News | Sept. 30, 2022

Old and New Battlespaces

By Sean McFate PRISM Vol. 10, No. 1

Old and New Battlespaces: Society, Military Power, and War
Old and New Battlespaces: Society, Military Power, and War
Old and New Battlespaces: Society, Military Power, and War
Photo By: Lynne Rienner Publishers
VIRIN: 220930-D-BD104-043
Old and New Battlespaces: Society, Military Power, and War
By Jahara Matisek and Buddhika Jayamaha
Lynne Rienner Publishers, March 2022
197 pp. $87.50
ISBN: 9781626379961

Reviewed by Sean McFate

Dr. Sean McFate is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and a Professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, Syracuse University’s Maxwell School, and the National Defense University.

How and why warfare is changing has become its own genre of late. Enter Jahara “Franky” Matisek and Buddhika “Jay” Jayamaha. Both have military backgrounds and are on faculty at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Old and New Battlespaces builds on their previous scholarship regarding “social media warriors.” Like their articles, readers will find the book either astonishingly naïve or extraordinarily prescient, depending on what war they inhabit.

The book examines where wars are won—the battlespace—and how it is shifting from a physical reality to a cognitive one. Wars are now won in the hearts and minds of whole populations, and the weapons do not fire bullets but rather disinformation, social media messaging, and information operations (in the broadest sense of the term). They correctly warn that autocracies can easily exploit this way of war, but democracies cannot. They conclude with some middling solutions and a few important questions we should all take seriously.

Much of the book is dedicated to historical evidence demonstrating that battlespaces always evolve with the changing character of war. It will be familiar ground to most readers. In fact, the middle section of the book is superfluous. Anyone who picks up the book probably understands that warfare and battlespace have changed significantly over the past 100 years: two World Wars, Cold War nuclear era, post-Berlin Wall, the 9/11 wars, and Great Power Competition. Skip to the end.

The authors’ strategic analysis of modern cognitive warfare is admirable and well written. They contrast how autocracies and democracies fight in this new battlespace, the role of emerging technologies, and impacts on international relations, with an eye towards Great Power Competition. They conclude that the primary battlespace today is civil society itself, and disinformation superpowers such as Russia deliberately target populations with cognitive weapons of war. It is a path to victory, infer the authors, although they never explain what “victory” looks like in the new battlespace.

Curiously, their argument leans heavily on Clausewitz, who was famously suspicious of intelligence, deception, or anything approaching the “cognitive battlespace.” The Prussian preferred a strong volley of ball and shot, compared to military ruses. Today, information war skeptics echo the same hesitancy, noting you cannot tweet someone to death—at least, not literally. Sun Tzu would have been a better choice for the authors’ way of war. After all, it was the ancient Chinese general who described all war as deception, and the acme of skill was to win before the first shot was fired. In other words, fake out your enemy. It’s how Russia took the Crimea, not by blitzkrieg but by deception.

The authors are a little sloppy with the distinction between war and warfare. Upfront, they elegantly parse the difference between the two, using Clausewitzian logic, then subsequently use the words interchangeably. Sometimes it seems they do so deliberately, almost suggesting the new battlespace will change not only warfare but the nature of war itself. However, this is like claiming a new kind of clock will change the nature of time.

The analysis is purely state-centric, an oddity given the topic. The power of this new warfare lies in the private sector, as we have seen play out on Capitol Hill. CEOs of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram routinely square off with Senators over who controls the internet—the new battlespace. There is no “social media” lever in the Oval Office that the president can pull for strategic advantage. Autocrats have more power to exploit this space, but even they have limitations. When Chinese star tennis player Peng Shuai disappeared after accusing a former Vice Premier of sexual assault, Beijing could not control the outrage despite heavily censoring social media. Lastly, the Fortune 500 and super-wealthy individuals already indulge in the dark arts of this new battlespace. Could they draw the United States into war with China, if it suited their interests? Could they do it to each other, creating unintended consequences for global peace and security? Additionally, if the United States wants to compete in this battlespace, it will need the cooperation of the private sector. A purely state-centric approach to the problem makes little sense.

In terms of solutions, Matisek and Jayamaha commit mistakes common to defense intellectuals. Like counterinsurgency theorists a decade ago, they call for a whole of government or society response but deliver an analysis that is remarkably military and often moored at the operational art level of war. It will persuade few in the interagency or beyond. While they identify central gaps in American response, their recommendations are simplistic and unfeasible. They call for nothing short of a new grand strategy akin to NSC-68 accompanied by landmark legislation comparable to Goldwater-Nichols, but they do not provide details. This is not a solution.

Despite these challenges, the book is important. Matisek and Jayamaha are not the first to raise alarm over the changing character of war and how the United States is unprepared. They join a growing intellectual insurgency that views Great Power Competition as more than major combat operations. They implicitly ask whether powers like China and Russia can “win” yet avoid big battles. How should democracies fight back without becoming undemocratic in the process? The authors conclude with a list of provocative questions that every American should consider, such as the limits of free speech and the lack of strategic thought over the past 30 years. In a time of deep division within our country, Matisek and Jayamaha remind us that our adversaries can exploit this turmoil using cognitive weapons of war, and this is not a problem aircraft carriers can fix. PRISM