hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Monday, 15 May 2017

Herman Kahn and the New Escalation Ladder

“It is immoral from almost any point of view to refuse to defend yourself and others from very grave and terrible threats, even if there are limits to the means that can be used in such defense”.
Herman Kahn

Alphen, Netherlands. 15 May. Herman Kahn was in many ways the doyen of nuclear strategy from the 1950s onward. His book On Escalation, charted the journey up an escalation ladder from peace to annihilation, from political tension to all-out nuclear war, and the choices states would need to make to realise mutually assured destruction. Kahn’s ladder had many rungs that began with the analysis of a threat on the bottom-rung of tension, climbed through political decision-making, on through diplomatic engagement and crisis management, and finally reached its ghastly zenith with military action and eventual mass destruction. Much of Kahn’s focus was on the escalation from conventional military force to nuclear war. Given that focus I wonder what Kahn would have made of Friday’s massive ransomware attack, and to what extent would he have modified his escalation ladder?

My point is this; the development of information and cyber warfare represent to my mind new rungs on the escalation ladder. Today, analysis and political decision-making must contend with, and adapt to, new forms of coercion centred on the three twenty-first century strategic continuums. These are the balance a state or an alliance must strike between protection and projection; the relationship between hard and soft power during escalation; and the complex relationship that now exists between mass disruption and mass destruction.

Friday’s cyber-attack reinforces the creeping understanding that security and defence in this century must demand a much clearer, and frankly much larger, grand strategic continuum that exists between the protection of society and the projection of influence and power. To a significant extent Kahn viewed the distinction between protection and projection as precisely that; a distinction. In other words, for Kahn the civilian domain mattered in thermonuclear war only in the sense that ‘victory’ would be afforded the side that somehow preserved remnants of government, governance, and civil society in the wake of a strategic nuclear exchange. There would be no winners.

Today, that distinction has become a continuum. A state would be unlikely to be able to wield to policy effect all the instruments of its offensive power if its home base is sorely vulnerable to penetration by criminals, terrorists or states alike, possibly in tandem. This insight necessarily changes the very nature of the relationship between security and defence in the twenty-first century, especially given the move towards so-called hyper-war. Hyper-war would be the first truly total war in which no element of, or person in a society would be safe. Possibly led by Artificial Intelligence (AI), such a war would witness Armageddon not only in the form of mushroom clouds, but with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminators roaming the planet, be it in the form of macro-systems or micro Nano-technologies! Ouch!

The Danteesque descent from peace to total war would likely witness a very different form of escalation ladder than Herman Kahn described. Today, there is a clear continuum established between the mass disruption that a concerted cyber-attack on critical infrastructures would trigger, and the mass destruction Kahn considered. That continuum demands of policy-makers and leaders a far better understanding of the messaging implicit in such attacks, and what range of responses and escalations they must make available, and the forces and resources needed to mount credible deterrence and a sound defence.

Russia is fast climbing the new escalation ladder. Moscow has traditionally emphasised the use of hard military power to exert influence beyond its borders. This is partly because the use of such power is hard-wired into the strategic DNA of the Kremlin and Moscow’s security power ministries.  It is also because traditionally Moscow has had little soft power available to exploit. Unlike Britain, for example, Russia does not speak English (at least not very well), did not give the world The Beatles, does not have the BBC, and its football (soccer) league is rubbish.

Moscow has created a new form of artificial soft power. Through the use of social media, allied to clever use of strategic disinformation and miscommunication organs, such as RT and Sputnik to sow systematic propaganda, Russia has reinforced its impressive offensive cyber capabilities and burgeoning military might.  It is a soft-hard power strategy that is also enacted from the very top of the Russian state.  In so doing Russia is demonstrating the ability of a relatively weak power (Russia’s economy in 2017 is less than half the size of the UK’s) to establish game-changing strategy using field-levelling technologies to exploit the weaknesses of ostensibly stronger adversaries, whilst offsetting what Moscow regards as their strengths.

Hybrid war is not distinct from peace and war, and is very much the junior partner of hyper war at the uber high-end of the conflict spectrum. As such, hybrid war must be seen as part of the new escalation ladder that now extends from peace, though uncertain instability, hybrid warfare, crisis mismanagement, limited conventional warfare, major conventional warfare, nuclear warfare, and ultimately hyper warfare.  In some important respects Kahn’s ladder has become a toolbox with all elements of all forms of warfare being used with different levels of intensity at all points of escalation.  Russia gave the world permanent revolution. It now offers continuous warfare.

Continuous warfare leaves Western leaders facing several dilemmas. How can they make Western society more resilient and yet remain open at one and the same time? Given the continuum that now exists between security and defence, and between criminality, terrorism, and enemy state action, just how should the total security spend be organised in pursuit of what security policy objectives? What balance of investments must be made between defence and offence, and between civilian and military tools and instruments?  Above all, can total war lead to total security and defence, and what price (in all its many forms) would Western society have to pay for such a defence?

Kahn once wrote, “The final outcome of benevolent, informed, and intelligent decisions may turn out to be disastrous. But choices must be made; dies must be cast”.  My sense is that Western leaders are a long way from reaching the informed bit as yet. Happy days!


Julian Lindley-French   

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