18 Dec 20
Posted by: Admiral Sir Nigel Essenhigh

This 2019 book, Goliath, is helpfully subtitled “Why the West doesn’t win wars and what we need to do about It”.  It is authored by a West Point graduate who saw active service in the US 82nd Airborne Division and then worked for a so-called private military company (mercenary in old money). Subsequently, he migrated to academia and is a professor of Strategy at Georgetown University and at the US National Defence University.  His practical experience in uniform is thus largely in what could be considered as the hands-on end of counter insurgency operations.  Consequently, in places, the book tends to be dismissive of some military capabilities, particularly large, long-running programmes of record that produce equipment optimised for large scale general warfare.  His periodic denigration of carrier air and the F-35 programme in particular somewhat detracts from his core argument which, in fact, is persuasive and, indeed, troubling.

His thesis is that the West has failed to recognise that its current and likely future approach to warfare is smitten by what he calls “strategic atrophy”.  In short there are trends in warfare, he says, that have been evident for the past 70 years and are likely to continue into the next 70.  These trends run counter to our tendency to identify revisionist powers like Russia and  China as the main future threat to our security whereas what he describes as “durable disorder” will prevail where we will be faced with persistent armed conflict, but not of the sort for which we equip and train. Quite persuasively, he demonstrates how peacekeeping activities all fail, mostly he says, “because there is no peace to keep”.  Conflicts breed and the international community is proven powerless to stop them. We will be sucked into these conflicts and the definition of winning will change.  Victory will not be achieved on the battlefield but elsewhere and terms like peace and war will become blurred along with the current laws of war   The United Nations will proves useless in the face of future conflicts.

He suggests that the most effective weapons will not fire bullets but “non-kinetic” elements like information, refugees, ideology and time will become weaponised.  Big militaries and supertechology will prove to be inept.  Most importantly, he demonstrates that others are already fighting in this new, messy environment and winning.  Russia, China, Iran, terrorist organisations, and drug cartels are already demonstrably and successfully exploiting this durable disorder.  So what? one might ask.

As an alternative to current Western approaches, McFate presents a set of 10 new rules of war such as “Conventional War Is Dead”, “Technology Will Not Save Us” and “The Best Weapons Do Not Fire Bullets”.  These deserve careful study because, even if the reader is not wholly convinced, there are many uncomfortable strands that should be causing us to look carefully at our longer-term defence planning.

The flaw in all of this, if there is one, comes when a broader approach is taken to defence planning against the range of potential threats we will face in, say, the next five decades. The expansion of Russian and Chinese militaries with highly sophisticated platforms and weapons and the ongoing risks posed by rogue states such as North Korea cannot be ignored even though McFate’s predictions about the prevalence of unconventional threats may prove correct.  The reality might well be that we will face both his worrying set of irregular conflicts as well as needing to be ready to deter and, if necessary, to fight much larger scale battles.

Nevertheless, Goliath is an enjoyable if somewhat challenging and disturbing read and might be a good set book for students preparing for the Staff College. It is certainly food for thought.