The changing strategic threat picture, with Dr. David Kilcullen

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This is a podcast episode titled, The changing strategic threat picture, with Dr. David Kilcullen. The summary for this episode is: <p>In episode 11 of the World of Intelligence podcast, Terry Pattar, head of the Janes Intelligence Unit, and David Kilcullen, President of Cordillera Applications and author of 'The Dragons and the Snakes' discuss the diversity of strategic global security threats and how Western military and government planners and decision-makers need to adapt to monitoring indicators of "liminal warfare," especially as geopolitical competition increases following the coronavirus pandemic. </p> <p> </p> <p>To find out more about Janes threat assessment visit <a title= "" href= "" target="_blank" rel="noopener"></a></p>

Terry Pattar: Hello, and welcome to the World of Intelligence, an open source intelligence podcast brought to you by the Janes Intelligence Unit. For more information on how we can help with OSINT training and development, go to osinttraining. I'm Terry Pattar, I lead the Janes Intelligence Unit. And on this episode, I'm joined by Dr. David Kilcullen, who is a professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia, and also president of Cordillera. Dave, can I get you to talk a little bit about your current role? Because a lot of people will know you from your past as being a former soldier, diplomat and author of books like The Accidental Guerrilla, more recently Dragons and The Snakes and also from some of the advisory roles you've had in the past in terms of working with the US and the Australian military and governments, but may be it would be good to bring people up to date with sort of what you're doing right now.

Dr. David Kilcullen: Yeah. Well, firstly, thank you for having me, Terry. It's great to chat and to connect with you again.

Terry Pattar: Thanks for joining us.

Dr. David Kilcullen: Yeah, that's great. So Cordillera is a strategic and geopolitical intelligence firm. We have an office in the UK, office in Latin America, several offices in North America and we operate in Africa, the middle East, Europe, Latin America, a number of other places. And what we mostly do is data- driven insights for decision- making for corporate clients, government and in some cases for NGOs and humanitarian organizations. And we tend to focus on things like problems of urbanization and stability, as well as, due diligence and investigative or protective intelligence support. And then we're known as having a very deep bench of expertise on some forms of military capability and particularly military tech. So that's what we do, but of course, we're pretty flexible given the fact that the whole world is experiencing this pretty major coronavirus crisis right now. And we've found actually that business is far from being subdued. We're getting a lot of approaches from people who are worried about how to think ahead and deal with not just the public health and economic crisis that we're experiencing now, but the national security issues that are likely to follow on afterwards.

Terry Pattar: It's really interesting you mentioned that because that was sort of where I wanted to go with this discussion really was talking about partly some of the research you've done over the past few years, but also thinking about this here in particular, in these kinds of extraordinary times that we're living in, but also maybe to get your thoughts and your perceptions of how well you think Western strategic planners, whether it's government or military are going to be able to adapt coming out of this. And so, in terms of those sorts of themes, you've talked about some of the work that you're involved in with Cordillera, similarly with Janes and the Janes Intelligence Unit. One of the things that we do is take obviously the Janes data and help clients to think about some of these more future- oriented questions around, how do they plan for what's going to come next and how do they develop their capabilities to mitigate current emerging future threats. And that's sort of a major theme of certainly your most recent book, The Dragons and The Snakes, and some of the work that you've been involved in. And you've talked to, especially in that book about how the West in particular was really slow to, I guess, caught on onto the adaptation that the state actors, such as Russia and China were going through in terms of the threat they posed over the last sort of two decades, I suppose. It would be great to maybe get a bit of insight into how you sort of saw that evolving and how you decided to pick up on that theme and how you also observed those changes taking place. Because I think that would give a real useful insight and then we can get on to talking about the current situation and then maybe the future as well.

Dr. David Kilcullen: Yeah, for sure. So I went through the Australian Military Academy, Duntroon in the 80s and I graduated right at the end of the cold war. So like every other officer of my generation across all of the Western countries, I was trained for a cold war, conventional warfare environment, which actually didn't turn out to be the environment that most of us dealt with in the 1990s. And we went through a series of peacekeeping, peace enforcement, counterinsurgency, low- intensity conflict type, operations and humanitarian assistance missions across the world in this post cold war environment. And the way that I captured this in my most recent book is to quote from Jim Woolsey, who was president Clinton's CIA director in the 1990s. And he was asked in 1993, okay, we just defeated the Soviet Union, what do you think is going to be the security environment of the 90s? And he said, " We've slain a large dragon talking about the Soviets, but now we find ourselves in a jungle filled with a broadening variety of poisonous snakes. And in many ways the dragon was easier to keep track of." And I think for most of the 1990s, we dealt with snakes. After the year 2001, we really narrowed our focus to just one snake, international Islamic extremism and the terrorist groups that emerged from that. And by getting so heavily bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan after 2003, Western militaries really had no choice but to focus on the snakes, and that particular snake of terrorism. That wasn't true of the Russians or the Chinese, they were in a very different space in the 1990s. And in my book, I go through the history of their adaptation in pretty good detail. They came from different start points, but they both ended up in a similar place around 2001 where suddenly Western countries were so distracted by the war on terrorism and trying to dig ourselves out of a mess of our own making in Iraq, that they were free to adapt and evolve by watching how we struggled and figuring out ways to invalidate that very narrowly defined conventional superiority that we had established at the end of the cold war. So the book is really about military adaptation, but I'm taking a view on it that comes from evolutionary theory and scholarship around adaptation rather than from the traditional business change management literature that most people are familiar with.

Terry Pattar: Of course. And within that shift that we saw happening, you talk in the book about how the Western militaries were using their conventional capabilities to fight a war they weren't really suited to in terms of trying to take on the threat of terrorism, which they treated it as a mono sort of threat. It was one sort of big block that they viewed and that was it, and they didn't see the sort of different variations. And actually the fact that terrorism ultimately, as a means of carrying out attacks rather than an actual threat actor. And sometimes I think, it's been treated as a threat actor in itself. It was certainly in terms of Islamist extremists, so the threat from those sorts of groups. So they've been sort of lumped together and seen as one and that's certainly something that I think you've fleshed out in the book in terms of being an area that was problematic. How do you see the development or the sort of development of military, not just military capabilities, but maybe how military planners now view the threats or have started to view those threats? Or have they been able to catch up with the kind of shift that you've described there in terms of being able to pivot away from dealing with just terrorism to now being able to actually try and counter those, the dragons, that you described?

Dr. David Kilcullen: Yeah. So I think there's a number of really interesting elements to that question. One is the sort of cognitive planning process question and as you mentioned, I touched on this slightly in the book. I also talk about it a lot in my previous book, Blood Year. The way that military planning works is very much a adversarial two- sided process. So we conceive of an adversary who has a most likely or most dangerous course of action that they may adopt. We think about what they're trying to achieve and we try to counter that with a series of courses of action that we develop. And then we come up with a plan based on that. That works fine when you're dealing with one adversary, but when you're dealing with an amorphous set of multiple different kinds of groups, all of which you are pursuing slightly different strategies, it can be really problematic. And that was a significant problem for us in Iraq. Ironically, one of the biggest problems in dealing with the Iraqi insurgency was that it was so disorganized and so diffuse and didn't have a single set of objectives or a strategy that we could counter. Now, I think we've actually adapted pretty well in the last three or four years to a changed environment within the military. That is the rise of Russia and China as peer state adversaries, the emergence of countries like Iran and North Korea that aren't peer competitors, but have capabilities that really fit into the realm of a major conventional military threat. I think where we struggle though, is particularly in the case of an actor like China, which defines warfare much more broadly than we do to include all kinds of elements that aren't military or are what they call trans- military. So things like controller strategic supply chains, real estate purchases, control of key commodities, manipulation of financial loans to regional actors, a variety of things like that. Purchases of the hotels near strategic basis, these kinds of things.

Terry Pattar: Sure.

Dr. David Kilcullen: On the one hand, we can't even necessarily conceive of these things as military, but even if we do begin to think of them as part of a Chinese war fighting strategy, it's not clear that the ministry of defense or the Pentagon has a organizational remit to actually deal with that, so we're actually organized and structured in the Western governance system for a definition of warfare that's actually somewhat outdated now and dramatically more narrow and conventional than what a lot of our adversaries are pursuing. So I think that's the problem for us.

Terry Pattar: Right. And yeah. So in terms of that, just trying to sort of pivot towards dealing with Russia or China, it's not a case of a return to the cold war or it's not a return to that old style nation state against nation state in the sense that we think of in terms of conventional military capability against another force that's sort of similarly aligned. As you said, they are using those additional means or, I mean, I'm not sure how valid hybrid warfare is as a term in my view. And it would be great to hear your thoughts, this hybrid warfare is really just becoming warfare. And we can always sort of stop using it with hybrid. I don't know. I mean, that's sort of my take on it, but it does seem like that's where those countries are going and we're playing catch up.

Dr. David Kilcullen: That's true. I think they're going, the Chinese and the Russians have come up with interesting and interestingly different takes on the same problem. So in the book I described the Russian technique that's been evolved as liminal warfare, by which I mean the ability to kind of flip with the threshold of detectability and to surf the edge of over operations and drop down into ambiguous or covert action when needed. And we can talk about this in as much detail as you want, but I think there's been a number of classic examples of this probably the best, the neatest is the seizure of Crimea in 2014, where a lot of what the Russians are doing is about obfuscating their signature, shaping the environment decisively before they commit, and then moving really quickly to seize key objectives and then segue to a political warfare strategy to hold onto those objectives afterward. So it's a sort of vertical maneuver that manipulates signature. In the case of China, it's a horizontal maneuver and they engage in what I call conceptual envelopment, which is going outside our definition of warfare to find decisive ways to invalidate our conventional war fighting superiority. That doesn't mean that they're not competing in the conventional space. I mean, China, I think the biggest transformation in global geopolitics in the last 500 years has been the emergence of China now as a global maritime power, which it has really never been since the middle of the 15th century and the emergence of an aircraft carrier fleet, a substantial submarine within the Chinese Navy, the militarization of the South China sea as a missile bubble, creation of very long range anti- ship missiles that can knock out a carrier on the move at sea at a range of 2, 500 miles. This is transformative to, not only the war fighting environment, but the nature of China as a great power. So they have been competing in the conventional space, but they don't rely on that as a way to get what they're looking for militarily. They've treated as kind of an adjunct to what they call the decisive, but non- military or trans- military actions that sort of invalidated our military strength altogether. And it's really hard in both the Russian and the Chinese case to characterize this as hybrid warfare. And I actually have to apologize in the book for inventing the new term of living a warfare, but the hybrid actually cuts it now. Not because it's a bad idea, but just because so many people use it to describe very different things now.

Terry Pattar: Yeah, definitely. And I think even, I remember sort of writing a report for a client looking at sort of future of military capabilities going back, gosh, probably about 10 years now. But even at that point, we were sort of starting to see an end to the phase where we were talking about hybrid warfare because a lot of these tactics were just starting to become more regularly adopted. And actually you could see that some of the state level threat actors would use alternative means, some of the things that perhaps, Western military wouldn't necessarily or naturally consider using or relying upon in the same way that... You obviously described that, Russia has done, Crimea is a great example where talking about that case, to what extent do you think they were sort of testing the limits of what they could get away with in the sense of they didn't necessarily know before they went into Crimea, what the response would be?

Dr. David Kilcullen: Yeah. So this is, obviously we have to reconstruct this from Russian behavior and some of the things that Russians have said to each other.

Terry Pattar: Yeah, and obviously with the benefit of hindsight, we're sort of looking at it a long time after.

Dr. David Kilcullen: This is a key part of this style of warfare that you don't realize you are in a conflict until it's already too late, and it's actually designed to be that way. So if we run through the sequence for months before February, 2014, Russian political and intelligence and military actors were engaging in what I call decisive shaping, they were trying to shape the environment in Ukraine and in Crimea, in particular, in ways favorable to Russian interests, using a variety of political, cyber, economic and sort of low intensity military means. The trigger of the invasion occurred on the night of the 22nd, 23rd of February when the Anna Covich government collapsed. And Anna Covich fled to Russia. That night the Russians called a meeting in the Kremlin of military intelligence and political shifts and made the decision to go in to Crimea. Of course, they were already present with military bases that were guaranteed under the 1994 agreement with Ukraine, but they'd been shaping with GRU, Russian military intelligence, Spetsnaz teams for a number of months. And the morning after that meeting in the Kremlin, suddenly self- defense groups began to appear all over Ukraine. Many of them sponsored or supported by unconventional warfare teams from the Russian intelligence services. They formed the self- defense groups across the Island, across the peninsula called for Russian intervention. They actually created a political figurehead group which then requested humanitarian intervention from Russia. The next day, Russian special forces moved to key locations across Crimea and cease road crossings, key points, the data exchange variety of critical locations in what we call a [cou'ed 00:16:55] amount operation. So rapid over moved to seas key locations that was then quickly followed up by conventional forces coming from the Russian bases in the region to secure and consolidate those positions. At that point, of course, the next move was in the hand of NATO or the United States, which could have been expected to mount some kind of military or at the very least economic sanction against Russia. So the Russians immediately segwayed into a political warfare strategy where they tried to obfuscate and for about two and a half weeks, the Russian message was nothing to see here. This isn't an invasion. There will be no annexation. It's purely a temporary humanitarian intervention in response to a request on the ground and we'll go back to Russia as soon as the environment is safe. And this is consistently messaged overtly by the Russians. Behind the scenes they were also messaging Germany in particular as the key NATO European player and saying things like, look, it's the middle of winter, end of February. You draw very heavily on Russia for oil and gas that heates German homes, do you really want to pick a fight with us in the middle of one of the coldest winters in decades? And they were running this kind of political strategy to target, not intelligence services who knew exactly what was going on and certainly not census, which could see what was happening on the ground, but political decision makers. And what they were trying to do was to create sufficient ambiguity, to just buy themselves a week or two to consolidate their position on the ground. And then suddenly in mid- March they held a referendum on the ground in which Crimeans overwhelmingly voted to join Russia. The very next day, they rolled out a pre- prepared treaty annexing Crimea. That night, the Duma in Russia voted on it and the next day they annexed Crimea. So it was sort of a period of months of shaping followed by a few days of gray zone ambiguous military action, two weeks of political warfare and then suddenly a diplomatic coup that resulted in the seizure of Crimea. Right?

Terry Pattar: Right.

Dr. David Kilcullen: So that's about our best example of how the Russians operate.

Terry Pattar: Obviously, with the benefit of hindsight, how would or should Western governments re-gear and how should military to adapt to being able to meet that type of competitive environment, I guess, in terms of, it's not necessarily direct threat, but it is challenging our sort of geo- strategic influence and priorities?

Dr. David Kilcullen: Yeah. So if we think about the Russians at the end of February 2014 in Crimea, to me they look a lot like the bad guys in a Hollywood heist movie. Like they just ... And they're like, right, we start the stop watch, we got seven minutes till the cops turn up. We have to inaudible. So they think about reaction parameters, in terms of time and in terms of what form that reaction might take. And in the book, I break this down. I'm not sure that they did so quite as consciously as I do, but you can break that reaction time down into detection time, which is how long it takes your ISR systems to figure out what's going on. Attribution time, which is how long it takes your analysts to determine who's responsible for what's happening. Then decision time, which is how long it takes political leaders to figure out what to do about it. And in a coalition contexts like NATO, how long it takes countries to convince each other that they need to act, that sort of collective action problem. And then at the end there are two much shorter components, which is mounting and launching time. So how long it takes them to actually launch a response. The Russians, I think, realized that there's very little they can do about detection time. The ISR systems are what they are and you're going to be caught. There's also pretty little like to do about attribution time because Western intelligence analysts are pretty well aware of what's going. The area where they've got the most play space is decision time. So it's all about attacking the decision- making integrity of Western policymakers and Western groups of nations that are trying to work together. So to me, that suggests a couple of things. One is that we need to be focusing very heavily on educating civilian policy makers about how this stuff works, so that they're less vulnerable to being played by that kind of approach. The other ones are the counter- intuitive, which is, we've tended to prioritize things like red lines and being very clear on what our parameters are and the no- go areas that we just won't accept as an international community, if somebody does something and there were good diplomatic reasons for doing that. And actually, as I mentioned in the book, one of the reasons why we've adopted that approach in the West is because of the experience of the Korean war in the 1950s, where US diplomats sort of accidentally left South Korea off a list of places where they wouldn't accept communist aggression. And the communists took that to be a signal that they could move in, they thought we better not be vague about that. And president Obama's red line interior is a great example of that lesson that we've learned over years, that you've got to be clear on your red lines. Well, in this sense, that's actually not a smart move because if the adversary knows exactly what your red lines are, that gives them a lot of certainty about how long it's going to take the cops to arrive in the bank thought. So I think ironically some of the material, non- predictable, this is just how I feel this morning on Twitter kind of behavior of president Trump is actually detective in this environment. It makes it hard for our adversaries to plan. And the fact that there are countries like France, Israel, others that have actually a history of these rapid- fire responses to threats that actually has a deterrent effect because it sets adversaries back on their heels a bit where they say, no, we don't really want to push the French because you think about the Bataclan siege in 2015 in Paris-

Terry Pattar: Sure.

Dr. David Kilcullen: ...which was followed the very next day by air strikes into Syria by the French. No mucking around, no diplomatic clustering, just air strikes. Right?

Terry Pattar: Yep.

Dr. David Kilcullen: I think that kind of approach does actually offer some protection. I also think we need to train our own militaries to recognize that it isn't always going to be the military troop movements or changes in electronic warfare signature of an enemy or an adversary military unit, that's the indicator. It might be something completely different to do with political discourse or not another good example is, during the 2008 war in Georgia, one of the leading indicators of a conflict coming was the fact that the Russian consulates in Georgia had been going through a passportization campaign where anyone who was a Russian speaker who claimed Russian ethnicity inside Georgia was being given a Russian passport. And then when the time came, they said, hey, we've got a bunch of Russian citizens inside Georgia. We've got a duty to protect them, and that became the pretext for the invasion in August of 2008. So that was the leading indicator, but like military analysts aren't always trained to see that stuff. So I think we've got to broaden our focus to get beyond the sort of traditional what you might call INW, the indicators and the warnings, that strategic intel guys are trained to look at it more broadly.

Terry Pattar: That's really interesting because I know there's quite a few sort of people in that type of role within our audience and that's something that we are often talking to our customers about is support in those types of areas where maybe it does go slightly outside of their normal field of view. And it's not the things they need, they tend to focus on, that can become significant or important in a given situation which they maybe haven't anticipated.

Dr. David Kilcullen: Yeah. Well, as you know one of the problems in Western intelligence services in particular is that we tend to solve by analysis. So we have Pol- Mil analysts, we've got economic analysts, we've got solvers.

Terry Pattar: One of my absolute bugbears.

Dr. David Kilcullen: I think the sort of Stan McChrystal idea of target teams that are cross- functional, that bring people together, I think is a really important element of how we approach this kind of much more flexible warfare style from adversaries so that we allow people to cross- pollinate different disciplines to share. And in fact, at Cordillera that's one of the key things we do, we have what we call the analytical stack, which includes various tech tools and remote observation systems, as well as teams of people on the ground and networks of reporting sources. And we try to bring all of that together into a unified information space, which is not how intelligence services traditionally operate, but we find it's quite useful to cross- pollinate indicators from one field across to another.

Terry Pattar: And certainly some of the discussions we've been having, and I know from seeing what you pick up from some of the announcements of different sort of organizations in terms of defense and the military organizations, et cetera, they are all, I think, conscious that they need to do more to create that kind of common operating picture and that common operating environment in terms of information and pulling information in one place. But do you think there may be still a bit slow in terms of getting to a point where that's actually usable and will help the next time a situation like that emerges?

Dr. David Kilcullen: So I think, within the intelligence communities themselves, I think this is well advanced. And people have really understood this and are trying to alter it, but I think there are two problems we have. One, we've already talked about, which is, educating policy makers. I mean, there's a whole, any intelligence analysts or any intelligence briefer knows that actually there's a psychology of interaction with your policy maker that drives a lot of your effectiveness. It isn't what we used to say during the surge in Baghdad is it's not enough for us to figure out that there's a change coming, we have to figure it out in enough time and be able to convince policymakers of it in order to get a response. So it's really that psychology of interaction that we need to work on here.

Terry Pattar: Is it a case of trying to make intelligence analysts and sort of a strategic analysts more persuasive?

Dr. David Kilcullen: Yeah. I also think it's a different way of operating and I'm going to use an analogy that may not work for a British audience. But when I was a kid in Australia and I used to go on a road trip with my parents, they would go to an organization called NRMA, which is sort of like the automobile club. And they would say I'm driving from Melbourne to Perth and they would give like a bespoke information request and they would get back a bespoke product that was basically a strip map that you would, we used to call it a triptych in Australia where you would basically drive down the road and it would show you when you get to here, this is what you're going to see on your left and right. So it was like a bespoke intelligence products produced in response to an RFI. Right?

Terry Pattar: Right. So essentially giving you directions in that route. But yeah, like you say. Yeah. So we have something similar in the UK, or we can say that we each do, I'm sure they still do it.

Dr. David Kilcullen: Yeah, I'm sure.

Terry Pattar: This is all pre inaudible.

Dr. David Kilcullen: Right. No one does that anymore. Right?

Terry Pattar: Right.

Dr. David Kilcullen: I mean, you don't do that. What you do is you get onto your Google maps and what you're doing there is you're actually, you're interacting with a dynamic intelligence platform that is able to produce answers to any number of RFS. And the key question for you actually is what questions do I ask and what are my options? So I think we need to think about the intelligence briefers role a little bit differently now and it isn't taking an RFI. I mean, it's not just taking an RFI from a policymaker, feeding that into the intelligence system and coming back with the 2020 version of a 1970 roadmap, it's much more like sitting next to your policymaker, jointly, together, interacting with the intelligence platform and helping that policymaker figure out what questions to ask and what the answers mean. So it's almost like a coaching or a teaming role that helps the intelligence consumer figure out how to actually get the most out of the intelligence platforms that are out there now. So it's quite a different role. Unlike the dirty little secret which we all know is that policymakers don't actually have time to read 99% of the intel that they get-

Terry Pattar: Very true.

Dr. David Kilcullen: ... theywalk around with the burrito in the Pentagon or a big briefing binder and wattle. And you hand it over to your policy maker, but they know it's time to read it. So they will ask you what's important today and there's different ways I think. And in the corporate world, that's not how it works. In the corporate world you have an advisory support role to a decision- maker where you're not only, it's not like a game of battleship where they ask you a question and then you sort of without showing your cards, give them the answer to that specific question. Instead, it's much more like an interactive, you're jointly looking together at a decision support platform that draws on multiple different data sources and helps you understand the environment and then make a decision based on that.

Terry Pattar: But I think what it comes down to often is actually the technology is there. The means of using it is there, the kind of skills based, maybe still needs updating in terms of giving people the right skills to be able to use and brief in a different way to what they've maybe been trained to do in the past, but then what seems to be lacking quite often and would be great to get your view on this is the organizational structure to accept briefings or advisory sort of people. People in advisory roles rather than providing one- off briefings is still lacking.

Dr. David Kilcullen: Yeah, I agree with that. And I think it's partly lacking within our own stove- piped intelligence systems, but again, I think it also comes back to the point of contact between the decision- maker and the intelligence organization. And I know Janes does this with Janes liaison officers, right?

Terry Pattar: Yep.

Dr. David Kilcullen: I think in the military space and the corporate space, we need to move away from the concept of an intelligence briefer to the concept of a decision support advisor, which is subtly, but significantly different. You're not just there to take requests, find the answers and feed them back. You're there to help the policy maker with the decision support function. And that is traditionally the role of a G2 or a J2 in a headquarters. The intelligence person is not there to be the intel briefer, they're there to help with advisory support. But I think in a corporate setting, or even at a strategic level, like the president's daily brief in the US is now, there's at least as much insight that can be derived from non- classified or gray literature material or open source, but denied area from classified sources. And I think one of our issues is we've got to move away from the idea that thinking that the more highly classified something is the more valuable it is. We've had examples on that. Virtually every Western intelligence service missed the fall of the Soviet Union, the impending for the Soviet Union. The reason we all missed it is our job as we conceived it was to understand the Soviet leaders thinking. So when we were reading their mail and spying on them and eavesdropping on their conversations, the reason we missed it was because they missed it. Likewise, one little reason why we thought that Saddam had a significantly more advanced weapons of mass destruction program than he actually did was in part because Saddam thought that because his generals were lying to him about the status of the projects and we were listening to their radio traffic. So we've got to break that notion that, it's sort of a labor theory of value with respect to intelligence. The more work you put into getting the information by definition, the better it's going to be. And like, it just isn't true anymore. And I think it's about integrating multiple sources to do predictive analysis, to not privilege classified just because it is classified, but also to recognize you need a mix of the high end and the more broad- brush.

Terry Pattar: Definitely. And I think that echoes a lot of the experience we've had and discussions we've had with national security government organizations. And so in a more sort of prosaic comparison, I guess it's about getting people beyond the PowerPoint slide briefings and the bullet point daily reports, like you've said, and actually giving them something more dynamic that they can help with decision makers to understand what's going on. Do you think it's also now a function of timeliness as well in terms of, as soon as you produce that one- off briefing it's out of date. And so actually decision makers in order to make faster decisions need to have things that are much more up to date in terms of almost to the minute, or is that sort of almost taking it too far?

Dr. David Kilcullen: Well, I again, I think this goes back to the notion of intelligence analysis as a form of classified journalism. That you're writing papers or you're writing in sums or in reps or spot reports for a policymaker to read. I worked for the Australian Associates. You can tell it's an organization, the office of national intelligence after I left the army. And one of the best pieces of advice that I was ever given was by the head of that agency at the time, I was working on Southeast Asian terrorism and he was looking over my shoulder as I was putting the finishing touches on a brief to the prime minister. And he said, " Look, the prime minister does 25,000 things a day and one page of text is five minutes of the policymakers time. So if you're writing three pages on inaudible, for example, what you're implying is that it's worth 15 minutes of the prime minister's day. And you've got to ask yourself if that's actually true and you have to be disciplined about minimizing the amount of product that you produce because the policymaker doesn't necessarily have the time to devote to that effort. And I think that's a great piece of advice and a broader implication of that is think of yourself as a decision support advisor, rather than an intelligence analyst. And you end up with a different model, which is, it's not my job to write lots of products. And the fact that you're not reading my product is your failure. It's, my job is to be there to answer any questions you have, to put together a picture of the environment and to help you interface with all the available intelligence data in such a way that you get a minute by minute update on what's happening. A general that I worked for in Afghanistan once said, " Look, I don't want you to tell me the pathway to where you think I want to go, I want you to show me a map and help me understand where I am on the map." And so again, it's a very different way of thinking about how we do business and it's a much more complex and diffuse environment than it was even 20 years ago.

Terry Pattar: Yeah, I know. Indeed. I mean, that's really fascinating. And I can honestly talk about intelligence analysis all day long, but I wanted to sort of also cover off your thoughts on another one of the dragons that you described in the book to China. And you touched already on the situation in the South China seas and obviously being the kind of start point of the coronavirus pandemic, what we've seen. And certainly, this has been covered in some recent Janes analysis by some of my colleagues is much more activity recently from China in the South China seas. And we're seeing them become much more active and almost coming out of this whole situation maybe ahead of some of the competitors that they might have. And certainly from our perspective, having an advantage, perhaps. Is that part of our adaptation that you described in your book in terms of, for a state like China, they've gotten so used to adapting and seeing a broader picture in terms of how they compete, that they're going to be almost better suited to this post COVID- 19 world that we emerge into where there's going to be more uncertainty?

Dr. David Kilcullen: Yeah. So the short answer there is, I don't know yet. But I'll tell you what we're thinking about in the analysis work we're doing and in Cordillera. So in the book chapter about China, it's really an intellectual history of Chinese thinking about how to adapt in response to in particular, the US victory in 1991, which was a gigantic shock and a wake up call for the Chinese. The Chinese had been funding and supporting the Iranians in the Iran- Iraq war, and the Iraqis had just beaten around. So they already knew they were a bit behind the curve. Then they watched the Iraqis get crushed in less than a hundred hours in January, February 1991. And so the for 90s, they were trying to think about how to adapt and catch up. In'95, '96, the Taiwan Straits crisis, the US Navy sailed an entire carrier battle group and an amphibious task force between Taiwan and the mainland and that freaked the Chinese out. And then in 1999, the US bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and the Chinese have never forgiven the US for that nor have they ever accepted the American claim that it was just a tragic mistake. The Chinese will point to the true fact that during the entire campaign in Kosovo, one air strike and one air strike only was planned from CIA headquarters in Langley rather than the Pentagon, and that was the strike on the Chinese embassy. So there was a number of events in the 1990s that pushed the Chinese to see the US in particular, as a pacing threat, and to think about ways to adapt and evolve out of the failed competition that they'd seen in the early 90s. In 1999, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, who at the time were senior colonels in the Chinese military wrote that book Unrestricted Warfare, which I talk about.

Terry Pattar: Yeah, that was a very interesting part of the book I thought.

Dr. David Kilcullen: Yeah. And it's been updated in 2017. And Qiao Liang most recently, a couple of weeks made comments on the danger of confronting the US over Taiwan right now, for example. So he's still a very active player, in fact both of them are as, as sort of senior thinkers in the Chinese military intelligentsia. And their whole idea here is basically the Americans have come up with an extraordinarily narrow, but very effective form of conventional war, but it's very sensitive. It relies on various forms of high- tech, it's all about preventing American casualties. And there are weaknesses here that we can exploit, and a lot of their book is about how to exploit those. Ironically, I think as China has competed more effectively with the US in the conventional space, China's now starting to have some of the same weaknesses that it points to for the US in Unrestricted Warfare. One example is casualty aversion, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui to make a lot of mileage in Unrestricted Warfare about how casualty averse American policymakers are. But when I was writing the book, I was talking to an intelligence analyst in Japan who said Chinese generals will tell you, I'm now commanding an army of only sons because of their one- child policy. I can't afford to lose lots of people. When Chinese parents call they're only children little emperors, and-

Terry Pattar: Of course.

Dr. David Kilcullen: Chinese militaries now is one of the largest militaries in history to be composed mostly of only children. So they have to be much more concerned about casualties and the Chinese government is pretty heavily constrained by what Chinese parents are willing to support, in a way that it wasn't say during the era of human wave attacks in the late 70s against Vietnam. So it's a very different model. The other weakness I think is very apparent is as I mentioned, it's transformative that China is now a major maritime power, but the last, last naval engagement that Chinese forces were involved in of any significance was 1974 against South Vietnam in the parasail islands in the South China sea. The last major conventional pitch naval battle that a Chinese fleet for was the battle of the Yalu river in 1894 against the Imperial Japanese Navy. Right?

Terry Pattar: Yeah, sure.

Dr. David Kilcullen: So they just don't have a lot of actual combat experience, and this is harder to do than people that aren't naval aviators think it is. I mean, submarine fleets, missile defense systems, carrier aviation, these are all very complicated, very dangerous things. And you only have to look at the poor performance of the Russian aircraft carrier when the Russians tried to bring it back into the Mediterranean to see that it's difficult. So I think, we don't want to make the Chinese 10 feet tall and bulletproof. We also, I think it's really important that we don't get into the mindset that they are our enemy or that a war with China is inevitable. Because the moment you start to see a conflict as inevitable, policymakers stop trying to prevent it and they start trying to posture themselves to start it under the most favorable conditions. And that can be hugely dangerous. I mean, the history of the first world war and the second world war, both show that when general staffs on both sides realized that a war or considered that a war was inevitable, they start planning on the basis of when do we need to start the war before our power diminishes in comparison to the adversary. And that's a real riskier. Chinese general last year said that he predicted that the US would fight China by 2035, and that China would fight Taiwan by 2025. But he went on to say, he doesn't want that to happen. He's not in favor of it, he just thinks it's inevitable. The problem is once you all start to think it's inevitable, it actually becomes a self fulfilling prophecy, you know?

Terry Pattar: Yeah, I know. It's incredibly dangerous though. And especially if it's followed and ramped, followed with increased rhetoric on both sides and it starts to become an element of group think than almost, doesn't it?

Dr. David Kilcullen: Yeah. To really your question now, I think the coronavirus, it's like a sort of three wave tsunami or a complex emergency. The first wave is public health and that's subsiding now, the next wave, which is probably going to be even worse is the economic disruption that's flowing for a very globalized economic structure that's optimized for efficiency rather than resilience. So very little slack in the system and the combined oil shock, the demand shock and the supply shock that have all happened in the first quarter of this year are going to royal the international economic system and the global supply networks into the end of this year. And that's even not even expecting a second or subsequent wave of infection, which I think most people do expect. But then the third way is the kind of security implications. So human security problems happening now, internal unrest in many places, Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe, even in the United States, including armed militias storming Capitol buildings in places in America.

Terry Pattar: Yeah, of course.

Dr. David Kilcullen: And then governments beginning to scapegoat other governments as a way of turning that anger outward and controlling the legitimate grievances of people who are pissed off because they've been put out of work and then the government pretended to bail them out with money it pretends to have, it doesn't actually have. And so, I think the risk of a heightened rhetoric leading to a new cold war and potentially a very different form, and leading potentially to hot military conflict is very real. And in China's case, I think the other dilemma for them is, the Belt and Road Initiative has been a really key part of the Chinese strategy for the last 10 years. And one of the major problems that coronavirus is inflicting on China right now is credit collapse in many of their creditors in the developing world that they lent hundreds of millions of dollars to, to acquire infrastructure under the Belt and Road Initiative. So the dilemma for Beijing now is do you forgive those loans and thereby forego lots of the economic benefits that were expected in the Belt and Road Initiative, or do you hold these countries to their original agreements and look predatory and lose a lot of the diplomatic benefit that you were otherwise hoping to get? And this doesn't just apply in Africa. I mean, Italy was the first European country to sign up to their Belt and Road Initiative last year, it's also the densest concentration of Chinese business in the EU and Chinese overseas workers in Northern Italy, also happens to be the epicenter of the coronavirus. And a lot of the things the Chinese did in response to that crisis made them look bad, whether correctly or not. A good example would be when China tried to gain diplomatic credit for giving PPE to Italy to help with the coronavirus, that is later to emerge that they weren't actually giving it, they were selling it at a markup. After that it emerged that it wasn't even their own PPE, it was actually masks and gowns that Italy had donated to China for free at the beginning of the crisis. Right? So the Chinese got PPE as a donation from Italy and then sold it back to the Italians at a massive markup. So that was a massive own goal diplomatically. There's a whole element here of China suffering diplomatically and economically from the consequences of the coronavirus, which, that's one of the strongest arguments, I think, against the idea that it was deliberate by a weapon or a deliberate leak. But I do think as we all know, China has one of the most active buyer warfare programs on the planet. And one of the things that I think is going to come out of this process is people in that program have got to be looking at what happened to the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the inaudible navel units and thinking, wow, if this is what we can achieve with an accidental leak of a non- weaponized pathogen, imagine what we could do to naval forces with a better tailored agent. So I think we re going to see increased interest in bio- warfare now coming out of this, across multiple military, which is, again, that's not to say it was deliberate or a bio weapon, it's to say that one of the conclusions people will draw from this is the power of such a weapon inaudible to do it.

Terry Pattar: For sure. And I think one of the things that's interesting about the coronavirus and the sort of response to it was that there were at least three academic reports written at the start or near the start of last year that highlighted the high possibility of a looming epidemic caused by a novel coronavirus being transferred from animals to humans. I think the challenge there in terms of, if you're a policy maker, if you're a government planner, how do you sort of take that on board and plan for it? And you touched a bit on resilience, but in terms of planning for that type of thing, they would have probably looked back at something like SARS and thought, well, if it's similar to SARS, then it'll be relatively contained and we can deal with it.

Dr. David Kilcullen: Yes.

Terry Pattar: And I just found out this week that in terms of the coronavirus itself, the way it sort of sits in the human body or where it sits in terms of the throat, it's very different to the SARS virus. And it's higher up the throat, it spreads quicker, it spreads more easily. And that's what's been one of the factors that's made it harder to contain. The other factor being that since the SARS outbreak in 2003, China's transport infrastructure has expanded massively. And so the movement of people is so much more rapid and so much more widespread ow, these things are going to go much further and faster. But like you said, I mean, so yeah, this could be, and seems likely to be an entirely accidental epidemic, but the next one may not be, which is really interesting. It's terrifying, but it's interesting and it's something that I guess strategic planners have to now start looking at. And in terms of those next threats and where we're going next in terms of the threat picture from whether it's from the dragons or the snakes, whether it's from state actors or non- state actors, what are the kinds of things, if you were advising and you probably are, as you have done in the past, advising military and government planners and decision- makers, what are the kinds of things they should be looking for in terms of those leading indicators and will help them anticipate how those threat actors are developing next?

Dr. David Kilcullen: Yeah. So it gets back to our discussion of indicators and warnings that we talked about earlier. And I think there's a sort of large scale INW way to approach this. Actually we're working on this right now in the team. You can treat the environment as a natural live experiment, and you can come up with a detailed hypothesis of what you think is going to happen or you could have multiple futures in there, and then translate that into a series of indicators that are observable remotely or with various data sources, organize those on a timeline and start tracking what you're seeing in the environment to tell you whether you are on track for one particular hypothesis or another, or to help you understand if it's diverging from the projection that you might've made. One of the problems with future planning that besets planners across all disciplines, but particularly in military futures is this kind of straight line projection from current conditions. And there was a very influential book published in Australia last year called, How to Defend Australia by one of Australia's leading defense academics, Hugh White, talking about this sort of inevitable rise of China and what that's going to do to the Western Pacific. And of course, a lot of it is based on straight line projection from what's been going on since 1970s in China. Most of the assumptions that underpin that book, and now radically out of date in the last eight weeks, because the environment's changed so much. That's not a particular view. I mean, Hugh White is really smart and very prescient view of the environment. But it's a weakness of the methods that people tend to use, the future projection.

Terry Pattar: And I think it also highlights the difficulty of trying to plan for the future.

Dr. David Kilcullen: Yeah. And I think that very time like 1991 is a good example, the Chinese analysts point out that 1991 actually was a paradigm shift that changed everybody's understanding of what was possible with certain kinds of military force. I would suggest that 2020 is another paradigm shift that changes people's understanding of the risks and the trade- offs involved in the global, just in time, China centric optimized for efficiency system that we've had. Right?

Terry Pattar: Right.

Dr. David Kilcullen: And I think it's no criticism of China to say, we need to think about how to be more resilient. I think the Chinese recognize that too. So I think we've got to think about things afresh now because the COVID- 19 has shown us that there are things out there that are more dangerous than we might've thought. I think there are three areas that I would really encourage people to look at closely now. One is, nuclear, I think the return of tactical nuclear weapons as actual war fighting tools as the sink from strategic deterrence is increasing a pace with the emergence of hyper- sonics and new, very low yield missile systems. The collapsing of a number of the missile treaties is happening now. So I think that's one key area that I'd really be focusing on, thinking about future threats. And now that is what we in the team call cyber kinetic, which is the rise of physical attacks that can have a data or a cyber effects combined with cyber attacks that have a lethal physical impact. So with the emergence of the internet of things and SCADA systems running all kinds of critical infrastructure, and the fact that everything from your refrigerator to you car to the drawbridge down the road are online and on the internet, means that it's now possible for a purely cyber attack to have lethal physical impacts. Similarly, EMP weapons and physical data attacks on things like fiber optic infrastructure, now create the ability for purely physical activity to have a data effect. So we've treated cyber as kind of a stove- piped different area of competition. It's now just becoming an adjunct maneuver space that's part of the overall range of options available to an adversary. And the third one, which is well understood by some but not others is the emergence of weaponized space capabilities that could lead to actual warfare in space. And the Russians, the Chinese and the US now have capabilities for that. And China is right on the cusp of putting in place the Baidu system, which is their competitive to GPS. The Russians already have GLONASS in place. There's now more than one GPS device on the planet for every human. There's about 10 billion GPS enabled devices on the planet.

Terry Pattar: And we're increasingly reliant on them.

Dr. David Kilcullen: Yeah, we are fully plugged into, not only space systems, but our US government military space program. And we don't realize that to the extent that it really influences all kinds of things in the modern civilian world, the world over. And I think it's a key vulnerability. And then the final point I'll make is its sort of more generic or philosophical, which is, one of the things we've seen back to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump and a whole series of things that have happened over the past few years, the Western world is a collapse of confidence in experts and institutions and elites of all kinds. I think the coronavirus accelerates that by discrediting a lot of the modeling and a lot of the elites and experts who spoke about what needed to be done early in the crisis and have been proved wrong. But I think there's a military element here too, because there's a cognitive dissonance that has really grown up in Western countries since the cold war. We've been told for going on 30 years, that we've got the best military in the history of the world, that we are unprecedented in our military power, and no one can hold a candle to the Western way of war. And yet at the same time, people can see with their own eyes that we still have troops in Bosnia. We still haven't fully stabilized the Balkans. We're still in Afghanistan 20 years later, we haven't been able to stabilize Iraq. So at some point people see the disconnect between what they're being told by experts, supposedly, and what's really going on. And they say, you idiots don't have a clue. And I think it's not a separate factor that our military model isn't working very well anymore, from the fact that people are losing confidence in experts. And I think we've got to recognize that, the modern world, the Western dominated world, whether we like to admit it or not really rests on hard military power. US power since world war two, British power since Trafalgar in 1805. And when that military model stops working very well, all the other things that we sort of take for granted prove to have rickety foundations as a result. And we're seeing that now with the effect of the coronavirus.

Terry Pattar: Is that partly also because there's sort of mistaken perception over what you use your military for in terms of there should be a means to opening up a path to whatever ends you're trying to achieve, but to too often it's a binary sort of perception in terms of no, they are just there to win or lose.

Dr. David Kilcullen: Yeah, absolutely. And I quote J. F. C. Fuller in the book. So most of all know who he is, but he's probably the most brilliant military mind of the British army in the last century. We don't like to talk about him much because he happened to be a Nazi sympathizer. But Fuller wrote in his work on the principles of war that, the object of war is not victory, but a better peace. And he's actually channeling St. Augustine. But in a sense what he's saying is the object of a military force or the purpose of a military establishment is not merely to achieve battlefield victory, it's to translate battlefield victory into enduring political outcomes that serve our long- term objectives. So the translation of battlefield success into long- term political outcomes is actually the purpose of a military force. And we sort of forgotten that. We've become so enamored with our own sheer, raw, naked, tactical brilliance on the battlefields since 1991 that we forget that, that's not actually the purpose, the purpose is long- term political outcomes. And so we've ended up with a way of battle rather than a way of war and with our operational focus and a tactical focus, that's second to none. And you can see this in the counter- insurgency campaigns, right?

Terry Pattar: Yeah.

Dr. David Kilcullen: I mean, we have defeated the Taliban four or five times over since 2001, we've won virtually every battle we've ever fought in Afghanistan with a couple of rare exceptions. And yet the Taliban's bigger and more powerful, and the outcome of the war is more in doubt than at any time since 2001. So if you define the military role in counterinsurgency as the feeding and certainly on the battlefield, we are totally awesome at that. If you define it as creating the capability for a stable political outcome, we totally suck. And so we've got to re- imagine to some extent, what is the purpose of the military? It's not to be a gigantic financial stock on the nation's finances. It's not to fight the Queen's enemies, whoever they may happen to be on the day and kick them in the ass and then leave, but then go back and do it again in a year or two.

Terry Pattar: Which is kind of where we've been stuck for a while.

Dr. David Kilcullen: We've been, yeah. It's about providing the nation something that it needs, which is an external, safe environment and internal resiliency. And I think that resiliency thing, which is actually a key NATO focus right now and has been for a number of years before the coronavirus, that's a great way to think about this as how do we improve resilience across the system and what is the subset of that problem that's a military role, because the military doesn't do all of it, but it has to play a key role in that.

Terry Pattar: Yeah, no, that's really interesting. And I think you mentioned towards the end of your book, in terms of the touching back on Woolsey, who you started off the book with and him going away from, I guess, intelligence as it was in his role at the time in 1993, but then focusing much more on resilience. And do you foresee that as a journey that we're all sort of trying to go along as well in terms of-

Dr. David Kilcullen: Yeah, totally. And Woolsey, he's an incredibly impressing guy. I mean, he's still very active and is out there with a bunch of ideas. He's really hard to define politically. He doesn't sort of hue to a particular partisan point of view. He has focused on really two areas in the last decade that I think are important. One is energy resilience, and he's talked a lot about renewables and zero emissions energy and decoupling Western economies from dependence on middle East soil and in Europe's case, from Russia. So he's focused a lot on that. The other big area that he's focusing on is electromagnetic pulse. And we tend to think about that as a side effect of nuclear weapons. And it is that, but he makes the point that just a naturally occurring electromagnetic storm, like the Carrington Event in the 19th century with today's modern reliance on unshielded, very small, vast numbers of hyper sensitive electronics, things like 5G and cell phones and GPS could totally devastate the world and without any threat actor engaging, and it's just through sunspot activity or an electromagnetic storm. And he points to an article or a research paper from a few years ago that points out that the, a major EMP incident naturally occurring or not would probably kill about 10 times as many people globally as a global nuclear war. Just in terms of the long- term effects. Again, we focus on this a lot in Cordillera and I know you guys do too in Janes. We've got to decouple a little bit from thinking of threat actors, to thinking about our all hazards approach to risk generally and de- risking enterprises and systems and helping decision- makers figure out where the risk is in the overall system. And sometimes that risk comes from a hostile act or a business competitor, but often it comes from just features inherent in the system that can be planned for, they can't be mitigated completely, but if you don't think about it, that way to start with it's going to be much harder to come up with a viable approach.

Terry Pattar: So yeah, that sounds exactly spot on. And I think, as you said, that's the only something we look out for, mainly, obviously from the folks on the security and defense and then the coronavirus is showing us, it's impossible now to focus just on security and defense issues without taking into account that wider view and that wider perspective on, what are the actual risks? So not just the actual threat actors who are pumping out propaganda telling us they're going to come and do whatever they're planning to do, but actually, what are the other things that we need to think about? And actually if we build a resilience for sort of one type of risk, I guess it helps us to be more able to cope with the effects from those other risks too.

Dr. David Kilcullen: Yeah. I think the broader meta point that you're implying there, which I think is a really good point is it's really important I think that we stop trying to guess what the future threat is going to be, and then optimizing for that threat. I think what we need to be doing is optimizing for adaptability and versatility and utility across a range of threats in their own right.

Terry Pattar: Yeah, exactly.

Dr. David Kilcullen: So not trying to say, this is exactly what the threat is going to be, and then building a capability for that. Then you run out onto the rugby field on the day and you're like, we're actually playing soccer. Instead, you got to say, right, I'm going to build a capability that allows me to react in an agile fashion, whatever the threat may be. Now, obviously there's trade- offs and one of the key lessons here is that a lot of these problems, there are no solutions, there are only trade offs. And it's really important for policy makers to remember the trade offs that they made and not forget those because that will need to be revisited in the event that the threat turns out to be different from what we expected. But the whole idea of optimizing for adaptability, versatility, the ability to shift rapidly from one threat environment to another in its own right, if that was the organizing principle for future military capability or for future business capability, by the way, you would end up with quite a different set of parameters for planning than what we've tended to have at the present.

Terry Pattar: It's really interesting. This has been a fascinating discussion, Dave and I honestly could talk all day, but I'm conscious that for the purposes of the podcast we probably should be drawing it to a close. So I think that's a pretty good place to leave it. I mean, at the end of all this discussion of threats is in danger of turning me into a prepper, so like we should probably stop. Sure, before that-

Dr. David Kilcullen: Yeah, no. It's been great, man. And I really enjoy chatting and hopefully we can do it again sometime.

Terry Pattar: Definitely. No, thanks for joining me. This has been excellent. And, yeah, let's connect again and hopefully talk again in future.

Dr. David Kilcullen: Thanks Terry.

Terry Pattar: Thanks for your time. Please leave a rating on Apple podcasts or on your preferred podcast listening platform and for more information on how we can help with OSINT training and development, go to osinttraining.


In episode 11 of the World of Intelligence podcast, Terry Pattar, head of the Janes Intelligence Unit, and David Kilcullen, President of Cordillera Applications and author of 'The Dragons and the Snakes' discuss the diversity of strategic global security threats and how Western military and government planners and decision-makers need to adapt to monitoring indicators of "liminal warfare," especially as geopolitical competition increases following the coronavirus pandemic. 


To find out more about Janes threat assessment visit