About the text [1]

The current turmoil in world affairs is not chaos, but the combined result of pendulum-swings in the realm of ideas, old grudges, and the very material matter of military superiority.

10 or 15 years ago many people in the West thought that history was over and Eternal Peace had broken out.[2] Since the West and the liberal market economies had won the Cold War, and furthermore demonstrated their total military superiority in the Gulf war, the risk of major war was behind us. The world had become unipolar and optimism reigned supreme – nobody would dare to challenge the only remaining superpower, or the wider Western community. Like Superman, he would hold the villains in check, until they mended their ways and became useful members of the community.

Anyhow, it was believed, globalisation was rapidly expanding the middle classes, and with middle class status would be sure to follow middle class values: democracy, clean government, the rule of law, good schools, moderation, etc. In the end, according to this deterministic view, we would all become liberals. The only military problem that remained – it was thought – was mopping-up operations in still untidy corners of the world, such as peace support operations in failed states, and counter-terrorism.[3]

Odnako, that was not the way that things turned out, as we by now very well know. The promised Eternal Peace did not last for more than 25 years. At present, the West is facing increasingly bold geopolitical and military challenges from both conventional actors like China and Russia and from non-state actors like ISIS and the Taliban. The West’s client states are understandably worried and restless. Moreover, the core states of the West are facing very serious challenges from within, in the shape of the groundswell that has brought us Victor Orban, the Polish government, Brexit, Donald Trump, Marie Le Pen and so on. Considering the chain of “improbable” outcomes in the last 2 or 3 years, we may actually be well into the kind of maelstrom of events that Johan Tunberger warned about in 2002.[4]

Why it turned out so differently will probably be subject of many books. Suffice it here to say that that history was not over. It came back with a vengeance, in a process driven by two separate but overlapping pendulum-swings, in combination with old grudges. The Greeks taught us that overconfidence among men – hubris – is frowned upon the Gods and leads to dispatch of the Goddess of revenge – Nemesis – to punish the overconfident. Hegel and Marx taught us instead that history is driven by the interaction of opposing forces, action begets reaction, and so on. Regardless of whether one prefers a divine or a materialistic explanation for events, we have seen plenty of it lately.

The first pendulum-swing was triggered by hubris in America and in the West. Under George Bush Jr and Tony Blair liberal interventionism reached its apogee; the West over-reached and overdosed on intervention in third world countries, trying to reshape their societies in our image. After initial and spectacular successes in Afghanistan and Iraq, Nemesis arrived in the shape of the deepening quagmire of asymmetric warfare and of “nation-building”. The over time manifest failure of these interventions made the Western powers self-doubting, gun-shy and adverse to use of the military instrument of power – just as they had been in the late 1970s, after Vietnam. Thus as the American voters elected Jimmy Carter after Nixon and Vietnam, they now elected Obama. And once again, the West’s enemies quickly sensed that there was weakness in the White House and blood in the water, and started to move forward. When the cat is licking his wounds, the rats come out…

The second pendulum-swing had to do with the fact that globalisation and liberalization also gave rise to powerful forces working in the opposite direction. The revolutions of 1989 triggered a chain of events which literally transformed the world. The Soviet bloc collapsed, China and India was brought into the world economy, and the Western liberal model of society and its values seemed to reign supreme. Hundreds of millions of people were lifted out of poverty and oppression, barriers and borders were removed, and almost everyone’s lives were improved. The climate of liberal triumphalism that reigned also opened the door for the propagation of the values, or fads, of Western elites, such as new public management, post-modernism, environmentalism and multiculturalism.

Although most people gained immensely from this transformation, the gains were not distributed equally, and some actually lost out. Many industrial workers in the West lost their jobs as manufacturing moved to low-cost locations, and the “macjobs” they still could get had lower pay and status. Moreover, the post-modern, liberal, non-traditional and cosmopolitan values espoused by western elites were not to everyone’s liking, but these were still foisted on them. Job-losses, migration and multi-culturalism thus became focal points for a rising discontent, leading to a major backlash in this decade through Putin, Victor Orban, the new Polish government, Brexit, and Donald Trump’s election victory. In many ways, it seems as 2016 may be the anti-thesis – in a Hegelian sense – of the liberal miracle year 1989.

So, the recently all-powerful West has been weakened both by its own arrogance of power, mistakes and over-stretch, and by the forces and counter-forces it unleashed through globalisation. When you add to this the fact that Russia and China held grudges against the West for what they see as humiliations in the past, and very much wanted to regain status as great powers, you had a brew fit for a witches’ cauldron.

What drives Russia and China?

First of all, China and Russia are very different societies and states in most respects. Simply put, China is on the way up, with a growing if unbalanced economy and a vibrant technology-base, while Russia is clearly in decline, a resource-based economy marked by corruption and misrule –basically like Nigeria, but somewhat larger and with nuclear weapons.

Despite these differences both countries have important traits in common, which act as drivers in their desire to challenge the geopolitical primacy of the West and the international status quo.

The leaderships of both countries harbour resentment against Western dominance and military might, and especially against the limitations on their political room for manoeuvre imposed by their military inferiority. Both leaderships also fear the loss of domestic political control and power, and perceive Western values such as democracy and openness as a deadly threat. Western propagation of democracy and openness are thus assessed as deeply hostile acts.

Furthermore, in both countries – not only among the leaderships – there is a desire to regain their “rightful” position and status as great powers, equal to America and superior to their neighbours. They thus aim to avenge “humiliations” in the distant or recent past. In the case of China, this is mainly about events in the 1800s and early 1900s, but also about the 1979 war with Vietnam, and the 1995/1996 Taiwan crisis, where US naval might made China back off. In Russia’s case, it is of course mainly about the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the Soviet Union, as well as the events that followed in the 10-15 years after, like the 1999 Kosovo war or that Moscow’s former vassals were admitted to the EU and to Nato.

In a manner eerily reminiscent of Serbia in the late 1980s, the leaders in both countries have embraced Nationalism as a good replacement for Marxism-Leninism in legitimizing their continued rule over their subjects. In Russia, Putin has also added a large dose of orthodox traditionalism and Soviet nostalgia. In playing the nationalism-card, the leaders in Peking and Moscow are literally playing with fire, as the Serbian example shows. Once the genie of militant nationalism is out of the bottle, it may become impossible to put it back, or even to control it. Leaders might be forced to live up to their own fiery rethoric, for fear of losing face, or losing power. Here, the ghosts of 1914 should give us ample warning….

In China, the ruling Communist Party can still partly buy the people off with rising standards of living. Not so in Russia, where the economy is in a downward spiral induced by rent-seeking and cronyism, now accelerated by sanctions and by low oil prices.  Thus, the social contract in Russia has changed. It used to be that the people accepted Putin’s rule, and in exchange they got political stability, a functioning state and rising affluence. Now, in exchange for accepting Putin and his cronies, they receive only a share in the glory of Russia as a strong great power, which successfully challenges a hostile and ever-scheming Western world. Indeed, the extent to which Putin lately has fostered a siege-mentality and sense of impending war among the Russian people scares not only me, but also my colleagues who specialize in Russia.

The search for anti-dotes to Western military power

So both China and Russia were dissatisfied with the status quo and wanted to revise it in their favour, but both were held back by the overwhelming military superiority of the guardian of the status quo, demonstrated so clearly in the Gulf War of 1990-1991. Like Lex Luthor, the prime villain of the Superman comics, they needed to find the equivalent of a piece of Kryptonite – i.e. an anti-dote to Western military superiority – in order to weaken the Giant. With that accomplished, they could then restore the utility of the military instrument of national power, and thus restore themselves to great power status.

China started this search first, possibly triggered by the debacle of the Taiwan crisis in 1995/1996, and with the search powered by the growing Chinese industrial miracle, first unleashed by Deng-Xiaoping’s reforms in 1978.[5] Since the Korean War, the geopolitical status quo in East Asia has been that China dominates the mainland, but the US dominates the sea and the islands. To restore itself to great power status China had to find a way to break that domination, which because of geography rests on three pillars:

  1. the strong US Navy, especially the aircraft carriers,
  2. US alliances with Asian powers and  the system of US bases, and
  3. US technical superiority.

There was no need for a rising China to match the military power of the US symmetrically or to achieve overall parity. To shatter US dominance in region, it would suffice to find asymmetric and niche ways to strike at US vulnerabilities and to reduce US advantages to the point where China’s advantage of having the home game, and the geography of the Pacific theatre, came into play. Once that was achieved, China could again dominate its small neighbours.

While it can safely be assumed that the Russian general staff have been longing for an anti-dote to American military supremacy since the first Gulf war in 1991, it was probably in the mid-00s that this search began in earnest. The first real signs that Russia was openly challenging the West appeared in 2007: Putin’s abrasive speech at Wehrkunde in Munich, the suspension of the CFE agreement, the resumption of long-range patrols by bombers, and the bronze soldier crisis with Estonia. The following year saw the short war against Georgia, which triggered radical military reforms and a major rearmament programme to modernize the Russian armed forces.

Perhaps entirely independently, perhaps partly through collaboration or adaptation, China and Russia seems to have found the same two anti-dotes to American military power, though the Russian and Chinese variants differ somewhat: “hybrid” warfare, and anti-access/area denial-capabilities. These two instruments can be used separately, or in combination with each other.

“Hybrid” warfare

Although the object of much hype and hysteria in 2014 and 2015, when it was treated as a revolutionary novelty requiring entirely new responses,[6] the hybrid tactics applied by Russia in Ukraine since 2014 contains very little that is entirely new, except the skilful use digital and social media. Russian hybrid tactics as practised in Ukraine is basically the application of salami tactics and the use of proxies in order to move positions forward, while still retaining deniability and staying below the threshold that would trigger a reaction from the victim, or from the victim’s backers.

Here, Russia has skilfully played on the West’s reluctance – post Iraq – to become deeply involved or to use military force as a political instrument. If there should be real danger of a reaction from the ever reluctant West, two steps forward could be followed by one step back, and the movement would still be a net gain. This is the same modus operandi as that successfully applied by Slobodan Milosevic in Bosnia in 1992-1995. When applied by Russia in Ukraine, it has been in combination with psychological warfare and influence operations in order to manipulate that threshold upwards, as well as the brandishing of conventional and nuclear might, in order to deter the victim or the victim’s backers from escalation. Here, Russia has skilfully brought together at the tactical level instruments of state power normally coordinated at much higher levels. In this respect, Russian hybrid tactics can rightfully be labelled as the dark side of a comprehensive approach.

Lately, this approach has also been used by China in the South China Sea to good effect in advancing China’s claims and de facto control of the area, placing airstrips and port facilities on disputed reefs, building man-made islands, and using the Coast Guard and “armed fishermen” to chase others away. Here also, the advancing party has skilfully played on and exploited the Obama administration’s reluctance to use force and to enter into confrontation.


The second anti-dote to American military supremacy applied by both China and Russia is what in the West is called a capability for anti-access/area-denial, or A2/AD (we do not know what the Chinese or Russian terms for this are, if there are such terms).

Already in 2003, US analysts saw the outlines of a worrying capability that might make it possible for China to challenge the US. They called it anti-access/area-denial, or A2/AD. The reality of A2/AD has since been confirmed, and it has become a hot buzzword in military circles.[7]

Simply put, A2/AD are capabilities which make it dangerous for an opponent’s forces to reach or to remain in a region. East Asia and the Western Pacific is an area defined by a huge landmass in combination with vast expanses of water, sprinkled with mostly tiny islands, which are often thought of as two island chains.[8] The contest has primarily been over the domination of the waters off China’s coast and inside those two island chains. If the US Navy is in control of these sea areas, it can dominate the area, protect local allies, and potentially also project power onto the mainland. If it becomes too dangerous for US forces to dominate the area inside the first or even the second island chain, then things might fall apart. As the things that may fall apart include the whole geopolitical power structure in the world’s economically most dynamic region, containing at least three countries which are candidates for nuclear weapons, this is no small matter.

For China to wrest control of the region from America by anti-access and area-denial would involve, for example, striking at US aircraft carriers and bases even at a long distance, incapacitating electronic communications and surveillance systems (C4ISR), and striking at other vulnerabilities, such as very long sea and air lines of communications.

Prime instruments for such strikes might be:

  • Numerous and accurate ballistic missiles able to reach US bases in the region
  • Sensors able to locate major surface vessels at long distances
  • Guided ballistic and cruise missiles to hit major surface vessels once located
  • Integrated air defences to fend off US air power from China’s home turf
  • Cyber warfare and anti-satellite weapons to shut down electronic resources
  • Upgraded underwater capabilities to threaten sea-lines of communications (SLOCs).

When the US took serious notice of the Chinese efforts to build an A2/AD-capability that might keep the US away, it started work on an anti-anti-dote. First dubbed AirSea Battle (ASB), then renamed the less sexy Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (JAM GC), ASB/JAM GC is not a war plan to defeat Chinese A2/AD. It is an operational concept for dealing with A2/AD that is slightly more than half-way through development, with the first solid results expected about 2020.

The content is classified, but rather much can be gleaned from the unclassified debate on the concept and its components. What emerges is a broad box of tools for dealing with (mainly Chinese) A2/AD, some tools are entirely operational or no-tech (e.g. relearning the art of operating with strict emission control), some low-tech (e.g. hardening forward air bases), some mid-tech (e.g. new anti-ship missiles) and some high-tech (e.g. directed energy weapons). There is also a debate concerning the wisdom, or otherwise, of tackling China’s A2/AD-system head on, as opposed to other avenues of approach, such as by a distant blockade or by closing China’s coastal waters with a US-led A2/AD-system.


That Russia was also working on an A2/AD capability should have been noticed earlier, but still came as a nasty surprise for the West in 2014 and 2015, during the Russian operations in Ukraine and Syria. As both the Russian and Chinese theatres of war are different and as capabilities differ, the two A2/AD-concepts differ somewhat.[9]

Two main components of Russian A2/AD were already in place or on the way in 2014: a new generation of ground-based air defence (GBAD) systems, both long-range (e.g. S-400) and short-range (e.g. Pantsir), as well as a new generation of ballistic missiles (Iskander). What came as a nasty surprise (apart from at all having to confront Russia militarily) was that the Russians also had potent battle-field electronic counter-measures systems that could neutralise western digital systems, and electronic intelligence (ELINT) systems that could pin-point the location of enemy transmitters. Together with effective GBAD, they could thus negate two of the West’s major advantages: If you take out things that fly and things electronic from the equation of military power, most of the West’s advantage disappears.

Added to that was also a capability for precision strikes beyond the line of sight. This capability rests on two legs: Battle-field strikes using a combination of drones/ELINT and precision-guided munitions launched by artillery or rocket artillery, and deeper strikes into the enemy’s rear with at least two new families of long-range conventional cruise missiles. In addition to these new capabilities, there are also several new anti-ship missile systems, including hypersonic, which should give the West cause for worry.


The strategic rationale for Russian and Chinese A2/AD-capabilities should be easy to see. For China, it is to chase away the US from the western Pacific, and then to settle differences with the small nations of the region. Successfully challenging the global hegemon and then teaching his smaller local friends who really is the boss, should restore China’s position as a great power. In a similar vein, Russia aims to make Western (i.e. US) power projection, reinforcement and resupply of vulnerable allies in Eastern and Central Europe a very risky proposition. Without America’s over-the-horizon-forces, a conflict in the region would be a local fight, which Russia could expect to win, especially with its new capabilities.

It is ironic that globalisation – one of the forces that was seen as supporting Western long-term dominance – has indeed been undermining the very same Western dominance by making military gadgets which 30 years ago was a US monopoly into something that you can almost buy off the shelf in a corner store.

A caveat is in order here: We don’t know how good some of the new Russian and Chinese systems really are, or if they will be produced, and if so, in what quantities and when. Russia is clearly, in my mind, trying to create an “aura of power” of both capabilities and the will to use force. The will is clearly there, up to a point, but is really the capability there? How much of the deluge of new Russian Wunderwaffen that we see in the press and on TV are for real and how much is just for show. Russia does after all have a GDP similar in size to Italy, is a regional power on the way down, and is dependent on imports for many key military technologies, especially electronics.[10]

Regardless of this, there would be no reason to regard A2/AD as a no-go zone or an absolute obstacle. What we have seen now in Europe has been what a prominient American analyst calls the “Oh, shit!”-phase. Now, it seems, it is time for the “Okey, how do we deal with it?”-phase.

In my mind, assessing the true capabilities of Russian A2/AD and then devising ways of dealing with it should be one of the top priorities of the Western military agenda in the coming years. All systems have weak spots. We need to look for and exploit their vulnerabilities, instead of banging our heads against the wall or tearing our hair.

No one can deny that the West’s militaries – especially air and naval forces – have grown soft from 25 years of operating in uncontested airspace and sea space, and with only irregular opponents on land. Much can be accomplished by simply recouping capabilities the West once had, and reviving practices like flying on the deck. Moreover, the laws of physics still apply, including that the surface of the earth is curved, while radar beams travel in a straight line.

Furthermore, though some problems may require a hi-tech or costly solution, all technical solutions do not have to be high tech or costly, or be produced bespoke by the defence industry. We too could harness globalisation and what some call the fourth industrial revolution to our advantage.[11] For example, cheap drones, spin-ons from commercial low cost designs, could be very useful to swamp ground-based air defences or to act as decoys. And you could buy them at your local hobbyist or make them with a 3D printer. This is good news for our armed forces, but may be less good news for defence industries.


[1] The text is adapted from a lecture given to an external customer in November 2016. Dr Robert Dalsjö is a politico-military affairs specialist with the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI) and a member of the Academy. The text is based on mainly on recent writings by him and colleagues, such as Robert Dalsjö, Kaan Korkmaz, Gudrun Persson, Örnen, Björnen och Draken: Militärt tänkande I tre stormakter, FOI-R—4103 – SE, Sept 2015; Robert Dalsjö, Brännpunkt Baltikum, FOI-R- 4278 – SE, Juni 2016; Gudrun Persson, “Rysk nationell säkerhet: Från kärnvapen till historieskrivning”, Officerstidningen 2016:2; Gudrun Persson,  Jakob Hedenskog,  Susanne Oxenstierna, and Carolina Vendil Pallin,  “Den ryska nationella säkerhetsstrategin – Mobilisering mot ett ‘fientligt’ Väst“, Kungl. Krigsvetenskapsakademins Handlingar och Tidskrift, 2016:1; and Gudrun Persson (ed.) Russian Military Capability in a Ten-Year Perspective – 2016 FOI-R—4326—SE, Dec 2016. FOI publications are available as downloads at www.foi.se. The author is, however, solely responsible for the contents of this text, which does not necessarily reflect the official views of the FOI or of the Swedish government.

[2] Cf. Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: The Free Press, 1992). Fukuyama is the best known example, but there were many, many more writing, speaking and thinking  in the same vein.

[3] The then prime minister of Sweden, Fredrik Reinfeldt, very publicly subscribed to this view as late as the beginning of 2014, less than two month before Putin proved him wrong.

[4] Johan Tunberger, Strategi för det oväntade: Länken mellan föränderliga mål och militär förmåga, FOI-R—0642—SE.

[5] On Chinese ”doctrine” and A2/AD, see Kaan Korkmaz’s chapter in Örnen, Björnen… .

[6] For an effective repudiation of such claims, see Keir Giles, Russia’s “New” Tools for Confronting the West: Continuity and Innovation in Moscow’s Exercise of Power (London: Chatham Housed, 2016).

[7] For more on American assessments of Chinese A2/AD-capabilities and the American response, see my chapter in Örnen, Björnen…, which has plenty of references. See also, https://warisboring.com/new-chinese-air-to-air-missile-could-hit-u-s-jets-before-they-can-shoot-back-ed70b25c000e?gi=865c1193cb5d#.uezmaoruh

[8] The first island chain runs Kyushu-Okinawa-Taiwan-Luzon-Borneo; the second island chain runs Honshu-Bonin-Guam-New Guinea (western cape).

[9] Russian A2/AD is much less covered in writings, as it is a relatively new phenomenon. For a brief overview, with references, see Brännpunkt Baltikum, pp. 30-38.

[10] See Tomas Malmlöf with Roger Roffey, “Russian Defence Industry and Procurement”, in Persson, Russian Military Capability…; Igor Sutyagin, “Russia’s Military Reform: Why the Kremlin Needs the West”, RUSI Newsbrief, 9 dec 2016.

[11] See T.X. Hammes, Technologies Converge and Power Diffuses: The Evolution of Small, Smart, and Cheap Weapons, Policy Analysis No 786, www.cato.org.