The End of Power Projection?
We can't get there from here, anymore.
In a lot of history’s conflicts, the combatants come from adjacent countries, or even different parts of the same one, and they fight to settle ownership of territory, borders, access to strategic materials or communications, or even who will control some third political entity. But there is another kind of warfare, which we might call expeditionary warfare or power projection, which aims at preparing forces, projecting them some distance, having them perform a military operation, and extracting and recovering them, hopefully intact or largely so. It is, in fact, this latter model which has been common among western powers since 1945, and the norm for the last thirty years, and much of modern western weaponry, tactics and training have been designed around it. But there are several reasons to think that this type of warfare is rapidly becoming obsolete and impossible, with political ramifications that we have hardly begun to think about. Here’s why.
Fighting requires contact with the enemy, either directly or, more frequently these days, remotely. Historically, armies did not always have to move very far to make contact, and when they did, it was generally on foot. Whilst the fighting could extend over considerable distances (Napoleon’s campaign in Russia, for example) and armies could move back and forth over large areas, fundamentally, each had a national capital and a logistic capacity and lines of communication to fall back on. Even the herculean struggle between Germany and the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1945 was fought continuously from the centre of Poland as far as Moscow, and then back to Berlin.
But there have also been occasions, and even entire campaigns, that have been fought at a distance. Here, some technology is used to move troops and equipment a long way from home, in order to attack forces you were not originally in contact with. Sometimes, entire wars are in effect expeditionary: the Crimean and Boer Wars, for example, or more recently the wars in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq.
Traditional wars of conquest were not generally expeditionary, because the soldiers set out from a secure base, and in most cases just marched or rode in one direction until they met an enemy to fight, or a city to sack, and, if successful, continued on to the next. Alexander the Great’s soldiers simply marched as far as India. The Arab conquests mostly involved light cavalry and infantry sweeping progressively through the Middle East and Africa as far as the Maghreb. Even then, there were exceptions: the disastrous attempted expedition to Sicily by the Athenians in 415-13 BC is one early example of expeditionary warfare. On the other hand, some expeditions were both large-scale and successful: the First Crusade involved the movement of perhaps 100,000 people, including non-combatants, by land and sea across the whole width of Europe, followed by battles which (temporarily) expelled the Arab invaders from the Holy Land.
These last two examples demonstrate the most fundamental requirement for expeditionary warfare: technologies for transporting combatants to where you want them, and then sustaining them while they are there. The earliest and most obvious technology is, of course, the horse, which enabled longer-distance expeditions to be mounted from early on, though not usually at large scale. But the most important early technology for power projection, especially to meet threats on the borders, was actually the humble paved road. Both the Achaemenid (Persian) and the Roman Empires emphasised the building of good roads, which enabled them quickly to move forces to where they were needed, and return them quickly when the fighting was over. Even today, as we have seen in Ukraine, control of metalled roads is critical for forces to be moved around quickly. Subsequently, railway systems were constructed to facilitate not only deployment of troops around the country itself but, as with Prussia, quickly positioning them for offensive strikes into enemy countries. (Even today, the vast majority of military transport on land is by rail.)
But true expeditionary warfare, from the Athenians onwards, requires the ability to cross long distances, through areas which you do not necessarily control in peacetime. The classic method of doing this has always been by ship. This could be done on a massive scale: some 350,000 British troops served in the Boer War, virtually all transported by ships, that also kept them supplied with logistics. In the Second World War, millions of troops were deployed around the world that way. As late as the Gulf Wars, whilst personnel often deployed by air, anything heavy had to go by ship as well. In such a situation, control of the medium you are passing through is obviously essential. The attempted Spanish invasion of England in 1588, for example, was unsuccessful, because the Armada, sent from Spain could not defeat the English fleet, control the Channel and so permit the transport of Spanish troops from the Low Countries. The Germans faced the same problem in 1940 with the added complication of the need to have air superiority.
One reason why the Persians and the Romans built good roads was to improve communications. Your ability to react to threats on the frontier, or take advantage of opportunities, largely depended on the speed with which information could be passed to the capital. Likewise, it was important to know what your forces were doing, and what success they were having, in case it was necessary to send reinforcements to rescue the situation or take advantage of an opportunity. By contrast, expeditionary forces sent by sea were effectively out of contact with their national capitals for weeks or months, so Nelson, for example, would have departed with only very general instructions.The position was revolutionised with the laying of submarine cables from the 1850s, and British expeditionary operations became much easier with the completion of the network linking all its major colonies before the First World War. These days, commanders and political leaders can micro-manage individual operations from the comfort of their offices: you may recall the photographs of Hilary Clinton watching live the killing of Osama Bin Laden, a rictus of glee and excitement on her face.
And finally, of course, the force you send has to be capable of doing its job, and armed with suitable weapons to defeat the enemy. With the galloping increase in the importance of military technology over the last 150 years, this element has become critical: in the two Gulf Wars, massive and complex heavy armoured forces had to be transported across long distances, and aircraft and their logistics moved to forward air bases.
In theory, western armies after 1945 were equipped and trained for an anticipated titanic armoured clash with the Warsaw Pact in central Europe. Although there would have been flanking operations by both sides, the assumption was that the main event would be an apocalyptic armoured confrontation between forces which had been in position for decades, and which had substantial and reliable logistic backup. The reality was somewhat different. Where western militaries were actually engaged in active operations, it tended to be at a distance: everything from colonial wars to UN operations to counter-insurgency, to expeditionary wars such as Vietnam. Mass armoured warfare was theoretically taught in most countries, but it was not practiced: now, it is not even taught because the West has no large armoured formations above Brigade level to deploy. And since the end of the Cold War, the West (and its entire modern generation of military leaders) have grown up with the experience, and the permanent assumption, of a permissive environment into which to operate, adequate communications and logistics, and overwhelming superiority in combat power.
It is true that reality has not always matched this rosy picture. Both Gulf Wars revealed logistic problems, and the second showed that the reliance on civilian contractors, increasing all the time, could be dangerous unless complete security could be assured. Afghanistan was also tricky in places: there was no sea-coast, and the main airport in Kabul could not take large aircraft. The Coca Cola for US troops came by lorry across the frontiers from Pakistan, and ironically the drivers often had to pay the Taliban for permission to pass through check-points. Not all weapons performed as advertised, and in many cases highly-sophisticated and expensive weapons were used in place of simpler and cheaper ones, because it was all that was available.
Nonetheless, after the Libyan adventure of 2011, western leaders came to take for granted the ability to intervene effectively anywhere in the world, without casualties or repercussions, against ascriptive enemies who in practice could not resist seriously. The Russian involvement in Syria after 2015 did, in fact, bring a little more realism to this attitude, but in general western technology and western militaries were simply assumed to be superior to anything that might be encountered anywhere in the world. Two things happened (or to be more precise became known) in recent years, that put this cosy judgement in question.
First, projecting power requires platforms, in the sense that defending against projected power doesn’t, necessarily. This may sound obvious, but in fact a lot of western writing has confused the picture by assuming that western weapons (combat aircraft, aircraft carriers) would be engaged in a series of duels with the equivalent equipment of the other side, and the western equipment would win. But of course attack and defence don’t necessarily work like that. More normally, two sides use asymmetric tactics, because they have different objectives. In Kosovo in 1999 for example, the West’s objective was to force Serbia to hand over control of Kosovo, and thus bring down the current Serbian government. They tried to do that through air and missile bombardment, because a land campaign would have been too difficult and costly. But the Serbs, as well as using air defence missiles, put into action plans honed over forty years to hide and protect their equipment and command and control: most of the targets struck by western aircraft and missiles were dummies, and it was only Russian political pressure on Serbia that eventually saved NATO.
But the projecting power (the aggressor if you will) always needs platforms to launch weapons. Now a platform can be many things, from a soldier on horseback to an aircraft carrier, but usually a platform is employed to put some distance been the aggressor and possible retaliation. The defender, on the other hand, has simply to survive the weapons and, if possible destroy the platforms. In addition, because the attacker is often less motivated than the defender, it is not necessary to defeat all the platforms: just enough damage needs to be done, or threatened, to make aggression unattractive and for the aggressor to return home. The current classic example of this is North Korea. When did you last hear even the most hawkish neoconservative talk about attacking North Korea? Probably never, because, whilst the country’s conventional forces are largely obsolescent, they do include thousands of well-protected long-range artillery pieces and rockets, most of which would survive an attack by the West, and could be then used to wipe out the major cities of Korea and Japan. Quite what the status of the nuclear weapon programme is, I doubt if more than a handful of people know, but there is enough uncertainty about it to make the West think twice about aggression. There is thus no need for North Korea to invest in sophisticated modern weapons and platforms, even if it had the resources, in order to ensure its security.
All this creates conceptual problems for the West in its force projection plans. Western procurement policy over the last fifty years has steadily moved in the direction of smaller and smaller numbers of increasingly powerful systems, costing much more than their predecessors, produced much more slowly, and expected to be in service for a very long time. The original basis for this was the Cold War, where any fighting was expected to be short and brutal, probably finishing with the use of nuclear weapons. Not able to match the numbers of Warsaw Pact platforms, the West instead went for quality, on the assumption that it would lose all or most of its weapons, but would nonetheless “prevail.”
Even in those days, though, this logic was questionable. Soviet doctrine then, like Russian doctrine now, emphasised quantity over quality: it was better to have very large numbers of “good enough” weapons than a small number of complex and sophisticated ones. (Indeed, as good Marxists, the Red Army considered that an increase in quantity could actually have a qualitative effect.) At the end of the day, reasoned the Soviets, if you have a thousand obsolescent tanks left, but your opponent has no tanks left at all, you have won. In any event, it was simply not feasible for western democracies to run a wartime economy in peacetime for forty years as the Soviet Union did, even had the desire been there. So in practice, from the 1970s onwards, the West produced smaller and smaller numbers of more and more sophisticated weapons, and expected them to be more and more versatile and capable of different missions. Combat aircraft were the classic example: the Tornado aircraft of the 1980s was produced in two quite different variants (Air Defence and Interdiction/Strike) using the same airframe. And significantly, it was a tri-national collaborative project, in an attempt to spread the cost.
Nobody really spent much time thinking about what the aftermath of a war with the Warsaw Pact would actually be like, and certainly not its military aspects. Even assuming a NATO victory, or at least anything less than a WP victory, there would be other things to worry about. A stock of equipment and armaments all destroyed and used up would be one of the less pressing problems after a nuclear war. Of course, countries that once embraced this logic cannot easily escape from it. It is a logic which leads to smaller and smaller forces, fewer and fewer installations, more and more sophisticated equipment and, in turn, less and less flexibility across your forces. This is fair enough if you are planning for a single, apocalyptic battle, but less obvious if you are planning for decades of small operations around the world. What the West has, and has had for some time now, is a single-shot military. One serious campaign, whether finally won or lost, would disarm the West for a decade.
So far, this has not mattered, because equipment losses in operations around the world have been very limited. For the most part, the targets have not been able to shoot back effectively. But for reasons we will go into in a moment, this may be about to change.
As well as the fragility of western forces and the difficulty of replacing them, the second complicating factor is the consequences of the assumptions against which they were designed. Now here, we have to bear in mind timescales. The West is currently using a generation of tanks originally designed in the 1980s for the above-mentioned apocalyptic battle with the Warsaw Pact, although upgrades and new variants have been produced since. Now it’s fair enough to criticise, but at least that generation—Leopard 2s, Challenger 2s, M-1s— was produced according to a coherent military requirement of some kind. The basic principles of high firepower, relatively low mobility and as much protection as possible were logical enough for tanks that were fighting a defensive battle and falling back on their lines of supply. But after the end of the Cold War, there was literally no military logic to guide the upgrade and development of existing tanks, and still less the production of new ones. Who were we going to fight? Where and for what purpose? How were we going to get there? So in practice, given the inertia of defence programmes and the length of time for which equipment is intended to stay in service, things have continued as they were, with new variants and upgrades of tanks essentially designed for a short vicious war in Europe, except in much smaller numbers and with much less sustainability. And over there, the Russians have all the time continued to plan and prepare for the kind of war which is happening now, which explains why NATO is scared to death to fight them.
The situation with combat aircraft is actually worse, because the aircraft currently in service with western air forces were designed at the end of the Cold War, (and in some cases even earlier) against a level of threat that was anticipated to develop perhaps 10-15 years in the future. The sheer cost and sophistication of such aircraft has meant that they can only be produced in small numbers, but also that, when military missions arrive, these aircraft have to be used because there is nothing else. Thus, in conflicts such as those in Afghanistan and Mali, enormously sophisticated and complex aircraft, requiring hours of maintenance between flights at modern airbases, were used at long range to drop bombs on militia groups armed with automatic weapons. But at least the militia groups couldn’t shoot back.
And of course naval forces have followed the same logic: countries around the world have invested in aircraft carriers, because they are the basic tool of force-projection. A carrier is not just a floating airfield, it’s also a floating command and control centre, a floating barracks, a floating helicopter park, and many other things. Yet carriers are immensely costly, and getting costlier, and even the richest nations can only afford to buy small numbers of them. That said, any projection of your forces outside home waters, and outside the range of shore-based aircraft, absolutely requires some form of carrier capability, even if only for humanitarian evacuations, as in Lebanon in 2006.
We also need to understand the assumptions behind the high specification of much military equipment still in use today. In particular, much of it was designed on the assumption that it would need to be better than the equivalent Soviet equipment expected to be fielded in ten or twenty years’ time. So Main Battle Tanks were designed to defeat their expected Soviet equivalents, aircraft were designed to shoot down their Soviet equivalents in air superiority contests, and so forth. Of course, obvious changes in the threat, such as the profusion of man-portable anti-air and anti-tank missiles had to be taken into account to some extent, but western equipment was overwhelmingly designed using its Soviet equivalents as a reference, thus implicitly assuming that the Soviet Union would fight much as we would.
There are always exceptions of course; Britain and France developed light, portable equipment for operations out of area or counter-insurgency, and more recently the US has followed. But precisely because these equipments are light and portable, they are not suited to any serious conflict, let alone a conflict with a peer enemy, or to one armed with modern weapons. For the last thirty, years the dominance of western air power has been such that when western light forces encounter opposition, they have been able to call on aircraft to blow it away. But this is in the process of changing.
Nonetheless, most serious western weaponry traces its origin to assumptions about what Soviet equipment in the 2010s would look like, and how to defeat it. This could have some curious results. The most obvious example is the manned fighter aircraft, which has been a cult object in western air forces for a century or more. Fighter aircraft were popularly visualised as engaging each other in one-on-one duels like knights of old. Actually, this didn’t make sense, although it goes back to the use of primitive fighters in “patrols” in World War I, which sounded good but achieved nothing except dead pilots. In theory, these patrols established “air superiority,” but in practice this was never achievable and, had it been possible, technology at the time was too primitive to take advantage of it. Roll forward to the next war, and we realise that the images of Spitfires and Hurricanes tangling with Messerschmitts in 1940 is misleading: the British were not after the fighter escorts, they were trying to shoot down the bombers. But the image of the high-technology “knight in the sky” is an extremely persistent one.
In the Cold War, even air defence using manned aircraft was questionable. It was assumed, rightly or wrongly, that in the early days of a conventional war the Soviet Union would try to attack targets in Europe with manned bombers, and that western aircraft would try to penetrate the fighter screen around them and destroy them. But what was clear, even if it was seldom articulated, was that there could be no question of the West having air superiority over the battlefield itself, not because of aircraft but because of missiles. It’s worth backing up here a second. Control of air space is only an enabler: by itself it doesn’t win battles. In Normandy in 1944, the Allies had undisputed command of the air, and they used it to provide massive support to their ground forces, which nonetheless still took months to break through the German defences. Without getting into the technical vocabulary, air superiority means that you can be sure that you can conduct air operations against an enemy, albeit with the possibility of losses, whereas the enemy is largely inhibited from conducting operations against you. This is what the Russians have had in Ukraine for some time, but note that this superiority does not always have to be the result of duels in the sky. For the German in France in 1940, it had much more to do with command and control and with the deployment of light anti-aircraft systems well forward. Individually, French aircraft were at least as good as those of the Luftwaffe.
In Ukraine, the Russians are making use of their traditional skills with artillery to achieve air superiority through missiles and radars. This would probably have been true even in the Cold War, since there was no sign that the Soviet Union was anticipating fighter duels over the battlefield, or anywhere much else. But it’s important to understand what this means today: highly expensive and sophisticated fighter aircraft looking vainly for a target to fight, while being vulnerable to long range missile attack. Much military technology resembles the children’s’ game of scissors-stone-paper: no individual weapon or technology is dominant under all circumstances. If the enemy does not want to play air combat between aircraft, your shiny new fighter is just a target for missiles: you thought it was the scissors that would cut the paper but in practice it’s the scissors that are blunted by the stone. (Much the same was true of main battle tanks. Throughout the Cold War, there was a fixation with tank-on-tank action, and whether western tanks were “better” than Soviet ones, although in any real conflict the situation would have been much more complicated than that.)
This is a very fundamental point, but I see no sign that it has been grasped. Its most important consequence is that the primary method of air control, and by extension dominance of the ground battle, is by missiles and drones, as we see today in Ukraine. This makes the side which is conducting defence at the tactical/operational level dominant, and makes an attacker vulnerable. It isn’t just a question of relative technologies, it’s also a question of costs and numbers. Even very sophisticated missiles are in absolute terms relatively cheap, and relatively quick to build. Moreover, any aircraft is in the end nothing more than a platform for weapons and sensors, and it is the weapons that do the damage. Thus, a new generation aircraft capable of launching two long range missiles would have to survive perhaps thirty to fifty missions before it had launched enough missiles to justify its unit cost as a platform. This is, to put it mildly, not typical of modern air warfare, and it’s likely that aircraft and pilot would be gone at the end of two to three missions, with no guarantee that the missiles would even strike their target. Moreover, new aircraft take months to build and new pilots take years to train, whereas missiles take only a few days. What this suggests is that we are now seeing the development of a new type of warfare, in which missiles and drones will both provide a cheap method of precision strike, and also be able to control large areas of terrain.
But it isn’t just a question of numbers, either, it’s also a question of politics. Back in the Cold War, as I have pointed out, war games assumed a single, apocalyptic battle, after which there would be nothing left of anything. Equipment would have been destroyed and forces annihilated, but it was hoped that nonetheless, the West would have “won.” But significant losses of major platforms in expeditionary wars of choice are simply not feasible politically. Forty years ago, UK public opinion, perhaps more robust than it is now, was still shaken by the loss of a number of frigates, destroyers and aircraft in the Falklands War.
Most western societies have come to believe in recent years that their armed forces are all-powerful and effectively invulnerable, except for attacks by mines and bombs. The loss of even a squadron or two of high-performance aircraft in a hypothetical small clash with Russia or China would be a political shock that the average western government would probably not survive, unless a population could somehow be convinced that the very survival of the nation was at stake, which seems unlikely. And of course the financial and industrial consequences would be severe as well, not to mention the strategic cost of having lost part of an air force. Major air warfare against either of these nations is unthinkable politically, especially since the western aircraft involved would perish at the hands of missile operators, not as a result of knightly combat in the sky. Even the United States would effectively be disarmed after a significant clash with either nation, and would take between a decade and a generation to reconstitute its forces, assuming that were indeed possible. No nation today can afford such an outcome.
Which brings us to the last point: surface combatants, and especially aircraft carriers. Carriers are often dismissed as outdated and vulnerable, which makes it all the more curious that so many nations are investing in them. The real point about carriers, though, is power projection: there is no other way in which a nation can project any kind of serious power beyond shore-based air cover, and to give up carriers is to publicly give up any ambition to do so. Military forces serve many political purposes in addition to their combat functions, of course, and one of those is demonstrating that you are a serious player in the strategic area. That is why nations newly acquiring blue-water navies, like South Africa and South Korea, made a point of arranging ship deployments and port visits, to heighten their political profile. The capacity to take part in anti-piracy or embargo operations can have political benefits as well.
The problem comes when these deployments are into a hostile environment. We still tend to think of the carrier battles of the Second World War as the norm: fleets that never saw each other fighting largely with aircraft, targeting each others’ carriers. But not only has technology changed, with a preponderance now of long-range anti-shipping missiles, there is also no reason to suppose that a putative naval enemy (presumably China) would agree to fight that way. To take the well-worn example of an invasion or a blockade of Taiwan, the Chinese Navy would almost certainly wait in home waters for the West to come to it, and seek to win largely with missiles. Thus, whilst naval experts may well be right that the US would “win” a fleet to fleet contest on the high seas, there is no reason to suppose that the Chinese would oblige them with such a scenario. And “winning” is extremely relative as a concept. For example, it is hard to see the American public being prepared to tolerate the loss of a single aircraft carrier to “defend” Taiwan, let alone two or three. History suggests that bring prepared to go to war is one thing, but a willingness to tolerate significant casualties is quite another. A large part of today’s collective western political ego anyway comes from a sense of impunity and invulnerability. But such feelings are brittle (not to mention unrealistic anyway) and the political consequences of the end of such a delusion are likely to be profound.
So we may be at a turning point not simply in the technical aspects of warfare, but more importantly in the politics of the use of force abroad. For more than a generation now, western policy has assumed that such use would be essentially casualty-free, and especially that major platforms would not be at risk. After all, would NATO have attacked Libya in 2011 if in the news every day there had been reports of another aircraft shot down? I rather think not. The spread of relatively cheap and simple but effective air defence systems around the world, which seems virtually certain now, will change the power projection equation fundamentally, as will the wider use of anti-shipping missiles and missiles for attacking ground targets, like the Iskander. How would the air war in Yemen have gone, for example, if a Russian anti-aircraft destroyer had just happened to be on a deployment in the region?
Now of course war games will continue to show that a western attack on small counties will “succeed”, and that copious use of air power will eventually establish air superiority and enable other weapon systems to be hunted down and destroyed. But that’s not really the point: western public opinion may accept punishment beatings of small countries, but not actual wars where western forces suffer significant losses. The consequences of this are wide-ranging enough to need a separate essay, but I think we can already see a future in which the West decides it’s more prudent to stay at home, and let the locals sort out their own problems. Not everybody will feel that’s a bad thing.
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