Foreign and Security Policy

The Challenges of Future War

Interview with Ben Hodges
The Challenges of Future War Ben Hodges Photo: CEPA

General Hodges, let us talk about your book „Future War and the Defence of Europe” that you co-authored with General ret. John Allen and Professor Julian Lindley-French. In it, you outline what is changing in warfare and what this implies for the transatlantic alliance and the security of Europe. To start off, could you give us an overview of the changing nature of war?

The book is an attempt to look at the character of future war, and what we need to do to prepare for it. The likelihood of being in conflicts with Russia and China at the same time is not something that anybody wants, but we don’t get to choose that. We have to prepare for that, to deter it, to prevent it. And because of our great alliance of thirty nations, as long as we stick together, that’s a formidable deterrent force. It’s when we’re not cohesive and coherent that we become vulnerable.

The Kremlin and the Chinese Communist Party see advantage in using technologies that undermine our capabilities.

The Kremlin and the Chinese Communist Party see advantage in asymmetrical approaches, using technologies that undermine our advantages and capabilities. Chief among these are things like drones – unmanned systems, both in the air, which are more common, but also underwater maritime systems, and unmanned vehicles or robotics. When you add to that the use of cyber as a weapon to cripple infrastructure, as we recently saw against the Colonial Pipeline in the United States, it is a reminder of how vulnerable we are. We wanted to draw attention to the importance of cyber defense and cyber protection, but also to the need to be able to use cyber offensively, if necessary, for deterrence.

Other issues to which we have adapt are:

Artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence and machine learning in tandem will enable our IT systems to adjust rapidly to what’s out there, faster than humans could possibly think. That means that we must set the parameters for what we need, bearing in mind legal, moral and ethical considerations, which our potential adversaries will not be bothered with.

The speed and range of weapons. This exceeds anything that we have experienced before, and the precision of these weapons that are nuclear as well as non-nuclear, hyper velocity, and can avoid detection, these are real challenges; particularly for large ships, but also for critical infrastructure, airports, and seaports.

And then finally, quantum calculations, the speed of how fast machines can learn. There is great potential to help us understand intentions better. We’re currently not able to find intentions, for example, behind how the president of the Russian Federation is thinking or the leader of the Chinese Communist Party. So, perhaps, much like the business world already does, quantum learning may help us figure this out more quickly.

Where do you see the biggest weaknesses in European preparedness for these challenges?

The principal target audience for our book are European political leaders and strategic thinkers because the United States alone does not have the capacity to do everything. Even with the largest defense budgets in history, significant Air Force, Navy, land forces, and all the other capabilities that we have, it’s not enough. You can’t deter Russia, contain the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts, contain Iran, contain North Korea, deal with Islamic extremism, protect the global commons, and take care of regular business. That’s why our president has emphasized the importance of alliances and multilateral institutions, to help deal with all these threats.

The defense of Europe is going to rest largely on the shoulders of our European allies.

In the event of a conflict in the Indo-Pacific region, or even as we shift more and more assets there, our European allies cannot assume that the US will provide the bulk of security in Europe. We are going to remain invested in Europe, our economic prosperity depends on European prosperity. The EU is the biggest trading partner for North America. Plus, we need the access our European allies give us in terms of air bases, naval bases, land training areas and so on. But overall, the defense of Europe is going to rest largely on the shoulders of our European allies.

There are a couple of vulnerabilities that need to be addressed. Number one: there is a reluctance on the part of many political leaders, in Germany, in France, in the Netherlands, in Italy, and some other Western European countries to look at the Kremlin as a real threat. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have dialog, that you can’t buy gas, it doesn’t mean that you can’t have trade and relations, but you have to acknowledge there’s a threat and you have to explain to your citizens that we have to protect ourselves and that means you have to invest in your own security. And the same thing is true for China: all of us, including the United States, want to be able to take advantage of the Chinese market, all of us depend on various products from China. But that comes at a price. We must be very clear and hold China accountable for respecting sovereignty and living up to international agreements and international law. That’s job one and it falls on the shoulders of our elected civilian leaders in Europe.

Number two: Cyber vulnerability. We have to acknowledge, even within federal systems like in Germany or the US, where so much power is devolved down to states or Bundesländer, that cyber may be one of those things that is best handled at a central level. Clearly, many businesses are not taking adequate responsibility, as we saw from the Colonial Pipeline.

A third vulnerability that our European allies have to address is air and missile defense, which are about protecting European citizens, protecting European infrastructure. This is where Germany in particular, but also the Netherlands, should play a leading role protecting the Baltic region, working with Sweden, Finland, and Norway. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania do not have the capacity to provide high-end air and missile defense.

The final point is military mobility. We must show that we can move as fast or faster than Russian Federation forces to be able to convey to the Kremlin that we are prepared. The ability to cross borders, the ability to move equipment quickly in peace time conditions –many people don’t realize the importance of this. This is again something where Germany and the Netherlands can play a leading role.

With the new US administration, which changing priorities in American foreign policy should Europe be specifically aware of?

First, the United States has to remove all doubt about its commitment to security, stability and prosperity in Europe. Not just during the Trump administration, but even during the Obama administration, there was talk about a pivot to the Pacific, and well-intentioned but unsuccessful attempts at having the proper sort of relationship with the Kremlin. So, it’s very important that our president addresses this.

There is a huge responsibility and high expectations of Germany.

Germany is the most important ally for the United States. Germany has earned a moral authority of sorts over the last seven decades – which took hard work – that gives it a strong voice that is respected around the world. The brand “Made in Germany” is so respected. Your focus on the environment, on climate change, these things give Germany authority. Obviously, the economic power makes Germany the leader inside the European Union. The United States is depending on Germany. The Biden administration has made it clear that the relationship is very important. With that come high expectations that Germany will hold the EU together when it comes to having the necessary leverage to deal effectively with China, that Germany will hold the EU together on sanctions against Russia and press the Kremlin to respect international law and Ukrainian sovereignty, for example. There is a huge responsibility and high expectations of Germany. The Biden administration is probably a little disappointed because we haven’t seen a manifestation of that. But, of course, the administration recognizes that Germany has elections in September.

The UK is in a unique situation, no longer inside the EU. It’s a critical security partner and a critical economic partner, it has global aspirations, and the United States is going to work closely with the UK as always on how to deal with China and with Russia.

The French, obviously, are a critical ally and important leader within the European Union, but they do not seem at all interested in holding the Kremlin accountable for what it has done in Georgia or anywhere in the Black Sea, particularly in Ukraine. This will also be a point of emphasis for the administration.

In the past, between Europe and the United States, there has always been an emphasis on our common values. What role do these values play for the alliance today, and what is the relation between common values and interests?

The Biden administration is correct in emphasizing the importance of strong liberal democracies, of ensuring that the institutions that make up liberal democracies, such as the electoral process, a free media, a judiciary that is in fact fair, respect for international law, respect for other nations. If the United States wants to hold others accountable, we must get our own house in order.

Europeans have always criticized American policy decisions, that’s to be expected. But Europeans tended to have respect for American institutions, the ideal of these institutions. And when we don’t live up to what we say our values are, it significantly undermines our credibility as an ally and as a leader. That is something that the Biden administration is working hard to address. You can expect that the United States will have similar expectations for our allies, so that we can be strong and cohesive. We are going to have different policy views, each nation is going to have its own agenda, but it’s the values that are so clearly laid out in the preamble to the Washington Treaty which created NATO. That’s what helps us stick together and get through the policy differences.

Are you optimistic about the future of NATO? Macron famously called the alliance “braindead” – was he wrong?

Think about our alliance, created 1949, twelve countries at the beginning. Here we are in 2021, 30 countries and at least three in the queue wanting to come in. So, despite all the changes in the security environment, from the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, through the Cold War, the breakup of Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now back into an era of Great Power competition, the alliance has only grown, because people know that their best chance for security lies with being a member of NATO. When you take a longer-term strategic view, it’s useful to remember that.

We have been through a lot of tough times: during the time of de Gaulle, France withdrew from the military structure of NATO. France and the UK were very unhappy with the United States when we did not support them in Suez. Germany was extremely unhappy after the US went into Iraq. Turkey would not let the US go through their territory into Northern Iraq back in 2002/2003. So, there’s been a host of issues, and then President Macron said that NATO was braindead. I completely disagree with him, but it was useful. Secretary Jens Stoltenberg created the Strategic Reflections Group to take a look at where we’ve been and where we’re going. And they provided several recommendations for the alliance, which are being worked on now and which are being addressed by NATO’s leaders.

Let me just highlight a handful of key points:

There is the topic of burden sharing. Two percent is a useful metric, but it should not be the only metric. We need a much more sophisticated approach to what it means. Germany is not a frontline state anymore in the traditional sense. It is the hub for logistics, for air and missile defense, for commanding control. Therefore, anything that improves NATO’s ability to respond quickly, such as rail, air transport, wheeled transport, cyber protection, and infrastructure, that should count towards two percent because that’s what we need from Germany. We are going to figure out a way to improve burden sharing.

We need a much more sophisticated approach to burden sharing.

The Asia-Pacific region: I don’t envision a NATO mission to the Indo-Pacific region, although there will be allies such as France and the UK who will provide maritime capabilities, even Germany is doing this, in the Pacific. Everybody has an interest in freedom of navigation and stability in the Pacific. But the alliance has to figure out how to deal with China. An important example of this is that NATO now tracks what infrastructure in Europe is controlled by Chinese business. The port of Piraeus in Greece is one of the most well-known examples – the Chinese own about 99% of that port. Recently I saw a report that said that about 40% of the port of Hamburg’s capacity may be owned by the Chinese soon. We talk about being in a crisis with Russia, and now you have China controlling transportation infrastructure. We have to be considerate of that.

The alliance is going to look at its role with climate change. Not only in terms what we can do to contribute to reducing human impact on the climate, but also what the implications are for security, the most obvious being the changing Arctic. Ships are going to increasingly be able to transit the Arctic throughout the year. We have to think about how Russia tries to control that, about Chinese competition – the alliance is going to have to respond. Our Norwegian allies pay attention to this very closely.

The alliance has to figure out how to deal with China.

Finally, what we started off talking about: is the alliance fit for purpose in the future? Do we have the tools and the political support necessary to operate in a cyber domain? Have we figured out how to accommodate each nation’s concerns about ethical issues with drones and artificial intelligence? That’s the future of our alliance. I’m actually very, very optimistic.

Let us look at the situation in the United States: The US has become a lot more domestic-oriented over the past few years. There is this deep political rift that seems to accelerate this look inward. Do you agree with this assessment and if so, what does that mean for the United States’ foreign engagement and for its allies?

Up until the Second World War, the United States always had a strong isolationist tendency. Blessed by incredible geography, with only Canada to the north and Mexico to the south – that affected how people thought. The United States was formed by people that left other continents to focus inwardly. That’s in our DNA. But after the Second World War it was clear that we should adopt a more forward leaning posture when it comes to global security to prevent conflict. That has been largely successful, especially within Europe.

As I mentioned, our economy depends on prosperity around the rest of the world so that there are markets for American products, as well as the things Americans want at very low prices. That has caused us to become much more globally oriented. But every president has to think about domestic issues. We have gone a little bit too far in the globalization effort, so that jobs were leaving the United States and production was happening elsewhere. That’s what was part of the appeal for President Trump, he focused on getting these jobs back in the United States. Even President Biden has said: “Buy American.”

Our political leaders have the responsibility to explain to their populations how we are going to take care of our own population, but why we also depend on other nations as well. COVID-19 has been an example of that. We depend on each other and that includes security. The United States cannot do it alone, Germany cannot do it alone, but your readers can appreciate that Americans will be a little bit annoyed if they see an ally who benefits from American security, not contributing.

Thank you very much for your thoughts!

Thank you.

Lieutenant General (Retired) Ben Hodges holds the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis. The last assignment in his military career, which spanned almost four decades, was as Commanding General, United States Army Europe (Wiesbaden, Germany) from 2014 to 2017. He retired from the U.S. Army in January 2018. His book is Future War and the Defence of Europe by Gen. John R Allen & Lt Gen. Ben Hodges  & Prof. Julian Lindley-French (Oxford: Oxford University Press)/German Edition Sept 2021 (Stuttgart: Franckh Kosmos)

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