Cold War



Concepts of grand strategy generally stress the requirement of governments to outline clear strategic goals, and to ensure that all elements of national power are co-ordinated by ministers and senior officials (civil service and military) to achieve them. In recent history, one state achieved the apparent success of devising a ‘total’ strategy and of establishing a bureaucratic framework to implement it. That state was South Africa, governed at that time by the apartheid regime of the National Party.

Up until 1974-1976 the National Party had established and reinforced a system of white minority rule in South Africa itself, as well as an illegal colony in Namibia. Pretoria had withstood international condemnation of racial oppression and also the generally ineffectual insurgencies of the African National Congress (ANC) and the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO). However, the April 1974 military coup in Lisbon led to the end of Portuguese imperial rule in Angola and Mozambique, and the takeover of power by two national-liberation movements (the MPLA in Luanda and FRELIMO in Maputo) with a pronounced hostility to white minority rule. The downfall of Ian Smith’s regime in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) was also imminent.

To add to Pretoria’s troubles, the failed South African military intervention in Angola in 1975 (Operation Savannah) led Fidel Castro to send a Cuban expeditionary force to aid the MPLA, and Cuba maintained a sizeable task force in Angola until 1991. Moreover, the MPLA’s victory in the Angolan civil war encouraged greater anti-apartheid militancy and activism within the black majority in South Africa, as demonstrated by the popular rising in Soweto in April 1976. The National Party’s response to this combination of external and internal crises was shaped by the Defence Minister and (after 28th September 1978) President, P. W. Botha, aided by the high command of the South African Defence Force (SADF).

South Africa’s 1977 Defence White Paper was influenced in part by the writings of the French strategist, General Andre Beaufre. It presented an apocalyptic image of a ‘total onslaught’ by the Soviet Union and its allies – including Cuba, Angola, Mozambique, the ANC and SWAPO – to effect a Communist takeover of South Africa, aided by anti-apartheid activists and movements both within and outside the country. In response Pretoria would adopt a ‘Total National Strategy’ that would harness all means at its disposal to defend apartheid and undermine its enemies. The result was the militarization of South Africa’s domestic and foreign policy, encouraged by Botha, General Magnus Malan (his successor as Defence Minister), and the head of SADF military intelligence, Lieutenant General Pieter van der Westhuizen, a thuggish securocrat who could very well have provided Hollywood with one of the villains in Lethal Weapon II.

There was a self-serving and disingenuous rhetoric to ‘Total National Strategy’; the apartheid regime had continually claimed to be the defender of the nation against Communist tyranny, recognising that this helped both rally the white community’s support, while also cajoling the Western powers (notably the USA, Britain and France) to treat it as a Cold War ally. The aspirations outlined in the White Paper did not prevent inter-departmental squabbles from erupting between the SADF, police, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the National Intelligence Service. Nonetheless, ‘Total National Strategy’ did reflect the very real sense of paranoia that affected the white elite, in particular the politicians and policy-makers of the de facto War Cabinet, the State Security Committee (SSC).

What did this new strategy mean in practice? Firstly, it involved a campaign to destabilise the ‘frontline states’ that were backing the South African and Namibian national liberation movements, with Angola and Mozambique as the principal victims. Both countries became the target of South African aggression. Angola itself was subjected to eleven major cross-border incursions by the SADF between May 1978 and December 1988 which were ostensibly directed against ANC and SWAPO bases, but which also involved punitive strikes against the Angolan armed forces. Furthermore, Pretoria waged proxy wars against Maputo and Luanda, arming and equipping the UNITA insurgency led by Jonas Savimbi in Angola and the RENAMO movement in Mozambique, thereby exacerbating two civil wars which devastated both countries.

The second part of ‘total strategy’ involved state terrorism, involving the assassination of apartheid activists abroad, and death squad violence against domestic opponents conducted by the police (with its C-10 unit) and the SADF’s ‘Civil Co-operation Bureau’. The barbaric killings conducted by these ‘third force’ units were investigated by the Truth and Reconciliation Committee set up after the apartheid regime’s fall, as were the covert efforts by the police and SADF to instigate internecine violence in the black townships between the ANC and its political rival, Inkatha.

The moral implications of ‘total strategy’ should not be forgotten. Thousands died in township violence in the late 1980s-early 1990s, and the wars in Angola and Mozambique cost an estimated million deaths. Both countries were further impoverished as a consequence of the civil war and RENAMO – South Africa’s proxy – became notorious for its atrocities against Mozambican civilians. Yet there were also counter-productive consequences of Pretoria’s strategic decisions which the SSC were never able to resolve.

Firstly, with reference to the efforts to coerce the frontline states, Pretoria’s aims were contradictory. Was the objective to force Luanda and Maputo to abandon support for the black liberation struggle in South Africa and Namibia, or to achieve regime change? With Mozambique, the diplomats of the DFA believed that they had achieved a significant success with the Nkomati Accords of 16th March 1984, in which Botha and his counterpart Samora Machel agreed to stop supporting each other’s internal opponents. South Africa had forced its neighbour to stop backing the ANC, but van der Westhuizen’s military intelligence service continued to arm RENAMO regardless. In Angola, there was a mismatch between Pretoria’s appeals to President Eduardo dos Santos for mutual restraint, and the attacks by SADF special forces against strategic targets such as the Cabinda oil-fields. A US State Department mediator remonstrating with van der Westhuizen complained that the raids ‘tell the MPLA that you want to kill them, not do a deal’. The SADF intelligence chief’s reply – ‘I agree’ – demonstrated the lack of co-ordination in Pretoria’s Angolan policy.

Secondly, the proxy wars with neighbouring powers carried with it the risks of escalation. This was demonstrated by the Cuito Cuanavale campaign of September 1987-March 1988, when Pretoria responded to an Angolan government offensive against UNITA by sending a brigade of 3,000 troops across the Okavango River. An initially successful onslaught in which the SADF mauled the MPLA’s army culminated in an inconclusive siege of the government outpost of Cuito Cuanavale. Furthermore, in November 1987 Castro decided to reinforce the Cuban task force in Angola, raising its strength to 50,000 troops. The influx not only enabled the Cubans to reinforce Cuito Cuanavale, but also launch an armoured drive Southwards towards that threatened Namibia with invasion. US and Soviet mediation in the summer of 1988 averted a South African-Cuban clash, and SADF veterans maintain that the Angolan campaign of 1987-1988 was a victorious one for them. But the fact remains that by June 1988 South Africa was on the verge of fighting a total war.

Finally, the ‘third force’ operations of C-10 and the Civil Co-operation Bureau in South Africa itself threatened to undermine the rule of law itself. The SADF and police death squads became complicit in organised criminal activities such as ivory smuggling and arms trafficking, and the instigation of internecine violence between the ANC and Inkhata threatened to plunge the country into outright anarchy. By the time of Nelson Mandela’s release on 11th February 1990 the survival of white minority rule had become a lost cause. The only question was whether apartheid would perish with an apocalyptic race war, or whether South Africa could make a largely peaceful transition to democracy and majority rule. Thankfully, South Africans ended the latter rather than the former, but this was no thanks to the securocrats of the SSC.

So ‘total strategy’ was a failure, and anyone looking at South African history between 1978 and 1994 is entitled to ask him or herself why the National Party could not have avoided over a million futile deaths and all the atrocities associated with them – in South Africa and also neighbouring states – by waking up and smelling the coffee a lot earlier than it did. Yet there is a more fundamental point about strategy itself that can be gained from studying the latter years of apartheid: You can articulate a clear objective for implementation, and provide a clear institutional framework for the means of state power to be employed to achieve it. But it will be of no avail if the basic premises behind your strategic goals are fundamentally flawed.

Image: South African paratroopers on patrol in Namibia during the border war. Picture taken from Wikipedia Commons, posted by en:User:Smikect.

General Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War: Or, How to Think about a Future War with Russia Today


In the vast majority of cases, scenarios of future war have rarely come to pass as originally envisioned. At least two inter-related reasons can account for this. First, due to the incredibly large number of variables to consider – geopolitical, technical, human, etc. – it is simply impossible to calculate how they will interact with each other, especially if projecting forward by months, years or decades. The second reason has to do with distinguishing between ‘future war’ and the ‘future battlefield’. Regrettably, far too many scenarios and models, whether developed by military organizations, political scientists, or fiction writers, tend to focus their attention on the battlefield and the clash of armies, navies, air forces, and especially their weapons systems.  By contrast, the broader context of the war – the reasons why hostilities erupted, the political and military objectives, the limits placed on military action, and so on – are given much less serious attention, often because they are viewed by the script-writers as a distraction from the main activity that occurs on the battlefield.

During the Cold War, thinking about a NATO-Warsaw Pact conventional clash in Europe required more attention to be placed on the political context because of the risks of nuclear escalation. More recently, scenarios of a possible NATO (or to be more precise – ‘coalition of willing NATO members’) clash with Russia over the Baltic States have similarly been required to account for the nuclear issue. Regrettably, a number of key weaknesses are observable in many of the assumptions underpinning such scenarios.  This blog post will examine a selection of these weaknesses, focusing on General Sir John Hackett’s 1978 book The Third World War, comparing it with several other texts from the Cold War, and then bringing the problem up-to-date with a discussion of some recent scenarios dealing with the Baltic States.

Hackett’s work has been selected because it is often considered the benchmark text by which other fictional accounts of a future war are assessed in relation to, such as Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising and General Sir Richard Shirreff’s 2017: War with Russia. The book was an unexpected publishing triumph, with some 3 million copies sold and translated into 10 languages.  Prime Minister James Callaghan presented President Jimmy Carter with a copy in 1979, and President Ronald Reagan named it as one of his top three books in 1983. Fortunately, the early manuscripts and correspondence related to The Third World War are available at King’s College London’s Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, and can be examined to identify how and why the scenario evolved during the more than year-long drafting process, which it did in significant ways.

Although the book is often referred to as being authored by Hackett, in actual fact, he only wrote a small portion.  Instead, his main role was providing the general concept for the scenario, as well as organizing and editing the more detailed chapters that were written by a group of former British senior officers from each of the services, a deputy editor of the Economist, a former chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, as well as the Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Warfare Directing Staff (DS) at the Royal Military College of Science, Shrivenham.

The published version describes a war lasting from 4-22 August 1985 that begins with a Warsaw Pact attack on NATO utilizing conventional and chemical weapons, evolves into a barely successful defence and counterattack by NATO, is then followed by a limited nuclear exchange that wipes out Birmingham and Minsk, and concludes with the dissolution of the Soviet ‘empire’. It is important to note that the scenario is a global one – across the continents, on the ground, in the sea, in the air, and in space – although the main action takes place in Europe. Hackett deliberately chose this version of the scenario to demonstrate that a successful defence against the Warsaw Pact could be mounted by NATO – provided of course the Alliance invested heavily in new military equipment and increased its frontline manpower.

However, Hackett’s earlier attempt at writing a scenario had the Warsaw Pact advancing to the French border in as little as 4 days leading to the occupation of West Germany, a D-day style NATO counterattack two years later, followed by a Soviet collapse. After distributing drafts of this early version, he was told by several retired US and West German generals that if it was published it would undermine public confidence in NATO. A year earlier, in 1976, Belgian Brigadier General Robert Close published a controversial book, Europe Without Defense? 48 hours That Could Change the Face of the World, involving a scenario in which the Warsaw Pact launches a surprise attack and advances to the Rhine in two days. Fearing the prospect of undermining NATO, Hackett developed more optimistic scenarios, including the one that was eventually published.  Interestingly, the end state of a Soviet collapse remained consistent throughout all of the versions, even ones in which no nuclear weapons were used.

In terms of the realism of Hackett’s scenario, as well as several similar works, at least six key aspects should be critically examined:

The Decision for War Initiation. In most of these scenarios, this aspect of the conflict is treated in a superficial way, with very little discussion about the rationality and cost-benefit calculus of the Soviet/Russian leadership, and what they would hope to gain, especially given the costs of war and risks of nuclear escalation. In Hackett’s scenario the decision to attack NATO is not one based on a Soviet desire for world conquest, but rather it is motivated by fears of the elite that the future ‘correlation of forces’ does not favour the Kremlin and that projected internal weakness will eventually lead to a state collapse. Therefore, war against NATO is ultimately seen as a way of re-establishing order internally. This motivation is also apparent in Clancy’s Red Storm Rising and Shirreff’s account of Putin’s decision to attack the Baltic States.

The Timing of War Initiation. Unlike Close’s surprise attack from a standing-start, Hackett chose to begin his war on 4 August because, as in 1914, he viewed a period of mobilization as almost certain to precede the start of hostilities.  Indeed, the Warsaw Pact attack is preceded by a combination of diplomacy, propaganda, subversion and sabotage – ‘hybrid war’ in today’s parlance. In Hackett’s scenario, NATO forces have sufficient lead time to alert the covering forces along the inner German border, disperse aircraft, and mobilize their reserves to be able to mount an adequate defence. Many of the NATO scenarios from the period assumed 48 hours of early warning – the minimum period which was deemed necessary for NATO forces to begin mobilization and deploy to the forward defensive positions. On the other hand, there was some debate whether a longer lead time prior to war worked for or against NATO given that the Soviet Union could probably more quickly mobilize and deploy more divisions from inside the USSR. Curiously, in the 2014-2015 US Army-sponsored RAND wargames of a Russian attack on Estonia and Latvia, there is an early warning period of one week – by happy coincidence, roughly the amount of time needed by the US Army to deploy its troops to the region. In reality, one wonders if NATO would have one day of warning, much less one week.

Geographic Objectives and Limitations. The stop-line for a Warsaw Pact attack was also a hotly contested issue. Hackett insisted that the idea of a Soviet invasion that would only stop at the Channel ports, probably died with Stalin. Instead, the Warsaw Pact attack through West Germany was supposed to stop at the French border to avoid French intervention. Close’s scenario also limits the Warsaw Pact advance to the Rhine.  Nevertheless, whereas Close limits his scenario to West Germany-only, Hackett’s scenario encompasses attacks not only in West Germany and the Low Countries, but also on NATO’s northern and southern flanks, as well air attacks on Britain. Oddly, though Hackett has the Soviets invade neutral Austria on their way to Italy (in most scenarios the Soviets violate Austrian neutrality to attack NATO forces in southern Germany), they choose to avoid attacking Switzerland, no doubt wisely. More recent scenarios have Russia attacking one, two, or all three of the Baltic States, but none have them invading Poland. Not only is the stop-line of the invading forces a crucial consideration, but so too is the stop-line for the counter-attacking NATO forces. In Hackett’s scenario, NATO chooses not to cross into Warsaw Pact territory to reunite Germany and liberate Eastern Europe. Similarly, whether NATO would choose to attack Kaliningrad is a contested subject in the more recent scenarios, and there seems little inclination to expand attacks elsewhere inside Russia.

Deciding to Cross the Nuclear Threshold. In The Third World War there are several points when decisions must be made about using nuclear weapons. On the NATO side, SACEUR and SACLANT are pressed by subordinate commanders to authorize the use of tactical nuclear weapons against Soviet ground and naval forces. This they refuse to do fearing Soviet escalation. On the Soviet side, the decision to drop a one-megaton nuclear warhead on Birmingham is taken only after Soviet forces begin to lose the conventional battle. In response, the US and UK decide on an instant ‘limited’ nuclear attack on Minsk (in earlier drafts Ukraine and the city of Tomsk). Just as the Soviet leadership are considering further escalation, a coup occurs in Moscow and the war ends. In the BBC’s February 2016 programme ‘Inside the War Room’, a limited nuclear attack by Russian forces (albeit Russian officials deny they authorized it) on British and American ships in the Baltic leads to a ‘like-for-like’ US-only retaliation. The programme ends with British decision-makers contemplating whether to authorize a full-scale nuclear retaliation should Britain be attacked. By a slim majority, they decide against this.

Nuclear Targeting. Assuming nuclear weapons are used in these scenarios, what sort of weapons are used and against what targets? Hackett’s original conception of possible nuclear use was to be limited to naval targets or for use in space. For reasons that remain unclear, more than half-way through the book’s drafting Hackett chose to include a nuclear aspect to the scenario in which a one-megaton warhead was to be used against Birmingham (most likely the idea and details for this section of the book derived from the then still-classified 1961 study prepared for the MoD’s Chief Scientific Adviser Solly Zuckerman about the effects of a one-megaton nuclear attack on Birmingham). At the time of The Third World War’s publication, many critics argued that the single Soviet attack was unrealistic. In Hackett’s description of Soviet decision-making, there is no serious consideration given to Soviet use against NATO battlefield targets, and the Soviets quite deliberately choose not to attack London, much less any US targets, fearing much greater retaliation.

War Termination. Writing an ending to a third world war is almost as difficult, if not more so, than writing the beginning.  In the scenarios discussed here, unlike in much of the nuclear fiction genre, the war does not end in global Armageddon. In both Hackett’s and Clancy’s scenarios, the war ends with a coup in the Kremlin. For Hackett, this occurs after nuclear use but before further escalation. For Clancy, the coup occurs to prevent nuclear use in the first place. In Close’s 48-hour scenario, NATO is defeated before it can even come to a decision about nuclear escalation. In some scenarios, the war ends in days or weeks. In others, initial defeat does not lead to surrender or acceptance of the status quo, but rather hostilities continue until such time as the initial lost territory is recovered. One feature that is pretty much a constant in all of these scenarios is that as the war is taking place, so too are diplomatic negotiations. Unlike in the conventional-only World War II, ‘unconditional surrender’ is not an option to end the potentially nuclear World War III.

Hackett’s The Third World War, like many of the fictional scenarios dealing with future wars, can be quite useful as a tool to help think through the strengths and weaknesses of one’s own defence posture, as well as those of allies and adversaries, and how these might interact in the event of an international crisis or war. Ideally they provide the reader with a genuinely futuristic perspective that is not simply the last war projected into the future, though ultimately any scenario cannot entirely escape the past and present. That being said, scenarios are rarely neutral. It is essential to be aware of the conscious agendas and the unconscious assumptions underpinning them. For instance, all too often, scenarios are written around a predetermined end state.  Therefore, the starting point for any critique should begin with a study of the author before it proceeds to the content. As for the content, to assess the realism of any future war scenario, one must make the conceptual distinction between ‘wars’ and ‘battlefields’, not treating the latter in isolation of the former. It is quite easy to project how one weapon system might fare against another, but taken out of a broader strategic context, such a projection is practically meaningless (apart from its marketing value), or worse, misleading.  In this sense, even if less entertaining or exciting, the degree of realism of the political aspects of the scenario, particularly policymakers’ rationality and cost-benefit calculus, and the key decisions that are taken about going to war, the objectives being sought, the limits placed on military action, and the willingness to incur the risks of escalation, should receive more critical attention than the purely battlefield dimensions of the future conflict.

Image: M-60A3 near Giessen in West Germany, 1985: the year of Hackett’s scenario from The Third World War, via wikimedia commons

When is a Cold War not a Cold War?


Is Russia in a new cold war with the West?

Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev seems to think so. “We have slid, in essence, into times of a new Cold War,” Medvedev told an audience of diplomats on 13 February at the Munich conference, blaming NATO states for the deterioration of relations. Medvedev’s words have echoed those of senior Russian politicians. Their sometimes virulent denunciations of the US and NATO have generated little reaction in the US and Western Europe, but they have unnerved eastern Europeans whilst influencing Russians to see Western states as adversaries, not allies.

In public at least, Western politicians, commentators and military officials have shown a marked reluctance to use the term, ‘cold war’, despite the sharp deterioration in relations between the US, NATO and Russia. “We are not in a cold-war situation, but also not in the partnership that we established at the end of the Cold War,” was as far as NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg went after Prime Minister Medvedev’s remark. This article asks; why are Westerners reluctant to use the ‘cold war’ tag? What is a cold war and is Prime Minister Medvedev correct?

US journalist Walter Lippman is popularly assumed to have coined the expression, the ‘cold war’, in a series of articles written in 1947 and published under the same name. Lippman himself ascribed the term’s provenance to France, where he said the terms froide (cold) and blanche (white) were popularized in the interwar period to describe the proxy and information wars of totalitarian powers – a ‘state of war without open war’.

Current denials from politicians and military officials are mirrored in the academic world, where many Western commentators and scholars on Russia have, in the past few years, shied away from using the term ‘cold war’. One of the leading analysts of Russian non-conventional war, Mark Galeotti, has refused to see events as a new cold war: “This is not a new Cold War, with all the ideological division and instability that entails. If anything, this is closer to the freewheeling days of the nineteenth century, and especially the Great Game of imperial rivalry in Central Asia.” Richard Sakwa described the current NATO/Russia dynamic not as a cold war, but a cold peace, “an unstable geopolitical truce in which the fundamental problems of a post-conflict international order have not been resolved.” Sakwa’s term ‘cold peace’ echoes that of a British nineteenth century Prime Minister, Viscount Palmerston, who used the term ‘cold civility’ to describe an earlier cold war with Russia. The writer and columnist Anne Applebaum – admittedly writing in 2013 – has decried the term ‘cold war’, arguing that neither the US nor Europe is locked in a “deadly, apocalyptic competition” with Russia, although she did argue that cold war tactics were being used. Andrew Monaghan warned in late 2015 against seeing the Russia/NATO tension as a new cold war in his pamphlet “A ‘New Cold War’? Abusing History, Misunderstanding Russia.” For him, such comparisons risk being repetitive and simplistic. They trap debate in the twentieth century and ignore Russian adaptability. By contrast, Ed Lucas, author of The New Cold War, has been one of the few voices to use the term unashamedly.

So what are the definitions of a cold war, and should they now be applied to Russia’s relationship with the West. The Oxford English Dictionary describes a cold war as: “A state of political hostility between countries characterized by threats, propaganda, and other measures short of open warfare.” Webster’s dictionary calls it, “a condition of rivalry, mistrust, and often open hostility short of violence, especially between power groups.” In his 1973 Grand Strategy: Principles and Practices work, John Collins described a cold war as “an active state of international tension at the lower end of the conflict spectrum, wherein … military measures short of sustained, armed combat are orchestrated to attain national objectives. Finesse and fraud replace brute force.”

By any of these definitions one can make a strong case that Russia is in a cold war with the West. There is undoubtedly political hostility, there are threats, and there are measures ‘short of open warfare’. This includes not only the ubiquitous information warfare, but also other forms of military and non-military influence – over 40 different types according to my research – in the Baltic, Ukraine, and Syria. Some of these are reminiscent of the tactics used by the KGB and the Communist Party during their ideological struggle against the West, and especially from the 1960s to the 1980s. These tactics: propaganda, disinformation and paramilitary activity were collectively referred as Active Measures. The best descriptions of these can found in congressional reports dating back to the 1980s.

Indeed, not only do NATO/Russian relations accord perfectly with these definitions of a cold war, but, evidencing recent events, one can argue that this current cold war is unstable, with the potential to turn hot. It has already briefly done so with the shooting down of a Russian military aircraft by Turkey – a NATO state – in November 2015. Given the chaos in Syria, the use of proxies, and posturing between Russia, Turkey and NATO elsewhere, including the Baltic, it is unlikely to be the last such event.

So why is Russia using these tools? In brief: to achieve its policy objectives in the most efficient manner possible. These objectives are open to debate, but as of 2016 they could be argued as being: blocking Ukrainian attempts to re-orientate the country towards the EU and NATO, seeking to damage the credibility of NATO, seeking to re-orientate the social and political development of Russia in an illiberal and anti-Western direction, seeking to develop Russia’s status as a ‘semi’ superpower and to project barriers against what the Russian regime sees as US and Western cultural war aimed to undermine Moscow. Indeed, it should be noted that Russia sees its actions as fundamentally defensive and designed to protect its sphere of interest. Psychologically, the Russian elites see themselves as being under cultural attack, accompanied by NATO’s continued eastern creep. Creations such as the Internet, and events such as the Arab Spring, are seen by some as part of a Western plot to damage Russia.

So why are Westerners so reluctant to use the ‘cold war’ term? I would suggest the following reasons.

First, for politicians to admit the existence of this new ‘cold war’ is to accept – publicly – a fundamental change in European security architecture which has significant implications for defence, foreign and energy policies. Changes are taking place, in NATO and in the EU, but they are piecemeal. There is still a sense of heads being buried in the sand at the political level. Perhaps there is a fear that recognising a cold war will in some way ‘make it real’. There is still a hope that the current cold war will be short-lived, part of the ebb and flow of Russia’s evolution from authoritarian dictatorship to democracy. Events inside and outside Russia are likely to prove this view naïve. The problem is so daunting, the forms of warfare so complex, and the options so difficult, that it is easier for politicians to hope that the problem somehow goes away.

Second, to acknowledge this cold war raises difficult questions for Western leaders about low levels of defence spending, and about why European militaries have so few Russia experts. A research centre in the UK that housed NATO’s largest collection of Russia experts in Europe was closed in February 2010 to save money.

Third, amongst academics, there is perhaps a tendency to see the term ‘cold war’ in reference to the Cold War, a historically defined event between approximately 1947 and 1990. There is concern, articulated most eloquently by Andrew Monaghan, that to impose a previous cold war template is misleading. Whilst Monaghan’s point is clearly correct, concern at how the phrase might potentially be misunderstood is insufficient reason to avoid it. To describe the current situation as a ‘cold war’ does not imply the replication of any particular cold war. It merely indicates that the current situation accurately fits the definition of the term ‘cold war’. The depth of similarities or differences between this and other cold wars are part of a wider debate.

Finally, some commentators believe that this cold war lacks a strong ideological dimension, which they argue is a sine qua non of a cold war. While it is true that a decade ago there appeared to be little ideological antagonism between Russia and the West, a point argued by scholars such as Dmitri Trenin – in part because Russia lacked a state ideology – such notions are less true today. An ideology of sorts is under construction. Russian intellectual traditions have been rummaged through. The Orthodox Church has been called into service to denounce Western post-Christian decadence, whilst latent anti-Western nationalism has been fanned by the state through its control or influence over the media. President Putin is forcing on his country a new identity: Russian Orthodoxy is its ideology, authoritarianism is its method of government, and nationalism is its identity. Whether coincidental or not, it echoes an earlier version of Russian identity: ‘Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality’ was the phrase coined by Count Sergei Uvarov to describe Russian state ideology in the 1830s.

I would argue that Western states are now in a third cold war with Russia. The first cold war between Russia and the West – between Great Britain and Russia specifically – took place between 1830 and 1890, interrupted by one hot war, the Crimean War (1853-1856). It was fought over values: liberalism versus autocracy, and geography: Poland, the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, and High Asia where the British and Russian Empires met. The second cold war took place between 1917 and 1990, interrupted by a brief but vital wartime alliance between the Allies and Russia against Nazi Germany. Almost immediately after WWII, the second phase of the second cold war began – what we refer to as the Cold War – with Soviet domination of eastern and central Europe, a global battle of ideas and proxy wars in the developing world. The Cold War ended in 1990 after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the USSR. This new, third cold war, is likely to last as long as current Russian leaders remain in power and, if their aims are successful, longer. To acknowledge the existence of this new cold war is a necessary first step to understanding it and finding policies to mitigate it.

Image: President George H. W. Bush and President Mikhail Gorbachev sign United States/Soviet Union agreements to end chemical weapon production and begin destroying their respective stocks in the East Room of the White House, Washington, DC on the 1st of June 1990. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Walking a Tightrope: NATO, Russia, Islamic State and the new brinkmanship


During the first week of February I was asked to deliver a talk at the annual Norwegian Air Power Conference at the Royal Norwegian Air Force Academy in Trondheim. The theme this year was ‘NATO: Threats and Challenges’ and I was asked to reflect on whether NATO today has common threats and goals. The conference as a whole was somewhat inevitably dominated by the twin ‘crises’ NATO is facing: over Ukraine on its Eastern flank and over Syria and Islamic State on its Southern flank. The mood of the conference – which included speeches from the Norwegian Defence Minister Ine Eriksen Soreide, the Norwegian Ambassador to Sweden and former UN special representative to Afghanistan Kai Eide, and Obama’s former permanent representative to NATO Ivo Daalder – was sombre. There was a broad consensus that Europe faces one of the most challenging periods in its recent history. From the refugee crisis to the rise and spread of Islamic State (IS), economic instability and the possibility of Brexit, there is little doubt Europe is in the midst of multiple crises that pose a very real threat to the long-term future of the European project. Shortly after the conference ended, NATO announced it was sending three warships to the Aegean tasked with returning migrants to Turkey in an attempt to break the network of criminal gangs trafficking migrants into Europe.

Debate has intensified in recent weeks over the alliance’s role in the anti-IS coalition as consensus grows as to the threat posed to alliance members by the spread of Islamic State. Although a number of NATO member states have participated in airstrikes against IS, collectively the alliance has not played a role beyond providing support for Turkey. However, at a recent NATO ministerial in Brussels member states discussed the prospect of NATO becoming an active participant in the fight against IS through building partner capacity, training ground forces and providing stabilization support. The ministerial meeting came on the back of a formal US request for the alliance to assist the coalition through deploying its AWACS to Iraq and Syria. The momentum for an enhanced NATO role in the anti-ISIS coalition has been steadily growing since the Paris terror attacks in November 2015. Former SACEUR James Stavridis claimed then that it was NATO’s ‘turn to attack’ and that the alliance needed to consider utilising its command structure, as well as deploying special forces and AWACs, to lead the effort to defeat Islamic State. Interestingly, Stavridis also observed that such an effort would have the ‘additional benefit of demonstrating that NATO is willing to act decisively when it is under threat.’

This will not be the first time NATO acts with its own credibility at stake. Ever since the end of the Cold War the alliance has had to constantly prove its relevance and refute the charge that the disintegration of the Soviet Union robbed it of a clear and common enemy and an unambiguous purpose. It is notable that the crisis over Ukraine has been dominated by a narrative perpetuating the idea of NATO ‘coming home’ – returning to a focus on state-based threats to member states and collective defence. It is indeed tempting to assert that the revival of Russian revanchism has re-animated NATO, a reminder that despite its expeditionary adventures in the Middle East it remains a military alliance that exists for one reason above all else: to provide for the collective defence of its member states against common threats. The substantive US and European military presence in Eastern Europe – surveillance and reassurance measures in the Baltics; naval patrols in the Black Sea; the deployment of fighter aircraft to Romania; large-scale exercises – all these are visible manifestations of NATO in its purest form, as a military alliance protecting the territorial integrity of member states. In this view, the reconstitution of an ‘old’ threat is taking NATO back to a future of conventional defence, deterrence and reassurance.

Yet herein lies part of the problem for NATO. NATO’s eastern and Baltic member states have always prioritised collective defence simply by virtue of their proximity to Russia in a way that others – the UK, US, France for example – have not done so. For Southern allies – France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey – growing instability to Europe’s south, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, is a more compelling concern and the challenges in this region – the emergence of Islamic state, refugee and migrant flows – demand continued investment in crisis-management capabilities and in partnerships with countries in the region. Lest we not forget, some 10,000 US and 4,000 NATO troops remain in a volatile and unstable Afghanistan where the emergence of ISIS-K and the continued presence of AQ as well as ongoing attacks by the Taliban are creating the very real possibility of an enduring presence in the country for the foreseeable future. Further, both Afghanistan and Libya – as well as the wider growth in jihadism – are harsh reminders that in the 21st-century ‘threats’ to NATO members and regional and global security cannot be defeated in the same way that the Soviet Union could be defeated during the Cold War.

Libya was hailed as a ‘model intervention,’ seen as evidence that despite internal cleavages and the failure to generate a unified response, the alliance could still make a meaningful contribution to the challenges posed by fragile states. Yet it remains riven by violence and the lack of a stable government; Western powers have left a space in which militant Islam can flourish and as Islamic State’s foothold in the country grows the pressure to re-intervene is intensifying. The Libyan city of Sirte is fast becoming a hub for IS but President Obama is thus far resisting calls for more airstrikes and the deployment of special forces to target IS forces in Sirte. This may be a prudent choice; intensifying attacks against IS in Libya in the absence of a viable political plan may be precisely the kind of ‘stupid shit’ Obama avowed to avoid. But with less than a year left in office there are signs the administration’s ‘strategic patience’ is beginning to wear thin. The Pentagon’s recent budget revealed the US is increasing spending on the fight against IS to $7.5 billion while US Secretary of Defence Ash Carter pulled no punches in reminding allies at the NATO ministerial that ‘We will all look back after victory and remember who participated in the fight.’ Notwithstanding Carter’s rose-tinted optimism that the West will be able to declare ‘victory’ over IS, the US is once again finding itself in the all too familiar role of cajoling NATO allies to contribute resources in the fight against IS. Yet intra-alliance tensions are high; several NATO members are frustrated that the US has not taken a more critical stance against Russia’s involvement in Syria (which most regard as designed to shore up Assad’s regime rather than the stated aim of fighting IS forces) while the US is having to undertake its own balancing act, leading the fight against IS while at the same time continuing to provide reassurance to Eastern European and Baltic states more concerned about Russia’s actions on the alliance’s Eastern flank. The Pentagon has announced it is quadrupling its defence spending on Europe, via the European Reassurance Initiative, from $789m to $3.4bn. The US will also have a full armoured combat brigade deployed in the region on a rotating basis in a reversal of its 2012 decision to draw down two US Army Brigades from Europe in the context of its rebalance to Asia.

Herein lies the dilemma for NATO. With Northern and Eastern NATO members focused primarily on Russia’s actions in the East, it has been hard to generate a consensus within the alliance over a collective role in the anti-IS coalition. NATO is currently walking a tightrope between deterring any further Russian action in Ukraine or Eastern Europe with the need to keep open political channels of dialogue and communication and avoid becoming locked in a dangerous cycle of brinkmanship. The West more widely needs Russian cooperation in the fight against IS and in any future Syrian peace settlement, but with Turkey attacking Russian (and US) backed Syrian Kurdish forces (the PYD and its militant arm the YPG) on the Syrian-Turkish border Turkish-Russian relations are at breaking point. With the Kurdish fighters exploiting Russian air strikes in northern Syria to seize territory near the Turkish border, Ankara is now increasingly at odds with both Moscow and Washington. Moscow, meanwhile, is pursuing a risky twin-track approach; it is seeking to take advantage of opportunities to drive a wedge between NATO allies over Syria while simultaneously trying to use the carrot of cooperation in the fight against Islamic State to win relief from Western sanctions imposed following the annexation of Crimea.

It is into this heady mix that NATO must now consider what its own contribution to the fight against Islamic State will be. Any NATO contribution will likely remain confined to training for Iraqi forces combined with the deployment of AWACS and as the alliance builds towards the 2016 Warsaw Summit its principal focus will likely remain Russia rather than Islamic State. There is a growing consensus that despite its strategy of deterrence, a new emphasis needs to be placed on dialogue with Russia in an effort to avoid the ‘new Cold War’ that Medvedev alluded to at the recent Munich Security Conference, and which many believe is fast becoming reality. As a 2014 report by the European Leadership Network found, Russia and the West are engaging in ‘dangerous brinkmanship;’ the report mapped repeated incidents of violations of national airspace, emergency scrambles, narrowly avoided mid-air collisions, close encounters at sea, and simulated attack runs, asserting that ‘the mix of more aggressive Russian posturing and the readiness of Western forces to show resolve increases the risk of unintended escalation and the danger of losing control over events.’ The OSCE – which monitors the compliance of NATO member states and Russia with Cold War era treaties governing troop deployments and exercises in Europe – has also claimed the current situation is more unpredictable than the Cold War; Russia has pulled out of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty while NATO’s deployment of ‘non-permanent’ forces in Eastern Europe has contributed to a sense that the existing European security architecture – an architecture Russia has never accepted – is no longer appropriate for managing the new security landscape in Europe.

But in the absence of a new security architecture – and there is no consensus as to what any such architecture should look like – NATO must continue to walk a precarious tightrope. As I argued in Trondheim while there may be a broad consensus within the alliance that Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the growth and spread of Islamic State across the MENA region and a zone of instability stretching from the Baltics to the Aegean all constitute common threats to NATO – and European stability and security writ large – generating consensus on how to respond to such challenges is infinitely harder in a 28-member alliance characterised by often profound differing geopolitical priorities and preferences. As it moves forward its principal challenges remain as much internal as external; it must find ways of balancing and harmonising its sometimes competing requirements for collective defence, crisis management and cooperative security and move beyond Cold War mind-sets that will only hamper crucial efforts at finding new pathways to deal with one of the most challenging security landscapes Europe has known since WWII.

Image: Ukrainian infantry man a roadblock during NATO exercise Rapid Trident/Sabger Guardian , July 2015, via flickr.

War Stories


The Vietnam war is quite a story. And it’s a story rich with irony: the dramatic irony of unintended consequences and flawed heroes. That makes it hard, perhaps impossible, for modern artists to say much new about conflict, and explains why that war continues to resonate a half century after the US intervened there in numbers.
I take up the story in my new book, where I argue that stories of war continue to resonate, even though in the modern, liberal world almost all of us are spared the violence. Why? And why this war in particular?
We love stories, because we are conscious and unconscious seekers of meaning. Abraham Maslow put the attainment of meaning at the top of his hierarchy of human needs, and Victor Frankl built a psychological theory of meaning based on his time in Auschwitz – those who survived, he argued, had found meaning in their lives, even amidst the horror of a concentration camp.
This search for meaning is an inescapable part of human cognition. We are essentially pattern recognisers and categorisers par excellence. At a neuronal level, that’s all there is – cognitive networks forming and connections strengthening on the basis of pattern recognition. If this, then that: the simplest of stories. At the conscious level, we build stories about the world and our place within it; to help us understand social networks and relationships. When we don’t understand our feelings, we sometimes use talking therapies to construct a meaningful narrative – it doesn’t matter if the narrative is true, just that it’s satisfying. 
Many of the stories we tell are about status and esteem – our own, and that of our referent groups. We are acutely concerned with status, for sound evolutionary reasons. What others think of us is perhaps the most vital of human questions, on which rests our very survival. Hence the ‘gossip’ theory of language – most of the information we exchange is socially important, and concerns status.
And hence too Terror Management Theory – which holds that our group identity becomes more prominent when death becomes salient. After all, the theory says, what’s the point of this absurd life if there’s not a larger meaning to be found in the onward march of our group, our culture, even after we ourselves are gone? And experimentally, it works: if I make your death loom large in your imagination, I can detect shifts in your attitude:  more tolerant of in-group members, more biased against outsiders. 
War, of course, makes death loom large. And war stories are a staple of recorded history, providing a clear sense of identity, of us versus them, and of culture as a repository of shared meaning – something worth fighting, and dying for. The central actor is the hero warrior, for whom war is an existential experience, providing meaning and identity above and beyond the group on whose behalf he fights. Hence Yeats’ Irish airman who declares ‘Those that I fight I do not hate, Those that I guard I do not love’.
For me, the Vietnam war marked a turning point – at which these timeless war stories and their heroes became self-aware and ironic.  A Rumor of War, Philip Caputo’s memoir of his time as a Marine Corps officer, ranks amongst the finest works from that conflict. That’s in part because of his knowingness about war as a story infused with irony. Caputo writes of the ‘battle singer’ of old, who ‘sang verses around the warriors’ guttering fires to wring order and meaning out of the chaotic clash of arms, [and] to keep the tribe human by providing it with models of virtuous behavior’.  But for Caputo, there was a problem with the Vietnam war:
The battle singer’s task was the same. The nature of war made it exceptionally difficult: how to find meaning in such a meaningless conflict? How to make sense out of a succession of random firefights that achieved nothing? How to explain our failings? And what heroes could be found in a war so murky and savage?
In fact, Caputo found some heroes, including a comrade who sacrificed his life for his soldiers. But the larger problem remained: a doomed cause, in which virtuous intentions ran awry amidst a sordid, corrupting violence. Caputo himself is implicated for a time, facing criminal charges for failing to check a murderous rampage by his men through a Vietnamese village. 
Vietnam gives us two of the great anti-heroes of modern art: Conrad’s Kurtz, reimagined as a sinister and corrupted colonel operating alone upriver in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Greene’s earnest naïf Alden Pyle, whose desire to transform Vietnam contrasts with the mature, cynical knowingness of his English friend. The novels and many lesser works like them are steeped in knowingness about the limits of action and intention, and the tragedy of actors undone by their own flaws.
The war is impossible to escape for modern artists, sometimes explicitly so. Anthony Swofford opens Jarhead, his memoir of the first Gulf War, with his unit of Marines killing time in Kuwait ahead of the action:
we get off on the various visions of carnage and violence and deceit, the raping and killing and pillaging. We concentrate on the Vietnam films because it’s the most recent war, and the successes and failures of that war helped write our training manuals. […] We watch again the ragged, burnt out fighters walking through the villes and the pretty native women smiling because if they don’t smile, the fighters might kill their pigs or burn their cache of rice.
There’s more irony here, as the jaded knowingness of Coppola’s masterpiece is totally ignored by a new generation of eager young marines. . ‘I bet more Marines have joined the Corps because of Full Metal Jacket than any fucking recruiting commercial’, one Iraq war veteran tells another in Redeployment, Phil Klay’s brilliant collection of short stories about the recent Iraq war‘And that’s an anti-war film,’ the other replies. ‘Nothing’s an anti-war film’.
Evan Wright’s Generation Kill typifies the issue. For all its merit and undoubted authenticity, it doesn’t say much new about either heroism or the irony of war. Except perhaps in being knowing about its very knowingness. As a Huey passes overhead, one of the Marines near Wright ‘starts singing Credence Clearwater Revival song. A Vietnam anthem. And then he stops abruptly. “This war will need its own theme music”’.
The only way ahead has been to return to the smallest level possible – the hero within the small group of comrades, apolitical and divorced altogether from the wider meaning of the conflict. Thus we have in The Hurt Locker and Kajaki two of the great modern war films – thrilling, yet also deeply conservative and traditional in their narrow view of the brave warrior sacrificing for comrades and finding meaning in the small group, not the wider societal struggle. These are war stories of a more straightforward, old fashioned kind – unbearably tense, certainly,  but somehow less troubling.

Image: Vietnam US Troops, Dong Xoai 1965, courtesy of flickr.

Nixon the Nation-Builder? Strategic Understanding in the Vietnam War


A new book from Evan Thomas reminds us – as if we needed it – of the peculiarities of President Richard Nixon. Brilliant, reclusive, and disturbed, Nixon ought to defy caricature even though he has often been the subject of it. His foreign policy partnership with Henry Kissinger reflected this. By marginalizing groups which traditionally held greater sway over American foreign policy – like the regular State Department and Pentagon bureaucracies – and concentrating decision-making power in their own hands, Nixon and Kissinger created a system that reflected their own highest qualities and most glaring defects.

I had a chance to see this system in action when I delved into the records of the Nixon White House while researching a book on the history of U.S. nation-building efforts during the Vietnam War. Most of what has been written about the administration’s Vietnam War policy focuses on its search for a negotiated settlement, its military moves in Laos and Cambodia, and its build-up of the South Vietnamese armed forces. I instead tapped a rich vein of documents dealing with the administration’s policy towards and understanding of the granular detail of the ground war and nation-building effort in South Vietnam.

They made surprising reading. Like the Johnson administration, Nixon and Kissinger were concerned with the vitality of the non-Communist Government of Vietnam (GVN). As U.S. forces were steadily withdrawn from the country, the GVN needed to be strong enough to maintain control of the people and resources of South Vietnam and contain the Vietnamese Communist movement. Much like during the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. aimed to foster the emergence of local proxies who would continue to see that it’s war aims were achieved even after the withdrawal of outside forces.

This general concern with nation-building was hence predictable. But what was surprising was the sophisticated understanding of the process, and especially of its limitations, which White House documents displayed. Disturbed by the informal policymaking processes of the Johnson administration, to which he had served as a consultant, Kissinger set about constructing an analytical apparatus which would give himself and the president a true picture of the ebb and flow of the ground war in South Vietnam.

The result was the Vietnam Special Studies Group (VSSG). Kissinger, who had spent years listening to rosy reports about the war under the Johnson administration and then seeing them proven wrong, was sceptical of analysis about the progress of the war from the field. Instead, he felt that strategic-level decision-makers needed their own sources of analysis. In this spirit, and staffed by the sort of “systems analysts” to whom Robert McNamara’s tenure at the Pentagon had given a bad name, the VSSG was tasked with assessing the prospects for the GVN winning what Kissinger called “the control war”.

The control war was the struggle not to militarily defeat the Vietnamese Communist movement, but rather to bring the people of South Vietnam under the control of the GVN and eject Communist shadow governments. Previously, the mere absence of violence in an area had been taken as evidence it was free of Communist activity. The analysts at the VSSG believed this had given a mistaken impression of the strength of the GVN, as apparent security did not preclude the existence of a shadow government engaged in recruiting, terrorism, and political organization. The prevalence of this underground infrastructure had become clear during the Tet Offensive, which struck at a time when – according to the Johnson administration’s metrics – the countryside was more secure than ever.

By staring hard facts such as this in the face, the VSSG reached a remarkably accurate and prescient picture of the state of the war. It warned that GVN control of the population of South Vietnam was much lower than had been imagined. It also pointed out that the most significant factor in bringing about control gains was the presence of U.S. forces – the exact same forces that were being withdrawn. The analysts warned that the GVN did not have the ability to substitute its own assets for these U.S. forces, and so pointed out that GVN control was likely to decrease and not increase as time went on. Finally, the group was at pains to point out the rising risk of an exogenous shock such as the Tet Offensive – exactly the sort of shock which struck South Vietnam with the 1972 and 1975 offensives, the first robbing the GVN of a great degree of territorial control and the second of the entire country.

The quality and integrity of the VSSG’s analysis stuck out for me in comparison to the Johnson administration’s wishful thinking. Kissinger and Nixon kept abreast of the group’s reports and were the wiser for it.

But the VSSG also stands as a reminder that, as Chris Tripodi has recently reminded us, we ought not to place too much faith in “understanding”. Strategic-level decision-makers ought to have the best and most honest analysis available to them, but it is naive to expect that this alone will lead to successful policy outcomes. Ultimately, information is what you make of it. Having inherited a strategy which required a strengthened GVN to be successful, Kissinger and Nixon remained wedded to this goal despite their pessimism over it ever being achieved. The alternative – to have abandoned the GVN, and hence their war aims, unilaterally – seemed to them unthinkable.

Still, this research ought to stand as a corrective to those who still think that all U.S. policymakers were blindly naive and optimistic about the Vietnam War, or completely ignorant of the true state of the political situation in South Vietnam. The truth is more complex, and more disturbing: they knew, but they carried on regardless.

Image: U.S. President Richard Nixon (left) and Henry Kissinger, National Security Adviser and Secretary of State, at the White House. From the booklet “President Nixon and the Role of Intelligence in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War” courtesy of the CIA.

The Secret War in South Yemen, 1972-75


My last post on Defence-in-Depth described a battlefield tour of Oman, studying the Dhofar conflict waged between insurgents and the Sultanate from the mid-1960s to late 1975. Thanks to the declassification of British government archives under the 30 Year Rule we now have greater knowledge of the covert operations conducted during this conflict, in the form of cross-border raids conducted into the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), otherwise known as South Yemen. This has been the subject of an article recently published in the Middle East Journal.

The Dhofar war was a civil war with an international dimension. As noted in my previous post, Oman was reliant on military aid from the UK, most notably in the form of the loan service personnel detached from the British armed forces to command and train the Sultan’s Armed Forces (SAF), and also (from the summer of 1970) special forces personnel from 22nd Special Air Service Regiment (22SAS). Iranian and Jordanian troops also saw combat in Dhofar, mainly because Shah Reza Pahlavi and King Hussein had a vested interest in preserving the Sultanate from a leftist insurgency. In turn, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman (PFLO) received arms and training from the Soviet bloc, Iraq (until early 1975), China and Egypt (both sponsors until 1972), whilst from August 1968 South Yemen provided the PFLO with a safe haven to train, equip, and launch military operations into Oman.

Throughout the Cold War Britain had used covert action as a means of bolstering its influence in the Middle East. In 1953 the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) had worked alongside the CIA to destabilise the Iranian Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadeq, and to orchestrate his overthrow by the Shah. Three years later, SIS was involved in abortive efforts to assassinate the Egyptian dictator, Jamal Abdel Nasser, prior to the Suez crisis, and the following year it again teamed up with its American counterparts in a failed effort to promote regime change in Syria. Between 1962 and 1967 a small group of ex-British special forces soldiers was attached to the Royalist rebels in the Yemen Arab Republic, fighting both the pro-Nasser regime and Egyptian occupying forces. The overthrow of Sultan Said bin Taimur of Oman in July 1970 in a palace coup happened with the foreknowledge of British officials in the Sultanate, and was possibly instigated by them. The conduct of covert action against the PDRY during the Dhofar war therefore had several precedents.

From November 1972 to at least January 1975, the UK and Omani governments trained and directed tribesmen from the Mahra clan in exile in Dhofar to launch paramilitary raids into South Yemen, which was dubbed Operation Dhib in British official papers. Sultan Qaboos bin Said was the apparent instigator for Dhib, being riled by the PDRY’s support for his internal enemies. The then-British Prime Minister Edward Heath gave authorisation for soldiers from 22SAS to train the Mahra for guerrilla operations, although both 10 Downing Street and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) stipulated that no British personnel were to accompany the Mahra guerrillas across the border. Operation Dhib was subjected to ministerial review on a six-monthly basis, and continued even after the Labour government took office in March 1974. In all respects it was an adjunct to the training and direction of the Dhofari firqat forces (pro-government tribal militias) by 22SAS during this very same period.

One key finding from my research was that the actual scope of Operation Dhib was strictly restricted by the then-Chief of the Sultan’s Armed Forces (CSAF), Major-General Timothy Creasey. The British officers nominated to command the SAF were in a complicated position, because whilst they were servants of the Sultan they were also obliged to consider (and if necessary reject) any orders they received that might harm UK national interests. Creasey was conscious that his superiors in the MoD and the Chiefs of Staff Committee back in Whitehall were prepared to offer all necessary support to Oman, but were worried about the threat of escalation between their ally and South Yemen, particularly if it led to full-scale war. With the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland at their height – and the need to maintain Britain’s contribution to NATO’s collective defence against the Warsaw Pact – senior British civil and military officials were in no mood to risk a clash with a Soviet client in Southern Arabia.

As a result, CSAF imposed controls over Operation Dhib. Cross-border raids were limited in number, and were postponed if attacks on South Yemeni military convoys led to reprisals against civilians. Creasey also disbanded one Mahra firqa it was training because of its lack of discipline. In essence, CSAF (with the approval of his superiors in Whitehall) conducted enough covert activity to satisfy Sultan Qaboos’ demands for revenge against the PDRY, but were at a sufficiently low level not to provoke the Marxist-Leninist regime in Aden into retaliating.

In this respect, Operation Dhib challenges my theories on proxy warfare, and the reasons why states sponsor non-state actors to attack rivals as an alternative to direct military action on their part. I argued that the strategic reasons for instigating proxy war involved coercion (arming and directing proxy forces to attack an adversary in order to compel it to submit to your national interests), disruption (to weaken an enemy with whom you are either in a state of war or heightened confrontation) or transformation (to effect a fundamental political change in an adversarial state in the form of regime overthrow, annexation, separatism or state failure).

For the UK, covert action against South Yemen in the early 1970s did not neatly fit any of these categories, except to a limited extent the disruptive one. The Mahra raiders did conduct some attacks on PDRY military and PFLO targets, but from the documentary evidence available British officials in Oman or London did not expect that the cross-border attacks would have any strategic effect against the insurgency in Dhofar itself. Operation Dhib was ultimately conducted as a limited action to satisfy Sultan Qaboos’ wish to punish South Yemen for backing the PFLO, and in this respect it was a covert operation intended to influence an ally, rather than an enemy.

Image: Sultan’s Armed Forces soldiers on patrol, Dhofar, Oman. Courtesy of Lt Col Ian Buttenshaw, WKhM, Royal Army of Oman.

Russia and NATO: A New Cold War?

This is the second in a series of posts from members of the Defence Studies Department’s Regional Security Research Centre, focusing on Russia and the implications of its increasingly assertive posture on the international stage. This post examines NATO’s response to recent Russian actions, particularly in Ukraine. It will be followed subsequent Mondays with posts on implications for the European Union, nuclear non-proliferation, and for Britain.


As my colleague Tracey German observed last week, Russia’s new military doctrine makes it abundantly clear that both NATO, and the wider West, are conceived as fundamental threats to Russia’s national security. As the war in Ukraine looks set to escalate, NATO finds itself walking a precarious tightrope between providing reassurance to member states on the alliance’s eastern flank, yet also keeping ajar the door to future cooperation. While it is impossible to predict exactly what course the conflict in the Ukraine will take, Russia’s increasing assertiveness on the international stage is providing the alliance with a renewed sense of purpose.

To understand why this is so requires stepping back – briefly – and surveying the wider arc of NATO’s post-Cold War evolution. Prior to events in the Ukraine, NATO was facing an uncertain future as it prepared to wind down its decade-long ISAF mission in Afghanistan. That mission was a double-edged sword for NATO; it gave the alliance a sense of purpose following 9/11 but it also fuelled internal dissonances within what was an already fractured alliance. In an edited volume I co-authored in 2013, NATO Beyond 9/11, we argued the difficulties that afflicted NATO’s mission in Afghanistan were only the latest manifestation of a long sequence of periodic crises over burden-sharing and alliance solidarity, military transformation, political decision-making, and relations with Russia and the EU. By 2012, the animating principles and purposes that had sustained NATO through the Cold War and post-Cold War seemed moribund; NATO was operationally exhausted, politically fractured and with little appetite to push forward further rounds of enlargement. America was rebalancing to Asia-Pacific, and member states were engaged in painful processes of defence cuts that appeared to signal a firm end to the West’s nation-building adventures of the 2000s. As NATO began winding down from Afghanistan in 2014, it thus found itself already preparing for the next phase of its post-Cold War evolution: a shift from NATO ‘deployed’ to NATO ‘prepared.’

Russian actions in Ukraine thus served to reinforce assumptions that were already shaping NATO’s agenda as it built towards the Wales Summit. Some NATO member states, notably Poland, had long lamented that NATO’s global expeditionary focus was a distraction from the ‘real’ business of collective defence. Still, it took Putin’s bold gamble in the Crimea and the steady escalation of conflict in the Ukraine to truly re-animate the debate over collective defence. NATO’s Newport Summit was inevitably dominated by the need to provide ‘visible assurance’ to nervous allies, through measures such as the Readiness Action Plan (RAP). Last week, NATO announced plans to move ahead with bolstering the NATO Response Force (NRF) as well as a Spearhead Force (SF) that could be deployed at short notice, while small command units will be established in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg described the measures as the ‘biggest reinforcement of its collective defence since the end of the Cold War.’

But this narrative, one that re-conceptualises NATO as the bastion of collective defence in Europe against a resurgent Russia, warrants some scepticism. First, the idea that Russia’s actions have restored alliance solidarity may be attractive, but cracks in the façade are already beginning to show, not least over the pace, scope and funding of the deployments. In a recent speech in Washington Victoria Nuland called on all allies to contribute to NATO’s SF, criticising some member states for ‘slinking backward.’ Maintaining thousands of troops on high readiness is by no means cheap, but falling defence budgets across Europe has left only a handful of nations with the capacity to do so.  Second, it paints a somewhat rose-tinted image of a benevolent alliance standing up to Russian aggression. Russia’s actions may have been an unacceptable violation of international law and Ukrainian sovereignty as far as the West is concerned, but it is an uncomfortable reality that for many Russians, NATO’s hands are far from clean, viewing NATO’s enlargement as a deliberate encroachment into Russia’s historic sphere of influences. Such a view is readily dismissed by NATO leaders claiming Putin is denuded by a ‘false narrative,’ and that NATO enlargement was aimed at ‘helping Russia to be more secure – not less, as Moscow now claims.’

Such divergent perceptions should not be dismissed as mere tit-for-tat; they matter because they are fuelling a growing and potentially irreversible rift between Russia and the West that could define NATO’s future for the next generation. And perhaps this brings us to the heart of what is at stake here: does NATO – and the West – risk pushing Putin into a new Cold War through its increased military presence in the region and supply of arms to the Ukraine? Or is it a prudent, pragmatic and necessary response to blatant Russian aggression that must be stopped if a ‘Europe whole and free’ is to be preserved? To what extent does NATO’s increased military presence in the region bolster EU-led diplomatic efforts, or risk undermining them?

Opinion is starkly divided on these difficult questions, within both academia and in the wider policy and defence community. In a provocative article for Foreign Affairs, John Mearsheimer lays the blame for the crisis squarely on NATO’s shoulders claiming that NATO enlargement is at the core of the crisis and should be understood as a ‘central element of a larger strategy to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and integrate it into the West.’ In a robust response, Stephen Sestanovich and Michael McFaul argue Mearsheimer overstates the influence of NATO expansion, claiming Putin’s actions must be understood less as a response to NATO or US policies but in terms of Russian internal political dynamics, and a flawed ideology that falsely viewed the West’s heavy hand at play in the Ukrainian uprisings beginning in November 2013.

NATO member states are also divided on what the most appropriate response should be. German and French officials have cautioned against arming Ukraine as they push ahead with efforts at forging a diplomatic solution, while the Obama administration is under growing pressure from both Republicans and Democrats to arm Ukrainian government forces. Obama’s response thus far has been to urge ‘strategic patience’, but such an approach finds short shrift amongst former NATO officials who have urged a stronger stance; former Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has warned Putin is likely to test NATO’s resolve by intervening in one of the Baltic states, while former Deputy SACEUR General Sir Richard Shirreff has launched a withering critique of the UK government’s weak response.

However, the crisis plays out, two things can be said with some certainty. First, Ukrainian membership of NATO is now off the table for the foreseeable future, a concession to Russia that will inevitably form part of any peace deal should it happen and a deliberate attempt to pave the way for future cooperation. This will be a bitter pill for Ukraine to swallow and NATO must share some blame for holding out a promise of membership that was arguably always ephemeral. Second, despite its internal divisions, the crisis has re-energised NATO. It remains to be seen whether Putin will force NATO’s hand, but the challenge remains how to balance providing necessary security guarantees to member states while keeping the door open to rebuilding relations with Russia. Perhaps the final word should be left to Poland’s Defense Minister: ‘we want good weather in Europe, but we understand the need to invest in umbrellas nonetheless.’

Image: US Secretary of State John Kerry listens as then NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen opens a special discussion about Ukraine for newly installed Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin and fellow foreign ministers during a series of meetings at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on June 25, 2014. Courtesy of the US State Department.

From the Archives: Locating NATO’s ‘Surreal’ Mission

From the Archives is a new regular feature on Defence-in-Depth. Archives are the lifeblood of historians. Papers, correspondence, diaries and journals constitute the primary material on which historical analysis is based. This feature is designed to fulfill two objectives. Our authors have selected an archive that has yielded an important find and will explain how this document has been used to create history. The juiciest documents are often found in difficult to reach places, and our authors will also comment on the trials and tribulations of accessing their archives.


In 1954 the North Atlantic Council approved the Military Committee’s new strategic planning document, MC 48, ‘The Most Effective Pattern of NATO Military Strength for the Next Few Years’. The defensive concept outlined in the paper tied irrevocably NATO ground forces to the first use of tactical nuclear weapons to arrest a Soviet ground offensive on the European Central Front. The plan was absurd. A tactical nuclear war in Europe would have resulted in unprecedented destruction, devoid of any political benefits, and would have obliterated the territory and peoples the alliance sought to defend. It was a surreal mission, Strangelovian in its conception.

The notion of a tactical nuclear land war in Europe has always fascinated and horrified me in equal measures. In reading around the subject I had become increasingly disenchanted with the mainstream accounts of how and why NATO arrived at such a bizarre military plan. Indeed, there appeared to be no explanation outlining the planning-processes and underlying conceptual rationales that resulted in the infamous MC 48 document. So, last year, I decided to get to the bottom of it and knew that this would require going to the very heart of the alliance itself, to its archives at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

Having been approved access to the archive, which is determined through the submission of an online application form, I arrived at the headquarters a few weeks later. I was greeted by one of the helpful archivists and escorted to the comfortable reading room, which to my interest and delight, was furnished with the contents from the old office of NATO’s first Secretary General, Lord Ismay. Perusing the catalogue, at Ismay’s erstwhile writing desk, I discovered that it was not as user-friendly as other comparable institutions, such as the UK National Archives. The extensive collection covers many aspects of NATO military planning during the early years of the alliance, yet after an afternoon of orienteering I had finally identified the files with which I was interested.

My starting point in my quest to find the conceptual origins of the surreal mission was the records of the top-level defence debates of the North Atlantic Council (catalogue reference: CR). At first glance, the files appeared to contain little more than summary records of policy discussions held by the Council and the principal conclusions arrived at. This shed little light on the matter as I could only find veiled comments about the adoption of ‘new defensive concepts’, ‘future weapons’, and a ‘new look’ ground force. I delved a little deeper, however, and discovered verbatim reports of multi-lateral defence discussions between national military chiefs (AC/100). This seam of documents was much more revealing and showed how vested interests and partisan strategies influenced wider NATO policy. Here I found the private battles of national military chiefs as they advertised competing strategies and operational concepts in an attempt to attract customers in NATO’s market for strategic ideas. What became clear was that the ‘winners’ of these intellectual struggles were granted increased influence over the conceptual elements of the work carried out by the Military Committee, the papers of which I now turned my attention.

The records of the Military Committee (MC) provide a detailed account of how the development of strategic concepts were approached and executed, including MC 48, on a multi-national level. My real interest in these files was that I was able to trace the evolution of a strategy document from its inception, through the multitude of written drafts, to its final incarnation. This allowed me to assess exactly which organisations, individuals, and other NATO departments, influenced the crafting of the strategy. For me, what was rescinded, re-worded, omitted, appended, or revised, was just as important as the material contained in the final version of the document, perhaps more so. What struck me immediately was that it was US representatives who were the most vocal, and who appeared to carry the most influence. As NATO’s most powerful member, this was not surprising, and the American guidance in the writing of MC 48 was clear.

This confirmed my long-held suspicions that since NATO’s highest ranking military officer, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, had by statute to be an American, then the adoption by NATO of a nuclear posture in 1954 was merely the extension of US national defence policy during this time, which was built on the premise of massive retaliation with nuclear weapons. I knew already that the records of the work produced by Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe was classified to the public, but I took the opportunity to see whether I could consult adjacent documents to judge the extent to which the Supreme Commander, through his military representatives lobbied the Military Committee to bring its strategic concepts in line with that of US policy. I was largely successful in this by consulting the documents of the Military Representatives Committee (MRC), the Permanent Representatives (PO), and the Standing Group (SGM). Although there remained a number of unknowns, I was able to piece together a broad picture of the influence of American concepts on alliance strategy.

I left the archives a couple of weeks later with much greater insight into the origins of MC 48 and the NATO plan to fight a tactical nuclear war in Europe. I arrived at the conclusion that in attempting to enhance political cohesion within the burgeoning alliance NATO members acquiesced to American leadership on nuclear issues and accepted a strategy that, while militarily unviable, brought the US into the fold and reassured nervous members of American commitment to the defence of Western Europe.

The research I conducted at the NATO archives contributed to an upcoming article, ‘Enhancing Political Cohesion in NATO or: How it Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tactical Bomb’.

Image: Cadets from the Chard School, Somerset Army Cadet Force being shown the Douglas Aircraft MGR 1 Honest John free flight rocket at the School of Artillery, Larkhill. This American built artillery missile continued in service with the British Army until 1975. (IWM R 13775)

Reflections on Deterrence and the Lessons of History


The reflections of ‘Cold War warriors’ provided prescient insights into the wider application of deterrence during a recent Witness Seminar organised by the Defence Studies Department and the Institute for Contemporary British History at the Institute of Historical Research.

The term ‘deterrence’ is often used by policy makers, academics and the media to encompass a more complex construct beyond purely deterring an adversary to encompassing acts of ‘compellence’.  While the two terms are subsets of coercive practice, the distinguishing feature of deterrence is that the aim is to maintain the status quo, while compellence involves seeking to modify an extant situation and usually requires an escalatory approach involving the threat of force and its application if required; deterrence fails, of course, at the point an adversary pursues a course of action which the deterrer was seeking to avoid.  Both deterrence and compellence can be based upon threatening either to punish an adversary or to deny its objectives.  It is important to understand that such approaches can only work if they are deemed to be credible on the part of the adversary. This applies in the realm of both conventional and nuclear strategies.

It is commonly assumed that Britain’s approach to deterrence in the Cold War primarily relied upon the threat of nuclear retaliation, but the Witness Seminar demonstrated that a major element of the British deterrence posture involved conventional forces.  In particular evidence was presented about deterring Indonesia during the Confrontation under Plan Addington in 1964.  This saw a complex series of tactical and operational plans to target critical Indonesian infrastructure utilising the RAF’s V Force in a conventional role.  The plans were heavily dependent on tanker support and raised questions about the effects that could be achieved, which has resonance with some of the planning considerations that affected the bombing raids against Port Stanley in 1982.  The evidence challenged some assumptions about the effectiveness of the deterrence of Indonesia; there have been suggestions in recent years that the Indonesians did not fully appreciate that Plan Addington was meant to deter them. However, the evidence of witnesses points to the apparent delay in certain Indonesian troop deployments which took place once the V-bombers had been withdrawn; this hints at a more complicated picture. The complimentary nature of long-range strike platforms and aircraft carriers was brought out through this example.

The inter-action of air and maritime forces was further highlighted by witness presentations on maritime patrol, anti-submarine and Royal Navy submarine operations in the face of a growing Soviet naval threat.  Prior to the event some of the witnesses sought approval for their presentations from the Ministry of Defence and were asked to remove references to specific operational details, perhaps suggesting a degree of continuity between the supposedly obsolescent methodologies of the Cold War and current preoccupations.

Nuclear deterrence, once an area of extensive debate, has since the end of the Cold War been ‘de-prioritised’ but has remained a subject in which thinking and practice has continued to evolve. The concepts relating to Assured Destruction remain relevant although traditional thinking based upon the primacy of offense over defence has been subject to challenge.  Developments in defensive technology, notably in the United States have created new debates in which missile defence has become part of the American deterrence posture.

The presentations nonetheless highlighted conceptual continuities with consideration of the British approach to denying Soviet freedom of action through the use of these air and maritime assets.  The credibility of this approach to denial was illustrated through a number of tactical examples in which witnesses had participated showing the complex relationship that can exist between tactical level activity and strategic intent. The evidence presented by all the witnesses gave rise to a view amongst the audience that despite populist commentary that the Cold War was very much sui generis there is still much relevant read-across between this period and the present.  Questions of how to deter potential adversaries and how to measure the effect achieved upon opponents remain critical considerations in the planning and execution of contemporary operations, as does the matter of how to make clear that deterrence as a concept is not exclusively about nuclear weapons.

It is timely perhaps to remember that deterrence even during the Cold War was about the whole range of capabilities, rather than just the ultimate nuclear ‘big stick’.  The dual-hatting of the V force for these operations placed a strain on the routine maintenance of Britain’s nuclear deterrence, illustrating some of the challenges in the balancing of deterrence forces and achieving a satisfactory blend of nuclear and conventional capabilities.

Image: Trafalgar Class Fleet Submarine HMS Turbulent is pictured in front of Type 23 frigate HMS St Albans, during an anti-submarine exercise in the Gulf of Oman. Courtesy of