Lines of defence - Issue 169 - Magazine | Monocle

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In a letter to the US Congress in October requesting an extra $50bn (€47bn) in defence spending, Office of Management and Budget director Shalanda Young cited threats to national security posed by wars in the Middle East and Ukraine, tensions in the Indo-Pacific, a breakdown in border security and an increase in drug trafficking. Such threats are not unique to the US. In 2022, global defence spending rose by 3.7 per cent to more than $2.2trn (€1.87trn). 

After a period of relatively benign international relations, geopolitics is heating up and so is the planet. Indeed, Young neglected to mention, probably for political reasons, what many would argue is the most serious challenge to global security: climate change.


Rising from the depths

‘USS Maine’ Commanding Officer Travis Wood

Though there is debate over which threat is the gravest, what is beyond doubt is the need for great resources. In this 12-page survey, we analyse the efficacy of the world’s security apparatus and explore ways to improve it – at a local, regional, national and global level. We visit a nuclear submarine in the US Pacific Northwest to explore the effectiveness of mutually assured destruction as a 21st-century deterrent. On a visit to South Korea’s largest arms manufacturer, we assess the economic consequences of a rearming world. 

But security isn’t just about guns and armour. In Turkey, we meet engineers working to secure buildings devastated by earthquakes. In the Philippines, we talk to an octogenarian who helped to bring an end to several decades-long insurgencies. And in Estonia, we meet those at the forefront of protecting European cyberspace. Elsewhere, there are essays from leading thinkers on what lies ahead for global security and how to confront it. Plus: inflatable tanks.

Repair officer Josh Williams
Life on board
Bell to signal the presence of important persons
Control centre

Sub culture
We squeeze aboard one of the nuclear vessels being updated by a twitchy US. 

When monocle arrives at Naval Base Kitsap in Washington state, after passing several security checks and surrendering all electronic devices, the pier is a hive of activity as 2,000 workers put finishing touches to the USS Maine – repairing valves, inspecting motors, replacing pumps and applying paint. 

“Our pit stops are short, intense and complex,” says Josh Williams, Repair Officer at the Trident Refit Facility. The pier contains a dry dock that is large enough to accommodate a 170-metre-long Ohio-class submarine and 130,000 sq m of industrial space with some €90m worth of equipment. Armed sailors keep a watchful eye while the submarine is at its most vulnerable. On a crisp autumn day, the only passers-by are harbour seals and fishing boats.

Counting down

The Maine has been in port for several weeks and will soon head back out into the Pacific for the next leg of an endurance race that has been ongoing for nearly 40 years, when the first of the US Navy’s 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines – known as “boomers” – were commissioned. Along with land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and strategic bomber planes, these vessels are one of three legs of the US nuclear triad.

Once thought of as Cold War relics, nuclear deterrence and doctrines such as mutually assured destruction (mad) are back in vogue. Both the Biden administration’s 2022 Nuclear Posture Review and Congress’s Strategic Posture report, released in October, warn that the US and its allies now face two nuclear peer adversaries: Russia and China.

“The threat is getting worse,” says Robert Soofer, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. As a result, arms control is giving way to nuclear modernisation. The US Navy is playing the long game: it has a strategic plan for nuclear-armed subs through to 2084. The first Columbia-class submarine, which will eventually replace the boomers, should hit the water by the end of the decade. It will be armed with Trident II d-5 missiles with a range of more than 7,400km.

Ohio-class submarines are known as boomers

But the boomers are still a trump card. Russia or China could theoretically wipe out US missile silos and bombers in a first strike. They would be harder pressed to locate these stealthy deep-sea craft armed with the capacity for hundreds of warheads. Powered by a nuclear reactor and capable of generating its own drinking water and oxygen, an Ohio-class submarine can stay in the depths indefinitely. The only limiting factor is the crew’s three to four months of food rations. 

“We are the deterrent,” the Maine’s Commanding Officer, Travis Wood, who has spent seven years of his life underwater, tells monocle below deck. “If deterrence fails, we are the tip of the spear.” The Maine’s most recent deployment was a two-and-a-half-month tour that included an April stop in Guam, where senior commanders from the Japanese and South Korean navies came aboard for a first-ever trilateral visit. Wood was circumspect about specifics but he confirmed that boomers are spending more time in the Indo-Pacific to confront a rising China. “Pushing farther west is the current initiative,” he says. Though submarine captains take orders like any naval officer, Wood relishes the relative freedom of a vessel capable only of receiving low-frequency radio communications for most of its time at sea. “This is the most autonomy you can have in the military,” he says. 
Life onboard the Maine requires extreme minimalism. Crew members sleep in bunks tucked between missile tubes, 30cm of steel separating their heads from a nuclear warhead.

“If you ever had dreams of being an astronaut, this is as close as you can get without going to space”

At the dock

Their only personal effects storage is a shallow drawer under the mattress – enough for socks, underwear and an entertainment tablet. When at sea, they are unable to communicate with the outside world for weeks. Exercise is confined to a treadmill and weight rack in closet-sized spaces. Two washing machines and driers run laundry 24/7. It takes a special breed to volunteer for such close quarters. Lieutenant Commander Elisabeth Staab has served on a range of US Navy vessels and prefers the boomers. “If you ever had dreams of being an astronaut, this is as close as you can get without going to space,” she says.

With responsibility for 170 sailors, Wood’s hopes for the new Columbia-class are more quotidian than hi-tech: upgrade the kitchen to allow for better cooking. “Food makes the biggest difference to morale on a sub,” he says, before we climb a ladder to the top deck for some fresh air. “It’s your only comfort.”

Export boom

South Korea’s once domestic-only arms maker has turned global supplier.

Workers at Hanwha Aerospace, South Korea’s largest defence contractor, have been busy. Over the past 18 months, there has been record demand for their wares, particularly the K9 Thunder, a self-propelled howitzer that can manoeuvre on rough terrain. Though Seoul refuses to send lethal weapons to Ukraine – so as not to provoke Russia, a key ally of its belligerent neighbour, North Korea – the war has been an indirect boon for the country’s defence industry: in 2022, exports totalled $17.9bn (€16.8bn), more than double the previous year. Many of the countries that have sent arms to Ukraine have chosen to purchase Hanwha-made replacements. In July the company won a contract worth up to AU$7bn (€4.2bn) to build 129 Redback infantry fighting vehicles for the Australian army.
For decades, South Korean contractors were meant to support just one customer: the South Korean military. Even though the 1953 Korean armistice ended combat, North and South are still technically at war. Efforts to deter Pyongyang, which once boasted the peninsula’s superior military resources, meant that South Korea has invested vast amounts in its homegrown industry. Due to this heightened state of preparedness, says Lee Kyounghun, a veteran engineer and senior vice-president at Hanwha’s Changwon Plant Three, Seoul conducts “very rigorous inspections, down to the smallest parts”.

Now that's a hill start!
Testing a K239

Fighting fit: Hanwha facts and figures
Headquarters: Seoul
6,420: Employees
KRN62.28trn (€44.1bn): Revenue in 2022
Key clients: Australia, Poland, Norway, Finland, Estonia, Turkey, Egypt, India, Malaysia and Indonesia

Having to serve a demanding domestic market, South Korean arms producers became nimble and innovative. Hanwha engineers say that flexibility is a major strength, allowing the use of single assembly lines for multiple models, meaning that the company can tweak the specifications of equipment according to customer demands for terrain, weather and warfare types. Inside the vast plant, robots cut and bend steel K9 chassis into shape. When a fourth assembly line opens in April, capacity will increase to 320 vehicles a year. Hanwha’s engineers keep a close track on customer feedback in order to monitor how their products perform in the field. This is helped by the fact that they assemble many of the orders in the purchasing nations, which improves innovation, though technological transfer to clients can lead to greater competition down the line. “The more you export, the harder it is for you to keep your technological edge,” Dr Marjorie Vanbaelinghem, director of Institut de Recherche Stratégique de l’École Militaire, a French military research institute, tells monocle. “So you have to be ready to invest a lot. That’s not a problem for South Korea, because it’s very good at investing in technological innovation, but it’s a risk.”

Hanwha, which was founded in 1952 as Korea Explosive Company, a purveyor of gunpowder and dynamite, appears unfazed by potential imitators, especially in the inflation-battered West. Whereas some larger arms exporters there struggle with cost overruns and production delays, it has been expanding its portfolio and absorbing rivals. Recent acquisitions include Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering, a huge South Korean shipbuilder that makes frigates and submarines, and Connecticut-based edac Technologies, an aviation engine parts manufacturer. Its current cash cow, the K9, used to be made by Samsung Techwin, a larger company that Hanwha acquired about a decade ago. This proactive approach appears to be paying off. When monocle visited Seoul’s adex arms fair in October, Hanwha had the splashiest booth, showing off its unmanned combat vehicles, drones and satellites. With geopolitical tensions heating up, Hanwha looks set to supply South Korea’s allies over air, land and sea.

Keyboard warrior

Estonia is at the vanguard of the fight against Russian cyberattacks.

It’s known as Web War One. In 2007, Russian hackers launched a large-scale cyberattack on Estonia that temporarily shut down a large portion of the Baltic nation’s essential services. The infiltration was halted relatively quickly. “By today’s standards it wasn’t anything terribly frightening,” Luukas Ilves, Estonia’s chief information officer and undersecretary for digital transformation, tells monocle. “But it was the first time that a government had clearly used cybertools to achieve a geostrategic end. They failed but it woke us up to the risks.” Those risks stem from the fact that virtually all of Estonia’s government services are online. To keep these functioning, the country’s cyber defences must be impenetrable.


The 2007 attack turned Estonia into a global advocate for cybersecurity. “I wish there was a single, crisp, strategic answer,” says Ilves. “The big one is just to realise that it’s an important focus. You have to put time, energy and resources into it. It has to be a lot more collaborative than something like defence, where you really can have most of the work done by governments.”

This also means coming up with a common set of rules: when does an attack in the digital world amount to an act of war? Estonia is a leader here too. The Tallinn Manual, produced by Nato’s Cooperative Cyber Defence Center of Excellence (ccdcoe), based in the Estonian capital, lays out how international law can be applied to cyberwarfar and cyber operations.

“In the same way that Ukraine is out there fighting for all of us, I’d also say they’re fighting a cyberwar for all of us”

The goal is in part to “clarify how international law applies in this area,” says Agnes Kasper, head of ccdcoe’s law department. Take the Geneva Conventions of 1949; “It doesn’t matter how you do it,” says her research colleague Aleksi Kajander. “You cannot target civilian objectives during an armed conflict, only military objectives.”

Ilves says that there has been a lull in state-sponsored cyberattacks over the past two years as Russia has focused its efforts on Ukraine. “In the same way that Ukraine is out there fighting for all of us, I’d also say they’re fighting a cyberwar for all of us,” says Ilves. Kyiv has strengthened its own cyber defences with US and Estonian help, and its critical infrastructure has largely held up during the war as a result. But Nato needs to be ready for the aftermath. “When the physical war ends, it could get worse for us in cyberspace,” says Ilves. The fear is that Russia could launch the kind of cyberattacks that it has directed at Ukraine’s infrastructure on Nato member states, in part because even a successful online strike is less likely to invoke Article 5, which is collective defence by Nato.

Nato has stepped up efforts to counter such threats. The world’s largest cyber-defence exercise, Locked Shields, is hosted annually in Tallinn; the 2023 edition was the largest one yet. More than 38 countries and 3,000 people were split into teams, collaborating and competing each other to ward off major cyberattacks. “Things have become a lot better in the past 15 years,” says Ilves. The key is co-operation across borders, between governments and even with multinational companies – the internet knows no national boundaries.

Take it up a gear

Five pieces of kit that defence ministers are hoping for this Christmas.

There is nothing like someone else’s war for demonstrating to any given military what its own inventory is lacking. Ukraine’s defence of Russia’s invasion in particular has prompted an uptick in procurement and some rethinking of requirements, as Russia’s old-school armour-and-infantry onslaught was met with nimble and inventive modern defences. Here is a plausible, if partial, wish list.

 High-altitude balloons


In early 2023 a Chinese surveillance balloon was shot down by an F-22 over South Carolina’s coast. Somewhat comical though the event seemed, the idea of weaponising high-altitude balloons is being taken seriously. Future military high-altitude balloons – and solar-powered fixed-wing craft – could have obvious reconnaissance and surveillance capacity, but could also become weapons platforms.

 Disposable drones


The Ukraine-Russia war has increased interest in drones. Baykar’s Turkish-built Bayraktar TB2 attracted early attention but it’s an Australian import that might represent the greater leap forward. Melbourne-based company Sypaq Systems has supplied Ukraine with hundreds of disposable drones made of cardboard. These have a range of up to 120km with 3kg of payload and cannot be picked up by enemy radar.

 The flying ship


South Korea’s Marine Corps are working on something similar to the Soviet-built Lun-class Ekranoplan flying warship. The country’s defence ministry is funding a military version of the Aron m80, which currently transports commuters. It is anticipated that the craft, skating over such obstacles as sea mines, would enable rapid deployment of amphibious troops.

 Unmanned ships


It is not only Ukraine’s success with unmanned aircraft that has caught the eye. The country, which has no meaningful navy, has also used unmanned maritime craft to great effect. Its kamikaze drones have damaged several Russian ships and naval facilities and kept Russia’s conventional Black Sea fleet largely confined to port. 

 Long-range missiles


The US-built Lockheed Martin mgm-140 Army Tactical Missile System – atacms – was deployed in combat by Ukraine for the first time in October, destroying several helicopter airfields in Russian-occupied Luhansk and Berdyansk. We might be entering a new missile age. The US Navy has reoriented its budgeting towards long-range weapons, while Australia has announced the purchase of more than 200 US-built Tomahawks. 

Blown up 

Inflatable decoys are deceptively cheap strategic assets on the battlefield.

Deception has always been part of conflict: there is an obvious benefit to persuading an enemy that you are more powerful than you actually are. In the hi-tech realm of modern warfare, there is also an important economic advantage to such ruses. Guided missiles are expensive as well as destructive. If they can be lured away from their targets, it not only preserves the people and assets of the country they were aimed at, it wastes the money of the nation that launched them. Czech company Inflatech has spotted a valuable market.

Many of these, it is impossible to avoid noticing, are models currently being used by Ukraine in its war against Russia. Inflatech is, however, understandably cagey about its customer list.


“Our systems have been sold on four continents and have been battlefield tested, successfully deceiving the enemy”

“Suffice to say, our systems have been sold on four continents and have been battlefield tested, successfully deceiving the enemy,” Inflatech consultant Mike Ritchie-Cox tells monocle. The company’s blow-up facsimiles cost between €6,000 and €70,000 each. But even the more expensive decoys are still a fair swap for a Russian kh-59 Ovod cruise missile, which has a unit cost estimated at €500,000. The decoys are also useful as firing-range targets and in vehicle- recognition training. A typical deflated decoy weighs as little as 43kg. In combat, they can be deployed in a matter of 10 minutes. “And we have veterans on our staff who ensure that the decoys are “squaddie-proof” – so they can be assembled in the dark by tired users,” says Ritchie-Cox.

Historic decoys

Trojan Horse: Though it probably never existed, the most emblematic decoy in the history of warfare was this enormous wooden horse that turned out not to be a conciliatory gift to Troy but a personnel carrier bearing Greek warriors.

Previous inflatable tanks: Allied forces deployed inflatable Sherman tanks in Dover during preparations for D-Day in 1944, in order to suggest a landing at the Pas de Calais rather than Normandy.

Stone tanks and wooden bombers: In the Second World War, Japan built aircraft from bamboo and replica tanks from volcanic rock. In China, Japanese troops painted a silhouette of a burning US b-29, hoping that other American aircraft would drop down to investigate.

Dummy soldiers: First World War trenches were adorned with papier-mâché heads to lure enemy snipers.

Truce or consequences 

Addressing the reasons for rebellion is key to one peacemaker’s successes.


Unassuming Irene Santiago, an 82-year-old grandmother from the Philippines, has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. She also features on the syllabuses of several US universities. It’s all due to her novel approach to peacemaking, which has brought an end to several decades-long insurgencies on Mindanao, an island in the southern Philippines. Over the past half-century, at least 100,000 have been killed and millions displaced here by fighting between government forces and armed groups – some demanding independence, others communism, and one fundamentalist Islamic rule. The Philippine armed forces once believed that the only way to crush these groups was with force. But now, thanks to Santiago (pictured), they see it differently. “They gave a general a top award for no body count and no human-rights violations,” she tells monocle. “That is a seismic change.”

It took years for Santiago, who worked as a journalist and for the UN before becoming a negotiator for the Philippine government, to persuade her bosses to change their approach. For years she worked to get more civilian and female voices into negotiating teams. Finally, in 2013, there was a breakthrough. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a 30,000-strong militant group fighting to establish a breakaway Islamic state, appointed lawyer and community advocate Raissa Jajurie as its key negotiator. Santiago, meanwhile, nominated Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, a political scientist who had led an anti-landmine campaign. For the first time in a conflict that had killed more than 120,000 people, negotiations were led by non-combatants with roots in the communities they represented. Within a year, a peace deal had been signed. 

“Inequality is a root cause of insurgency. This is the difficult part, and this is what we are trying to work on now”

Santiago’s approach began with her eight ingredients for peace: a well-functioning government, fairly distributed resources, low corruption, free access to information, a well-equipped workforce, jobs and business opportunities, good relations with neighbours, and respect for the rights of others. She says that the key to approaching seemingly intractable conflict is to focus on day-to-day things that really matter, such as food security and education. “I am not doing anything about terrorism and ideology,” she says. “Inequality is a root cause of insurgency. This is the difficult part. And this is what we are trying to work on now.”

It’s often taken for granted that building a productive society is something you do once war is over and that resolving a conflict is done on the battlefield. Santiago’s goal isn’t to end war but to make peace. To do that she dealt with civilians, particularly women, who are more likely to be dealing with the pressures and frustrations that trigger conflict. They know what their communities need in order to accept and sustain a peace deal. You can argue for decades over territorial control, temporary ceasefires, prisoner swaps and power sharing, or you can go to insurgents’ communities, ask them what they lack and focus on fixing the problem. “Santiago’s interventions in Davao worked because there was one vision and one goal – to bring back the legitimacy of the state,” says Georgi Engelbrecht of Crisis Group, an international organisation that analyses conflicts. Santiago puts it in simpler terms. “I identified two things: fear and hunger,” she says. “If you can take out fear and take out hunger, you are done.”

The roots of southern Philippine insurgencies

1965: Ferdinand Marcos is elected president of the Philippines.
1971: Moro National Liberation Front forms to fight for an independent Moro nation.
1977: The Moro Islamic Liberation Front splits from the Moro National Liberation Front.
2002: Islamist militants are blamed for bomb attacks on Manila and Zamboanga.
2003: A Moro Islamic Liberation Front attack in Mindanao leaves 30 people dead.
2004: Peace talks begin between the government and the New People’s Army in Norway.
2014: A peace deal is signed between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
2015: Hundreds of Muslim ex-militants sign up to vote in the 2016 elections.
2017: Islamic State-linked Abu Sayyaf and Maute groups seize Marawi City.
2018: Peace 911’s pilot project is launched in Davao City.
2022: The Philippine Army declares Davao City “insurgency-free”.

Shock therapy
Rebuilding after an earthquake applies to confidence as much as construction.

Post-earthquake damage in Elbistan, Turkey

Nehir Kabakulak had faith in the way her home had been built and in January 2020, when a large earthquake hit, her block proved sturdy – there wasn’t even a crack in a wall. But three years later, on 6 February 2023, two earthquakes struck Turkey. The second of these, with a magnitude of 7.6, was centred on her hometown of Elbistan, and her building shook so much that it seemed to be made of paper. There was massive destruction: 1,377 buildings collapsed in Elbistan, nearly a fifth of the city’s total, and a further 2,773 were damaged beyond repair. Some 995 people died here, including Kabakulak’s 17-year-old son, Seyhan, who was staying in another building that night. When she walked through the town after the disaster, she didn’t recognise the streets.

Within a few weeks, state inspectors had assessed her home as safe to return to. But the damage that had been inflicted was deeply unsettling. “It was in a terrible state,” Kabakulak tells monocle. “The walls were full of cracks. All the furniture was broken. I didn’t trust that it was safe.”

That reaction is common – and understandable – among people who have lived through natural disasters. Our homes are integral to our sense of security and seeing them fail leaves a deep psychological scar. Rebuilding a sense of safety after earthquakes, floods or war is as important as reconstructing the buildings themselves, says Kit Miyamoto, a Japanese-American structural engineer who specialises in disaster response. This year alone he has worked in Turkey, Ukraine, Morocco and Afghanistan, and is planning a mission to areas of Libya that were affected by catastrophic flooding in September. “People want to come back to normality but also many might be scared, even if buildings are safe,” says Miyamoto. “That puts tremendous stress on the displacement camps and it’s important to decompress that so they can be used for people who really need it.” Empty homes and neighbourhoods also bring other risks: looters often arrive soon after disasters and Kabakulak’s home, like others in Elbistan, was targeted by thieves.

In every disaster zone that he visits, Miyamoto sets up joint companies or non-profit organisations with local engineers and trains them how to deliver technical information in a way that even illiterate people can understand.

The aftermath of February’s earthquake in Antalya
Structural engineers

Then they go out into communities, visit homes and hold town hall meetings where they explain what cracks and other types of damage mean. “We are the doctors of buildings,” says Mustafa Kizil, a civil engineer who is part of the project that Miyamoto has set up in Turkey, in collaboration with Protek, an engineering firm. More than 1.7 million buildings across 10 provinces were affected and over 5,000 buildings have been assessed by the government. “We see some families who can’t sleep in their bedrooms [the first of the earthquakes struck at 04.17] and are sleeping in their living rooms,” says Kizil. “In one meeting a lady was begging me to come to check her apartment. I went and explained to her the factor of safety that is built into buildings and she became comfortable.” 

“People want to come back to normality but also many might be scared, even if buildings are safe”

Sometimes fear is rooted in misinformation. Following an earthquake in June 2022, rumours spread of subterranean volcanoes being shaken into activity. Miyamoto’s team checked the area to reassure residents that the rumours were false. In Turkey, more than 50,000 aftershocks followed the initial quakes, renewing the sense of panic. But the remedy can often be as simple as filling in cracks and repainting, jobs that Kizil and his team arrange for the poorest, internationally displaced or most vulnerable people. In one block, criss-crossed with what appear to be deep cracks, Kizil explains to a homeowner that they are superficial and the building is sound.

Kabakulak stayed in a camp, then in a container home for seven months after the earthquake, through an unseasonably cold spring and then a punishing summer. In September, Kizil and his team called to let her know that her home was ready. When she stepped through the door, she found it freshly painted, with no sign of the damage that had terrified her so much. “After it was finished, it felt the same,” says Kabakulak. “Now I can remember my home again.”

Turkey’s 2023 earthquakes
In the deadliest disaster to hit Turkey in its modern history, more than 50,500 people were killed.

387,346: Number of buildings that collapsed.
50,576: Buildings assessed as damaged beyond repair.
58.1: Percentage of collapsed buildings that were constructed after 2001, despite stricter regulations introduced after the 1999 earthquake.
€65.3bn: Estimated cost of rebuilding.

Black swan or grey rhino? 
Benedikt Franke gives voice to the slang behind world-changing events.


From “canary in the coal mine” (early warnings of potential hazards) to “red herrings” (strategically placed information to mislead and distract from actual threats), animal analogies are popular in security analysis. This is reason enough to clear up the confusion between “black swans” and “grey rhinos”. In their original definition, black swans are unforeseeable events with major effects on international and domestic politics; grey rhinos refer to obvious risks that we acknowledge but tend to ignore. 

Unlike black swans, grey rhinos are thus not totally unexpected but merely overly underestimated. This does not make them less impactful. Coronavirus, climate change or the Hamas attack on Israel are examples of classic grey rhinos – well-known threats that we have been ignoring for too long. Other rhinos on the horizon include the unfreezing of conflicts in the Balkans, the de-dollarisation of the world economy and the collapse of regimes in places such as Iran or Algeria. For all of them we should have plans in place. 

Despite the clear logic, both terms still get mixed up. Most people tend to take every sudden development as a black swan but the truth is that most of these events are actually grey rhinos that we have ignored. In fact, much of the popularity of the black swan is down to yet another animal. Namely, the “elephant in the room”. This analogy refers to pressing, often uncomfortable matters that we choose to avoid in the hope of escaping their consequences. This aversion to confronting things head-on makes the black swan an attractive descriptive concept for those who would like to pretend that there was no way to see a particular challenge coming. At the Munich Security Conference, we usually don’t let them get away with it. 

Benedikt Franke is vice-chairman and CEO of the Munich Security Conference.

Keep it in check, mate
Nina dos Santos weighs in on the big business of interfering with affairs.


When it emerged in September that Elon Musk had prevented Ukraine from using his Starlink satellite system to ambush Russia’s navy in Crimea, many asked how one private citizen could hold such sway in a foreign conflict. Some called Musk an outright security threat and demanded that his power be curbed. But history tells us that meddling in affairs by wealthy, so-called non-state actors is nothing new. Sometimes they do so to support causes that they see as just. More often, however, commercial interests are their main motivator. Wars, after all, have always been big business. Banker JP Morgan Jnr financed Allied armies during the First World War, while newspaper magnates William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer are widely credited with mobilising their titles to press the US government to declare war on Spain in 1898. 

But the objectives of today’s foreign-policy freewheelers are not always as clear cut. Musk appears to be as easily influenced by what’s trending on his social-media platform, X, as he is by the words of a world leader. Indeed, modern technology barons own much of the hardware that states rely on and have the cash to bankroll projects that their governments can’t – Starlink being a case in point. You only need to observe the obsequious nature of UK prime minister Rishi Sunak interviewing Musk at a conference on artificial intelligence in November to see the imbalance in power between private wealth and government.

“Tackling his power so late in the day won’t be easy but it will get harder the longer it is left unchecked”

So how can the world’s richest man be brought to heel? Some experts argue that invoking special laws, such as the US Defense Production Act, could force Musk to sell his wares to Washington first, which could then be distributed to the country’s allies. Another option might be to nationalise businesses such as Space X’s Starlink, Musk’s satellite-launching service, which can be considered a monopoly in the field. Though it has been done before, this option would likely prove controversial and might deter other private companies from entering the market and generating the very competition that is needed as a counterweight. Perhaps the best solution would be to bring Musk’s space firms on board as fully funded defence contractors, with the same contractual responsibilities that other players in the sector face, including not selling products to hostile states. 
Musk’s Ukraine intervention was a wake-up call for policymakers. Tackling his power so late in the day won’t be easy but it will get harder the longer it is left unchecked. This risks setting a dangerous precedent, creating a world in which non-state actors are increasingly allowed to involve themselves in conflicts of global significance.

Nina dos Santos is a foreign correspondent, TV anchor and the former Europe editor of CNN.

Stronger than fiction

Emma Searle on the sci-fi minds helping states to predict future threats.


A failure of imagination is the worst mistake that a country’s defence establishment can make. This was the conclusion of the 9/11 Commission Report, which investigated the US’s response to the September 11 attacks. In the aftermath, the Pentagon sought advice from dozens of science-fiction writers whose jobs involved imagining outlandish future conflicts. The enlistment of sci-fi novelists to inform defence planning has been practised by governments for decades. In 2005,the Canadian military hired novelist Karl Schroeder to write Crisis in Zefra, a novel set in a mythical African city-state, which fictionalised scenarios that peacekeepers might face in a near-future conflict. Earlier this year, the UK’s Ministry of Defence hired two of the sharpest minds in sci-fi, Peter W Singer and August Cole, to write eight stories about threats that might emerge within the next 20 years. In France, a group of writers known as the “Red Team” have been tasked with imagining conflict scenarios for the French military.

“Fiction is only useful to policymakers when grounded in research, offering strategies to mitigate the conflict it describes”

Fiction’s main advantage is that it is the antithesis of a dry report, making expert findings more digestible. “It’s akin to what I do with my children in the morning,” says Singer, author of Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War. “I sneak fruit and vegetables into a smoothie. At one end you have science-fiction, which is basically like a milkshake. At the other you have the kale – the strategy paper. Together it becomes a hybrid of narrative and nonfiction.” Fiction has also informed policy within Nato. “It has helped us to think through things that we included in Nato’s first climate-change security action plan,” says Ruben Diaz-Plaja, a senior policy adviser at Nato. 

Naturally, setting boundaries is crucial. Fiction is only useful to policymakers when grounded in research, offering strategies to mitigate the conflict it describes. This was a central drive for retired Australian major- general Mick Ryan, whose novel White Sun War: The Campaign for Taiwan posits the scenario of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. “It involves drawing a line from where we are now and where we might be in five or 10 years given the technologies we’re starting to bring into the military,” says Ryan. “I don’t think the book will lead to any great changes but we might then ask, ‘If this happens, what is our position?’” History has shown that unimagined threats can become reality. Coronavirus came as less of a surprise to those who had grown up watching Contagion and The Andromeda Strain. Technologies and weapons were germinated in the minds of novelists such as HG Wells and Jules Verne. Military expertise and wisdom can be found in unconventional places.

Emma Searle is the producer of ‘The Foreign Desk’ on Monocle Radio.

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