Trends in Future Warfare

By Bowie, Christopher J.; Haffa, Robert P., Jr. et al. | Joint Force Quarterly, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview
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Trends in Future Warfare


Bowie, Christopher J., Haffa, Robert P., Jr., Mullins, Robert E., Joint Force Quarterly


The United States has engaged in several conflicts since the Cold War. It built a coalition to drive Iraq out of Kuwait, conducted an air campaign against Serbia with its NATO allies to halt ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, and defeated the Taliban in Afghanistan as part of the global war on terrorism. And it has launched an invasion of Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein. While these interventions have failed to bring peace to the world, the Armed Forces are likely to remain militarily committed for many years.

Recent conflicts offer insights on the conduct of war in the early 21st century. These trends are drawn from high-intensity combat operations over a relatively modest timeframe. Trends over the last decade will probably endure for another ten years and underscore the relevance of strategic realities, military capabilities, and enabling technologies for the future.

Some Basic Assumptions

War will continue to be an instrument of national power. The fact that there have been four major conflicts since the Cold War may be evidence enough that the near-term future is unlikely to be peaceful, Trends revealed in these conflicts will not be rapidly overtaken by revolutionary new technologies. Those analysts who have studied the revolution in military affairs in an historical context argue that technical breakthroughs are not sufficient in themselves to bring about an entirely different way of warfighting. Corresponding organizational and doctrinal changes require twenty or thirty years to take root, mature, and evolve into new capabilities.

Trends in warfare can be plotted across a range of conflicts. The diversity of the conflicts argues in favor of capabilities for both high-intensity and small-scale contingencies. Asymmetry is a commodity that will be coveted by the United States and its enemies. A conventional imbalance will induce potential enemies to wage asymmetric warfare. The Armed Forces must be prepared to confront such threats. The task is examining trends that describe enemy actions in recent conflicts and point to areas in which Washington can increase its competitive advantages.

An analysis of future warfare cannot review all aspects of military strategy and operations. For example, increased reliance of land, sea, and air operations on space-based assets is difficult to weigh. Moreover, areas such as information operations, air and missile defense, and post-conflict operations do not readily lend themselves to trend analysis but are also clearly worthy of serious evaluation.

Hindsight is not always accepted as useful in developing recommendations on the conduct of future war. After all, there is the old adage that the military often prepares to fight the last war. A corollary may be that little can be learned from past conflicts because of their uniqueness. While recent conflicts have been unique, evidence suggests that the historical record is relevant.

Political-Military Trends

The location of recent conflicts suggests a shift from Europe toward Asia, a region of vast economic importance and diverse security challenges. Whatever a future war in that region might look like, it will not resemble an intense battle in Europe from large fixed bases dispersed over relatively short distances envisioned over the last half century.

America depended on alliances such as NATO for collective defense during the Cold War. In three post-Cold War conflicts, coalitions were organized as the result of an ad hoc approach to securing international support for military operations led by United States. Rather than the long-term arrangements that typified past alliances, future coalitions are likely to be temporary liaisons, with some partners proving more faithful than others.

In contrast to the Cold War, recent allied contributions have largely come in the form of political support and access to facilities rather than combat forces. Trends in coalition warfare have revealed widening disparities in capabilities that will cause allies in the future to fall farther behind, although niche capabilities such as special operations forces will remain valuable.

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