Archive Article: Wars in Our Time.
February 16, 2009

First Broadcast on 7th September 2001, Radio 2GB’s Brian Wiltshire Show.

In the last few days we have been marking the anniversary of the outbreak of World War II. The good news is that such large international conventional warfare is now very rare – the bad news is that there are others forms of warfare to worry about.

General Sir Rupert Smith, the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, has written an interesting article on “Wars in Our Time – A Survey of Recent and Continuing Conflicts”. This appears in the current edition of “World Defence Systems”, published in London by the Royal United Services Institute.

General Smith is concerned about the changing nature of warfare. He is in a good position to comment on warfare, having been involved in a variety of recent wars. One trend that he identifies is that wars are being fought for objectives that are not necessarily those to do with the survival of a county. Nowadays multinational forces are being deployed (through such organizations as the United Nations or North Atlantic Treaty Organization). Countries contribute to each operation according their own assessment of the national interest and the degree of risk. This is a very ad hoc way of mounting military operations and can erode the value of international co-operation.

The second trend is that the operations are conducted among the people. This means both that conventional forces are fighting where there is a risk of civilians being killed – and that, because of television, people from around the world can see the operation. Thus, the military phrase “theatre of operations” has taken on another meaning. It is almost like fighting in a Roman ampitheatre.

Third, operations are conducted so as to avoid losing military personnel. Given the terrible slaughter of World War I, it is good to see governments are now more concerned that military forces should receive better care. However, there is a risk that the pendulum has swung too far, and that operations could be harmed if the principal aim is now the avoidance of the loss of life – rather than victory itself.

Fourth, operations are timeless. In a guerrilla struggle, sides can keep on striking in small ways against each for years. Neither side can mount enough force to beat the other; they just keep striking at each other, just like two punch drunk boxers. The Iran-Iraq conflict, for example, in the 1980s was one of last century’s longest wars. It kept rolling on, to an inconclusive end. Neither side won – and many people lost. But will governments and taxpayers be willing to have forces committed overseas for what seem to be timeless campaigns? Will some form of taxpayer “combat fatigue” set in – just as there is already “donor fatigue” among developed countries reluctant to keep on making donations to development and relief projects in developing countries?

Finally, weapon systems are being used for operations for which they were not designed. Modern weapons are highly destructive – and so care has to be taken when they are being used in civilian areas. There need to be other weapon systems to fit and operate effectively and safely among civil society.

To sum up, General Smith has written a stimulating article on what needs to be done to better prepare defence forces for the new era of warfare. Many of the old ideas are no longer applicable.