VI: You were recently the director of the Modern War Institute at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Can you explain the thinking behind the Institute and what its objectives are?
Liam Collins: Yes, we started it up about four years ago at the academy. Every other academic department had its own research institute but our department, the Department of Military Instruction, did not. We wanted to gain a better understanding of the contemporary and future threat environment, so we could better prepare our cadets for the threats they are likely to face, which is much more diversified than the threat I faced upon graduating. Go back 27 years when I graduated, it was really only the Russians - so it was an easier playbook.
Today we still have near-peer nation-state threats but we also have non-state actors, transnational criminal organizations, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and so that the threats that diversified and our education really hasn't kept pace with it. That was the genesis of the institute - how do we better understand those contemporary threats and then how do we better educate, starting with our cadets, but also the broader population and decision-makers as well.
You go back to the start of the Syrian civil war a few years ago, and it was a decision to really do nothing. But the question is, did we make this decision after evaluating all the options and then deciding to do nothing, or did we decide to do nothing because we just didn't know what to do or understand the situation. The need to address the range of options was the genesis of the institute as we stood it up.
VI: Certainly the experience of the war in Iraq and the prospect of getting involved in another Middle East country’s internal conflict where an endgame is not at all clear weighed heavily on the Obama administration?
Liam Collins: Correct, in these situations you reverse the playbook. When facing a peer or near-peer threat, the division would issue an order, the brigade would get the order and pass it on to the battalion. Then, the order was communicated to a company, and finally to a platoon where a junior level officer would execute its part in the larger play. The platoon and company mission were fairly easy to grasp. Iraq spun all of that around; in that environment, leaders, especially since junior leaders, encountered a counterinsurgency for which they were completely uneducated, untrained, and unprepared. We said, "Hey, go out there and figure out how to do counterinsurgency, though we've never trained or educated you for it."
Instead of intelligence going from higher to lower, platoons were generating on-the ground intelligence and pushing it up the command chain.
Few foes would be dumb enough to face the US military on an open desert battlefield. They're more likely to fight in urban areas where our technological advantages are muted, using asymmetric means.
VI: When you are generating new ideas about modern war you want to convey this knowledge not only within the military academies to the cadets and young leaders coming up but also make an effort to educate Congress, policymakers, and the public at large about what kind of wars we should expect, think about, prepared for, is that right?
Liam Collins: Exactly. Previously I served as the director of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point and our three pillars there were research, educate, and advise. One of our missions was to educate policymakers on terrorism and counterterrorism so they could make informed policy decisions. There were a lot of talking heads or self-proclaimed experts, but it was difficult for the public and policymakers to distinguish true analysis from bluster. We aimed to help remedy that challenge. At the Modern War Institute our three core functions are similar-- research, educate, and integrate—but we still aim to educate the public and policymakers through our research, just as we did at the Combating Terrorism Center. We do this through our research reports, short analysis articles on our website, and through our podcast series.
VI: A common criticism of any military strategy is that they're always preparing to fight the last war and not the future war, so your mandate was to turn that around and think in a future mindset?
Liam Collins: Right, exactly. You're never going to guess the next conflict correctly, but you could do a lot better job of assessing risk, mitigating that risk, and preparing for the potential options. I think historically, we've overly prepared for a single threat, but this results in being less prepared for other threats. I think you can argue that the one time we got this right was Desert Shield/Desert Storm - the first Iraq War.
We got that one right. Informed by our study of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, General Donn Starry, as the Training and Doctrine Commander, developed AirLand Battle as our warfighting doctrine. It worked to perfection against the Iraqis in 1991, but I think by getting so right has actually been to our detriment because since then we've been overly focused on that single type of conflict. A contributing factor is a US bias towards technology, always looking for technological solutions to things.
VI: In Desert Storm traditional tank warfare with aerial surveillance and some aerial support was effectively deployed. It was quick and easy with a minimal number of US casualties or loss of equipment. When It was over and done, the decision was made to move out and let Iraq be what it was.
Liam Collins: Yes, it was a limited conflict and it was fought symmetrically—or at least that is what we’d like to believe. Our experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq have led to the term “asymmetric warfare” becoming part of our vernacular. But symmetric warfare is generally not a smart way to fight. That's World War I, World War II, that's just a slugfest. So warfare now is all about fighting asymmetrically. For us, it means to outspend and out-technology the enemy; that's what, to some extent, the Gulf War was. The Iraqis fought to our advantages. If they had adhered to some of their own tactics and doctrine, they would've done better, but they still would have been decisively defeated. For them it was anything but symmetric, but because it was a conventional fight, we like to consider it symmetric conflict.
We focus too much on the conventional military threat. When you look at the defense budget, it's definitely out of proportion for this threat, especially when you consider cyber threats.
I feel that the tactic of using intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms to identify the enemy and then engage with standoff munitions prior to ground engagement is a tactic our enemies learned from. Few foes would be dumb enough to face the US military on an open desert battlefield. They're more likely to fight in urban areas where our technological advantages are muted, using asymmetric means.. That's what we saw in Iraq in 2003 when their military just faded away, and then we saw the Fedayeen pop up later as an insurgency.
Iran learned from our experiences in Iraq and revised its doctrine in 2005. Its mosaic defense leverages its strategic depth and challenging geography to mount an insurgency against an invading foe rather than engaging it head-on.
VI: If you were to advise candidates as they think about the defense strategies they would adopt, what threats would be the top of your list?
Liam Collins: I think you have to look at security threats more broadly. We focus too much on the conventional military threat. When you look at the defense budget, it's definitely out of proportion for this threat, especially when you consider cyber threats. Consider the threat that the theft of our intellectual property poses, a potentially huge loss to us every day, every year. That's what drives our economy and that's what allows us to have our large defense budget. If you keep chipping away at our expertise - stealing intellectual property from our companies, that factors into a serious longer-term threat. I think this can lead to instability or challenges, not the instability or challenges that global warming is likely to produce, but it will have an impact - perhaps not in the next year but in the near future. It is significant.
In terms of traditional threats, Russia has been aggressive, but they are relatively easy to figure out. You know what Russia's game is, what their goals are. Countering Russia’s hybrid warfare has more to do with doctrine and techniques, tactics and procedures than technology.
I’ll briefly mention WMD, which is a terrible term. Out of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive (CBRNE) weapons, nuclear weapons are the only ones capable of causing mass destruction. The others might cause mass hysteria, but not mass destruction, so it is important to minimize the spread of nuclear weapons and keep them out of non-state actors who are the most likely to use them.
VI: You have written about the ongoing war in Ukraine where you state the Russians are using new generation warfare. What are the lessons that can be learned from this limited but significant conflict?
Liam Collins: There are several lessons that can be learned from Russian New Generation Warfare, as some call it, or Russian hybrid war. The reality is this is not any different than what nations waging war have done for centuries. The Russians are just doing it a little differently and leveraging modern technology, especially in the information operations sphere, to go with it. Their ability to use information operations is significant; they don't constrain themselves like most nations do. We're afraid of influencing our own population. Anything you put out on the internet could do that. We don't do things like that.
I’ll briefly mention WMD, which is a terrible term.
The Russians have also been very efficient at electronic warfare, but these are not necessarily new either. We were prepared for an electronic warfare threat during the Cold War, and we have kind of forgotten it given there was no EW threat in Afghanistan or Iraq. Often it is not a technological solution that is required. We need to recognize that our technological advantages are at the same time vulnerabilities since they represents a huge electronic signature and an attractive target. At the same time, we should understand the limitations of this Russian form of warfare. It's tough for them to operate militarily very far from their borders. They lack the robust logistical system for large, expeditionary conflict.
Out of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive (CBRNE) weapons, nuclear weapons are the only ones capable of causing mass destruction. The others might cause mass hysteria, but not mass destruction, so it is important to minimize the spread of nuclear weapons and keep them out of non-state actors who are the most likely to use them.
The important lesson is to how we are vulnerable to Russian capabilities and mitigate these vulnerabilities.. And typically, if the Russians have it now, other non-state actors are looking to acquire these capabilities - technology diffuses much faster than it used to. If they have the ability, using cyber or electronic warfare, to identify our strategic locations, then anybody can get that within a matter of years. Recognizing the vulnerabilities that it creates for us is important, more than just seeing it as a Russian-specific threat. Unmanned aerial vehicles are being employed by a large number of actors, and we lack currently lack appropriate countermeasures at the tactical level.
VI: What you are saying is that Russia is using old tools of disinformation and propaganda but with new methodologies - and they are getting pretty adept at it?
Liam Collins: Right. I think oftentimes the narrative is, "Hey, we won the Cold War under Reagan because we could outspend them and they went bankrupt.” Obviously, it is much more complicated than that. But I think the importance of our information war--the battle of ideas as to whether democracy and capitalism was a superior political-economic system to communism—to our “victory” is largely forgotten.
We had Voice of America and similar efforts but cashed in our peace dividends when the wall came down. We have divested from these efforts. The Russians, however, learned the of the influence of controlling information during the 2008 Russia-Georgian war, and invested in their information operations capabilities, and executed it with perfection in Ukraine.
VI: If you were to give advice to 2020 presidential candidates about military preparedness, what are some of the things that you would recommend them thinking about?
Liam Collins: I would say, “Do a smart investment assessment.” Look at the risks and assess what those risks are - don't overly invest in a single threat at the expense of others. Ask the straightforward question - is the defense budget right-sized now to dull the threats that the nation faces?
VI: Should we be confident in our military planners and strategic entities that they are looking at new technologies, that they seriously consider cyber warfare, and that they know how to be both offensive and defensive in these areas?
Liam Collins: I would recommend that you don't just look at technology as the solution to everything. Oftentimes, it's a simple doctrinal or tactical change that can counter some of those things. We shouldn’t be overly focused on the technology.
VI: Do you think the United States needs to embrace some kind of grand strategy in terms of its military preparedness and attitude toward the rest of the world, or are flexibility and informed leadership the best way to move forward?
Liam Collins: I tend more towards to the latter. Some people will say you can't have a grand strategy unless you have a serious threat like the Russians during Cold War. I am a little less inclined to be a strict doctrinaire in terms of what is grand strategy and what isn’t, but I think you need to have a focus and know your goals. Is it promoting democracy or is it security? What is the overall priority? How is it guiding the national purpose?
I think you have to have somewhat of a flexible response given the diversity of threats that we face, but it’s important to assess what the threats are, and assess them properly. If you look at what Russia has done over the last several decades, post-2000, you see a certain strategy emerge once their economy started to rebound, when Putin came to power. They push the West right up to the limit of what they think they can get away with. It seems that the West recently lets them get away with it and then Putin pushes it a bit more. They've been pretty successful with that.
VI: What about partnerships and alliances - working to assist other countries train their military and equip them to be involved as part of our defense?
Don't be afraid to ask the hard questions. Don't be afraid to do what's right for the nation, even if it doesn't always seem like the most popular thing.
Liam Collins: Yes. I've worked with many, many allied nations over the years. In Iraq, I've been on targets with Brits right there with me. Yes, there are probably places or times when the US can or will have to go it alone and we should be ready for that. At the same time, it's a very cost-effective investment to let others share the burden, yet understand the limitations of what they are capable of providing. The Lithuanians have been great partners and they understand the threats to their East. The same thing with the Estonians, the Latvians, the Poles, yet our defense budget is only slightly less than the GDP of all four nations combined
The key thing is, it's just like a counterinsurgency. The whole goal of a counterinsurgency is to train the host nation so that we can get out of there and go home. We're better off being preventative, training them in advance and making them more of a deterrent force. Russia had certain advantages which allowed it to illegally seize portions of Ukraine that I don't think they have in any of the Baltic states.
When you consider Ukraine, part of it is what does the population think if of the elected government? In Ukraine, from the population's point of view, for years it's been one corrupt oligarch or another. Their presidential approval ratings right after the election might be a little high, but within a year or two, it's right up there rivaling our approval rating of Congress - i.e. it’s in the teens, so not very high.
If you look at the Baltic states, their presidents all have over a 70% approval rating. If you ask an ethnic Russian in Estonia or Latvia who they cheer for in the Olympics, . they say they cheer for the Russians, right? They're Russian through and through.
At the same time, if Russia tries to stir up dissent, these ethnic Russians would say, "We like having civil liberties on this side of the border and we like having the higher standard of living that we get from this system." They can look across the border and see that it's a lower standard of living over there and fewer civil liberties. They have no desire to support any kind of Russian shenanigans unless the government starts making laws or other policies that alienate the ethnic Russian minorities. Then the sentiment would be, "Well, we are being oppressed now, what the hell do we have to lose?" If you start disenfranchising the population or alienating them too much, then you have a potentially volatile situation.
In Ukraine, you did have a portion of the population where the opinion was, "Hey, it's one corrupt leader after another over here. What the heck?" I think that factors into it.
Public opinion is one factor, but having a credible deterrent force is another. When the Russians invaded Ukraine, Ukraine had an army that was incapable of mounting any real resistance; their systems were terrible and their training had atrophied.
If our allies have greater capabilities, then the Russians are going to be less aggressive and less likely to send Russian forces across the border - Russian moms don't like their kids coming home in body bags any more than American moms or any European nation’s moms.
VI: Is the legitimacy of whatever government happens to be in place in these countries important for the support of the people and a factor in how vulnerable they are to an outside incursion?
Liam Collins: Yes, without a doubt. Obviously, if the Russians want to invade, they'll invade, but it makes it much less likely. Because let's say, from the Russian perspective, if they think they're going to have the support of ethnic Russians, they know, "Hey, we can get to any of these capitals within seven days. We can occupy any of these Baltic nations." But they know from their own experiences in Afghanistan, or ours in Iraq and Afghanistan, the initial invasion is easy, it’s what follows that is difficult. If they expect the next decade to be one massive slog fighting a possible insurgency.
It's just not worth it. It's not worth it from the get-go. If they think they have a significant portion or enough of the population's support, they're willing to try because they'll be out they’re helping them, but without that, the math doesn’t support it. They realize, "It's just not worth it. We can't do it." And they don’t invade in the first place.
As I already mentioned, in addition to public opinion a credible military is the second prong of providing a credible deterrent to Russian aggression. Thus, we need to provide or sell appropriate military systems to help make our partners more capable. Many of these nations don't need an expensive $7 million tank, several dozen javelins for the same cost would provide a greater deterrent. You could have them in a car, in a house and they present just as much of a threat as a $7 million tank to Russians that are trying to come across. It's much more challenging to identify the locations of javelins in advance, where a tank is very easy to identify as opposed to just a person who's unknown that has a weapon system.
VI: Are you concerned about countries where the United States has spent an enormous amount of time and effort to train and to establish legitimate democratic institutions and governments? Afghanistan and Iraq are recent examples. The whole question of nation building seems always a difficult one for the military to deal with?
Liam Collins: That's more of a challenge. I think the problem is that the military doesn’t believe it should be involved in nation building, even though, historically, we've had a significant role in that. If you look at what our education and training provides in terms of preparing our forces, especially senior level three or four star commanders, for nation building, you’ll see it's not great. Then, at the same time, if you look at how well the State Department is prepared for that, I'm not so sure there are a lot of playbooks even there on that. The investments in this have obviously not produced what we had hoped, but that should be expected given our lack of intellectual investment into nation building. It’s really been on-the-job training and learning at every level.
VI: Part of the effort of the United States in overseas involvements to create stability, is to dull threats to our homeland. Is it a valid effort to establish legitimate governments and functioning democracies with long-term prospects of peace and prosperity so that radical groups can’t find safe havens?
Liam Collins: I think that has been an evolved and underlying theme throughout. Ultimately, some people forget why we went to Afghanistan in the first place. It was due to the 9/11 attacks; we were there to rout out Al Qaeda. Now, going into Iraq was a completely different choice. Rightfully so, some are very critical of that decision. But if you look, obviously, democracy is a relatively new political institution, still only a couple of hundred years old and it hasn't taken form and taken root everywhere. It's still a challenge to figure out how to promote democracy in certain areas or trying to create democracy in a mirror image of the U.S., despite the fact that we have a very unique history.
VI: At West Point and the other academies, these kinds of efforts are the domain of civil affairs officers. is that still part of the curriculum? Are they teaching these procedures and realities?
Liam Collins: Yes. We'll typically have a handful of civil affairs officers at the academy, but probably not enough. In the curriculum, we'll cover different subjects with different kinds of approaches in American Politics or International Relations. The fact is, we just don't dedicate a lot of hours within our military science curriculum to these kind of topics because we're focused on what typically are the fundamentals or the basics, due to the limited time we have allocated to military studies.
We want a leader who's willing to make the tough calls. They've got to do that and they’ve got to look responsibly at the nation’s entire budget and figure out how to spend responsibly amongst defense, social services, and all national priorities -- and do that in a smart way.
Part of the Modern War Institute's charter is to introduce these concepts, and get them into the curriculum. We have other entities like the Center for the Study of Civil-Military Operations, focused on these efforts as well. I would say it’s under taught, but anytime you try to add anything, then something has to come off the plate, and then we have to figure out who's losing that space within the curriculum.
VI: In fact should these tasks really be part of diplomacy and best rest within the State Department with a close coordination between the Pentagon and the State Department for these skills?
Liam Collins: Yes, but I'm not naive -- I realized how many foreign service officers there are, roughly 8,000, and we have 4,000 cadets, and hundreds of thousands of military personnel. We are the nation's reserve force. We're the only ones really sitting around-- I'm being a little flippant, but we're sitting around waiting until the call comes.
The State Department doesn't have 100,000 people that they can just send out when needed. We are the ones that are sent out there because we are the only labor that is available to go. When the State Departments surges people to Afghanistan or Iraq, they're taking them from another mission somewhere else in the world or within the US.
I recognize the challenge. I think we just need to educate ourselves a little better and not just assume that they'll do it, but understand enough how to help them and our role within it. I think we've never quite figured that out. I think we had historical successes, such as in the Philippines, or in Japan and Germany following WWII, but we have kind of forgotten since how to do it.
VI: Our time is about up. Any last recommendations or advice you would like to give to 2020 candidates in terms of military preparedness, defense budgets, or conflicts around the world?
Liam Collins: Yes. I'd say, don't be afraid to ask the hard questions. Sometimes, you've got to do that-- don't be afraid to do what's right for the nation, even if it doesn't always seem like the most popular thing. We want a leader who's willing to make the tough calls. They've got to do that and they’ve got to look responsibly at the nation’s entire budget and figure out how to spend responsibly amongst defense, social services, and all national priorities -- and do that in a smart way.
Colonel Liam Collins, (ret.), PhD, was a career special forces. From 2016-2018 he served as the executive officer for the Senior Defense Adviser to Ukraine. He is also the former Director of the Modern War Institute at West Point.