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War Is Complicated.
And not just the fighting bit.
“Everything is very simple in war”, wrote Clausewitz, “but the simplest thing is difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction which no man can imagine exactly who has not seen war.” The complexity and complication of war have increased exponentially since his time, but you could be forgiven for not appreciating that, unless you have some professional or intellectual reason for taking an interest in the subject. In the case of the Ukraine conflict, we have seen a truly extraordinary retreat into a superficial, fantasy land of toy soldiers and large-scale maps, where everything is easy. This is having an actual, measurable effect, not only on political life in the West, but on the amount of death and destruction that that sorry conflict is bringing.
I’ve already covered the question of why fantasies of the rebuilding of military capability by the West are not going to produce anything, for a host of boring, practical reasons, and I’ve also pointed out why talk of sending NATO forces to “fight the Russians” is largely nonsense. Others with more technical knowledge and more readers have said much the same, but apparently to no effect. So here, we read suggestions that the West will recruit “mercenaries” to continue the War, apparently indefinitely. There, we read exciting stories of western weapons to be delivered to Ukraine this year, next year, whenever. In a third location, apparently educated and rational writers set out plans for a cease-fire to be followed by a ten-year programme of rebuilding Ukraine’s military capabilities so that the war can start again. And everywhere, there are voices claiming that the West “must not” and “never will” case to support Ukraine militarily. These fantasies are found as often on the Notional Left as on the Right, and as often among opponents of the war as among enthusiasts for it.
I want to do a reality check on this kind of thinking, through a discussion of a concept I’ve already referred to above: capability. “Capability” is quite simply the ability to do something you want to do. It applies in all areas of life, personal and professional, and it is distinct from objects and wishes. You might wish to spend a month in the Bahamas, and you might have a pair of swimming trunks and a bottle of suntan lotion, but if you don’t have the money to buy a ticket, you have no capability. Much the same applies in war, and in questions of the use of military forces generally, as we’ll see in a moment. Meanwhile, I want to take you shopping.
As soon as we start to adopt a capability-based approach to analysing problems, we realise how complex most things that we want to do in life actually are. Let’s assume that in your house or apartment you have a project of renewing everything in your dining room, so you decide to go to IKEA and buy a new dining table which you will then assemble together with your spouse/partner/friend. Simple: look up the details in the on-line catalogue, take the car to IKEA, bring back the kit and assemble it.
Or maybe not so simple after all. Consider a very superficial list of everything that has to be in place first. You found the details on-line, which means that you have to be able to operate a computer which means you must be able to read, which implies the existence of schools and teachers and an infrastructure for training them. The computer you use has to be designed, manufactured, transported and sold, and has to run software which enables you to access the site designed by other experts for the company. All that is done by people who require training and education, which in turn requires institutions and infrastructure, as well as the ability to transport items long distances to the right place. You yourself need the ability to take measurements, interpret schematics and decide what to buy. Oh, then you need a car, which has of course to be manufactured, possibly imported, sold and maintained by specialists, all of which requires a massive international infrastructure. You then have to be able to drive the car, which implies an infrastructure for training and testing you, and then you have to understand and follow directions. That gets you as far as the front door.
That will do for now, but you get the idea. Behind even simple things we do in life are an immense series of hidden preconditions, and if we do not meet one of them, we may lack the capability to do what we want to do. So if our car breaks down or has run out of petrol, if the shop is unexpectedly closed today (should have checked) if the item is not actually in stock, if our credit card has expired or is not recognised, or any of a hundred little obstacles arise, we may not be able to do what we want. Some of these things may be under our control (borrow a car, perhaps), but others are not. Covid was a great eye-opener about the complexity and sensitivity of modern supply-chains. You may have had the experience of being told by a sales-human during the epidemic that a given item was unavailable because the company in China that made the gizmo that connected the widget made in China to the wadget made in China by other companies had closed its factory. And maybe that factory never re-opened. And maybe the sales-human told you that, yes you could buy the cupboard, but they couldn’t supply the doors, because the doors were made by a different company which had left the market.
Well, that’s almost a thousand words without going into military issues in detail, but I hope you get the point about the complexity and fragility of even the most banal modern systems. I’m now going to talk about defence capabilities, but just keep in your mind the difference in scale and complexity between “dining table I eat at” and “F-16 that I want to send on operations.”
Let’s start at the very top, with a bit of strategic doctrine: a subject which, unfortunately, hardly anyone is interested in today because it’s not shiny and exciting. But trying to build defence capability without it is like trying to drive to an unknown destination without a map or a GPS. Governments have various sectoral policies which set out what they intend to do in various areas. Education, health, transport, are all examples of sectors for which policies are needed. One of these sectors is the security sector, which conventionally includes the military, paramilitary/gendarmerie forces, the police and the intelligence services. These will act, sometimes alone and sometimes in combination, to fulfil security objectives that the government has set.
As part of this process, the defence sector (which goes beyond the uniformed military) will be given a series of missions to carry out, often framed in very general terms; for example, “ensure the integrity of our borders.” (Such missions are rarely entirely the responsibility of one service, but we’ll keep it simple.) From those missions, can be deduced a certain number of tasks; one of which might be, “control the country’s airspace, and identify and turn away unauthorised aircraft.” And to carry out those tasks, you need capabilities; for example the capability to detect incoming aircraft at a certain distance from your borders, and to distinguish those that have no business being there.
Now notice that shiny new equipment has not been mentioned so far. Equipment is not capability. An F-16 does not give you the capability to carry out air operations, any more than a textbook gives you the capability to teach French or a radiography machine gives you the capability to cure cancer. At best, these are enabling devices: at worst the purchase of shiny new equipment may be a distraction from other, simpler and cheaper ways of acquiring or improving your capability. In the case of air borders, for example, upgrades to a civilian ATC system might be a simpler solution than buying an expensive new radar system with the associated training and maintenance bills. Much of defence planning, indeed, consists of deciding how to provide the capability that you need to fulfil the task, as part of the mission, to meet the government’s security objectives. And most defence procurement disasters happen because this logic is not followed, or it is even inverted: classically, “this equipment is wearing out, it needs to be replaced by a newer one.”
So, let’s apply this argument to Ukraine. What’s the West’s strategic goal, from which sectoral missions, tasks and required capabilities should be deduced and provided? I have no idea, and I doubt if anybody else does, either. Once upon a time, some would argue, it was to bring about the fall of the Russian political system and its replacement by one the West preferred. Well, if that was the plan, it certainly isn’t possible any more. Or maybe it’s to return Ukraine to its 1991 borders, and that clearly isn’t possible either. Now notice that these are both very high-level objectives, and both can be subsumed under the even higher level objective of preserving the post-Cold War political order in Europe. But people talk about lower-level objectives such as “enmeshing Russia in a guerrilla war in Ukraine” or “creating instability on Russia’s borders” without any indication that they know what they want to do these things for. What, Clausewitz would ask at this point, is the End State to which they are expected to contribute? Nobody knows, and it’s this confusion between different levels of a conceptual hierarchy which is at the basis of the West’s problems, just as it was in Afghanistan and Iraq. Crudely, if you can’t articulate what you want to achieve in ways that allow missions and tasks to be deduced, then you’re not going to get anywhere. In reality, the current strategic objective, as far as there is one, is just to prolong the war, in the hope that something will turn up, and to avoid having to acknowledge failure until somebody else can be found to take responsibility for it. It is for this reason that there’s so much talk about sending wonder weapons to Ukraine, in the hope that they will delay defeat, after which … well, we’ll get back to you on that.
So to return to the F-16s with which everybody seems so obsessed, we have to ask what strategic purpose they are actually intended to serve. Or alternatively, what strategic logic, developed through missions and tasks and the requirement for capabilities, could result in a requirement for F-16s? This is, in fact, a perfect example of the conceptual hierarchy I outlined earlier working in reverse. Here we have some relatively simple and cheap aircraft that are available. Let’s send them to Ukraine and we’ll see if they make a difference in some way. This isn’t part of a strategy, it’s just ignorant thrashing around.
So let’s try to bring a little bit of logic and clarity to the argument. Does Ukraine need fighters? Not really, because Russian air power doctrine, as nobody can now doubt, privileges missiles over air superiority fighters. If F-16s were sent, they would have no Russian aircraft as targets (though Russian aircraft have very long-range missiles that could also threaten them) and would be shot down by missiles. So that doesn’t sound like a good idea. Well what about ground-attack aircraft? Given the Russian superiority in Air Defence missiles, it’s hard to see them being risked anywhere near what the military call the Forward Edge of the Battle Area, or the Line of Contact, if you prefer. OK, well if we really want to find a task for them, let’s put them right back West, providing some kind of notional fighter and ground attack cover for Kiev and the rest of the country. At least they won’t be in danger there. See where this backward logic has deposited us? Rather than identifying a capacity gap and trying to fill it, we are now trying to find a job for a piece of equipment.
But let’s assume that for political reasons we do that. And let’s assume that we send enough to make a militarily viable unit. A squadron is 12-15 aircraft, and several squadrons make a Regiment or a Wing, depending on the country. So we’ll assume that somewhere between 30-45 aircraft are sent, organised into a coherent unit. It would help, of course, if all of them are the same model of the F-16 (the design is fifty years old), with the same set of updates, from the same country. So we have done something to strengthen Ukraine? No, because as I said a moment ago, equipment is not capability. An aeroplane is just a machine that flies. In order to participate in combat it needs sensors and weapons of some kind, for use against air and ground targets. That means that such sensors and weapons must be suitable for the aircraft, must be available in quantities sufficient to make a difference, and must be integrated or capable of being integrated with the aircraft’s systems. That implies either new production, or diversion from elsewhere. It also implies a capability to safely store and maintain the weapons, and arm and load them onto the aircraft, which in turn implies specialists with years of experience, and special training on the aircraft and the weapons, which in turn implies a system for training, experienced trainers and a site for the training.
So you have aeroplanes with compatible weapons. But you need people to fly them. You ideally want fast jet-trained pilots, who might then take some months to convert to a new type of aircraft, and then have to become familiar with the use of the weapons, by practising somewhere. If you don’t have fast jet pilots already, you can look at a minimum of 2-3 years to produce them. In either case, you will need a separate flying training establishment, with two-seat versions of the F-16, and a range where you can practice blowing things up. You also need people to maintain the airframe, the engines and the avionics, refuel and rearm the aircraft and repair it if someone makes a hole in it. All of these people require years of basic training and experience, and, even if you have suitably-trained people, they will require weeks or months of specialised training on a new kind of aircraft with technologies they haven’t used before. These people need to be trained somewhere, by people who are themselves already trained.
Ok, so we have a platform, weapons, pilots and maintainers, probably 3-5 years down the line. Now we need an air base, with runways of a certain length and quality, hardened shelters and maintenance, engineering and storage facilities. Maybe there are existing bases which could be updated and converted to NATO standards, but you still need to construct lots of engineering and test facilities. The base will also be vulnerable to air attack, so you need air defence radars and missiles, which will probably have to come from the West, and which will need their own personnel trained by someone, their own maintainers and secure storage. So, ready to go?
Not really, because in the absence of any real motive for having the aircraft except that they are available, you don’t have any doctrine for using them. Are they going to be primarily for air defence, or for ground attack? Each case, quite obviously, requires special training and different equipment. Are you going to do frequent Combat Air Patrols, in which case you need to be integrated into the overall air defence system, which will be different from the Soviet-style Ukrainian one, not least to avoid being shot down by your own side? Then you’ll need trained fighter controllers with the right equipment. Or if you are going to support ground forces you need to practice low-level flying constantly, and cooperation with ground forces and forward air controllers, to make sure you don’t attack your own troops.
It’s a lot more complicated than that in practice, of course, but I hope you get the idea that any piece of military equipment is essentially useless unless you know what you want to use it for, and how you then intend to operate it, and unless it can be armed, operated and supported by people who have there right training, in facilities that actually exist. This is essentially the same as the IKEA problem, except that providing capability in defence, and ensuring supply chains work properly, is an order of magnitude more complex and difficult. But an F-16 without the right spare part is just an expensive and delicate full-scale replica of an aeroplane. And of course nobody is trying to destroy your dining table: how far such a deployment plan for F-16s in Ukraine would even be possible, and how long the aircraft would actually last in war are interesting questions, but there isn’t space to go into them here.
The same applies to human beings and ground forces. A persistent theme of the “it will last forever” brigade, whether they are for or against that possibility, is the idea of some “mercenary” force which the West will recruit, train and equip, and send against the Russians, somewhere or other, to do something or other.
Mercenaries exert a bizarre fascination over pundits and commentators, especially those who have never met any. So let’s see if we can restore a sense of proportion. A mercenary is simply a professional soldier who works for an organisation, government or combatants other than his own government. (Notice I say “works” and not necessarily “fights”: I’ll come back to that in a moment.) Mercenaries have been common throughout history: Xenophon participated in and recorded the adventures of a group of Greek mercenaries fighting for one Persian faction against another. (Greek mercenaries, often forced abroad by poverty, were greatly sought after in those days, just as Irish mercenaries were in more recent times.) The Romans made extensive use of mercenary troops in the wars of the Empire, especially to provide capabilities like cavalry, where they had not historically been strong. The feared warriors of the Ottoman Empire, the Janissaries, were all mercenaries.
More importantly, before the modern era, soldiers enlisted in the armed forces of a sovereign, not a country (this is still technically true in Britain.) Thus it was quite possible, and indeed normal, to have contingents from the same area fighting on different sides. Clausewitz himself took service with the Tsar’s Army after the defeat of the Prussians at Jena in 1806. Younger sons of the European aristocracy could be found in the Armies of sovereigns all over Europe.
This started to change with the French Revolution, when volunteers for the first time started to fight for a nation, rather than a sovereign. The paradoxical result was to encourage the main ideological opponents of the French to imitate them, in the sense that patriotism and national identity for the first time came to supplement traditional mercenary professionalism. As the nation-state became more and more prominent, it slowly became accepted that you volunteered for (or were conscripted into) your national army, and didn’t have the right to join another one. A variant of this was also found in the colonies. For thousands of years imperial powers had raised local militias, but by the twentieth century a pattern had emerged of professional, well-trained mercenary units raised by imperial powers both for internal order and in some cases to fight overseas. We see this with the Japanese-run militias in China and Korea, and the local mercenary forces raised by the British, French, Germans and Portuguese in Africa and the Middle East. Many of these soldiers fought with distinction in the two World Wars, and some afterwards. Large numbers of Algerians fought with the French against the FLN, and there were probably more Africans fighting in the Rhodesian Army at the end of that country’s war than there were in the two liberation movements opposing it.
State-organised local mercenary forces have effectively disappeared now, with a few specialised exceptions. The last to go were probably 31 and 32 Battalions of the old South African Defence Force, made up predominantly of Angolan and Namibian mercenaries, and the self-styled South Lebanese Army, effectively run by Israel, which fought in that country’s civil war. A variant, now seen again in Ukraine, was an international mercenary force recruited by a government in difficulty: the prototype was probably Rhodesia again the 1970s, where as many as 2000 foreign soldiers, mostly white, were recruited into the Rhodesian Army. In the confusion of the de-colonialisation and independence of African states, a final spasm of mercenary activity occurred, where warring parties engaged foreign, usually white, mercenaries. The careers of mercenary leaders like Mike Hoare, Jean Schramme and Bob Denard, alternately fawned over and vilified by the media, established the cliché of the romantic, hard-drinking, combat-obsessed tough guy, overthrowing African governments, often with the discreet support of the West. Their activities left a legacy of bitterness and suspicion which endures in Africa until today, and led to the 1989 United Nations Mercenary Convention which, however, few states have signed.
Now, you’ll appreciate that there is one thing that typifies all these modern mercenary forces. They are light infantry, fighting often on foot, in relatively small groups, and in general against untrained or disorganised opponents. In such circumstances, trained and experienced professional soldiers working together can defeat forces many times larger. This has tended to be the pattern of warfare in Africa since independence. But not always: in 1975, mercenaries from Britain and the US flooded into Angola to fight against the Marxist MPLA government. But on arrival many proved not to be ex-soldiers at all, but mentally-disturbed fantasists. The mercenary units were no match for the better-trained MPLA, and the arrival of Cuban forces at the end of the year finished them off.
Today’s “mercenaries” are mainly employed in two areas. One is protection: if you went to Kabul or Baghdad 5-10 years ago, you would have been met at the airport and escorted everywhere by former soldiers working for Private Security Companies. Their job was not to start a war, but to keep you safe, and to avoid danger as far as possible in the first place. Other privately-employed ex-soldiers guarded embassies, hotels, NGO buildings and the like. Many were employed by the United Nations in Iraq, for example, for VIP protection, and security of offices and residences. The second area is training, since training is the ultimate force multiplier. Some of this is training in battle procedures, but some of it also is officer command and staff training.
There never has been, in the whole of modern history, an international mercenary force capable of sustained high-intensity operations against a modern enemy, and it is hard to see how there ever could be. The nearest approach to such a force is the French Foreign Legion, but of its 9000 members, only one regimental-sized unit is even mechanised, let alone armoured, and Legion units are always deployed as part of a much larger, all-arms French force. It is sufficiently selective (5 out of 6 applicants are rejected) that it recruits almost entirely from trained and experienced soldiers. Hoare and co never had to worry much about communications, reconnaissance, air support, vehicle maintenance, mine clearance, air defence, helicopters, drones, electronic warfare or combat engineering, all skills which some hypothetical “mercenary” force would have to have at a level and in numbers to defeat the Russians. Good luck trying to recruit even a single mercenary Mechanised Brigade, with all its problems of recruitment, travel, transport, selection, language, training, equipment specialisation, command, doctrine, medical support, personnel management, discipline and many others. Fantasists, psychotics and the truly desperate can be thrown into a breach to fight for a few hours before being killed, but that’s about all.
What these two fantasies have in common is a very western belief that wars are won at the retail rather than the wholesale level. As I’ve suggested, the PMC vision of war comes overwhelmingly from Hollywood, and from the Anglo-Saxon Second World War tradition of small unit operations by specialist groups. The fact that both Afghanistan and the War on Terror have actually been fought (if lost) this way, and the military themselves have forgotten that there are other forms of warfare, like the complex industrial-scale warfare practised by the Russians, has only reinforced this way of seeing things. The quintessential specialist figure in such wars is the sniper, and a few foreign mercenary snipers seem to have gone to Ukraine in search of money or excitement, only to come home again in a hurry or in a box. The fact is that, in a war where the Russians can drop an artillery shell accurately on a sniper’s’s position, such people are essentially irrelevant.
But it’s hard for the western mindset to understand this. It wasn’t always so: the political leaders of the First World War recognised that they were fighting a war of attrition, not movement, and that producing more shells than the enemy, and killing more soldiers than you lost, were going to be the essential engines of victory. That was a century ago, though, in an age when even politicians were literate in the concepts of mass production and industrialisation. Now, they are literate in Powerpoint, and have been taught that, if the demand exists, the supply will automatically follow. It’s enough to find the money for a hundred aeroplanes or a thousand tank-crewmen, and they will immediately appear. Likewise, many have been brought up on video games, where sufficient exploration turns up new weapons, new units, new powers or increased strength, all provided by the game engine. Unfortunately, the realisation is starting to dawn that in Ukraine, there is no game engine, and you can’t buy power upgrades. War is complicated. Who would have guessed?