From drones to cyber operations and clandestine SOF missions, how has the democratisation of technology shaped the contest for control in the era of great power competition?
The democratisation of technology has not only enabled small and non-state actors to challenge superpowers, but it has diminished the ability for one nation to wield qualitative superiority as a strategic deterrent.
As such, nations and non-state actors now seek to undermine the national resilience and military capabilities of their enemies beneath the threshold of an armed attack, and in the event that overt hostilities do occur, employ more irregular and hybrid warfare capabilities to gain a competitive edge and exert control over the battlefield.
Cyber warfare, unmanned systems and the re-application of SOF teams will redefine the conduct of grey zone operations and Phases 0 and 1 of armed conflict.
Cyber operations, influencing the military and body politic
The democratisation of cyber capabilities has enabled middle, developing and non-state actors to inflict operational-strategic level harm on global superpowers, from crippling national infrastructure to paralysing military technology.
In his projection of the manifestation of cyber war in conventional conflict, Lieutenant Colonel Professor David Kilcullen argued that cyber infiltration will be able to “divert a ship to strike an object, disable a power supply [or] create a short circuit,” thus not only rendering military technology redundant but also providing operators with vectors to take control over hardware.
Beyond the battlespace, cyber operations can manipulate the body politic from targeting a nation’s economy to developing social unrest.
In 2013, it was reported that the North Korean-sponsored Lazarus Group caused an estimated $750 million in damage to South Korean infrastructure, disabled ATMs and stole the details of some 20,000 South Korean military personnel.
Since 2014 and the commencement of the Ukrainian-Russian civil unrest, Nicholas Shallcross in the Journal of Information Warfare argued that Russian spy agencies successfully leveraged social media to support the creation of “terrorist cells” which undertook terror attacks on “critical government infrastructure, transportation hubs, and security forces.” Shallcross continued, noting that similar tactics were employed throughout the Arab Spring, using media and information warfare as a “psychological and exploitation operation … aimed at exacerbating and exposing deficiencies and weakness” in opposing governments, thus arming their enemies with informational advantages.
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Indeed, the integration of such capabilities are embedded in Russian military doctrine with the Gerasimov Doctrine. The doctrine, developed by Russian General Valery Gerasimov, seeks to apply these social vectors to exert competitive control over the broader battlespace and body politic.
“The focus of applied methods of conflict has altered in the direction of the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian and other nonmilitary measures – applied in coordination with the protest potential of the population. All this is supplemented by military means of a concealed character,” GEN Gerasimov noted.
Considering these exploitable military and social vectors, LTCOL Professor Kilcullen stumbled upon common doctrinal ground with Gerasimov, summarising cyber warfare as the pursuit of “non-linearity”, exploiting “vulnerabilities in key political, military, economic, social, infrastructural and informational nodes”.
Unmanned military vehicles and qualitative superiority
The democratisation and subsequent application of unmanned military vehicles during recent conventional conflicts has resulted in decisive military actions undertaken during the early phases of military campaigns, with non-state actors already demonstrating technological advancements in this field.
In a conventional sense, this was arguably observed for the first time during the recent Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, in which Armenia’s conventional fighting forces were challenged – and considerably overwhelmed – by the qualitatively superior Azeri forces.
Interestingly, at the beginning of the conflict, the Azeri military converted their Soviet-era aircraft into unmanned aerial vehicles which were slowly flown over Armenian airspace in order to lure and trigger the Armenian air defence into contact. Other, more technologically superior Azeri UAVs that were in flight, were then able to identify, engage and destroy these Armenian air defence systems.
While neither side of the conflict will confess to the true scale of losses, it was reported that one of the Iskander missile defence systems – a system whose reputation allegedly “scares NATO” – was destroyed by a suicide UAV.
Not only was the simplicity of Azerbaijan’s UAV suicide tactics able to overcome the state-of-the-art Russian technology that was wielded by the Armenians, but it was also cheaper. Michael Kofman of the US-based defence think tank CNA, noted that “drones offer small countries very cheap access to tactical aviation and precision guided weapons, enabling them to destroy an opponent’s much-costlier equipment such as tanks and air defense systems”.
The capacity for cheap drones to swiftly overwhelm costly conventional technology was also observed during the Syrian Civil War, in which the Turkish military destroyed “hundreds of regime tanks, artillery pieces and armoured vehicles” in Syria’s Idlib province with UAVs that are “cheap, easy to make and clearly don’t miss”.
Indeed, Armenia’s expensive conventional weaponry was simply unable to compete on a different military axis and was thus beaten by cheaper and more replaceable Azeri UAVs.
Such military successes by conventional military forces are likely to be replicated by non-state actors thanks to the democratisation of UAV technology. Already, evidence has emerged that Iraq’s Kataib Hezbollah used drones to attack US airbases in the Middle East.
“The Sahab drones (Figure 4) shown on June 26 do appear to have strong similarities to the US-named KAS-04 fixed-wing drone systems used to attack US bases on April 14 (Erbil), May 8 (al-Asad), May 11 (Kurdistan), and June 6 (al-Asad again),” Hamdi Malik, Crispin Smith and Michael Knights wrote in the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
SOF teams and clandestine engagements
The recent tendency toward irregular warfare, as observed throughout the quest for competitive control throughout the Middle East and Eastern Europe, has reimagined the application of SOF teams in the modern battlespace away from large scale conventional warfare.
As Jonas van Hooren argues in his thesis The imperative symbiotic relationship between SOF and cyber: How Dutch special operation forces can support cyber operations in the Naval Postgraduate School, SOF teams in the West are likely to refine their role from conducting daring operations in conventional battlefields to their traditional covert and clandestine roles as shaped during the Second World War, with greater operational capabilities due to the improvement in military technology.
Notably, he argues that in the emerging hybrid theatres, SOF teams could “bridge the gap between the virtual and the physical domains by harnessing modern-day information networks and melding them with old-fashioned, face-to-face SOF partner engagement”.
He continues, that not only will SOF teams “provide the means to get the wetware, hardware and software” into the battlespace, but could also onboard “automated algorithms designed to engage in combat … [to enable] a hacker to turn an armed force against itself”.
Such clandestine examples of these SOF applications have been seen the world over, including in Russia’s exertion of competitive control in Ukraine.
According to the US Army Special Operations Command’s “Little Green Men”: a primer on Modern Russian Unconventional Warfare, Ukraine 2013-2014, SOF teams were imbued with technology to gain control over the nation’s body politic and shift public discourse and thought.
“Importation of “little green men”— unidentified Russian agents (usually SPETSNAZ) to organize and lead protests and paramilitary operations,” the primer noted.
“Domination of television, radio, and social media through the use of highly trained operatives, including 'hacktivists' and seemingly independent bloggers; use of Russia Today television as a highly effective propaganda tool; use of professional actors who portray themselves as pro-Russian Ukrainians.”
Citing General Philip Breedlove, Jon Haines, co-chair of the Eurasia Program described of Russia’s little green men, ‘“NATO must be prepared for little green men”, those “armed soldiers without insignia that create unrest, occupy government buildings, incite the population”, he said. “Once the green men are there”, General Breedlove warned, “a revolution happens quickly”. A year later he added, “What we see in Russia now in this hybrid approach to war, is the use of all the tools that they have to reach into a nation and cause instability.”’
As such, it is likely that small to middle powers, as well as non-state actors, will likely favour non-conventional engagements to generate operational-strategic level outcomes by using highly skilled and technologically enabled SOF teams.
Editor – Defence and Security, Momentum Media