TODAY YOU DON’T NEED A BIG ARMY TO BE A STRONG MILITARY POWER
The pending triumph of quality over quantity. If we’ve got the smarts.
18 July 2016
In Libya forces loyal to the UN-backed government in Tripoli are pressing ISIL hard in Sirte. UK and US advisers are said to be helping government forces with logistics and intelligence.
This combination of small-scale but high-end Western military capabilities and low-grade but larger mass of local manpower is increasingly proving to be a battle-winning combination in today’s conflicts — perhaps even a war-winner, in the long term.
In other words, we might just have finally found a workable method of achieving real effect on the ground by acting as “enablers” and “force multipliers” rather than spearheading the main fight ourselves. The idea is by no means new, but such ideas do not translate easily, smoothly or quickly from the theoretical realm to the living battlefield. Experience — trial and error in combat conditions — and the technology, tactics and doctrine needed to make such an approach effective, take time. When the full range of digital means available today are factored in, we must realise that “post-Bush” wars are new wars, of a new type. The conduct of war in Syria, Iraq and Libya is of a different nature than before. (Old-style conventional deterrence against the likes of Russia or China is just that: deterrence, not war-fighting. Should deterrence fail, any war would quickly escalate to nuclear exchanges. The wars we’re actually fighting today are different, as explained here.)
If this is — or is about to become — a correct assessment, then we can proclaim a new age of “military power.” The meaning of this concept is being transformed. Traditionally, “military power” has been by definition firstly a question of mass, or size; and secondly a question of quality. The mix and balance between these headline characteristics feeding into the fuzzy, aggregate notion of “military power” has always been a matter for debate, and has differed from case to case. History has seen both “small-size / high-tech” (Israel, for example) and “large-size / low-tech” (USSR) forces prevail against their opposites.
But great power status has also implied an effective expeditionary capability for credible “power projection”. This requires size: you cannot do both (long-range) “expeditionary” and “effective” and “credible” with a small force. This is why defence cuts in the UK triggered such dramatic talk about “British decline,” particularly in early 2015 before HMG locked the 2% in: it wasn’t Britain’s ability to defend itself that was in question, but its ability to project force abroad and maintain its status.
All this might be changing now, although the jury’s still out. The “new warfare” seems to show that large-scale expeditionary capability is not necessary anymore. Power can be projected effectively by other means involving small but top-rate capabilities.
However, this is certainly not some new way of achieving “great power status” on the cheap. Only because the same effect can be achieved with smaller forces, it doesn’t mean this route suddenly becomes available to smaller powers. The reason for this is because in the “new warfare” the actual military component is only one part. The state’s wider traits (economic power, political influence) also come into play — as do key military-intelligence capabilities and training/experience that are unique to leading military powers like US and UK.
The conclusion is this: we need to recognise the new reality of warfare and recognise that “great power” status — or at least “military power” — is now more detached from the notion of “size” than ever before, when it comes to the wars we actually fight.
This is why alarmist talk about “British decline”, by simply looking at the numbers, is wrong. Indeed, Britain might actually now be growing into a stronger military power (i.e. able to deliver actual effects better) even as its nominal military “punch” is growing weaker.
In the 21st century military operations are about smart combinations rather than hard punches.
We are still working on making this new approach effective. We are not there yet. It takes time to crystallise. But this is the direction of travel — and we should start adapting our wider thinking on non-military aspects of international action (especially foreign policy in general) to this new reality sooner rather than later.