The JAPCC Conference 2018
Theme 1 | What Defines an Attack?
A representative of a potential near-peer adversary recently stated ‘We will never be able to compete with 10 American carrier battle groups, or field aircraft that have the degree of stealth of an F-22, nor do we have the ambition to. We will simply take out your satellites, radio links, and computers.’ This could be done using the full range of hybrid warfare tools: from ’little green men’ to ’big green rockets’, to ‘fake news’ and even cyber and electronic attacks. The initial results could include loss of space-based ISR, GPS, Link 16 and computer-based mission planning systems, and the effects would likely continue. This could seriously undermine both the perceived and actual effectiveness of NATO Air Power. NATO is not accustomed to suffering losses on a grand scale, which might well happen on Day One if we are not properly postured.
Perhaps the best-known article of the Washington Treaty is Article 5. This article states that an armed attack against one member state is an armed attack against all. Nations may respond using their inherent right of self-defence or they might act individually, or collectively, in accordance with Article 51 of the U.N. Charter. Each NATO member state will provide such assistance to an attacked member state as the supporting member deems necessary. There are two key aspects in the wording of Article 5: ‘armed attack,’ and ‘as it deems necessary.’ This begs the question: ‘What is an armed attack?’ Under international law there is no definition of an armed attack, nor is there one in the NATO glossary, leading to the possibility of confusion and slowing down the decision making process. The second interesting aspect in Article 5 is the wording ‘as it deems necessary’. This implies that it does not necessarily mean military force. The assistance provided by a NATO member state to an attacked nation can be of a different nature; it can be moral, financial, it can be by imposing sanctions, and so on and so forth.
‘It is important to know what constitutes an armed attack before Day Zero. If NATO waits until Day Zero, it will already be too late.’
One of the challenges in determining whether or not an armed attack has occurred is assigning attribution. If the armed attack is a terrorist attack, for example, it could be dealt with by law enforcement agencies and not the military. The September 11th attacks, were responded to with military means after the North Atlantic Council consented that the United States of America had been subjected to an armed attack. Although the attack was conducted by a non-state actor, the key to it being considered an armed attack under Article 5 was that it had been directed from abroad. Today it is more difficult to distinguish between State and Non-State actors.
When differentiating between State and Non-State actors one must consider the proxy. A proxy is a Non-State entity that is controlled by a State power. Proxies are not groups who act independently, those are Non-State actors. Actions by the so-called ‘little green men’ who act as uniformed military personnel but do not identify with a nation, supported by propaganda, misinformation and cyber-attacks, make attribution difficult.
Kinetic actions against NATO are easier to identify, and make the determination that an armed attack has occurred quite simple. However, NATO is facing attacks in new dimensions. Vulnerabilities in airbases, communication networks and infrastructure abound. Modern facilities are no longer hardened, and it is questionable how well they can be protected from CBRN attacks or swarms of inexpensive drones. As Italian Air Power theorist, General Giulio Douhet, pointed out it is far easier to destroy an enemy’s eggs and nest on the ground than it is to hunt and kill the enemy’s fighting birds in the air, therefore aircraft protection must be considered at home bases as well as transit locations. Space assets are also vulnerable, as space is no longer the unreachable sanctuary of a few select nations.
‘The first target that we have to achieve in a peer competitor environment is to regain what we’ve been used to enjoying since day zero in the counterinsurgency environment which means gaining and maintaining control of the air.’
Likely adversaries have made it clear that they are developing, fielding, and expect to operate counter-space weapons. NATO must prepare for physical and cyber-attacks against ground stations and other space mission nodes; jammers and dazzlers to deny receipt of satellite signals and imagery, prevent navigation, intelligence, and communication links; or, even worse, ‘spoofers’ that replace authentic space signals with misleading information. NATO’s potential adversaries now have ground-launched weapons that would shoot down satellites and create debris clouds that would affect the ability to operate in space for decades. Those adversaries are also devising on-orbit weapons to rendezvous with space systems and destroy them in orbit. An attack in space is comparable to an attack against any air, maritime or land force assets, and also comparable to an attack against key cyber systems.
Russia and Belarus are seen as possible ‘peer-state’ actors, as there are similar kinetic force capabilities in northern Europe and in Russia’s Western Military District and Belarus. Russia has created a strong and very challenging high-end, advanced and multi-layered defence environment around Kaliningrad. As a result, were the Baltic States to be quickly isolated from the rest of the Alliance, they might be difficult to liberate. In comparison to the Baltic States, Russia has the advantage in fixed and rotary wing assets, ballistic and cruise missiles, Ground-Based Air Defence (GBAD), and nuclear capability. Moreover, Russia has plenty of space to manoeuvre within her borders and, therefore, operational depth. The Baltic States have scarce resources, are not in a position to build up equal power nor do they have sufficient operational depth. Furthermore, Russia conducts espionage, subversion, information and electronic warfare including cyber actions. They are constantly evaluating NATO air surveillance and readiness by conducting aggressive flight operations. It may not be Russia’s intent to enter into war with NATO, but they might use a favourable opportunity to cut off a small piece of NATO, particularly if they think they can do so without shots being fired, as they did in the Ukraine with Crimea. For this reason the Alliance must demonstrate its readiness to respond, and to clearly and unambiguously demonstrate that every member nation will be protected and defended equally.
Russia has a new means of exploiting the vulnerabilities of the West: cross-domain coercion. Russian doctrine states that the Federation’s main task in deterring and preventing use of military force is ‘to neutralize possible military actions and military threats using political, diplomatic, and other non-military means.’ Although the limited use of nuclear weapons to deescalate a conflict is absent in this doctrine, it remains a serious option. The National Security Strategy of Russia as of December 2015 is more explicit regarding strategic deterrence. It mentions ‘interrelated political, military, tactical, diplomatic, economic, informational and other measures which are being developed and implemented in order to ensure strategic deterrence and the prevention of armed conflict.’
‘An adversary can be successful in a sub-Article 5 situation if they are really capable in undermining political and societal cohesion in a country.’
This concept of strategic deterrence merges coercion with deterrence and can be applied in times of peace and war; in the West this is labelled hybrid warfare, but it is much more than this. Day Zero could happen now, or may be happening already, and this really depends on how Russia implements this doctrine. Recently, the concept of ‘soft power’, coercion through non-military means, was also included in Russia’s strategic deterrence doctrine. It includes disinformation and cyber-war to block information on what is going on in Russia. Soft power is primarily aimed at the civil societies of the West and could be strengthened by the use of technology. This concept of soft power was introduced in the Russian Foreign Policy Concept of 2013 and is also linked to the concept of ‘controlled chaos’. This concept was presented by President Putin around 2012, when accusing the West of using various methods for destabilizing Russia.
Russia will continue to exploit NATO vulnerabilities, like social and / or economic issues, while using Strategic communication and disinformation to manipulate public opinion through a combination of deception, surprise, and higher responsiveness. They could seek to impose the burden of escalation on the Alliance. That burden of escalation would be political and psychological, as much as operational. NATO has to accept that deterrence will be harder to maintain in the face of a capable and resolute near-peer adversary. Therefore, NATO at Day Zero may find itself in an adverse situation, irrespective of what the overall advantage might be on paper in terms of capabilities, capacity and tactics.
NATO considers deterrence the tool of choice for contentious actions below the Article 5 threshold. Those actions, however, should be seen as shaping operations, preparing the battlefield in the context of strategic deterrence. This concerns not only NATO, but because this is about disinformation, taking out economic systems and creating divisions in societies and political systems, it also concerns the European Union, and individual nations. This effort is about cross-domain coercion, the use of different instruments of power to achieve political objectives. Although it may include military power, it is also an effort to distort a society as a whole, such as through offensive cyber operations aimed at economic, industrial, political, and utility service targets. Cross-domain operations are difficult for NATO to address, and especially upon which to gain consensus, when they do not include a clear military action or armed attack.
NATO today faces a hybrid threat from enemies that can range from a Violent Extremist Organization to a peer or near-peer State competitor. Hybrid tactics can offset the lack of military capability. Terrorists, like ISIS, use effective Strategic communication, are decentralized, use short decision cycles, have no political restraints, use a multidimensional strategy, and are adaptive and resilient. In addition, NATO’s potential adversaries use technology that makes it difficult to recognize that NATO is under attack.
During the Wales-summit, NATO member states agreed that malicious cyber activity can be as harmful as an armed attack. A cyber-attack against a bank or robbing a bank using conventional weapons would not be considered an armed attack, but a criminal act. Individuals trying to meddle in the democratic process of one of our member states however, could be assessed differently, as could cyber-attacks that disrupt infrastructure and supporting utilities such as electricity or water for large population centres. If conventional force is seen as an armed attack, an alleged cyber-attack on the democratic processes of the member states could be seen as an armed attack on that nation’s sovereignty. The problem of attribution is increasingly difficult with cyber-attacks. Because of this difficulty, how the Alliance perceives such an attack and what sort of consensus it might achieve in terms of action will be difficult.
In addition to external threats, NATO has to cope with insider threats such as theft of critical information or sabotage; system software hiding malicious logic that might be activated at any inopportune moment; and hackers seeking to degrade command and control networks, infrastructure, and other key space / cyber terrain. It is simpler and much more efficient to manipulate information than it is to destroy it or to force it through sophisticated cybersecurity firewalls.
The use of refugees to achieve political goals is seen as an aspect of controlled chaos. A refugee crisis has a huge effect on public opinion in NATO and EU countries. In March 2016, General Breedlove stated before the Armed Services Committee of the United States Senate that Russia and Syria were indiscriminately bombing Syrian civilian targets in order to increase the stream of refugees. In this way the crisis and the need to respond were brought to a higher level of urgency in the public eye, while simultaneously creating economic and internal security challenges in the nations to which the refugees were being driven. Some have termed this ‘weaponization of refugees’ and it is a growing challenge for the Alliance and other destination nations.
The migrant crisis led to a discussion between Russia and the European Union; the European Union expected Russia to shift migrants to northern Europe. Migrants arrived at the Finnish-Russian border, which could be seen as a statement from Russia that Finland should be very careful when considering a partnership with NATO or participating in certain exercises and European sanctions. It was also part of an attempt to get concessions from, or even cause cracks within, the European Union. The refugee crisis causes politicians in the West to balance the desire to help with the humanitarian emergency with the pragmatic need to preserve economic and physical security for their own populations.
‘Responding at the time, place, and manner of our choosing, which includes the choice of domains, the NATO Alliance has a diverse, agile and flexible array of forces that can do this extremely effectively.’
NATO must not allow its adversaries to define and set the conditions for Article 5 in new domains. NATO should work on strategies for the use of new technologies in emerging domains, and prevent others from defining too specifically what constitutes an armed attack in the space or cyber domains (to name two); doing so merely opens new doors for adversaries to exploit.