Winter 2022 Editorial

I’m of an age where my train of thought has left the station without me, is an observation that seems increasingly pertinent to me. But is that my fault; a fault of age or intellect or both? Possibly. Or is it the result of a deluge of truly ‘wicked problems’ we are all now presented with. The hopefulness of a new year in 2021 was rapidly dulled, even in its opening month, by the hugely disturbing storming of the Capitol in the United States and a dawning realisation that the Covid-19 pandemic was far from over. Optimism was further dampened later in the year by failure to assure democracy as we, in the West, turned our back on Afghanistan and, for all the bombast and hyperbole, COP26 completed with lacklustre results in setting a firm course of action amongst all international players (state and influential others) to address an issue that threatens our very existence.

But before you counter such a melancholic perspective siting obvious successes, from the vaccination campaign to the remarkable CSG21 deployment (more on which later in this journal), I would retort those successes are but tactical facets of higher strategies. And in that, once again, I feel the need to stress the Sun Tzu maxim: ‘tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat’ – crowing about tactical successes means nothing unless it contributes to a higher coherent, properly resourced and directed strategic intent or purpose. A strategic coherence that the West has yet to regain. To which you might again counter by asking me to qualify such an assertion.

Since the end of the Cold War, possibly even earlier, we in the UK (and evidently more widely in Europe) have developed a myopic short-term popularist outlook; certainly when it comes to grand strategy. Some would go so far as to say the West is now consumed by a cultural civil war – the battle for dominance of supposedly conflicting values yelled at each other through the megaphone of social media, which ‘cancels’ difference rather than fosters the compromise necessary to address our ‘wicked’ dilemmas and support our democratic values. We have delivered all autocrats a field day; as they can, and are, manipulating the narrative to stoke the flames of division in the West and using it as proof to the rest of the world of the West’s moral exhaustion.

Not the business of this journal? I beg to differ. Like it or not over the last five years the conversation in this Review has been peppered with contributors wishing to promote popular narratives that polarise debate; narratives that have become less tolerant of differing opinion and more absolutist in what is considered the correct form in all things, including within the Navy. As an aside, I regret this, at times, leads to some working to undermine healthy conversation and improved collective understanding amongst those contributing to this Review.

As I opined earlier, with such obsessive introspection, our competitors on the global stage delight in what they see as expanding fissures in the moral component of fighting power. Last August’s retreat from Afghanistan was a watershed. Militarily it proved (as Vietnam had before it) that, without unwavering strategic patience, our Western ‘ways’ of holding the line, and defending what we hold dear, are flawed and unlikely ever to deliver our ‘ends’ in resolving complex enduring crises. One hopes the delayed sixth edition of the

UK Defence Doctrine (that was due to be published in the latter half of 2021) will start to address that critical concern.

So, what have we learned as we enter 2022? It would seem little – we are not, collectively, better placed to tackle the immense problems ahead. 2022 is already set to test us. And amongst those tests, perhaps I can do no better than starting with the words of our new Chief of Defence Staff, “It is now clear that the last 20 years weren’t the end of history. At best, it was a pause. And now the play button – or perhaps fast forward – is activated. The state is back with a vengeance. Indeed, for our competitors, it never went away.”1

This Review has reflected much, over the last five years, on the challenge that is the PRC. It is now abundantly clear the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has no interest in compromising with our democratic ideals – or should that be compromising with anything any more? Adapting Western designs to the CCP’s purpose is accelerating across all facets of geopolitical activity – they are now playing our game better than we have been prepared to play it. We have perhaps woken up to the threat, but we have yet to divine ways of getting back onto the front foot when it comes to our relations with the CCP. So, in 2022, what is our response to Chinese debt traps enabling military expansion and influence (especially in Africa); are we really addressing threats to Taiwan; are we really interested in the accelerating arms race in the Indo Asia Pacific region? AUKUS is a start but subverting the positive narrative of this initiative, by accusing it of being yet more evidence of Western warmongering, is something the CCP is all too adept at if we don’t lean in with the diplomatic and political tools at our disposal. Time is absolutely no longer on our side – we have already squandered that advantage.

In tandem other state actors, such as Russia, have found space to flex their muscles by honing their coercive strategies, that orchestrate military and non-military means to compel and deter just short of hostilities, whilst we scrabble to regain coherency in our Western approach. We are being played with over Ukraine, and perhaps also in Bosnia. The bottom line is autocrats everywhere are treating the Covid-19 pandemic as an opportunity – an opportunity where a West is open to exploitation, in its financially and politically weakened state, and where problems at home in the West dominate public attention (not the concerns of foreign fields on which the autocrats have their designs). Concurrently the pandemic has also largely distracted the West from human rights abuses amongst the autocrats, and thus presented such autocracies the opportunity to reinforce their own ‘home-plate’ power bases through burgeoning repression of any form of dissent.

But if that isn’t enough, for our year ahead’s conversation in this Review, we are also faced by more intractable ‘wicked problems’. Perhaps the biggest challenges facing defence (let alone society) are Climate Change and Artificial Intelligence (AI). Of late, this journal has majored on the former; albeit there is much yet to be discussed about practical implementation of now established policy. But we have only, in passing, addressed the even more daunting opportunities, risks and threats of AI. AI is already dominating our daily life and increasingly will affect every component of our fighting power.

So perhaps I might suggest one key strand to be teased-out in this journal during 2022 – AI. Weapons that locate, select, and engage human targets without human supervision are already available for use, so what role will AI play in the future of military conflict? Will AI reduce collateral damage and civilian casualties, or will autonomous weapons kill on a scale not seen since the Second World War? Will AI enable genetic specific targeting of populations making genocide more rather than less achievable? What is our answer to such possibilities that by the day become ever more probable? Will future wars be fought entirely by machines, or will one side surrender only when its real losses, military or civilian, become unacceptable? We need to examine the motivations of major powers developing these types of weapons, the morality of creating algorithms that decide to kill humans, and possible ways forward for the international community to regulate AI. Indeed, might there be a future equivalent to the Chemical Warfare Convention before it is too late? Many as yet unanswered questions that must be addressed – this is a potential ‘strategic corporal’ type dilemma writ large (increasingly relatively cheap alternatives to security and defence forces) that will have consequence and cause a level of disruption (i.e., new products that significantly diminish, transform or destroy an existing product or industry) far greater and more far-reaching than, for instance, the strategic shock of the introduction of the Dreadnoughts in 1906.
So, there is no point in pretending this will be a year of stability or one we can step into from a position of advantage. More than this time last year, we have our work cut out – fortunately we have the makings of a future Navy more adaptable in mindset and relevant to modern needs than its forebears – albeit it is still short on the mass of ships and tools necessary to ensure a continuity of global influence at and from the sea. That said, crucially, we have the ‘skin’, not just the ‘metal’, that is necessary for future success. Certainly, from my now vicarious experience of today’s front line, in part drawn from my various nephews and godchildren serving currently in all three Services, I remain optimistic our people at today’s demanding coalface have it within them what is necessary to meet the burdens we must now place on them.

BRUCE WILLIAMS
Editor

References

1 https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/chief-of-the-defence-staff-speech-to-the-royal-united-services-institute