The modernity of Clauswewitz’s thought in 21st century understanding of warfare

by | Apr 10, 2017 | Spotlight |

 1. Does new military technology call into question any part of Clausewitz’s teaching? Are nuclear weapons a special case in that regard? Are cyber weapons?

One of the most striking characteristic of the post World War II period has been the blistering pace of military technology in terms of the evolution of weapons system, especially, the integration of these new technologies into a coherent strategic discourse.

As far as nuclear weapons are concerned, many scholars have contended that nuclear weapons are all but strategic weapons. According to them, atomic devices took over strategy: they have utterly eliminated the difference between limited and absolute wars, they have stripped conventional forces of most of their functions, and ultimately they have rendered suicidal the idea that force can be used in highly calibrated increments of defensive and offensive moves.

Nevertheless, it must be pointed out that there are several features concerning nuclear technology consistent with Clausewitz’s thinking on war and strategy. First, nuclear weapons are political weapons: the study of their employment in battle has always been the strategy of the threat of their employment, namely the nonuse of these weapons and the exploitation of their political leverage in a broad context.

In Clausewitz’s view war comprises the extension of the will of the state (politics) by the use of “other means” in order to coerce another state to its own will. Given this, the political effect of these weapons derives not from any design for their employment in war, but simply from their “political” presence. Accordingly, the nuclear strategists portray these weapons as political tools that play a decisive role in pursuing the national interest.

In the nuclear age the boundaries of Clausewitz’s concepts of strategy broadened and since the end of World War II the notion of war became “total war”, that reached its peak in the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ever since, reluctance of great powers to cross the threshold of nuclear warfare that would be mutually suicide led to the elaboration of a strategy that became more focused on the exploitation of potential force rather than a strategy of action for “the use of engagement for the object of war”.

Therefore, the rise to prominence of nuclear weapons resulted in conflating together Clausewitz’s concept of strategy and foreign policy and the main “rationale” behind the use of them became to deter an enemy from attacking with the threat of a massive retaliation in-kind.  By the same token, strategy never ceased to exist, but became a more challenging task: in the nuclear age the “friction of war” were transferred from the battlefield to the command and control centres where policy-makers and strategists sought to develop rational calculations in case of large-scale nuclear-exchange.

So much so nuclear devices began to be influenced, rather than influencing, by the choices of politics: under those circumstances preparations for nuclear war served the policy objective of a more credible deterrence posture.

Overall, nuclear weapons remain consistent with Clausewitz’s findings until they perform a deterrence role. Or until they are merely “potential”, quoting Aristotle: their use would bring such destruction over population and societies- the so called mutual kill, the threat of pain and extinction of human race – that “making them actual” cannot be deemed a credible political objective.

As for the development and integration of technology into military forces, many strategists and scholars explicitly talked about the rise of a near-perfect intelligence that would have made all the old ways of fighting futile. The key to the so-called network-centric warfare would have made “total information awareness” over the battlefield the heart of “new” wars and have rendered Clausewitz’s findings obsolete, thanks to the “marriage” between precision long-range weapons with extensive capabilities for storing, processing and distributing information alongside extensive intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

Drawing on business jargon, the Revolution in Military Affairs enthusiasts assert that the network-centric warfare will lift the “fog of war”- the uncertainty in situational awareness during military operations-and solve the problem of friction- the simple fact that distinguishes real war from war on paper.

If it is out of question that the pace of technological change has created huge expectations for such shift, Clausewitz’s understanding continues to hold sway over the conduct of war: new technologies have created new demands along the old ones, and problems like information overload, inexperienced personnel and friction between headquarters remain central in the network-centric-war too.

As for cyber weapons, the world has seen an enormous growth in the rate of change of computing power and the exponential advancement of cyber-based infrastructures. The internet of things has engendered a world in which the pervasiveness of networked communication in the social, financial, industrial and military sectors has increasing beneficial aspects, but at the same time all these changes have revolutionized vulnerabilities.

As with any technological innovation, states and non-state actors see this new realm as a field for exerting strategic advantage through attacks on a wide range of assets. However, it remains to be seen whether cyberspace could be treated as an independent realm of war, and moreover if cyber-attacks can be wielded for long-term strategic purposes. Unlike “normal” war, which is a political process that implies threats or coercion as Clausewitz stated, cyber-operations seem to fall short in achieving credible goals and in inflicting durable harms to an enemy.

To extract political leverage from a cyber-attack could be attained if it occurs alongside terrestrial military force or subsequent actions that capitalize on the any temporary incapacity brought about by the cyber-attack. On its own, however, a cyber-attack such as a computer virus that debilitates a national power grid or a country stock exchange would appear to be arduous to harness for strategic purposes. Or, even worse, could even backfire the attacker if it gets out of control.

To a certain extent, cyber-operations lack of a coherent operational effectiveness that make them clearly exploitable for conventional forces, also because their risks outweigh their likely benefits: in this sense, cyber-warfare is more attractive indeed to unconventional and asymmetric actors, who are less dependent upon sophisticated information technologies.

In conclusion, in applying Clausewitz understanding to the influence of new military technologies, one evident assumption must be stressed: the theories of the Prussian general must be framed within the historical context they were elaborated. Therefore, it must be emphasized that Clausewitz is a byproduct of Napoleonic era and not of the Nuclear Age nor of the modern era.

Given this, his conjectures and insights must be adjusted to fit the current state-of-affairs. The logic of war and strategy that Clausewitz elaborated remain universal and enduring, notwithstanding the significant changes to the character and conduct of war by the development of new technology: the organization of violence is a constant of human society, and war remains the use of force, or at least the threat of the use of force, to achieve political aims, regardless the actor who unleashes it.

2) How is warfare changing in the 21st century? Are there timeless features of war and strategy? What would Carl von Clausewitz say about 21st century warfare? Use contemporary examples to highlight your argument.

Clausewitz would state that war always reflects the era in which it occurs, and that it is always affected by the transformations that take place in the society.

In the 21st century the transition from a bi-polar confrontation to a unipolar moment saw the end of “the classic period of nuclear deterrence” between superpowers and the rise of new kind of conflicts: these changes have been characterized by alteration in actors and in the way of conducting war, as well as by diversification in weaponry, politico-cultural institution and political economy in the war-making.

Indeed, after the Cold War the world witnessed a dramatic decrease in the number of violent interstate conflicts, while at the same time the 21st century ushered in an era in which the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence has been dispersed over many forms of non-state actors.

These players have fed off globalization and have thrived on the advancement of information technology: non-state actors grew bigger and, thanks to cheap cost of communication and transportation and to the revolution in information technology, managed to network with each other. While the advancement in the field of IT empowered transnational and non-state actors, simultaneously globalization eroded the sovereignty of state and made it irrelevant.

Since nuclear powers, like US, confirmed their emphasis on the ultimate tool of deterrence, in 21st century avoidance to outright conflict have led to an increase of non-linear and indirect ways of moving war that became the norm: those types of war are widely known as hybrid, asymmetric or irregular warfare. This kind of unleashing warfare comprises a multifaceted mix of military and non-military tactics that aims to take advantage of the vulnerabilities of a stronger conventional adversary to level off the asymmetry of forces.

Today hybrid warfare integrates a combination of capabilities such as conventional warfare, non-conventional weaponry use (mostly low-tech), non-attributable forces (in plain clothes or without tabs), terror tactics (like IEDs, VBIED, suicide bombers), cyber-warfare, deception, and information/propaganda strategies. It must be emphasized that hybrid methods are used both by states and non-state actors. By way of example, asymmetric tactics have recently come to the fore because of the use of non-attributable forces in Eastern Ukraine by Russian Army or Russian interference in its periphery through economic coercion, information campaign and sponsorship of political protests.

In this way, on the one hand Russia aims at carving out spheres of influences exerting soft power at its periphery; on the other hand, through cyber-space it manages to meddle in a state-based system to propagate false information and influence a target audience. The alleged meddling in US election is only the last case.

Thus, Russian government and its special squads of hackers have been implementing such measures of hybrid warfare at least since the invasion of Eastern Ukraine with the precise scope to throw off balance Western democracy and project its power along its borders.

As for non-state actors, since 9/11 many experts have labelled 21st century’s warfare with the name of terrorism: however, terrorism is a misnomer, since certain tactics that have always been appealing to weak actors in asymmetric situation against conventional forces. Moreover, the employment of terrorist methods (i.e.: suicide bombings) aims to inspire fear to attract public opinion to a political complaint, to bring about heavy-handed repression or, lastly, to demoralize society and break down the social order.

Additionally, in the 21st century warfare asymmetric actors opt for specific military means after careful consideration based on their own organizational and financial capabilities: in this sense, they are rational utility maximizers. Likewise, in the 21st century warfare asymmetric actors such as non-state players capitalize on their main strengths: mobility, poor command, anonymity, stealth. Notably, achievement in 21st century conflicts is measured in decades and not years: terrorist and irregular actors become successful by depleting the resolve of its conventional adversary in terms of time, space, legitimacy and support.

This is particularly true in an era in which technological superior forces find themselves baffled or even defeated by insurgents or irregular opponents, as it happened in Vietnam in the 70s and in Lebanon in 2006. In other words, technological superiority in 21st century warfare might not be a reliable guide for predicting the outcomes of wars and information dominance might not translate into strategic success.

The Vietnam war well exemplifies how a weak opponent can exploit the asymmetry of force and take advantage of it: the continuous use of “protracted warfare” (ambushes, guerrilla warfare, hit-and-run tactics), the exploitation of difficult terrain for tactical advantage (US tanks were ill-equipped for swamps and jungle warfare), and the growing internal legitimacy and international support, all these elements worked in favor of Vietcong.

Despite the US was not defeated “militarily”, the irregular opponents won strategically: their success arose from their ability to sap their opponents’ will to wage war, pitting their organizational strengths against the enemy weaknesses and forcing the enemy to withdraw. Another important factor of this 21st century-war derives from the extensive coverage of conflict by the media mainstream: consequently, the theatre of war entered “the domestic sphere”, arriving to encompass the polity and institutions of all the US and leading to the explosion of social contradictions.

Although with some variations, the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war bears some resemblance to Vietnam. A vastly superior force, armed with cutting edge weapons, and supported by heavy artillery and air force, got bogged down in a conflict in which a smart but weak foe refused to play the game of the strongest and turned the features of the game into a strength of its own. Therefore, Israel soon found itself unable to defeat Hezbollah.

So much so the Lebanese-militia proved to be an enemy with competent leadership, a decent army equipped with effective standoff weapons and fair public support. Additionally, the group managed to meld classic guerrilla tactics, conventional war-savvy and the latest high technology to gather intelligence and to crack into the IDF’s command and control system: thus, the Party of God was able both to wreck the enemy’s “information process” more than once and to nullify Israel’s massive advantage of force and size through deception and deceit.

More importantly, the irregular warfare waged by Hezbollah played more in terms of strategy than operations: the massive barrage of Katyusha rockets that kept hitting Israeli settlements depleted the societal willingness of the opponent to persist in such conflict, leading the Jewish State to withdraw its forces.

The examples mentioned above show timeless features of Clausewitz’s findings still relevant for the postmodern warfare. First, they demonstrate how war is still a dialectical interaction between conflicting antagonists and the outcomes are yet defined by the interplay between opponents.

Israel and the US are well equipped to fight conventional forces, but they both fall short in opposing unconventional actors. In combat, strategy does not follow a linear logic, even in the era of information dominance and situational awareness brought about by the Revolution in Military Affairs: it remains a human activity that requires careful assessment depending on different situation. Thus, weak but intelligent foes “shroud democracy with the fog of war” and generate friction in the (alleged) perfect machine of conventional forces.

Then, in 21st century conflicts, irregular and asymmetric actors act to achieve political aims and the rational calculus of war holds up. Overall, no matter who wages war: Clausewitz’s primary trinity of primordial violence, hatred and enmity is relevant in the 21st as it was in the 18th, and the relationship between means and ends, as well as universal concept of friction will prove correct until war will be a practical endeavor waged by humans.



Featured image: Flickr/Public Domain

Author: Lorenzo Carrieri


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