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Special operations in an era of escalating great power competition: ‘There is no shortage of challenges’

On Tuesday 20 September, David Kilcullen, one of the world’s leading experts on modern warfare, visited Leiden University to discuss future developments in special operations and the escalating competition between great powers. Frans Osinga, Professor by special appointment War Studies, and Martijn Kitzen, Professor Irregular Warfare and Special Operations at the Netherlands Defence Academy, opened the lecture: ‘It is wonderful to have a renowned expert like David Kilcullen speak here.’

Kilcullen was in The Netherlands for a visit with the Netherlands Special Operations Command (NLD SOCOM) to talk about special operations. He was able to make time to give a lecture at Leiden University for students, staff members, and defence personnel. In front of a full lecture hall, Kilcullen shared his perspectives on the challenges of special operations and modern warfare in a changing global power constellation. Specifically, Kilcullen focused on two major shifts the Western world is currently dealing with: the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the rise of China.

The war in Ukraine and the rise of China

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been at the centre of attention in the Western world. The impact of the war reaches far beyond Ukrainian borders, as can be seen in rising gas prices and the displacement crisis that followed the war. However, as Kilcullen points out, the rise of China should not be forgotten and might be the most important shift the Western world will have to deal with. ‘Ever since the start of the War on Terror in 2001, the Chinese have been focused on the clear threat they are seeing from the United States’. In Kilcullen’s view, the structural challenge posed by China represents the most significant change in today’s shifting global order, stating that ‘if Russia is changing the weather, then China is changing the climate’.

Challenges in warfare

Kilcullen ends his lecture by pointing to a few of the major challenges we are faced with in contemporary warfare. For instance, war is increasingly waged in highly connected environments between state and non-state actors. New technologies, such as drones and remote snipers, also pose challenges to warfare. ‘There is no shortage of challenges’, Kilcullen concludes.

Warfare is not solely a professional concern

When asked to give advice to Western militaries, Kilcullen mentions that support from the people is essential. ‘Warfare should not solely be a professional concern. We need to bring warfare back to something the whole nation cares about and understands.’ National resilience and support are the baseline from which everything else is built. Kilcullen also provides advice on what not to do. ‘Be very wary about using the military for, for example, imposing lockdowns. It makes it more difficult to gather support for the military once the military is deployed against one’s own population.’

David Kilcullen signs a copy of one of his books for alumnus Timothy van der Venne

‘Irregular warfare is here to stay’

Timothy van der Venne, alumnus of the BSc Security Studies, was enthusiastic about the lecture by Kilcullen. ‘It would be downright foolish for anyone with an interest in modern warfare to miss an in-person lecture of such a giant in the field of strategic studies’, Timothy says. He is currently working as a military researcher himself, focusing on irregular warfare. His main takeaway of the lecture by Kilcullen is that Western strategists must not forget about the irregular side of warfare, because, as Timothy says, ‘irregular warfare is here to stay.’

Text: Nadine Louissen

Prof. David Kilcullen served for 24 years as a soldier, diplomat, and policy advisor for the Australian and United States governments. He was Senior Counterinsurgency Advisor to Gen. David Patraeus and Special Advisor to the Secretary of State from 2007-2009. He has provided advice at the highest levels of the Bush and Obama administrations, and has worked in peace and stability operations, humanitarian relief and counterinsurgency environments in the Asia-Pacific, Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. He holds a PhD in the politics of insurgency from the University of New South Wales.

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