Challenger 2: Transparency and Military Aid in the Digital Age

On Monday, the British Ministry of Defence tweeted that the United Kingdom (UK) had decided to send a squadron of Challenger 2 Tanks to Ukraine thus accelerating “Ukrainian successes”. This new ‘arms package’ comes in the wake of heated debates on social media. In recent days, Twitter has been abuzz with rumors that European nations were about to expand their military assistance to Ukraine and include more lethal weapons, including tanks. The discussions of Twitter followed the familiar pattern of rumors, breaking news reports, denials, and facts. For instance, Germany, Poland and France were all rumored to have sent tanks to Ukraine, leading to a heated debate on why Ukraine needs tanks, the role that tanks play in modern warfare and even what constitutes a tank as opposed to an armored vehicle. The UK was the first government to actually confirm that it was sending tanks, not armored vehicles, to Ukraine. The UK Ministry of Defence even published a series of tweets demonstrating the offensive capabilities of the Challenger 2 Tank, the country’s most advanced tank.

Notably, the UK’s announcement was soon followed by a tweet from the Ukrainian foreign minister confirming that British tanks would be delivered to Ukraine. The minister then urged other nations to follow suite and to arm Ukraine with a range of offensive weapons that would allow it to gain a decisive victory over Russia. The rhetoric of Ukrainian officials has changed in recent weeks as the country no longer asks for defensive weapons, such as air defense systems that would enable Ukraine to contend with the barrage of Russian missiles fired daily. Rather, Ukraine is asking for offensive weapons, the kind that would allow it to drive the Russian army out of Ukraine.

But Ukrainian officials are not the only ones tweeting about the importance of tanks, fighter jets and helicopters. The OSINT community on Twitter, or Open Source Intelligence, has reached a consensus according to which Russia has resolved itself to waging a war of attrition in Ukraine, a prolonged military assault that may last for months or years while slowly eroding Ukraine’s ability to function as a state and breaking the fighting spirit of Ukrainians. A possible war of attrition demands, assert OSINT users, that Ukraine alter its military doctrine. The goal should not be to keep the Russians at bay, or halt the Russian advances in the East, but to defeat the Russian army and to inflict even greater costs in life. To do so, Ukraine would require new types of weapons, chief amongst these are tanks that can help break the enemy’s line, advance rapidly into enemy territory and clear the way for infantry.

The recent exchanges between OSNIT users, some of them experts and others self-appointed experts, alongside official tweets demonstrate the extent to which diplomacy has altered in the digital age. Traditionally, the topic of military aid was regarded as a state secret. The possible provision of weapons to a foreign country was discussed in secret dispatches exchanged between capitals. Indeed, the US did not publish its decision to arm the Mujahidin in Afghanistan during the 1980s nor did it publicize its decision to replenish Israel’s stockpile during the 1973 War. Similarly, the British government did not broadcast its appeals to the US for military aid during the early stages of WW2. Weapons, training and other forms of aid were usually labelled “eyes only” and would only be reported on once a war had ended.

Not so in the age of social media, as countries appeal for weapons or promise to supply weapons in plain sight. And yet, as the Challenger 2 case study illustrates, different countries have different reasons for openly discussing the issue of military aid. Ukraine for one has consistently used social media to exert public pressure on policy makers. At the very beginning of the War, Ukraine published open letters to Tech CEOs asking them to exit the Russian market following Russia’s brutal war of oppression. These letters, shared hundreds of thousands of times on social media, and reported on by traditional media sources, placed enormous public pressure on Tech CEOs most of whom agreed to suspend their activities in Russia.

Ukraine seems to be using a similar tactic when it comes to weapons. Ukrainian officials flood social media with images documenting the unbelievable scale of destruction inflicted by Russia. These images are accompanied by please for advanced weapons to help fight Russia. Other times, official Ukrainian accounts publish videos depicting the fetes of Ukraine’s armed forces promising that with adequate arms Ukraine could defeat Russia once and for all saving both Ukraine and the world. Finally, there are those accounts ran by Ukrainian diplomats that urge the international community to help prevent war crimes and genocide by arming Ukraine to the teeth. These tweets are then legitimized by OSINT experts, academics, opinion makers and even former military officers. Some tweets are also endorsed by Ukrainian digital Ambassadors such as ‘Star Wars’ Hark Hamill or historian Timothy Snyder. Next, the tweets are shared by hundreds of thousands of Twitter users. Some amplify the cry for help, others support the promise of defeating Russia while still others fear the growing loss of life. The cumulative effect of all these Shares, Likes and Re-Tweets should not be understated. Together, they exert real pressure on leaders in other countries who face an online demos that is asserting itself in dynamic ways.

Ukraine hopes that world governments, like Tech CEOs, may be swayed by the digital public.

However, the UK’s decision to tweet its military aid to Ukraine may stem from an entirely different motive- a desire to demonstrate that the UK has decided to exit the EU but not the world at large. In search of a post-Brexit national image, the UK has positioned itself as Ukraine’s closest ally. As soon as the War began, the UK led the charge on Russian sanctions, rallied NATO to support Ukraine through the provision of arms (not words) and offered training to Ukrainian soldiers. For the UK, the War in Ukraine is more then a geo-political struggle against Russia or an attempt to save “Western” prestige. It is a chance for the UK to re-define itself as a globally oriented power, committed to safeguarding democracy and working with various collations to ensure security and stability.

The UK has faced a monumental challenge ever since its decision to leave the EU and the unraveling of its political system where Prime Ministers serve for 3 weeks. The Challenger 2 tank may help the UK rise to the challenge as it may once again be viewed as an influential, confident and steadfast international partner.

Yet while the UK and Ukraine may have different motives for tweeting about military aid, the result is the same- the continued lifting of the veil of secrecy that once shrouded the practice of diplomacy.         

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