Peter Drucker delayed publishing his book, The End of Economic Man: The Origins of Totalitarianism, until 1939 because he was so frightened to say that WWII was about to begin. I feel his angst as I write of my belief that we have already entered WWIII. But, before you jump out of your skin, try to remember that war itself is digitizing, just like everything else. That may mean the confrontations and conflicts of our time may be very different from anything we’ve experienced before.
This new theatre of conflict is no longer exclusively about physical territory and humans on a front line. The new battlespace is literally in space, as in outer space. It is in digital cyberspace. Wars are no longer about armies and land. Now it’s about Navies, the high seas and extremely remote locations like extremely remote islands in the Pacific and the open oceans. Land still plays a part, but the contest for land and resources seems to be occurring in places like the Himalayas, Africa and the Arctic. This is why the US has been building its Space Force for some years now. But, more than all that, war itself is digitizing. So, only those who know where to look will see it.
No one wants war. I’ve been lecturing at Sandhurst (Britain’s West Point) and briefing NATO Generals for some years. I see every sign that military leaders will do everything possible to avoid outright war. But, the militaries of the superpowers find themselves in an odd situation. All are in a state of high alert, wary that a near miss, an accident, or miscommunication might inadvertently trigger a catastrophe. These militaries are clearly repositioning, taunting each other, aiming to make life ever-more uncomfortable for potential opponents.
Meanwhile, the public seems unaware and even uninterested. Perhaps it’s already intuitively understood that, strangely, this may be a better way to have a war than we have ever seen in history. Perhaps we have traded guns for weaponized algorithms and substituted computers for humans? Maybe cyber warfare and cybernetics have already replaced humans on a digital battlefield? America may have ended the war in Afghanistan not to withdraw from conflict but rather to ramp up in the highly contested digital battlespace.
How do we know that war is even a possibility? There are rumblings. There are signals. Defence spending is at an all-time record high. Much of the money going on computational power, meaning supercomputers and quantum computers. This is the new space race. It is said that China has already produced not one but two exascale supercomputers. This is all about code-breaking: nuclear codes, satellite codes, genetic codes, behavioural codes.
If you speak to the military leadership amongst the superpowers, all are acutely aware of the frequent “subthreshold” events that are happening with alarming frequency. “Subthreshold” means serious but not enough to provoke a formal response.
Consider the recent news about submarines. It means something when one of Americas Seawolf submarines smacks into something somewhere in the South China Sea. The Seawolf is so expensive that even America can only afford three of them. They are so capable that the chances it ran into a rock around October 2nd are virtually nil. It seems unlikely that the Chinese would be demanding an explanation of what happened if it had hit a rock. It clearly hit something else. Was it playing bumper cars with a Chinese sub? We’ll probably never know. But, China is now demanding that the US withdraw it’s naval vessels from the South China Sea because their presence is “creating anxiety”. A spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Defence said, “For a long time, the US military has frequently dispatched aircraft carriers, strategic bombers, nuclear submarines and other advanced weapon systems to show muscles and stir up troubles in the South China Sea” and this is posing a “serious threat and risk to regional peace and stability”. America’s military leaders have said pretty much the same about China.
Are American and Chinese subs playing cat and mouse below the surface all the time these days? Yes. Confirmations are arriving with greater frequency. The recent announcement about AUKAS should give us all pause. The US, Britain and Australia all agreed to place more nuclear submarines in the Pacific with a view to containing China more forcefully. The Second Fleet has been substantially reconfigured since 2019 to deal more decisively with Russia.
Challenging events are happening above the surface of our oceans as well. American, Chinese and even Russian naval vessels seem to be getting in each other’s space and causing occasional headlines. There’s also been an intense standoff in space where these superpowers seem to regularly create space debris in the hopes that it will smash up the other side’s massively expensive military satellites. The US had thought it had a lock on precision targetting of satellites. But, China has recently shown that it can match or better this capability.
Like everything else, military hardware is dramatically improving. The Russians are test-firing hypersonic missiles from their Severodvinsk submarines in The Barents Sea. The Chinese recently tested their new hypersonic missiles too. Officially, these are no longer ICBMs, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. They are FOBS, or A Fractional Orbital Bombardment System which involves sending missiles through a partial orbit around the earth to strike targets from an unexpected direction. General Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, responded to the recent FOB test calling it a “Sputnik moment” for America. China’s hypersonic weapon circumnavigated the whole globe recently for the first time. In response, the American Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva said, “We just don’t know how to defend against that technology, neither does China, neither does Russia.” The point is that we had ten days to save the world when the US and Russia stood on the brink of a nuclear exchange in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Today missile systems are so fast, and increasingly automated. Will we even have minutes, let alone days?
Luckily, most nations do not want anything like that to happen. The old warfare was about damaging an opponent’s hardware before it could do any damage. The new warfare is about denial of use. It’s about damaging access to the digital operating space by disrupting access to WIFI, GPS and Sat Nav. But, that has untold consequences for civilian life we should all be thinking about.
Further complicating matters, the Superpowers seem to have spent the last decade pushing militaries themselves off-balance sheet. The debt problem has led to the privatization of militaries. We may have more mercenaries funded by governments today than at any time in history. The Russians have done the same, perhaps for other reasons. Plausible deniability is valuable in a world where conflict is remote and subthreshold. Private American and Russian mercenaries and Chinese "contracters” seem to be all over Africa, the Middle East and Asia these days. It has become nearly impossible to disentangle the role of the state and private military organizations in this new era of competition, confrontation and sub-threshold conflict.
The militaries of the superpowers have re-established strong lines of communication amongst themselves, even if the superpower leaders have not. President Biden is begging for a hotline to Beijing; however, Premier Xi Jinping seems to prefer speaking directly to CINCPAC, the Commander in Chief, US Pacific Fleet. Putin opts to send warnings about not “crossing any red lines” to the US military through the media. Most certainly, what the militaries say to each other, often without words but with weapons, might not translate into understanding amongst the general public.
When nations are nose-to-nose, but the public doesn’t know, the risk is that we get caught by surprise.
Historians will look back and be surprised that we were surprised. Isn’t that always the case?
WWIII may feel benign because it is silent, because it is digital, because it is occurring far away and without civilian involvement. Investors have priced geopolitical risk at zero. Until the public awakens to the true situation, the enormous gap between those who are in the know and those who don’t know is a danger to everyone’s future.
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