Operating left of launch
9 Oct 2018|

Three weeks before Christmas 2001, the energy company Enron went bust. It was the largest bankruptcy in American history. In 2002, Malcolm Gladwell told the story of what went wrong: on the advice of bright McKinsey consultants, Enron’s management dived headfirst into corporate America’s ‘talent culture’, recruiting only the top performers who could think outside the box.

Strategists commonly imagine conflict in boxes. We divide it into distinct domains contested by armed services wearing distinct uniforms. We adapt to change by creating more boxes—new domains (cyber), new uniforms (the new US space force) and new theatres (the Indo-Pacific).

In the boxes of war—everything ‘right of launch’—the US is dominant and likely to remain so for some time. Faced with this reality, other states are achieving strategic objectives by all means short of war—everything ‘left of launch’. This pattern of adaptation to the modern strategic environment is leaving the US and allies struggling to think outside the box of conventional solutions.

So what exactly does ‘operating left of launch’ look like? In short, it means bringing multiple arms of state power to bear on a localised objective while avoiding a reaction threshold that might cause the opponent to declare war. Take Beijing’s goal to ‘reunify’ Taiwan. If the PLA were to invade the island tomorrow, it would risk bringing the US into a war that China would likely lose.

To stay below Washington’s reaction threshold, China has used fishermen and oil rigs in radio contact with domestic law enforcement to gradually occupy surrounding maritime spaces, eventually followed by permanent military installations.

At the same time, Chinese state-owned media have cooperated with the PLA to shape foreign news coverage of specific events. Targeted economic sanctions have caused other states to withdraw military forces from specific positions, and diplomatic ‘lawfare’ has contested the regional jurisdiction of international bodies. This strategy is steadily isolating Taiwan from US naval assets, particularly aircraft carriers, and eroding the credibility of US deterrence. It is shaping the terrain to suit Beijing.

Russia is also adept at using its left-of-launch toolbox to shape the battlefield in its favour. Moscow used fake news to politically agitate Russian-speaking minorities in Crimea prior to occupying the peninsula using motorcycle gangs, unmarked soldiers, hackers, Cossack nationalists, and criminals. The effect was to facilitate a swift tactical victory, deter NATO intervention, and present Ukraine with a strategic fait accompli: attempt to retake lost territory at extreme cost, or accept the conquest. Some argue that Iran has employed similar tools to shape the battlefield in Syria while avoiding a significant US response (although Israel has been targeting Iranian positions).

Operating left of launch, to be clear, is not a new idea. It might come with many new names—hybrid warfare, diathetical warfare, memetic warfare, political warfare, non-linear warfare—but the principles underneath are timeless (see Sun Tzu). Repeated use of the word ‘warfare’ is misleading; if all we see is another nail, we’ll still reach for the hammer. Yet this is also not foreign policy. It is the art of blurring the line between war and peace in a geographic space. It is thinking on a spectrum while opponents think in boxes.

It’s worth emphasising that operating left of launch doesn’t equate to winning. The absurdity of Russia’s narrative following the MH17 tragedy, for example, arguably strengthened Western unity, lengthened sanctions, and may have even distracted separatists from defending entrenched positions. Other states are not defenceless: Australia has brought in sweeping new powers targeting foreign political interference. And, importantly, not all Chinese fishermen, Russian-speaking minorities, or Cossack nationalists are pawns on a chessboard.

Overall, however, Washington and allied states like Australia have shown a limited capacity to respond. A NATO report found that Russian media began preparing the battlefield in Crimea at least a year in advance with no measurable resistance. The US regularly sends warships in response to Chinese maritime expansion, yet a senior American military officer recently told Congress that China now has de facto control of the South China Sea. This is Sun Tzu for the modern age: ‘Subdue the enemy’s troops without fighting; capture their cities without laying siege; overthrow their kingdom without a war.’

The question raised for the Australian security community is certainly not whether conventional capabilities are necessary. The question is whether they are sufficient. While the US remains dominant on the right, rivals will naturally operate on the left. Their general success so far suggests that thinking in right-of-launch boxes isn’t enough for solving left-of-launch problems. Hence the parallel with Enron: in Gladwell’s words, if everyone Enron hired had to think outside the box, maybe it was the box that needed fixing.