Is World War Three Imminent? Strategic Trends 2020

Is World War Three Imminent?

Strategic Trends 2020

The Annual TAG Report

By Julian Lindley-French, Chair, The Alphen Group

10 January, 2020

This TAG Annual Report considers the analysis of its members over the past year given the security and defence challenges of the coming decade. Change is the constant theme running through all the analysis; a changing security environment, a changing transatlantic relationship, a changing Europe, above all, profound change to the very way security and defence are to be afforded, by what and by whom, as rapidly changing geopolitics, strategy and technology combines in dangerous concert in the 2020s. What is to be done?

Dragons, devils and TAGGERS

Is World War Three imminent? As the world enters 2020, and in the wake of the US killing of Iran’s Major General Qasem Suleimani, one could be forgiven for thinking so given the hysteria in much of the press coverage. If ever there was a time for sober and expert strategic reflection it is now. Strategic sobriety in the face of danger is the mission of The Alphen Group (TAG), an informal network of respected and experienced practitioners and thinkers set up in 2019 to consider not only threats and challenges, but also to offer practical solutions.

If there is one single, elegant message from the TAG’s first year of online reflections, as well as meetings in The Hague and Berlin it is that the need for balance of analysis has never been more important. Certainly, the world is becoming more complex, but is it becoming more dangerous, and if so where and to what extent? There is a danger that that the coming decade could dissolve into a mix of contested geopolitics and regional and societal fracture of such toxicity that world peace is threatens. Perhaps the TAG motto should be thus: beware self-fulfilling prophecies. For Americans and Europeans, the quintessential challenge is one of such complexity and how to maintain relevance, cohesion and effectiveness in what is now a venerable transatlantic relationship. In a series of Premium TAG blogs, the tensions and challenges of change and complexity are all too apparent.

New defence futures?

In A New Defence Future for Europe: Minimum Defence, Maximum Deterrence, Professor Rob de Wijk, Chairman of The Hague Centre for Security Strategy, argues that Europeans will only be afforded deterrence if they themselves can deter aggression. De Wijk calls upon Europeans to invest in a ‘Strategic Autonomy Doctrine’ focussed on a revitalised EU Common Security and Defence Policy, part of, but not subordinate to, a modernised transatlantic relationship. Europeans, de Wijk argues, should move away from classical ‘heavy-metal’ concepts of force-on-force if Europeans are to afforded security affordably in a digital age. Critically, Europeans should invest in small ‘trip wire’ forces that act as both sensors and deterrents for a new kind of digital defence, with offensive cyber to the fore, allied to a modernised European nuclear force to afford Europeans control over what remains the ultimate deterrent. The cost of de Wijk’s radical defence vision? If Europeans created a truly ‘common’ capability ever current investments of some $264bn per annum should be enough.

Rob de Wijk is essentially reinvents the idea of ‘deterrence’, and in so doing signals a protracted debate about its very nature. However, whilst Professor Holger Mey offers a sober reminder that Europeans “…cannot escape nuclear reality”, and reinforces the centrality of such weapons to Europe’s future defence, he reinforces the idea of common European responsibility for deterrence. In Extended Nuclear Deterrence Revisited, Mey confronts some hard, often uncomfortable truths. With much of the nuclear arms control regime that has underpinned European security and stability for over thirty years now in tatters a new form of nuclear arms race is also underway, at least on one side of the nuclear ‘balance’, thus threatening the very idea of ‘balance’ upon which Europe’s security and defence has been established since at least 1949 and the founding of NATO.

The essential challenge Mey poses is also relevant to all those engaged in another arms race = the race to exploit new exotic technologies in the battlespace, that could become one of the defining features of the 2020s. Whiles nuclear weapons, or any or all weapons of mass disruption and destruction could theoretically be banned if verification regimes were sufficiently strong and trusted, one simply cannot dis-invent scientific knowledge or technical know-how. “The genie is out of the bottle”, as Mey puts it. Consequently, there can be no escape for Europeans or anyone else from nuclear reality. Policy should be focussed on shaping the enduring strategic reality of nuclear weapons given their continuing ultima ratio role in deterrence.

In echoes of de Wijk, such an effort would places a particular onus on the non-nuclear member of the Alliance, many of which are uncomfortable with such weapons, precisely because nuclear weapons would be central to European strategic autonomy. As Mey states, “As long as nuclear weapons exist and are part of the reality in international relations, non-nuclear members of the Alliance should do everything from their side to keep deterrence credible”.

Grand strategy 2020s

THE defining grand strategic feature of the 2020s will be the new bipolarism and the geopolitical contest between the two superpowers 2020s, China and the US. China is already exerting profound influence on Europe via the debt diplomacy of the Belt and Road. What is less accepted in Europe is the new super-tech arms race underway between Beijing and Washington that will increasingly demand the organisation of all national means – public and private – as both seek to dominate the transformation from high-end analogue warfare to high-end digital warfare via both human and artificial intelligence and across all the many domains of complex operations and societies. Europe? The consequent outcome of this race for Europeans will be the level to which they are subjects or partners. Europeans are extremely vulnerable to the penetration of their open societies and economies and thus the coercion implied. For Europeans, a major challenge of the 2020s will be how to resist such coercion, and what choices, forces and resources will be needed to achieve a minimum level of credible resistance.

As with all strategic change it is the great power dragons who occupy the rariefied atmosphere of the twenty-four news cycle. However, the devil of such change is usually in the detail. In two insightful and powerful pieces (Part 1 and Part 2) on the US Joint Enterprise Defense Initiative (JEDI), Professor Paul Cornish highlights the radical digitisation underway of the US security and defence posture, Washington’s seeming failure to make work the strategic public private partnership at its core, and the implications of such “uncertainty” for US strategic leadership in the 2020s.

Cornish highlights another problem of the age; what technology ‘winners’ to choose and how to embed them to effect in a future defence posture, particularly when it requires new forms of strategic partnership between the public and private sectors. Interestingly, there are again parallels in Cornish’s analysis of US uncertainty over the relationship between strategy, technology and capability, de Wijk’s assertion that Europeans will only ever be able to afford such a future defence if they become strategically autonomous from the US, and Mey’s thesis that once invented technology cannot be wished away. De Wijk’s ‘min-max’ defence-deterrence posture pre-supposes technologies as a solution to enhancing European deterrence. Implicit in Mey’s argument is not just the enduring utility and role of nuclear weapons in deterrence and defence, but also the impact on that role of new capabilities, such as hypersonic, glide and artificially intelligent missile systems. At the core of all 2020s debate over defence futurism will be a pressing strategic reality: the state or non-state (a digitised ISIS?) that best exploits data, information and knowledge could likely gain a critical advantage. Digital David versus analogue Goliath?

Peaces of mosaic 2020

European strategic autonomy need not mean transatlantic strategic rupture, but it will demand Euro-Atlantic transformation. Certainly, EU defence, NATO, force modernisation, military mobility, etc. and et al, will all be subordinate to this decisive strategic challenge of the 2020s. However, that is not to suggest that ALL security and defence will be focussed on the hyper end of hyper warfare. The very ‘mosaic’ nature of warfare across a spectrum of hybrid, cyber and hyperwar fires and effects means that very idea of ‘war’, its conduct and character will also change. For example, Lieutenant-General Ben Hodges warning about the dangers of an instable Western Balkans must be heeded. He is right to call for the US, EU and NATO to work in close and constant concert to ensure Serbia and Kosovo achieve a sustainable peace. This noble aim is not simply because of the suffering in the region, real though it is. The very nature of future war, and the digital connectivities upon which it thrives, means a conflagration in one region could very quickly extend and escalate in the manner of an Australian bush-fire.

Hodges, until 2018 Commander of US Army Europe, also warns about the danger of becoming too enamoured, too quickly, with new technologies. The December 2019 NATO London Leaders Meeting reminded all the allies that stability and security require structure and organisation above all else. As the US enters the 2020s, it is facing a challenge to its leadership unimagined even twenty years ago. That challenge will demand of both Americans and Europeans new thinking in the decade ahead. However, that new thinking must take place within existing, albeit adapted structures, such as the Alliance, even in the NATO of 2030 will look very different to the NATO of 2020. Hodges is also right to counsel that in the rush towards the defence-exotic fundamental principles of force and resource must not be forgotten. Principles that underpin the practical challenges of defence and deterrence, such as moving military forces across Europe rapidly in an emergency, the 2020s need for Europeans to have again the political courage to consider the worst-case, and, above all, the 2020s need for Europeans to invest the forces and resources to assist the US in its global role, so that the US can continue to afford Europeans a credible security and defence guarantee.

The Master Principle

At the beginning of this annual report a question was posed: Is World War Three imminent? The answer is no. However, unless Americans and Europeans together maintain a shared aim – collective action to preserve the peace such a war might become dangerously plausible in the years to come. In 1926, Colonel J.F.C. Fuller established his ten principles of warfare. They included offensive action, surprise, concentration of force, economy of force, security, mobility and co-operation. The so-called ‘Master Principle’ was the selection and maintenance of the aim. The aim is peace. Here’s the cruncher; at core much of the challenge of peace will concern the generation and organisation of European power. The hope of a ‘common’ solution has proven to be elusive, and will continue to be so. If Europeans are serious about power, and they will need to be, strategic leadership can only come from Europe’s three residual strategic powers – Britain, France and Germany. European action is needed now.

It is perhaps fitting to leave the final analysis to TAGGER Jim Townsend, the former Deputy Under-Secretary of Defense for Eurasian Affairs at the Pentagon. In commenting on the appointment of Ursula von der Leyen as President of the European Commission Jim noted that there was now an Atlanticist at the helm in Brussels. As the 2020s begin, and with Britain about to leave the EU, it is perhaps right to finish this concise annual TAG report with a hope – that Atlanticism and Europeanism, far from being or becoming mutually exclusive, will transform to become the two unbreakable pillars of a global West, more idea than place, to which all democracies are affiliated in solidarity, and committed to upholding a just and legitimate democratic peace – whatever it takes!

Welcome to the 2020s. Welcome to the TAG!

Julian Lindley-French,
TAG Chair,
January 2020