Book Review: Future War and the Defence of Europe

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by John R. Allen, Frederick Ben Hodges, and Julian Lindley-French

Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. Pp. xx, 332. Notes, biblio., index. $32.95. ISBN: 0198855834

Thinking about Defending Europe

The best part of John R. Allen, F. Ben Hodges, and Julian Lindley-French's Future War and the Defense of Europe is that they plainly lay out a detailed litany of failed historical opportunities enough to discomfort all but the most delusionary worshippers of appeasement and pacifism.

The worst part of Future War is its near-numbing repetitive warning that Western Europe (hereinafter referred for simplicity only as Europe) is in danger from an unrealistic, over-reliance on United States military protection coupled with Europe's pattern of disunity and failing its own role to properly deter foreseeable threats. With the recent and continuing suffering of the Ukrainian people subjected to Russia’s invasion, the saddest part of Future War is that its warning has come too late.

While the authors' writing style certainly suggests military PowerPoints and lecture notes, the two generals and professor offer a compelling record of European head-in-the-sand tendencies from Britain's infamous "Ten Year Rule" before the Second World War, which perennially assumed that no major war would occur within ten years, to Europe's continued lackluster responses to threats from Russia, China, Islamic Extremist Insurgents, and the Covid-19 Pandemic.

The authors' main theme is that Europe’s Covid-19 response clearly highlighted the inability of Europe to unite in the face of common threats, with the evidence of a biological crisis capable of destroying European economies and causing widespread societal disruptions on scales only hoped for by past conventional "strategic" military attacks. As an example of current events upsetting the prophesies of Future War, however, Russian president Putin’s 2022 attack on Ukraine has been now cited as a unifying catalyst for North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Europe.

While Putin’s “military operation” has brought some apparent unity to the Alliance, a closer examination of the disputes over transferring MiG-29s and the refusal of any direct military intervention puts a jaundiced taint on any rosy claims of unanimity. Future War specifically reviews a history of NATO commitments to defense spending, which predictably decayed after their initial celebrations. The authors remain fundamentally correct in their overall analysis of Europe’s vulnerability.

By no means are the authors alone in their view. Despite the author's repeated skewering of former President Trump, their conclusion is hardly distinguishable from the former President's coarse handling of NATO. Nor are they voices in the wilderness, echoed as they are by Andrew Michta and many others; Meike Eijsberg, a former Washington D.C. French embassy military attaché, who writes that NATO can no longer count on President Biden’s United States, and Jean-Paul Palomeros, former French Air Force Chief of Staff, admitted on France24 that NATO had not been pulling its own weight.

But regardless of how current events may have questioned some of the authors’ assumptions, Future War remains relevant. The authors correctly point out that warfare in the interconnected globalized environment of the digitized networked "Fourth Industrial Revolution" erases any distinction between the battlefront and home front, military and civilian targets, and has particularly heightened the danger to Europe. If anything, Putin’s bombardment of Ukrainian civilians, bot misinformation, economic and nuclear blackmail, disregard of international opinion and sanctions, thoroughly support Future War’s understanding that modern war can exist on multi-layer, multi-directional, broad fronts.

Future War begins with a hypothetical disaster scenario from opportunistic synergistic attacks from Russia, the People's Republic of China (PRC), and Islamic Extremist Insurgents under the expected near future state of European readiness, if the authors' warning are not heeded. The weakness in Europe's response to another pandemic emergency is then explored, including an overview of historical plagues, to set the Fourth Industrial Revolution context.

The authors follow with a very informative recount of Europe's post Second World War excessive dependence on the United States, before discussing the Russian threat to Europe's East and North, Islamic Extremist Insurgent asymmetric threat to Europe's South, and PRC's distraction to the United States which compounds the extreme overall danger to Europe, with each threat analyzed in historical and current detail. The authors continue with a critique of Europe's limited capacity to defend itself to fill out the authors’ Fourth Industrial Revolution thesis of Europe’s lack of preparedness for "Hyperwar" digital and nuclear developments. (As this review is being written during the Ukraine Crisis, the Royal Navy’s entire fleet of new Type 45 destroyers are all laid up in dock with engine trouble despite being a more prepared member of NATO.)

Finally, prescriptions for necessary reforms are offered concluding with a revised optimistic scenario of successfully fending off major threats to Europe, if the authors are heeded. Loosely stated, the authors propose a new more realistic balance in the relationship between the overly-extended U.S. and overly-dependent Europe, with investments in defense combining levels of private-public collaboration in civilian and military infrastructure and technology as suggested by the successful harnessing of U.S. private industry during the Second World War.

Central to the authors' thesis is that the European vulnerabilities exposed by the pandemic response showed that time is running out for reform: lack of coordinated allied response; failure to maintain parity with U.S., Russia, and PRC capabilities; unwillingness to address known weaknesses; inadequate investment in Europe's own security. Russia’s attack on Ukraine has merely spotlighted those vulnerabilities again, only sooner than anticipated.

According to the authors, NATO’s main function is to project credible deterrence, and such vulnerabilities undermine NATO’s own reason for existence. Should a major war ever come, the authors say, then regardless of NATO's actual preparation or performance, the organization would have already failed its main mission. In the case of current events, Ukraine, while not a NATO member, can attest to how aggressors can ignore promises of collective security and threats of economic sanctions, absent credible military intervention. A similar testament is readily available from China for Japan’s 1931 invasion or from Ethiopia for Italy’s 1935 invasion.

While the recent pathetic performance of the Russian military might offer comfort to the doomsday envisioned by the authors, the fact remains that the Future War authors have not miscalculated Europe’s lack of deterrent strength, even if Putin miscalculated and is forced to resort to attritional grinding of the resistant Ukrainians. The stalled advances of Putin’s invasion, tied to rail and road routes, at least for the muddy season, brings to mind Japan’s self-destructive invasion into China, when the world then also failed to deter aggression. Japan’s 1930s occupation of China’s territory was also limited similarly to rail routes and roads, with Japan’s supply and resources crippled by stubborn nationalistic Chinese resistance. Back then, the world’s failure to deter aggression ultimately led to global war, with heavy costs to both aggressors and defenders alike. Future War attempts to avoid that historical route.

Future War understands that a current "major war" is not as easily defined as perhaps in history, when now unclaimed cyber attacks or biological attacks can devastate an opponent without using any hypersonic missile or even any traditional conventional bullets and bayonets. The situation is made even more difficult because the traditional tools of incremental invasions, surrogate insurgencies, economic warfare, and nuclear hostage taking remain fully functional in the aggressor’s arsenal. Europe’s failure to deter Putin despite being fully aware of Putin’s plans proves the point of Future War. Russia could snip off consecutive chunks of the Ukraine, Iran can continually fund terrorists, the PRC can blockade Taiwan, and stare downs from nuclear arsenals or even rogue suitcase bombs remain potently viable scenarios. The fact that Putin’s bark may apparently have at this point exceeded Putin’s conventional military bite (or even his ability to swallow or digest) does not detract from the warning embodied in Future War.

Yes, Future War fails to account for the apparent incompetence and limitations of aggressors in the authors’ presumption of worst case scenarios. The authors do not dwell on the internal conflicts within the three separate threats. Nor do they adequately address how the three presumed threats have continued frictions between them which hinder their coordination. China’s claims to ancient territories clash with the borders of Russia’s Far East. Islamic insurgents can find much discontent in Russia and the PRC’s treatment of minorities. And while Taiwan might be the PRC’s flashpoint so far as the U.S. policy might be concerned, Vietnam with its more recent shooting conflicts with the PRC and Vietnam’s more Ukraine-analogous geographic continuity with the PRC might provide an even more confusing dilemma for stability in Asia.

In addition, the authors’ focus on Europe understandably disregards how irritating their whole discussion might be to what used to be called the Third World. For instance, the Third World rarely receives the current levels of sympathy for similar hardships being suffered by Ukrainians. However, while the world’s economic, military and political weight concentrated in Europe and the U.S. warrants greater analytic attention, such disregard does tend to overlook the potential long term opportunity for competing powers like the PRC to further complicate global threats by expanding into any vacuum of interest in the Third World.

But the authors' warnings remain on point. Even without coordinated attacks, the threat of combined crises remains genuine. The world’s united voice, with the exception of a handful of nations, still failed to deter Putin’s bombardment and starvation of Ukrainian civilians. All those who fervently delude themselves that diplomacy functions without a threat of violence should realize that reason does not always triumph over barbarity. A child’s singing video and virtual flag waving are not actual substitutes for ammunition. As their president noted, the Ukrainians need ammunition, not a ride.

While the world might breathe easier over the apparent incompetence of Putin’s war machine, the world cannot shield its eyes from the damage already done to once vibrant Ukrainian cities and towns reduced to rubble by the failure of international law lacking adequate military enforcement. While Ukraine has been receiving ammunition resupplies from friendly nations, such resupplies draw down the available stocks of ammunition, and the need to replenish such supplies will fall into the problem recognized by Future War that historically Europe prefers excessive spending for butter over guns, while the U.S. unsustainably foots the cost of the guns. Russian supplies may have been similarly exhausted by Putin’s folly, but Putin might secure PRC supplies and/or resupply more quickly than Europe, while still wielding the same nuclear threat that currently paralyzes any direct military response to limit his aggression. And despite the poor Russian performance in Ukraine so far, there is no guarantee that the Russian military won’t ameliorate their problems and ultimately emerge “victorious” as the Russians have managed in the past.

Nor should the warnings in Future War of possible PRC aggression against Taiwan be discounted, as PRC leaders are undoubtedly timing the endurance of the sanctions against Putin’s misconduct. At a minimum, the whole world has now seen how U.S. and European guarantees of security are dependent on easy land routes for resupply, which does not exist for the island of Taiwan, or even Vietnam (which does not even have any verbal guarantees of security). It would be foolish to assume that rogue actors are not taking copious notes on how to minimize damage from future sanctions, so that they can continue the exact threats envisioned by Future War.

Recent events have definitely dated some of the suppositions in Future War, but the lessons offered by the authors are no less relevant today than before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The authors have provided a valuable collection of the history and a snapshot of Europe’s vulnerability. Whether the current crisis will fade that snapshot will be decided in the months ahead. At the very least, an old copy of Future War might one day provide valuable insight into the current debate for future historians.

 

Our Reviewer: Ching Wah Chin, a member of NYMAS, has lectured and written widely on East Asian History. His most recent reviews include The Pacific War and Contingent Victory: Why Japanese Defeat Was Not Inevitable, Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City, The 1929 Sino-Soviet War, and War by Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat.

 

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Note: Future War and the Defence of Europe is also available in several e-editions.

 

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

www.nymas.org and https://www.nymas2.org/

Reviewer: Ching Wah Chin    


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