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:
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?
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.
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.