LTG Michel Yakovleff FRA-AR
Address to FINABEL (speaking notes)
The Finabel coordination committee is a land forces organisation comprising 20 Member states of the European Union with a view to promote interoperability between the land forces of its Member states. Membership is open to all of the Member states of the European Union
The Future of Land Power
The following text is not to be construed as an official statement from the Command Group of SHAPE. The views presented here are personal views held by the author.
Some arguments were not delivered during the presentation, for the sake of time. They are inserted in this written text, for future reference, in italics.
For some time, there was the illusion that we could have a future without war or the prospect of war. The Western world has engaged in a continuous decline of military forces, as if the illusion could be used as an assumption.
Yet old truths stick fast. I like to remind of a sentence found in Swiss Army propaganda: “Every country has an army. Its own, or that of someone else”. It is a truth that Georgia and Ukraine are reflecting on today.
I see the future of land forces in that context: our nations are going to need them, worse still, I believe they will use them.
NATO, as has been reminded, is the most successful alliance in history. From twenty years in operations, it has learned a lot, it has performed very well, it has achieved tactical overmatch in every environment, against any kind of opponent.
And yet, not all that we have learned applies to the challenges of the decades to come. Worst still, we may have to unlearn things we have learnt. So our forces will need to reflect on them and adapt to the next conflict.
Some strategic lessons learned.
Hard power is still the ultimate currency of power. There was a time, at the demise of the Berlin Wall, when we considered that soft power had done it and that hard power was a somewhat antiquated form of power. Well, the first lesson of the last twenty years, and quite significantly, of the last seven years (since the 2008 invasion of Georgia by Russia), is that hard power, the one measured in tanks and aircraft, remains the dollar of power currencies.
Soft power is irrelevant when confronted with tanks at the border, or, as seen currently, propaganda backed by threat of tanks.
The military tool is a blunt tool. To what degree does it achieve desirable strategic outcomes? The Balkans, after twenty years, still have NATO military presence. They are not at war, but neither are they at peace. Libya is not necessarily better than it was before the war. Arguably, it could have turned much uglier, but that is judgment call. As for Afghanistan, well, the jury is still out and it will take ten years to determine whether NATO’s intervention will be seen in a positive light, or not.
As a result, in the West, we have developed a strong measure of scepticism vis-à-vis the use of military force as an instrument of strategy. The consequence, beyond scepticism, is strong reluctance to use military force.
The issue is that this reluctance is not shared by most of the world. Quite to the contrary: a number of powers, throughout the world, are positively enthusiastic about using military force, or threat of force, and they are quite sure they have achieved the desired outcomes at greater speed and lower cost than they would have by other, “softer” means. Just think of how Crimea was annexed by Russia, as a result of a very effective and low cost military campaign.
Operational Lessons Learned.
Control of the land remains the ultimate determinant of victory and the condition for peace. With real estate comes the population, and they are the true arbiters of success.
For example, what measure of governance has been achieved in Afghanistan is essentially a product of the degree of security currently delivered, on the ground, by the ANSF.
Air power can strike, but it cannot secure.
Sea power can strangle, but it cannot stabilise.
Expanding a moment on air power, my statement is more significant because NATO has waged two “air wars”, over Kosovo and Libya, without committing ground troops. These were true “historical firsts”, the exclusive use of air power to wage war, and yet, despite victory, the statement remains true: air power does not achieve control.
The reason is that land power is persistent, whereas air power is transient. Between strikes, so to speak, our opponent can organise his life almost unhindered, whereas when his freedom of action is restrained or at least contested by presence on the ground and the likelihood of contact at any moment, the pressure consumes much of his time and resources.
As for maritime power, well, it appears that the pirate crisis that affected the Somali coast for years has been virtually eradicated as soon as some degree of governance was reinstated, on land, by the fledgling Somali authorities. Granted, naval power and coordination of efforts, not least with the commercial world, have contributed to current success, but it does appear that the decisive factor was control of the shore line by a friendly force.
We must be reminded that all our operations were conducted with total dominance of air, sea, space and the electromagnetic environment.
The assumption that this degree of dominance will prevail in the next twenty years is arguable at best. Frankly, I think we must conceive of our future operations as occurring in contested spaces, be they air, sea, space and electromagnetic. This massive change in context is the source of my doubts regarding the value of our lessons learned: they relate to an age that is passing away.
So what are the prospects for land power?
I propose thoughts for the next fifteen-twenty years to come.
First of all, we must accept that our uncontested air supremacy is over.
For the last twenty years, we have enjoyed a window of absolute supremacy, mostly as a result of our technological advantage and thanks to the large numerical superiority we owe to the United States.
Just to take a few examples of what I believe will not happen again, or not dependably so:
- We have taken the habit of having Medevac helicopters land virtually on the spot where the wounded were hit. The so-called golden hour is quite forgetful of what it takes to operate helicopters when facing the threat of missiles and competent air defence artillery. The reality is that we will have to carry our wounded over a kilometre or two, to meet the helicopters where they can land with reduced risk of direct fire;
- Massive overkill from the air is over. I remember TICs in Afghanistan (troops in contact) where it was reported that “one to two automatic weapons” had warranted a succession of strikes by F-15s, B1-Bs, Apaches, dispensing hundreds of 30 mm rounds, a pocketful of GBU-38s, and the like. This degree of overwhelming support is not going to happen again, at least as a general assumption.
The same applies to uncontested sea access. None of our theatres could have existed without unobstructed use of sea lines of communication (SLOCs). In a world where more than 500 submarines exist, not all of them in friendly hands, we cannot go on assuming unfettered logistics. Also, our tactical choices will be impacted, by submarines, mines, and a new generation of area denial missiles. Though most of the world population can be reached from the sea (some 80% of world population lives within 100 km of the sea), our superiority in amphibious capabilities will not necessarily be brought to bear.
But the vanishing superiority of Western style warfare will be most perceptible, from our soldiers’ perspective, in the electromagnetic realm. This goes far beyond the current concerns about cyber, though cyber is part of the picture.
Our small tactical echelons of today have come to depend massively on uncontested electromagnetic capabilities: without instant communication, without dependable positioning, our units are at a loss to move, call fires, report, maintain, evacuate…
Our generation – that of the flag officers sitting in the room – at least knew how to navigate and orient with tools as basic as paper maps and compasses, which are pretty resistant to jamming. But the younger generation, our lieutenants, have not always learned those skills. Nor are they mentally and morally comfortable with the practice of radio silence. And our generals tend to like real-time video to take decisions…
A number of nations today are pretty good at jamming, disruption, intrusion, deception. They practice their art routinely. I do not relish the day when our soldiers, who have become utterly dependent on instant communication, both professionally and with their families, will have to fight under serious restrictions.
The biggest change I see coming is robotics. This is truly the next generation of warfare. Not that I like the idea, personally. But I am convinced we are going to experience a massive change in the art of war, over the next twenty years. If only because we, the Westerners, are most in need of robots to compensate for our lack of personnel.
I believe we will experience, within this generation, the introduction of robots in large numbers, mostly small, operating in swarms. From my private studies I have come to the conclusion that we will see a majority of sensors, some killers/effectors (such as smokescreen dispensers), and a sizable contingent of helpers (such as mule robots).
The introduction of robotics in war will change the face of war forever. Though it may be the ideal evolution of warfare, I am not convinced it is the ideal evolution of humankind.
Which leads me to ethical considerations. I insist that I am talking ethical issues and not legal. We must not leave it to the soldier alone to grapple with the ethical issues of wars to come, such as those accruing from the introduction of robots. From their conception downwards, these artefacts must be developed with ethical considerations in mind.
As for armour, I believe we have reached the limit of the armour our men can carry while still remaining marginally combat-effective. I suggest we should have another look at how the Roman legion used their armour: they carried it on carriages or mules, and only donned the armour when preparing for battle. If we want our soldiers to retain a measure of tactical mobility, we must agree to disassociate them, most of the time, from most of their armour, accepting the risk of higher casualties when caught by surprise.
More generally, given the threats looming today, we should rethink the expeditionary force model that was imposed on all of NATO by our larger ally. The largest armies of Europe today are in Switzerland and Finland. They are competent, even though based on conscription. Ukraine was caught half-way between two models, a large army based on conscription, and a smaller, professional force, so it enjoyed the advantages of none and the downside of both. For a number of NATO nations, reinstating a larger land force based on a combination of conscription and mobilisation may be an effective deterrent, more than a handful of elite forces.
NATO has become the standard of military competency. That said, we should be aware that it is a standard based on luxury, not on austerity. We are good at doing a rich man’s war – and that is something that may change soon.
What should we work on?
I suggest a number of basic strands, involving a reassessment of the following:
- Brigade level manoeuvre. Over twenty years, we have never seen a fight above battalion level (true of NATO as such, not of all its Allies).
- Air defence, not only of the active kind (air defence artillery) but also of the passive kind (camouflage, dispersion) that the Serb army used so impressively during the Kosovo air campaign.
- The true limits of multinationality. We have gone down to platoon level. That is acceptable in a context of sedentary warfare against little or no opposition, within deliberate (meaning: with the benefit of detailed planning) operations. In the context of large-scale manoeuvre, involving brigades, I believe the basic element of multinationality will be the battalion (for a simple reason: it is the first level of tactical command that has a permanent staff as opposed to a lone commander).
- Austere logistics. Until now, in essence, all our NATO commanders have got what they asked for. A number of Allies, to include some fighting today, in Africa, do not have that culture. They do with what they have, period. Thinking in those terms is not part of the NATO style of war. It needs to.
- A focus on force. As I said above, we have developed a real estate mentality, despite all the lofty wording to the contrary. We need to think of fighting the force, even more so when it will be more conventional than what we have met until now.
- Better exercises (not necessarily more). NATO must exercise modern/future warfare, with a different set of parameters.
First of all, think again of near-peer opponents, with very real competencies in all spaces, which will become contested spaces.
Since we can no more assume dominance in heretofore-uncontested spaces, we must rediscover what I call “manoeuvre warfare”, a more dynamic and imaginative way of doing war. (For example: how to conduct a whole campaign without achieving air superiority. In which case the question becomes: What measure of air power can be delivered in the absence of air superiority? Merely framing the question this way is still perceived as an absurdity by many of our airmen. There is a NATO way of doing campaigns which is very mechanical, in essence, win the air campaign, and then, launch the ground campaign. This has got to be challenged, other courses of action must be invented.)
We must use exercises to reinvest the ideological space, and learn to fight ideas.
Most of all, we must use exercises to develop the leaders we need, mostly focusing on developing initiative. These leaders must be tech-aware, but not tech-dependent, as too many are today. Even our soldiers are destabilised if they don’t have a daily talk with their family by Skype. This has got to change.
Initiative is the quality most needed when one is left on his own – as will happen when our radios will be shut off, our networks damaged or compromised. Our leaders are network-dependent, they need to feel comfortable with loneliness.
Risk aversion must be reversed. We need a culture of risk taking, without endless calculation. This starts at company level officers, it is inherently an issue of military culture. Our people must feel comfortable with uncertainty.
We must assume that our soldiers will not be connected all the time; at best, they may enjoy intermittent or partial connectivity. Remember we will operate in austere environments, where the required infrastructure was never created, or where it has been damaged. And all that facing an opposition that will be much more adept at electronic warfare, cyber warfare and, more generally, information warfare. For example, we need to relearn navigation without GPS, operational graphics on paper maps and overlays, radio silence, and shutting off Blue Force Tracker because of the risk of penetration by the enemy.
The leaders we have today are like wolves, they are good at operating in packs. But we must make sure they are good at being lone wolves also.
Urban warfare we have never seriously experienced, against a determined and enduring foe. Considering that, very soon, two-thirds of world population will be urban, and that, ultimately, you achieve victory when the population agrees that you have won the contest, we must prepare to meet the population where it lives.
As mentioned above, the same applies to littoral operations: 80% of the world population lives within 100 K of a shore.
War is back, shortly, to our own shores.
It will be less easy, more costly.
This will come as a shock to our nations.
We would be well advised, at least for those of us who are more exposed, to rethink our military model, along the lines of the nation-in-arms, which is a pretty good substitute for nuclear deterrence, in most cases.
This is why NATO is having a very hard look at the lessons learned from its operations, and those it needs to relearn, or sometimes, unlearn. Keeping in mind that victory at the price of values is not what we want to achieve.