PS21 Event Writeup “Changing Face of Conflict”

The third instalment of our Changing Face of Conflict series brought together four experts who reflected on transformations in warfare globally, regionally, and locally. From the redistribution of global power and established ideologies under threat, to innovative solutions to hybrid group conflict, European regional defence autonomy and cooperation in the time of Brexit, as well as the changing use of force from Ukraine to the world, the discussion provided fundamental insights for grasping the future of conflict.

Nigel Inkster, former Assistant Chief and Director of Operations and Intelligence at the British Intelligence Service, started the discussion with a historical perspective on our current geopolitics. In the post-Cold War milieu, we have seen a redistribution of global power from West to East, the return of state on state warfare, a different kind of soldiering, and the rise of asymmetric warfare. Increasingly, Inkster confirmed, we sense a retreat of the United States, a global status challenged, and the strain of established ideologies under threat. Here, Inkster pointed to the renewed rise of the extreme right as well as the Chinese ideological model of Neo-Marxism. Inkster then focused on how game-changing increases in the power of information and communications technology are shaping the behaviour of states on a strategic level. He urged to consider the associated risks and concluded that conflicts today may no longer be about clear-cut victories, but about creating a shift in circumstance which allows for future manipulation.

Emily Winterbotham, Senior Research Fellow in the National Security and Resilience Programme at RUSI, discussed the interaction of insurgencies and terrorism, leading to a hybrid form of group conflict. According to Winterbotham, local grievances are a catalyst, but insurgent groups around the world have realised the transactional and economic advantage of aligning themselves with the ISIS brand.

In this context, Winterbotham shared her insights into the challenges for conflict resolution: Purely looking at these issues from a counter-terrorism perspective or addressing them only through military solutions is doomed for failure. And in a first instance, prosecution is often overwhelmed by the sheer number of cases whilst military operations can be the reason grievances exist in the first place. However, conventional reintegration options may be precluded due to counter-terrorist financing legislation.

Expanding on traditional DDR (Disarmament, Demobilisation, Reintegration), Winterbotham introduced the audience to the 4DR approach. Instead of focusing on mitigation after the fact, 4DR (Defections, Disarmaments, Disengagement, Deradicalisation and Reintegration) is a holistic approach designed to reflect the challenge hybrid conflicts present, including the need to inspire defection and arrange meaningful amnesty. Considering this approach, Winterbotham stressed disengagement over deradicalisation (so as not to ignore real structural problems and grievances); the importance of individualised exit strategies for insurgents and terrorist fighters; and also highlighted a role for transitional justice in the overall concept.

Alice Billon-Galland, Policy Fellow at the European Leadership Network, then led the discussion over to the question of current and future European strategic autonomy. 2016 marked a political turning point which has since sparked a steady increase in defence cooperation between the European Union and NATO. Currently, the EU’s global strategy decidedly does not strive for collective defence, but focuses on providing tools for capability development to each member state. While Billon-Galland highlighted PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation), the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence and the European Defence Fund, she also addressed continuous fears of competition and capability overlap between NATO and the EU.

Set against the political challenge of Brexit, the push to build a EU defence cluster with a weapons procurement independent from non-European allies may cause further political tension as it shifts from U.S. and UK arms industries to entirely intra-European Union defence spending. And similarly, the United Kingdom is faced with exclusion from other defence cooperation benefits such as the notorious example of Galileo, the EU project building an alternative to the US-controlled GPS.

Adam Coffey, British Army Officer and RUSI Visiting Fellow, concluded the discussion with his perceptions on changing approaches to the use of force, beyond the timeless nature of warfare. He argued that force is often no longer the last, but the first step in warfare; that winning a tactical fight by conventional measure has changed; and therefore asked what victory means today.

Drawing on insights from Crimea and Donbas, Coffey reflected on force as direct confrontation compared to an attention-grabbing means of messaging.  In winning the global information war, good performance in a fight may not matter if public perception is shunned.

Considering the pace of technological change, Coffey concluded that flexibility, adaptability, and using means beyond force will decide the next war.

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