Well I’m inclined to believe,
If we weren’t so down
We’d up and leave,
We’d up and fly if we had wings for flying.
Can you see these tears we’re crying?
Is there some happiness for me?
Not in Nottingham.
(Mumford & Sons)
The British House of Commons Defence Committee has been holding meetings as part of the ‘UK Response to Hybrid Threats Inquiry’. On Tuesday, it invited along a trio of experts to advise it about the dangers Britain faces from the likes of Russia. As so often in these cases, the guests seemed to be chosen specifically in order to reinforce the existing prejudices of the committee, and the meeting was something of a love-in, with nary a word of disagreement and a lot of chummy use of first names. As the MPs commented on a couple of occasions, the guests were ‘preaching to the choir’. I couldn’t help noticing, though, that the whole episode was characterized by an astonishing lack of intellectual coherence.
The first guest was Chris Donnelly, who has recently acquired fame due to his connection with the Integrity Initiative. As I’ve noted before, Donnelly takes a very extreme position vis-à-vis Russia. He’s also convinced that Britain is at war and needs to start acting like it. I have to say that he wouldn’t be my first choice of person to invite if I was looking for sober, balanced advice.
Guest number two was Robert Johnson, who runs a project titled ‘The Changing Character of War’ at the University of Oxford. I’ve always viewed this with some scepticism. I tend more to follow the line of the eminent strategist Colin Gray, who argues that despite changes in technology, the fundamental essence of war has never really changed at all. But that’s by the by. Johnson is a respectable scholar. He has also written numerous works as a consultant for NATO. I didn’t get the impression that he disagreed with Connelly in any substantial way.
The final invitee was Andrew Mumford of the University of Nottingham. When I looked him up, Google gave me lots of hits for a nice little song called ‘Not in Nottingham’ by Mumford & Sons, but I was eventually able to track him down. He’s written a lot about the British experience in counter-insurgency. His book The Counterinsurgency Myth: The British Experience in Irregular Warfare looks quite interesting.
So what did this trio have to say for themselves?
The first question they were asked was to define ‘hybrid warfare’. And here’s the rub. They couldn’t do it. After a while, they just gave up. Reading the transcript of the meeting, I can’t find anything which clarifies what it is that they’re talking about. As Mumford put it, ‘there is a lack of unified agreement as to the parameters of the concept in and of itself.’ He then continued that,
For my money, hybrid warfare at its very basic level would involve a mixture of regular and irregular war-fighting techniques that do not necessarily have to be kinetic. I think it is for the purpose of extending influence, interest, maybe even in some cases territory as well. However, at the very basic level hybrid warfare would involve trying to think about ways that we can address multiple sources of threat and threats that are addressed by multiple methods.
Maybe I’m just not very bright, but this strikes me as waffle – a lot of words which end up saying nothing. ‘Hybrid warfare is all sorts of undefined techniques used to extend influence’ is kind of what I get out of it. In other words, hybrid warfare is simply a scarier way of saying politics.
Chris Donnelly went further. ‘The first thing to say is that, in hybrid warfare, everything is a weapon’, he opined. At this point, we’re in nonsense territory. In the first place, in war people have always used just about every tool they can, meaning that every war is a hybrid war according to Donnelly’s definition. And second, if everything is a weapon, then everything is part of hybrid war. And if that’s the case, the term has no conceptual value whatsoever.
Johnson, meanwhile, offered what he termed an ‘alternative thesis’, namely:
This is the idea that the hybridity you see presented by, for example, Russia is really only to contain us for the time being. It’s so that Russian military modernisation can be completed and therefore they are in a stronger position; with a divided and weakened Europe and a divided and weakened Anglo-American relationship, for example, that modernised military is in a much better position to project its power in other ways – perhaps in a slightly more conventional fashion.
One might call this the ‘hybrid warfare as a preparatory tool for eventual invasion’ thesis. The committee’s guests seemed to struggling a bit at this point. On the one hand, they were portraying hybrid warfare as everything including the kitchen sink; on the other hand, they were also keen to portray it as something below the threshold of ‘kinetic’ military operations; and on the third hand (which is indicative of the intellectual confusion), they were also saying it was something which mixed kinetic and other types of military operations.
Further complications arose when they were asked whether Britain engages in hybrid warfare. Johnson basically avoided answering the question, but more or less said ‘yes’. Mumford and Donnelly, in a rare disagreement, said no, but Donnelly added that Britain ought to.
What would that mean? All the guests agreed that British hybrid warfare would have to be legal. ‘We do not want to get in a fight that draws us into the temptation to break the law, either international or nationally’, said Johnson (rather ignoring the obvious elephant in the room in the form of the UK’s repeated breaches of international law). But there are things Britain could do, he said.
One classic one would be the building of coalitions. … there are a huge amount of assets such as media power, civil society, and moral pressure that can be built up. And that has a voice—that has an effect on international opinion. We saw with the decision by the United Kingdom to expel Russian diplomats how well-supported that was internationally. Even countries that have long-standing grievances with the UK through our history supported that move, and I think that’s a perfectly hybrid method, if you like, but it’s perfectly within the law.
Again, I must be very stupid, because I just don’t see how ‘building coalitions’, ‘media power, civil society, and moral pressure’, and expelling diplomats is ‘hybrid method’. That’s politics and diplomacy. As if aware of this problem, after a while the committee just dropped the pretence that hybrid warfare was something real, and started talking about conventional military matters instead, such as deploying anti-submarine drones in Scotland, which we were told would be ‘great for the Scottish economy’. At this point, I had real problems understanding what the connection with hybrid warfare was anymore. But the guests and the committee were firm: the response to hybrid warfare had to include enhanced conventional military forces.
Why this would be the right response wasn’t at all clear. Donnelly said it was because Britain had a nuclear deterrent but insufficient conventional deterrent. But deterrent against what, exactly? Conventional forces are useful for fighting other conventional forces. I have problems seeing what use they are for fighting, say, internet trolls, RT, or all the other things so often labelled as ‘hybrid warfare’. Neither Donnelly nor anyone else graced us with a solution to this conundrum.
We were, however, told that the committee wanted to raise defence spending to 3% of GDP. Everyone present believed that more money was needed. The problem, they agreed, was that the British people just didn’t understand the threat, and so didn’t want to hand over their hard earned pennies to the military industrial complex. Something had to be done. Chris Donnelly had the answer: the bureaucracy and the British people have to be ‘educated’ about the threat to overcome the opposition to greater investments in defence.
And here, I think, is where we suddenly come across an explanation of why these experts can’t, or won’t, come up with a coherent definition of hybrid warfare other than that it’s ‘everything’. If they were actually to pin it down to something very specific, it would have to be something not obviously military (otherwise it wouldn’t be ‘hybrid’). But at that point, the inevitable response would be that because it’s not a military threat, military capabilities aren’t the answer. And that would not be welcome. Instead, by keeping it conceptually vague, and allowing it to embrace anything, they turn everything into a threat, thereby generating fear and increasing pressure on the government to ‘do something’. More than anything else, I think, this explains why the term ‘hybrid warfare’ has become so popular.
Conservative MP Mark Francois pointed out a serious problem, however. ‘Isn’t it part of MoD’s [Ministry of Defence’s] problem that whenever it makes these arguments within Whitehall it is simply told, ad nauseam, “This is all just special pleading” and “You would say that, wouldn’t you”?’ he asked. How very true, and how right Whitehall is.