The Dragon and The Snakes

6 minutes estimated reading time

The Dragon and The Snakes

David Kilcullen wrote a number of books on the strategic challenges faced by the west in the war on terror. His book The Dragon and The Snakes looks at the challenges that the west faces from China (the dragon), Russia and Iran (the snakes). I was finishing reading this book as the Ukraine | Russia crisis broke this month, dominating the news headlines.

The Dragon and The Snakes

Out of the cold war

The Dragon and The Snakes starts with what shaped the modern world. The modern world was shaped out of the cold war. Western doctrine was defined by meeting a numerically superior force with superior technology. At the time, China and Russia were in dispute over a number of issues. At the chime of Chairman Mao, the death of Stalin and changing posture of the Soviet Union led to a fissure that widened over time. In the cold war was not only a war for influence between capitalism and communism; but also evolved into a war between Soviet communism and Maoist communism. China and Russia both supplied North Vietnam, but China invaded Vietnam partly due to it being more in the Soviet camp than the Chinese camp (this is is somewhat simplifying a multi-causal conflict, but has a truth in it).

China and US had limited cooperation with regards Russia which was brought in by Nixon’s famous visit to China and the machinations of Henry Kissinger who believed in systems and the ends justifying the means.

The flat topography of Kuwait and Iraq, together the latest 1980s weapons systems from the cold war made the first gulf war quick and provided an eye-raising demonstration of modern warfare. The campaign was just 42 days long.

Pivotal moments of change

Kilcullen goes on to discuss pivotal moments of change for both Russia and China in The Dragon and The Snakes.

  • The first gulf war. China noted that integrated satellite and aerial reconnaissance with associated command and control information systems; full spectrum jamming to ensure battlefield communications superiority; better coordination of naval and ground offensive forces than ever achieved before; highly accurate missile systems; integrated command, control, communications and intelligence for directing the battle. Mechanised units with air support then won the battle. But they also noticed the economics of war were not in favour of technology. Bombers and missiles were dubbed flying mountains of gold and used to attack targets worth less than the weapons system. Secondly more technology meant a shorter weapons system life. Weapons systems average service life went from 30 years to 10 years during the cold war due to technological obsolescence.
  • Kosovo – NATO’s intervention emphasised the nature of modern warfare to Russia. But it also emphasised the threat that the west posed. The Russians have a cultural connection to the Serbians. One incident in particular stuck out: the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. The Chinese embassy attack showed a number of things. The bombing of the embassy was a demonstration of precision bombing. Unfortunately it was the right target, wrong building and was the sole CIA designated attack of the war. The CIA gave the military the wrong coordinates for a Yugoslav storage facility, instead they were the coordinates for the embassy
  1. It fuelled Chinese perceptions that the US and west were willing to attack them, this stoked nationalism at home and basically broke the Kissinger-era detente and trust with the US. Thus there was a common view from both Russia and China
  2. China realised that it needed to adapt from being an Asian land army to having an expeditionary component and defending against a likely American led expeditionary force
  3. It reinforced Chinese views about the technological nature of war
  • Russian invasion of Georgia. While the two Chechen wars had been a meat grinder that exhibited many of the Soviet era armies weaknesses and corruption, it was the invasion of Georgia that proved to be the emphasis to professionalise and improve. Russians learned and built doctrine from the experience. Air power had proved vulnerable to relatively cheap MANPADs (man portable air defence systems). Armour disrupted by anti-tank missiles. Neither of which would have been a surprise to students of the Arab Israeli conflicts of the 1960s and 1970s, but were relearned again. Out of this experience sprang a lot of the ideas around hybrid warfare and applying technology to area denial systems in an asymmetric way, from an economic perspective.
  • Afghanistan, Iraq. Both of these wars showed the limits of the western way of war-fighting. Weapons systems became expensive, the west didn’t have the stomach for deaths and insurgents were finding ever new ways of using consumer technology. Google Maps and Google Earth were used for planning, command and control of both terrorists and private military contractors. Consumer drones conducted surveillance and even delivered bombs. All of the western weaknesses were noted, most of all the perceived lack of western will. Afghanistan reinforced views in Russia and China that the west was in an accelerating slope of decline.
  • Ukraine and Syria. Ukraine and Syria have allowed Russia to refine its war fighting techniques from a communications and technological perspective, as well as testing asymmetric techniques and also defending against them.

Wider parameters of war

Kilcullen highlights the way hacking, espionage, propaganda, weaponised diaspora, elite capture online crime, organised crime, misinformation, bribery, soft power, sharp power and private military operators mean that we are in a war that western leaders currently refuse to acknowledge. This then further emboldens Russia, China and the likes of Iran and North Korea. It felt strangely prescient that I was reading the book when MI5 issued a security warning about Christine Lee and Russia threatened to invade Ukraine.

Byzantine outlook

Disturbingly in The Dragon and The Snakes, Kilcullen thinks that the best way that the west can handle China and Russia is learning from the Byzantine empire’s ability to forestall collapse. This implies a few things:

  1. He doesn’t believe that the west can find its way to effectively combatting China or Russia
  2. He doesn’t believe that western systems of governance will survive
  3. He believes that dragon and the snakes have more durable and effective systems of governance and war

All of which indicates an increasingly dark dystopian future.

In The Dragons and The Snakes Kilcullen provides a cogent well-researched and written picture of our current situation. If his work scares the crap out of enough people, we may even get answers to the multitude of problems that he outlines. More on the book here.