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March 8, 2010

The Last Legions: Farewell to the Past; it is Time to Prepare for the Future of Conflict

By Gregory R. Copley, Editor. We have begun to step into the portals of the new architecture of conflict. The exhaustion of many conventional air combat, maritime, and ground force resources through the long duration of post-Cold War conflicts, coupled with the transformation of global economic security and the emergence of new strategic blocs, has meant that we have begun to step out of an era.

The very nature of warfare is changing, even as we dwell on (and invest in) major defense programs which owe their origins to the strategic and military thinking of eras now fading or past.

The framework, however, is increasingly complex, and more tied to a total social context than ever before. The craft of soldiering and power has moved decisively beyond the formal military equation and has become — as this author has said repeatedly for some years — a “whole of society” affair. That does not mean that history has no lessons for us. On the contrary, the lessons and progressions of history are more critical now than ever in understanding the future.

Given that what we face is a complex matrix, which cannot be understood by focusing down onto individual disciplines or regions, we need to at least organize our thinking. The answers can only be found by looking at the totality. The entire picture cannot, of course, be given in this brief perspective, but the following junction points may be a start:

(a)   Recognizing that we are engaged a shift in global architecture from one era to the next;

(b)   A possible willingness in the West to actually face, and address, changed realities, and a readiness to abandon outmoded mechanisms;

(c)   A return to an era of strategic maneuver and meaningful competition;

(d)   The drivers of the new economic and scientific imperatives for next-generation offensive capabilities?;

(e)   We are probably moving further into an era of reduced military casualties and increased civilian casualties and disruption; and

(f)    Tangibles versus intangibles.

The Tectonic Shift in the Global Architecture: A Last Chance to Live in the Past. Just as Dr Stefan Possony so presciently, in 1949, outlined the transformation of the framework of global security in his book, Strategic Air Power for Dynamic Security1, so must we now consider a future every bit as uncertain and open as Possony considered at the end of World War II. Uncertain it may be; inconceivable it is not.

Most modern industrial nations are fighting wars or sustaining their defenses with weapons and thinking which originated before the warriors of today were born. The US Air Force pilots flying the B-52, B-1, and even B-2 bombers have no real concept of the origins of the aircraft they fly today, and of the strategic, industrial, social, and economic context in which the weapons were created.

The M-16A1 rifles in the hands of US troops fighting in Afghanistan were weapons of an age before they were born. The originating concepts of unit structure; of air power; of maritime projection; of the entire process of the evolutionary development of weapons systems and sovereignty: all are forgotten. We see legions fighting with the swords of ancestors of whom they seem to know little and whose forges are long cold; of historic continuum which seems alien to their thinking. We are in a new world, equipped with the tools of the old. And we understand neither world, nor the world yet to come, even though science and technology, coupled with the experience of recent combat, is opening new doors.

Even so, our warriors — we, ourselves — are like the last legions of Rome, cut off for decades after the collapse of the Empire. We are fighting in a manner derived from our ancestors, with the weapons forged by our ancestors, and without the knowledge of a future which bears any of the comforting hierarchies of our forefathers.

We think and plan in terms of short, reactive and structured wars, yet engage — in practice — in protracted, unstructured wars. We fail to see long-term threats, or make long-term plans, because we are obsessed with immediacy. We are obsessed and distracted by pinpricks, and fail to see the larger beasts looming. These “come as you are wars” mean that we define the conflicts by the tools we have at our disposal: the weapons, the formations, and the doctrine.

Because we attempt to solve today’s challenges with inappropriate tools and thinking, we often delay or prevent resolution; we increase the costs of conflict, and create unintended consequences which profoundly distort our future. Despite this, we persist in fighting with the tools we have because we have neither the time nor the wealth to address each challenge as a clean sheet. Moreover, our human assets and organizations have power, vested interests, and the security promised by being known entities to sway us from addressing each challenge from a neutral intellectual standpoint.

We are, in short, prisoners of our past and limited in our view, from this prison cell, of the future or of the wider geo-strategic context.

Wealth and sustained relative peace have entrenched in modern societies a range of myths, superstitions, and ignorance as to the nature of victory and survival.2 The result has been an imbalance in the investment of capital and human endeavor to the point where future security and wealth — even the survival of societies — has become imperiled. This has not been merely an occurrence of the past few years, but the product of the Western triumph of World War II, and the creation of a supposedly permanent architecture of global governance.

It was as though humanity — as far as Western societies were concerned — had reached the pinnacle of achievement and could safely, as the unfortunate Francis Fukuyama3 felt safe in saying at the end of the Cold War, that we had reached “the end of history”, and had reached the ultimate form of human governance. Yet the “end of history” will come only at the end of the planet, or as far as the human species is concerned, with the death of the last human.

In the meantime, we must prevail, and sustain the evolution of the tools — physical and intellectual — of survival.

Few works could be more beneficial in considering our future than Possony’s Strategic Air Power, because, as with all Possony’s great philosophy, it deals with the broadest human and historical context, although Possony focused heavily on what “air power” came to mean in the immediate post-World War II era, and what it would mean subsequently. In this 1949 work, he not only accurately forecast the evolution of missiles into the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) age of nuclear warfare, but also moved into the philosophy of anti-ballistic missile (ABM) concepts, and the framework of thinking which would lead him to create the plan for the space-based, global ABM architecture known as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), ultimately launched by US Pres. Ronald Reagan. [The book also outlines the evolution of the threat of radiological weapons and terrorism, electronic warfare (EW) and the electronic countermeasures (ECM) race, the framework and limitations of chemical and biological warfare, the growing importance of the protection and balance of the strategic industrial base, the opportunities for the evolution of energy forms, and so on.]

Possony looked beyond the “atomic age”, at a time when nuclear weapons — and the relationships they posed in offensive and defensive warfare — were no longer the uniquely efficacious super weapons and answers they seemed to the world to be in 1949, when the book was published. He saw, in essence, well beyond the consumer and media mind-set of 2010 with regard to nuclear weapons, and, indeed, a reading of his book today would be beneficial to those considering policy and military doctrine with regard to the Iranian (and other nations’) intended acquisition of nuclear weapons construction capabilities.

Stefan Possony4 viewed the emerging and uncertain world of the Cold War with a mixed sense of urgency, fascination, and equanimity. He had no doubt of the human capability to survive the age of nuclear weapons. We may, in 2010, actually be on the brink of a new era which will be defined as being beyond nuclear weapons, and in which nuclear weapons will be regarded as merely being expensive, difficult (in an industrial, economic, and delivery sense), and less than universally practicable.

But rather than think in past terms, by calling this new age the “post-nuclear age” — because we are not “post-nuclear”, or even “post-sword”, or “post-archery” — it is probable that we should define this new era by what it is, rather than what it follows. We may be entering a military age characterized by unmanned warfare. Perhaps an age characterized by unstructured, or evolving structure, warfare; an age in which “international norms” codified by treaties on the conduct of warfare were supplanted by “international law”, which ultimately failed along with the mechanisms to impose it. And, absent treaty norms and the ability to obtain consensus on “international law” devised by the major powers, warfare moves into an arena in which it is impossible to trust one’s enemy.

Strategic Air Power was the second complete book written by Possony. His first work, written when he was in Austria and before he had moved to Paris to avoid the nazis, was published in 1938, and entitled Tomorrow’s War5. It gave him instant fame at the time, accurately interpreting what the lessons of World War I portended for the future. It was to be borne out in the conduct of World War II.

Perhaps, then, we are back to where we should be. The reality is — mutually practicable modus vivendi between combatants aside, such as can be outlined in the Geneva Accords and the like — attempts to codify strategic conflict behavior are as logical as suggesting that criminals would accept a set of rules imposed by the law abiding. In this regard, we get back to why we would even think that such social laws are considered, and Elias Canetti, in Crowds & Power6, identifies this form of behavior based around the fear which humans have of being left outside of the social structure which permits the levels of comfort and cooperation essential to human survival.

In other words, in a period of transformation from one global structure to the next, what is considered viable in terms of state-to-state relations will be redefined in some respects, but will ultimately be geared around the historical realities of risk management and opportunity cost. These, as in the past, will depend heavily on geography, technology, and social depth.

But let us not get too far from considering where we go as the Last Legions — and the societies which fund them — reflect on how they must re-group to face the future. What is clear is that we remain, for the moment, in a world dominated by the psychology of the hypothetical — and even mythical — power of nuclear weapons, and allow literally all strategic considerations to be dominated by the possibility that a state without other great attributes of power could potentially launch a single nuclear weapon, or a limited number of nuclear weapons. Reality, even as demonstrated by Possony in 1949 (and subsequently), shows that one, or a few, nuclear weapons, even successfully delivered to an enemy target, cannot destroy the society or state of a significant military power, and cannot alone deliver a military victory.

Similarly, we are — as of 2010 — still in world which makes massive economic sacrifice to defend against amorphous “terrorist” threats when the physical damage which could be caused by those threats is literally trivial when compared with the cost of defending against them. But we have, in a world grown risk averse in direct proportion to its rise in urbanization and wealth, shown that psychological factors are 10 times more significant than physical factors. [Even Napoleon I, as this writer has often recalled, noted that psychological factors were twice as important as physical factors on the field of formal military battle; in the civil environment, they are 10 times as potent.]

What could change that mind-set in Western, or modern industrial, societies?

A Possible Willingness to Face Change, and Abandon Restrictive Practices and Thoughts. Could it be that societies will become more willing to confront threats when their wealth erodes and the immediacy of collapse or defeat become more clearly visible? In other words, when wealth-induced complacency evaporates, will they then awaken? Could it take the crystallization of the threat in unambiguous, absolute, and recognizable terms, rather than the amorphous nature in which “terrorism” (or some remote, abstract, or time-distant threat) portrays itself?

What was clearly counter-productive was the decision by the US George W. Bush Administration (2001-2009) to characterize its mission — in response to terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC on September 11, 2001 — as a “war on terror”. This characterization served only to ensure focus on terrorist acts, thereby enabling and multiplying their effects. Given that terrorism is only a viable tactical weapon when it is given the oxygen of recognition, generating fear and paralysis beyond the immediate event, the decision to declare war on “terrorism” amounted to turning gasoline hoses onto the transient spark of desperate actions.

The “terrorism era” of the past decade has seen an almost total decline in the evolutionary pattern of strategic thinking. There is a blind reliance on antique and dysfunctional systems, including the United Nations (created to solidify a global structure based on the 1945 status quo of sovereignty thinking), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO: designed for the Cold War, but now being used as an ad hoc command and control mechanism); the (nuclear) Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) (again, designed to freeze a status quo into permanence by keeping outsiders out of the nuclear club, in defiance of human history which shows that technology can never indefinitely be kept secret); and the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR: another attempt to suspend the inevitable development of weapons and countermeasures).

What we have seen is an attempt to temporarily suspend the normal course of human evolution through treaty and coercion. However, given the fact that societies not included in the privileged “clubs” resent being excluded, and given the reality that no society can long tolerate a technological threat without attempting to build a countermeasure, this “suspension of the laws of nature” could not survive. Thus, it means a return to the normal evolutionary pattern of the development of weapons followed by countermeasures, and so on.

Possony in 1949 suggested that: “[N]o country will ever again resort to atomic attack as long as one or all of the following three conditions do not obtain:

“(a) That the atomic aggressor can protect his industry and population against atomic reprisals;

“(b) That the aggressor’s country can absorb atomic retaliation without suffering crippling damage and impairing its ability to win the peace;

“(c) That, for reasons of aerial and industrial supremacy, the attacker can drop substantially more bombs on the opponent’s territory while keeping down the defender’s retaliatory attacks to a very small number of atomic bombs.”7

It is significant that this equation applies absolutely to the two major areas of potential nuclear exchange: Israel and Iran; and India and Pakistan. When viewed through Possony’s statement of the logic which must prevail, it becomes clear — if we are to look at a contemporary problem — that Iran could not consider a nuclear strike against Israel, absent a total breakdown of logic or understanding of the limitations of nuclear weapons on the part of the Iranian leadership. In other words, unless the Iranian leadership is ignorant of, or chooses to ignore, reality. What Possony outlines comprehensively is the reality that the volume and accuracy of delivery of nuclear weapons needed to obliterate an enemy — or to achieve victory — are beyond the scope of most societies, including the two former superpowers.

Moreover, as Possony also avers, there is no victory unless destruction is followed by physical occupation of enemy territory. What we are witnessing in the case of Israel and Iran is that neither side has the ability of inclination to follow nuclear strikes with conventional conflict or ground force occupation.

Possony was the guiding hand of late World War II communications from the US to Japanese Emperor Hirohito to the effect that US public demands for Japan to surrender unconditionally to the Allies did not, in fact, mean “unconditional surrender” in the historical sense, but would leave Japan — in reality — with its sovereignty and dignity intact. As a result of his success — the Emperor received and understood the messages and acted accordingly — Possony is not one of those who believed that the atomic weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki actually “won the war” in the Pacific in 1945. There was much more to it than that.

What atomic weapons did for the strategic conceptual framework was to highlight the ability of nations to retaliate against nuclear attack, rendering the benefits of such attacks nugatory. Indeed, the new equation merely strengthened the reality, outlined in his 1938 book, Tomorrow’s War, that victory was the result of attention to the complex equation of total strategic depth, including education, resources, industrial productivity, and innovation. For Possony in 1949 and later, nuclear strategies, and the corollary “missile technology controls”, were merely an evolutionary development, not a revolutionary one, and would ultimately — as is now the case — be replaced by further evolutionary development.

This, then, is the prevailing condition going forward into the age which follows our embarrassing and delusional era of hysteria over “the terrorist threat”. The West (including the Russian Federation), in the first decade of the 21st Century and late 20th, forced itself to fight on terms dictated by insurgents and terrorists, actually giving aid and comfort to their enemies by allowing the Western media to act as the accelerant and fuel of terrorism. Thus committed, the modern powers spent all their efforts wielding a great hammer against the nips of ants, without identifying the source and motives of the ants.

Let us, then, return to understanding of the evolution of human society, and therefore of human warfare, now, once again, unrestrained by the artificial constraints of “treaties” which have now become invalidated by changed historical circumstance.

A Return to an Era of Strategic Maneuver and Revived Competition. And one “historical circumstance” which prevailed in the post-Cold War period was the fact that smaller, or disadvantaged, powers could not directly confront the remaining conventional/strategic might of the US or Western coalitions in which the US predominated. This condition necessitated that smaller powers — which for a period included Russia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) — maneuver strategically in an indirect fashion. Indirect (or maneuver) warfare has always been the absolute necessity of the weaker force (and the best tool even of stronger powers). What it meant in the immediate post-Cold War period was that surrogates were often empowered, wherein disaffected social groups could be used to great effect to undertake terrorist actions.

These post-Cold War actions, sponsored predominantly (but not exclusively) by Iran (and for a period, Iraq, Libya, and others), would have amounted to little, but for the fact that their incidents were constantly escalated until they drew major media attention, created widespread fear in a strategically illiterate and complacent urban Western audience, and generated a massive governmental response by the US and its allies.

Clearly, then, part of the response to this form of strategic distortion — akin to a healthy person exhausting his health by using self-damaging medications to fight a mere common cold — should be to shut down the hysteria mechanisms of Western/modern societies. That is, media responses to terrorism would need to be dampened by one means or another (ideally by self-restraint in the “free” media, but that may not be possible). Secondly, the hidden hand of state support for proxy terrorist/insurgent forces needs to be addressed by the targeted societies. Ironically, while such countries as Iran (and even Russia and the PRC, and others) supported terrorists because the sponsor feared a direct confrontation with the US or the West, the US itself feared to even contemplate addressing the state sponsorship of terrorism because the US itself feared (or was too complacent to address) the cost and political challenge of directly confronting the sponsors.

Indirect confrontation thus became entrenched (indeed, it was of paramount importance during the Cold War, in order to avoid nuclear confrontation), and root causes and sponsorships were left unaddressed. Drying up state sponsorship of terrorism is one avenue of response, by penalizing such sponsorship. However, addressing the social underpinnings of terrorism in those societies which allow themselves to be sponsored into terrorism is often more effective, rebuilding the “identity security” of fearful and often insecure and impotent societies so that they no longer fear being obliterated by history.8

The response to this threat, then, is heavily psycho-politically based, rather than formal and military, although a clear military capability and will to use force is inherent.

The New Economic and Scientific Imperative for Next-Generation Offensive Capabilities. But if, as Possony and history aver, the principal weapons which have preoccupied us for a half-century, namely nuclear weapons delivered by ballistic missiles, are facing their eclipse through the inevitable development of countermeasures, then where is security science taking us in the 21st Century? The answer must take account of the fact that the strategic fundamentals remain intact. It must also take account of the reality that the contextual social, demographic, economic, and sovereignty issues will determine where, and how rapidly, the measure/countermeasure evolution moves.

Several factors are obvious:

  1. All weapons, from slingshots to nuclear weapons, retain their potency in the absence of countermeasures;
  2. Countermeasure developments will spur follow-on generations of weapons, which may break with the evolutionary pattern of past weapons. In other words, the answer to the equation of massive focused power of nuclear weapons (and their significant cost and logistical requirements) and anti-ballistic (and therefore often anti-nuclear) missiles (ABMs), may well be electronic spectrum disruptive weapons, or lower-cost countermeasures which Possony’s multinationally-managed Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was intended to become.
  3. The primacy of offensive or defensive weapons or doctrines will continue to shift back and forth. But the underlying principle of deterring offensive behavior will be tied directly to a revival of a concept of sovereignty or societal unity, something which has been degrading in the post-Cold War era. A breakdown of national unity, or the absence of nationalism in a country, invites hostility from abroad, because that country is without cohesive will, and therefore vulnerable and incapable of adequate defense.
  4. Economic uncertainty will absolutely govern investment in long-term research and development, including the underpinning investment in technological and scientific education. Equally, economic uncertainty, particularly coupled with increasingly sclerotic and overbearing government control, will govern the efficiency of capital formation to capitalize on what scientific breakthroughs occur.
  5. The principal, in absolute accord with Possony’s thinking, of absolute mastery of the air — a condition which has remained globally and tactically within the gift of the Western alliances since World War II — will once again come to the fore as the West foregoes (or risks) that mastery through lack of investment, and lack of creative competition in addressing future strategic battlefields. Mastery of the air now includes control of space, and possibly the revival of SDI thinking as a means of negating, once and for all, the threat of ballistically-delivered nuclear weapons. But it will also mean the use of space to direct energy weapons, and — with electronic camouflaging — subvert an opponent’s unshielded electronic infrastructure. What a modernized SDI framework would do is merely to raise the cost threshold for viable military nuclear capability, keeping strategic dominance in the hands of the greater powers. But it would also drive creative offensive thinking into electronically invading infrastructure. This could become even more attractive as globalism contracts and the age of near-global currencies — such as the dollar — fades.

We are faced, then, with the end of the era of uninterruptable Western strategic air power and air-based power projection, simply because Western technologies are now starting to be matched at a time when Western defense spending seems likely to decline. Moreover, this phenomenon may — and possibly should — spur a move into unmanned, defensible aerial systems which will mirror the equation which evolved from 1939 to 1945 with manned systems of power projection.

The delivery of basic kinetic weapons may have progressed to a point limited by physics, with supersonic and hypersonic delivery systems and evolving (but as-yet incomplete) countermeasure systems. At the same time, fundamental strategic weapons, such as the use of cyber warfare to interfere with electric grid systems as well as command and control networks, are now able to be addressed through the application of creativity rather than budget strength. In this regard, then, creativity rather than economics, is the equalizer.

None of this diminishes the reality that psychological issues, the human motivations at their very core, render national security strategies viable or unviable. We even saw this in the three great global conflicts of the 20th Century: World Wars I and II, and the Cold War. The loss of human life declined dramatically from World War I to World War II as strategic maneuver and psycho-political warfare improved. And loss of life in the Cold War was kept at a minimum — by virtue, of course, of the “war” not turning hot — because the maneuver became almost entirely symbolic and indirect (and therefore truly psychological, albeit reinforced by tangible and viable weapons).

Subsequent hot wars have retained their characteristic of declining, or minimal, human casualty levels, despite the growth of the world population from 2.5-billion in 1950 to around 6.9-billion presently. However, it is important to stress that this trending toward minimal military manpower engagement and reduced casualties may well not be matched in the interregnum of global power systems which we are now entering. The final break-up of the 1945 definition of Westphalian national identity, and its re-grouping “closer to the heart’s desire” of re-coalescing human societies, may well create casualties on an unprecedented scale, not necessarily as a result of kinetic warfare.

Reduce Military Casualties; Increased Civilian Casualties. The unpredictability of human casualty levels in the coming decades may be more embracing of all human society — or rather all elements of society within a group, nation, or region — because the strategic weapons of the future are gearing heavily toward collapsing national infrastructure, such as power grids and computer networks. This will cause rapid and widespread loss of life in urban areas which are less-than-adequately geared to compensating for interruptions in communications and transportation, and therefore the delivery of food, water, and other supplies, including defensive capabilities.

It will also cause such economic and social dislocation that massive population shifts will occur if energy, food, and water cannot be sustained in and around urban areas. It is this factor which will determine, in many senses, the viability of nation-states. Can they contain population movement? Can areas of seeming lower threat or danger sustain the “second wave of conflict” which is the inflow of immigrant masses from conflict or disrupted areas? Bear in mind that, in 2010, some 3.6-million Afghan refugees from the Afghan-Soviet wars of the 1980s remain in Pakistan, and are being supplemented by additional flows from current conflict. Internal political disruption in Nigeria in just the past few years has driven millions of displaced persons to re-group around Abuja, the national capital, just as the US civil war in the 1860s caused a major internal migration to Washington, DC.

The move toward sustainable mini-reactors fueled by thorium for power generation would remove or break up the current, and arguably indefensible, interconnected major power grids which dominate North America and Europe (and elsewhere). This would go a long way toward making nations viable and communities self-sustaining and defensible, providing energy, communications and computing, and, of course, potable water. It is interesting that, finally, the long-envisioned mini-power reactors and the use of thorium as a safe, cheap fuel are now gaining some attention in the halls of the US Department of Energy and around the world.

Tangibles versus Intangibles. Tangibles such as power stations are almost the easy part of the equation. Tangibles, including weapons or power plants or transportation/communications means, always gain the attention of policymakers and soldiers. Intangibles — the creation of national will (or destruction of an adversary’s will) and related cohesive national efficiencies — and the sense that balance (creating an economically and sustainably balanced society) should, however, be the first priority of governance, making defense of the realm feasible.

Societies which cannot find or sustain their core beliefs and identity lose their economic and political viability, even if pockets of intellectual brilliance and military capability continue. This has become evident in the West, when diversity of opinion and goals has made societies internally mistrusting and preoccupied with short-term security and wealth.

Part of the answer to this will for the West (if it is to survive in a more or less recognizable form) be, as I have noted before, a period of Cæsarism or Bonapartism; a reduction of the modern concept of “democracy” so that a stronger hierarchical control can reappear. If it occurs, then it will occur with the will of the populations, who will seek galvanic leadership to face threats.

In any event, the Last Legions must now pass the banners, and the pride of history, to The New Legions.

Are we ready? Ready, aye, ready!


1. Possony, Stefan T.: Strategic Air Power for Dynamic Security, Washington, DC, 1949: The Infantry Journal Press.

2. See, for example, Copley, Gregory R.: The Art of Victory. New York, 2006, Simon & Schuster.

3. Fukuyama, Francis: The End of History and the Last Man. 1982; based on a 1989 essay, “The End of History”, published in the US journal, The National Interest.

4. The author worked closely with Stefan Possony from late 1971 until Dr Possony’s death in 1995.

5. Possony, Stefan T.: Tomorrow’s War. First published in German and French, and later in English and two other languages. First English edition published as Tomorrow’s War: Its Planning, Management and Cost. London, 1938: William Hodge and Company Ltd. The author’s name was then “translated” into English as Stephen Th. Possony, rather than Stefan Tomas Possony.

6. Canetti, Elias: Masse und Macht (Crowds and Power, New York, 1960: Continuum). Canetti won the Nobel Prize for Literature for this work, in 1981.

7. Strategic Air Power, Op Cit., p.31-32.

8. See, for example, the Psychological Strategy Special Report in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis, by Gregory Copley, entitled “Identity Security: Society’s Bond With a Sustainable Environment”, October 12, 2005, and Copley, Gregory: “The Foundations of Terrorism: ‘Identity Security’ is at War With ‘Globalism’”, Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, 6-2004.