Thursday, 5 January 2012

A thought experiment on war

Kenneth Payne over at Kings of War has started a blogpost entitled What is Conventional Warfare? From Mr Payne:

Surprisingly tough question, posed by a friend hard at work on her research proposal. I thought I’d crowd source an answer from learned readers here. But first, here’s what I suggested:

Conventional warfare isn’t just about capabilities employed – that is, industrially manufactured, technologically advanced equipment, deployed by recognisably military organisations. Rather it is a society’s way of fighting that encompasses the doctrinal thinking, the organisational structures, the rules of engagement, and even the appropriate goals of violence. What makes it ‘conventional’ is just that it adheres to the dominant conventions of the time.

Of course, all this changes through time as the societies and conventions involved in generating ‘conventional’ approaches to war evolve. Thus, the conventional forces of Napoleon look radically different from the ‘conventional’ forces of France today.

Such an evolution in conventional war might include changes in permissible conduct – For example – why were chemical weapons seen as conventional in the context of WW1, but not now? Why could you flatten Dresden in 1945, but not now?

They might also involve changes in force structure – Why use conscripts as part of a conventional military in Vietnam, but not now? What about the use of private contractors? Is outsourcing violence like that ‘conventional’, or does it profoundly change the relationship between the state/society and those who enact its violence?

And it might also involve changes in concepts, as for example on attritional force v manoeuvre, where the ‘conventional’ approach of British strategic thought (and American, from the early 1980s onwards, if not before) was to substitute manoeuvre and shock action for firepower.

I think my favourite answer so far has come from Callum Lane:
The cynic in me says that conventional wars are those that militaries want to fight, and unconventional are those they do not want to fight.
A rather astute observation I would say.

I've been getting involved in the debate over there and am currently trying to figure out where I think the idea of cyber war fits into the framework of conventional/unconventional warfare, and being challenged as to whether cyber war is even a real thing.

Well worth taking a look.


  1. *I have only begun reading your blog at this post, so past entries may enlighten me more, but I do have a few points for discussion...

    Is cyber war open to being seen as its own form of warfare, with its own conventions? Or is it an "act of war" within a larger conflict that creates the confines in which it is judged?

    Also, I think it also begs for a discussion on whether or not the victims of cyber warfare have an influence on whether or not it is conventional.

    Can't you argue that in the past, there was a movement to confine conventional warfare to keeping only the military as a victim, and not civilians? Cyber warfare likely leans more toward some working definitions of terrorism (one easy way to explain that link is that both attack rather blindly in some circumstances). I think that you could also look at the motives / actions / victims of cyber warfare in the same lens as terrorism, which may be a way to frame the discussion.

    You could be right though, about cyber warfare not being a real thing. Is a cyber "attack" a real thing? Sure, but so is shooting a gun, and shooting a gun isn't war, it's a war tactic.

    Interesting discussion though, I'd like to hear more of your thoughts.

  2. Hi Alison, welcome aboard!

    Taking your points from the top, I would say that you've hit the nail on the head in terms of the debate as to whether cyber should ever be followed by the word "war".

    I would argue in the age of irregular warfare that there is a case to be made that nations will carry out new types of 'offensive' action, intended to achieve a traditional military goal, which don't involve the bombs, tanks and boots on the ground that previous generations of conflict have. Particularly in action against the USA. In that context, I think you can see a range of activities which have 'war-like' objectives, yet are not what we would traditionally call war.

    In the last few years there have been several war games conducted by the Pentagon trying to judge whether economic war is a real thing. The debate rolls on, but one of the things which has been proven is that if you really wanted, you could cripple most of the world's major economies with nothing more than a sufficient amount of cash. Of course your own economy might suffer some fallout too, but you'd be insulated by your knowledge of what is to come.

    I think cyber conflict resides in the same area. It is an activity which will become more popular over time due to its low cost-benefit ratio in favour of the agressor, and its low risk of response. The intention will be to disrupt, rather than to destroy, at least in most cases (Stuxnet being the first truly 'offensive' deployment of a cyber weapon). The intention will be to achieve war-like objectives without actually having a war.

    I agree that much of cyber conflict does fall out closer to terrorism than traditional war, but then so does insurgency in many ways, and that is pretty effective at achieving military objectives.

    Its open to debate ultimately. There has never been a 'cyber war'. Russia hackers do more damage every week than has ever been done by a nation state in the cyber world. But that doesnt mean you couldnt see a conflict breaking out which is largely limited to cyberspace (quite possibly with a dash of economic conflict going on as an ajunct).