Predicting future trends in warfare


At the end of last month The Economist published a special report on ‘The Future of War’ by Matthew Symonds. Symonds’ report is well-researched and addresses a wide array of contemporary issues and conceptual challenges, ranging from the renewed relevance of Article 5 for NATO to the likely implications of introducing AI to warfare. It avoids some of the obvious pitfalls of journalistic writing about military affairs, notably some of ridiculously overblown accounts of Russia’s Zapad-17 field exercises that Michael Kofman has demolished. Yet there are some caveats to its contents that are worth noting in this blog post.

Western thinking about future war (which is covered in a recent book by Lawrence Freedman) tends to oscillate between two extremes. The first is the Panglossian view that technological change offers the potential for quick, decisive and (comparatively) clean victories over larger but more technologically-backward adversaries, as reflected in the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ debates that followed the 1991 Gulf War. The second reflects the fear that adversaries can prove to be more adept than a hegemonic liberal Western state at exploiting technological and conceptual changes in warfare, thereby inflicting a crushing blow at the onset of a major interstate war. We can see these ideas reflected in the ‘invasion literature’ of Victorian Britain (notably George Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking) as well as P. W Singer and August Cole’s Ghost Fleet, published two years ago.

There are in this respect the twin risks of complacency and despair; alternating between the arrogance of assuming that one has an inherent advantage in war-fighting, and a sneaking fear that an adversary has figured out a way of inflicting a decisive and utterly disastrous in the next big war. In this respect, it is worth bearing in mind three issues relating to military futurology. The first is whether the conceptual or technological trends observed are actually new. The second concerns clarifying terminology, and the third is a reminder that technological change is only one part of the story; the training, doctrines and ethos of the military forces that exploit them need to be considered as well.

Precedents with the past:

Symonds comments on the use of information operations as a tool of national strategy, comparing the recent efforts of Russian ‘troll armies’ (notably with the 2016 US Presidential election) with the ‘active measures’ the KGB undertook during the Cold War. Russia’s attempts at information operations deserve our attention, but as Mark Galeotti points out these cannot be looked at in isolation. As was the case with Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign, there are existing cleavages in Western society that Russian info ops seek to exploit, but they cannot be created by armies of bots on Twitter. It is in many cases up to us to look at the domestic problems that get accentuated by the likes of Sputnik and Russia Today, and to resolve them.

A second issue concerns the debates about ‘grey zone’ warfare, involving the incremental use of military and non-military means as an alternative to overt aggression, designed to create ‘facts on the ground’ which present the USA and its allies between the unpleasant alternatives of acquiescence or escalation. The most commonly cited examples here include China in the South China Sea, Russia with Ukraine, and Iran with its own use of proxy warfare in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

A point worth noting here is that war in the ‘grey zone’ is not new. It can be linked with the USSR’s role in Northern Iran in the Azerbaijian crisis of 1946, or Indonesia’s ‘Confrontation’ with Malaysia over Borneo in the 1960s. The two examples noted above suggest that ‘grey zone’ approaches to disguise territorial acquisition and aggression are neither (a) unprecedented nor (b) unbeatable. It is also worth remembering that apparent examples of incremental expansionism may actually be a product of expediency or desperation. Moscow’s slow-motion intervention in the Afghan civil war in 1978-1979 was treated at the time in the West as one step in a campaign for regional hegemony, with the Persian Gulf being the ultimate prize for the Soviets. The reality was that the USSR’s engagement in Afghanistan in December 1979 represented a desperate expedient to save a client regime from overthrow, and similar calculations could possibly explain Russia and Iran’s response to the Syrian civil war, and Moscow and Tehran’s efforts to save Bashar al-Assad from being overthrown.

The Economist report refers to Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) as envisaged in Russian and Chinese thinking, involving the use of asymmetric means (e.g. a carrier-killing ballistic missile for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army) to counter the US Navy’s supremacy in maritime operations. For a military historian, A2AD bears a striking resemblance to the Jeune Ecole school of French naval thinking in the late 19th century, in which France’s maritime warriors conceived of the use of light flotilla forces (notably torpedo boats) to counter the Royal Navy’s dependence on capital ships. But in much the same way that the French Navy refused to abandon battleships and cruisers, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is arguably caught between the challenges of developing both a ‘brown’ and a ‘blue water’ fleet in competition not only with the USA, but other regional rivals (such as Japan and India).

‘You keep using that word …’:

To steal a quote from ‘The Princess Bride’, we should firstly ask whether the terminology we are confronted with actually means what we think it means. To take one example, much has been made of the Russian concept to ‘escalate to de-escalate’, which apparently involves using tactical nuclear weapons in a confrontation with NATO to force the Atlantic Alliance to back down during (say) an invasion of the Baltic States. Symonds presents this concept as if it is an established part of Russian military doctrine, whereas in fact its existence is in dispute.

The second concerns ‘hybrid war’, a concept which has become so all-embracing that the ‘hybrid’ part can just be dispensed with. Aside from the fact that the essential concept of ‘hybrid war’ – that it involves an admixture of ‘conventional’ military operations, guerrilla/proxy warfare, covert action and information operations – is so broad that it could encompass (say) Allied warfare against the Axis powers in WWII, it is worth noting that when Frank Hoffman coined the term, it was in the context of Hezbollah’s fight against Israeli in the summer of 2006; which involved a non-state actor fighting a state-based one. The concept has now been linked to Russian ‘guerrilla geopolitics’, namely the effort by a major power (albeit a declining one) to use against weaker neighbours. And as noted previously, the techniques employed are not exactly new.

With reference to Ukraine and the seizure of Crimea in February-March 2014, the Economist report also refers to ‘unattributable’ operations. But was Crimea really ‘unattributable’, and if so from whose perspective? The intervention of the ‘little green men’ in seizing the Crimean peninsula in the spring of 2014 may have been deniable from a Kremlin perspective, but the USA, the West and the international community did not buy the Russian propaganda claim that an indigenous ‘self-defence’ force had suddenly emerged in Simferopol and Sevastopol as a response to a so-called ‘Nazi’ putsch in Kiev – not least because the insignia-less militiamen who were being filmed were (a) well-equipped and (b) well-trained by the standards of some self-declared local defence force. No government doubted that the Russians had annexed the Crimea. The question for NATO powers in particularly was how to respond, and in Ukraine’s case the state concerned was not an Alliance member and Article 5 did not apply. In this respect, as was the case with Czechoslovakia in 1968, NATO’s response was to re-emphasise collective defence, rather than to intervene against a fait accompli.

‘Skills and drills’:

The problems of terminology are connected to a third conceptual problem on the challenges posed above. Symonds observes that the annexation of Crimea incurred a response in the form of Western sanctions. It is also arguable that the ‘little green men’ approach applied in the peninsula worked when (a) the Russians had the Black Sea Fleet in place as a precursor to annexation (including a brigade of Naval Infantry), (b) the local population was broadly pro-Russian, and (c) political confusion in Kiev after the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych’s kleptocratic regime meant that the Ukrainians were in no position to respond to ‘grey zone’ aggression. If one looks at the situation in the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk ‘People’s Republics’ that followed, Russian ‘grey zone’ warfare has clearly punished the Ukrainians. But it has also drawn Russia into protracted conflicts on its Western frontier, convinced NATO to plan and prepare to face Article 5 threats, and also encouraged Ukrainians to see their big Slavic brother as an enemy. These hardly count as wins.

To take China and its position with Taiwan and the South China Sea, A2AD and the effort made to build up the PLAN deserve our attention, Lyle Goldstein is right to warn that ‘a stable and predictable military balance can be suddenly overthrown by innovative doctrines or cunning strategies’, but the limitations on their operational experience are also noteworthy. The PLAN now has two carriers in service, but the USN has over 70 years of expertise in maritime air operations to call on, as opposed to its Chinese counterpart’s meagre record. And as far as the practice of asymmetric naval conflict is concerned, it is worth remembering that the last time a state tried to wage a war of this kind against the US Navy – using mine warfare and ‘swarming’ tactics to try and close off a crucial bottleneck (the Straits of Hormuz) to maritime traffic – was Iran in the late 1980s. In this case, Tehran’s efforts at exploiting the ‘grey zone’ in the Persian Gulf ended up with half of the Iranian fleet being sunk or severely damaged.

This blog post is not intended to disparage predictions on likely trends in future warfare, but to emphasise the need for historical context and terminological rigour. This will include a careful and dispassionate study of recent conflicts, including not only Ukraine but also multifaceted wars involving intervention and internal strife such as those in Syria and Yemen. Furthermore, Symonds is right to point out that major war should never be seen as ‘unimaginable’ because of the enormity of its likely consequences. As Hugh White notes, ‘those who cannot imagine catastrophe have no capacity to prevent it’, and one of the best means of preserving both the peace and the international power balance is for us to consider how both could be potentially, and violently, disrupted.

Image: Russia’s ‘Little Green Men’ occupy a Ukrainian military base at Perevalne, Crimea, 9th March 2014. Photograph taken by Anton Holoborodko, online at

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