The battlefield is everywhere in the digital age

The Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit is a terrifying piece of military kit. The stealth bomber can fly undetected for many thousands of miles to drop a thermonuclear bomb on pretty much any target on the planet. According to one government estimate, each B-2 in operation on average has cost the United States Air Force US$2.1 billion (S$2.9 billion) to develop and deploy.

Clearly, very few countries have the money or the technology to invent such weapon systems. There are also very few occasions when such weapons can be used (God willing). The US therefore remains dominant in what it terms its first and second offset strategies: Clear supremacy in nuclear weapons and precision-guided missiles. But although such technologies remain necessary to offset the challenges of rival powers, they are no longer sufficient in our rapidly changing world.

Most defence spending in Nato countries still goes into crazily expensive metal boxes that you can drive, steer or fly. But, as in so many other areas of our digital world, military capability is rapidly shifting from the visible to the invisible, from hardware to software, from atoms to bits. And that shift is drastically changing the equation when it comes to the costs, possibilities and vulnerabilities of deploying force.

Compare the expense of a B-2 bomber with the negligible costs of a terrorist hijacker or a state-sponsored hacker, capable of causing periodic havoc to another country's banks or transport infrastructure - or even democratic elections.

The US has partly recognised this changing reality and in 2014 outlined a third offset strategy, declaring that it must retain supremacy in next-generation technologies, such as robotics and artificial intelligence. The only other country that might rival the US in these fields is China, which has been pouring money into such technologies too.

But the third offset strategy counters only part of the threat in the age of asymmetrical conflict. In the virtual world, there are few rules of the game, little way of assessing your opponent's intentions and capabilities, and no real clues about whether you are winning or losing.

Such murkiness is perfect for those keen to subvert the West's military strength. China and Russia appear to understand this new world disorder far better than others - and are adept at turning the West's own vulnerabilities against it.

Chinese strategists were among the first to map out this new terrain. In 1999, two officers in the People's Liberation Army wrote the book Unrestricted Warfare, in which they argued that the three indispensable "hardware elements of any war" - namely, soldiers, weapons and a battlefield - had changed beyond recognition. Soldiers included hackers, financiers and terrorists. Their weapons could range from civilian planes to Net browsers to computer viruses, while the battlefield would be "everywhere".

Russian strategic thinkers have also widened their conception of force. Moscow has used traditional military hardware in recent conflicts in Georgia and Ukraine. But it has also launched cyber attacks against both countries as well as Estonia and stands accused of hacking the US presidential polls.

More broadly, it has been intensifying its KGB-derived "dezinformatsiya" operations as part of what Professor Mark Galeotti has called "the weaponisation of information". According to Russian TV anchor and Kremlin propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov, information wars have become "the main type of warfare".

Former Pentagon official Rosa Brooks has argued that the US military is far from the ideal organisation to respond to this multiplicity of challenges. Instead, she suggests that the defence of Western societies and the projection of soft power need to be rethought as a collective national purpose. "Imagine a revamped public sector premised on the idea of universal service - an America in which every young man and woman spends a year or two in work that fosters national and global security," she has written.

Such ambitions are academic while Mr Donald Trump remains in the White House, committed as he is to increasing spending on old-fashioned military hardware. Besides, the Kremlin could hardly wish for a more compliant US president than one who has praised Mr Vladimir Putin's strong leadership, been hesitant to support Nato's collective security and denounced the US media for peddling "fake news".

In the realm of "memetic warfare", as it has been called, the Kremlin would already appear to have won. But before it crows too loudly, Mr Putin's entourage may reflect that the West depends far less on any one individual or institution than Russia does. The US Congress is now pushing tougher sanctions against Moscow for meddling in the presidential polls.

Moreover, the Russian President's domestic opponents are also adopting new strategies. Earlier this year, opposition leader Alexei Navalny released a slickly produced video highlighting the alleged corruption of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. It has since been watched almost 24 million times on social media.

No matter how well versed in the practice, authoritarian states are rapidly losing their own monopoly on the weaponisation of information.

FINANCIAL TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 26, 2017, with the headline 'The battlefield is everywhere in the digital age'. Print Edition | Subscribe