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The Once and Future War

A conversation with Major General Jonathan Shaw, CBE

Reading politics and philosophy at Trinity College, Oxford, might not appear to be the most direct route to the top of the British military.

But then, Major General Jonathan Shaw is hardly typical—though he is, with a nod to Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan, the very model of a modern major general. He is proud of his service in the Falklands War, which he describes as the last of the old-fashioned conflicts. Then came Cyprus, Northern Ireland, and a tour in Kosovo as commander of the Multi-National Brigade. Promoted to the rank of Major General, he pitched up in Iraq as commander of British forces. Based in Basra, his units defended one of the diciest fronts of the war. Throughout, he’s studied the changing shape of war, devising creative ways to respond to new challenges.

Today, at 54 years old, he’s been charged with managing the future of warfare—international security, global issues, and especially cyberwar—or as he prefers to call it, unrestricted warfare. There’s no one better qualified to explore the innovations of war on and off the battlefield. From the British Defense Ministry in Whitehall, General Shaw spoke with World Policy Journal editor David A. Andelman and outgoing managing editor Justin Vogt.

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World Policy Journal:  Some have suggested that there have been no real new innovations in warfare that there have been only refinements, really, since the invention of gunpowder. Of course there have been new delivery vehicles—missiles, rockets, jet aircraft, nuclear weapons. Do you think we are on the cusp of change today?

Major General Jonathan Shaw: I think you’re focusing a bit too much on innovation as being directly related to technology. I would think of warfare not as technology but as the use of technology. If you look back at, say, the Soviet Union versus the United States that was very much a force-on-force competition. You could draw up charts with tanks. You could draw artillery on one side versus the other and decide who is more forceful. What we’re seeing recently, though, is people subverting that idea. You have a coalition operating in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what you’re seeing is force-versus-weakness. If you saw the Cold War as being basically a symmetrical confrontation, what we’re seeing now is the return of asymmetry, and I think it’s a huge idea.

Another idea—another innovation—is from the Chinese book Unrestricted Warfare, which pretty much attacks the entire idea of what you mean by warfare. Most interestingly, it means that war becomes not merely a military domain but actually a whole-of-government activity. And that raises real questions about the military’s primacy in conflict, or whether the military is just a supporting player—as you’ve seen in recent wars. So my conclusion from all of that is that you’ve got to look wider than just technology for innovation.

WPJ: So if you were going to look a decade or two into the future, what do you see as the major military innovations?

General Shaw: Among the major innovations of the next 20 years, the most profound is going to be organization. And the organizational focus needs to shift to adaptability. There are two drivers which you can already see to a small extent, but these are going to grow. There is cost. We cannot afford to prepare answers to every possible question. And second, there’s the enemy—his speed in the search for a flank to be exploited, that’s what asymmetry is. You try to search out where the enemy’s flank is, and you turn on it. It makes the attempt to structure now for future wars pretty futile, even if, by some chance, you happen to come up with a structure now that reflects what you’ll need at the start of the next conflict. That’s a pretty big if.

If the enemy has its act together, and it’s a thinking enemy—which is what all our doctrines say we’re facing these days—then he will quickly find out what your flanks are and adapt and exploit this intelligence. So the structure that you spend millions of pounds trying to prepare will be out of date on Day Two of the war. That means we need to put more effort into training the combatant—making him flexible, making him adaptable, trainable. We need to create rapidly adaptable equipment and procurement systems, and we need an industrial base that is sufficiently agile to respond to evolving threats. This is going to pose some real challenges for our governments and militaries. They need to create a system that can survive, thrive, and adapt on the sorts of time scales that the nature of our potential opponent is demanding.

WPJ: So do you think we are seeing the end of traditional battlefields? Is this going to be the end of the old stand-and-deliver warfare? Or are we facing more cerebral warfare, where systems are being attacked and not simply individuals or people?

General Shaw: You’ve got to be careful if you’re talking about competition between nations or existential threats. If you go back to World War I, World War II, and the Cold War, the defining feature was that they were existential battles for survival between nations. And they were limitless wars. What you are seeing now in Afghanistan and Iraq are more wars of choice by politicians. They are not limitless. Do I feel that we are seeing the end of force-on-force, total annihilation? Absolutely not. That’s why you and I keep a nuclear deterrent. We cannot afford to say that a nuclear attack will never happen. But as Rupert Smith argues, quite cogently, in his book, The Utility of Force, nuclear weapons have made an escalation and unlimited use of military power self-defeating. You wind up destroying the very things you are trying to preserve.

WPJ: So are you suggesting that absent Armageddon, given the new nature of warfare, if you win over the people where the military forces are taking refuge that you have the ability to win a war?

General Shaw: I think “war” is a misused word. The language of war that we have all grown up with is almost medieval. It assumes that each nation puts forward its champion. Then the result of the conflict between the two nations’ champions and militaries is itself somehow decisive. If one army wins, that’s it. Full-stop. And that’s very much the message behind George W. Bush standing on an aircraft carrier and saying “mission accomplished, we can all go home now.” From a military stance, the military had done its job. Was that the end of the conflict, though? Hell, Iraq went on for several years. And that’s the point. What’s actually happened in these wars is that they are no longer simple contests between militaries. To quote Clausewitz: “If there must be war, victory lies not in defeating an army, but in securing the willing submission of a populace. Stability, not a passing triumph of arms, is the test.” That’s just where we are now, demonstrating that conflict has gone back to where it always has been. Napoleon had exactly the same problems in Spain as coalition forces have had in Iraq and Afghanistan.

WPJ: There is one type of warfare that holds the promise of enormous power, even though it may not cause the death of a single individual—military or civilian—and that’s cyber warfare. Since it’s not likely to cause deaths, why not pursue this as the “clean” war of the future?

General Shaw: I would start by rejecting the language of “cyberwar,” because it is actually war pursued in cyberspace. I recognize that’s the way it is often phrased. Certainly, if you own Richard’s [Richard Clarke, a counterterrorism adviser under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush] book, Cyber War, it is a much sexier, eye-catching way of grabbing politicians’ attention. I define cyber as having to do with networked computers, and cyberspace as an information-space created by networked computers. “Cyberspace” is a manmade construct, which itself sits within the environment of the electromagnetic spectrum.

This environment is just another medium of delivery. It is similar in some ways to the land, air, and sea environments. The major difference is that cyberspace is not bounded by geography. So cyberwar, cybercrime, cyberterrorism, and cyberespionage are new—but only new insofar as they are new ways of waging war, crime, terrorism, or espionage. And so, it goes back to cyber just being part of a broader concept of warfare—the Chinese idea of unrestricted warfare. It’s just another tool for governments to use. What I see is a blurring of the distinctions between war and peace and what is civilian and what is military. I don’t really like this idea of cyberwar as a phraseology. It puts the emphasis too much on making the operations separate from mainstream activities, whereas we feel it is just another tool in our golf bag of capabilities.

WPJ: Before the Georgian conflict, there was a whole burst of cyber activity along the Georgian-Russian frontier. This was a prelude, of course, to the actual warfare. But if the purpose of war is to disable the enemy from pursuing military action, and if you can do that without ever putting your own military in harm’s way, would that not be the preferred method—the new, innovative way—of pursuing warfare?

General Shaw:  It certainly is. This is a tool that a government can consider using, but we need to talk about the disincentives to using it—particularly the mutual dependence that all developed countries have on cyberspace. When you look at potential adversaries, you have to be very careful. What you do to someone else, they could do to you. Take the Stuxnet [a computer worm allegedly designed by Israel to disable the Iranian nuclear arms program]—the effects were not really quite what were intended. The idea that you can use cyberspace with any sort of real precision raises interesting questions for us. The potential for blowback is serious. I also want to dispel this idea of clean warfare which won’t cause the death of a single individual. If you shut down a country’s power system, people are going to die—indirectly if not directly. So you have to be quite careful if you think about it as injury-free or cost-free. As we get increasingly holistic about our wars, we’ve got to take proportionality questions seriously.

WPJ: How might traditional rules of engagement or laws of war—the Geneva Convention, for instance—apply to some of these tactics or cyber strategies?

General Shaw: The law of armed conflict applies to cyberspace as to everything else. The challenge is how you apply it. I am, nonetheless, a strong supporter of new norms of behavior. There’s a great mutuality of interests because all governments are threatened by criminal activity and by abuses of the Internet system. There’s a huge mutual advantage to be had if we could come up with norms of behavior that all countries could use as a handrail for future conduct and expectations of how others are going to behave.

The wider point I’m trying to make is that the problems within the cyber realm are not primarily military. They are hugely economic—industrial espionage, intellectual property, welfare rip-offs, crime—all are major threats to our economies. As Admiral [Mike] Mullen [chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff] and General [Sir David] Richards [Chief of the British Defense Staff] would say, the economy is a major security threat to our military capability.

WPJ: You’ve experienced the difficulty of being part of an alliance dominated by one major power. You complained that the imbalanced relationship between the United States and Britain made your job in Iraq more difficult and quite possibly is doing the same in Afghanistan in well. Is the U.K. investing in cyberwar technologies to avoid being the little brother in its alliance with the United States?

General Shaw: I’m very happy to work in an alliance with a dominant power. An alliance in which you don’t have an established leader is a real mess. The problem that I had in that early stage in Iraq was not the military chain of command but the political chain of command, which was giving alternative instructions. The challenge is aligning national will and the dominant power’s politics, which is rather above our military people’s pay grade.

With regards to cyber, the reason for the U.K. getting involved is primarily for our own national interests in shoring up our cyber security. Of course, we recognize that cyber is not amenable to purely national solutions. Cyber is not bounded by space. So if we’re going to shore up our cyber security, then we need to head into bed with yourselves, the Australians, and others. I sense just in sheer resource terms we’ll always be the smaller brother. Whether we’re little or not I don’t know. We have certain advantages. We’ve got a historical legacy, which means we have interesting footholds in certain parts of the world which I think are very useful in trade and the global network. And through a quirk of genealogy, the U.K. has something in our gene pool which makes us the best code breakers in the world per capita. So we may be smaller, but I think we have certain qualities which makes the relationship between the U.S. and the U.K. extremely close. I would describe it as little brother and big brother. It’s certainly a relationship of respect.

WPJ: Let’s turn to the third world. Tens of thousands of people are being killed in old-fashioned conflicts that are one step removed from stones and spears. So how relevant are some of these new technologies to those conflicts? And don’t you need a potent conventional force to exist alongside that for the foreseeable future?

General Shaw: You’re right. I don’t see cyberwar or cyber capabilities replacing your more conventional capabilities. There may over time be an alteration as to investment, but I see cyber as complementary to the other talents. Still, cyber operations have a low technology entry level, which puts anonymous hackers on par with terrorists. It’s another manifestation of the democratization of violence in the 21st century. So far, most of Africa has skipped whole generations of technology, moving straight to mobile networks without ever laying landlines or fiber optics. On this basis, the people we should really fear are extremist groups operating in underdeveloped parts of the world with little or no effective state authority, or a lone wolf terrorist with no technological dependence on cyber at all. Suddenly you’ve created an asymmetry, which makes these kinds of underdeveloped areas potentially where we could see the worst threats.

WPJ: It’s interesting that terrorists still haven’t really embraced this. You’d think this would be a relatively easy thing for them to do. You install a server somewhere and as long as you have an electric generator and some hookup to a satellite, all of a sudden you could take on Britain single-handedly, right?

General Shaw: It’s a very good question. I don’t know if there’s a good answer.

WPJ: Does it worry you that they might be poised to do something like that?

General Shaw: It worries me an awful lot. The state may indeed assume that the opposition does use cyberspace. Al-Qaida, for instance, uses cyberspace for their information campaign, which after all is their main effort. They’re heavily involved in cyberspace already. As we know, this is a contested environment. Cyber competition is already happening. They haven’t gone in for a cyber attack yet, but there’s no illusion they’re already heavily engaging in cyberspace, so we have to watch out.

WPJ: What kind of innovations in defense or offensive methodology is there to counter threats of this kind?

General Shaw: Let’s just say we take the defenses of our network very seriously. We constantly monitor them, and we constantly try to update them. It’s a very dynamic field and I can tell you that the threat and counter-threat of response is always evolving. We have a great British general, John F.C. Fuller, who, about a hundred years ago, said that all technological actions have their reactions. He called this the “constant tactical factor,” whereby the areas advanced on a battlefield would be followed promptly by countermeasures. I don’t quite know what the technological reaction to cyber will be in terms of response or whether a new technology will overtake cyber. But a response will emerge. It always has, it always will.

WPJ: When we hear generals talking about cyberspace, it often makes civil libertarians nervous. They talk about the militarization of cyberspace. A lot of what you have been talking about has some Pandora’s box qualities. You seem very sensitive to the risk of unintended consequences, so is there a threat to commerce, privacy, or civil rights that we should be mindful of when we talk about having military and intelligence agencies becoming increasingly present in the cybersphere?

General Shaw: I think there is real danger of over-militarizing cyberspace. Clearly the military have a place in cyberspace. But I wouldn’t like to see cyberspace defined primarily by militarization. I am nervous of an increasing militarization of the whole cyber content, really for two reasons. First, I don’t see this primarily as a military sphere. Cyber is an area that has huge commercial, civil, and government dimensions to it.

The second reason I don’t like this is the response aspect. It seems to me that if we’re going to tackle cyber as an issue, we can’t afford the people to assume that certain individuals have a monopoly on expertise—that someone else will be able to handle it. It would be a huge mistake if we led people to believe that they don’t need to do anything about cyber issues, because the big brother military will sort it all out. We need to make sure that everybody responds appropriately, which is why I don’t even like the word cyber anymore. I prefer to be talking about how to live in a digital age. That is the challenge facing us all.

I’d draw a parallel with civil defense—the education campaign that took place in Britain in the 1950s when the nation faced the threat of nuclear war. This was how to prepare people for an attack, and again, that’s the kind of pan-national response we need to teach people if we’re going to respond appropriately to the potential of a cyber attack.

WPJ: Finally, let’s come back to traditional warfare. You served both in Iraq as commanding officer, in Basra, and in Kosovo. And then there’s Afghanistan, where British forces are also deployed. What innovations might have emerged from these types of situations?

General Shaw: Conceptually, we love heroic leadership. We still love win-lose language. We hate the military playing the important role, yet we also hate nuanced outcomes. But those are the realities of both the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. None of them are traditional. What we’re seeing in both theaters is a race to adapt.

WPJ: The most controversial technological innovation is drones, which has been called remote control warfare. Are you concerned about the growing reliance on drones?

General Shaw: With drones or any kind of indirect fight, we need to make a balanced judgment on the cost-gain, and it’s not easy. But you just need to make it. The problem with drones is that they seem to present a political, magical silver bullet. It plays to our love of technology, and it plays to the elusive appeal of a risk-free option. Of course, both of these are nonsense. We need to shatter any illusions we have about technology providing solutions or any of these answers being clean. Particularly when you’re dealing with war amongst the people, there’s no such thing as a clean conflict. Every action has an effect, which is why I come back to the fact that drones—like any other tool—need to be put under a rigorous cost-gain analysis. And you’ve just got to make sure that you get it right.

WPJ: There’s often talk about military innovations sparking civilian advances. Can you suggest any that immediately come to mind these days?

General Shaw: That implies a division between the military and civil base, and that seems to be breaking down. Technological innovation feeds across every direction. They say the Internet began on one side and moved to the other. But other things go the other way. I think they are advancing together. It’s just a matter of the growing pace of technology and where people find applications. Where there is a need applied, there is a feed across. I think the feed across is more and more intense. I think for both military and civilians, it’s just technology advancing.

[Illustration: Miguel Jiron]

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