Defense is essential

Every state above a certain size needs armed forces to defend itself. Methods for their use vary, ranging from the Swiss model of territorial defense to the blue-water navies, foreign alliances and overseas bases deployed by superpowers. The one common element – essential to any sort of effective deterrence – is the political will to fight.

Training exercise at the Swiss army’s mountain warfare center
Mountains and light infantry make Switzerland a model for territorial defense. © dpa

In a nutshell

  • The most basic form of territorial defense is to protect national territory
  • Great powers use more offensive approaches to protect their trade and markets
  • Effective defense is impossible without both political will and economic strength

A state’s basic function is to guarantee internal and external security to the inhabitants of its territory. To do that, it needs a police force and a judicial system for domestic security, and a military for external security.

If the state is not sufficiently large, collective security arrangements must be made with neighboring countries. Every state above a certain size needs armed forces to defend itself. The state’s monopoly on the legal use of force in its territory is an old principle. When a country without its own armed forces allows a foreign army to enter, it usually finds itself under occupation.

Different shapes

There are several models of territorial defense. What they have in common is the need for political will and broad public support. To be deterred, a potential enemy must know that there is a willingness to fight.

Pure territorial defense is deprived of any offensive character. This is the Swiss model. To be effective, operational doctrine and weapons must be well adapted to local conditions, and officers and soldiers alike must be highly trained. Favorable topography, such as mountains or dense forest and lakes restricting an attacker’s freedom of movement, is also essential.

A more offensive model relies on the outward projection of force. Thus, troops will be placed on the periphery of a country or even in foreign bases to keep potential adversaries as far away as possible from national territory.

Perimeter defense from foreign bases is the standard practice of the United States.

This sort of perimeter defense is the standard practice of the United States. In Europe, American forces are stationed to keep Russia away from the vital North Atlantic area, which would allow it to threaten the U.S. east coast. Similarly, U.S. and allied forces are positioned along the island chain between northern Japan and Singapore, which has become a picket line denying China free access to the Pacific Ocean and the American west coast.

Another example of offensively-minded perimeter defense is Russia, which needs to extend its sphere of influence to defend long terrestrial borders. A variation of this technique is recruiting allies to threaten the exposed flank of a potential adversary – Soviet military aid to Cuba and Vietnam, and the U.S. alliances with Turkey and South Korea are historical examples.

Protecting economic and trade interests is also a form of defense, especially preserving access to strategic materials and markets. This has been the traditional role of navies in trading nations, which have typically ranged around the globe to lend protection to merchants and investors. In the 18th and 19th centuries, sea power helped European countries build empires based on colonial trade. The U.S. was the dominant naval power of the 20th century. Now other states – especially China – seem poised to follow in its footsteps.

Proxy wars are a useful instrument for limiting costs and avoiding major involvement on the ground. They were especially prevalent during the Cold War, when both the U.S. and the Soviet Union wished to avoid a nuclear confrontation. Typical examples today are Syria and Yemen, where Russia, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have used small numbers of ground troops and large doses of air power.

The purpose of proxy wars is to prevent other powers from strengthening their influence in a region. They also allow “sponsoring” powers to test new weapons and tactics in real combat conditions.

Use of private contractors has become a hallmark of modern proxy wars.

Another old concept that might have a new renaissance is the use of mercenaries. Before the rise of conscripted armies based on universal military service, states typically hired soldiers from anywhere (often in large foreign contingents) and paid them for their services. Military entrepreneurs, or condottiere, organized the rental of entire regiments to different states. The use of private contractors became a hallmark of modern proxy wars, allowing interested powers to put boots on the ground without taking responsibility for sending “our boys” to fight in foreign wars.

Cost of credibility

With all these techniques to choose from, what is needed for a credible defense to keep the peace?

As mentioned before, political will is of the essence. Only a strong commitment allows the buildup of a credible defense force with the necessary equipment, personnel and logistics. To impress and deter a potential adversary, there must also be a demonstrable willingness to fight. Civil defense in the form of stockpiled food and medical stores, secure supply chains, evacuation plans and shelters for the civilian population is necessary. Very important is the ability to retaliate, so that the attacker realizes he may risk damage on his own soil.

Exhibitors at a homeland security and cyberwarfare exhibition in Tel Aviv, Israel armed forces
Israel’s commitment to defense helped make it a world leader in information technology, as shown by this homeland security and cyberwarfare conference in Tel Aviv in November 2016. © dpa

Traditionally, war is associated with military operations – the countermarches and clashes of soldiers and armies. This conventional warfare has almost always been accompanied by elements of the hybrid variety, including propaganda, subversion, espionage and economic warfare. In our technologically sophisticated era, cyberwarfare has taken a central role. More effectively than traditional military operations, which it partially replaces, cyberwar can block an opponent’s moves and paralyze his home infrastructure, without the need to physically destroy it.

One thing that has not changed is the importance of a strong economy in winning wars. The 20th century’s big conflicts were lost by the economically weaker side. Moreover, defense preparations are quite compatible with a healthy economy. As the Romans said, Si vis pacem, para bellum [If you want peace, prepare for war.]

Innovation, stupid!

In this context, it is worth considering the role of economic innovation. The biggest driver of innovation is always competition and free markets. Governments and state subsidies have seldom been successful in this field, except in one essential function – defense. Military rivalries have always spawned new technologies, which often find widespread use in civilian applications.

The entire information technology industry has its roots in the defense sector, and it is therefore no wonder that the two Western countries with the strongest commitments to defense – the U.S. and Israel – are world leaders in IT. People often ask about the origins of Silicon Valley and whether it can be successfully copied. The place got started not because of its proximity to Stanford University or some mystic California atmosphere. It was a huge defense project, financed by the Pentagon.

Military rivalries spur technological innovation as a kind of perpetuum mobile.

Like market competition, military rivalries spur innovation as a kind of perpetuum mobile. Country A develops a new weapons system at huge expense, with subsequent civilian spinoffs that help strengthen its industrial base. This forces Country B to respond with its own system, which has the same beneficial effects. That makes Country A’s weapon obsolete, spurring further development. And the cycle of innovation spins on.

Military innovation may not appear – at least superficially – to be the most attractive sort of innovation. But it is a fact of economic and geopolitical life, which we need to make the best of.

Cautionary tale

An interesting example is the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet planned economy was a rotten system, but it was harnessed to a big and aggressive army with a strong will to fight.

Two factors helped bring the system down. First was that the USSR found it economically impossible to sustain the arms race with the U.S., especially after President Ronald Reagan pushed the American weapons development program into space with the Strategic Defense Initiative – better known by its media nickname of “Star Wars.”

A second cause of collapse was the influence of the Catholic church after the election of Pope John Paul II in 1978. A strong religious movement fed into the political opposition in some of the Soviet satellite countries, especially Poland. This created a sort of “hybrid warfare” that the Soviet system, already badly weakened on the economic front, could not resist. Together with the strong personalities of John Paul II and President Reagan, this combination of factors proved lethal.

Twin towers

Today, the armed forces of the West are growing steadily more sophisticated. Their training and highly developed equipment are extremely expensive. Yet they have not always proved capable of dealing with fighters in Afghanistan’s mountains or on the streets of Mogadishu. Taking out a guerilla with a trusty Kalashnikov and good knowledge of the terrain is still difficult. And as always in war, technology has its limits.

To make good political decisions, one must first grasp the essentials of defense. Conflicts are inherent in human nature. That is why countries that indulge in prolonged militarily weakness risk becoming battlefields. Readiness to defend one’s homeland is a necessary precondition for sustained peace and prosperity. To be rich and militarily weak is a very risky proposition.

The conclusion is that global competitiveness rests on two pillars: a healthy and innovative economy, and a strong and credible defense to maintain the peace.

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