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Wartime paradigms and the future of Western military power

Author: Olivier Schmitt

Affiliation: The Center for War Studies, University of Southern Denmark  

Organization/Publisher: International Affairs  

Date/Place: March 2020/ U.K.

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Number of Pages: 18

Keywords: Wartime, Warfare, Speed, New Paradigms, and Western Military Forces 



Scholar Olivier Schmitt discusses the limitations of the importance of time factor in contemporary war studies, challenging the risk management approach in war and calling for open debate to develop new wartime paradigms more appropriate and effective with the new characteristics of this era.  The author details that the change in warfare features in the post-Cold War era had direct impacts on the wartime paradigm used by Western military forces, which is a combination of improving speed and understanding war as a risk management tool. The author provides a historical extrapolation of the development of interest in the time factor in Europe since the eighteenth century, how it was perceived, its relationship to successive social, cultural and technological transformations, with his focus on the political and military fields. For instance, in the past, political leaders justified some of their decisions by referring directly to a specific perception about the impact of time on existing life, e.g. the Nazi eschatological fantasy of building a “Thousand-Year Reich.” Also, the perceptions of time became linked to the war-making process, such as defining the enemy as a correlation of time where the enemy is presented as belonging to other times—the “backward barbarian.” More recently, John Kerry commented on Russia’s move to annex Crimea by saying: “You just don’t, in the twenty-first century, behave in nineteenth-century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.” The author argues that when it comes to preparing and managing the war, policy makers perceive time as a specific regime of history, which affects how they conceive and manage the war; he provides the term “wartime paradigm” to identify this time-specific perception. The author then argues that these wartime paradigms appear at the intersection between socio-technological and political-security imaginaries. In his explanation of the wartime paradigm of post-Cold War Western warfare, the author focuses on Paul Virilio’s classical book “Speed and Politics” (1977), in which he argues that “history progresses at the speed of its weapons systems.”  In the field of war, speed has the most important role in the success and operational superiority of Western forces, with an emphasis on information technologies provided by military superiority that guarantees a superior ability to collect information, process, distribute and dispose of information faster than the enemy. Moreover, the author asserts that this dominant socio-technological imagination emphasizing speed in warfare has become intertwined with a new security imagination that sees war as a risk management tool—i.e. that the perception is not based on current risks but rather on those that may arise in the future. By adopting the logic of this approach, the temptation to use the armed forces has become a preemptive way to shape a political environment in which the possibilities of deviating the opponent’s behavior from the limits of acceptable behavior are reduced. Therefore, in contemporary military campaigns, the adversary is no longer seen as an enemy with opposing political objectives that must be eliminated, but as a potential offender whose activities need to be managed, controlled and reduced to an acceptable level of risk. The author explains that this “military interventions as a risk management tool” method by Western countries was the first clear  expression of this wartime paradigm that combines speed in warfare and risk management, similar to Western military interventions seen in Kosovo, Afghanistan and the 2003 Iraq War. The speed factor has become a factor deeply rooted in the US operational thinking, and has become evident in some American military concepts since the beginning of its global war on terror. However, the problem with this “traditional” approach is that it is impossible to end military campaigns, leads to the establishment of a permanent emergency state living in “insecurity,” and it faces serious challenges with the tremendous developments in contemporary defensive and offensive weapons that are no longer restricted to Western armies. Russia and China possess very advanced military and information technology. Additional challenges include the transfer of these technologies to non-state actors such as militias, the emergence of electronic warfare which gives all parties, regardless of their military arsenal size, the possibility of waging a good propaganda war with disinformation or information sabotage and easily confusing the opponent.  Finally, Western armies face the challenge of urban warfare—wars within cities full of civilians that require accuracy, agility, effectiveness, high intelligence, etc.; the 2016-2017 battle of Mosul, Iraq is only the beginning of this type of challenge. Therefore, the author calls upon the Western armies to rethink the hypotheses regarding the importance of speed in conducting successful military operations; he challenges the risk management approach in war and calls for opening the debate to develop new wartime paradigms more appropriate and effective with the new characteristics of this era and its hybrid, “chaoplexic” warfare.

By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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