State & Non-State Actors
Harry Kemsley: Hello, Sean. Thanks for joining me again. It's good to see you the second time. I'm glad I didn't scare you off the last time with the initial conversation we had. So I'm Harry Kemsley, the president of the National Security and Government segment of Jane's. I have once again, have the privilege of a long- term friend and colleague Sean Corbett. Sean just a couple of words about yourself.
Sean Corbett: I'm a ex Royal air force, senior intelligence officer, and currently the co- chair of the senior advisory group for Janes.
Harry Kemsley: What we might talk about today is the apparent merger of things that we used to call state actors and the non- state actors and how they are actually in some ways becoming less easy to define and differentiate. So where do you think we can start in terms of the differentiation between state and non- state? Is that actually still a relevant thing for us to talk about, Sean in your opinion?
Sean Corbett: I think it is in terms of how you perceive a potential adversary. I mean, the context here, so this is a great subject. It isn't just an intellectual exercise because it will shape how our governments think about potential adversaries and also how to counter them of course. Back to Sun Tzu, know your enemy. So being able to characterize the state, non- state and I absolutely agree bottom line up front, that there is a blurring of the two, but the differences do matter as well mean. You can have a historical context here and go all the way back to the treaty of Westphalia in 1648, when the state became prime, it didn't stop people fighting. It was just, they're fighting over different things actually. But if you look at the contemporary environment, there's two big factors that people are considering now. There's the rise of China as a global hedgeamon, and also resurgence of Russia, trying to set itself back on the world stage. And that's within the context also of COVID where I think we've seen the state back to being the primary organ of decision making. You can talk about vaccinations, et cetera, without making this a political discussion, but straight away, the gut instinct of all nations was to, okay, what is in our national interest? Now that doesn't matter, just within the global context, economy and logistics and all the other things, but it also matters when you're looking at potential adversaries. But I do think there has been that blurring of lines. And you just need to have a look at, for example, ISO, a terrorist organization, violent extremists, but actually what was their intent? Well, their intent was to become a legitimate state. Legitimate in the eyes of their supporters clearly. So I think it's a really important subject to be able to understand not just the global context, but also how you collect against that sort of adversary. I mean, you and I go back to the days where, much as the whole mutual assured destruction thing was in our faces, it was a really comfortable time, particularly for the intelligence officer, because the target was very clear. Everybody was focused and collection assets were optimized, and we knew a lot about the potential adversary. There were experts that could tell you all sorts of things. And if anything was out of the normal, in terms of pattern setting you'd know straight away. And then that focus the collection assets. Fast- forward to today, and it's far more complex. There's a lot more targets out there, a lot more potential adversaries, but in a different way. It's not just the hard power and how many tanks have they got? Where's the dispositions? What is the doctrine? There's the call it what you will, and there are different phrases, all of which means things, but ambiguous warfare.
Harry Kemsley: Yeah. I think one of the things that perhaps will help us in this conversation, Sean, is, as you've said, there's a general understanding of that ambiguity, but what does that ambiguity look like from the national security perspective? So let's pause in there for a while, because I think that will be useful for us to be clear about. Now, without wishing to lead the jury as it were, my view of this is that if you look at the activities that we've seen in certain parts of the world, not least Crimea, for example, look at what's happened elsewhere, there is clearly a learned process by watching Western governments enact their form of warfare. I think it's clear that other states have learned what the strengths and weaknesses of the Western governments are and how to deal with that, both militarily, but also in the domestic arena in terms of matters of economy, matters of political opinion, the discourse that goes on within social media and so on. All these channels that I sense are being stitched together in a very rich and very clever tapestry of how to deal with the political and military might of the Western governments. So what are the kinds of things that you think are starting to blur between the state and non- state? So if you think about the adversary groups out there, that we would classify as being terrorists and, or insurgencies, you blend into that, maybe some narco terrorism, but then move some of that activity into the state arena. So what are the kinds of behaviors that we could see that are being exhibited that would show that blurring between the state and non-state actor? I think I've probably covered a couple, but what else could we describe as being the behaviors of this state and non- state blurring?
Sean Corbett: It's again, another big question, actually. So inaudible says all the non- state first. What have they got? They've got ungoverned spaces, they're unconstrained, and this is one of the challenges of Western democracies. We are an open society that believes in the rule of law and international law. They don't need to follow it. So they can conduct their operations, whether that's information operations, unfettered on the internet, they can groom people. And a lot of what they do of course is by inference and inspiration. It means that target is far broader and far harder to identify. And this is where it gets really difficult. How do you define the difference between state activity and non- state activity? And you talked about the little green men, the Wagner group, which is basically a Russian mercenary group, but actually brackets controlled and directed and funded by the Russian government. How do you confirm that they are government sponsored organization? The argument I used to use when I was in Washington was that, if you went to downtown DC 10 years ago and said, if the Russians interfered in our election process, would you consider that to be an act of war? Probably 90% possible of us would've gone, absolutely and we'll have to go and do something about it. Fast forward to four years ago now, it's almost a given, but nobody's doing anything about it. So where is that threshold? Where does it stop? So if the electricity went out in the Eastern seaboard, is that an act of war? Well, partly accountability, but what is the threshold now? I worry that the threshold is getting greater and greater and greater.
Harry Kemsley: I think as well, Sean, there's also a degree of how do you prove it? Whilst we suspect we perhaps can some degree prove certain aspects of what you've just described, bringing it all together and seeing it for what it really is, is a great deal more difficult than the shock army rotting across East German planes and saying, they're out to do something very bad. It's very obvious there's a physical presence. In the cyber domain, in the cognitive domain these things are considerably more difficult to in" prove" or indeed to manage because they're so widely dispersed as they're affecting so many different channels. And some of them may well not be malicious. Some of them might actually be well- meaning political discourse. But anyway, the point I'm making is how do you prove these things? How do you really manage and deal with them as well as, as you said, Sean, how do we actually counter them? And overmatch them taking them to a place where there is a disincentive for actors to do this, whether they're state actors or non- state actors. If I could just pick out one or two things from ambiguous warfare that we're starting to see as trends, what are the one or two things that we really need to focus on in terms of how we start to modify the way we approach and deal with it?
Sean Corbett: I think the big thing for me is an ability for some states in particular, to leverage all aspects of national power. And I focus on China, who is absolutely fantastic at this. There's a reason we still study Sun Tzu and the concept to win without fighting, that's exactly what they are doing. They are pulling all the levers that they have access to. And of course, authoritarian states find it much easier to combine all those levers. So for them really it's all about combining the economic with the military. I do worry about China in terms of its economic influence, but also outreach. If you look at their program to share for free vaccinations for COVID with some of the poor African countries, they're not doing that out of altruism, they are doing that to increase the influence and actually have them in hot for the future. And where does that finish?
Harry Kemsley: Yeah. So I'm not going to discount the hard military power piece of it, which so many defense pundits spend a lot of time looking at. And there's an awful lot of information out there to help you understand that heart military power. I'm not going to ignore that. It is a spectrum of capability that we need, but I'm going to focus it in then on this soft power and this ambiguous warfare piece. We talked about a lot of activities, the non altruistic truth behind vaccination programs in Africa. Well, I think they think the Chinese would take a different view. They would say that that is entirely what they're about. So how do you connect that with the other things that you need to connect it to, to make a case that, this isn't an altruistic program, this is actually a part of a much bigger scheme? How do we do that? And what does that mean for intelligence?
Sean Corbett: That is a really difficult question, as you well know. Because let's go back to the threat capability, plus intent, plus opportunity. What we're talking about really is the intent, understanding what they really mean because as you say, the Chinese go, no we're just being good international partners. We're helping the world global economy. We're also taking that international role that we think incidentally, historically, that they've always had that we just didn't really understand. So it's understanding what the intent is, and that is really hard to do because you're relying on people's thoughts. It relies on something more subtle, and that is to really deeply understand and get into the culture of the organization or the country that you're talking about. So in the China case, I do think it's like, well, China's over there. Let's just look at it from a very traditional perspective, but you've got to understand the language. You've got to really understand the people that are in the leadership roles and what their history is and where they come from. China relies an awful lot on its history, all the way back to the dynasty, which is really important to them. There's a really good article actually by general McMaster on that, that to understand China, you need to understand the history, but you also need to understand the culture as well. And in the West, traditionally, we've not been very good at that. And then there is looking at their economy, how is it developing? Because don't forget as well in the Chinese case, is that they also have internal struggles. They've got a lot, a big population there that needs to be fed and clothed, and they have almost this moral agreement that as long as the state looks after you, then you will actually look after the state, so to speak and not say anything against it. And that's quite tricky because as with most countries, China is a multicultural society with lots of different ethnic groups and languages. So it's understanding that whole complete picture that's the challenge.
Harry Kemsley: Yeah. And I think that is as much about education as it is about process or technology. I noted in a report, I read recently about the number of students, but the number is dropped to be fair out of China, students that flood out of China into Western economies, Western societies, to learn about all sorts of things. But there's no question that's importing a degree of understanding of our culture and our way of life. And there are very few people that seem to go the other way, but to really understand the culture, you've really got to import that, you've got to get to a point where you understand it at a level that is more than just an academic understanding from afar. And that will be a long- term thing. In the meantime, we've still got to try and integrate these multiple sources of information and see the big picture, the classic analogy of the jigsaw puzzle without the picture to refer to, to understand how this all goes together. You've got all these pieces, how do they come together? And some of those pieces will be very, very hard to find, let alone to put together with other bits of that same jigsaw. For me, that is the problem with the intelligence situation is that it's actually relatively easy to count from satellite imagery, for example, or bats where things are, how many of them there are, if they've moved and we will probably always defer to that because it's a relatively straightforward thing to do and it also aligns quite well with our definition of warfare. With the emergence of this more ambiguous form of warfare, the so- called below the threshold activities and the diverse nature of the actors and the actions they're taking, I think is going to be really, really hard for us to a, prove anything and create a situation where we're able to act with certainty about what it is we're acting against. But if we don't start to grapple with these multiple facets of the ambiguous warfare, we're talking about between state and non- state types of warfare, then I think we're going to continue to struggle and or we're going to start to become increasingly irrelevant to the actual threat we face. And they will look at our massive hard military power and ignore it and blanket just work around it. So with that said, which sounds a little bit depressing in terms of intelligence, I think that the task is clear. How that task is actually going to be carried out and how we're going to get to where we can integrate the multiple sources we need and understand the picture that was starting to form, perhaps that's a topic we can pick up on another session as we've probably run out of time for today, but that's something that I'd like to leave as a bookmark for future conversation. How does the intelligence community across government, not just military intelligence across government, how does it bring together the picture that it needs to act upon the threats that are actually there" sub threshold" within a range of warfare definitions.
Sean Corbett: Yeah, absolutely and not stealing our thunder for later, but yeah, and that's what the intelligence community and people like ourselves have to do. They have to think differently about how to collect intelligence and what that intelligence is.
Harry Kemsley: What kind of things do you think would be better suited to the commercial environment and this ambiguous state that we've been talking about for the last 20 minutes? What is it that the open source environment like Jane's and other organizations like Jane's, what is it that we could focus on that the governments don't need to, don't know how to but could leave to us? What could they federate out to us?
Sean Corbett: I think the obvious one right up front is the ability to leverage innovation. Any procurement process within government for good reasons, and some bad reasons as well takes so long that particularly in the today's information, innovative and age, by the time you've implemented something it's too late. So why go through all those machinations using very clever people that are already out there in the community for lots of different applications? Just leverage them and say, right there's this huge mass of data, manage, sort it, produce it in a way that is that for as able to do the, so what, and the, what if, which I think should be always an analyst function within government. I don't think certainly the Western governments always, I don't think we're going to get to the state soon where they're outsourcing the actual analysis themselves, although that stands to be tested over time. It's all about trusting, trusting the analysis, trusting the data as well, but by getting the data in a way to be able to be used by the analyst to go, that's what that means. I think that's really the sweet spot, I believe.
Harry Kemsley: Yeah. Certainly I've witnessed a huge transformation in an organization that's actually very old, Jane and 23rd year this year and the amount of change I've seen driven, not entirely by technology, but certainly enabled by technology. I wish I could have seen as much change in as shorter time when I was in the service of a majesty, the UK government. I found it very frustrating how slowly work to pick up those innovations as you talked about. And yet in the commercial environment, it's so much easier, largely because it's motivated by commercial bottom line that drives behaviors in a way that it just doesn't in a government environment. I think what we'll take forward from that in terms of this ambiguous warfare problem and the rich seam of various things we need to look at, is let's pick up on that in the future, in terms of what does this really mean for intelligence? What does it mean for the commercial intelligence environment and how does that go forward in a partnership way for governments and non- government organizations, international organizations and commercialization all coming together to address the challenges of the future? But for today as ever Sean, thank you very much. Great session. Good to speak to you.
This episode looks into the increasing ambiguity between the actions of state and non-state actors, the implications for intelligence generally and the role OSINT can play to meet the challenges.