The Changing Nature of War

War is changing in ways that we have yet to fully apprehend. Yet some of the changes are less new than they seem. In many respects, what are new are the cyber or digital realm, a combination of modes, some of them not new but in new ways, and, perhaps, a greater difficult in attributing actions to their perpetrators. The following listing moves, loosely, from the less new to the newer.

By Gregory F. Treverton

NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SMA, Inc.

War is changing in ways that we have yet to fully apprehend. Yet some of the changes are less new than they seem. In many respects, what are new are the cyber or digital realm, a combination of modes, some of them not new but in new ways, and, perhaps, a greater difficult in attributing actions to their perpetrators. The following listing moves, loosely, from the less new to the newer.

Major Nuclear Conflict. The most dangerous threat, major nuclear conflict involving the United States, is still the least likely. That conflict is thinkable really only with Russia; China’s forces remain relatively small and its no-first-use doctrine is intact. With Russia, the worrisome development is the exchange of nuclear doctrines, with Russia now emulating Cold War NATO in threatening to use small nuclear weapons early in a losing conventional battle. And whether or not the later phases of NATO expansion were wise—taking the Alliance to Russia’s borders—they are a fact. That fact, plus Putin’s reaction to it and his extreme isolation, make a Russian provocation that invoked NATO’s article 5—an attack on one is an attack on all—thinkable, alas. In the end, though, if a reckless Putin were willing to risk nuclear war over Ukraine (not a NATO member and unlikely ever to be one), the United States and its allies would not.

Major Conventional War. What, then, about major conventional wars, the sort that have dominated US military planning for most of the last century? Conventional wisdom about those has been that while they are unlikely, the way to keep them that way is to be visibly prepared to fight and win them. But, here especially, it’s worth being “spee-cific,” as Senator John Stennis used to say. After all, major conventional conflict won’t arise out of the blue. It will have to involve a state that has a name—and an army. That leaves four candidates: Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. In the Middle East, other potential foes are very unlikely to come out and play, as Iraq has twice. Syria perhaps came close, but, sadly perhaps from a humanitarian point of view, the United States has very limited stakes in what happens in Syria. Conflict involving it will remain in the next category—wars by proxy.

What then about Iran? There, the real prospect of anything resembling conventional war would ensue only over Iran’s nuclear program. The United States and Iran are not likely to fight over anything else in the Middle East. The nuclear contingency is years hence if the nuclear agreement remains in place; if it fell apart or were abrogated the timetable would compress. And if the United States sought, perhaps with Israel’s complicity, to take out the Iranian nuclear program, that too would not be a traditional conventional war, one designed to take territory and compel an outcome. Rather, it would be an intense, likely months long, campaign of bombing and sabotage, no doubt accompanied by newer changes in warfare, like cyber attacks.

North Korea is, as always, a wild card, though it apparently knows it would lose a conventional war: otherwise, why impoverish itself to build nuclear weapons? But it could start a war by accident, or with a nuclear gesture gone awry. Perhaps more likely is the collapse of the regime when Kim Jong-Un dies or is killed. War gaming suggests that particularly in that scenario, and probably also in the war scenar­ios, the challenges would be as much diplomatic as military: how to avoid crossing the nuclear thresh­old (again), and how to deal with both allies, especially South Korea, and the Chinese “frenemy,” lest an intramural fight ensure over controlling the North’s nuclear weapons.

North Korea is a more immediate problem, but China and Russia are more worrisome. The increasing challenge to US conventional supremacy in the western Pacific has been the main driver of the “third offset,” the Pentagon’s quest to see if new technology and new concepts can slow the loss of advantage. Again, though, some perspective is useful. It is worth noting, for instance, that the first two “offsets”—nuclear weapons and precision-guided munitions—are now as much a part of the problem as the solu­tion. And the increasing Chinese capabilities that now constrain US options are simply a fact. As China grew richer and stronger, it was plain that the United States would not forever continue to enjoy the advantages it had.

It would be silly, for both countries, to go to war over a few rocks in the South China Sea. Thus, the pre­mium will be on freedom of navigation (FON) missions, with frequent reference to international law and backed by military force. That military force cannot be an empty backup, but whatever its specific challenges in areas close to China, the United States will remain history’s pre-eminent military power. The still harder challenge probably is Taiwan. In the end, of course, its path is up to it, but the last few years have shattered the comfortable assumption that as China became more plural and decentralized, it would become easier for Taiwan to fit in, in some way. For the near term, the best that probably can be done is to supply Taiwan enough weaponry to make it a prickly opponent, backed by enough uncer­tainty about US responses so that Beijing could not rule out a major military response.

The Russian challenge runs across virtually all the categories of warfare. For it, the major issue is time. So far, it has managed an impressive military modernization. As it continues to decline, however, its military capabilities will decline as well. That has two implications, neither one very happy. The next X years will be a time of maximum danger, with some capabilities to go with Putin’s bluster. X may be five to ten. Beyond that, though, Russian leaders are likely to turn more to the categories other than conventional warfare, and, more worrisome, perhaps to more reliance on nuclear threats.

War by Proxy. The United States is hardly a stranger to wars by proxy: in the Revolution, it confronted the Hessians, and was aided by a range of what we would now call “foreign fighters,” drawn by the lure of freedom. During the Cold War, Americans and Russians took pains to assure that their troops never confronted each other directly, and so most conflict between the two was by proxy—in the later Cold War mostly in Africa and Central America. And the proxies have always had interests of their own that diverged from those of their patrons—the classic principal/agent problem. If anything is different now, it is a matter of degree, especially in the Middle East. There are simply so many proxies, with complicated interests and relations to their “patrons.” Among the many complications of the fight against ISIL is that it is virtually every other party’s second favorite enemy. That has been true even of the United States, which has avoided a clear decision about whether its strategic priority is combating ISIL or eliminating the Assad regime in Syria.

Unacknowledged War. Proxy war slides into this category. Proxies are sometimes not acknowledged, but the secret usually is an open one. So it was with the contras in Central America in the 1980s, and the mujaheddin fighting Soviet occupation in Afghanistan in the same period. US support to both was an open secret, but the lack of acknowledgement let diplomatic exchanges proceed as though the support wasn’t happening; it gave the Soviet Union a fig leaf, especially in Afghanistan—making recent reports that Russia is supplying weaponry to the Taliban something of a historical irony! Putin’s “little green men” or the so-called “separatists” in eastern Ukraine are in the same category, though Russia has gone to great pains to try to sustain the fiction that they are independent of Moscow.

Insurgency. So, too, insurgency—that is, opposition forces seeking to overthrow an existing regime—is familiar. Again, revolutionary America fought what was then regarded as a very unconventional war, and one accompanied by unconventional tactics. The revolutionaries were insurgents, and their tactics—not fighting from formation, but shooting from behind trees, hitting and running—were what eighteenth century English were polite enough to call “ungentlemanly” but might have regarded as “terrorism.” What may have changed is the mix of war and terror in current insurgencies. Both insurgents and anti-insurgents have relied on terror: witness the war for Algeria. But current insurgents, like ISIL, feature levels of terror that their predecessors would have regarded a counter-productive in the battle for hearts and minds. And so they may be.

Propaganda: Old Aims, New Means. Both diplomacy and war have always sought to influence, in the final analysis, the brains of leaders and their people. Everything else has been a means to that end. It seems a still-open question how the new media, often mislabeled “social,” will affect the battle for those two inches of gray matter in the heads of leaders and their people. So far, their effect seems hyped. The Russian propaganda campaign was mostly directed inside the country, and while it has been impressively successful, it mostly was good old-fashioned stuff: buying or suborning traditional media outlets. So, too, the role of social media in the Arab spring probably has been exaggerated: in the end, it was personal associations more than anything else that induced young Arabs to move from digital opposition to the physical occupation of Tahrir Square. While social media has proved powerful in organizing protests, so too has it been useful to authorities in anticipating those protests.

New Weapons. The debate at the turn of the century over whether there was a “revolution in military affairs,” either in progress or in prospect, faded, rather than was settled. The major conventional wars against Iraq looked at least evolutionary, if not revolutionary—though in both, and especially the first, it was the good old-fashioned pounding that demoralized the enemy. And it turned out in round two in Iraq that the lethal small force that could win the war was not big enough to win the peace. Meanwhile, the nature of the fight turned from recognizably conventional to insurgency and terrorism. In those wars, the “new” weapons were hardly new: witness improvised explosive devices (IEDs), or mines by the usual name.

For the future of those wars, the question is whether new technologies, like nano, and not so new, like drones, will confer decisive advantage. To the extent that those conflicts turn on surveillance, the advantage should lay with the United States and its allies. Simple numbers of satellites, drones, and listening technologies should make for more transparency of scattered and hiding enemies. Yet IEDs stand as a reminder that low-tech, asymmetrical counters will arise, often unpredictably. For intelligence, that implies an unusual task: not looking for technological breakthroughs but, rather, remaining attentive to prosaic, low-cost counters to American technology.

Soldiers and Citizens. The density of soldiers on the battlefield has been declining for several centuries at least, but that has been the result mostly of technology—more lethal fires and then more accurate ones. So, too, the line between soldiers and civilians has been eroding for a long time, despite all the efforts like the Geneva Convention to sustain it. More recently, in its 2006 war against Israel, Hezbollah used civilians and civilian facilities, like hospitals, to provide havens for their fighters. ISIL seems to have turned the logic around, using the presence of fighters to provoke, not the presence of civilians to protect. When ISIL’s opponents attack, they kill many innocents, thus validating ISIL’s narrative about the war against Islam, while turning the fighters into martyrs.

What is perhaps newer is that wars are coming to be between societies, not combatants. A strong case in point is ISIL’s injunction to would-be jihadis that if they can’t get to the caliphate, they should kill infidels where they are. That tactic has played on Americans’ outsized fear of terrorism. In that sense, we have perhaps come full circle from 9/11 back to Brian Jenkins’ line from many years ago that terrorism sought to kill as few people as possible with as many as possible watching. ISIL is happy to kill but it has taken the point that small numbers of killed, like San Bernardino, with an entire nation watching will produce just the reactions ISIL seeks: they will not only terrorize but tempt the nation to overreact, for instance by giving ISIL the gift of making it enemy number one.

Cyberwar. This is the newest form of war, and the one still hardest to conceptualize, after twenty years of working on it. At one end, virtually any future kinetic war will be accompanied by cyber attacks on surveillance and command and control. Near that end, cyberwar can be a substitute for kinetic strikes—witness Stutznet. Next on that continuum are attacks aimed specifically at society—at finance, water, power or other infrastructure. So far, those have been few. The celebrated major attacks on the United States—Sony, Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Democratic National Committee (DNC)—have been cyberespionage, using cyber means to extract private, if not secret, information. The first and last were turned into propaganda by the attackers, North Korea and Russia, while the second, by China, created a long-term and uncertain risk. The nuclear analogy for cyber is misleading, in particular because attribution was relatively straightforward for it, not for cyber. The biological analogy seems more helpful: cyber “Armageddon” is unlikely in the extreme because every attack reveals to the victim where it is vulnerable. Thus, the premium is on remediation and prevention. (Notice, interestingly, that for the private sector attribution is less of interest, unless criminals can be identified for prosecution. For them, the more interesting information is about vulnerability and attack patterns.)

For better and for worse, humans continue to be creative in finding new ways to kill, intimidate, and influence. Whether called hybrid warfare, gray zone warfare, or any of the other labels that have been applied in the past, this war is with us. As George Santayana put it: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” The national task is thus to avoid being surprised to the extend we can, then to be prepared and capable in responding.

Published on June 20, 2017 by

Dick Eassom, CF APMP Fellow