Proxy wars and the demise of conventional warfighting
15 Oct 2018|

Within a decade, Australia must anticipate greater economic, political and military competition in the Indo-Pacific and, as power balances shift, the ADF will struggle to sustain the technological advantage it maintained during the Cold War. In this increasingly multipolar security environment, the high-technology, high-lethality, high-cost conventional warfighting platforms we’re acquiring will be of decreasing use. These exquisite acquisitions will, paradoxically, increase the likelihood of low-cost proxy conflict, as we see in Syria. Indeed, this situation has led Daniel Byman to note that all of today’s major wars are in essence proxy wars.

Proxy wars are not a new phenomenon. During the Cold War, the threat of mutually assured destruction drove major nuclear powers to achieve political ends through indirect means—as when the US fought Vietnamese forces that were heavily backed by China and Russia.

What has changed with the information age is the level of economic impact that would result from even isolated use of weapons of mass destruction. The resilience of globally connected national economies in the face of a serious WMD attack is highly uncertain and its ‘downstream’ effects may be impossible to predict. The Cold War–era ‘stability/instability paradox’ is still in effect—evidenced by the restraint exercised by Turkey, Russia, Iran and the US in avoiding conflict escalation over Syria, while simultaneously supporting their chosen proxies.

The increasing cost of high-tech capabilities, coupled with today’s risk-averse polity, means our most effective platforms are less likely to be employed in a high-threat environment. The ability of state and non-state actors to field low-cost cruise missiles against multibillion-dollar frigates will limit Australia’s military options given the political need to limit casualties. Today’s contested environment is generating a ‘conventional deterrence’ effect that expands the scope of the traditional stability/instability paradox.

The range of indigenous capacity-building concepts that became familiar to the Australian Army in Afghanistan and Iraq, and through its engagement with regional partners, is being extended by the information age and by the ways in which our adversaries have adopted advances in technology. In this environment, several factors are working to accelerate the adaptive pace of warfare and recharacterise the nature of proxy conflict.

Weapons of mass mobilisation. Social media platforms have facilitated a revolution in information-age recruiting. In what Audrey Kurth Cronin termed the electronic levée en masse, individuals can be recruited to a cause from a global target audience. Foreign fighters are nothing new; the printing press enabled the million-person armies of the industrial age and the mobilisation of a globalised diaspora in conflicts such as the Spanish Civil War. Social media accelerate, simplify and expand the concept of globalised recruiting and radicalisation, including in under-governed terrain in the Third World opened up by mobile-phone towers. Mass mobilisation empowers non-state actors in what Andrew Krepinevich has termed the ‘democratisation of destruction’. The mobilisation in 2014 of hacktivist group Anonymous as an anti-Islamic State ‘cyber militia’ is an example, albeit one that aided Western military efforts.

Weapons of mass instruction. The democratisation of information made possible by the internet (and the internet of things) means individuals can be trained for military activities using remote (or virtual) means. Armed with man-portable weapon systems and taught by magazines like Inspire and Dabiq, non-state actors can educate, field and coordinate individuals to carry out attacks. The provision by the US of virtual advise-and-assist kits to Iraqi partners shows how such technology can be used in contested regions.

Weapons of mass subversion. The Russian ‘firehose of falsehood’ has demonstrated to global audiences the fragility of democratic systems seeking to defend their constitutional norms. Information and psychological operations can use open-source media to inform global audiences about Australian actions, but the ADF has a minimal workforce trained to develop, wage and finesse a battle of the narratives that is moving at the speed of Twitter. To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, our own media can serve as the oxygen of instability, sustaining the fire of discontent.

Weapons of mass surveillance. The networking of billions of devices and developments in artificial intelligence hold the potential for ‘big data’ to facilitate surveillance on an unprecedented scale. The coupling of miniaturised surveillance devices with networked connectivity may erode the military’s ability to operate undetected. The Chinese Communist Party has adopted such surveillance systems at an unprecedented level, holding the potential for their deployment into contested environments.

In the context of an urbanising global population, deterred from fighting a conventional war, these information-age adaptations present both significant threats and opportunities for the Australian Army.

Information-age unconventional warfare may become the only kinetic option against an adversary with mature anti-access and area-denial capabilities who at present affects ‘conventional deterrence’. To provide military options for government, the army will need to look beyond the ‘forces assigned’ (those we control) to ‘forces available’ (those we can influence).

The power in these information-age concepts has been evidenced by the Kremlin’s ability to win the Crimea and Beijing’s ability to seize the South China Sea; both are examples of ‘manoeuvre warfare’ that led to a ‘rapidly deteriorating situation with which the enemy cannot cope’. The conduct of special warfareoperations by, with and through likeminded partners—will increasingly become the norm in this multipolar, constrained security environment.

T.E. Lawrence suggested that the printing press was the greatest weapon in the armoury of the modern commander. Taking this industrial-age paradigm into the information age may make a savvy officer with a Twitter handle—backed by big-data analytics and trawling open-source media—the most important member of a battalion staff. Similar to ‘classic’ nuclear deterrence theory, the costs of major conventional warfare (to all parties) will encourage the use of virtually-supported proxy forces to limit the likelihood of escalation. For the Australian Army, information-age proxy warfare will be both an impending security imperative and a necessity.