Non-Obvious Warfare

There are few very important paragraphs in this article titled “The Specter of Non-Obvious Warfare” by Martin C. Libicki. It shows that even states have serious problems dealing with attack that they do not understand where it came from or by who and for what reason. Some solutions.

Ambiguity is the heart of non-obviousness. If the victim is unsure of who carried out an operation, it may hesitate to respond in the same way as if it were certain. Alternatively, the rest of the world might have doubts even if the victim is certain, leaving the victim wary of responding as it might have if others were very sure of matters.
Non-obviousness is enhanced if the events in question can themselves be questioned. Nevertheless, some non-obvious warfare incidents would clearly be acts of war if they were obvious—in which case, the key ambiguity is the actor not the act. Some forms of warfare are non-obvious because the relationship between the attacker and a state is unclear;

Exactly how the target state acquires the confidence that another specific state carried out an attack will also vary, but one cannot go very far wrong by considering means, motives, and opportunity. Opportunity—in the form of some traceable delivery vehicle—often best distinguishes obvious from non-obvious warfare.

So what can be done with non-obvious warfare? One use is general coercion or dissuasion. Instead of signaling, “if you do this we will do that,” the signal is, “if you do this then bad things will happen to you.” Because the act of signaling itself may implicate the attacker, it helps if the signals come from someone else.

The advantages of starting in a non-obvious mode are twofold. First, if the initial attack were obvious the target might counter move in ways that would make the attack harder to pull off. It may know where to point its defenses, so to speak; it could rally others to pressure the attacker; or it could even counterattack. Second, if the attack falls short of its objectives, the attacker may cancel the overt attack and remain obscure in hopes of eluding punishment. Correspondingly, a non-obvious attack may be a test to see if the particular technique works, what the target’s defenses are, and where improvements should be sought. It would be an expensive test if the target itself should learn something about its vulnerabilities and thereby have cause to work them and evidence on how to do so.

Non-obvious warfare can also be carried out for narrative effect. Normally, in warfare the attacker and the target are both part of the narrative, and unless the attacker’s actions are totally baseless, the contest over narratives is likely to be two-handed with each side’s fans supporting their own side. However, if the attacker is unknown, or at least unclear, then the focus of the story is necessarily on the target, and the theme is likely to focus on why the target was attacked—and may well dwell on what the target did that merited the attack or why the target could not secure itself. That, in fact, may be the attacker’s motive: to create a crisis of confidence in the target state, either weakening it outright, creating fissures in its body politic, or at least making it more amenable to concession. Finally, if an attacker can persuade the target that it was hit by a third party, it may catalyze conflict that will be to the attacker’s advantage.

Mostly, though, targets would simply want such attacks to stop—but how? Defense is clearly an option and one that would logically assume greater importance the less it can lean on not hitting back because it is unsure about who committed the offense. Another option is to help create pressure from the world community to end the possession of the requisite attack technology, but most of these cannot be effectively banned. The weapons of sabotage, special operations, and insurgencies are small arms. More broadly, it is how such weapons are used rather than the weapons themselves that determines the characteristics of non-obvious warfare. A variant on the second approach is to develop a global consensus that the covert use of warfare is far more heinous than its overt use. Thus, if such weapons are used—something that may not always be apparent— the world community would support efforts to pressure potential users into allowing investigations that would clarify which state was at fault. After all, most forms of warfare are universally held to be crimes if carried out by those outside the military; thus, even the accused state should have an interest in finding and rooting out its dangerous criminals, assuming it would wish to shift the blame. Where states use proxies and such acts are crimes, they may be pressured to cooperate with international police in investigations. Satisfaction for the aggrieved party, however, assumes police actions can establish reasonable levels of certainty. More problematically, the closer the trail of investigation comes to the doors of military or intelligence establishments, the greater the reluctance of states to allow matters to proceed. Such reluctance would not be unfounded—if purported acts of non-obvious warfare allow investigators to peer into covert operations, states may go to great lengths to interpret the need for evidence in ways that would also allow them to uncover the secrets of their rivals. The last recourse is for victimized states and their allies to respond to suspected warring states as if certain they did it. In doing so, they must factor in how certain others are that the accusation is correct and, to some extent, whether the purported attacking state believes it is guilty. Many non-obvious warfare techniques can be carried out by rogue elements. As noted, some responses, such as chilling relations between the target and the purported attacker, do not require anything close to conclusive proof; mere uneasiness suffices. Other responses, such as retaliation, normally require high levels of confidence. In the end, the victimized state has to weigh the risks associated with false negatives (doing nothing in the face of aggression) and false positives (retaliating against the innocent). Note further that “plausible deniability” is hardly an absolute in this case.

Would the spread of non-obvious warfare be a good thing? Even if wielded solely in pursuit of good aims, such techniques corrode both military values and diplomatic norms. Non-obvious warfare, almost by definition, has to be the work of small teams that must isolate themselves from the larger community, much like intelligence operatives, lest word of their adventures leak out. The efforts of the small non-obvious warfare teams would leave the mass of the national security establishment quite uncertain about what exactly was going on and who exactly was behind all the activity (only some of which would appear to be accidental). Non-obvious warfare is also a poor fit for democratic states and a far better fit for authoritarian or failing states in which the intelligence community has become decoupled from its legitimate governance structure. States with long-term reputations to manage are likely to see the downside from having to lie about their warfare activities when so confronted.

full article: (local copy)


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