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Why America isn’t equipped for the new rules of war

“They’re all doing it: Russia, China, Iran … They’re all fighting these things called shadow wars, and they’re very effective,” says an ex-paratrooper and academic.

Sean McFate
Sean McFateStephen Voss

Sean McFate is a former paratrooper in the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division; he’s also worked as a private military contractor in West Africa. Today he’s a professor at the National Defense University and Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service.

His book The New Rules of War, published earlier this year, dissects the ways warfare must change in order for America to succeed. War reporter Janine di Giovanni sat down to ask him about his vision for the future of conflict.

Q: What are you calling for? What’s your manifesto?

A: I wrote this book because I was angry. I’ve lost good friends in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a taxpayer, we’ve flushed six trillion dollars down the toilet. And as a vet, it hurts me to see our national image tarnished. Yet we have the best military in the world—even our adversaries know that. So what’s the problem?

It’s not the military—we have a great military. The problem is that our strategic IQ is low. War is won and lost at the strategic level—not the tactical level, not the operational level. So where do you send people to train to think strategically to win? We have a dearth of that. The war colleges are moribund, civilian universities usually don’t touch it.

We get lucky, not smart.

Q: What do you mean?

Sean McFate
Stephen Voss

A: Why are we doing things like buying more Ford-class aircraft carriers, or F35s? That stuff should be slashed. I would cut away the expensive conventional weapons, and beef up the things that are very effective in modern war: political warfare, strategic influence, lawfare, economic might, and deception. Want to blunt Russian encroachment in the Baltics? Forget shows of force—military deterrence is obsolete. Instead, start a “color revolution” on their border. Moscow is paranoid and would shift resources to squashing it. Want China out of the South China Sea? Stop throwing carrier groups into the region. Instead, covertly support the Uighur insurgency. Internal regime security will steal Beijing’s attention away.

Militaries can no longer kill their way out of problems in a global information age, and this is driving war into the shadows. Today, plausible deniability is more potent than firepower: winners and losers are no longer decided on the battlefield, but by those who can discern truth from lies. The best weapons today don’t fire bullets.

Q: So let’s say you were appointed national security advisor tomorrow. What would be different?

A: The first thing that I would do is I would push to slash the Department of Defense budget in half. And then I would pump up things like the State Department, which has been left to die on the vine. But the State Department needs a cultural revolution of its own. 

We have to think about what is war and what is warfare, and then: How do we achieve our strategic effects? Why is Iran a national security threat? We think of it as existential—and it is if you’re like Israel or Saudi Arabia, but not the United States. We’ve forgotten what an existential threat is. 

I would implement strategies across the globe that utilize and harness the new rules of war for us. They’re all doing it: Russia, China, Iran… They’re all fighting these things called shadow wars, and they’re very effective. We need to get back in that. And we used to do this during the Cold War, but we’ve forgotten how.

Q: What is a shadow war? How would you describe it?

A: Shadow wars are a certain type of war where plausible deniability eclipses firepower in terms of effectiveness. Think about how Russia was in Crimea. In older war tactics, when they would put their heel on another state, they’d send in the tanks. Now, in 2019, that’s not how they do it. They have military backup, but they use covert and clandestine means. They use special forces, they use mercenaries, they use proxies, they use propaganda—things that give them plausible deniability. They manufacture the fog of war and then exploit it for victory.

Q: So we should go back, in a way, to the tactics of the Cold War?

A: I don’t want to go down the trap of a new Cold War … but we have done these things in the past.

One of the concerns that I highlight in the book but don’t pose an answer to is this: as a war expert and observer, I’m observing that war is getting more sneaky. How do we, as a democracy, follow war into the shadows without losing our democratic soul? We learned during the Church hearings of 1975 and 1976 that secrets and democracy are not compatible. Do we fight that? This should not be a one branch-only operation.

Q: Your idea that there will be more ‘shadow wars’ or proxy wars in the future: Is this being accepted, or shoved aside?

A: It’s being shoved aside. I mean, true war prophets are like Cassandra from Greek mythology: she had the gift of foresight, but the curse was that nobody could believe her. There’s examples of that throughout my book: Billy Mitchell, JC Fuller—there’s a guy called William Olson in the 1980s in the height of the Cold War. He saw past the US-Soviet rivalry and saw a post 9/11 world. And there are others!.

Q: The stories you tell of these men and women are some of the most touching parts of your book. They were visionaries, but punished for it. Some of the passages are disturbing—the case of Billy Mitchell, for example, who predicted air power and was mocked, scorned.

A: Yeah, and it was done with extreme prejudice. But meanwhile you have the think tanks, the multi-national companies in DC. They’re pushing for a vision of war that is comfortable to them and that they can frankly, in my opinion, profit from. And this is extremely dangerous. But my book is making its way through the Department of Defense, through national security establishments. I know this because I keep on getting invited by two star, three star generals, to brief their command. They do it because they agree with it, but they don’t want to be caught saying it themselves. 

Q: So who gets it? Who is listening to what the new rules of war are? And who are your foes?

A: The CIA likes it, Special Operations commands like it, Special Operations units love it,  vets love it, Marines and Army land forces generally love it. Who doesn’t like it? Air Force and Navy, the high tech services, Lockheed Martin, and of course think tanks. Most think tanks in DC get money from Raytheon and all these players. A lot of them love and fetishize technology. But as you know, one of the things that Africa has taught me is that ultimately wars are politics and there is no technological solution to it. There is no missile that will fix the political circumstances on the ground of Syria or Taiwan. But that’s how we think. That’s why we struggle.

Additional research by Misia Lerska. An edited version of this interview appeared in the November/December issue of MIT Technology Review.

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