The Digital Fog of Future War and Allied Command Education

“That which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts;

Made weak by time and fate; 

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.

Ulysses, Alfred, Lord Tennyson 


Alphen, Netherlands. 31 October, 2019. In my forthcoming book, Future War and the Defence of Europe, which will be brilliant and very reasonably-priced, I suggest that multi-domain warfare reaches across air, sea, land, cyber, space, information and knowledge. Last week, I had the honour of addressing senior Allied and Partner officers at the excellent NATO Defence College in Rome. Founded by the then Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the mission of the College is to provide to NATO officers two of the most important strategic enablers – knowledge and understanding.

Writing my latest book I have been struck by the vital importance knowledge and understanding at all levels of command will have in the maintenance of deterrence, the conduct of defence and, if needs be, the fighting of future war. Knowledge and understanding will be vital to block and mitigate adversaries’ planned exploitation the digital fog of future war. Indeed, isolating command from its force and effects, and leaders from led, will be a primary aim of the future enemy warfighter. 

This challenge got me thinking. If, as many at the higher echelons of NATO believe, the Alliance is moving fast into multi-domain future war, surely the place and role of all strategic enablers should be afforded equal importance in NATO’s changing, informal, and real, strategic concept, and more particularly in its military strategy.  After all, Allied Command Operations (ACO) covers the ‘doing’ stuff, and Allied Command Transformation (ACT) drives force transformation and development. And, whilst I accept that transformation also includes a role in command mindset-change, I am not sure ACT should, or could, affect the kind of knowledge-change mindset-change NATO forces will need to deal with a future war emergency.  Such change will be critical if the Alliance is to successfully and really adapt to credible future deterrence and defence against what the US Strategic Technology Office calls ‘mosaic warfare’.

The essential ‘thing’ about the NATO Defence College is that it is not a stand-alone institution. It supports and enables security and defence colleges across the Alliance by promoting best-practice models of education and research – how to know and what to know given the mission.  If the College is to further adapt it must also build on its efforts to exploit the digital domain through distance and e-learning, and by promoting a life-long professional military education culture that will be critical to future success at every level of mission command. More is needed. NDC should be given far more tools so that it can partner ACT and ‘transform’ education and training to drive forward ‘the cohesion, effectiveness, and readiness of multinational formations’.

The College adds real value to the Alliance mission, which is why, each year, I go there with enthusiasm. I believe in the mission. It is certainly not for the money.  What they offer, to my mind, is already at the cutting edge of professional military education. Still, as a former member of the NDC Academic Advisory Board I am also convinced they could offer so much.  If critical cohesion is to be afforded Alliance forces in an age of pan-spectrum digital fires what is needed is a range of best-practice education and knowledge ‘products’ from junior to senior levels of command, including simulation and table-top exercising, and which can be offered to all NATO nations.  The NATO Defence College is the place to develop and provide such ‘products’ precisely because it has the legitimacy and, with the support of the Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, because it can. 

Is there a problem? No. However, there is a possible confusion of roles in adaptation between transformation and education. The danger is that Allied Command Transformation might see education and knowledge as a sub-set of military transformation. They are not. They are, at the very least, the equals of transformation for without knowledge transformation military transformation can neither be generated, nor enacted. 

Therefore, I have a simple suggestion: turn the NATO Defence College into Allied Command Education, arm it with a strategic education and knowledge mission, and promote the commandant of the NATO Defence College to Supreme Allied Commander, Education. Such a step would be both transformative, adaptive and exploit a critical Allied comparative advantage – its people. 

To paraphrase Tennyson: that which we are can be improved; to equal understanding in heroic hearts; made strong by knowing and commanding our fate; to strive, to seek, to find, to know, so that we never have to yield.

Julian Lindley-French