The only winning move is not to play

Wargaming helps to explore and test concepts, and is also very interesting.

So assuming you now reasonably understand how you want to fight, and you understand the enemy and relevant strategic plans, how do you answer the most important question: who will win?

One way is through a constant schedule of preparatory activities and exercises, but if you picked up on the titular reference then you’ll know the other: wargames.

I’ll expand in a bit on how wargames can be used to understand the balance of power in different forces, as well as how they can be used to understand some final lessons tying together how we fight, but for now here’s three interesting things about wargames!

1. Wargames take all forms, shapes, sizes and purposes

Some you may have heard of. Risk, or Diplomacy for example, are fairly well known. But wargames can be played from the international, strategic level as either simple military (e.g. Risk), or full nation simulation games with economies and industry (e.g. Axis & Allies).

Wargames can be computer games (… there are many, many examples. I’ll just leave these here), or can be board games. They can use miniatures, or can be formalised thought experiments. There are even business strategy games that are given the name “wargame” because they have the same design and play implications.

Have a look here for one of many attempted lists of wargames.

2. Wargames are used at the highest level

In 2002 the US famously tried the “Millennium Challenge 2002” – a wargame aimed at demonstrating that US power is unassailable in the Middle East. It’s a famous embarrassment, where the opposition force (OPFOR) commander designed his actions to avoid US strengths and highlight weaknesses (as any good commander / leader / bid writer / whatever will do). He won, sinking the equivalent of an entire carrier battle group and “killing” 20,000 US personnel. The ships were “re-floated”, and the wargame carried on under much constrained rules.

Wargames are used to test political outcomes, and potential outcomes of military operations. In fact, one is so accurate at testing the question of whether Israel can destroy Iran’s nuclear reactors that its creator has been investigated for providing classified material. Which, if you were a clever intelligence agency, is what you’d do after making sure the numbers were wrong.

Either a command post / mini ops room somewhere, or a realistic wargame running. Taken from a very good article on rules of wargaming learned from the Millenium Challenge 2002 here.

Wargames are often run before beginning a major conflict – “MC ’02” as it’s also known is thought to have been preparations for the 2003 invasion of Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom). The same invasion was less charitably portrayed in Desert Crossing. The Sigma Wargames were a series run to try to predict the impact of US intervention in Vietnam – the results were rather prophetic. Unsurprisingly wargames that gave the wrong answer tend to be quickly forgotten.

The German plans for the First World War were conceptually tested via wargames – predicting major battles, and validating the robustness of plans.

We in the UK use them as well, to design and test future concepts of incorporating new technologies, or new ways of fighting. There’s a hidden society of wargamers out there – if you’re interested then get out and make connections.

3.  Wargames are fun!

I’m a massive fan, whether we’re talking computer-based, table top, or more conceptual games. They are both interesting and fun.

A statement of wargamer perceptions, from a wargaming forum.

A later post will be talking about the game “Wargame”, and about how it usefully helps to demonstrate how even kids can get to grips with how the West wages war (shown below).

This is about how the games tend to go.

But next, I step away from defence entirely.

How We Fight

In my last post I suggested that the history of the Cold War is still what defines the way we fight. I looked at some battle plans and equipment requirements to give a feel for what this all actually means – what a national (and international) battle plan looks like at that scale.

Continuing this I’ve written a summary of the doctrinal changes  over the Cold War – how and why NATO and the UK have planned to fight, and how it shapes the way in which we intend to fight now.

Western Doctrine (Part 2):

  • The History
    • Defence in depth;
    • Active Defense;
    • AirLand Battle;
    • Network Centric Warfare, Full Spectrum Operations, and AirSea Battle;
    • British Defence Doctrine.
  • The Future.

We start with late defensive thinking at the end of WWII – the most (only?) successful defensive strategic doctrine in that conflict other than “put the sea in the way and maintain air superiority”.

Defence in Depth

It would be an exaggeration to say that Russia invented defence in depth, but it has certainly perfected it. Defence in depth is the strategic surrender of ground by defending forces to slowly wear out an attacking army. It aims to slow down an attacker, cause them to lose momentum, and buy time for friendly forces to regain momentum and attack the flanks of an enemy advance (for example).

In 1811/1812 Russia used this strategy, with excellent intelligence and good use of mobilisation and strategic reserves, to defeat Napoleon’s Grand Armée (giving rise to the first ever Sankey Diagram as a result). This helped them to eventually defeat Napoleon by using their slowly mobilised war machine to support armies marching through Poland/Lithuania, Prussia, and then into France.

The world’s first Sankey Diagram – charting the route that Napoleon’s Grand Armee took marching into Russia. The width of each line is the number of men remaining in the army. The tan line is the army advancing, the black is the retreat from Moscow.

130 years later the Soviet Union adopted the same strategy to absorb and then defeat the German invasion (through necessity rather than planning).

When Western nations looked at the Soviet horde that would invade East Germany, in the 50s and 60s, it looked to this tried and tested plan to defend.

Active Defense

The issues with Defence in Depth are that it requires the political will to give up large areas of land, and tactical patience and sacrifice of units. Western forces in Germany had increasingly less of these as the Cold War went on – they weren’t able to give up sufficient ground to stall the attack (as forces became more mobile the ability to stall the enemy was reduced) without it being counted as a loss.

Suddenly the Yom Kippur war kicks off, and is finished almost as soon as it has started. Within a month Egypt has invaded to re-take land, rebuffed a heavily armoured Israeli force with air support, and eventually been overcome. That conflict immediately showed the utility of Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGMs) and Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs), which had advanced leaps in the preceding decade.

So along comes Active Defence – exploiting the West’s better technology (a dubious claim at that point) to blunt the Soviet spearhead. The plan was to use mobile defensive positions to cluster Soviet forces, and use the suddenly very powerful ATGMs to tear them to pieces. Pick up your defensive position and find a new target.

9M14 Malyutka (AT-3 Sagger) – while also probably winning awards as the least attractive ATGM, the Sagger is credited for knocking out 800+ Israeli tanks in the Yom Kippur war. Difficult to guide, and not terribly accurate in the stress of war, this was a game-changer for the Egyptian Army of the time. The Israeli Defence Force was armed with the (very) new BGM-71 TOW; a more accurate and faster weapon credited with destroying 11 T-72s in the Lebanon War – one of the first field encounters with this new tank.

AirLand Battle

Soviet forces had their own ATGMs and SAMs though, and they were quite good.

The 2K12 “Kub” (SA-6 Gainful) – grandfather of the “Buk” missile that shot down Malaysian Airlines MH-17, the 2K12 surprised Israeli (and NATO) forces during the Yom Kuppur War. Egyptian and Syrian SAMs downed a claimed 100+ Israeli aircraft in that war, and some modern aircraft since (e.g. F-16s in the Gulf War and Bosnia).

Analysts were predicting that the huge attritional battle would benefit the Russians, and their absurd number of tanks, helicopters and IFVs. And Western commanders didn’t like the idea of giving up ground and sacrificing units. It felt like losing. The enemy maintained the momentum. We weren’t in control. And that won’t do.

AirLand Battle re-wrote the defensive rules. AirLand Battle says that the best way to defend is to fight fire with fire and attack an enemy attack. In fact it is a pretty big shift in thinking that harks back to the German stormtrooper tactics in WWI – avoid the enemy main thrusts and forces, instead attack weakly defended areas like the flanks of a salient or logistics sites and reinforcement staging areas. Similar to Active Defence, but more aggressive and offensive.

The main premise was that, as well as slowing down the enemy by degrading their ability to keep frontline troops supplied, rapid attacks would exploit the one strength that NATO had over the Warsaw Pact at this point: the initiative and decisiveness of unit-level commanders. This improved command and control allowed them (so the thinking went), to be more agile, to confuse the enemy, to get inside their OODA loop, to regain the initiative.

The OODA loop.

This is the single most important doctrinal development for understanding the way we do things now. It drove a focus on deep fires (the ability to cause long-range reasonably precise effects, e.g. through cruise missiles, MLRS, or deep-strike interdiction aircraft), on close air and ground coordination, and on finding and exploiting enemy weaknesses.

Is it (probably) significantly more effective? Yes. Would appeal to the military mindset. Absolutely yes, and it’s this that (in my view), led to adoption and continuing use of these warfighting tenets.

So what has changed since?

Network Centric Warfare, Full Spectrum Operations & AirSea Battle

Very little really.

Network Centric Warfare (Network Enabled Capability here in the UK) took the explosion of computing power in the 90s together with the increasing quality of ISTAR and command and control and communication computer (C4) systems, and decided that through the power of computer networks we would be able to identify the enemy, determine the appropriate course of action, target them, and cause an effect (usually destroying them) far faster than before.

It promised a great increase in operational effectiveness, but nobody planned to actually DO anything different. Faster, yes, and requiring more ISTAR and comms, yes, but war after was effectively the same as war before but with more information. If anything it’s AirLand Battle(+), speeding up OODA loops even more. There’s a slight assumption here that there’s nothing our adversary can do about our super-comms and  ISTAR: jamming, counter-jamming, and other Electronic Warfare back to the fore, and would be sorely tested against a peer adversary.

The latest named doctrinal developments to come from the US are Full Spectrum Operations – opening up the focus from the direct battle to information (e.g. PSYOPS and influence), cyberspace, civil support and nation building – and AirSea Battle. Full Spectrum Operations is a post-Cold War development that says that the military doesn’t just fight huge set-piece battles against nations, it also does a lot of peacekeeping, peace support, and nation building. The basic tenets of battle are the same, but that battle has always been driven by the need to beat everyone else, not to support or rebuild a nation.

AirSea Battle is effectively AirLand battle set in the Pacific instead of Germany – it’s not really anything new or different, instead it’s an evolution that codifies how air and maritime / littoral units will operate together.

British Defence Doctrine

Joint Doctrine Publication 01: UK Defence Doctrine sets out the overarching guidelines for how British forces fight. It sets out the context in which the UK Government would fight as a lever of governmental power. It sets out the general themes of what “fighting power” means (e.g. it isn’t just equipment, it includes trained, high-morale personnel, who think in the right way, who are just and follow appropriate rules, supported by a solid supply chain, etc.).

JDP 0-01: UK Defence Doctrine

And ultimately it sets out the key themes of the way we fight:

  • The Manoeuvrist Approach: “applies strength against identified vulnerabilities, including predominantly indirect ways and means of targeting the intellectual and moral component of an opponent’s fighting power. Significant features are momentum, tempo, and agility which, in combination, aim to achieve shock and surprise.
  • Selection and Maintenance of the Aim: set out to do the right thing, and do what you set out to do;
  • Maintenance of Morale: feel like we’re doing the right thing;
  • Offensive Action: gain advantage, maintain momentum, and seize the initiative;
  • Security: gain and maintain freedom of action, where and when required, to achieve objectives;
  • Surprise: OPFOR uses confusion. OPFOR hurts itself in its confusion (strangely I can’t find a simple explanation of that phrase anywhere. Sorry to the confused. Don’t hurt yourself in your confusion. Have this instead).
  • Concentration of Force: “involves decisively synchronising superior fighting power”;
  • Economy of Effort: use the minimum power required to achieve effects;
  • Flexibility: agility, responsiveness, resilience, adaptability;
  • Cooperation: sharing dangers, burdens, risks, and opportunities;
  • Sustainability: maintain fighting power and freedom of action.

And if you can’t look at that list and start to get a glimmer for what each bit is and why it’s there (admittedly with more focus on some than others), then this quick step through history has failed.

So, where next?

The Future

The UK armed forces are having a bit of an understated crisis at the moment. We are trying to recover from a position where we substantially failed in both Iraq and Afghanistan, we are re-realising that we might have to face peer nation militaries (something we can’t do at the moment), and we still have ambitions of meaningfully contributing to large military goals.

My very personal view is that our current doctrine fails the current situation. We cannot fight how we’d like to – the military is underfunded and poorly structured to sustain large forces in theatre. Goals to have a deployable Division are laudable, but the methods are dubious.

In general, our doctrine fails to suit two of the three tasks (really there are several others, but these are the main ones) that we might be called upon to perform:

  • We cannot fight a peer nation with this doctrine. Relying on an intelligence and C2 picture is risky at best (really just naive) when adversaries can jam our signals and target our ISTAR assets. Our technological edge is eroding fast (if it still exists), and our inherent C2 edge doesn’t sufficiently cover the fact that any adversary we’d consider a “peer” has a bigger military than us in terms of numbers. And numbers matter.
  • Our doctrine is perfectly suited to fighting non-peer militaries. Air and Special Forces support to allied efforts, turning up and destroying large numbers of technologically inferior enemies in a clear military command structure, even conventional deterrence (pointing out the risk to enemies of performing an action) – yes all of those we’re good at.
  • Our doctrine is too military to be suitable to long-term peacekeeping and nation-building. How does “concentration of force” engender trust in the target population and cause alienation of belligerent forces? How long does “selection and maintenance of an aim” actually stand up, if the aim is creating a successful society and it’s much easier for military people to measure success as enemy body count? How does the manoeuvrist approach encourage military decision-makers to think beyond “kinetic effect” (destroying things), and instead train themselves to be better-armed policemen?

So where will British Defence Doctrine be in 10 years time? My fear is that it will be where it is now.


As Tom Lehrer said: “Spring is here, Spring is here. Life is skittles and life is beer.”

The exit from Afghanistan has all three services, but particularly the Army, looking at their place in the world and realising that all isn’t well. Change is in the air, both in macro-level structure (e.g. the new Adaptive and Reactive forces – encouraging long-term engagement in specific areas of the world, taking on the lesson from the successful French operation in Mali (Op Serval)), and in small-unit tactics (e.g. proposal for getting rid of the section-level Light Machine Gun (Minimi) and organic 60mm mortar).

In the land environment I think the most promising initiative for changing the way we fight is the attempt to separate deployed forces from needing sustainment for as long as possible: reducing power use / battery carriage cuts down on resupply needs, and reduces the weight carried by average soldier. Reduced resupply means increased freedom of action, freedom of manoeuvre, surprise, reduced protection requirement, etc.

Deployable field renewable power. Solar panels charge this satcomms equipment. This can last indefinitely (to a point), and reduces the battery carriage requirement.

But the strongest change in thinking, and one that might need to be learned in the civilian world too, is that in this new world our forces again aren’t the strongest and we keep overpromising: we think we can deliver too much with too little. As such, we will take casualties, and they may be heavy. We must be able to bear that, and to fight on regardless to achieve the military objective.

If we can re-learn that Cold War lesson then we may yet retain some strong military credibility.

7 Days to the Rhine

The Cold War was a fascinating time for doctrinal development and is crucial for understanding how and why we have the doctrine we do now, particularly as we start looking at whether we can fight peer-state adversaries. So I’m going to revisit Cold War battle plans, talk about how they’ve changed, and how technology and doctrinal changes drove that change.


  • The Fulda Gap;
  • The Strategic Picture;
  • 7 Days to the Rhine (Part 1):
    • Tactical Nuclear War,
    • Readiness,
    • GIUK Gap;
  • Western Doctrine (Part 2):
    • Defence in depth,
    • Active Defense,
    • AirLand Battle,
    • Full Spectrum Operations;
  • Where next?

The Fulda Gap

It’s 1979. Germany is divided: on the West the combined NATO forces of the US, UK, West Germans, Belgian and Dutch. On the East are the East German, Polish, and the forces of the USSR (with the Czech to the south). If the Warsaw Pact is to advance into NATO territory then it must do so through West Germany, because it’s here that US reinforcements will arrive and they must not be allowed to arrive.

A funnel created by the neutral states of Austria (still expected to probably be invaded by the Warsaw Pact), Yugoslavia, and the Baltic means everything comes down to the East / West Germany border. The topography of Germany means that the North is preferred – wide open plains are ideal for the mechanised forces of the Warsaw Pact, but initial US reinforcements will fly into the major USAF base of Frankfurt in the South until the heavy armour arrives by sea.

In the way of a Warsaw Pact advance, between the defending US V corps in the Central Army Group and the advancing Soviet 8th Guards Army are the Rhön mountains and the Vogelsburg. In the narrow valley between the two lies the small city of Fulda.

Map of probable axes of advance to capture Frankfurt. The south / east arrow passes Fulda. From

If the Cold War had ever turned hot then this small city would have been obliterated.

The Strategic Picture

The Group of Soviet Forces in Germany existed for one (stated) reason: to prevent the ‘inevitable’ war from spreading into the USSR itself. The minute things kick off, no matter who starts it, the Soviet forces are getting across that border and ruining someone else’s house thank you very much. Unsurprisingly, the rest of the Warsaw Pact backed up this plan. Nobody can win the eventual war by steamrolling over the other military and invading the motherland, so what does victory mean?

The end game, the whole plan of WWIII, is to both avoid total nuclear annihilation and to be in the stronger position such that when the UN steps in one team is awarded better terms in the inevitable peace. That gives two victory conditions:

  • If you are USSR then you must grab as much land from NATO as possible and prevent reinforcement by the US.
  • If you are NATO then you must halt the Soviet advance and defeat it in detail. You must keep US reinforcement lines clear, so that heavy armoured units held at lower readiness can reach Europe.

7 Days to the Rhine

You are the USSR. High tensions suddenly, unexpectedly, lead to war as NATO launches a series of nuclear strikes on the Vistula River in Poland, cutting off access to Poland and East Germany from forces in the USSR, and invades East Germany (a common planning scenario involves an enemy first strike). Your first move is to shift the fight to NATO: break civilian morale, pour troops over the border, and deny the Atlantic to US reinforcement convoys.

This is in fact the exact story of a 1979 Soviet battle plan which aims to present a fait accompli to the US and UN by arriving at the Rhine in D-Day+7, and getting to Spain by D-Day+14. In the 10 years since release there has been some great analysis of the plan. There are three interesting elements that are worth a mention here:

Tactical Nuclear Strikes

Soviet doctrine assumed that both sides could use widespread tactical and strategic nuclear strikes without escalation to full strategic nuclear war (ending in Mutually Assured Destruction). This isn’t at all what NATO assumptions were, so it’s good that nothing ever did kick off because NATO would have escalated. The initial NATO nuclear strikes along the Vistula assumed a mindset in which Poland’s populace was seen as a forgivable casualty of war to effectively degrade the Soviet ability to reinforce the frontline, again, very at odds with mainstream NATO thinking (especially in a first strike scenario). There were some very interesting tactical nuclear weapons created by both sides.

Because of this planning assumption a lot of cities are in the firing line: NATO destroys Warsaw and 10 other major Polish cities, as well as a number of other Warsaw Pact cities; the Soviet response targets major population centres and military targets to break morale.

A visual map of the expected NATO actions and Soviet counter-strikes. From

Interestingly, though the Soviets target many expected countries (Germany, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands), they also target Austria (a neutral state), Italy (nowhere near the battle area, but able to launch a counter-attack via Austria), and do not target France or the UK! France by this point had stepped outside of the NATO military planning set-up, but the UK was a key part of NATO plans – hosting US nuclear weapons and defending the Atlantic resupply routes.

Both NATO and Warsaw Pact forces expected to fight in areas which had been subjected to nuclear strikes (in fact the full spectrum of Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical (NBC), or as it’s now known Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN)). Both sides undertook testing on the nature of fighting in an irradiated area, the Soviet Union in the Totskoye nuclear exercise, and the US through the Desert Rock exercises. The requirement to fight in a CBRN contaminated area drives British armoured vehicles (including Challenger II tank, Warrior armoured fighting vehicle, and others) to contain a kettle – allowing troops to live on boil-in-the-bag meals and continue fighting for up to three days.

While talking about nuclear tests it would be remiss of me to not bring up potentially the first thing to make it into space (it probably didn’t).


The Soviet plan assumes that after an initial NATO attack they can mobilise their forces, counter-attack East Germany, and fight through NATO positions to reach the Rhine in 7 days. Bearing in mind the logistic tail and replacement of casualties (high), that timescale is absurdly fast. Soviet forces were kept at a high readiness, with follow-up reinforcements not far behind – snap exercises were called periodically to test readiness, and these continue to this day in Russia at a much larger scale than in many (possibly any) NATO countries.

This plan (real name “CSLA Plan of Action for a War Period”) does not contain any thoughts on how NATO’s first strikes would degrade forward fighting units. It also doesn’t contain any thoughts on Warsaw Pact losses as they fight through the NATO defence – indeed a core tenet of the plan is that NATO’s defensive plans are a sham. Still, the assumptions required to even begin to consider reaching the Pyrenees in 14 days indicate an impressive ramping up of military effort.

NATO’s plan in West Germany requires holding off the Warsaw Pact for 14 days until US high readiness troops can arrive. Some airmobile troops will be available sooner, but given the roughly 7-day Atlantic transit time this assumes that the majority of US armoured forces in the first wave of reinforcements aren’t ready to set sail for a week. This is significantly slower than Soviet planning assumptions.

The GIUK Gap

The Greenland – Iceland – UK Gap is the name of the set of straits through which any vessel from the Baltic or Northern Soviet fleets wanting to enter the Atlantic would have to travel. Given that the entire NATO plan hinges on getting seaborne reinforcements from the US, Soviet ships, submarines, and aircraft very much did want to pass through those straits. In the event of war Soviet submarines would attempt to track and interdict US ships, while Bear bombers launched anti-ship missiles from long range after flying around Norway and through the gap.

GIUK Gap. From

Bear bombers would frequently test out NATO readiness, and continue to do so (this example notable for the detail on multi-national hand over). The UK was a heavy contributor to defence of the GIUK Gap – particularly in the forms of Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) and aircraft interception.

English Electric Lightning intercepting a Tupolev Tu-95 (Bear). Bears were originally nuclear bombers that could act as maritime patrol aircraft, and be armed with long-range anti-ship cruise missiles. From

These requirements drove capability requirements during the Cold War (e.g. the English Electric Lightning – a rapid but fuel guzzling interceptor, or the Type 23 frigate – a specialised ASW platform), and for some equipment which is still in service, such as the Typhoon and Astute-class submarines (ish – actual background is more nuanced).

Detection of vessels in this gap also led to the placement of underwater microphones – the Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS), which the US maintains to this day. Other elements of it include microphones near the Straights of Gibraltar (to intercept the Mediterranean Fleet

SOSUS systems, with anticipated detection ranges, and additional areas under surveillance by USN P-8 Poseidon ASW aircraft. From


This is getting a bit long, so I’ve split it into two. The 2nd part will go through how (primarily Western) doctrine has changed for fighting near-parity forces, and will give my thoughts on what’s coming next.

Deterring Russian Aggression

Russia is determined to reclaim its place in the limelight. NATO knows this will happen at its expense. Enter Russia, stage right.

Have you ever wondered what it was like to be JFK? Tricky Dick Nixon, or Jimmy Carter? Or indeed Leonid Brezhnev, Vasili Kuznetsov, or Gorbachev?

How did they face down the other global superpower? How did they, in short, pursue their national objectives in the face of a belligerent opponent? How did they plan for WWIII?

Some in the defence industry will know very well how. I started my career working with people who, when they started their careers, would walk through the plains of West Germany to plan out likely Warsaw Pact axes of advance and model the probable victors. Much of the industry however inevitably consists of those who joined, like me, much later.

In today’s climate of potential US draw-down from NATO and Russian belligerence it’s worth thinking about again – even governmental forecasting papers expect future uncertainty from Russia. Skip to the bottom if you want a refresher on the Cold War.

In the meantime I’ll talk about:

  1. Deterrence and the lessons we can learn from the Cold War;
  2. What is the current context:
    • The difference Trump makes – good and bad,
    • The other levers of governmental power,
    • The power of friendship, and
    • Anti-Access and Area Denial;
  3. How we can apply our learned lessons.


Noun: the act of discouraging (someone) from doing something by instilling doubt or fear of the consequences.

The Cold War was a war exclusively of deterrence. Each side attempted to convince the other that it could not successfully win a conflict – whether nuclear or conventional. The USSR stockpiled everything: nuclear weapons, tanks (believed to have built 140,000+ from the 1950s to 1990), and soldiers [1]. Their purpose was to show that, no matter the expected casualties in the first few days, they had so many more units at readiness to fight, that they could blow around and through exhausted NATO forces. There’s a reason Stalin is often (probably wrongly) quoted as saying: “Quantity has a quality all of its own”, and (when questioning the value of non-military support) actually did say “The Pope! How many divisions has he got?” [2]. In the end some consider the joint US economic power and Papal rapport with ending the Soviet Union.

As well as piling on the forces each side exaggerated the effectiveness of their equipment (and probably continue to do so) so that the other would take pause before thinking they would come out ahead.

NATO, when it saw that it could not win the conventional stockpile race, pursued technology as the answer. By the 1980s the proliferation of Anti-Tank Guided Missiles, cluster munitions and scatterable mines, quieter submarines and better aircraft (arguably, certainly better systems onboard) allowed NATO to convincingly suggest that they might stop the Soviet Horde. The Warsaw Pact forces were respected as being capable in their own right as well.

Examples of Soviet capability well into the 1980s. Though ultimately eclipsed by NATO capabilities the vehicles above could be fielded in far larger numbers and the majority were battle tested with strengths and weaknesses learned. Facing down this capable horde made many in NATO question whether they could stop even the conventional Soviet invasion in the event of war.

In the end deterrence was successful. Neither side did invade the other, or kick off any kind of conventional or nuclear conflict, despite some very close calls. Instead the USSR collapsed under the weight of its economic and political issues. What lessons can we learn from history?

Deterring Continued Russian Belligerence

The past decade has really seen Russia rise from its post-1990s slump economically, and it now is trying to retake its position on the world stage. It doesn’t have the economic or diplomatic clout to do that entirely peacefully, as China has been (mostly) doing this century, but it does still have a significant military. And Russia has been waving that military around: in Georgia, in Ukraine, in the Baltic, in Syria. So what does the West / NATO do about a Russia that wants back into the top table and doesn’t mind playing hardball to get there?

The Trump Card

A 1995 paper called Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence points out that a key element of deterrence is the real belief in a credible threat of escalation if the deteree does what the deterrer doesn’t want them to do. An element of unpredictability, of being organisationally slight unhinged (or at least having a “powerful faction” that is) maintains a credible threat. Calling Mr Trump.

If he tells you not to do something then you have no idea what his response will be. Is he all bluff? Who knows. That is a credible threat. It does however make brinkmanship easy, but détente difficult – as long as the adversary also engages in brinkmanship the world becomes a more dangerous place. Is this likely? Yes. Yes it is. Oh well, 2016 has gone fine so far hasn’t it…

Levers of Power

The military is but one lever of political power. Economic levers, e.g. sanctions and targeted tariffs are another, and Russia is already being heavily sanctioned at a state and individual level. But there are lots of others as well that Russia is currently flexing a lot better than those in the West.

Propaganda never really disappeared. It’s often now more subtle than it used to be (in these Cold War, or earlier, classics for example), though fringe groups of distrustful people are quickly reverting. The bias of news sources is readily known: the Daily Mail is right-wing, the Guardian is left-wing, the internet is increasingly polarising with people choosing news sources that align to their world views. But what about state-sponsored bias?

An example of this is Russia Today. Now branded as “RT“, it’s an international news organisation that is funded by the Russian state, and is widely recognised as a propaganda / disinformation outlet, but it’s well disguised as a normal news channel. If you didn’t know what it was, and it releases an ongoing narrative explaining something you suspected is in fact true (e.g. questioning the legitimacy of the US election, or an excessive focus on US race relations over the past year to show that it is a corrupt society) then you may not think about provenance. Some action is now happening (the irony of the link is not lost).

Heavy-handed and slightly obvious propaganda like this is not available to Western governments anymore – evidence of a government lying and controlling narratives overseas would lead to a public backlash here. However, efforts could be made to link together and provide a voice to (and communities for) those willing to go against the Russian Governmental narrative and provide the truth (e.g. pulling together and publicising private and open source intelligence, such as showing Russian forces in Ukraine). The main challenge is to make your desired news source the most interesting and exciting. Sadly that trumps truth most days.

Other potential levers include economic (e.g. working behind the scenes to keep the price of oil low), cultural (e.g. ensuring Russians see the West as the better place, with an implicitly better moral stance – whether true or not), and prestige. On that last point it was good to see the Olympic crackdown on Russian doping!

The Power of Friendship

The main Western lever of power that would effectively de-fang the Russian government is just to be nice. Help out the people, really get involved in making people’s lives better in Russia. Build up support for Russia’s old enemies and control the narratives. That would stop the perceived credibility of the Russian government’s statements that everything bad that happens is because the West (particularly the US) has it out for Russia.

Not going to happen any time soon though is it.


Anti-Access and Area Denial is a new buzz-word as of 3-4 years ago, and may be dying already. It’s the set of actions and policies that make it difficult for a military force to get to the theatre of operations, and to reduce their freedom of manoeuvre. Historically that would have been done militarily by mines, long-range air defences, or chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons.

The US has been worried about China’s new “carrier-killer” ballistic missiles denying their carrier battle groups the ability to get near to the South China Sea, thereby reducing the effectiveness of aircraft on board. Well Russia has just deployed anti-ship and long-range anti-air missiles in the Kaliningrad Oblast and Crimea, potentially preventing access to the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia except by land. In the event of a similar action as Ukraine – where Russia foments a civil crisis that it can deniably supply with training, equipment, and troops ultimately leading to annexation (now known as ‘hybrid’ warfare) – these states would be cut off from outside support.

Russian air defences as at August 2016

Indeed the strongest A2AD action that Russia has is to break down the political coherence of NATO – reducing the credibility of a multinational NATO response if the situation above did occur. By cultivating links with Germany and Italy, Turkey and France, Norway and more, by changing narratives in voting populaces, that is slowly happening.

Lessons Learned

So what do we do about it?

  1. Make sure that unpredictability is backed up by credible effect – if Mr Trump is not shown to ever follow-through with his threats then that weakens everyone;
  2. Counter Russian propaganda, not by showing it as false but by engaging with the viewer-base through other platforms and narratives. Don’t dispute; distract;
  3. Use all political levers of power to influence towards a peaceful and friendly solution. We are not at war, nor do we need to be. We do not need a return of the Cold War. Global prosperity is not a zero-sum game;
  4. Engage with the current Russian government’s political backers. Target Mr. Putin’s ability to say that all bad things are Western aggression. Be kind and help Russian growth and development. Do not say that there has been any kind of ‘victory’, or say one thing but allow focus and emphasis to shift without delivering on promises;
  5. If all else fails, make sure that the Baltic states are a very difficult morsel to bite off and swallow. RAND recommends doing this by pre-positioning seven brigades in Lithuania – not enough to prevent Russian annexation, but enough to change the geo-political picture and delay the Russian advance.  Another suggestion is to provide the Baltic States with key pieces of equipment and training needed to hold out longer against Russian invasion: longer-range anti-air missiles, anti-tank guided missiles, anti-ballistic missile systems, etc.

But a far more viable strategy aims to show that even if Russia does manage to take the Baltic states in 2-6 days, as currently projected, it doesn’t end there. Lithuania is restarting conscription to create a strategic reserve of manpower that is trained and can be called up, and providing manuals on how to run an effective sabotage and resistance campaign. Based on the Swiss model this could provide the kind of deterrent to make Russian leaders think about whether plans to invade are in fact worth it or not.

But as we all know, when facing a black bear you don’t play dead.

The Cold War

The Cold War is generally agreed to have lasted from 1947 to 1991, between NATO and the Warsaw Pact (generally – I’ll explain that in a minute).

At the end of WWII Germany ended up occupied by the Allies. The US / UK / Canadian (+ others) force that landed in France in 1944 fought through France, Belgium and the Netherlands into Germany. The Soviet forces that had been advancing through Russia, Belarus, Poland and Germany since holding the line at Stalingrad and Kursk. In the end both forces held Germany, with a brief scramble for territory in the closing days of the war, splitting Germany in two temporarily.

Eventually it became apparent that the USSR wasn’t actually leaving. The US in 1947 pledged to help all peoples from subjugation by the USSR (lending aid to threatened Greece and Turkey, becoming the Truman Doctrine), and in 1949 NATO began “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down“. In 1955 West Germany joined NATO, prompting the USSR and its satellite states to create a counter organisation: the Warsaw Pact, both to counter US / NATO dominance and in fear of West German rearmament (in the cases of East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland).

The ensuing face-off across the East / West German border lasted until 1989, when the wall came down.

More on this to come in the next post.

*N.B.: Wikipedia references abound. This is a conscious decision, because though better / more respectable references are out there, Wikipedia provides good summaries of things and is accurate enough for the purposes of this. You could always look for yourself.

I assume that you have no background knowledge of this, so I apologise if it's a little noddy at times.

[1] William E. Odom, The Collapse of the Soviet Military, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1998, p. 39
[2] Winston Churchill, The Second World War  vol. 1, ch. 8, p. 105, 1948