A low-key announcement was made by the Pentagon on 31 December 2022. No US combat veteran can now apply for a wartime service medal in the Global War on Terror (GWOT), a series of campaigns (in up to 80 countries) running from 11 September 2001 to 31 December, 2022. Nor will the planned GWOT Remembrance memorial join those to Korea and Vietnam in Washington DC’s National Mall any time soon. (Would it be sculpted in the form of a drone pilot emerging from his New Mexico trailer?)

The US government’s chronological framing of GWOT is inaccurate since it excludes several major terrorist attacks on US interests, from the first bombing of the World Trade Centre in 1993 via the two East African US embassy bombings in 1998 to the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000. Over that period terrorism metastasised too, not least as Al Qaeda was temporarily eclipsed by ISIS. The “planes war” has ceased (having evolved from highjackings to suicide missions like 9/11), while the global reach of terrorism has been much condensed to such contemporary hotspots as the vast Sahel belt across North Africa. Last year, 119 countries saw no terrorist attacks at all. In the US, the armed far right is more dangerous than Islamist radicals nowadays.

GWOT resulted in a global death toll of over 900,000 and a through-life cost of $8 trillion and rising for many of the US military wounded (physically and mentally), who were very young at the time. That figure does not include the seventeen veterans who commit suicide every single day.

In purely military terms, GWOT saw a combined resort to unmanned aerial vehicles and special forces raids, often in countries with which the US and its allies were not at war. The intelligence services were also willingly degraded into paramilitary armies.

US special forces are nowadays larger than the entire UK field army, with their own Joint Special Forces Operations University (JSOFU) outside Tampa. Beyond that, the decades since 9/11 have seen a massive expansion of the surveillance state, though many of the security tasks are run by private-sector firms. Unlike Covid masks and hand sanitisers, the airport scanners and explosives detectors will not disappear, nor will the digital trails that constantly shadow our every movement.

Of course, since terrorism is merely a tactic, it has not “gone away”, and any war with it is assuredly not over. Even here there are plenty of isolated individuals (sick or sane) and a much larger procrustean bed of digital malice eager to inspire them.

But the reason why the Pentagon (and those who take their cues from that vast machine) were so keen to wrap up GWOT was that the war on terror has been “superseded” by a “new era of great power competition”. Apparently walking and chewing gum are too onerous for the military mind.

This new era takes in not just the “lessons” ensuing from Russia’s re-invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, but also the war that many in the US and elsewhere are gagging to have with China. Deliberately retarding China’s technological evolution is apparently not enough. The war hawks have even attached dates to Xi Jinping’s alleged desire to invade Taiwan, with 2024 recently having replaced 2030 or 2027 in the most febrile imaginings. Arms orders for this war flow, even though the Ukraine war has put a large question mark over big ships (remember the Moskva), including manned aircraft, helicopters and battle tanks; neither AI nor cyber has proved to be the war-winning silver bullet.

The war in Ukraine has revealed many ambiguous aspects of modern warfare. Back in 2014, Russian incursions into Ukraine were said to herald a new era of hybrid warfare, with mystery “little green men” working in conjunction with Russophone separatist forces in Crimea and Donbas to bring about victory at a cost of 14,000 lives. The Russians lost six men in Crimea.

This is not what we have seen from February 2022 onwards; the current daily death toll is about 500 on each side. Russia’s initial assault on Ukraine consisted of a would-be Blitzkrieg as airborne and armoured forces made a beeline for Kiev, the aim being to carry out violent regime change as soon as feasible. This campaign was based on much (hopeless) FSB wishful thinking about the state of Ukrainian public opinion.

The airborne assault was destroyed at peripheral airfields outside Kiev, while the armoured columns proved vulnerable to modern missiles. Not only did these western missiles fly down through the tank turrets, causing a jack-in-the box effect as the 40 shells under the crews exploded, but fear of this prospect led to “tank abandonments” meaning the crews fled rather than being burned alive.

Worse, from a Russian point of view, was that highly accurate US and UK intelligence provided the Ukrainians with real time insight into imminent Russian actions, often with the aid of commercial satellite companies. It may be assumed that western intelligence agencies are also helping with satellite guidance for HIMAR missile launchers. Enough anti-aircraft missiles found their way to Ukraine to nullify Russia’s massive air superiority, so that cruise missiles are launched from over Belarus or from above the Black Sea either by aircraft or ships.

The Ukrainians themselves have played the major role in thwarting Putin’s desire for their country to disappear as a functioning state. Their brains and hearts have fought Russia’s sheer mass to a standstill.

Although most Ukrainian soldiers are civilians, they seem to have mastered decentred mission command and autonomous action, whereas the Russians are historically weakly NCO’d, with orders coming from the top downwards via an officer corps who have proved uniquely vulnerable to Ukrainian snipers.

The Ukrainians have used real-time analysis of data from an app to wreak havoc on Russian forces

The Ukrainians have used real time analysis of data derived from an app called Diia which is used by some of the three million people in Russian-occupied Ukraine to wreak havoc on Russian forces. Ukrainian special forces dart in and out of Russia itself to blow up airbases and refineries. Although Russia has proven cyber warfare capabilities, notably the Petya family of viruses, for the last year 80 per cent of Ukraine’s internet has been functioning, enabling massive buy-in to the struggle for national survival on social media. The prospect of joining the EU offers hope.

After Plan A failed outside Kiev, Russia undertook the difficult task of adopting Plan B, with Putin reshuffling his pack of generals on several occasions. Plan B included what they call SODCIT (Strategic Operations for the Destruction of Critically Important Targets) though they left it late in the cold season to attack Ukraine’s energy and water infrastructure.

But the limited offensive the Russians are currently embarked on seems more like a reversion to the attritional battles of World War I, with a mini-Verdun 2.0 in the mid-Donbas. The original saw General Erich von Falkenhayn deliberately trying to “bleed white” the French army in a battle which lasted for nine very grim months in 1916. In the event, Falkenhayn bled his own forces too, with a combined death toll of 300,000 and 400,000 wounded.

The sources of fresh meat Moscow is feeding into the Bakhmut grinder are revealing. While the Wagner Group has emptied Russian prisons of convicts, Russia’s minorities from the Caucasus, middle Volga and both far North and Far East are disproportionately represented, including men from 47 tiny “nationalities” which each have under 50,000 people. While Dagestanis and Nogais fight, richer ethnic Russian city dwellers avoid the draft, or decamp with their laptops to Bali or Turkey.

The great powers will be watching events in Ukraine very closely, for its 230,000 square miles of territory have become a vast laboratory for the future of warfare. That includes China’s PLA which is rapidly revising tactics and force structures derived from Russia. Their Battalion Tactical Groups will be increased to all arms divisions. So will defence companies, with order books for Turkey’s Bayraktar drones filled for years ahead.

But the last lesson of the present is the most ominous. Two nuclear armed powers (for let’s not kid ourselves that the US is semi-detached from this war) have gone toe to toe in this conflict, without it escalating into a full-blown nuclear war (so far). Whether the US and China would be content to restrict any Pacific war to the sub-nuclear level should not be treated as a given, though no one seems to have much interest in that “lesson”.

Michael Burleigh’s “Day of the Assassins: A History of Political Murder” is published by Picador

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Main Features, March 2023

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