The future of war — ‘anything is a weapon’

War and Peace: Russia has received international sanctions for its presence in Ukraine. © PA

From jamming GPS to Twitter propaganda: a British Army report warns that Russia is using Ukraine to rehearse ‘hybrid warfare’ against the West. Scaremongering? Or a glimpse into the future?

‘Russia has edge over us in battle,’ declared the front page of The Times of London yesterday. No, the UK is not currently at war with Vladimir Putin; in fact, the Russian president and British prime minister spoke of improving relations this week. Instead, The Times was referring to a leaked report from the British Army which details the Russian military’s actions in Ukraine.

The range of tactics used are a ‘real game changer’, the report said. In addition to more traditional weapons, the military has used electronic technology to ‘spoof’ GPS signals and ‘jam’ its enemies’ equipment. At the same time, it used social media to spread confusion; minutes before an attack, drones would text pro-Russian propaganda to the phones of people in the area.

The aim is to create as much chaos as possible. The fear, for some, is that Russia is practising for a future war with the West — and the West is not ready. The world is facing a ‘paradigm shift’ in the way war is waged, said an anonymous ‘defence source’ in The Times. ‘It is warfare where anything is a weapon.’

The report warns that the NATO military alliance — which includes the USA, Britain and much of Europe — is ‘scrambling to catch up’. Its members are asked to spend 2% of GDP on defence, but only five out of 28 do so. Meanwhile, Russia dedicates 4.5% of its economy to its military.

The internet is already changing the way hostile states interact. Islamic State uses social media to recruit supporters. The USA has accused China of hacking, and vice versa. And Russia employs an entire ‘troll army’ to spread its message online.

But earlier this year, a think tank called The Gatestone Institute warned that technological warfare could get even worse: electromagnetic pulse attacks could lead to ‘no electricity, no communications, no transportation, no fuel, no food, and no running water.’ This, it warned, would be ‘far more deadly... than the most powerful H-Bomb ever built.’

‘Vlad’s Army’

This is premature panic, say some. Russia is flexing its muscles and showing off its arsenal in Ukraine, but there is no chance that it would actually go to war with the West in this way. Publishing alarmist reports is just the British Army’s way of angling for more funding. Besides, Western countries would see straight through Russian propaganda; there is little to worry about.

Don’t be so sure, warn others. The world is on edge: NATO and Russia have almost come to blows in Syria; yesterday Turkey’s government warned that the West could ‘lose’ its support; and the USA is considering making the volatile Donald Trump its commander-in-chief. When the stakes are this high, events could quickly spin out of control.

You Decide

  1. Should Britain and its allies be worried about war with Russia?
  2. Which is a more effective weapon: bombs or hacking?

Activities

  1. From throwing spears to nuclear bombs, technology has always been closely intertwined with war. List some other inventions which transformed the way humans fight each other.
  2. Imagine there has been a cyber attack on your country, and all electricity has failed. Write a diary documenting how society reacts to its first few days without technology.

Some People Say...

“The Soviet Union is gone, but the Cold War is as icy as ever.”

What do you think?

Q & A

This sounds terrifying. Is it really going to happen?
Not necessarily — just because the technology exists, does not mean anyone is going to use it. But sometimes even the threat of destructive weapons can be enough to inflame tensions. Just think of the Cold War, when Russia and the USA were constantly in fear of the other using nuclear bombs. In the end, it did not happen; but that did not stop decades of fear and suspicion.
Are Twitter and Facebook really all that dangerous?
Like any communication platform, it’s how they are used that can be dangerous. For example, spreading false information in the middle of a warzone could certainly make the situation a lot worse. And using social media to discredit critics has a more long-term effect of undermining free speech and democracy.

Word Watch

Report
Produced in March, entitled Insights to ‘Training Smarter’ Against a Hybrid Adversary.
Ukraine
In 2014, Russian soldiers entered Eastern Ukraine and ‘annexed’ Crimea. Violence continues between pro-Russian rebels and the Ukrainian army, despite an official ceasefire.
Social media
Twitter and Facebook were used both to persuade the public to join the rebels, and to spread misinformation about what was happening on the ground.
NATO
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is a military alliance in which 28 countries agree to come to each other’s aid if one of them is attacked.
Five
In 2015 this number comprised the USA, the UK, Greece, Estonia and Poland. The USA still spends more than any other country in the world.
4.5%
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia spent $66.4 billion on its military in 2015.
Electromagnetic pulse
Shortened to EMP, this is a burst of electromagnetic energy which damages electronics. It could be caused by a nuclear bomb detonating in the air — although it is worth noting that this is still extremely unlikely to happen.

Subjects