Defence planning for the future: Some popular fads to avoid

Assoc. Professor Dr Adam Leong Kok Wey

National Defence University of Malaysia


The ongoing drafting of Malaysia’s first White Paper on Defence has generated lots of interest in how Malaysia should plan for its defence in the future. A few suggestions have emerged that the White Paper should focus on non-traditional security issues, and to place strong reliance on new cyber technology. These are popular fads promoted by some under the confident assumption that future strategic risks will emanate from these areas. As planning for the future is difficult enough, the defence planner will do better if he can avoid some common fads that actually muddles defence planning.

The future is not here yet. So how do we guess the future, or at least ‘good enough’ to prepare for the future? This is a very critical question for defence planning as it will involve acquiring assets and capabilities that are costly and time-consuming, and which will be used for decades to come. If we get it wrong today, and in a future war that we are not prepared for, the country’s survival would be at risk. The sad news is that there is no fast and easy answer to this crucial question but we can learn from strategic history to have at least a rudimentary understanding about what the future may be like.

Strategic history will also inform us that some common popular fads are nothing new that had not been practiced before. This helps the defence planner to avoid some pitfalls to produce the ‘good enough’ defence plan for the future. There are two popular fads today that the defence planner must avoid: the trendy fixation on non-traditional security, and infatuation with cyber technology.

Non-traditional security (NTS) is a security studies approach that gained traction after the end of the Cold war and has two key branches, among numerous others, which are terrorism and natural disasters. NTS is an oxymoronic term as there is nothing not-too-traditional with terrorism and natural disasters.

Terrorism has been practiced by various civilizations since millenniums. The Jewish Zealots and Sicariis that were active during the 1st century in Jerusalem are well-documented groups that used terror as a tactic for its political objectives. About a thousand years later, in Persia, there was a Shia sect known as the Nizaris that practiced a form of suicide terrorism. They used operatives to stab and kill their victims in crowded public places, and expected to be killed after doing so. The Nizaris’ actions resulted in the modern word ‘assassination’ to be coined to reflect their terror killings. There are many more examples but these two famous examples will highlight that terrorism is not a recent phenomenon that started with the 9/11 attacks but had been utilized by various groups for quite some time (some covertly run by kingdoms/states).

Natural disasters have also been a constant bane for humans. Historical records had shown that natural disasters such as volcano eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis and pandemic diseases had wiped out large numbers of people. The volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 destroyed Pompeii. Mount Tambora’s eruption in 1815 killed thousands and created an atmospheric layer of ash that led to serious global implications. The famous 1883 eruption of Krakatau in Indonesia caused massive earthquakes and tsunamis that was felt as far away as the English Channel also killed tens of thousands of people. The awareness about the danger of tsunamis did not start with the 2004 Boxing Day tsunamis! A killer pandemic caused by bacteria, and dubbed as the Black Death, killed an estimated 200 million people in Europe and Asia from 1347 to 1351. These few examples demonstrate that natural disasters and terrorism are very traditional security issues and not recent trendy incidents, and humans have been worried and dealing with them for centuries.

The capabilities of new cyber technology today had captured the imagination of people about how cyber technology can be used militarily. However, do not confuse technology with functions. Cyber technology can be used in three main traditional military functions which are intelligence, sabotage, and subversion. For example, cyber tools can be used to collect intelligence by hacking into enemies’ computers and emails; conduct sabotage by sending malware and viruses to disrupt enemies’ computer operating systems; and spreading propaganda (information warfare) using cyber media. Cyber means are able to facilitate the conduct of these traditional military functions.

The practice of cyber intelligence, for example, has parallels with signals intelligence (SIGINT). During World War II, the Allies were listening to German and Japanese radio communications, and with codebreaking efforts codenamed Ultra (deciphering coded German signals) and Magic (deciphering coded Japanese signals), the Allies were able to listen and learn a lot about the Axis’s plans and movements. However, strategic history will also point out that even with information superiority, it still took the Allies 6 years and 4 years to defeat Germany and Japan respectively with the cost of millions of soldiers’ lives!

The famous Stuxnet, a malicious computer worm (believed to had been developed by Israel and the US) that was used to sabotage the Iranian uranium enrichment program in 2007, raised optimism that cyber means can now be used to conduct sabotage in the future without resorting to military power such as Israeli’s air strikes that destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981.

However, the Stuxnet worm was planted by a human operative via a thumb drive and the damage, at its most, managed to disrupt the Iranians’ nuclear program for just a few months. The using of Stuxnet has also generated an unintended effect - it can only be used successfully for the first time, as most countries in the world are now aware of such forms of infiltration (losing its element of surprise) and have upgraded their cyber defence systems which made it more difficult to conduct similar attacks today.

No doubt the defence planner must plan for future cyber offensive and defensive capabilities but at the same time, must be aware that cyber technology will not be a significant tool - and certainly not the panacea that will change future warfare or the nature of war itself. For example, the development of air power in World War I and its initial optimism that air power’s technological innovations will win future wars by itself was short-lived as demonstrated miserably by air power’s strategic performance in World War II. The advent of new technology usually promises inflated effects but strategic history will caution us on the limits of technological gizmos.

The defence planner must avoid these common pitfalls to ensure that Malaysia’s future defence plan is properly made with a strong emphasis on building a range of military capabilities equipped with the right tools to deal with an array of threats and risks, and yet still able to recover adequately from strategic surprises. This can only be achieved by a strong grounding in strategic history - and avoiding popular fads.


Adam Leong Kok Wey is associate professor in strategic studies and the Deputy Director of Research in the Centre for Defence and International Security Studies (CDiSS) at the National Defence University of Malaysia.

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