Academic journal article Parameters

Forking Paths: War after Afghanistan

Academic journal article Parameters

Forking Paths: War after Afghanistan

Article excerpt

Abstract: For defense departments and professional militaries of advanced liberal democracies, judgments concerning future armed conflict are necessary to guide force preparation, personnel readiness, and equipment procurement. When such judgments are made in times of economic austerity and geopolitical uncertainty, the need for clarity of thought on the future of war becomes imperative in determining priorities.


It is not primarily in the present, nor in the past that we live. Our life is an activity directed towards what is to come. The significance of the present and the past only becomes clear afterwards in relation to the future.

Jose Ortega y Gassett

While all advanced military establishments engage in intellectual examinations about the future of armed conflict, it is often unclear which intellectual methods actually represent best futures practice. In any Western officer corps one can find contending advocates for how best to interpret the future of war. Some argue that the lens of human experience--filtered through a Clausewitzian-style of military history as Kritik--is the most sensible way forward; others prefer the geometrical tradition of Jomini and seek to gain better understanding through science in the form of operations research and technical experimentation; still others prefer to look to the interdisciplinary subject of strategic studies as a means of revealing holistic insights on armed conflict. Further diversity in professional outlook is often imposed by imperatives of service affiliation and specialized training for the separate domains of land, sea, and aerospace warfare. Speculation on the future of war may also be affected by the demands of hierarchical military culture ranging from idiosyncratic command preferences to the imposition of short-term strategic and operational goals. Not surprisingly, ad hoc intellectual endeavors can easily dominate military institutions--driven as much by the interaction of budgets, personalities, and internal compromises--as by objective mental rigor. Such pressures led American philosopher Lewis Mumford to conclude that military establishments represent "the refuge of third-rate minds" in which institutional thinking can be conformist, sometimes dogmatic, and frequently anti-intellectual. (1)

This article probes the generic intellectual requirements involved in preparing to consider the problems of future war. Two caveats are immediately required. First, the author makes no claims to having uncovered any magic formulae for predictive accuracy about future conflicts. Second, this essay is not a meditation on the full sweep of potential future military operations from computers through cyberwarfare to climate change. Rather, it is a reflection on the conceptual demands of dealing with future armed conflict--what Peter Paret calls the "cognitive challenge of war"--the "how to think" dimension which is the most serious problem facing any military organization. (2) The author believes that, for armed forces establishments, futures studies, if properly conceived and conducted, are likely to be particularly valuable over the next decade. When militaries are faced with an end to a long period of hostilities--as is the case with the United States and its allies in 2014--they must embark on rigorous contemplation of the shape of future war. The task is "to look ahead, not into the distant future, but beyond the vision of the operating officers caught in the smoke and crises of current battle; far enough ahead to see the emerging form of things to come and outline what should be done to meet or anticipate them." (3)

With these issues in mind, three areas are analyzed. First, to provide philosophical and methodological context, the development of modern futures studies is explored and its intellectual connections to the field of strategic studies are highlighted. In the second section, the role history can play in military futures studies is explored. …

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