IN 1978 General Sir John Hackett published The Third World War, August 1985: A Future History. Written as a novel but in the style of a non-fiction, post-event analysis it tells of a Third World War between Nato and the Warsaw Pact forces. Though fictional, it built on Hackett’s reputation as a military strategist and reinforced his previously expressed belief that the UK government was complacent about Nato’s capabilities in Europe.

Like Hackett, Paul Cornish and Kingsley Donaldson (pictured right) are former soldiers with an interest in strategy. Their intention is to write an adaptation of Hackett’s book “but one more suited to the security challenges of the present day”. By that they mean security in a more complex setting than Hackett’s Cold War linearity. Security now exists in a world of changing climate, mass migrations, resource issues, health and financial security. The language of classic “kinetic” military force, they say, is no longer enough, though conventional forces and nuclear threats still need responses. The book argues that a new strategic approach is required to combat “ambiguous or hybrid warfare”, including cybercrime, attacks on power supplies, financial chicanery and so on. All of this is playing out against a background of American isolationism, atrophying of UK strategic resources, and unhelpful liberal democracies which adhere to a form of “war is over” philosophy. One thing that this book has in common with Hackett’s is the identification of the enemy-in-chief. The greatest exponent of hybrid warfare is Putin’s Russia, though there are others in the game.

In pursuit of their argument, Cornish and Donaldson create a variety of geopolitical and thematic scenarios and use these to test the central premise of the book: “Instead of waiting patiently for some new, large-scale and largely military equivalent of the Cold War strategic certainty to reveal itself, national strategists must instead engage with international security, as it is, in all its diversity, complexity and uncertainty.” The scenarios should not be regarded as predictions or scaremongering, but as exercises in “worst-case” analyses. However, the scenarios are also supposed to be “sufficiently plausible and credible, and sufficiently complex to provoke serious strategic consideration” and not all of them pass this test. Chapter eight is entitled “A Disunited Kingdom” though it owes little to the Iain Macwhirter book of the same title. In this, it is 2018, and a tumultuous year with the First Minister of Scotland calling for a referendum on Scottish independence against the advice of “senior Nationalists” who know that “Scotland cannot support itself financially”. Scotland votes “to be a Nation again” despite the long list of good reasons for staying in the UK that the authors generously provide. In the meantime, a referendum on reuniting Ireland is lost in the North and all hell breaks loose there. Newly independent Scotland insists on the removal of Trident and swiftly declines into a country that can’t defend itself, becomes a haven for Columbian drug dealers and human traffickers and “the destination of choice for illegal immigrants who want to get into England.” This fails the plausibility test as comprehensively as it passes the “giving offence” one. Post-independence Scotland is not only bereft of security, but petty too. Its determination to prove its EU credentials make it blithe to any problems an open border might be causing its southern neighbour; or, as the book has it, “revenge is indeed a dish best served cold”. Scotland also harbours England’s enemies. The scenario doesn’t explain why “a warehouse in Pollokshields on the outskirts(!) of Glasgow” is the base for wreaking havoc in England, but it’s consistent with a tendency to stereotype the enemy.

Loading article content

Situations such as the Indo-Pakistani confrontation over Afghanistan or chaos in Cairo and the resurrection of the Caliphate are, arguably, more plausible. One suspects, however, that Australians would look askance at a scene entitled “Unravelling Imperiums” which has Chinese aircraft carriers racing towards them in 2020, their nefarious intentions backed by disloyal Chinese-Australians. Cornish and Donaldson clearly see themselves as heirs to Hackett but, generally speaking, their imaginings are so overblown that it’s hard to take them seriously. The whole edifice is propped up by the headline writers’ trick of seeding the text with “can” “could” or “might” which inserts truth into any notion, however ridiculous. Former Nato director general George Robertson follows suit on the back cover calling these “credible scenarios of what might happen, could happen and, hopefully, won’t happen”.

When proposing solutions to things that won’t happen, the language of the Mission Impossible script swiftly gives way to that of the end-of-year business review. Strategic culture needs reinvigoration, imagination, innovation and adaptability. No argument there, though there must be a better way of demonstrating it.

2020 World of War by Paul Cornish and Kingsley Donaldson is published by Hodder and Stoughton, priced £25