The Past is the Future with the Lights On: “What should we be thinking about for the war after next?”


It’s pretty obvious that Americans are uncomfortable about the U.S. getting into wars. They think Vietnam.  They think Afghanistan; that one was supposed to be “the good war.”  They think Iraq.  No more “war[s] on terror” please. But Americans have always been uncomfortable about getting into wars.  Yet, last May, Pentagon officials testified to Congress that keeping the AUMF in place is important to facilitate the ongoing “war on terrorism,” which will last “at least ten to twenty [more] years.”  Shortly thereafter, President Obama said in a speech at the NDU that it’s time for the United States to get off the trajectory of perpetual-war.  What gives? One thing you learn when studying History is that although the discipline itself deals with how things change over time, you come across many things that really don’t change all that much.  And while it’s true that we haven’t had a “great power” war in a long time, 1) we’ve had some pretty close calls, 2) we shouldn’t completely rule it out, and 3) even when we adopted this mentality by gutting our forces after the Cold War, we exposed ourselves to the other side of the conflict pendulum: the non-state actor.  We got caught flat-footed and here we are today.  With this in mind, here are some things to think about when thinking about what “future wars” will look like:

Many future wars will be fought off the backs of pickup trucks, dubbed “technicals.” Unlike tanks and heavy armor which are owned by the government, every rebel commander knows that all you’ve got to do is grab a Toyota pickup, strap on some military hardware, pile the back up with volunteers and speed off to the front line. Cheap, mobile, replaceable. What’s not to like?

I.  One thing that won’t change is struggles with insurgents and guerrillas; and neither will struggles with terrorist groups like al Qaeda.  After all, we may learn about the big “important” wars in History, with pitched battles and uniformed and organized armies, where one side wins and the other side loses, but a closer look of most of humanity’s violent conflicts have been smaller, prolonged, guerilla-like campaigns (Max Boot’s new book goes into great detail about this).  There is a spectrum of course; we can’t completely rule out the high intensity conflicts between nation-states, but a majority of conflicts will happen under the latter.   As for the AUMF, still in place and unchanged for over a decade, it will probably stick around for some time.  Those 60 words are too politically expedient to scrap altogether, but it will probably be reworked in the future, as it gives the Executive Branch extraordinary powers to handle the reality of the future of war: that wars have and will continue to take a really long time.  All guerrilla campaigns do. And so will counter-terrorism, which has been used synonymously with “war.”  A popular saying among Afghans when we invaded was, “You have all the watches, but we have all the time.” It’s pretty amazing how during the worst months of Vietnam, 2,000 soldiers died every month, but in this century running two wars at the same time in Iraq and Afghanistan, it took years to reach that level.  Fewer casualties can also mean a higher tolerance for pain, and therefore a higher tolerance for prolonged conflict, since it takes longer for the casualties to amass. It will also become increasingly uncertain as to what actually defines victory.  The war may be over for us, but will it necessarily always be over for the other guy?

Most of the world’s largest major cities and population centers are by the water. The United States Navy conveniently has a naval presence in every major body of water in the world. Littoral operations deploying from Carrier Battle Groups and allied ports are something that’s been done in the past and will continue to be done in the future, so long as there are oceans with people on the coasts.  The Marine Corps will be happy to be operating closer to their littoral roots, especially after fighting in landlocked deserts for over a decade.

II.   A second thing that won’t really change is geography. Geography should be a mainstay when thinking about the future of war, as it will determine where they will take place; and in the future, those places will overwhelmingly be in coastal cities and their immediate surroundings.  If current estimates that say 80% of the world’s population lives roughly within 60 miles of the coast are true, war will take on an increasingly littoral character.  And since a majority of the world’s cities, even in the developing world, are on or close to the world’s shorelines, war will take on an increasingly urban character too.  Yes, Kabul and Baghdad were “cities,” but imagine trying to do what we did there in a place like Mumbai, Cairo, Sao Paulo or Karachi. Surprisingly, the “developing world” has the majority of mega cities, with populations over 8,000,000 (that’s not accounting for undeclared residents and the suburbs). David Kilcullen reflects on his experience in Baghdad as a COIN advisor during the Iraq War:

We shut the city down. We brought in more than 100 kilometers of concrete T-wall. We put troops on every street corner. We got alongside people and try to make them feel safe. It was very, you know, sort of human intense and equipment intense. That option will not be open for us in the mega city. You won’t be able to do that in Karachi or just obviously, hypothetical examples, Lagos or Dakar or any of the big cities. There are 20 million people…

Enormous populations, weak governance and unresponsive institutions, growing inequality; all of this and more is a petri dish for trouble that can develop significant momentum and spiral into something else altogether.  This does not include the threat of rising sea levels, drought and famine, all of which are now grabbing the attention of Defense planners.

III.  Wars in the future will be littoral, urban and prolonged.  But many of them will also be “shadow wars.”  The post-9/11 counterterrorism model of intelligence-driven operations by multi-agency task forces around the globe will persist; the two snatch-and-grab operations by JSOC just hours apart in Somalia and Libya demonstrate that this war did not end with the killing of Osama bin Laden.  In fact, on the night of the bin Laden raid, special-operations forces based in Afghanistan alone conducted a dozen other missions with similar objectives.  Clandestine and covert operations go back to the Ancient Greeks, but with the technology we have today it’s going to get even easier to involve ourselves in conflicts, some of which we will claim responsibility for and others not at all.  Indeed, in light of the public’s general distaste for war, Defense brass will have to get more creative in how to wage it.   Our conventional dominance will continue to force adversaries to get more creative in their approaches to how they challenge us and our partners.  After all, why should they play our game?  Any formidable adversary will try to employ means to target our weaknesses and minimize our advantages.  Ramping up Special Operations, drone strikes, proxy-wars, cyber-warfare; all of those structures are here to stay, and they’ll only get more sophisticated and lethal.  Sun Tzu, the strategic sage, never limited war to the conventional battlefield; and if things like cyber-attacks and UAVs were at his disposal, he surely would have found a place for them in his maxims.

In the wars of the future, sometimes our presence will be acknowledged, sometimes it won’t. But in the Information Age, you’ll know it when you see it, even if it’s just a shadow.

IV.  Finally, another thing to keep in mind: war will always be rife with unintended consequences.  Von Moltke the Elder said “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy,” essentially the modern version of that Mike Tyson quote: “Everybody has a plan until you get punched in the mouth.”  You can tell yourself “The war will be over by Christmas” and plan for short, decisive engagements, but not every war is Desert Storm.  Working off of von Moltke, defense planners and decision makers will have to be flexible and adaptable.  The days when the U.S. can pick and choose its wars are coming to an end.  We have annual defense and intelligence assessments, battle plans, the works, but every now and then you’re going to get it wrong.  You have to be able to commit to a strategy, but be able to come up with something completely different if the circumstances require it.  We need to be balanced and flexible enough to deal with groups with increasingly advanced capabilities like other nation-states, while also keeping an eye on the non-state actors.  Doubling down on deterring a potential peer competitor (or an increasingly confrontational former peer competitor) without leaving yourself vulnerable to a lower-end confrontation will be a challenge.  Additionally, elements of future conflicts will be roboticized, and technology is certainly a force-multiplier, but let’s not kid ourselves and remove the human role from war and conflict.  Manpower will continue to play an important role in war and nothing will replace the good old-fashioned “on the ground” intelligence, or HUMINT.  The 9/11 attacks were [in part] an unintended consequence of gutting HUMINT during the Bush Sr. and Clinton years; with the end of the Cold War the conventional thinking at the time was that we couldn’t justify this large military and intelligence apparatus.  On the flipside the attacks were an unintended consequence of too much HUMINT, as we supported bin Laden and the mujahedeen in 1970s Afghanistan.  Clearly, a balance can be struck, but it seems we prefer the pendulum method instead: either too much, or not enough.

Technically speaking, the future of war won’t be “bloodier,” since our laser blasters and lightsabers will cauterize the wounds they make, so you know, actually less blood.  But as the saying goes, “The more things change, the more things stay the same.”  War will continue to be war.  But as we find newer ways to kill each other, the above-mentioned thoughts will hopefully ground us in certain realities that aren’t really new at all, but are less emphasized or forgotten.  But the past is only the future with the lights on; it’s best to look back for some insight we can use in the years ahead.

Double-edged Sword: What implications – if any, would the growth of nuclear power have for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons?

Peter Kouretsos – – – Given the growing concerns about global warming and energy security, many states are interested in either expanding their nuclear power or acquiring it if they do not already possess it.  The International Energy Outlook 2013 projects that world energy consumption will grow by 56% between now and 2040; nuclear power is still expected to play an important role in that energy mix, even with the continued development of existing fossil fuel technology and renewables.  In fact, according to the IAEA there are some 30 states operating nuclear power reactors, and some 40 states have asked for assistance in starting their own, even after the 2011 disaster at Fukushima.  But this so called “Nuclear Renaissance” is a double-edged sword.  Nuclear facilities that can make fuel for peaceful reactors can also produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon.  And with the demand for nuclear power comes the risk of further nuclear weapons proliferation.  The challenge ahead of us then is to maintain the peaceful and transparent growth of civilian nuclear power.  The outcome will depend on which states acquire nuclear power and which mechanisms are put into place that can constrain the weapons-side of nuclear power while not hindering its civilian-side.

These 30 states already operate nuclear power plants and 40 more want help with starting up their own programs.

Scott Sagan from Stanford has correlated the system of a state’s government to its compliance under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  He found that most autocracies that were signatories of the NPT developed nuclear weapons programs after they signed it.  Why they “cheat” depends on factors exclusive to those states, but he found that this is not characteristic of Democracies.  As an international framework that is meant to be as inclusive as possible, the NPT does not discriminate against any system of government.  However, special attention should be paid to non-democracies that acquire nuclear power, as their institutions and decision-making processes are often more opaque, making them more unpredictable.

Countries with pervasive corruption are more likely to have fissile material “mysteriously” disappear. Transparency International comes out with an annual Corruption Perceptions Index, identifying which countries abuse power, engage in secret dealings, you know, corrupt things like that.

An expansion of nuclear power would create more risks for proliferation, as the number of people, installations, infrastructure nodes and transportation requirements increase.  A key thread that can link vulnerabilities in all of these variables is corruption.  Of the 177 countries surveyed in the latest Corruptions Perception Index, less than 1/3 scored above 50 out of a possible 100.  Many of those states operate nuclear power facilities, and some are even nuclear-weapons states.  Of the states that intend on pursuing a nuclear program in the near future, more than half scored in the bottom percentile.  The AQ Khan network in Pakistan is a prime example of how a state’s pervasive corruption can hinder counter proliferation efforts.  We still do not know the full extent to whom he helped nor the extent to which he helped them, but we are still dealing with the global fallout caused by this nuclear scientist.  As we spread nuclear power around the world, we must be wary of states with pervasive corruption, as it increases the likelihood for theft of fissile material and affects the severity with which nuclear security measures are executed.

Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the creator of Pakistan’s first nuclear bomb, was also the largest single proliferator of nuclear weapons technology and know-how. He has been linked to the advances in nuclear technology in North Korea, Libya and Iran. His associates also met with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. He is hailed as a national hero to this day, and upon learning about the bin Laden raid in Abbottabad, the Pakistani government sent the military to Dr. Khan’s compound. They thought we were coming for him too.

An article  from Foreign Affairs some time ago gives a nod to Bernard Baruch, warning in 1946 that the line between “safe” and “dangerous” (proliferative) nuclear activities would change and need constant reexamination.  Perhaps the current global expansion of nuclear energy warrants a redrawing of this line. Indeed, a contentious issue is what the actual definition of “right to enrich” in Article IV of the NPT means.  Iran is the most popular example of navigating this discrepancy, but even South Korea, a U.S. ally, is making a push for domestic enrichment capability.  For many countries, this is seen as an important step in developing their nuclear industries, as well as a mark of national sovereignty.  If it is indeed a sovereign right for all states to acquire nuclear power, we all must ensure that the reactors and fuels used are properly safeguarded and 100% accounted for. Provided that signatories from here on out accept certain limits on enrichment and accept enhanced safeguards, the risk of proliferation can be mitigated.  In order to further curb these risks, the growth of nuclear power makes worldwide adoption of the Additional Protocol to the NPT a necessity.  A first step we could take is to prohibit any new country acquiring nuclear power to begin their program until they adopt the NPT with the Additional Protocol. Certainly more rules and regulations imply a lack of trust, but when it comes to this potentially destructive technology, “trust, but verify” ought to be at the top of our lexicon.

Though there is a correlation between the growth of civilian nuclear power and the risk of further proliferation, this does not make proliferation a certainty.  Civilian nuclear facilities can give states cover to develop nuclear weapons capabilities, but the political and economic motives to pursue such a weapon will likely be the primary instigators. To be sure, factors like deterrence theory, domestic politics and great-power ambitions have played a role in the decision of some states to acquire nuclear weapons; but the majority of states with nuclear power have refrained from this acquisition.  To further influence these decisions, the U.S. and other powers should make it clear to all that the costs of acquiring a weapon will outweigh the benefits, while they themselves continue to demonstrate “good faith” under the NPT by leading a reinvigorated movement towards nuclear disarmament.

Who has what when it comes to nuclear weapons, at a glance.

Most of all, in order to curb the proliferation risks that come with the growth of nuclear energy, one more thing will be required of individual states, that each with their own individual interests, deplore: cooperation.  This is especially true when countering nuclear terrorism, something that cannot always be dealt with by IAEA inspectors or conventional theories of deterrence.  The one thing we can control is access to fissile material; and all states that possess any facility containing it should have to accept more intrusive control measures and inspection procedures than they do today.  T.S. Eliot remarked that sometimes people “…dream[ing] up of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.”  If he was correct, then the greatest implication of spreading nuclear power will have to be vigilance.