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Lessons and Legacies of the War in Ukraine: Conference Report
By Jeffrey Mankoff | March 4, 2024

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Executive Summary

Strategic Perspectives 43

The international conference titled “Lessons and Legacies of the War in Ukraine” took place on November 17, 2023, at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. Hosted by the University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies, the conference brought together perspectives from practitioners in the U.S. Government and uniformed military, along with experts from academia and the think tank community in the United States, United Kingdom, Ukraine, and Taiwan, to discuss the lessons that the United States and its allies should take from the first year and a half of the effort to repel Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Across two plenary sessions and three smaller breakout groups, the conference facilitated discussion on lessons at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of war. All discussions took place under the Chatham House Rule.

Following introductory remarks, the first plenary session, titled “Russia and Ukraine on the Eve of War,” focused on lessons from the run-up to the February 2022 Russian invasion. The three panelists addressed what we were witnessing before Russia invaded Ukraine; how we interpreted what we were seeing; and what lessons we can draw from the experience of attempting to foresee and prepare for the Russian invasion. The panelists agreed that deterring Russian President Vladimir Putin from his choice to carry out a large-scale invasion of Ukraine would have been exceedingly difficult and posed high risks to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and its member states. Panelists shared a view that concepts of deterrence, when applied to Putin’s Russia, need to be reconsidered given Putin’s expectations that Russia could weather Western post-invasion economic and political sanctions. Panelists disagreed, however, about Russia’s propensity for escalation to use of nuclear weapons.

Further discussion focused on the difficulties of interpreting and communicating indicators of Russia’s impending invasion to skeptical publics (especially in Europe) and the need for the U.S. military to engage in advance preparation for confronting a hostile Russia rather than the series of improvisations adopted in the aftermath of the 2014 annexation of Crimea and intervention in Donbas.

The second plenary was titled “Innovation and Adaptation on the Battlefield.” The three session panelists—all experts on military innovation and strategy across multiple domains— focused on identifying:

  • surprising or impactful innovations and developments
  • reasons for surprise or under-preparation
  • different actors’ capacities for innovation and learning
  • the effect of these innovation and adaptations on the course of the war in Ukraine
  • the implications for the future of conflict more broadly.

Attempting to look at the war in Ukraine from the perspective of Beijing, the first panelist suggested that while lessons from the Ukraine conflict are specific to the region, many others are fungible to contexts beyond Europe—including those related to the use of joint fires, suppression of air defense, naval/coastal defense, and land operations. The other speakers provided more granular analyses of the lessons that other actors could draw not only from the struggle to establish air superiority in Ukraine but also the struggle to dominate the cyber domain, where the contours of a conflict with China would be different in many ways from those observed in the Ukraine war.

The conference reconvened in the afternoon for simultaneous breakout sessions devoted, respectively, to:

  • Russia After the War
  • Seeing Kyiv, Thinking Taipei
  • Training and Equipping Allies and Partners.

The first breakout session addressed the effect of the Ukraine war on Russia’s society and political system, with an emphasis on being prepared for dealing with a much different Russia that emerges out of the war. Speakers discussed the likelihood of different postwar scenarios for Russia, the vulnerabilities that the war has exposed in Russia’s social and political fabric, the lessons that Putin and his circle are likely to take from the war, and the implications for postwar engagement with Russia—whether or not it remains under Putin’s rule.

Speakers expressed a range of views on potential Russian vulnerabilities—both in relation to the regime’s international influence and domestic stability. Given the Putin regime’s long endurance and grip on power, however, speakers found it most likely that Russia would remain authoritarian with Putin at the helm, that neither elites nor the state would fracture, and that bottom-up regime overthrow would not occur. While less likely, speakers did allow for possibilities involving a change in the tenor or nature of the regime and public attitudes, particularly in the case of a catastrophic defeat in the war. On the other hand, something short of a Russian defeat, such as an armistice or ceasefire, which could be spun by the regime as a victory, might do more to solidify its hold on power and encourage continued expansionist thinking into the next generation.

The second breakout session was devoted to the lessons that the war in Ukraine holds fora potential conflict with China over Taiwan. Speakers addressed the question of whether the Ukraine war makes a conflict over Taiwan more or less likely, the presumptive lessons that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has taken from the Ukraine war, and the lessons that Taiwan should take from it. The speakers generally agreed that the Russia-Ukraine conflict had made an imminent clash between China and Taiwan less likely, whether because of the difficulties Russia’s invasion has encountered or because the war in Ukraine has been a wake-up call for Taiwan, which is working to make itself a harder target for the PLA. Beijing has likely concluded that a war over Taiwan would be more protracted than previously assumed and would require a much larger effort on the part of the Chinese state and society. Nevertheless, Beijing is likely to conclude that Moscow’s threats of nuclear escalation have been effective at limiting outside involvement. For Taiwan, the war in Ukraine has made clear that the possibility of conflict with China is a real possibility and that preparations must be made now—especially because such a war is likely to be protracted and will require the participation of the whole of society.

The final breakout session attempted to draw lessons from the U.S.-led campaign to train and equip Ukraine’s military. Panelists representing the perspective of providers, recipients, and observers of foreign efforts to train, equip, and reform the Armed Forces of Ukraine addressed the effect of foreign training, equipment, and advice on Ukraine’s defense posture, strategy, doctrine, and combat performance from 2014 to 2022; what the foreign providers of this assistance could have done differently; and the factors that allowed the United States, its allies, and partners to quickly ramp up material assistance to Ukraine in 2022—including the challenges they had to overcome in the process.

Panelists acknowledged the progress the Ukrainian military and defense institutions had made since 2014 but underscored both provider and recipient limitations that inhibited the effectiveness of foreign initiatives to train, equip, and reform the military and defense ministry prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion. While the U.S. security cooperation enterprise was able to rapidly respond to the materiel and tactical training requirements by invoking in extremis authorities in the aftermath of the Russian invasion, doing so required ad hoc adaptations and the adoption of processes and procedures that will be sustainable. The Ukraine conflict has also  exposed shortcomings in U.S. stockpiles and the consequences of poor “pre-crisis” coordination with allies and partners on readiness gaps. Although platform-specific training has been adequately quick and responsive to Ukrainian needs, more advanced and collective training has at times been divorced from the frontline realities of Ukrainian forces.

While several speakers cautioned that it is not possible to draw definitive lessons from a conflict that is still ongoing, the first 2 years of war in Ukraine have already provided much new information about the future of warfare—and about the future contours of U.S. relationships with Russia, China, and other revisionist powers. While still preliminary, this information can help the United States be better prepared for the current era of strategic competition. The challenge now lies in ensuring that it is absorbed across the national security enterprise and properly integrated into future diplomatic and military planning.

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Joint Force Quarterly 112
By NDU Press | Feb. 16, 2024

No Limits: The Inside Story of China’s War With the West
By Thomas F. Lynch III | Feb. 16, 2024

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Dr. Thomas F. Lynch III is a Distinguished Research Fellow in the Center for Strategic Research, Institute for National Strategic Studies, at the National Defense University.
No Limits: The Inside Story of China’s War With the West (sold in Europe as The Rupture: China and the Global Race for the Future)

No Limits: The Inside Story of China’s War With the West (sold in Europe as The Rupture: China and the Global Race for the Future)
By Andrew Small
London, Melville House Publishing, 2022
288 pp. $29.99
Reviewed by Thomas F. Lynch III

No Limits: The Inside Story of China’s War With the West is a valuable book. It is simultaneously analytical and personal. No Limits is an incisive, selective history about how the promise of China’s integration into Western economic systems and global institutions gave way to acrimony and rivalry. It also is author Andrew Small’s memoir about how his quarter-century-long iterative interactions with China evolved from hope and cautious optimism about Sino-global integration into resigned fatalism that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) can never tolerate such a happy ending. The CCP must instead view itself as perpetual victim and implacable rival of the West.

Small has unique personal expertise on the promise and peril of China. A native Brit, Small was an English teacher in a rural Chinese village in the late 1990s, then worked in the early 2000s as director of the Foreign Policy Centre’s office in Beijing, at a time when the Western trade and banking sector was growing fast. He ultimately settled into his present, almost two-decade role as a senior transatlantic fellow with the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Throughout this quarter-century studying Chinese relations with especially America and Europe, Small developed special and trusted relations with an array of prominent Chinese political, economic, and military figures. He also gained impressive professional understandings and unique personal insights that make his ringing of alarm bells in No Limits about the CCP’s dangers to the Western-led international order resonate loudly.

Small tells us in No Limits that he felt the positive potential of China’s rise. He knew many in Chinese economic and political leadership who saw the opportunity to export expanding national wealth and know-how to enhance growth in parts of the world left behind by Western economic organizations and development institutions. Small reminds us that China’s outward face in the 1990s and early 2000s featured business-friendly personae like Premier Wen Jiabao (2003–2013) and Chairman of the Board of the China Investment Corporation—China’s sovereign wealth and development fund—Jin Liqun (2008–2013). Small writes of how Wen, Jin, and others of that era soothed Europe and calmed America while smoothing pathways for Western businesses into China, stimulating Chinese economic demand and holding onto Western bonds and stocks during the tumultuous Great Recession in a manner that helped arrest global financial calamity. They then invested an enormous amount of China’s wealth into the struggling economies of southern and eastern Europe, when richer European and American investments dried up.

But behind this early promise, Small reminds us of enduring peril. The CCP was there lurking—profiting from economic growth but paranoid about any challenge to its political strength or omnipotence. Historians often point to the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre of 1989 as the post-Mao benchmark of CCP limits on how much economic growth and openness could be tolerated in China. Small transports us to the 1999–2001 period for continuity in evidence that CCP strictures and constraints on political and economic activity could be relaxed a bit, but never forsaken, even in a fast-modernizing China.

He tells how in 1999 students from his rural former school were rounded up by CCP officials and trucked to a U.S. consulate for a CCP-choreographed protest of the accidental American bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade days earlier. The students were paid and saw the demonstration as a field trip, but the incident demonstrated CCP reach, political authority, and control. Small then recounts how in 2001, China acceded to the World Trade Organization (WTO) at American and Western insistence but without Beijing’s first having committed to WTO rules like constraint of government export subsidies, adherence to fair labor standards, or acceptance of environmental protections. This set the stage for decades of international economic damage.

Once China was in the WTO, CCP-run business and CCP-overseen private ventures set in motion a flood of Chinese state-subsidized, hypercompetitive exports. Abroad, these exports hit blue-collar legacy industries and workers exceptionally hard, increasing unemployment and driving cavernous income inequality in a manner that catalyzed ideological polarization in many countries. As China did not formally recognize the arbitration mechanisms of the WTO to be binding, the forum became less of a cooperative trade-expanding enterprise and more of a litigious assembly for growing unresolvable squabbles over trade practices seen as unassailable in the CCP’s dogma of “capitalism with Chinese state characteristics.”

Small’s narrative reminds us that these early coal-mine canaries sang but were not heard. It took until much later—into the late 2010s—for Western leaders to recognize the ill-will borne them by CCP leaders. By then, Western-oriented, reform party leaders such as Wen Jiabao found themselves under scrutiny by CCP traditionalists for corruption. Wen himself vanished into isolation in the wake of a 2012 Party-led corruption investigation, and Small recounts how some of Wen’s most trusted young advisors found themselves placed under house arrest or fled the country to avoid such a fate. A great firewall grew up around China’s Internet, Party restrictions on semiprivate companies multiplied, and a crackdown on Hong Kong political protests ensued, as did a callous CCP refusal to accept any responsibility or accountability during the COVID-19 pandemic. In this saga of a resurgent, liberty-strangling CCP, the rise of Xi Jinping might have been an accelerant, but the campfire already was burning. America and Europe were slow to accept that an unchastened CCP was doing again what it always had done: whatever it needed to do at whatever cost to retain control. As Small observes sagely, but ruefully:

the longstanding [Western] push to embrace and integrate China was characterized in part by the hope that since its ambitions for wealth, influence and power were realizable within the system, the Chinese Communist Party could accommodate itself to it and that some of the other faces of China would still be part of that process. Understandably, there has been a great reluctance to give up on that bet.

Small’s warning in No Limits is a clarion call. The promise of liberalization and democratization is impossible under the CCP. In this conclusion, Small aligns with those found in recent works like Aaron Friedberg’s Getting China Wrong (Polity, 2022), Rush Doshi’s The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order (Oxford University Press, 2021), and Hal Brands and Michael Beckley’s Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict With China (Norton, 2022), among others. But as Small lived the decline of Chinese promise personally, his warning to American and European senior figures should carry extra weight. The negative rethink on China dominant today was not driven by hostile know-nothings who wanted to see Beijing fail, but by many of those who had been closest to China and wanted to see China succeed. Like Small, they now view China as a scary place and the CCP as a determined and dangerous global adversary.

Small warns that Western success can be secured only if the West’s leaders now focus like a laser on this implacable and determined rival. By extension, joint force leaders must prioritize the growing Chinese military as the pacing, near-peer threat. They must innovate, organize, and train the joint force primarily to counter a CCP-led China that the October 2022 U.S. National Security Strategy identifies as the only country with both the intent to reshape the American-led international order and, increasingly, the power to achieve it. JFQ

Airpower in the War Against ISIS
By Charles J. Dunlap, Jr. | Feb. 16, 2024

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Major General Charles J. Dunlap, Jr., USAF (Ret.), is Executive Director of the Center on Law, Ethics, and National Security at the Duke University School of Law.
Chip War

Airpower in the War Against ISIS
By Benjamin S. Lambeth
Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2021
352 pp. $55
Reviewed by Charles J. Dunlap, Jr.

In Airpower in the War Against ISIS, Benjamin Lambeth not only weaves an account that celebrates the decisive role he insists airpower played in the defeat of the so-called Islamic State (IS) but also depicts tragically missed opportunities and almost incomprehensibly poor judgment on the part of U.S. civilian and military leaders that unnecessarily delayed that defeat.

I have long admired Dr. Lambeth, a former RAND researcher with a long list of airpower-related writings, including in-depth examinations of airpower’s role in conflicts such as Kosovo, Afghanistan, and the 2003 war in Iraq. Indeed, he has established himself as one of American airpower’s leading chroniclers—and advocates—in the post-Vietnam era.

To make his case about the war against IS, Lambeth uses an enormous amount of publicly available official documentation, academic scholarship, as well as media reports and commentary. What makes his writing particularly interesting, however, are the scores of personal interviews he conducted along with emails he exchanged with participants—especially U.S. Air Force officers—about the operation, a style that has become something of his trademark.

Lambeth charts the transformation of American airpower in the years after Vietnam and points to “breakthrough developments in the realms of stealth, precision strike capability, and enhanced battlespace awareness”—all accompanied by better training and the development of fresh ideas about force application. Lambeth argues that despite success in Operation Desert Storm and Kosovo, airpower was too often underused and ill-used in post-9/11 counterinsurgency (COIN) fights in Iraq and Afghanistan and continuing for much of Operation Inherent Resolve.

Airpower in the War Against ISIS is not simply a history of events; it is an analysis of the policies and strategies that governed the campaign against IS. Many will find that analysis uncomfortable, as Lambeth does not hesitate to point fingers. For example, Lambeth traces the issues that manifested themselves in Inherent Resolve to the tenure of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Though Gates was gone before the IS threat emerged, his disparagement of the Air Force as suffering from “next-war-itis”—that is, too much focus on possible conflicts with peer or near-peer competitors, such as China and Russia, instead of on the COIN conflicts—eroded what Lambeth argues was the “once orderly maturation of American air and space power.”

This issue and other factors led to an “institutional identity crisis” for the Air Force, which in turn produced “a gradual but inexorable erosion” of thinking and planning skills that “had previously developed to a high art form toward making American airpower so decisive in previous tests of strength.” Lambeth believes that the Air Force centered itself so much on the COIN fight that its skills to fight other types of adversaries atrophied. Furthermore, Lambeth argues that since 9/11, the leadership of U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM), the organization responsible for the Middle East, had been overwhelmingly dominated by Army and Marine officers who did not fully grasp the warfighting potential of airpower. This excessively ground-centric orientation would persist into Operation Inherent Resolve to the campaign’s detriment.

Lambeth finds that when the IS threat became impossible to ignore in 2014, the U.S. reaction, hobbled by political restraints, resulted in a “lethargic and directionless air effort.” Moreover, Lambeth finds USCENTCOM’s strategy to have been fundamentally flawed as the command applied a “planning template for winning indigenous hearts and minds in a COIN war to a totally different class of enemy that needed to be dealt with instead as a self-avowed state possessing territory, and infrastructure, and economy, a central nervous system, a targetable leadership, and the beginnings of a conventional army.” Additionally, Lambeth contends the inappropriate COIN orientation resulted in what he characterizes as “counterproductive rules of engagement” (ROEs). Lambeth describes a highly restrictive ROE process that required convoluted coordination and vetting procedures that, among other things, demanded virtually no civilian casualties. More effective processes were implemented with a change of administration, eventually devastating IS.

Lambeth makes clear that despite ultimately achieving success, “ill-advised leadership directives, in this case an inappropriate gradualist strategy at the campaign’s start that misunderstood the enemy and wrongly insisted on ROE intended for a different kind of war,” cost lives. He bluntly charges:

[T]here were the incalculable but monumental human costs that were imposed by the war’s overly prolonged and pointless early incrementalism. Without seeking at this point to provide even a rough estimate of the number of innocent Iraqis and Syrians who were killed or wounded throughout the more than four-year-long campaign, the anemic start that President [Barack] Obama insisted on at the effort’s outset and sustained with no truly consequential escalation for two more years produced millions of displaced civilians and caused a profusion of noncombatant fatalities in both countries, most of them at the hands of [IS] marauders rather than as the result of any errant coalition bombs.

Lambeth’s book is especially timely, as it comes as the Department of Defense is implementing its much-touted Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan. This plan aims to institutionalize a bureaucracy with restrictive use-of-force policies that are disturbingly similar to that which proved so problematic in the air war against IS.

Airpower in the War Against ISIS stands for the proposition that airpower forcefully applied in a timely manner by savvy commanders will accomplish the mission with the least amount of civilian harm. It is a must-read not only for military professionals but also civilians wanting to understand how airpower could be optimally used in modern battlespaces. JFQ

The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology
By Diane DiEuliis | Feb. 16, 2024

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Dr. Diane DiEuliis is Assistant Director and Distinguished Research Fellow in the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Institute for National Strategic Studies, at the National Defense University.
Chip War

The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology
By Amy Webb and Andrew Hessel
New York: PublicAffairs, 2022
368 pp. $29
ISBN: 978-1541797918
Reviewed by Diane DiEuliis

Emerging biotechnologies, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes, have captured the imagination, interest, and concerns of the world. Scenarios once relegated to science fiction movies and novels are now potentially within the grasp of bioengineering: the ability to read, write, and edit DNA—the fundamental code of life. The purposeful design of biology can enable novel ways to meet a variety of societal needs—from the biomanufacturing of commodities to gene therapies and the recreation of once-extinct organisms. This biological revolution, or “bioeconomy,” has the potential to address important issues such as climate change, sustainable energy, and food production, as well as improved medicines and quality of life for all. But with this capability comes dual use (that is, not only for commercial/military use but also by good actors/bad actors) as well as profound ethical concerns, making The Genesis Machine a timely volume.

The authors—Amy Webb, a journalist and futurist, and Andrew Hessel, a pioneering geneticist—begin their story in personal terms, each revealing how the adoption of biotechnologies in her or his own life has been transformational in enabling her or him to have families. This sets the stage for a well-narrated journey through the history of biotechnology progress, from early pharmaceutical triumphs such as insulin to the synthetic biological creation of artemisinin, which is used in the treatment of malaria. For those new to biotechnology as well as those who work in the field, the personal stories of those involved in the earliest discoveries that punctuated disruptive progress in the life sciences are one of the most entertaining aspects of the book. The anecdotes surrounding serendipitous discoveries, along with the quirks of biotechnology’s most famous pioneers, are not commonly known and give great depth to this historical background.

With this foundation, Webb and Hessel launch into the varied potential of bioengineering and provide helpful background on the components of the bioeconomy, including some discussion of the dual-use concerns associated with these possibilities. Although the book does touch on some of the “non-life sciences” outputs of the bioeconomy, such as biofuels or DNA as digital data storage, it is primarily focused on the human impacts of bioengineering. The authors focus throughout on medicine, health, reproduction, and agriculture—the primarily “traditional” sectors in which biotechnology exists. However, biotechnologies are more likely to commercially advance (in the near term) with biomanufacturing—moving from petroleum-based platforms for manufacturing to biologically based ones—and how this affects the planet will be important. Another missing scenario might be the unknown ecological consequences of the reintroduction of an extinct species, like the woolly mammoth, for example, for which efforts are already under way. This does not detract from the book, however, given that there is much to be learned from the human-impact scenarios described—the scenarios are as fascinating to entertain as they are ethically challenging and would make for creative discussions in the classroom.

The Genesis Machine provides some windows into the current policy landscape and highlights most current governance; however, this book should not be construed as a treatise on policy or a primer for would-be life sciences policymakers. It does not describe how biodefense or biosecurity policy evolved in reaction to biotechnology advances, which is the parallel understanding needed to understand why current policy may be inadequate and where gaps exist. Similarly, although it discusses dual use, it does not dive into weapons scenarios, nor does it touch on the different broad spheres of thought on how best to navigate life sciences policy and governance: ideas such as self-governance, risk-benefit assessment, or the precautionary principle. The best use of this book is as a highly accessible primer on biotechnology and as a tool to stimulate general awareness-raising of its ethical use in the human dimension.

Given that biotechnology is a “modernization priority” for the Department of Defense (DOD), this book may offer insights for readers and students in the joint force. Soon, emerging biotechnology will affect Servicemembers and how DOD performs its mission, from bioproduced and bioinspired materials to novel sensors and pharmaceuticals. Importantly, some of the most powerful and potentially controversial uses of emerging biotechnology and synthetic biology will be on human performance—in the U.S. military as well as in those of its adversaries. An awareness and understanding of these kinds of impacts will be needed across the joint force community, and this book offers an entrée into the field.

Overall, The Genesis Machine is an enjoyable and well-researched read. It provides a smooth narrative overview of many of the challenges of the biotechnological age that would provide novice students, general readers, and experts alike with a balanced foundation in understanding the impacts of biotechnology on humanity—and a thought-provoking tool for imagining life on the planet in the coming decades. For those in the joint force with roles in emerging technology and modernization priorities, this book deserves a space on the bookshelf. JFQ