Episode 54: Highlights Season 2: More Optimisitic Than Expected

Host Peter Roberts covers the five big themes of Season 2: The American Way of War. He discusses what went wrong and course corrections; continuity of concepts rather than radical change; systemic challenges in constructing concepts of fighting; how adversaries are preparing to fight wars; and the problems in ending conflicts.

There is more optimism than you might expect and, with some of the most popular bits from the last six months, this smash-up of ‘everything warfare’ might go down a little bit like marmite.

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  • Moderator: Professor Peter Roberts

    Unedited Transcript


    Peter Roberts: Welcome to the Western Way of War season two highlights. The podcast has been running for a year now, and we've tried to understand the issues around how to fight and succeed against adversaries in the 2020s. I'm Peter Roberts, Director of Military Sciences at the Royal United Services Institute on Whitehall, and every week for the last year, I've talked to a guest, posing the question that seeks to enlighten us about the Western way of war. Does it remain fit for task today, and how might it need to adapt in the future The podcast is being sponsored and enabled by the good people of Raytheon UK, a subsidiary of Raytheon Technology, a British company that creates jobs in England, Wales and Scotland, contributing over £700 million to the UK economy. If season one of this podcast was about establishing credentials and challenging some of the orthodoxies on technology and information in warfare, season two has had five big themes. Three were ours, two emerged from guests. The first theme from this season was a deliberate generated by us based on what we heard in the first season of 26 episodes that the American way of war is the Western way of war, warts and all. AirLand battle in the 1980s was the doctrine that provided the foundations for what all Western states would gravitate around. It brought jointery to combined arms warfare, technology to the analogue, and fresh thinking to a grouping that had become confined by the lack of imagination and more importantly, the pressing challenges of the time.


    There's clearly the line from that moment through shock and awe to the surge and finally to the current mantra of multi-domain operations and JADO and perhaps the information land battle which in itself, might be a harbinger of the future ways of fighting, yet remains essentially American, along with the accompanying preconceptions, bias and heuracies (ph 02.04). We wanted to dig into this a bit more deeply, about the failures as well as the successes. So if we can praise the US military machines for its adaptability and innovation culture, as we heard from Laura Schousboe of the Royal Danish Defence College, then we need to be open to critique of failure as well, in that neither General Martin Dempsey, Michèle Flournoy, General David Petraeus, Emma Sky, nor ambassador Ryan Crocker skimped. Let me choose a moment from Emma Sky's episode to give you a flavour.


    Emma Sky: Perhaps the defining feature was fighting without winning, and this was in large part because the mission kept morphing, and so our definition of winning kept changing. We didn't set clear, achievable objectives. Instead, we had grandiose goals of nation-building, installing democracy, promoting women's rights, defeating terror. So the wars became thought of as endless because we never knew when the job was done, nor what success should look like. So we won every battle, but none of the battles were decisive in terms of the outcome of the war. It became war among the people with no front lines. The enemy was too often undefined or ill-defined, and our actions often created more enemies than friends. And how were we to win the hearts and minds of the local people when they feared the enemy would take revenge so brutally on those who sided with us? Now, ours was an all-volunteer force. We were able to recruit, train and deploy our troupes on mass. Our troupes were professional, resilient, courageous and humane for the most part. They proved adaptive, constantly developing new tactics, techniques and procedures. Junior officers were empowered, creative and constantly innovating. So we were militarily superior with overwhelming weaponry but were up against enemies that used asymmetric tactics such as improvised explosive devices hidden in roads, houses and dead donkeys. We were technologically sophisticated, able to collect masses of information, but with insufficient knowledge or understanding of the cultural environment to be able to interpret what it all meant.


    Peter Roberts: Yet all the guests talking about American failures coming out of such analysis were upbeat. No one claimed we should simply be prepared for another radical failure, but rather that the experiences of this generation demonstrated an ability to learn, understand, change and reassess with alacrity. There was no sense of hubris or arrogance in what had been achieved. No sense of neophilia or presentism in those I spoke to. Few talked about the challenges of today as being greater than ever before. Everyone acknowledged generational struggles with identity and their place in history, about the difficulty in making policy that was fit for purpose and in recognising the a-war the-war dilemma. And that second theme of continuity was evident from the guests we lined up to baseline out knowledge and to reshape it. Beatrice Heuser, Hew Strachan and Mary Kaldor all made for compelling listening, challenging us with very different ways to think about war and conflict. If Beatrice reminded us that historically, only despots wage expeditionary war and what happened to the democratic peace theory, then Hew Strachan reminded us of a republican theory of war. Warfare as the clash of political wills and a language that militaries want, but not the reciprocal nature of the fight they get. And then Mary Kaldor asked us to consider whether the revolutions in war were enduring, from societal ones of revolution, to political contests of ideologies and back again, or was there a new era emerging in which human security and the individualisation of conflict was to break from the continuities of the past?


    Mary Kaldor: As far as I can see, the terrorist threat is much greater than it was twenty years ago, and I think human security is the only way to go, but I have a very specific understanding of human security which very much relates to how you address contemporary wars. I mean, I think what human security is about, and that everybody agrees when they define human security, is that it's about the security of individuals and the communities in which they live rather than about the security of the state. And it's also about our security from a range of threats, not just military threats or violent threats, but also economic threats, the threat of disease, pandemics, climate change. And in a curious way, I think over these last two years, we've seen the importance of human security grow, simply by virtue of the fact the governments feel they are responsible for their health of their citizens, and we see our heroes and heroines, our health workers and care workers and actually even the soldiers. I mean, the soldiers have been helping with vaccination efforts, helping with testing efforts. That, to me, is human security (mw 07.43) large.


    Peter Roberts: The third theme we deliberately inserted this season was one that sought to check on where we are right now with the Western way of war. Given the sheer number of policy documents that emerged in 2021, it was kind of hard to keep up with where the West was heading. In much of the policy stuff, everyone was talking about 2014, whether Syria were usually more related to the Russian invasion of Crimea. To me at least, the recognition that Crimea and Syria had changed everything, but only doing it seven years after the fact, was a little underwhelming. Everybody wanted to get on and into the sub-threshold hybrid and grey zone bandwagon, despite all the evidence being that the military is not the right tool for that problem. We tried to put a different spin on this with Ewan Lawson in an episode we titled, 'When did hybrid become everything, and everything become hybrid?' Ewan made the case.


    Ewan Lawson: One of the real challenges with this whole conversation is, where is the boundary between traditional statecraft but just delivered in a digital era and labelling, you know, pretty much everything as warfare? That for me has been, as you know, one of the most concerning things, is that labelling everything as warfare tends to point you at the military as a solution where essentially, a lot of this is actually more about things like, you know, educating young people to engage critically with material they find on the internet.


    Peter Roberts: Ewan went on to nail the starting point to the modern discussion on hybrid which has, in itself, become an industry.


    Ewan Lawson: You know, I think 2014 is a significant turning point and is part of the problem. I think you can make a case that one of the reasons there was a sudden spike in this was the sense that we, in the West, have been caught out here. So, it clearly can't be that we got things wrong, it must be that there's something new happening here. And, you know, I think that did drive something of a hybrid narrative which has moved quite a long way from, you know, Frank Hoffman's original concept of the blurring of conventional and irregular warfare with terrorism and a bit of crime and so on and so forth which, of course, is also bit like Mary Kaldor's, 'New wars.' Again, the problem with both of those is-, not about problems, I think it's always worth reminding ourselves of these things, is that again those sorts of things have been going on (TC 00:10:00) throughout history. So, 2014 is significant, but 2014 I think is both, you know, it's significant in terms of the turning point, but it's also the point at where we really start to get confused about what it is we're talking about. So, Crimea, stand-alone Crimea, is a military operation fundamentally with a significant element of obfuscation designed to slow down the political military response of the West, if there was going to be one.


    Peter Roberts: Maybe that will all die out, like the enthusiasm for innovation which, only twelve months ago, was all anyone in the higher ranks of the military could talk about. Laura Schousboe put it quite eloquently.


    Laura Schousboe: I think that's where people always make fun of me, saying that I'm this anti-innovation, just really conservative person, but I'm not. I'm just simply trying to point out that we have reached this point, as you say yourself, where innovation loses it's meaning because it's everywhere and everything is innovation. You know, how many times have you not heard that there's this issue and then the answer is to out-innovate. We should innovate ourselves out of this issue. Sure, but, you know, how? What are we going to do instead of just innovating ourselves out of a problem? So, yes, obviously I think we've reached a point where it has lost its-, not its sense, but it has lost its purpose for being this initiative for change.


    Peter Roberts: The fourth theme from season two was one of systemic challenges. This emerged across the episodes rather than as something we deliberately set up. Whether it was the Chief Executive of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, relating his experiences on the destruction and inhumanity of modern battlefields, Heather Williams talking about the fluidity of nuclear doctrine and our misunderstanding of it, or Oxford University's Janina Dill forcing us to think about war and legitimacy. It has been really clear that the bigger issues at play aren't just technological ones, but ethical, moral and legal concerns that reflect how we have changed as a society, and philosophically in our thinking about war, about how war has changed us as much as how we are changing war. Perhaps most clear in our perception of the utility of nuclear weapons in this case, Heather Williams was the one who spoke with greatest alacrity.


    Heather Williams: You've really got into the heart of the question on nuclear weapons that has been going on since the dawn of the nuclear age and rages until this day. Are nuclear weapons a war fighting weapon? During the Cold War, there were, you know, there were these nuclear artillery shells. If you are interested, you can go on YouTube and see these videos of, you know, nuclear artillery. It's kind of crazy to think of now. So, the idea, you know, as you said, we always think of it as, 'Nuclear weapons are just there for deterrents.' So, there are nine countries that possess nuclear weapons, only two of them have a No First Use doctrine.


    Peter Roberts: But for systemic challenges, there is also a counterpoint which we've been working of for a couple of years now about how our new ways of fighting will interact with adversaries who may or may not also be changing. This is the point I get most letters from from you, the listeners. What are the other side doing? What is the Eastern, Russian or Persian way of war? We've a separate webinar series at RUSI on those topics available called Adversarial Studies, but given the demand, I wanted to cover off a couple of these points, not least because of the idea that wars are not being fought just how we want them to. So how is this going to map out in the future? So the theme of adversarial ways of fighting was the fifth one to emerge. Elsa Kania covered the grand and exceptional Chinese modernisation of its military, highlighting how much had been learned from Western fighting styles. Indeed, as Elsa explained, the PLA is only shaped as it is because of the need to bypass and circumvent Western areas of advantage. For Russia, it was Michael Kofman who provided the analysis, and against a background of the April deployment of the 58th army group to Ukrainian border regions. Here's one of Mike's best bits.


    Michael Kofman: What did we really learn since 2013, 2015, there's a much expanded analocal intelligence capacity, right? Still looking at it, there are pretty robust analocal debates and between, okay, what are the indications of warnings? If they deploy this system, does that mean they're going to invade, or does it not? You know, people reading the tea leaves. Do they have enough logistics for a long operation? Well, they don't, but that doesn't mean that there's going to be a long operation. There are lots of different ways to fight conventional war, right? Who said it's going to be a long operation? Other folks, kind of, looking out saying, 'Well how many days of warning would we have based on their current posture if they wanted to conduct an intervention, the like?' And I basically revealed that (1), we are much better than we were in 2014, 2015. Actually, a lot of, I think, military analysts did get this right and did not sound the alarm that this is for sure an imminent invasion. Some people were saying, 'How often do we see military deployments like this without a country invading?' The answer is, all the time.


    Leaders use force because they believe that they need to use force to achieve bilocal goals, right? Just because you see a military deployment doesn't mean it's going to be an invasion. But looking at, you also saw that the reality is that in any future scenario, if Russia was to deploy a live military power on the borders of another state or a naval member or anybody else, it would not at all be clear-cut what they plan to do. Intel analysts would not, and other people would not be able to give tremendous amounts of indications and warnings ahead of it. And hard convention of military power, this is the power that counts at the end of the day. Most of this little men green stuff doesn't get you much and eventually leads to escalation with conventional intervention. That, at the end of the day, is what it ends up achieving, the more significant bilocal objectives.


    Peter Roberts: This might be a stark difference to the conventional understanding in Western capitals. From the discussions I've had with military and political leaders over the past five years, it feels like the vast majority of Western militaries are making presumptions and assumptions about how war will be fought, usually bounded by laws, behaviours, geographical and physical boundaries. These have now emerged as policy positions with forces being designed around them, but the reality is that those behaviours are not the ones that adversaries and potential adversaries are using on a daily basis. From chemical and biological weapons, for example, their use in Syria, drone and counter drone activities in Libya, mercenary groups using heavy artillery against civilian targets across to Africa, Israeli use of F35 jets inside other states, attacks on shipping, critical national infrastructure and industry, whether by the Houthis or other states, Russian use of short range ballistic hypersonic missiles and state sponsored proxy wars, this is not how Western policy wants warfare to work. It's not how it's co-defying it, what it will look like in the future, nor is it what it's preparing for.


    We think that the conversation needs to move on, not to one that looks simply at drones, cyber, data, information, AI, quantum, DEW and Nano, plus all the other buzzwords, and these as a linear extension of what we wanted Afghanistan to look like, but instead, reflecting the reality of contemporary conflict as a lived experience. What does facing up to 150,000 Russians riding armoured formations feel like? What does that do for the political decision-making we need to be prepared for? This isn't theoretical. When we speak to the people of Kiev or Tbilisi who've been through this, when we talk and listen to the residents of Aleppo, Ramala or Mosul about what that actual person feels like in what we're being told is precision bombardment. This is why we started a program of work at RUSI called the Norms of Future Warfare to pose the question, how will the West and their adversaries interact on the battlefield, not in terms of technical weapons, but framed around their behaviours and self-imposed rules? All the evidence suggests that they'll be different, that the interrelationship will be dynamic and reciprocal. Here's our primary investigator, Paddy Walker.


    Paddy Walker: I worry that adversaries actually really have caught up, so I'm thinking here about, you know, widespread revolution and precision munitions, ramifications for aerial denial, you know, previously safe areas. Everyone on the battlefield can now be seen. And another point on technology, I think the possibility now of war on the cheap, and the importance here is that, you know, in olden days, we would call it non-peer, near-peer, peer-on-peer or whatever, but it's a blurring delineation between these states. And third, while we still trust in this small number of very technical, highly expensive, highly prized assets to deliver a swift win, actually, the issue for us in the Western way of war is still how we fight and not with what we fight, so it's still human endeavour that's always the best indicator of success and conflict. So clear characteristics, an evolving picture, I'm sure it always has been. We're moving from, you know, predictable set pieces and well-defined parties, the old sea of red in a perfect square, but I think now, Peter, the Western way of war, you know, it's going to (TC 00:20:00) be super contested, it's messy, it's unpredictable, certainly a heavy conventional fist as a core enabler there, but much more multi-domain, much more challenge, I'm glad I'm not doing it, the command and control, and I would imagine greater scope for surprise and also exogeneity from adversaries' actions.


    Peter Roberts: The question that emerges is, so what? One of the biggest divergences in the public discourse on warfare remains the question over whether we are at an inflection point. Is radical and unprecedented change happening to us at a scale that humanity has never experienced before, or should we follow the Colin Gray school of, 'Another bloody century'? This is becoming a polarising moment, and a new generation in the military are quite clearly engaged already in it. Whilst Amos Fox defined it as, 'The fight for the future of the Western military soul,' a different way of coming at it was outlined by Arch Macy. His challenge was, 'How will you know?' How will you know whether your technology works, whether your weapons work, whether your rules apply, or whether you are changing the way that operations are being fought? This leads to the important question posed by Madeline Moon. 'Have we placed enough weight on the survival and impact of quiet diplomacy?' The continuities underpinned by trust, friendship and communication, the need for public engagement, particularly with the next generation. As we end season two, I listened to all the shows again and there's just too much to sum up. There are so many brilliant speakers. There are some great lines of thinking and the intellectual challenges that go along with each and every episode. I get all this as personal choice but hey, as host, I get to pick how we close out the highlights session. One of my favourite moments this season came from the great Professor Beatrice Heuser.


    Beatrice Heuser: Let me make three points about that. The first point is that there are different types of adversaries. There are adversaries with whom you seriously can't possibly negotiate. Hitler would be one of them, you know, in many respects, and Stalin was one of them, where basically you can't make any concessions, you just simply have to defeat them utterly and totally and get rid of that regime and there is nothing in between. But there are, and this is my second point, lots of adversaries who have some sort of claim that they make that you should at least consider and go along with. And then the third point is that if you have adversaries like that, the only lasting and good peace will be one which to some extent also meets their needs, meets their requirements. So there must be some sort of negotiation. The peacemaking and the peace treaty, or the peace arrangement, even if you don't have a proper treaty, must be one in which the adversary also has the stake, unless the adversary is so completely beyond the pale that you can't possibly negotiate with them or make concessions to them. This is actually part of my beloved Western just war tradition. In theory, the Western just war tradition starts with the idea that the only good outcome of war has to be a good peace, a lasting peace.


    And if you hold up that measure, then you realise that some peace treaties, and while some peace arrangements have been pretty good, particularly if they did bring in adversaries who weren't completely ideologically beyond the pale, mass murderers, genocidal horrors, but if you had people with whom you had to come to some agreement, and you made some deal with which both sides could live, and that for a long time. That's really the crucial thing. Also, that means that you have to take that adversary seriously, and you have to consider their complaints and their cause and their issues seriously, and see whether you can think outside the box and make the outcome of war not a win or lose situation, a zero-sum game, but one with which both sides can live afterwards.


    Peter Roberts: We'll shortly start recording season 3. Guests include Jim Mattis, the chief for the US army and a couple of amazing Scandinavian researchers, one dealing with Russia and the other dealing with the Arctic. This season, we're just under a 50% gender balance for speakers, and we're pushing that again for next season and also deriving a greater range of voices but without sacrificing the quality I hope you've come to expect. We've started doing transcripts for each episode that you can find on the RUSI website to improve accessibility. Now, this was always in each podcast, so no one has been more surprised than me about its popularity. Your listening and download figures have placed us in the top 2% of all podcasts globally and somehow, we continue to keep rising up the charts. Much of that new audience is overseas, outside the UK, outside Europe and I always welcome letters, emails, texts and recommendations from listeners. Quite a weighty mailbox. So I'd like to thank you all as listeners for engaging with the topic and with us on the show. We also couldn't do this without the sponsorship of Raytheon UK, and I'd really like to shout out to Sen Sami and Adam Fico for making it happen. The production team is also pretty tight, although I'm never quite sure whether it's Kieron Yates or Peppi Vaananen who really runs it, and a hat tip to Jo Bundo on the RUSI comms team too.


    We'll be back in a few weeks time, but if you can't miss your Western Way of Warfare fix, then can I recommend going back to one of our previous episodes, perhaps even re-listening? And since I can't decide which ones to go for, here are the four most popular ones by listener downloads from season two. In reverse order at number four was an episode called, 'Just War Theory and Not Just War,' with Beatrice Heuser. At number three was an episode with Amos Fox called, 'Fighting for the Soul of Western Militaries.' At number two was Emma Sky's episode, 'Fighting Without Winning,' and at number one, and I really hope this is not just because of the title, is the episode, 'Hybrid is Everything and Everything is Hybrid,' with Ewan Lawson. Thanks so much for listening. We'll be back next month. In the meantime, stay safe.

Western Way of War Podcast Series

A collection of discussions with those in the Profession of Arms that tries to understand the issues around how to fight, and succeed, against adversaries in the 2020s.  We pose the questions as whether a single Western Way of Warfare (how Western militaries fight) has been successful, whether it remains fit for task today, and how it might need to adapt in the future? It is complemented by the ‘Adversarial Studies’ project that looks at how adversaries fight.


Professor Peter Roberts

Director, Military Sciences

Military Sciences

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