Maginot NATO? How to Fight a War when the Roof Caves in?

“An incessant change of means to attain unalterable ends is always going on; we must take care not to let these sundry means undo eminence in the perspective of our minds; for, since the beginning, there has been an unending cycle of them, and for each its advocates have claimed adoption as the sole solution of successful war.”

General George S. Patton

Network NATO

Alphen, Netherlands. November 21. At the NATO Foreign Minister’s Meeting in Brussels yesterday, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called on the nations to recognise space as a domain of Allied defence and deterrence, alongside air, land, sea, and cyber.  To those five ‘domains’ I would add critical information and knowledge.  Stoltenberg was clear: “Space is essential to the Alliance’s defence and deterrence, for early warning, communication and navigation”. So, what happens when such ‘networks collapse? If the military net was ‘killed’ could Western militaries still take a coherent and cohesive fight to the enemy? Shorn of the direct command relationship between supreme commander and ‘strategic lieutenants’ implicit in networked warfare could NATO mount any sort of defence, beyond a series of local uncoordinated actions? As space-based communications, robotics and networked architectures become THE essential components of NATO doctrine, are potentially catastrophic vulnerabilities also being built into Allied defence and deterrence?  

In the eighteenth, and for much of the nineteenth century, Royal Navy squadrons and individual frigates were despatched to claim far-flung corners of the world for His/Her Imperial Britannic Majesty.  They were armed by Their Lordships of the Admiralty with little more than the broad strategic intent of the government of the day. Thereafter, remote from London, they went ‘dark’, and possibly for years. How their Lordships ‘intent’ was interpreted was entrusted to individual commanding officers.  So long as they were successful in their mission, or died trying, honour was said to have been served. In 1757, Admiral John Byng was executed by firing squad in His Majesty’s Naval Base, Portsmouth on the quarterdeck of HMS Monarch precisely for failing that trust, although King George II also played a dark political hand in this tragic affair. 

Some of my best conversations take place in the unlikeliest of places. Last Wednesday night I was having a ‘mind my own business’ pizza in a Roman trattoria as I prepared to brief NATO admirals and generals on the future of NATO at the excellent NATO Defence College, two old friends walked in, Professors Stefano Silvestri and Holger Mey.  Some fifteen years ago Stefano and I collaborated on a series of reports into the future of European defence for the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Venusberg Group. Brilliant, and very reasonably-priced (free), they are still worth a read Holger is a fellow member of The Alphen Group strategy network, or TAG,, which I have the honour to chair. Thereafter, a very convivial evening was had by all. 

What if NATO crashes?

Napoleon said one should “never interrupt an enemy when he is making a mistake”. Holger raised a vital point, as he so often does, that has been of concern to me for some time. What if all the digital, networked, increasingly ‘AI’ and space-based architectures upon which the future Western way of warfare is being predicated were to collapse? Too often Western defence planners seem to think that the West adversaries are stupid, will do exactly what they expect them to do, and will only attack Western forces, and indeed society, where it is intrinsically strong.   It is a message Holger hammers home to great effect in his brilliant briefings on the changing relationship between strategy, technology, mindset and effects.

What some call ‘hybrid warfare’ I prefer to call 5D warfare; the considered and relentless application of complex strategic coercion across disinformation, deception, disruption, destabilisation, and destruction. It is a form of perpetual warfare at the seams and margins of open societies, soft critical infrastructures, and insufficiently-hardened military command chains that is purposefully designed to keep the armed forces of democracies permanently off-balance.  

In May 1940, the numerically superior French and British armies collapsed in the face of the far smaller Wehrmacht. This was primarily because the Wehrmacht’s offensive doctrine (the military way of doing business), which combined strategy, tactics and technology to great effect in the form of Blitzkrieg, critically and catastrophically overcame Allied defensive doctrine. The success of the Wehrmacht was almost symbiotic with the nature of the force-on-force conflict. Allied armies were either too static, the French Maginot Line, or suffering from the false assumptions of France’s General Gamelin and Britain’s Lord Gort about how the Wehrmacht would employ manoeuvre warfare.  The result was that in the six weeks following May 10 the Allied armies became rapidly separated, whilst their respective command chains became increasingly incoherent as individual formations were either isolated and by-passed (Maginot Line), or became ever more separated from their own command chains. Patton was surely right when he said, “fixed fortifications are monument’s to man’s stupidity”.  The over-extended, and far too small, British Expeditionary Force had been sent to deter, not to fight.  

London and the Audit of Alliance Vulnerabilities

Patton also said something else, NATO leaders might wish to consider at the forthcoming ‘Leader’s Meeting’ in London: “If everybody is thinking alike, someone is not thinking”.  The gathering is nominally to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the April 1949 (???) founding of the Alliance.  London could well be dominated by a major Macron-inspired spat over whether, seventy years on, NATO even has a future.  Anything to deny the British a political and diplomatic success, eh Paris? As an aside, I do ‘admire’ the French ability to turn an essentially good idea – Europeans should do more for their own defence – into an unmitigated political disaster – but not so much with the Americans, and possibly without NATO.  If the leaders can get over that particular querelle most of a brief discussion will be devoted to the modernisation of Alliance collective deterrence and defence.  

If NATO’s leaders really want to go beyond simply ‘fact-checking’ progress on the 2014 NATO Defence Investment Pledge, the leaders could instigate an Audit of Alliance Vulnerabilities, and order NATO to imagine how it would fight a war in the worst-case. The Russian General Staff believe they have a great advantage in any future ‘kinetic’ war, which day-after-day they are planning, even if, hopefully, it is never activated. This potentially critical advantage lies not in any belief about the relative superiority of the Russian Armed Forces. Rather, it is the belief that with the clever application of 5D warfare the entire NATO command and control edifice could collapse like a pack of cards, or be by-passed like some latter day virtual Maginot Line. Therefore, if ‘London’ is to reaffirm Allied deterrence and defence NATO must demonstrate that Maginot NATO is but a Gerasimov wet-dream. 

As for Admiral Byng, he was deemed by Their Lordships to have failed under the Articles of War to take the fight to the French with sufficient vigour, courage and imagination. As Voltaire observed in Candide, his wonderful satire about the folly of exuberant optimism, Byng was executed “pour encourager les autres” – to encourage the other British admirals. Now, there’s an idea.

Julian Lindley-French