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Future wars of mass manoeuvre are more likely to be fought through the minds of millions looking at computer and television screens than on some modern equivalent of the Cold War’s North German Plain. Indeed, some might argue the screen is our generation’s North German Plain, the place where future war will be won or lost.
Paul Virilio? Shimon Naveh? The People’s Liberation Army? Nope, that’s Gen Sir David Richards, UK Chief of General Staff, at the International Institute for Strategic Studies last night. His comments were trailed over the weekend in an interview for the Sunday Times, in which he said that the UK is facing a ‘horse versus tank moment’ with respect to its capacity to wage modern war. Given that a defence review is imminent, Richards seems to be suggesting it’s better to slash the budgets on the big, old stuff and spend it on shiny new stuff. That’s a view with which Adm Sir Mark Stanhope, head of the Navy, is likely to disagree later today.
So a minor inter-service spat might be looming but is Richards right? Here are a few crucial sections from his address:
We have pared down our force numbers, replacing people with hardware and thoughts for process. Yet as the war of the present and the future is for the people, for their understanding and loyalty, we must be capable of being among the people. Unless you are amongst them you cannot understand their pressures and needs, you cannot win their loyalties or their trust, and you cannot protect them properly.
A kick in the teeth for the RMA, followed by a Smithian plea for what sounds remarkably like population-centric COIN, but he continues:
But this has a radical consequence for Defence. It requires mass. The ability to have sufficient soldiers to develop the understanding I have just described and then to dominate psychologically if not always physically the human terrain in which they are operating. You need the green and brown water fleets and the land and air mobility platforms that allow you to reach into ungoverned space and make your presence felt.
We need interpreters, cultural experts, intelligence officers, CIMIC personnel and all the others so key to understanding the modern battlefield with its nuances and subtleties. We are looking for soldier/diplomats of the old school but with a modern understanding of the ideas and technology that allows us to take the fight to the enemy both among the people on the ground and in cyberspace…
Over the past century the thrust of military advance has been technological. The horse/tank moment was but one example among many. And while the need for mass is reasserting itself the need for technology certainly hasn’t stopped. Technological advances will always be a vital part of warfare. It is how technology can be put to best effect that is changing.
And so on. Richards stops some way short of recommending a ‘new cyber-army’, as the Sunday Times put it, or any explicit offensive cyberwar capability at all, in fact, but it’s difficult to imagine this will not be somewhere in the defence review, even if the terminology will be different. Given the recent renewal of focus on China’s information warfare capabilities, and the cyber component of the Conservative’s pre-election national security green paper, A Resilient Nation, Richards’ comments also take on a significance they might otherwise not have had.