[…] The post-9/11 conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq were fought in the full glare of the media and came to haunt the politicians who had initiated them. Despite this, Britain continued to invest in war – politically, technically and financially – as a means of projecting power and securing influence among key allies, and also, it seemed at times, in an attempt to impose order and a degree of familiarity upon a chaotic and unpredictable world.
But could this be done in secret? Surely, in the age of global media, 24-hour rolling news, social media, and the troops’ own ability to record and instantly share images of conflict, it would be impossible for a British government to go to war and conceal its actions, in the way that Britain’s war in Dhofar was hidden from the public for six-and-a-half years? Tony Jeapes, who commanded the first SAS squadron that was covertly deployed to Oman, considered this question, and concluded that while such secrecy was “an ideal state of affairs”, it would probably be impossible to repeat.
In the years since the Dhofar war, the UK’s special forces have been gradually expanded, and since 1996, all its members have been obliged to sign a confidentiality agreement. This has reinforced the discretion with which members of elite units within the military traditionally perform their duties, and it has rarely been broken.
Meanwhile, the evolution of successive generations of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, has presented military planners with greater opportunities to mount operations that could remain unknown, other than to those who are ordering, planning and executing them, and to those on the receiving end.
The reliance of modern societies on the internet and the increasing frequency with which states probe and attack each other’s cyber defences have led some analysts to talk of a hybrid warfare, much of which is shrouded in deniability. The result is that the line between war and peace is increasingly blurred.