The Problem of Distance in the Information Age: Challenges for Militaries and Politicians

We live in an era of instant connection and instant communication. For instance, when news of a military incident breaks, within seconds it can be rebroadcast around the world. Within minutes commentators demand that something must be done. Yet the speed at which the news breaks means that in an era where information flow has made it is easy for a military’s higher headquarters to be kept abreast of every tactical incident, we forget that the flow of information vastly outpaces than the speed of military deployment.

The public knows of incidents as they happen, and the media demands action. Yet planning, deployment, and moving forces takes time and a measure of patience that modern society seems to lack. For example, in early September 2017, Hurricane Irma’s immense devastation to the West Indies dominated the headline news in the UK. Despite the first UK military aid arriving within 24 hours of the hurricane striking the islands, backed up by a major relief operation deploying hundreds of troops, helicopters, aircraft, and aid into the region (some 4000 miles from the UK) within 72 hours, the UK government attracted heavy criticism for a lacklustre and pathetic response, more often than not seen as being too slow by media and political commentators.

The speed of information flow further exacerbates the challenges the military faces in being able to respond inside media, public, and political expectations of an acceptable response time. Western society is growing increasingly accustomed the concept of near instant gratification, be it deliveries of online shopping or politicians providing a policy win for the media to dominate the news agenda. It is debatable whether there is the patience of public opinion, media outlets and politicians to wait and see when told that it will be two weeks before anything can be done to resolve a crisis.

In recent years, there has been a growth in literature on the role of physical geography, geopolitics in the role of naval operations—for instance Robert Kaplan’s Revenge Of Geography, Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography and James Holmes’ “Tyranny of Distance” article in Foreign Policy are but a few of the titles published on these issues. Yet, to date this work has focused more on the challenges of geography, and not the challenges of distance when set against public and media expectations of instantaneous results.

Scenario 1: Piracy Near the Horn of Africa

In the Middle East, the area of operations for the thirty-one-nation Combined Maritime Forces is over 3.2 million square miles in size (significantly larger than Western Europe), stretching from the Suez Canal to the southern Indian Ocean. It is a vast area, far bigger than a standard two-dimensional map suggests, as the Mercator projection significantly under-represents the size of the region.

EU extends counter-piracy mission off the Horn of Africa. (EUNAVFOR)

Consider this fictitious scenario: a merchant ship sailing off the horn of Africa reports being boarded by locals before communications are lost, the crew likely taken hostage. Reports of suspected piracy quickly reach the media, and within hours global media outlets are reporting the incident. Although air assets are quick to reach the area and track the vessel, the nearest warship capable of intervening is over 1000 miles away. Even proceeding at best speed, it will be 2-3 days before friendly warships reach the merchant vessel, by which time the hostages may be long gone, either killed or taken prisoner ashore.

Though military commanders and politicians are aware of a hostile incident often within minutes of it occurring, rapid response is thwarted due to the simple challenge of physical distance, which remains seemingly impossible to overcome. In a world where many military powers possess the ability to operate in an expeditionary manner, thousands of miles from their homelands, the great equalizer of capability is distance.

Scenario 2: USS Carl Vinson Near the Korean Peninsula

The April 2017 announcement that a U.S. Navy carrier battle group was deploying to near Korea is a good example of how the media can set a false expectation. The U.S. Navy announced that the USS Carl Vinson was deploying near the Korean peninsula as a clear sign of a potent capability and a means of influencing North Korea’s actions during a time of heightened tensions. The media interpreted this to mean that the battlegroup was sailing towards Korea to be ready to take action—for instance the BBC article "U.S. warships deployed to North Korean peninsula."

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) transits the Pacific Ocean in 2015. (U.S. Navy Photo/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Eric Coffer)

In reality the battle group was nowhere near Korea, and in fact was near Indonesia and many days’ sail from the area. When the U.S. Navy revealed this fact , the media pushed back, feeling that they had somehow been misled over the ship’s mission and location—for instance articles were published with headlines like this one from the Wall Street Journal: "Duped by Trump, U.S. taunted over Carl Vinson tale." The outcome challenged the relationship between DOD and domestic U.S. media with many outlets such as CNBC ,CNN, Newsweek and the New York Times running highly critical stories that questioned the veracity of the statements made and the timeline of events. It also had a negative impact on U.S. relations with Korea, where media outlets like CNN recorded how local politicians and the public felt the situation called into question the ability of the U.S. to be a credible partner for Korea.

Arguably, the clash of the expectation of an instant presence versus the reality of deployment shows the difficulty politicians face in controlling the narrative during a crisis. It is seemingly no longer possible to announce that you will send a gunboat, because the media and public expect that gunboat to instantaneously arrive in the hostile area. Yet, gunboat diplomacy is, arguably, about the art of messaging and sending signals to another nation in an effort to influence its behavior and defuse tensions before a force arrives. But in the era of instant communication, is it possible to use gunboat diplomacy as a de-escalatory measure or tool of coercion to make another nation think on its actions, especially when the media and the public expect immediate results? Would any future U.S. President be willing to risk publicly announcing they were sending a carrier group to a crisis in an effort to defuse it, knowing that the media will lambaste them if the ship is not there?

What does this mean?

The conflict between the nearly instantaneous ability to report and comment on a crisis, and the much longer lead time required to position military assets to respond to a crisis, is increasingly likely to beleaguer major world powers. An impatient electorate, quickly bored with a crisis that may only be a week old, could well lose support for their government’s perceived delayed reaction.

By contrast, regional powers with localized aspirations are in a far stronger position to achieve instantaneous effects. They may not have a substantial military capability, but their logistics and permissions chain is smaller, and their agility to respond is far greater. For instance, a small coastal state may not have considerable military power or global reach, but it does not have to wait weeks for its military assets to move into position, nor does it have the same struggle to maintain the element of surprise. Their electorates will see quick responses, decisive action, and they are more likely to have the perception of success.

In a similar vein, agile, non-state actors not constrained by the same restrictions as a state, will find it increasingly easy to achieve effect without encountering a coherent response. Small pirate groups off the coast of Africa can easily board a ship, commandeer its cargo, and release it empty within hours, while the nearest credible military assets may be days away, and may well not have the appropriate legal permissions, or other mandates required to permit them to take swift, decisive action. The challenge of distance means that criminal activity can occur in a vacuum without risk of reprisal or credible retaliation.

The HSV-2 Swift damaged by missile attack off Yemen Oct. 1, 2016. (Emirates News Agency).

The final challenge is that of the proliferation of technology that allows small states, or non-state actors such as militia, to exert a greater influence over larger space than before. The proliferation of Coastal Defense Cruise Missiles, mines, explosive suicide boats, and other area denial weapons allows even a small nation to potentially close and influence the actions of far larger powers. For example, Sweden has recently reintroduced coastal defense batteries in an effort to provide regional denial of its waters to potential hostile maritime powers.

Is the problem of distance solvable?

In the 19th century, the Royal Navy based squadrons of ships around the globe to guard strategic coaling stations and ensure the free flow of maritime trade, acting as a sufficiently credible force to serve as a tripwire. In the British Imperial era, while there were fewer independent nations or middling powers that could disrupt the flow of trade, the very presence of these squadrons served as a statement of intent, and a means to deter aggression. Their presence alone served as a reminder of the more potent fleets held in home waters that could be deployed if required.

The East India Company iron steam ship Nemesis, commanded by Lieutenant W. H. Hall, with boats from the Sulphur, Calliope, Larne and Starling, destroying the Chinese war junks in Anson's Bay, on 7 January 1841. (Edward Duncan/Wikimedia)

Even today, the legacy of the Imperial era is visible in both the British and French military force postures. The UK retains substantial legacy support facilities in locations such as the Falklands, Gibraltar, Cyprus, and Singapore, whilst the French maintain a network of defense facilities in their current and former overseas territories. Arguably, the world is on the cusp of a return to the UK’s Colonial era of substantial forward basing in distant locations to monitor strategic choke points. Since the early 1990s, there has been a growth in permanent presence by many major powers in the Middle East. For instance, since 2010 the UK reversed its 1960s policy decision to not sustain forces permanently based in the region, instead reopening a major naval support facility in Bahrain, backing this up with air assets deployed across the region. Similarly the U.S., Australia, and France all seem to be sustaining or increasing their presence within the Middle East and Indian Ocean.

Countering the problem of distance provides an opportunity for local nations to boost their economies and buy some insurance for their wider security concerns. The increased demand for forward basing from some nations presents economic opportunity for others. For instance Oman is keen to see increased use of ports like Duqm by foreign military powers. Djibouti is a nation which has perhaps benefited the most economically from the challenge of distance. A tiny former French colony sitting atop the Bab Al-Mandeb straits, since 9/11 the nation has generated substantial sums of revenue by renting out land to host military bases for any nation wishing to pay the price. At present the U.S., France, China, and other nations co-exist alongside each other, all of whom rely on access to Djiboutian facilities to provide airstrips, maintenance and berthing facilities and access to all the requirements a modern military needs to operate a long way from home.

Ships carrying Chinese military personnel depart from Zhanjiang in southern China bound for Djibouti. (Xinhua)

One unanticipated side effect of the challenge of distance is that as the demand grows by Western powers for access to other nations’ basing facilities, so too does the ability of these nations to exert a disproportionate influence over them. Having access to basing facilities alone does not guarantee that a foreign nation will be able to use their military forces from it as they wish. It is often forgotten that the host nation may have set in place stipulations about the circumstances and conditions when forces can be used. Basing overseas is a two-way discussion between both the host and the guest, each of whom has a valid set of interests to consider. Nations need to invest time and effort in negotiating and influencing host nations to keep them on side, as a precaution that these forward facilities and airspace can be used when required.

For the West, to tackle the problem of distance will require a blended solution of credible forward military presence where required, coupled with appropriate permissions and access from host nations. Policy makers will be faced with the challenge of creating a credible policy that balances their strategic goals across a broad spectrum of policy areas, whilst maintaining an effective relationship with the host nation. Each nation that desires a global footprint needs an effective communications strategy to explain to the public, press, and politicians . Finally, it means, in some cases,that great powers may have to sacrifice surprise as a strategic concept and recognizing that their ability to retaliate at a time and place of their choosing is limited.

A key goal for future defense planners in the West will have to be to build an understanding by politicians of the very real constraints and limitations of geography and time on military capability. The political and media cycle will try to accelerate planning and execution of an operation and it is unlikely that any future task force commander will have time on his side to plan and conduct an operation. Similarly, ensuring politicians understand that presence does not always equate to permission is equally vital. Part of the challenge future planners will have is in offering options to politicians that are policy compliant, use foreign facilities in a manner conducive to the permissions given to them by their hosts, and can achieve a desired effect in the required timescale, while withstanding pressure from media outlets to do something sooner than is likely to be possible.

Future operations at distance will be done against a backdrop of compressed timelines for reporting the problem, lengthened timelines to respond to the problem and a complex balance of permissions, and policy problems to consider when planning a response. It is clear that the challenge of distance is going to be a major factor in planning of all future military operations conducted away from the homeland.


James Waller worked for the UK Ministry of Defence across a range of policy and operational posts linked to current military operations and wider strategic issues, both in London and operationally deployed in conflicts and military operations. The views expressed are the author's alone and do not represent to official position of any organization.


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