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How will wars be fought in the future?

Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the rise (and apparent fall) of ISIL in Syria and northern Iraq, and Chinese activity in the South China Sea have prompted renewed debate about the character of war and conflict, and whether it is undergoing a fundamental shift. Such assertions about the apparent transformation of conflict are not new; one of the enduring features of conflict over the centuries has been how much it changes.

From the longbows of Agincourt, to the mechanised slaughter of the First World War and the digital warfare of the 21st century, the ingenuity of the human race continues to impact on the character of conflict and how wars are fought. As states gain military advantage, adversaries look for ways to counter it, driving change and innovation. In order to be able to plan and prepare for future war, states must regularly monitor how other states, either allies or adversaries, wield military force.

The increasing complexity of the global security environment in the 21st century makes it difficult for states to plan for future wars. The sheer pace of change, accelerated by changes in technology and communications, as well as the growing interconnectedness of societies, has added to the complexity of the international environment. The ability of actors and individuals to produce their own digital content and communicate it across state boundaries instantly is unprecedented.

The cognitive realm has become a battlespace, where victory is won by the domination of ideas and narratives, rather than physical territory. Although information warfare is not new, the manipulation of interconnected, information-rich environments means that it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between friend and foe, and the traditional binary distinction between war and peace is often unclear. This raises questions about what constitutes the use of force in the 21st century and the continuing effectiveness of traditional armed forces.

As the rate of technological change accelerates and the landscape dominated by technologies that are potentially disruptive, many states envision future conflicts that involve remote and autonomous systems. However, depending on technology will increase vulnerabilities that adversaries will seek to exploit. In recent decades many militaries, particularly in the West, have become increasingly dependent on GPS for navigation, positioning of precision munitions and timing, to the extent that it is now recognised as a single point of failure by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Rather than seeking to compete with multiple technologies, adversaries focus on disabling modern command, communications, and navigation systems, which would have an immediate impact on a state’s military capabilities. An over-reliance on technological solutions could also undermine the ability of actors to adapt and think creatively. Western states run the risk of being out-thought by their opponents, who have been conducting in-depth assessments of the Western way of war for decades.

For states such as Russia and China, the lessons from Western interventions in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1999), Iraq (2003) and Libya (2011) have been instructive, shaping their own perceptions of the changing character of conflict and the implications for their own militaries. In contrast to the focus of Western states on discretionary operations centred on counterinsurgency, stabilisation, and humanitarian intervention, conventional military force has remained a central focus of these states. For example, there is a long tradition of rigorous military strategic debate in Russia, as well as an emphasis on the systematic, scientific study of the theoretical foundations of war and conflict. Forecasting the future character of war is an enduring concern in the writings of serving or retired military officers in open publications intended for an internal Russian audience. Many such writings focus on the characteristics of 21st century conflict and the security threats facing Russia, particularly those that come from the US.

Thus, in attempting to predict the future character of war and conflict, it is vital to understand that our adversaries are going through a similar process of observation and assessment. The lessons learnt by others from your own experience may not be the lessons we consider to be the most important, or are comfortable with, but if we fail to heed them we may find ourselves unable to effectively counter adversaries.

The experiences of individual states foster different visions of future conflict and how states envisage military force being used, either by themselves or potential adversaries. This diversity stresses the fundamental difficulties of predicting the precise nature of the next war or future conflict. While states take different routes in attempting to manage this inherent unpredictability, they all seek to conduct a thorough analysis of conflicts both past and present to understand and predict how countries will fight wars in the future.

Featured Image Credit: “Line of Soldiers Walkin” by Pixabay. CC0 public domain via Pexels.

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