Digital warfare will erode the distinction between the state and civil society

As Boris Johnson announced an extra £16bn for the Ministry of Defence, the potential costs of modern combat to our democracy have never been higher.

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Asked to picture a battle tank, most people will probably think of a Russian T-72. First produced in 1971, the T-72 is still the mainstay of armies in the former Soviet Union, although it has been upgraded over the years, with superior armour, more active sensors and reliable engines.

In six weeks of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, which took place between September and November this year, an estimated 185 of Armenia's T-72 tanks were destroyed by drone and artillery strikes.

Drones, made in Turkey and Israel, enabled the Azerbaijani armed forces to not only destroy Armenian tank units, but also a significant portion of its artillery, anti-aircraft missiles and supply equipment. The Armenian army’s morale collapsed, and the subsequent peace deal brokered by Russia included Armenia surrendering land conquered by Azerbaijan during the conflict.

The defeat of the Armenian army was not lost on Britain's defence chiefs. Britain is a major power, with nuclear weapons, submarines and cyberwar capabilities. But if Boris Johnson ever hesitated over giving the Ministry of Defence an extra £16bn of defence budget, which he did on 18 November, sober assessments of the Nagorno-Karabakh War would certainly have persuaded him. According to the European Council on Foreign Relations, "Most of the EU’s armies – especially those of small and medium-sized member states – would do as miserably as the Armenian army in a modern kinetic war."

Though it was a small-scale conflict, and barely registered in the public consciousness in the UK, the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has focused military minds in the world’s capital powers. Warfare has changed dramatically over the past 40 years. But the recent battlegrounds in Syria, Ukraine and now Nagorno-Karabakh have shown just how much digital warfare prevails over industrial mass and metal. A modernised T-72, for example, has armour that can withstand most anti-tank weapons fired at it from the ground. Its low profile also means that it can avoid human detection. But it cannot weather a cluster of unmanned drones that can attack without risking the lives of those who operate them remotely.

Johnson's £16bn splurge in defence spending was announced amid the usual technobabble of “inexhaustible lasers”, hackers and space commands. But it signalled serious intent. Throughout the Blair, Brown, Cameron and May eras, the UK’s armed forces were geared for fighting expeditionary wars with infantry soldiers in sandy places. Now they will be re-engineered to survive the kind of smart wars witnessed in Nagorno-Karabakh.  

On 30 September the chief of the defence staff, Nick Carter, gave a stark assessment of the potential threats to the UK, namely actions conducted in cyberspace and the infosphere, and carried out by private military companies trained in the dark arts of political manipulation and propaganda. In response, he said, the UK will have to engage hostile actors in the same digital space – albeit constrained by international law in the ways Russia, China and their allies may not be.

The UK armed forces will also separate the idea of "operations" from warfare. Traditionally, these have meant the same thing. But Britain’s armed forces will now conduct operations short of out-and-out war. British battleships, aircrafts or infantry units will no longer be deployed in the world on simple training missions: they will be operationally ready to counter threats such as information war and propaganda.

As major powers scramble to boost their drone and sensor resources, it is clear that the war machines of the future will not be the lumbering metal boxes of the Cold War, but be designed to hunt and destroy each other. "Warfare," said Carter, "is increasingly about a competition between hiding and finding. It will be enabled at every level by a digital backbone into which all sensors, effectors and deciders will be plugged. This means that some industrial age capabilities will increasingly have to meet their sunset to create the space for capabilities needed for sunrise."

[See also: Ido Vock on the Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire

This is not just a subtle way of saying that the UK will stop building tanks. It means that Britain’s existing military culture – its command and control structures, inter-service rivalries, hierarchies and military specialisms – is increasingly obsolete. Britain’s armed forces will gravitate towards technological solutions rather than human ones.

What was startling about Carter's statement was its underlying message: that the primary conceptual distinction in politics – between the state and civil society – will begin to blur. That is commonplace in totalitarian states, such as North Korea and, increasingly, China, where the government sees the thoughts and everyday lives of its citizens as a battlespace. But it has not previously been the case in post-1945 Western democracies.

It is true that in the Cold War agents and proxies of both sides infiltrated each other’s societies in search of influence and information, and to spread disinformation. But the Cold War was a stasis; its information wars crude and analogue.

Today's resurgent global powers – China, Russia and India – do not want stasis. China is constructing the largest navy in the world and Russia has proved capable of waging information warfare in the heart of the US political system. In Russian military theory, everything is a conflict zone – culture, sport, politics, social media – and many social entities, from far-right bulletin boards to lobbying companies, are potentially useful proxies for waging information warfare or spreading propaganda.

But a democratic culture cannot thrive when the state and civil society start to merge. What we are trying to defend is not just the structures and institutions of democracy, but the very concept of freedom: the freedom to oppose the government without being labelled a traitor, and without becoming a target for hybrid warfare by the state.

What this means is not that the UK has to abandon its civil society to the ravages of Kremlin hybrid warfare, but that it has to drag developments in modern warfare into the open. For example, in August 2020, as the US presidential election campaigns began in earnest, Twitter started to label the accounts of state and government-affiliated media. Redfish, a left-leaning social media outfit based in Berlin, was marked as "Russian state-affiliated media". 

Though a subsidiary of RT (formerly Russia Today), which often peddles white supremacist scare stories, through the news agency Ruptly, Redfish is targeted at progressives who care about social injustice. Its motto, "Against the stream", is borrowed from Trotskyism, and its content is mainly riot footage and police repression: this week alone from Bogota, Santiago, Lima, Madrid, Paris and Berlin.

Many intelligence officials may dream of shutting down RT, Ruptly and Redfish. They may even fantasise about creating their British equivalents, targeted at Russian and Chinese civil society.

A more effective approach would be to educate every school and university student in the principles of information war: not just the generalities but the specifics, such as the websites run by the hostile governments and what messages they are trying to propagate.

Global tensions will continue to rise. War is already digitised, but the power and impact of sensors, drones and algorithms is being felt more strongly with every conflict. Meanwhile society's information space is being subtly but relentlessly turned into a zone of conflict between states and their proxies.

We may not be able to prevent this trend. But in a democracy we should talk about it, seek consent for it, and place limits on it. And if we are going to pay for a major upgrade of the UK military it should be funded – as Labour argued at the 2019 election – through borrowing to invest, not by freezing public sector pay.

[See also: Paul Mason on why the UK needs a defence revolution]

Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News, he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His latest book is Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being.

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