ilitary adaptation is perhaps one of the most well explored subjects in the fields of military science and history. From how adversaries respond to battlefield innovations at a tactical level to how states contend with strategic developments, is a core area of exploration since Thucydides and the Greeks, and Scipio and the Romans.

The Dragons and the Snakes—How the Rest Learned to Fight the West by David Kilcullen (Cover Image by Oxford University Press).

In recent history, the United States found itself as, arguably, the Romans did—sitting astride a military of unparalleled strength while the Carthaginians and barbarians sought how to counter this very strength. How al-Qa’ida, the Islamic State, and others, on the one side, and Russia and China, on the other, learned to fight the United States is the subject of Australian counter-insurgency expert David Kilcullen’s latest book.

Kilcullen draws his title from testimony from James Woolsey, a former Director of Central Intelligence who warned of the post-Soviet (post-dragon) future: "Yes, we have slain a large dragon…But we live now in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes. And in many ways, the dragon was easier to keep track of."

The book is structured in what could be seen as three acts: an analysis of insurgent/terrorist group adaptation through the lens of evolutionary biology; a review of Russia and China’s strategic response to the United States’ military primacy; and a conclusion on the path forward.

It is sweeping in its objective, seeking to answer the question of how has the “rest” learned to counter American military dominance. Kilcullen is a welcome guide, offering a neat summation of how both nation-states and terrorist groups alike learned to cope with America’s conventional military primacy. While others have explored these subjects in academic depth, Kilcullen’s approach offers readers accessible insights into what are complex and dynamic trends.

That this has occurred is not surprising. The United States since the end of the Cold War was the prime mover of the international order, especially in terms of conventional military capability. Yet, that very power hasn’t counted for much in the conflicts since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The fight against Iraq in 1991 was one for which the United States trained through the entirety of the Cold War. Iraq couldn’t have been typecast as a better adversary. Baghdad used Soviet equipment and fought with Soviet tactics, albeit with Iraqi idiosyncrasies. The sustained air campaign and the following 100-hour ground war could have been copied and pasted from the planning documents outlining the fight over the Fulda Gap—or the California deserts of the National Training Center.

Yet the United States found itself engaging in non-conventional fights for the foreseeable future, with one or two exceptions. Somalia, the Balkans, Afghanistan, and post-Invasion Iraq were all largely non-conventional conflicts (as distinct from unconventional warfare or support for resistance movements), fought not with large forces, but smaller, dispersed forces under headings other than war: humanitarian relief efforts, reconstruction, counter-terrorist operations. Each problem was a different, yet all the U.S. had were hammers and, as such, that was the tool used.

Kilcullen astutely highlights how insurgent groups in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria adapted their tactics in response to external stimuli in both active and passive ways. In the case of the former, organizations consciously responded to the actions of the United States, Israel, and others, taking lessons learned and circulating them across their organizations and broader networks. Passively, kinetic action removed poor performers from the battlefield, leaving survivors—like natural selection—to pass on their tactical or operational DNA.

He suggests that in understanding how these adversaries adapt will allow the West to intervene or stop this adaptation. This concept, while interesting, isn’t as well borne out in his analysis. What he does suggest and identify is that the United States needs to get better at adapting to adversarial adaptation. This is perhaps one of the cruxes of the challenge of American military adaptation. The Department of Defense is a slow-moving behemoth, on the whole—there are elements like Special Operations Command and others that are more responsive and adaptable, but the Pentagon itself is not. In earlier years, this was acceptable. The U.S. set the tone, defined what was possible, and was largely unchallenged. The Soviet Union, for its part, organized and fought by similar rules—conventional rules.

This is no longer the case. Russia and China are neither playing by those conventional rules nor organizing along those conventional principles, and they don’t need to in order to achieve their aims. Washington’s flavor du jour is the return of Great Power Competition, which, arguably, never went away. Here Kilcullen is a good guide for how Russia and China responded to American military primacy.

Russia, for its part, adopted what he terms as a “liminal strategy”—one that edges as close as possible to open or attributable conflict, without actually going over that line. It is called “gray zone” or “hybrid conflict” elsewhere, but it is an approach that seeks to exploit existing divisions within adversaries, introduce strategic doubt into decision-making, and, in some ways, compensate for Russia’s conventional weaknesses.

That being said, and as noted, by Kilcullen, Russia’s New Look military reforms have had significant effects on military performance and capabilities. Indeed, look at Russia’s recent expeditionary activities in Syria and the Mediterranean. Moscow doesn’t need to challenge Washington on a one-to-one conventional military footing. It is achieving its effects with remarkable success and at a fraction of the cost.

Kilcullen is curiously apologetic for Moscow’s behavior and posture towards the West, placing a great deal of emphasis on the Russian belief that if the Soviet Union disintegrated peacefully, NATO would not expand to Russia’s borders. Whether this was an overt promise or understanding is subject to debate (as Kilcullen notes), but in Kilcullen’s view central to Russia’s current behavior toward the West. It is undoubtedly part of the strategic motivation for Moscow, but it is not a sufficient explanation in and of itself.

For its part, Beijing’s conception of contemporary conflict is much broader than either Washington or Moscow. According to Kilcullen, China adopted a strategy of “conceptual envelopment.” Here, every domain is a domain of conflict—from business and economics, to law and actual conventional conflict. China sees every domain as a domain of competition. By contrast, the United States approaches the modern strategic landscape in a siloed fashion.

Here, the U.S. is dominant in the “confrontation and conflict” zone, but weaker in the avoidance of competition areas, areas in which Beijing is thriving. Kilcullen, not surprisingly, cites the short book on war “Unrestricted Warfare” which, unfortunately, has taken on the aura of a grand strategic narrative to destroy the United States, rather than offering insights into Beijing’s strategic calculus. The danger here, for Washington, is in miscommunication (seeing non-conventional activity as a prelude to or necessitating a conventional response) or spreading itself too thin. Here too, the risk is Washington’s preoccupation with the tangible or conventional elements of China’s rise—its investment in tanks, ships, planes, and literal physical expansion (the unsinkable aircraft carrier islands)—and in so doing misses the other elements of China’s competition activities.

One area of weakness in Kilcullen’s exploration of Russia and China’s strategic development is the absence of a real appreciation of domestic considerations and drivers within each country. In his telling, all of Beijing’s and Moscow’s movements are a pure reaction to the United States’ strategic choices and behaviors. Undoubtedly what Washington does is a key driver of their strategic calculus. But placing too heavy an emphasis on this to the exclusion of everything else is a bit American-centric.

Both Russia and China have unique strategic and defense cultures with their own fiefdoms, sacred cows, and politics. While both are, to varying degrees, authoritarian, politics and intrigue still exist and fights over resources and primacy still occur. It would have been interesting to explore how the cultures of each played into the adaptation and adoption of strategic postures.

Kilcullen’s conclusions on the way forward are interesting. He posits that the end of American military dominance, or the beginning of its decline, was the opening salvo against Saddam Hussein in 2003. It was hoped that the decapitation strike at Dora Farms would remove Hussein from the equation and, perhaps, prevent the conflict from being necessary in the first place. That was, as history would show, not the case.

The United States faces three choices in light of the rests’ adaptation to the West according to Kilcullen: doubling down, “embracing the suck,” or the Byzantine strategy.

If the U.S. doubles down, it would reject the concept of American or western decline, continue on its current path of pursuing American primacy/exceptionalism and liberal interventionism. The challenge here is that continuing to buy the next greatest tool is of declining utility if your adversary will just circumvent your strength, to say nothing of it being cost prohibitive.

If Washington “embraces the suck”, it would accept that it is declining (as all empires do) and seek a managed transition from the international stage, allowing a successor (which is unclear, if not absent, at the moment) to take the reins.

Kilcullen’s strategic choice is the third, the Byzantine strategy. Here, copying the behavior of the Byzantine empire, Kilcullen advocates that Washington should be “playing for time, influencing the environment to shape our adversaries’ next cycle of evolution in directions favorable to us, and adopting military methods that optimize long-term adorability and sustainability rather than short-term battlefield dominance.” The challenge is that the Byzantines, as Kilcullen notes, had 150 years to prepare for their ultimate decline. It should equally be said that expecting the Byzantines, the United States, or any complex, bureaucratic polity to change its behavior is exceedingly difficult. There is a reason we use the word “Byzantine” as a precise adjective for such bureaucracies. Moving the ship of state is nigh impossible in the absence of an existential threat or challenge and it is abundantly clear that not everyone in Washington agrees one is present at the moment.

Throughout the book, Kilcullen plays a bit fast and loose with the differences between the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of conflict. Small units may be adaptable at a tactical level, but nation-states are less so on the strategic stage. Here there is a risk in believing that a tactical innovation presages a strategic development or change in the nature of war. Equally, weapons systems and other technological innovations are tools applied towards those political ends and do not necessarily change the nature of war itself. War itself does not change—it is the application of force to achieve a political end. How one defines force and the political ends may change, but that core remains immutable.

One of the results of Kilcullen’s analysis is highlighting two intertwined weaknesses of the United States: a fundamental inability to conceptualize or execute grand strategy, and the belief that every problem requires a military solution.

In the case of the former, the Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union and its own existential end goals of global communism were motivating and focusing enough to shape and define America’s approach to the world. Of course, there were weaknesses and shortcomings in the strategy, but it provided a marshaling narrative. All elements of national power were directed toward that conflict.

Today, Washington finds itself without such a clearly defined adversary or with an organizing principal equal to the confrontation with communism. China arguably fills that role, but with the intertwining of both countries’ economic systems, it is decidedly less clear. Russia for its part wants to regain that world leader position, but is a sickly shadow of its former self. Al-Qa’ida, the Islamic State, and its associated movements were never existential threats and never mobilized the country to respond in kind.

At the same time, the role of the U.S. military and its responsibilities expanded to where nearly every mission or challenge resulted in a Defense Department-organized, planned, or led response. Here too is a failure of grand strategy and policy implementation. If every problem is viewed as a nail, then the hammer it is. This is an insufficient approach and one that can’t be laid solely at the feet of the Department of Defense. As long as policymakers in Washington continue to fixate on two- and four-year election cycles, unwilling to invest in physically and intellectually in the long-term, they will continue to foist responsibilities onto the shoulders of the armed services.  

No less than General Jim Mattis, then-commander of U.S. CENTCOM and later Secretary of Defense said it best, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.” America’s arsenal of power is much more than the servicemen and women in uniform. China clearly understands all of the tools available to Beijing to implement its policy and influence the world. The United States seems to have forgotten this, ceding international bodies to Chinese leadership, allowing Beijing unfettered influence, commerce, and communications in Africa and Latin and South America, funding development projects that benefit Chinese interests.

Kilcullen’s book is a welcome addition to the discussion about America’s role in the world and national strength, especially as Washington policymakers struggle to cope with the return of Great Power Competition. How Washington and the West respond will shape the next generation and getting it right is now more important than ever.

Joshua Huminski
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.