IISS’ Hackett on 2019 Military Balance, Global Trends


James Hackett, the editor of the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ annual 2019 Military Balance, discusses global defense trends with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian at the London-based think tank’s office in Washington.

Vago Muradian:  Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report.  I’m Vago Muradian here in Washington, DC at the Washington headquarters of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, one of the world’s truly great think tanks based in London that each year issues the Military Balance which is the world’s most authoritative survey of defense trends for the past year on a world-wide basis, and the editor of that is James Hackett who joins us now every year over the past ten years, James.  Great seeing you again.

James Hackett:  Thanks, Vago.  Actually my 11thbook in the 60thyear of Military Balance publication, just like 60 years of the Institute.  So it’s a book that’s grown in its size over the years and also certainly in its coverage.

Mr.  Muradian: It’s truly extraordinary, and we’re going to talk to you about sort of the broad brush overarching themes and talk to each of the subject matter experts on air, Doug Barrie; Ben Barry joining us on land; Nick Childs, formerly of the BBC, one of the world’s best naval correspondents, and obviously we’re looking at Navy issues; and Lucie Béraud-Sudreau who’s going to talk to us from a budgetary standpoint.

So talk to us a little bit about what are some of the overarching themes?  Obviously China looms large.  Russia continues to loom large.  There are British policy issues.  Spending is up in Europe overall.  Talk to us from your perspective what some of the big macro trends are that are encapsulated in this year’s edition.

Mr.  Hackett: Well I think you’ve hit a number of them just there.  As in the last few years, China’s military modernization is front and center.  In Military Balance this year we talk about a number of pieces of equipment that are entering service or we assess have just entered service. And also talk about the general trends, certainly in terms of maritime shipbuilding and what that means for China’s emerging or developing power projection ambitions, both within the region and perhaps globally.

Also we talk a lot about Russian military modernization, particularly how that’s playing out in Syria, the way Syria’s been used as, I think the book calls it a “battle laboratory” in terms of the testing of certain pieces of military equipment, and how that’s been playing out in terms of the lessons being learned in the wider armed force.

I think another one of the big themes, of course, was another one you mentioned, which was defense spending.  Around the world we’ve got that increasing this year for the first time I think since it hits its trough in 2014.  That increase, as we said, is principally driven by the nominal increase in U.S. spending over the last year.

Mr.  Muradian: And how are you guys capturing some of the strains in the alliance?  You guys do both the calculated hardware projections on how each one of the countries is doing, but you also talk about some key political issues.  From a political stability or political cohesion standpoint, how do you guys calculate and factor that at a time when each of the allies have their own preoccupations?  UK being preoccupied obviously with Brexit.  Germany still not increasing spending.  France wanting to bring Europe together.  You have all of these trends going on simultaneously as both China and Russia try to exploit divisions within the Atlantic Alliance, for example.

What’s sort of like the political prognosis, both looking at it from a European perspective but also maybe from an Asian perspective?

Mr.  Hackett: Well I think how do we do it in the Military Balance?  Of course, you can’t sort of quantify it in the same way those sort of political dynamics that you talked about.  We do have a number of text sections within the book.  Other than that, I think we’ve broadly examined in quite a lot of detail this year the sort of emerging 70thanniversary prognosis, as you say, for NATO. But also I think we look at the practical effect of alliance cohesion and how that’s playing out certainly in terms of European EFP in the Baltic states.  Enhanced Forward Presence for NATO.

I think although people often say that NATO states and European states, in general, may have differing threat perceptions, and I think that’s in some cases true.  Some states may be more concerned about the challenges in the southern flank.  That doesn’t mean to say that there’s not cohesion across the alliance, and you see a number of those southern states still deploying forces in the Baltic states and still looking to maintain alliance cohesion that I think is central to how they view their security policy moving forward.

Mr.  Muradian: From an Asian perspective, obviously the United States has wanted to sort of rally allies, but some of the rhetoric from the administration has Australia concerned.  It certainly has Japan concerned at a time when everybody is focused — you know, South Koreans are concerned, certainly about some basing tensions.  What do you see as sort of the macro issues in Asia vis-à-vis China?  And also talk about India as well, right?  Because India is also a very, very important regional power.

Mr.  Hackett: There’s a lot in there.  You started talking about the U.S.  I think it’s certainly the case that those regional states see the military-to-military relationship with U.S. forces still as central to their national security.  I think you can see that in terms of the everyday activities that are playing out.

I think what is clear is that there’s growing concern about the possible direction of China’s military modernization.  You can see that, I think, in some of the procurements that some states are looking to start developing.  The potential submarine projects in Australia; Japanese developments in terms of aero missile defense and things like that.  Not just necessarily directed at the immediate challenge from Korea, North Korea, but potentially longer-term concerns about the military modernization of China.

I think one of the interesting things to see is how this modernization plays out in terms of China’s activities.  One of the things we’ve noticed is, as have other analysts as well, but we’ve tabulated it quite a lot in this year’s Military Balance, is China’s growing shipbuilding capacity and the degree to which that’s now being seen not just in sort of the gray fleet, things that are being talked about, or even non-gray fleet things that are being talked about such as the maritime militia in recent years and how that might be used as a means of exerting control or demonstrating some sort of control in China’s near abroad; but also what China’s doing in terms of large shipbuilding.

For instance the Type 055’s.  The rate with which China was able to build these vessels and what they portend for China’s future maritime operations at reach I think is a really interesting trajectory that our policymakers and analysts are now looking to follow with some detailed interest.  These ships will allow China to take to the sea in higher sea states throughout more times of the year, and will enable China — depending on China’s policy priorities of course — to foray further from China’s shores.

One of the graphics that we’ve put out in a recent on-line version of the Military Balance that you can see on the Institute web site for subscribers is of the voyages of Liaoning and some of the air passages for China’s aircraft in recent years.  I think it’s notable that some of the, not just the sortie rates but the movements that these formations are now taking. And from that, of course, China will be learning in terms of greater military experience and will be looking to, again, broaden the relevance of those lessons for the developing maritime force.

Mr.  Muradian: Every year you guys always look to roll out either a new feature, Nick was very, very proud of his beautiful HMS Queen Elizabeth, the lead ship in the two-ship class of aircraft carriers.

Let me ask you about cyber because increasingly almost every conversation you have with a senior military leader devolves to the issue of cyber, of hybrid capabilities that adversaries or competitors are using that are very, very hard to specifically quantify.  You can count up how many ships somebody has, but it’s very, very hard to look at the Internet Research Agency, for example, and calculate its kind of capability. Or, for example, China’s hacking army, which is vast.  It really puts to shame everybody else’s hacking or cyber forces even combined.

How do you gauge and measure that critical element which is so important now?  I mean they’re increasingly, the Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps said just last month that we are at war in cyberspace and it’s been going on for a decade now.  How do you quantify that sort of what would seem to people to be very difficult to quantify element?

Mr.  Hackett: Again, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head.  It’s very difficult to quantify.  In 2011 I wrote a piece on some of the challenges in terminology relating to cyberspace and military cyber power.  Where does civilian responsibility stop and military responsibility start?  All these things I think are still gray areas.

As we said at the time, you can’t count computers, so what do you look to count?  Or do we produce different metrics?  I won’t say measures, because I think it’s difficult to ascribe a rank to something that’s very hard to gauge in the same way.

For instance, you could look to proxies for military cyber power.  They could be whether a country has declared offensive capability, whether it’s got organizations that are dedicated to this, whether it’s got personnel budgets dedicated to it.  But even so, you then face the similar problems that you do in analyzing more standard, more traditional military capabilities where you look at okay, you might have these forces, but are they well trained?  How do you gauge the effectiveness of military exercises they take part in?

So it’s the qualitative factors that I think is still the challenge in assessing cyber power.  But I think more broadly, it’s going to be very difficult to actually produce something that’s comparable to the approach we take with traditional military capabilities.

Now we’re actually engaged in a project to do some of this work in the Institute at the moment. The next Military Balance will start to feed some of this information into our book.

What we’ve done so far is have effectively just textual descriptions some of these organizations. The civil depth that might underpin the ability for an armed force to project and operate.  But we haven’t produced tables in the same way that we have for our equipment data in the sense that we’re able to produce something that we can count.

Now we might still produce some form of tabulation based on the appearance of doctrine or the appearance of an organization in a country, but it would be very hard to produce any ranking out of that.

I think this goes to the heart of the difficulty, not just with cyber power but with all the hybrid tactics and capabilities you talk about.  They’re increasing gray areas that are harder to assess in the more traditional way that we’ve assessed military capabilities in the last 60 years.

Mr.  Muradian: You are one of the people in the world that looks at the whole global picture, so what were some of the most interesting things over the past year?  Little tidbits that you spotted that made you go, wow, that’s interesting. That you’d want to pass along to the audience as they leaf through this incredibly detailed work.

Mr.  Hackett: I think if we were to go through all of them, I think both of us would have long beards by the time we finished talking about it.

Mr.  Muradian: We have plenty of film.

Mr.  Hackett: Okay, that’s a challenge.

I think one of the very interesting things is that we touched on in our launch statement is the sort of second order effects that you see from national military modernization. That’s the way in which some countries look to recoup some of their investment by selling military equipment abroad.  I think it’s one of the things that we’ve in recent years said can be an increasing challenge for Western armed forces as they look to operate abroad.

It’s not necessarily that you might come toe to toe with a peer competitor, but you might come into contact with one of their pieces of military equipment that they’ve sold to a third party somewhere in an environment that you might have judged previously benign.  I think, again, we’ve over the last few years looked to China’s sale of armed UAVs and the way they’ve gone into some countries in the Middle East and across a couple in Africa as well.  We had a graphic on that a few years ago.  We talked about, I think, the PL-12 missile appearing in Myanmar at the end of last year. There was some imagery about that.

So again, it’s this sort of complicating nature of military equipment proliferation, I suppose you could say, based on, perhaps in many cases, a country’s natural wish to try to recoup some of the investment they make domestically on military equipment by sending it abroad.

Mr.  Muradian: James Hackett, editor of the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ annual Military Balance. Looking forward to reading it, as always, James, and thanks very much for all the time.

Mr.  Hackett: No problem, Vago.  My pleasure.


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