PS21 Event Writeup: ‘Changing Face of Conflict’ (January 28)


By Isabela Betoret Garcia

Photo Credit: Andrea Varsori

Strife and PS21 joined forces once again to deliver the next installment of The Changing Face of Conflict series. Dr. Eleanor Beevor moderated, focusing on the challenges society faces with regard to information warfare and what we are doing — or not doing — to combat this threat.

Dr. Patrick Bury, lecturer in defence at the University of Bath and a former British Army Captain, opened the event by speaking about the “Fancy Bear” group, blamed for Russia-linked election hacks and other attacks. These highlight the changes to the way’s states use technology, as well as the increase in militaries’ technological capabilities. According to Dr. Bury, conflict is increasingly multi-domain; not just on just land, sea, and air, but also in cyber and space. New technologies will make the battlefield more networked and more lethal place, where combatants have a greater chance of being seen and hit. Because new technology will allow parties to detect combatants more easily, there will be a greater need for soldiers to go ‘off-grid, thus a greater need for dispersal,’ Dr. Bury explained.

He continued that the speed of information will lead to a compression of the scale of conflict, between logistical, strategic, and tactical. In the new space, a tactical decision can have an immediate strategic consequence. Militaries will go from a highly networked environment, to an older, pre-information era and back one moment to the next. This logistical austerity will affect soldiers’ training, equipment, and ability to take initiative. Chinese soldiers, for example, have gone back using compasses in training. Finally, Dr. Bury discussed the role of the nation-state and its possible decay. Much like the invention of the printing press, he said, the invention of the Internet was a watershed moment, and we will have to carefully examine its impact in the decades to come.

Harry Porteous,  Principal Consultant in Innovation at the PA Consulting Group and a former British Army Officer, emphasised the importance of the compression of the scale of conflict. According to Porteous, a single man can define where defence strategy will go next. As conflict becomes increasingly networked, it is not only occurring between states as we typically assume, but rather in he background of our everyday lives. As such, governments’ decisions are not based on on-going conflict but on the threat of conflict.

Though the character of war has remained the same — it is violent, interactive, and political — Porteous said will see a change in the nature of conflict. Wars are shaped by ethics, culture, organisation, technology, and society. And more people train to operate these war-shaping technologies than to fight. Information has been increasingly used as a weapon thanks to new technologies. A state is now able to shape a war to suit its capabilities. One way in which states can do this is through what Porteous called the ‘weaponisation of chaos’, which is what Russia does. Thus, the line between citizens’ everyday lives and defence strategy is blurred. Information warfare brings conflict inwards to divide a population. It seems that this new online battlefield will be covert, deniable, and masked. It is present not at state level, but it appears throughout society. Porteous said that we have not found a way to operate within this environment. He concluded by restating a haunting question posed by cyber experts: What are we prepared to give up to have the Internet? Increasingly, he said, the answer seems to be national security.

Alicia Wanless, a doctoral researcher at King’s College London specialising in propaganda and information warfare, reminded the audience that information has always played a role in war and conflict. What is new about the role of information in conflict is the speed, reach and connectivity of technology. Wanless questioned whether the use of information, particularly to divide societies, is actually a form of war at all, since legally war must be openly declared, coming with the legal rights and obligations that entails under international law.  Thus, for Wanless, there is a clear problem with terminology, not to mention hype, in both the claims of novelty around information being used on and by adversaries and that it is being called war.  This stems partly from the constricted view from which most of our understanding seems to be derived on this subject, explained Wanless, which is in conflict, and mostly from military. If this use of information to inflame or divide societies isn’t “warfare” then why should militaries be looking at it or caring, asks Wanless?  The answer is simple, information drives everything.

Yet, as Wanless notes, despite the role of information in shaping decision-making, Western militaries and governments only focus on outgoing efforts, their own attempts to shape the information environment, paying little attention to how information will be used by adversaries to affect our own reactions. At the same time, the current response to evidence of Russian efforts to shape the information environment is quite knee-jerk and reactionary, perhaps not leading to the best choices. What we have failed to do thus far, she explained, is keep calm enough to analyse the real effects of these attacks — if there are any. She said that the West has failed to genuinely understand this space, and we need a new framework to study these manipulative acts. The spread of awareness and information on these attacks is key to combatting them. Ultimately, she concluded that sometimes the best defence is knowledge.

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