Future War: Thinking the Thinkable


Thinking about future war is important. Very important. History is replete with examples of military organisations that became the unwitting authors of their own demise because they failed to adapt to the changing military environment in which they operated. The French were out-fought and out-thought in 1940 because of a stagnant military doctrine that shunned the revolutionary developments being made in the theory of armoured warfare. Likewise, American forces in Vietnam drowned in a strategic quagmire because its civilian leaders did not grasp the complex nature of the war on which they had embarked. Only a fool would underestimate the stakes at risk in drawing faulty appreciations about the future operating environment. Of course, military organisations have proven to be intellectually and organisationally flexible enough to adapt during the course of a conflict, as the British and German armies demonstrated during the bitter fighting on the Western Front, but this usually comes at a high cost. Rather, it is during peacetime, or periods of contingency planning to use the current British parlance, where armies, navies, and air forces, can hone their intellectual edge and begin to think about how to fight and prevail in the next war.

This is not an easy process, however. Professor Michael Howard famously likened the military profession to the career of a surgeon who spends years practicing on dummies only to treat a live patient at the end of her career. The point is that, in the crucible of war, military forces, like the proverbial surgeon, have just one chance to apply their knowledge and expertise to a real-life situation about which they might only have considered in the abstract. Of course, it is impossible to predict precisely what a future war might look like and the types of forces that will be required to fight it. Yet, I believe that with adequate foresight, imagination, and through a thorough study of the military arts, it is possible for military organisations to forecast the most likely character of a future war. What this requires of individual services is intellectual progressivism in peacetime, a healthy attitude to learning and unorthodox ideas, and a professional culture that nurtures critical thinkers.

The experiences of the British fighting services during the Cold War should shine a positive light on their ability to adopt these ideals. Throughout those uncertain decades, officers had the unenviable task of having to conceptualise a future war involving the ubiquitous use of nuclear firepower, both ‘tactical’ and ‘strategic’. In a recent article, I described NATO war-plans during this period as being Strangelovian in conception, because of the macabrely surreal mission that was forced upon the services by their political masters. In response to this apocalyptic scenario the services developed radical new ideas as to how they could survive and fight on the nuclear battlefield, and the intellectual health of the respective officer corps was astonishing: the Royal Navy developed the short-lived concept of fighting a ‘broken-backed’ war at sea; the Royal Air Force honed the conceptual element of Massive Retaliation; while the Army produced a significant body of critical writings on the perceived challenges of nuclear land combat. The great facilitator of this free-flow of ideas was a willingness to think outside of the box and of the support by the senior leadership of military mavericks who could articulate new theories of victory and, importantly, attract enough followers to force radical change to traditionally accepted concepts. All of this, however, was reliant on an engagement with professional military education.

‘Education, education, education’ was the strap-line for Tony Blair’s New Labour experiment, and so it should be the clarion call for defence in a rapidly changing world. In this context, formal military education is indispensable. Staff rides, war-gaming, seminars, and intellectual debate are all methods through which wits rub against the wits of others, and it is this intellectual sparring which is the midwife of innovation. Service periodicals also play an important role in providing a platform for officers to share ideas and to disseminate new theories about the changing character of conflict and the future operating environment. In this context, Britain’s armed forces are well-placed since they are the most operationally hardened they have been for decades, and the Army Knowledge Exchange is a step in the right direction in encouraging this experience to be exploited for learning purposes. If handled appropriately, this operational experience can be harnessed to better develop the conceptual element of its fighting power, the element on which so much about preparing for the next war is reliant.

Experience is important, then. Indeed, Britain has such a long, varied, and illustrious military history that it is sometimes daunting trying to locate which lessons are relevant and which are not. This is where the value of historical research and analysis reveals itself. As humans, we are all conditioned to seek the familiar when confronted with uncertainty. This is natural and expected. The challenge is in sifting through those strategic, operational, or tactical lessons from the past and selecting those for examination which might act as a suitable intellectual reference point for thinking about the future, while being careful not to discard timeless military principles. This is easier said than done. As an historian, I am somewhat biased as to the practical utility of military history, but it is worth pointing out that US forces in the First Gulf War had historians in the Tactical Air Command Centre 24 hours a day, whose advice fed directly in to the decision making process. This is an extreme case of historical support, but military organisations should continue, where appropriate, to employ the services of professional historians.

Envisioning the character of a future war is difficult, but not impossible. An open mind and a willingness to consider new ideas will go a long way to solving some of the challenges of organisational innovation. As Western military organisations begin the long and laborious process of reflecting on the recent military experience in the Middle East, they would do well to remember the old adage that the pen is mightier than the sword. We better get writing.

Image: NATO flag. Adopted three years after the creation of the organization, it has been the flag of NATO since October 14, 1953. The blue colour symbolizes the Atlantic Ocean, while the circle stands for unity. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

2 thoughts on “Future War: Thinking the Thinkable

  1. I do wonder if there was such a ‘golden age’ during the ‘Cold War’, but my memory now fails me for that period. Yes there were mavericks and a few senior leaders who appeared to encourage ‘out of the box’ thinking, but writing I am less sure of. Long ago I attended an event @ RUSI and asked a question, which led to an exchange with two mid-rank Army officers who explained they could not ask such a question in public, even if not in uniform. General Harry Tuzo came over at lunchtime to congratulate me and was puzzled to learn I was a civilian.

    Enough of history from that period. If military writing is to excel why oh why is British Army Review not published online and available beyond? The examples of Frank Ledwidge and Mike Martin are hardly encouraging to thinking and writing.

    I have yet to see any real reflections on recent operational experiences, all too often the Army gets defensive about Afghanistan, let alone Iraq (Basra) which is a “no go” area.

    Perhaps I am missing things, so can readers point at any publicly published evidence for these reflections written by military officers? I do not include official statements by the senior leadership.


  2. Reblogged this on JDB Communications, LLC and commented:
    Um, no. The examples in the leading paragraph are the staid ones that have been disproved over and again. The only conflicts that are concluded “as planned” are those that are very short, such as Gulf I. Ultimately, the key to success in future conflicts isn’t envisioning how they will be fought, but envisioning how they must be responded to flexibly, not specifically. As soon as you get to “know” what the future holds, you stop being ready for what comes.


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