect: it needs more money and requires reform, especially in the area of involving the people who are most affected (reform will be the subject of the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul later this year), but these problems cannot be neglected in favour of having some militaries ‘step up’ and then taking over these delicate operations.


CCLKOW: Led by Donkeys, you say?

Greetings! In this week’s CCLKOW I intend to shake things up again, turning a common practice on its head. No one who has ever spent time around company and field grade officers does not know that general officers are among their fondest targets for criticism. And yet these same people are those who eventually become the general officers. There is, obviously, a disconnect. So, read the piece, ponder the questions, and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.


A common, if incorrect, refrain regarding the British First World War military experience is that the army was ‘lions led by donkeys.’ A criticism of the senior ranks who prosecuted the war, this seeming truism has largely been dispelled. But while this description no longer stands up to deeper more nuanced scrutiny, the practice of criticising general officers is like a blood-sport right of passage across armed forces.

What I find very interesting about this phenomenon is that it is enduring. Each generation of officers thinks those at the very top are often the picture of incompetence. And every single one of those generations ultimately steps into those shoes to lead the next generation of malcontents.

I understand that inter-generational disdain is common. Whether disparaging the youth in our trail or those who lead us, it is very easy to believe there is something entirely lacking about those outside our own peer groups. However, even controlling for this more general influence, there remains a marked difference in the phenomenon in the armed forces.

So, what is happening?

Are the personnel systems, which drive the selection of officers to command billets and, correspondingly, higher rank, to blame? Do these systems drive out the best and the brightest and leave behind a middling, muddling sort?

Is there a fundamental disconnect between what a field or company grade officer understands about general officership in the armed forces and reality? Do these officers simply not understand the demands upon executive leadership, that the relative stability of tactical practice has given way to the far less firm domains of strategy and politics?

What could a general officer tell you about the role to clarify that what looks like a donkey is not?







CCLKOW: Why Warriors?

#CCLKOW readers, this week we bring you one of Kings of War’s own, The Faceless Bureaucrat, to revisit the matter of warrior self-identification in the armed forces, particularly those of the US. We have trod this ground before with our Colonel Panter-Downes (here). But the trend is pernicious, so today we offer another perspective in opposition. Written originally as a comment to a post at Carrying the Gun, it has been expanded for our use this week. Where the Colonel offered a review from within the military institution, the Faceless Bureaucrat takes a historical approach. And it’s good. So, give this piece a read, peruse the Colonel’s musings, check out Don Gomez’s writing, and then join the discussion on Twitter at the hashtag. — JSR


Over at Carrying The Gun @dongomez has posted an interesting essay on what he calls an ‘odd Valhalla obsession‘.   In it he says, “What I wonder is what the constant referencing of ancient warrior cultures says about our own military.”

Now Dear Readers, it may be a new year, but there was no way that I was not going to comment on his post.  I couldn’t help myself.  It was like birdseed left in the middle of the road by Wile E. Coyote.  In true Roadrunner fashion, I dived in, awaiting the inevitable car crash as a 10 tonne truck exited the phony tunnel mural that was plastered on the cliff-face behind me.  Instead, the comment grew and grew and attracted some attention, so I decided that I would turn it into post over here.  (Repeat after me: recycling is good.)  So, lightly edited, please find below my thoughts.

It won’t surprise you–given what I have written several times here at KoW (here and here, for example) about the whole Warrior trope–that I believe there is something unhealthy in the way that certain elements of armed forces in the West (particularly in, but not limited to, the U.S.) cleave to mythical Warrior identities. The Warrior is not a simple, straight-forward ‘good role model’; as individuals (idealised and actual) and as functional types, Warriors have always had a complicated relationship with collective violence. This is true across much of, inter alia, the Indo-Persian-Greco-European mythological imaginary. Homeric, Vedic, and Norse heroes are not worthy of blind emulation, partly due their inherently self-centred approach to combat.

As iconoclastic as it may be to say that (and I guess it must be, given the threats I have received from those who believe they are Warriors when they read my writing on this) the real mystery is to figure out what the allure is. Aesthetics is probably part of it, but why do serving, professional service people want to be associated with images of ill-disciplined, immature, selfish, greedy, individualistic, hedonistic, unaccountable committers of atrocities from centuries ago? Why not choose chivalric ideals, for example? Why not choose home-grown patriotic symbolism instead (from winning US armies, I mean)?

Part of the reason, I reckon, is so that members of contemporary armed forces can distance themselves from civilians–politicians, civilian strategists, diplomats, whizz-kids, bureaucrats, hedge fund managers. Could it be a version (an extended, extreme, perverse version) of Huntington’s ‘professionalisation as isolation’ movement espoused in his 1957 classic The Soldier and The State? “Anyone can get a grad degree; only Warriors go to Valhalla.” Taking this further, it is likely a move to ensure a degree of ontological security (an attempt to avoid the chaos that lurks in life without a comforting framework, as Giddens might have expressed it) for those who believe they are the heirs of Achilles or Beowulf.

This is problematic for several important reasons, but let me mention two here. The first is that Warriors don’t follow orders well: they don’t ‘fight and win the nation’s wars’, they fight their own (often deeply personal) wars, and this is dangerous for liberal democratic states. Modern war is an extension of politics (I read that somewhere), not a private quest for glory. Or revenge. Or a ‘bonding experience with yer mates’.

The second is that Warriors almost always have problematic relationships with female figures (as beneficiaries, bystanders, supporters, victims, and peers). Hyper-masculinity does not play well in a society made up of diverse, fluid, complex gender relations.  Choosing hyper-masculine (for the most part Warriors have been men) role models is not going to improve the situation.

Returning to Huntington’s conceptual landscape to conclude, Warriors wrongly believe they must focus solely on the military’s functional imperative, seeing no value in supporting its societal imperative. In primitive societies, role differentiation may have allowed for this (and certainly in our epics, this is often emphasized), but contemporary societies, contemporary politics, and contemporary wars demand that armed forces achieve a balance of functional and societal appropriateness.

Now is the time to leave fantasy role-playing behind and get on with the serious business of soldiering.*

(*I use the term soldiering regardless of the service to which one belongs.  I know everyone is different, just like every snowflake is different, but choosing the word warrior to act as a some universal term so that Marines, dragoons, grenadiers, sailors, aviators, etc. don’t get upset does not offset the negative aspects of the term as I have mentioned).

So with that said, a few questions to get the discussion started:


  1. Do you find that the Warrior identity is prevalent in your military experience?  In what ways is it introduced and reinforced?
  2. In what ways do you believe that a Warrior identity actually benefits the individual, the military (as an institution), and the state?
  3. How might those benefits be incorporated into an identity model that eschews the downsides mentioned in the post?




To Boost or Not to Boost: North Korea’s Nuclear Trajectory

And so it begins… again. Today’s North Korean nuclear test comes as no surprise. In April 2015 North Korean scientists indicated they were developing fusion technology, and last month Kim Jong-Un, the Stalinist regime’s leader, stated the country had a hydrogen weapon capability. While these claims may be an exaggeration, this most recent test still suggests technical advancements and has strategic implications. Nuclear weapons remain a crucial security tool for North Korea, and the West, particularly the United States, can meet this threat by maintaining and strengthening its own deterrent whilst promoting arms control- a delicate balance, to be sure.

This is North Korea’s fourth nuclear test and follows tests in 2006, 2009, and 2013. Information about the test is still trickling in, but the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) Organization’s International Monitoring Service, along with geological surveys and various governments, reported an ‘unusual seismic event’ at 1:30 UTC in the northeast region of North Korea, close to the Punggye-ri site of the previous nuclear tests. North Korea issued a press announcement that it had tested a ‘miniaturised hydrogen bomb’, developed as ‘self-defense against the U.S. having numerous and humongous nuclear weapons.’

Based on initial reports and seismic readings, the test measured at 5.1 on the Richter scale, meaning an explosive yield between 1 and 30 kilotons equivalent of TNT, and in all likelihood it was a single-stage atomic weapon potentially with boosting technology. Hydrogen weapons, also often referred to as thermonuclear weapons or fusion weapons, are more sophisticated than fission weapons and were only developed by the advanced nuclear states after years of testing. In as simple terms as possible, a ‘boosted’ device is one in which fusion technology increases the yield of an atomic weapon. The more advanced and challenging design is a multiple-stage thermonuclear weapon, with a fission primary that triggers a secondary fusion detonation. This can be further expanded upon in a three-stage weapon, such as the Tsar Bomba, the Soviet Union’s largest nuclear weapon ever exploded that produced a yield of 50 megatons. The yield of today’s nuclear test is much smaller than what would be expected of thermonuclear weapon, and therefore was likely a boosted weapon.

Monitoring of nuclear testing includes various techniques which eventually may be able to confirm whether or not the test was a hydrogen device, but North Korea has a track record of exaggerating its nuclear test performance. Its 2006 test was likely a ‘fizzle’, whereby the explosion inefficiently used the nuclear material by burning through it faster than it could produce a self-sustaining chain reaction. Pyongyang claimed its 2013 test was a miniaturized device, which requires technological advances well beyond its previous tests, but there was no evidence to support this claim. With regards to today’s test, as one North Korea expert posited, ‘North Korea may be claiming a successful hydrogen bomb test because it’s not grabbing much attention with atomic bombs.’ This test may prove to be underwhelming for the North Koreans, but still sets off at least three alarm bells.

First, it is a technological achievement because regardless of the success of the fusion technology, whether boosted or two-stage, North Korea will benefit from the new data generated by the test. The next test might not be a failure and North Korea is producing enough fissile material to ‘waste’ it on testing rather than saving it for nuclear weapons in its arsenal. Second, the test demonstrates Pyongyang remains willing to be an international pariah despite international pressure and waning support from China. Previously, North Korea relied heavily on Chinese financial and political support, but that may no longer be the case as Beijing has already condemned the test, as it did in 2013, and summoned the North Korean ambassador to lodge a protest. The big question is whether or not China has the leverage to reign in Pyongyang.

And finally, North Korea continues to rely on nuclear weapons for regime security and as a symbol of the Kim dynasty’s longevity and status on par with other nuclear powers. North Korea is not alone in its reliance on nuclear weapons. Over the past two years Russia has participated in nuclear ‘sabre-rattling’ and continued to emphasize the role of nuclear weapons in its military doctrine. Other states, such as Pakistan, remain reliant on nuclear weapons for security, as well, in the face of a conventionally superior adversary.

Nuclear disarmament advocates will likely point to today’s test as evidence of the need for a nuclear weapons ban and for nuclear possessors to further reduce reliance on nuclear weapons. Conversely, more hawkish analysts are likely to call for more nuclear capabilities, more missile defence, and more reliance on nuclear weapons to meet this growing threat. Nuance is in short supply in most contemporary nuclear debates.

But deterrence and arms control are not mutually exclusive, and North Korea’s nuclear posturing offers an opportunity for the West to practice this principle. It can ensure the norm against nuclear testing is upheld by speaking out against the North Korean test, levying further sanctions against the Kim regime, and cooperating with the CTBT Organization.

In light of the Russian and North Korean tandem nuclear threats, the United States can strengthen its deterrent by increasing investment in the nuclear infrastructure and proceeding with renewal and modernization of existing nuclear capabilities, reassuring allies of extended nuclear deterrence guarantees, and continuing to engage in activities such as joint exercises, rather than standing down in the face of North Korean aggression. More must be done to strengthen deterrence both to reassure allies, but also to reassure adversaries that any nuclear aggression will be met with retaliation.

Due to Russian aggression, 2015 was a dismal year for nuclear weapons policy, and North Korea has started 2016 on a similarly sour note. But 2015 was also the year of a major arms control breakthrough with the Iran nuclear agreement that brought together the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany in a unique and powerful multilateral effort to target nuclear transgressions. The goal for 2016 should be similarly ambitious. One possible step would be for the United States and China, jointly, to revisit ratification of the CTBT. They are two of the eight remaining states, including North Korea, that inhibit the treaty’s entry into force. Partisanship along with damning reports about the status of the U.S. nuclear infrastructure will not make this easy. But if done in parallel with Chinese ratification this would further stigmatize North Korea, demonstrate multilateral cooperation on denuclearization, and be a tangible contribution to nuclear disarmament. And if done in parallel with steps to strengthen deterrence, 2016 could have potential for striking that delicate balance necessary for security and stability.


Britain’s strategy in Syria: Gunga galunga… gunga, gunga-lagunga. No, really.

A month ago I remarked on the non-sensical decision by Britain’s parliament to authorise bombing by the RAF in Syria–see Britain’s Stupidest War. My point then, the clincher at any rate, was that I thought we would come to regret how as a society we’d allowed our wars to be so totally hijacked by domestic politics that they now served essentially little more than as props in political theatre. This piece then in today’s Telegraph caught my eye for the obvious reasons: RAF bomb raids in Syria dismissed as ‘non-event’. It turns out that not only are we not really doing much in the way of bombing (we may be doing a bit more on reconnaissance, but we were doing that before the momentous vote too), but actually the target that got all the attention was actually one that had been serviced by the USAF over a month before.

So, what’s up KOW readers? What’s the point of it? Obviously, Shakespeare came to mind first–Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5:

And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

But, honestly, very shortly thereafter I realised the more appropriate metaphor was from the genius pen of Harold Ramis–Caddyshack, scene something or other:

But what does it mean? I hear you say. What’s the strategy? How does action X contribute to the realisation of policy Y? Wrong question, Grasshopper! What’s important is how it makes you feel. Blessedly, we made it through the new year celebrations without a major terror attack on revellers enjoying the peaceful fireworks shows that just lit the skylines of the world’s major cities. There’s going to be one, though, for sure, and another one after that, and another one after that, and so on and so forth, and so far not much sign of a plausible concept of avoiding them either. At which point the government can say ‘we’re doing our best!’ It’s down to you to forget that doing their best consisted of driving the occasional ball 10,000 feet down a crevasse.

Anyway, happy 2016!



Thinking about war underground

No one has done better than the great British comic illustrator Heath Robinson to illustrate the intrinsically reciprocal dynamic of military engineering in general and mining and countermining in particular. This cartoon is from a collection Heath Robinson at War I found in a rummage sale years ago–no doubt there are abundant reprints.

Mine and counter mine



I  would guess, though, that for many KOW readers the dominant mental image of war underground is more akin to that in Sebastian Faulks’ novel Birdsong, later adapted for television. The harrowing scenes of tunnel warfare beneath the trenches of the First World War are extraordinarily vivid. In his introduction Faulks described it as ‘a hell within a hell‘. For a lot of people, it seems to me on the sound scientific basis of a dozen or so conversations (some of them drunken), that’s where tunnel warfare resides–at a safe historic distance from today, a claustrophobic nightmare of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers.

Of course this is completely wrong. Tunnel warfare has been a constant in human history for as long as there have been humans making war. In recent memory it was a major preoccupation of the American military. Consider the poem below written in praise of the massive tunnelling efforts of Vietnamese communists during the Vietnam War. I love it. (Can anyone tell me if the words ‘your entrails, Mother, are unfathomable’ rhyme in Vietnamese?) I found it in the front matter of the classic book The Tunnels of Cu Chi by Tom Mangold and John Penycate.

The Mother–The Native Land

by Duong Huong Ly

When she dug the tunnels, her hair was still brown.
Today her head is white as snow.
Under the reach of the guns she digs and digs.
At night the cries of the partridge record the past.
Twenty years, always the land is at war.
The partridge in the night cries out the love of the native land.
The mother, she digs her galleries, defenses,
Protecting each step of her children.
Immeasurable is our native land.
The enemy must drive his probes in everywhere.
Your unfathomable entrails, Mother,
Hide whole divisions under this land.
The dark tunnels make their own light.
The Yankees have captured her.
Under the vengeful blows she says not a word.
They open their eyes wide but are blind.
Cruelly beaten, the mother collapses.
Her body is no more than injuries and wounds.
Her white hair is like snow.
Night after night
The noise of picks shakes the bosom of the earth.
Columns, divisions, rise up from it.
The enemy, seized by panic, sees only
Hostile positions around him.
Immeasurable is our native land.
Your entrails, Mother, are unfathomable.

And even more recently tunnel warfare has begun to concern Israel in a major way since the 2006 capture of Corporal Gilad Shalit by Hamas commandos who attacked his army outpost near Kibbutz Kerem Shalom via an infiltration tunnel originating in Rafah. Locating similar tunnel entrances and destroying them was the primary objective of the 2014 IDF incursion into Gaza (Operation Protective Edge). I cannot recommend highly enough this report on Hamas’ tunnelling efforts in and out of Gaza by Dr Eado Hecht given as testimony to the UN. There are dozens and dozens of journalistic accounts but none so far as I’m aware approaches Hecht’s in detail and sheer good judgment.

In other words, the underground battlespace has always been an aspect of warfare but in contemporary times it’s vitality has become much more apparent. That being the case it merits more serious attention than it has gotten of late. I’ve been doing some of that lately in the form of quite a lot of library time (my forte) as well as some fieldwork in Israel and in the sewers of a major city, which I can’t talk too much about yet because technically I wasn’t supposed to be there. I thought I might share a few observations for the amusement of the handful of other claustrophile war studies types who must exist out there.

Why is tunnelling and counter-tunnelling the new hotness?

I think the reasons that the underground is an increasingly active component of the warfare are possibly pretty obvious. Firstly, consider the scene below–no doubt you’ve seen dozens like it, this one’s from some marketing bumf of the Lockheed Martin company ‘Staying ahead of the curve‘, which purports to show the post-2030 battlespace. Everybody loves these clean scenes, right out of a George Lucas film. Yay blue! Get those reds!




‘ ‘Damn’, says the half of the world that can’t afford the high tech accoutrements of the system of systems, ‘since I can’t hope to challenge “next generation air dominance” I guess I’ll just give up.’ Well, no, not actually. In the real world, clever people who are determined in their cause find other ways of bringing/avoiding the pain. In the case of Hamas attacking the IDF from infiltration tunnels is in fashion because every other means of advancing to contact with them is pointlessly suicidal. Similarly never operating without top cover–or at any rate scurrying like mad whenever you’re in the open is simply what you do in an era of ubiquitous surveillance and sensor-to-shooter gaps measured in minutes or seconds. I suspect we all know now that the post-2030 battlespace will look a lot like this 2015 one from Damascus–apparently shot from a Russian operated commercial drone with a go-pro camera. Yay gray! Get those grays!

Another reason for the proliferation of tunnels is the parallel proliferation of walls in our world today–the two basically always seem to go together, always the ying to the others yang, where you have walls you will soon have tunnels. This is less directly related to warfare than it is primarily to the efforts of governments to curtail migration and smuggling (and somewhat plausibly terrorism). See for instance this CNN report on a drug ‘super tunnel‘ running under the US-Mexico border. Pretty crappy, eh? Here, have some more Heath Robinson.

Beer stealer



A final reason is simply the much discussed and completely self-evident urbanisation of the surfaces of  the planet where most people now live. If you’re fighting in cities you are either fighting in and from tunnels or you are dead.

Anyway, you get the point. Tunnelling is a time honoured asymmetric tactic. Also if you put a wall between someone and the potential of great profit that they can’t around then they will put a lot of energy into going under.

The science of tunnelling and counter-tunnelling is surprisingly slow moving*

In this day and age of rapid innovation and scientific progress it is sometimes oddly disorientating to come across fields of endeavour where the number of really fundamental ‘game changing’ innovations are so few. Remember this famous scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey? It’s not in a cave but that’s what the war was about–the winning tribe got to keep the cozy cave by the water, the losers got to carry on roaming the desert being preyed on by leopards.

That’s stage 1. People lived underground in the comparative comfort of natural caves and undoubtedly had to defend them against the attentions of others who craved those same natural security and comforts.

Stage 2 differed only in that people started to dig their own caves and tunnels where they wanted them, for defence or for hiding, instead of waiting for Mother Nature to do it for them. Accounts of such activity are found in the The Bible, Judges, Chapter 6, Verse 2: ‘And the hand of Midian prevailed against Israel: and because of the Midianites the children of Israel made them the dens which are in the mountains, and caves, and strong holds.’ And actual remnants, some very extensive and well preserved, such as the cave cities in Cappadocia, Turkey built initially as defence against the Hittites in 1000 BC and inhabited up until just a few centuries ago, can be found in many places.


Stage 3 began in the late Middle-Ages with the invention of gun-powder. Then as now heroism alone was no real challenge to a fortress that was minimally competently defended; you had to go underground. The miner was the most feared of all attackers:

The skill of the miner was reflected in the number of sites which, otherwise vulnerable, were immune through water to the slow but deadly process of undermining. Considerable subtlety was employed in the underground approach. The entrance would be distant and well-concealed. Diversionary attacks would be staged to distract the defenders’ attention. As nothing could be achieved from the surface the castle holders would dig out countermines, and on several occasions would break into the besiegers’ galleries and engage them in hand-to-hand combat. There are numerous accounts of desperate battles underground, and the skill, science, and courage of the attacker was often matched by similar qualities in the counter-miner.

Philip Warner, Sieges of the Middle Ages (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1968), pp. 23-26.

(If you haven’t already read the report on Gaza tunnels by Hecht that I mentioned above then do that now and reflect on what, if anything, has changed in this basic dynamic).

Pre-gun powder the basic technique of attack was this: choose a vulnerable section of the fortress, a turret, say, then slyly dig a tunnel beneath it. Once you are beneath the foundation then expand your tunnel–very quietly–into a large cavity shored up with stout timbers so it does not collapse on you as you work. Now stuff the place with inflammables and set it alight. In the ensuing fire the supports will be consumed and the structure above will come crashing down beneath its own weight. Undoubtedly effective, the technique also required great skill in quiet mining and accurate navigation–and was intrinsically perilous. After all if the defenders detected your efforts they could dig a tunnel to intercept yours. There is a terrific example of this at St Andrews Castle, Scotland where you can still see the mine dug during a siege in 1546 and the counter-mine, which after some initial difficulty locating its target ultimately allowed the defenders to ambush and slaughter their attackers. Here’s an illustration:

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Gun powder made the job of the attacker simpler and easier. Its explosive power meant that you didn’t have to dig such a large cavity, meaning also that you didn’t have to make as much noise or take so much time and were therefore less likely to be intercepted. Also if your underground navigation was off a bit there was still a good chance that you could ruin a fair chunk of the wall you were attacking. Over a few centuries the arms race of mine and counter-mine came to the point where by the early modern era a really properly defended fortress would, in theory, have a system of counter-mines already dug long before the besiegers arrived–in fact, actually at the first stage of the fortification’s construction.

A system of permanent countermines was one of the most expensive but effective systems of fortification, enabling the governor to offer a foot-by-foot three-dimensional defence of the ground from the tail of the glacis all the way back to the counterscarp… From the main  gallery, a number of galleries or half galleries (four and a half feet by three) radiated underneath the glacis along the imaginary prolongations of the capital (central) lines of the bastions and ravelins. From these again there was a further proliferation in the form of major branches (rameaux, three by two and a half) and simple branches or listeners (ecoutes, two and a half by two) which sprouted off at right angles. These stuffy masonry tubes gave the counterminers the means of detecting the approach of the enemy, and offered a variety of sites where they could plant their charges of gunpowder. The branches and listeners were built of such small dimensions not for the sake of economy (in fact it was very awkward to excavate them), but because small tunnels were easy to tamp (stop up) when a charge was about to be exploded.

Christopher Duffy, Fire and Stone: The Science of Fortress Warfare, 1660-1860 (London: Greenhill Books, 1996). pp. 83-84.

(If this all sounds quaintly ancient to you then read go read Hecht’s piece, particularly para. 36 where he remarks on the extreme difficulty of locating tunnels. In the old days ‘listeners’ would use barrels of water into which they would plunge their heads to enhance the sound of distant tunnelling–think of how things sound when you submerge your ears in the bath–or basic microphones, such as a brass cymbal placed against a wall of a mine, in the hope of triangulating on their attackers. That’s still fundamentally how it’s done today.) Again, Heath Robinson’s imagination is fanciful but not entirely inaccurate.

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Stage 4 came along in the late 19th century with the invention of excavating machines that could bore tunnels faster and more accurately than men could with shovels and pick axes. At first glance, you might think this a terrifically consequential development allowing the rapid excavation of lots of large tunnels. In actuality, the extra noise made by mechanical digging greatly compromises their offensive utility because it makes them more easily detectable to anyone listening. It has long been known that North Korea has dug several very large,  deep, and long ‘invasion’ tunnels suitable for the use of large units into South Korean territory but there is a good deal of dispute over how many there may be.

Stage 5 is where we are now and it involves the development of really effective detection equipment. It bears emphasising how difficult this is technically. The ground underneath you is naturally a jumble of layers of differing density and full of cracks and fissures so mapping it with ground penetrating radar, say, even if useful depth could be achieved would still present big problems of analysis. Infiltration tunnels, moreover, can run deep and do not need to be large–a space sufficient for a man’s shoulders or perhaps the width of a bicycle’s handlebars is perfectly sufficient for commandos to transit even with heavy weapons–and they can be dug quietly. Finding a tunnel is a bit like finding a spaghetti noodle in a plate of spaghetti.

Siege warfare is never anyone’s first choice. It’s extremely expensive. It’s exhausting and challenging on many levels. But when every other option is locked down it works. In fact, it’s never really gone completely out of use. It’s probably that our belief in the salience of mobile warfare practically since Napoleon ran roughshod over Europe two centuries ago has just blinded us a bit to it’s new fashionableness. Anyway, it’s back.

So, what next?

Well, this post is already quite long so I’ll keep this bit short. Let’s recap. For a variety of reasons the ground beneath us is now a vital part of the battlespace. Historically, this is nothing new–perhaps what we’re seeing is a reversion to the norm. That being the case it is worth spending some time reacquainting ourselves with the strategic and tactical wisdom of the past, much of which now lies forgotten on dusty shelves. But we should also be exploring more and be more attentive to the infrastructure of the places we live. On which point I must admit that I have something of a man crush on this fellow, urban historian and photographer Steve Duncan. I don’t think I could get away this as a research methodology–pretty sure my university would disown me. Have a watch:


But, really, if we’re going to make some progress in this field we need to be scrambling around these places more and learning from the people who work and live in these environments a lot more. Also, goddamn that looks fun.


It’s that time of year again…Terrorism and Santa Redux

Hello, Dear Reader! Yes, it has been a long time since I’ve posted here. Thanks for not bringing it up.

2015 will certainly stand out as a banner year for things going to Hell in a hand basket.  Planes, trains, rock concerts…nothing was immune from terrorist attacks. ISIS (or ISIL, or IS, or Daesh) was everywhere…

Or was it?

I am reminded of a post that I crafted here five years ago (5 years!?!  where does the time go, eh?) Given that re-gifting is the new…er…uhhh…gifting the same thing more than once, I thought I would share it with you again, for a second time, once more:

Terrorism and the Myth of Santa: Do you believe?

All the very best for this time of year (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) and here’s hoping 2016 is broadly better than 2015.  (No, Hallmark, you can’t steal that sentiment, it’s all mine.)



CCLKOW: Future Planning

Greetings CCLKOW and other interested readers. In this, my last post before the end of term and the New Year, I think it fitting to talk about the future. Or rather, the defence approach to imagining and dealing with the future. The inspiration for this piece was a two day workshop on future concepts that I attended, and my response to the structure of the content and the contemplations, specifically the use of scenarios. Because this sort of exercise so frequently relies upon this model to drive the conversation, I am of course of a mind to question it – conventional wisdom tends to have that effect on me. Of course, it may be that scenarios are the best way forward for providing the most effective review of a potential future, but for the time being let us live in an intellectual world where we have the freedom to create the process anew. Read the thought piece, consider the challenge, and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.


Last month I spent a fun* couple of days with DCDC contemplating the way forward for for the armed forces. In this particular workshop exercise the view was towards imagining the application of landpower in a changing world in support of the centre’s re-issue of the Future Land Operating Concept. This is not my first experience of such exercises, as it is exactly twenty years ago that I participated in my first of these sorts of exercises with NDU. The world of 2015 seemed rather far off at that time. And yet, here we are again, considering the world two decades hence.

Returning to the more recent workshop I participated in, nothing was decided and there are months to go before the review is completed. But the two days included interesting conversations across a range of topics between an even broader range of specialists and experts. It is not my intention to discuss the content of the workshop. Rather, I am interested in the processes applied in the approach to such endeavours, because how we do things can shape the intellectual outcomes. Whereas this particular event was scenario driven, in this piece I would like to challenge the methodological assumption to think about what may be alternative frameworks for thinking through future capabilities, challenges, and opportunities.

As a means to consider other ways to think about the future, my first point is about challenges and opportunities, because it is the former which overwhelmingly dominates the discussion. The nature of security and defence, particularly the exercise of thinking through how to cope with future threats, certainly has a darkening influence on the mood. Pessimism in such cases is understandable. In an effort to be as ruthless as possible with respect to the challenges so as not be caught out, the potential future enemy in such scenarios is inevitably drawn in proportions which reality would not sustain.  Nevertheless, I never fail to be struck by the absence of imagining what opportunities the changing world might offer. Thus, an alternative approach to this process could be organised around discussions which divine the contours of both sides of this coin to imagine both the challenges and the opportunities that will arise out of changes in the economic, social, political, and military worlds.

Another way to address the issue is to play with the threat-context-end relationship. While threats and ends are in common parlance in defence, by context I mean to include the political, social, economic, and perhaps even climatic, dynamics which shape the conflict environment by defining desires, fears, and priorities. Breaking the pieces down into these portions of an equation allows for variation and control of each of the constituent parts. Requirements, options, challenges, and opportunities will emerge from the analysis depending on which piece in the equation is held constant and what is changed in the other parts.

These are just two alternatives which came to my mind. Please feel free to lob any thoughts you might have at my suggestions.  They are illustrative of other means available to think our way to sound preparations for the future, but they are not meant to be exhaustive. There are as likely as many options as there are thinkers on the subject. And that, my dear CCLKOW readers, forms the crux of this week’s questions and discussion:

What are the merits and weaknesses of scenario-based future thinking?

What alternatives to a scenario-based process would you propose?






* If this is fun, I really need to get a life.


Sayre’s Law in Syria

So, Britain goes to war. Ten hours of Parliamentary debate (including that speech by Hilary Benn) over whether or not to use forces that will be a marginal addition at best resulted in roughly two thirds of MPs voting yes. David Cameron’s strategy, if it is worth the word, appears to be a combination of the Underpants Gnome model (“Step 1: Use force, Step 2: … Step 3: Peace! Victory! Votes!”), and the Goldilocks approach to intervention (Not enough to “win”, not enough to be irrelevant, just enough to make us beholden to events). From my perspective, the pitch of debate regarding what was at stake in the Parliamentary debate appeared to be Sayre’s law in action, albeit with added high explosives. Professor Wallace Sayre’s original formulation, that “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low” is all the more relevant, since we were already using force against ISIS and committing ISR assets to the region.

So what changed? Or rather, what now? The problem, as I see it, is that we are now ultimately responsible for a civil war that doesn’t appear to have an acceptable end for anyone. Ending the Syrian civil war appears to be the top priority. Writing in The New York Times, Anatol Lieven argues that this will require working with Russia, and carving up both Syria and Iraq to a greater or lesser extent. I think he’s probably right, but it won’t end there, because, from my perspective, this option ends with complete and utter impunity for war crimes. Much is made of the need to put political pressure on Assad to make way, as this is a symbolic move that might allow the civil war to end. But what about the war crimes? Are we going to have a re-run of the ICTY in the Levant? If yes, please explain to me how we’re meant to make Assad give way, and convince his security forces and military to stop fighting. If no, I’m somewhat bemused that Parliament has managed to debate its way into a crusade for the common good and justice that is predicated impunity.