Military Theory

Hybrid War: The Perfect Enemy


Why does hybrid war cast such a long shadow over Western conceptions of future threats? The ubiquity of the idea of hybrid war is interesting given the many serious problems with the concept.

Hybrid war has, for example, little intellectual coherence, since different commentators define hybrid war in different ways. For Frank Hoffman, hybridity expresses the difficulty that: ‘Instead of separate challengers with fundamentally different approaches (conventional, irregular, or terrorist) we can expect to face competitors who will employ all forms of war and tactics, perhaps simultaneously.For J. J. McCuen, hybrid wars are ‘full spectrum wars with both physical and conceptual dimensions: the former, a struggle against an armed enemy and the latter, a wider struggle for, control and support of the combat zone’s indigenous population, the support of the home fronts of the intervening nations, and the support of the international community.’ NATO has defined hybrid war as ‘a wide range of overt and covert military, paramilitary, and civilian measures […] employed in a highly integrated design.’ Often, then, we are using the same hybrid war label to describe different things.

The above problem exposes another flaw: that we may be guilty of engaging in a process of generalising from the specific. Hoffman generalised about hybrid war from the specifics of the armed conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006; McCuen generalised from the specific state-building conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan; and more recently, hybrid war has been generalised as a phenomenon from the specifics of Russian activities in Crimea and the Donbas. Hybrid war seems to be redefined in relation to the characteristics of each new conflict that worries the West. To compound this problem, if we try and generalise across the different definitions of hybrid war, we are left with a concept that is so broad as to be almost meaningless. As Damien van Puyvelde notes, ‘In practice, any threat can be hybrid as long as it is not limited to a single form and dimension of warfare. When any threat or use of force is defined as hybrid, the term loses its value and causes confusion instead of clarifying the “reality” of modern warfare.’

We have also been guilty of over-inflating the value of hybrid war as a new concept. We do not need to invent a new classification of warfare to explain hybrid warfare successes. For example, that Hezbollah did better than was expected during in 2006 can easily be attributed to Israeli weaknesses, including poor strategy and a focus on low intensity operations in Gaza. Russian successes in Crimea depended upon such situationally specific factors as the presence of a large Russian population; the presence of Russian military bases; and a primed Russian domestic audience. In assuming that hybrid warfare is a uniquely effective tool we are, first, guilty of what Hew Strachan has termed astrategic thinking – of assuming that tactical and operational techniques can be successful whatever the strategic context. Second, we are guilty of ignoring hybrid warfare’s often ambiguous results. Russian actions in the Donbas, for example, have been much less decisive than those in Crimea and have involved significant costs and an increasing Russian commitment. In many respects hybrid warfare has simply become any non-conventional military strategy that worries us.

Finally, hybrid warfare is a malign reflection of what the strategist Colin Gray has termed ‘presentism:’ the tendency for each generation to see the problems that it faces as unique and to fail to see the powerful historical continuities that often are present. Mark Galeotti and Geraint Hughes have already illustrated the historical precedents for Russia’s current hybrid warfare. Proponents of hybrid wars struggle to provide a meaningful unifying definition of the concept because hybrid war actually does not have a distinct nature and it is not a separate form of war. What we define as hybrid wars are simply expressions of the inherent relational and asymmetric nature of all wars. ‘Hybrid wars’ are examples of belligerents trying to side-step the strengths of their adversaries and to focus the terms of conflict on their weaknesses. But that’s not new. If Lebanon in 2006 and Crimea and Donbas in 2014 are hybrid wars, then so is German submarine warfare in the First and second World wars; British strategic bombing in World War Two; British counter-insurgency in Malaya; or the actions of General Aideed in Somalia. These are all hybrid in the sense that they reflect the use of different tools to get at an opponent’s weaknesses whilst trying to mitigate their strengths.

All of this raises an important question: why, despite its intellectual shortcomings, is hybrid war such a pervasive concept? The answer, I think, is because it is a manifestation of our own insecurities about the world in which we live. These insecurities have two dimensions. The first concerns our own perceptions of the weakness and decline of the West. These perceptions have their roots in such things as the crisis in confidence in the western economic model created by the 2008 crash and continued weakness ever since. It reflects fear over our vulnerability and cohesion – fears over our loss of control over globalisation; fears for what we see as the basic pillars of international order: Western predominance; US-European relations; European cohesion; NATO. It reflects perceptions, as a consequence of such conflicts as Afghanistan and Syria, of our inability to deal effectively with critical security challenges. These fears also stem from perceptions regarding the internal weaknesses of western states: growing fears about the political cohesion of our societies; the rolling back of democracy; political polarisation.

The second strand concerns perceptions of the strength and guile of our adversaries. This crisis in self-confidence has been accompanied by a tendency to downplay the weaknesses of our competitors; to see only strength wielded in the service of superior long-term strategies. These problems aren’t necessarily new. Bettina Renz and Hanna Smith argue that the West’s fear of Russian hybrid war is ‘reminiscent of the West’s enemy image of the Soviet Union, which viewed the Soviet leadership as a chess master that was vastly superior in terms of centralisation, organisation and co-ordination.’

We are afraid; and because of this we have invented for ourselves the perfect enemy. We feel increasingly insecure, increasingly fearful; we have as a consequence created the image of a potent new threat from powerful adversaries who suffer none of our problems and by-pass our strengths. But intellectually, the concept of hybrid war says more about our fears than it does about any genuinely new model of war. This is not to say that that the current security environment isn’t difficult and dangerous. However, if we stopped connecting together all of our difficulties, multiplying them by the assumption of superior adversaries and then labelling them hybrid war, we might find these challenges easier to address.

Image: Russian-Belurssian military exercises in the Baltic, 2009, via

Understanding Modern Warfare

Dr Ian Speller and Dr Christopher Tuck

Next month, our multi-authored volume Understanding Modern Warfare will be published in its second edition by Cambridge University Press. Understanding Modern Warfare is a book explicitly about modern warfare. There are many excellent existing works on war generally: this volume is concerned instead with the employment of organised violence: it is about fighting. But why should we be concerned with such a topic?

An academic focus on warfare has often been unpopular. Insofar as they study war at all most Western universities prefer to focus on ‘war and society’, examining the impact that war has had on wider society rather than focusing explicitly on warfare. As Jeremy Black has noted, in some respects this approach demilitarises military history by moving it away from war and battle, resulting in what Michael Howard called a ‘flight to the suburbs’. Understanding Modern Warfare is not a suburban book. It self-consciously focuses on the central activity of armed forces and on the urban centre of the subject, on warfare. It does so in recognition that this does not address the totality of war, which is about more than just warfare, but is based on the notion that one cannot understand modern war unless one also understands modern warfare. At the heart of such an understanding is, to quote Howard, ‘the study of the central activity of armed forces, that is, fighting’. In his influential book The Face of Battle, John Keegan made a strong case for the primary importance of ‘battle history’ within military history, arguing that:

it is not through what armies are but what they do that the lives of nations and of individuals are changed. In either case, the engine of change is the same: the infliction of human suffering through violence. And the right to inflict suffering must always be purchased by, or at the risk of, combat – ultimately of combat corps a corps.

It should never be forgotten that wars always result in death, destruction, waste and human suffering, all too frequently on a truly staggering scale. Unfortunately, ignoring the phenomenon is unlikely to make it go away and to do so fosters ignorance of something that has had, and continues to have, a major impact on human affairs. Whether one wishes to avoid warfare, to mitigate its impact or to prepare to conduct it more efficiently (and these are not mutually exclusive positions) it is important that it be studied. Indeed, one might suggest that in a democracy in the twenty-first century it is particularly important that as wide a range of people as possible should understand the nature of modern warfare in order that they are equipped to make intelligent judgements about the way in which their own governments seek to employ military force. The requirement for military personnel to understand warfare should be too obvious to require further elaboration given the historical correlation between ignorance and military incompetence.

For these reasons, Understanding Modern Warfare addresses what continues to be a critical subject. It examines and evaluates the central issues, ideas and concepts that form the foundation for an understanding of the conduct of war in its various forms and in its different operating environments. It is an exploration of the theory and the practice of modern warfare. It is important to engage with both as one cannot properly be understood without reference to the other. The practice of warfare – what armed forces do and the way that they do it – is influenced by theoretical concepts and constructs or, where these are not expressed formally, by preconceived ideas that themselves represent an informal (sometimes an unconscious) equivalent to theory. Today such concepts are often expressed officially through military doctrine, adopting and adapting theoretical constructs in a manner designed to foster understanding amongst practitioners. Equally, however, military practice matters: warfare is a practical discipline not an obscure theoretical exercise. Understanding Land Warfare is not a history book, but it is infused with and informed by an historical understanding. Theory that does not stand the test of practice is dangerous. As Charles Callwell argues ‘Theory cannot be accepted as conclusive when practice points the other way’.

Critical analysis of the theory and practice of modern warfare highlights issues that continue to be central to the successful conduct of military operations: the primacy of strategy; the dangers inherent in an unreflective blinkered application of doctrine; the differences and synergies between the different operating environments. Reflecting on modern warfare also reinforces the importance of military adaptability. Adapting successfully to the future depends in part upon having a grasp of the past and the present. The future is not fixed, nor is it easily predicted. As the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume noted ‘nothing that we imagine is absolutely impossible’. Whilst knowledge of the past and present of warfare may provide part of the foundation for coping with the future, more important is developing an understanding. To paraphrase Sun Tzu, the conduct of war is of such importance, quite literally the province of life and death, it is vital that it be studied carefully.

Image: Indonesian and U.S. Army Aviation Assets Train Participate in Pacific Pathways, via flickr.

On the psychology of defence


There are two bits of Clausewitz (just two?) that have long puzzled me. The first is where he says that a statesman should know what sort of war he’s embarking on, before getting into it. In modern times, that line has often been contrasted with John Reid’s unfortunate quote about Helmand, in which he said the British would be perfectly happy to leave without having fired a shot. The second is where Clausewitz argues that the defence is stronger than the attack.

I still don’t understand the first. Prediction in complex social systems is impossible – and any foresight more a matter of chance than genius. Philip Tetlock gets into that in his last two books – on the value of expert political judgment (negligible) and the possibility of ‘superforecasting’. If we read Clausewitz’s remark as a cautionary note against overconfidence, then fair enough. But retrospectively expecting elites to have a firm grasp on the character of a future war seems a bit unfair. Strategy is in part improvisational; responding creatively to the unexpected in situations that are always in flux.

On the second bit of Clausewitz, I have an answer! For the real aficionados, the full paper, presented at the ISA conference this week, is online here. The short answer is here – and it comes with a heavy dose of psychology.

In brief, I argue that Clausewitz is right, and that Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s Prospect Theory can help us see why. This theory suggests we are profoundly loss averse. We are prone to gamble more when we perceive ourselves to be losing than we would if winning. You can demonstrate this very neatly in lab based psychology experiments which set up precisely the same (cash) payoffs and probabilities associated with two scenarios, but depict one scenario as the choice between a gamble on avoiding a loss, or the acceptance of a certain, but smaller loss; and the other scenario as a gamble on a large gain, versus the possibility of a smaller, but certain gain. We tend to gamble in the loss scenario, but not in the gain.

Why? A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Evolutionary psychology provides a compelling rationale – in marginal environments, where survival is rather finely balanced affair, losing valuable resources could be disastrous; but at the same time it is profoundly dangerous to risk everything on the possible acquisition of new resources. And so in ‘wars’ between groups of chimpanzees overwhelming odds are required before the chimps will attack. The tactics of raid and ambush are favoured over pitched battle – as they often are in wars between hunter gatherer communities.

Some important caveats: In the real world, of course, the payoffs and probabilities associated with them are rather messier than in the psychology laboratory. That’s certainly true in war, as Clausewitz noted with his extensive discussion of uncertainty and chance. There are also plenty of real world examples of attack dominating defence, in battles and campaigns alike. How are we to square this with Clausewitz’s assertion? It’s hard to control for the many particulars of historical examples – terrain, technology, numbers, cohesion and so on. Sometimes it’s hard even to know which is the attacking force, and which the defender, as attacks culminate, and defence gives over to the counter-attack.

Fair enough. And yet, at some meaningful level of abstraction, Clausewitz’s remarks chime with Prospect Theory. In a struggle for possession (Clausewitz thought mostly about possession of territory, but there may be other plausible currencies in which to measure appetite for risk), there is a tendency to gamble in order to avoid the prospect of losing. The attacker, meanwhile, will be increasingly reluctant to gamble on marginal gains, especially if his initial objectives have been satisfied.

What we have, we hold.

For more on Prospect Theory, check out Daniel Kahneman’s excellent popular psychology book, Thinking Fast and Slow.

Image via flickr.

Artificial Intelligence versus mission command


In a new paper, Kareem Ayoub and I explore how Artificial intelligence will shape strategy. Here, I focus on one important aspect of that: the ability of leaders to control the use of force.

Technology is sometimes seen as a threat to the British military’s philosophy of mission command. When it works as intended, mission command allows subordinates to exercise their on-the-spot judgement about how best to realise the intentions of their superiors. Commanders describe what they want to achieve, but leave the execution to those perhaps better sighted, being nearer the action. This requires good judgment in subordinates, but imbues the military practicing it with the flexibility to adapt to novel and unexpected developments. As an additional benefit, those carrying out the orders feel a degree of ownership and control that perhaps contributes towards their fighting power, building cohesion and resilience.

That’s the theory. The ability for senior commanders, lawyers and even politicians to scrutinise tactical activities from afar has increased dramatically in recent decades. Frustration at those wielding the fabled ‘long screwdriver’ is a hardy perennial of conversation with tactical commanders. The demands of the strategic level, with its differing perspective on risk and on wider alliance considerations, are nothing new: Churchill liked to involve himself in tactical matters too, often to the consternation of the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Alan Brooke. But thanks to satellite communications, remote sensors and broadband internet, the ability of senior commanders to exercise control of tactical actions has increased. At the same time, the smaller scale of modern conflict and the perception of risk averse domestic populations has created a sensitivity to tactical events at the top level. And so, both the desire and the ability of senior commanders to control the action pushes against mission command.

I’ve always been a bit sceptical of this critique. The ability of commanders to micromanage is fundamentally constrained by their attention – likely to be in short supply. Perhaps it’s more often a case of self-policing by subordinates: not adopting the optimal approach for fear of being monitored.

In any event, my argument here is that the advent of fully autonomous tactical AI capabilities will shift the balance again, this time back towards the local decision-maker, precisely because the tactical decision-maker of the near future will not be human. Artificial intelligence challenges mission command from the other direction – limiting the commander’s ability to manage the interpretation and execution of intent.

AIs bring distinct tactical advantages – in speed, precision, endurance and raw information processing power, among others. These characteristics mean that the AI can act too quickly for senior command to control. Communication with superior agents introduces distortions in messaging, slows the speed of execution, and introduces vulnerabilities that an enemy will seek to exploit. Tactical AI overcomes these problems by reaching and executing decisions locally – with great speed and precision, and without being susceptible to a large range of human biases.

The sort of platforms and systems I am referring to are currently in their infancy but are developing extremely rapidly. AI has already mastered complex control problems – including learning to fly a helicopter. It increasingly has the ability to comprehend its environment in rich detail, and the ability to generate innovative approaches to solving problems within its universe. AIs can identify and track targets in noisy and cluttered environments – as with one that accurately distinguishes mosquitos by the sound of their wing beats. When it comes to decision-making, AIs are moving beyond the constrained universe of the chess computer, bounded by strict rules and with perfect knowledge of possible options. Clausewitz likened war most to a game of cards – bound up with uncertainty and chance. As it happens, an AI has recently ‘solved’ poker – a game of asymmetric knowledge – sufficiently to come out ahead of humans on a consistent basis. It did that by recognising statistical patterns in adversary behaviour

In the next decades, AIs will assume increasing importance in information acquisition and analysis, sorting and categorising vast databases. In ISR it will obtain and interrogate huge quantities of information in near real time. In manoeuvre and fires, progress is slower, but it will ultimately outperform humans and manned systems, with their physical, biological constraints. Spherical AIs will storm defended beaches; AI UAVs will outperform the best Top Guns – manoeuvring more sharply, reacting faster and less predictably.

AIs will generate pattern of life information on human targets in urban environments, discerning subtle biological signatures; nano-AIs will surveil targets. Data crunching AIs will track after-action data and develop new operational concepts and tactics. In war colleges, AIs will red-team war games. In R&D laboratories, AIs will ‘evolve’ new weapons platforms – challenging ingrained and deeply held organisational proclivities – for manned fighters, or aircraft carriers.

Yet, there are two fundamental issues, at least, worth considering as we move towards tactical battlefield AI.

First, there is an ethical conundrum to address: one that humans already face, but that they might feel less comfortable outsourcing to a machine. This is the question of risk, and of whose life to endanger. War entails violence and death and, like humans, AIs will need to weigh the risk to lives before acting. When humans do this, we often utilise two distinct philosophical approaches – consequentialism and deontology. Should we prioritise the greatest good for the largest number of people (and, if so, which people), or do we have a duty to each individual life? Let’s suppose our AI must chose, in a flurry of combat, between sacrificing the life of a friendly soldier, or killing two other people, likely to be civilians. Humans make these sorts of choices already, of course, but outsourcing them to an impersonal, non-biological agent feels pretty uncomfortable.

The second problem is in deciding which goals to pursue and in what order. How do we know what it is we want our tactical AI to achieve? Victory is too trite an answer, because of its subjective and contingent meanings. How hard should our machine fight, and for what end? What is an acceptable use of resources, and acceptable level of violence, to achieve a particular goal? This is the problem of revealed preferences – establishing intent ex ante is problematic if one’s goals are sometimes revealed via action, and if one cannot readily communicate these new or revised goals to agents in sufficient detail and timely fashion.

Tactical AI will, in theory, still reflect the intent of its superiors – specified in the protocols that establish its goals and rules of engagement. But there are problems in fully anticipating such contingencies – the goals we seek and our willingness to fight for them are often only revealed as events unfold. We can hazard a guess at some of the parameters that should constrain or guide a tactical AI and these may suffice to deliver the desired performance. But social complexity will limit our predictive accuracy and, additionally, AIs will, in the normal run of things, develop unexpected solutions.

Both these issues can be ameliorated by intervening ahead of the machine’s decision to offer guidance: keeping the fabled ‘man in the loop’. The difficulty here is that of speed and communication. AIs benefits, in addition to its raw computational power and unbiased decision-making, include its capacity to decide with alacrity and without human guidance in complex and rapidly changing environments. Intervening undermines both autonomy and speed. In some circumstances that will be fine – better to be right and lose a robot than to be wrong and kill the wrong people. But in situations where enemies have the capacity to respond autonomously and quickly themselves, pausing for reflection and higher guidance is a poor strategy.

These problems won’t go away and aren’t easily answered. The solution, however, is not to resist the adoption of autonomous weapons systems, or seek to outlaw them – both because adversaries are unlikely to cooperate, and because technologies are changing so fast that reaching mutually agreeable and enforceable definitions is highly problematic. Ultimately, weapons that can identify, track and prosecute targets with inhuman speed are likely to confer battle-winning advantages. In doing so, they will stretch the scope of mission command to its limit – the commander’s intent may not bound the scope of tactical action sufficiently to cover all possibilities, while their capacity to monitor and impose themselves into the action will be curtailed.

Image: Northrop Grumman Bat, via wikimedia commons.

Conference Report: Military Education and Empire.


Research on how militaries learn, adapt, innovate and transform has been gathering pace in recent years. The primary motivation for this emerging interest has been the need to understand the means and methods by which the US Army innovated or transformed during its campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Further studies have emerged exploring the same concept in the British military.

Historically, military adaptation, innovation and transformation has been explained through overarching concepts such as the Military Revolution, or more recently, the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs. The former implies massive change in military organisation or development prompted by external influence, such as political, social or cultural revolution.

The latter is a more limited concept – the aggregate, perhaps, of marginal gains produced by technological or organisational developments which combine to achieve a decisive shift in performance, capability or effectiveness. Both concepts have come in for their fair share of criticism.

The definition of the Military Revolution has gradually expanded to cover several centuries, beginning with gunpowder weapons, continuing with the consequent developments in fortification design, and concluding with Napoleon’s organisational reforms. Obviously, and event that commences in the fourteenth century and concludes in the nineteenth is hardly revolutionary.

The RMA also suffered from similar conceptual difficulties, most notably from the erroneous assumption that a revolution could be harnessed to deliver a decisive shift on the battlefield. As it became increasingly evident that attempts to do so were hamstrung by an asymmetric enemy determined to turn strength into weakness, so the concept fell by the wayside.

In more recent years, it has become increasingly clear that it is in the realm of military education, both formal and informal, that some of the more effectual developments in military learning and innovation have occurred. At least since the eighteenth century, when the concept of a profession of arms first began to take hold in Western military forces, officers, both individually and collectively have learnt their profession from a close study of their national military history, their specific national character, and the close examination of the art of war, strategy and tactics.

Rather than revolutionary, this is a gradual process, requiring patience and forbearance. A conference held at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston Ontario, illustrated this argument across a two hundred year period. Papers covered different approaches to military education across the British empire and beyond between 1750 and 1950, and explored differing national approaches. It is impossible here to explore the whole in detail, so I will draw out some of the key themes.

The turning point came in the mid-eighteenth century. Until then, British officers, imbued as they were with their sense of natural superiority and brilliance bestowed upon them by the accident of their high birth, reflected merely upon Britain’s military glory of yesteryear.

Military histories, such as narratives of Marlborough’s campaigns, dominated their reading, and reinforced their assumption that the British army remained the most effective fighting force in Europe. The War of the Austrian Succession dispelled this myth. Repeated defeats at the hand of the French caused a shift in the preferred reading, and therefore self-education, of the British officer cadre. Less military history, more studies into the art, science and theory of war, strategy and tactics.

Among these officers was the rising star, James Wolfe. In 1756, as British military prestige was agains tarnished at the hands of the French, he made recommendations to aspiring young officers. ‘In these days of scarcity & in these unlucky times, it is much to be wish’d, he wrote, ‘that all our young soldiers of birth & education, would follow our brothers steps, and as they will have their turn to command, that they would try to make themselves fit for that important trust, without it we must sink under the superior abilities & indefatigable industry of our restless neighbour…’

He was not alone. Across the army, officers were reading more widely into the political, social, as well as military histories of both Britain and Europe. Treatises on the art of war became important companions on long journeys. Understandably, as the French had been the author of many of Britain’s most recent defeats, it was to the Continental School that the intellectual officer looked for advice and guidance.

But this was wrapped up in a sense of national character. Imposing another nation’s approach to warfare would not work effectively in the context in which Britain fought. National Character therefore became a key theme of military education from the eighteenth century.

For the British, national character was imbued with its maritime history. The British Army was a short term expeditionary force designed to achieve limited objectives in a resource denial or containment based strategy that depended on British control of the sea. Therefore, the study of strategy revolved around this maritime focus, until the twentieth century, when the British Army succeeded in establishing a continental strategy in the First World War. There is an important debate about the wisdom of this approach which should be dealt with elsewhere.

Elsewhere, National Character exerted considerable influence on the direction of military education curriculum, so much so that a national ‘way of war’ was discernible. Papers explored the military curricula in India, Australia, South Africa, Canada, and Mexico. In all cases, military history, the study of strategy and the theory of war, alongside the importance of National Character were important common factors, demonstrating how these could be used to benefit the military effectiveness of each force.
Image: Cadets on parade at RMC Kingston



This is a reduced version of an article by the same author in the Aug-Sept edition of the Royal United Services Institute Journal, entitled, ‘The Changing Nature of Modern Warfare: Responding to Russian Information Warfare’.

The way in which Russia seized Crimea and created chaos in eastern Ukraine in 2014 brought to world attention the phenomenon known as ‘hybrid warfare’. This concept of hybrid warfare grew out of work on asymmetric warfare and 5th generation warfare, conducted mostly in the United States in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As its name suggests, hybrid warfare consists of a variety of forms of attack enacted by, usually, one state actor against another. Such forms can include the likes of economic leverage, information warfare (including cyber-warfare), the generation of internal unrest, terrorism and, of course, the use of military force – both covert and overt. The logic inherent in hybrid warfare is that while each means of attack will not, on its own, achieve any major strategic effect, if enough means are applied concurrently then, with synergy applied, such an effect can be achieved.

The ultimate aim of hybrid warfare is to collapse a targeted state from within. It does this by inducing in a state’s population, government and military a psychological pressure that generates a sense of defeatism – what has been called an ‘inner decay’. This allows for an easy defeat or occupation of the enemy state’s territory. The centre of gravity being targeted, therefore, in hybrid warfare is, in essence, people’s minds. The military element of hybrid warfare will remain – or should ideally remain – quite peripheral if, indeed, actively used at all. ‘Victory’ in hybrid warfare is designed to be achieved, as per the thinking of Sun Tzu, without a shot being fired

But military power still has a crucial role to play in psychological terms. The mere background threat of its use can act as a force multiplier for all the other non-military means of attack. Hence hybrid warfare can only really be conducted by a state that possesses quite substantial military assets. Sabre-rattling, such as troop build-ups on borders and probing activity by military aircraft and warships, can create alarm. Also deemed necessary is a well-refined special forces capability. Such forces – operating clandestinely – can tip the balance in generating the ‘inner decay’ by encouraging/facilitating outbreaks of internal unrest. They can also go so far as to conduct ‘terrorist’ attacks.

In the perfect hybrid warfare scenario, troops should never actually be seen to cross borders. Indeed, the goal in such warfare is to try and maintain the moral high ground by not engaging in activity that clearly breaches international law. The use of military force should always remain ‘plausibly deniable’ – thus making sure that international support from certain quarters is not lost.

The chief problem in enacting a successful hybrid warfare campaign is creating the necessary coordination of all the various elements involved. The concept calls for a good deal of integration. This is one reason why any Western liberal democracy or alliance of democracies would find it very difficult themselves to conduct an effective hybrid warfare campaign. It is almost impossible for them to create the necessary degree of integration. The likes of bankers, industrialists, media moguls and senior generals would all have to act in a coordinated fashion.

In Russia, though, it is possible. Moscow has many advantages in terms of conducting hybrid warfare. To start with, the system of government in Russia is ideal. It has been noted that political control in Russia is generated through a ‘vertical of power’ arrangement. President Vladimir Putin is seen to be at the head of this vertical and runs the country via personal relationships with a small group of oligarchs, close government confidantes, security service personnel and senior military officers. Putin can dictate downwards to these individuals without interference from the likes of the Russian parliament or, indeed, from other any check or balance in the Russian governmental system. The nature of this arrangement allows for all the necessary levers of power that form part of a hybrid warfare campaign to be controlled closely by Putin himself and thus for them to be closely integrated and hence effectively deployed.

Putin, for instance, has personally ordered the development of what is seen as the most effective arm of Russia’s hybrid warfare capacity: its information warfare output. Under government guidance, Russian media outlets – such as Russia Today – have grown in size and scope and produce a propaganda line that is very much in keeping with Kremlin policy. Even Russian military doctrine has changed to reflect this emphasis on information. Whereas western militaries tend to look upon information operations merely as an adjunct to their campaigns, the Russian armed forces now see them as their lead element.

It is already clear, after Ukraine, that it is the Baltic States which are the next targets for Russian hybrid warfare. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are, indeed, especially susceptible to any such campaign given Russia’s proximity to them; the degree of economic and energy-supply leverage it has over them, and given the fact that they are all home to significant minorities of ethnic Russians. It is these minorities – these ‘compatriot Russians’ as Moscow calls them – who are the special target of Russia’s information warfare. Their behaviour can be readily manipulated by Moscow’s media messages and the ‘inner decay’ of these Baltic States can begin through them – what might be seen as ‘Trojan Horses’. The voting patterns of the Balts themselves can also be shaped by both Russian propaganda and by the psychological pressure being applied through other hybrid warfare means. Indeed, the Kremlin may be able to manufacture a scenario – simply through the use of hybrid warfare techniques – where these states actually democratically vote eventually to leave NATO, become neutral and thereby provide a hybrid warfare ‘victory’ for Russia.

Putin’s aim would not appear to be to conduct an actual Russian military takeover of the Baltic States. This is too risky. They are, after all, NATO members and Russia will do nothing to invoke the use of Article 5. He merely wants, as many see it, to destabilise these states and to draw them away from NATO.

 Image: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, accompanied by U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, is greeted by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia, on May 7, 2013. Courtesy of: State Department photo / Public Domain.

Operational Art and the Operational Level: The Case for the Defence

The operational level of war and the operational art are key concepts of Western military doctrine and consequently form important areas of study in staff colleges around the world. To stimulate discussion and debate about these important ideas, authors from the Defence Studies Department are exploring the continued utility of these concepts. In this second post, Dr Stuart Griffin argues that these concepts are still relevant.


In the first of these posts on Monday, my friend and colleague Dr Robert Foley presented the case for the rejection of the concepts of operational art and the operational level of war. Robert discussed the origins of the concepts, their meaning, utility and the changes in the character of conflict that have made them obsolete. Here, in my reply defending the continued relevance of both, I will agree with his assessment of the shifting strategic context and the challenges it presents but will propose an alternative view of the implications. To me, there are significant problems with the current understanding of the operational level that have had a major impact on our perception of its utility but not on its actual utility. The operational level is as relevant today as it was when the Soviets first grappled with its formalisation nearly 100 years ago.

First, as you will have already noticed, I have taken the liberty of separating the concepts of level and art. This is because, as Robert also identifies, the two are not coterminous. If they were, my task today would be much more straightforward because operational art is relatively easy to defend. True, the concept only develops formally during the course of the intellectual debates about the future of warfare undertaken by the Soviet armed forces during the inter-war period and only enters our lexicon much later, alongside the related operational level, in the late 1980s. However, unlike the operational level, operational art is a constant in warfare; at least in any form of protracted warfare. For as long as human beings have waged war, they have relied on operational art to achieve strategic objectives. Put most simply, it is the art of campaigning; stitching together tactical battles for strategic purpose. Operational art is the ability of a commander to place the down (tactics) in the context of the up (strategy) and act accordingly. It always existed, there was just no need to codify it when wars were personally directed by kings, queens and emperors, or a relatively small group of trusted, often familial, lieutenants. When the vastness of empire precluded direct control we catch glimpses of why its formalisation was eventually required. The greatest Roman emperors could only maintain control of their sprawling empires if they gave their generals and consuls enough room to act effectively but enough guidance to do so in Rome’s wider interests. The greatest generals were those that did so in the most trying circumstances.

Relating this more directly to Robert’s previous blog, General Ulysses S. Grant was less fêted than his most famous Confederate counterparts, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, but his impact on our understanding of campaigning was ultimately the greater: he was the more natural exponent of the operational art if not the more talented battlefield commander. While Lee could see the battlefield, and do so in political terms, Grant could better see the campaign as a politico-military whole. Through the expansion of warfare that the Napoleonic and American Civil Wars presaged to the global conflicts of the twentieth century, the importance of operational art grew and it remains crucial to twenty-first century warfare because, regardless of the scale or character of a given conflict, balancing ends, ways and means is always vital for successful strategy: operational art, as Robert’s US doctrine quote states, does that.

So if the continued relevance of operational art is a given, what of the operational level? Well, I could cheat and argue that you always need the latter to deliver the former but that would be untrue. It is perfectly plausible that a particular operation or a specific conflict could be conducted without recourse to the use of a formal operational level. If a focused intervention in, say, Libya or Syria remains small, discrete and time-limited, why would it need formal operational management? If, as Robert identifies, a state provides a small number of troops to a much larger coalition, why do they need a distinct operational level? Well, the answer to both is that they don’t. There is not always the need for a layer of command between the tactical and the strategic and this is one of the problems with the modern conception of the operational level. It has become so ingrained in our thinking and our military command hierarchies that it is often wrongly assumed to infuse everything. However, it would be ill-judged to declare the level defunct based on such examples. When I wrote that they didn’t need an operational level, I should have written that they didn’t necessarily need an operational level. Think of the consequences of an ill-fated intervention in Libya or Syria: even a small, discrete, time-limited one. Who should the tactical commanders turn to for guidance? Straight to No.10 or 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? Unlikely. Maybe to CDS or the Joint Chief? Perhaps, but hardly optimal. A suitably senior command team familiar with the intent and detail of the operation? Almost certainly. An operational level, in other words: just a more informal, flexible one.

As for that battalion in Helmand or those air controllers in Anbar or that ship off Somalia, they may only be small pieces in a much bigger jigsaw but there is a more complex picture that needs to be seen, understood and shaped. At their height in 2007-08, coalition forces in Iraq numbered over 180 000 and troop numbers never dropped below 100 000 from the invasion in 2003 until 2010. It is a similar story for ISAF so even a tiny contribution by a small state requires integration in a much larger operational plan. Smaller militaries may rarely practice operational art or require their own operational level HQs but they still need to understand both if they are to engage with coalition partners in any meaningful way. Interestingly, some ‘smaller’ states consciously study operational art and the operational level not because they believe they can undertake such operations in their own right but because they want to be able to operate within such multinational HQs: perceiving this as an excellent way of maximising their influence. The Irish Defence Forces are a great example of a small military that sets much stock in its ability to understand the fundamentals and thereby make a significant contribution to whatever operations they are involved in, regardless of the scale of that involvement.

Finally, the most convincing critiques of operational art and the operational level, including Robert’s, focus on what has changed and how the concepts have become anachronisms because of their failure to adapt but I think this is a subtly different argument. It is not that operational art and the operational level are antiquated and irrelevant; it is that we have failed to continue to think creatively about their application in today’s world. Over time, unhelpful mantras such as ‘the operational level is a purely military space’ (it is not, nor should it ever have been) have become institutionalised and this has been detrimental to our ability to apply the concepts appropriately. Indeed, Justin Kelly, who Robert cites, is damning about the current state of operational thinking but stops short of declaring the concepts dead. Rather, he points out that we conceive of them in outdated ways and thus leaves the door open for advocates of operational art and the operational level even as he casts serious doubts upon them. So I end my defence of operational art and the operational level by agreeing with Robert’s analysis of the changes and challenges but disagreeing with his conclusions. Yes, we do need a new understanding of campaigning; of the relationships between tactics and strategy; of the very utility of military force: but we also need to acknowledge the possibility, even probability, that operational art and the operational level will be every bit as important to our brave new world as they were to the old one.

Image: Royal Marines of X-Ray Company, 45 Commando during a ground domination patrol in Afghanistan in 2009. Courtesy of UK Ministry of Defence.

Operational Level and Operational Art: Still Useful Today?

The operational level of war and the operational art are key concepts of Western military doctrine and consequently form important areas of study in staff colleges around the world. To stimulate discussion and debate about these important ideas, authors from the Defence Studies Department will explore the continued utility of these concepts in two posts. In this first post, Dr Robert T. Foley argues that these concepts are no longer relevant.


A recognition of the ‘operational’ level of war, and with this the concept of ‘operational art’ have become key components of Western military doctrine. The US Department of Defense defines the operational level as: ‘The level of war at which campaigns and major operations are planned, conducted, and sustained to achieve strategic objectives within theaters or other operational areas.’ It defines the related operational art much more broadly: ‘The cognitive approach by commanders and staffs – supported by their skill, knowledge, experience, creativity, and judgment – to develop strategies, campaigns, and operations to organize and employ military forces by integrating ends, ways, and means.’

These two related concepts are comparatively new to Western armed forces. They only really entering US, and later NATO, doctrine in the 1980s in the wake of the soul-searching that followed the US defeat in Vietnam. In the 1980s, these concepts were very useful for NATO, which faced the possibility of a large-scale, high-intensity war across the entire European continent. Moreover, these concepts matched, and even copied, the rising operational focus of Soviet forces, which had developed their own ideas of campaign planning and the extensive use of ‘operational maneuver groups.’ Importantly as well, the concepts provided a glimmer of hope, however faint, that there could be a conventional military solution to a future NATO-Warsaw Pact war, rather than the old reliance, stated or not, on nuclear weapons.

The concepts of operational level of war and operation art drove the development of new military doctrines on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. They helped accelerate the integration of all arms and all services into ‘joint’ forces united by common mission goals. They helped free Western, and Soviet, military thinkers from single-service straitjackets and helped raise military planning to new levels. While they may have performed important functions in the 1980s and early 1990s, the concepts of operational level of war and operational art are no longer useful today. Political and strategic circumstances have changed radically how we use force in the world today, rendering the idea of a purely military sphere of operation risible.

In an earlier piece, Dr Huw Davies and I examined the origins of the concepts of operational level and operational art. The origins of these concepts provide important indicators of why these are not relevant today. The concepts developed in the mid-20th century as a means of dealing with the rise of mass armies. As conscription spread across Europe in the late 19th century, the size of armies increased exponentially. In the late 19th century, it had still been just about possible for Helmuth von Moltke the Elder or Robert E. Lee to stand in one place, to see, and importantly to direct the course of a battle. By the outbreak of the First World War, this was no longer so – multiple armies went to battle with opponents spread over vast distances and at different times. Indeed, the idea of ‘battle’ itself was stretched to its limits by engagements lasting months at a time, rather than hours or days. The Second World War took this trend even further, with states fighting in multiple theatres across the globe. Understandably, soldiers needed some way of tying together these disparate actions into something and some way of linking these to broader objectives. The concepts of operational level of war and operational art helped to fill this function.

Today, we do not live in the age of mass armies. The past few years have seen massive cuts in what were already, by 20th century standards at least, small armed forces. The British armed forces counted 194,570 at the start of 2015, 87, 540 of whom were serving in the army. The US Army is expected to fall to 450,000 by 2018, which is a 150,000 reduction from its peak in 2011. (Indeed, this itself is a far cry from 781,000 US soldiers serving in 1985.) Even China, which as traditionally relied on mass, has recently announced a 300,000-man cut from the Peoples Liberation Army. Thus, one of the key drivers of the development of the operational level and art is gone. It is far easier to coordinate and control the actions of small forces acting in discrete operations, particularly with modern communications technology, than the millions of men fighting across thousands of miles in the Second World War.

This precipitous reduction in the size of armed forces has also meant that contributions to recent military operations has varied enormously. Recent operations in Afghanistan are a good example of this. Many states contributed only a handful of troops to ISAF. These few troops were clearly not intended to make a difference to the campaign militarily – they were there as a political signal. In other words, their commitment performed a strategic role, rather than a purely military role. Indeed, the United Kingdom’s commitment of troops was driven more by politics and strategy than by operational (i.e., military) considerations – the desire to make a large contribution to a US-led NATO operation balanced by perceived constraints on the numbers of troops the UK populous would accept. Once in Afghanistan, this force operated within a wider ISAF campaign plan; in other words as a tactical force. Where was the operational level or the operational art for the UK commitment to Afghanistan?

This leads us to a wider problem with the concepts of operational level and art: These assume that there is a purely military sphere in war and conflict where politics and, importantly, politicians do not intrude. It is the space in which the armed forces convert strategic objectives into tasks and objectives that the armed forces can deliver. The concepts create the expectation that this is a space controlled by the armed forces. This idea of a purely military space is, however, an illusion. It ignores what Clausewitz pointed out almost two centuries ago: war, all war, is inherently a political act.

So where do we go from here? I believe that the utility of the concepts of the operational level and operational art have already questioned for some time now. Justin Kelly and Michael Brennan have recently subjected these ideas to a sustained critique in a thought-provoking paper. The recognition of the limited utility of these concepts is already implicit in the recent operational decisions, which as the decision by some states to send only handfuls of troops to participate in the NATO-ISAF mission in Afghanistan. It is also implied in Charles Krulak’s ideas of a ‘strategic corporal’ and ‘three-block war.’ Indeed, we can also see it at work in the recent formulation of the ‘comprehensive approach.’ In order to move on from the outdated concepts of the operational level and operational art, we need to explore and understand better the direct links between tactical actions and strategy and we need to stop trying to fool ourselves into thinking that there is a zone in which the military operates all on its own. Ultimately, we need to build the recognition of these facts into a new understanding of ‘campaign planning.’

Image: The German High Command conducting campaign planning in 1940 via Wikimedia Commons.

Henry Lloyd, National Character and the Study of Military History in the Eighteenth Century


In the early 1740s, Henry Lloyd, a young Welshman aspiring to join the British Army, was defrauded of his inheritance by his unscrupulous step-father. This propelled Lloyd into an unconventional path to a military career. Bereft of the money required to purchase a commission in the British Army, Lloyd fled abroad, first to Spain, where he was taken under the wing of prominent Spanish military thinkers and where he picked up considerable knowledge and importance of military topography.

A natural draftsman, Lloyd was also an avid military historian, devouring histories of campaigns from Caesar to Marlborough. He next travelled to France, where he became the military tutor to the son of a Scottish Jacobite, Lord John Drummond. When the War of the Austrian Succession broke out, Drummond joined the French Army under the command of Marshal de Saxe. Lloyd went with him. Saxe was so impressed with Lloyd’s drawings of the terrain in the Low Countries, that he brought him onto his staff, and arguably the drawings influenced Saxe’s choice of terrain for what became the battle of Fontenoy, 11 May 1745.

A Jacobite sympathiser, Lloyd next travelled to Scotland, where he fought in the Jacobite uprising of 1745/6, before participating in the siege of Bergen-op-Zoom in 1747. Lloyd, then, had a somewhat unique military career, but he is famous because of his intellectual commentaries on war and the art of war, some of which were heavily influenced by the writings of his old patron, Saxe.

Military manuals and treatises of the eighteenth century are generally overlooked as useful for understanding the nature of war. Rooted to the moment, they are invariably absorbed with the mechanics and science of tactics, techniques and procedures – most if not all of which are utterly anachronistic. Saxe and Lloyd differ from these other publications because of their identification of the importance of human nature and psychology on the course of war, foreshadowing Clausewitz by nearly a century. Their work has an enduring resonance for our own understanding of the nature of war.

Saxe believed that human nature needed to be incorporated into the military model, rather than thrashed out as per the rigorous training and discipline policies of the age. ‘It is much easier to take men as they are,’ he wrote, ‘then to make them as they should be.’

In the wake of the Seven Years’ War, Lloyd wrote an expansive history of the conflict in Germany, entitled The History of the Late War in Germany; Between the King of Prussia, and the Empress of Germany and Her Allies. Included in the second volume of this history was an essay: ‘Reflections on the General Principals of War; and on the composition and characters of the different armies in Europe.’ In this essay, Lloyd elaborated on Saxe’s ideas and developed the concept of National Character. In part he used this argument to criticise the adoption by the British Army of the Prussian system of drill. ‘Nature must be improved, not annihilated’, he cautioned.

Lloyd’s point was that what suited one national character in the conduct of war, might not necessarily sit well with a different national character. Lloyd was presaging a more recent argument about national ‘ways of war’ and whether or not one country fights war differently from another. Recent work on this subject certainly suggests that this is case, and highlights the material benefits that the study of national military history might have on the armed forces of that country.

Lloyd’s work was widely read – it was included in the library Arthur Wellesley took with him to India. Lloyd also highlighted the importance of adaptability. It was no good imposing one national doctrine on another national army, because differing circumstances, whether geographically, politically or culturally, might render the doctrine invalid. For the British Army, operating as it was in the American wilderness, India, as well as Europe, the imposition of a centralised doctrine was particularly difficult, and this in part explains why one was not adopted until the 1790s, and why many regiments remained hostile.

This flexibility, not traditionally a characteristic associated with the British Army of the eighteenth century, allowed the British to adapt more easily to the particular geographical or cultural challenges they faced the theatre. This in part explains the adaptations and innovations which the British Army undertook, and which I have explored in previous posts.

You can read more about Henry Lloyd’s life in an excellent book by Patrick J. Speelman, Henry Lloyd and the Military Enlightenment of Eighteenth-Century Europe, to which I am indebted for some very useful ideas pertaining to my own research.

Image: The Battle of Fontenoy, 1745, Edouard Detaille

Clausewitz in Orbit: Spacepower Theory and Strategic Education


The politics of war and peace in space is an overlooked field. Space is a quiet and lonely place in war studies – despite space systems performing critical infrastructure roles in war, peace, politics, economics, and nuclear stability. In the mid-1990s John Sheldon and Colin Gray bemoaned the fact that there is no ‘Mahan for space.’ Neither writer apparently considered the possibility that they had answered their own plea, or in other words, that there is a Mahan for space: it’s Alfred Thayer Mahan. The 19th century navalist is one of a constellation of strategic theorists (such as Clausewitz, Castex, Corbett, to name the most prominent) whose work I am applying to create a spacepower theory intended to inform the diverse strategic problems conflict in this new medium might pose.

What are the grounds for analogy from terrestrial warfare to space warfare? How can universal principles about war at the highest levels where politics and violence meet – i.e. strategic theory – be reasonably crafted and constructively used? I believe there are two crucial grounds for analogy from the Earth to space. The first is Clausewitz’s most famous dictum that war is a continuation of politics with the addition of other means. This idea, that war is political, allows Clausewitz to connect any wars that are infinitely variable in their details and see what is common between them in order to learn more about why certain decisions were made and the conditions within which those decisions were made. This is done by asking questions that are based on a grasping of a few universal principles. Regardless of the situation, a universal principle should help develop useful questions to ask of any given situation. The political nature of war pervades whatever we may understand as war. This provides a basic ground for examining wars and helps train the individual to appreciate why wars are so different. Why is one war more costly than another? Why was one war forfeited when the costs were so little when ‘total’ wars have destroyed entire states before resistance was crushed? The political aspect helps Clausewitz develop a strategic analogy for the better understanding and study of the phenomenon of war. This in turn should help practitioners better grasp their craft. Identifying thematic commonalities among wars helps identify their particular differences. Readers familiar with Clausewitz’s ‘remarkable trinity’ will no doubt appreciate the universality of passion, reason, and chance in every war, yet their manifestations are innumerable in their forms in history.

But what does this abstract theorising mean for space warfare? Space warfare – actions taken to destroy or interfere with enemy space systems – is not inherently escalatory, limited, ethical, a prelude to nuclear war, or inevitable. Space warfare will be a reflection of the political conditions of any belligerents that fight who happen to have a capability in using or denying space systems. Clausewitz, through stressing politics, brings the human element and the wider prevailing strategic context of any political violence to our attention. A recent series of articles on anti-satellite weapons and the risks of nuclear war fail to mention the realities of second-strike nuclear capabilities, the politics and psychology of nuclear threat perception, and the imponderable systemic political context that any single decision to attack will be within. Instead, select technological devices are ascribed a political value (stabilising or destabilising) without connecting the discussion to any political context between the established nuclear powers. These narrow arguments fail to adequately put space warfare in its strategic and political contexts and can impose blinkers on strategic thinking. Spacepower theory should help put these narrow arguments in their strategic contexts, and illuminate factors that have been omitted – in this case mutually assured destruction, second strike capabilities, and the politics and psychology of deterrence.

The second ground for analogy is that space warfare is best thought of as being comprised of as celestial lines of communication (a well-developed idea by John Klein) and over the contest of a command of space. This of course is analogical to concepts of sea lines of communication and the command of the sea popularised by the seapower theorists Alfred Thayer Mahan and Julian Corbett. Along these lines or communication, information, wealth, and satellites travel either on Newtonian orbital paths or through data streams in the electromagnetic spectrum. Like sea lines of communication, denying the use of these celestial lines of communication may have an impact on a war. Indeed, the more an economy and military depends on those celestial lines of communication, the more lucrative a target those lines may become for an adversary. Though there are many problems by other authors on their use of seapower theory for spacepower theory, Mahan and Corbett, in conjunction with other lesser-known seapower thinkers make outer space more of a coastline than an open sea. Indeed, that is a central aspect of my spacepower theory. But, as Clausewitz and Mahan often argued, strategic creativity and good leadership escape quantitative analysis and defy mechanistic approaches to understanding war.

These two basic grounds of strategic analogy from warfare on Earth to outer space serve to illustrate how ‘Clausewitz in orbit’ works. But with such a qualitative approach, it is hard to declare success. Rather, only discussion and the academic process will deem spacepower theory of any use. Indeed, it is impossible for spacepower theory to be ‘correct’ – it can only be useful for the strategic education of the individual. This approach may be distasteful to some in an era of increasing quantitative analyses of educative practices and performance analysis.

By saying that war is political, I believe we can better see how thinking of space warfare must be mindful of Earthly politics and the human element. In this context, Clausewitz’s other concepts – of passion, reason, and chance, of friction, of the strategic defence being the stronger form of war – make more sense and become easier to apply critically to scenarios where our focus may be on what happens in Earth orbit and its interactions with terra firma. In a similar vein, when we use an analogy of celestial lines of communication and the command of space, it helps us to better think critically about other problems such as how decisive space power can ever be in war, what is the influence of spacepower upon (future) history, and how can belligerents respond to and learn from various forms of spacepower?

The critical application strategic analogies have led me to seven propositions of spacepower theory:

  1. Space warfare is about the command of space
  2. Space is a distinct geography but it is not isolated
  3. Preponderance in space does not guarantee preponderance on Earth
  4. The command of space is about exploiting celestial lines of communication
  5. Earth orbit is a cosmic coastline
  6. Spacepower finds itself in a geocentric mindset… and may outgrow it
  7. Dispersion is a condition and effect of spacepower

These propositions show the headline outcomes of Clausewitz, et al., in orbit. As I near the end of my PhD research, I hope that my framework for spacepower theory helps take the next step in strategic thought about space, and to help understand more about astropolitics and questions of war and peace in orbit. Understanding the epistemology of strategic theory in a way that Clausewitz and Mahan did helps put limitations to my theory, but stresses their strengths and usefulness (see Jon Sumida’s Decoding Clausewitz and Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command for discussions of this pedagogical approach to strategic theory).

It is necessary to finishing by stressing what strategic theory is not. Most strategic theory is not there to provide answers or axioms for success. In addition, knowing spacepower theory is not a prerequisite for good command judgment in space warfare. Neither is grasping spacepower theory a guarantee of making the best decisions. Strategic theory is meant to help an individual in one’s self-education on military-political matters by making problems more accessible to a reader in the absence ‘genius.’ Spacepower theory should not only aim to make complex political matters over war and peace in space more comprehensible by grasping at the political roots of space warfare, but also to pave the way for an appreciation of creative and well-founded strategic thinking and command judgment in a realm so often dominated by technical or scientific mentalities.

This is what a Mahan for space is: distilling his Clausewitzian attitude to teaching command and strategy, and applying the seapower concepts of lines of communication to Earth orbit. With spacepower theory, outer space need not be such an undiscovered country.

Image: SM-3 missile ignition for a satellite destruction mission, via Wikimedia Commons.