Academic journal article Parameters

Capturing the Character of Future War

Academic journal article Parameters

Capturing the Character of Future War

Article excerpt

Abstract: This essay proposes a conceptual framework combining elements of Clausewitz's On War with trend-forecasting techniques to describe future operational environments. This framework captures how the interaction of megatrends--the rate of technological change, the composition of the international system, and the strength of state governance--shapes the character of competition, confrontation, and conflict in each period. We argue this framework can help military officers build the future force.


How should military officers describe the future operational environment? In February 25, 2016, testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, US Air Force General and EUCOM Commander, General Philip M. Breedlove referred to a resurgent Russia as an existential threat. (1) Moscow continues to challenge multiple NATO members while investing in a military-modernization program that includes significant increases in autonomous systems. Despite those facts, Russia has a gross domestic product the size of Italy, and it spent less on defense in 2015 than Saudi Arabia. (2)

The Islamic State continues to hold terrain in multiple countries, and it has been a magnet for foreign fighters. The group is pressing a 21st-century terror campaign by attacking European cities and waging complex operations in the cyber domain, including the use of social media and hacking the names and addresses of adversaries in an effort to encourage lone-wolf attacks. (3) Yet, the group has lost, by some estimates, as much as 40 percent of its territory in Iraq and Syria, multiple leaders, and as many as 10,000 fighters since 2014. (4)

From the Islamic States' use of cyber and traditional guerilla and terror tactics to Russian experiments of combining massive fires with drones and broad-spectrum information warfare in Ukraine, there are signs the future of warfare may already be here. Just as the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and the 1973 Arab-Israeli Conflict were harbingers of future conflict, we may be at the juncture where events from Eastern Ukraine to Syria and Iraq signal how warfare is likely to evolve and shape the world of 2030 to 2050.

Describing the future character of war should be a central task for the military profession. (5) As bureaucracies, resourcing strategies, and programming processes increase in complexity, often unnecessarily, senior leaders need to make long-term bets on whether to innovate by combining legacy forces with new concepts and incremental improvements or to invent breakthrough capabilities for future contingencies. The future force is built now to be used later. Failing to meet that task abdicates a central responsibility of the military profession.

This article introduces an analytical framework for describing the future operational environment based on integrating Clausewitz's concept of the character of war unique to each period with trend analysis techniques common in scenario-planning. (6) We contend macro-trends--specifically, the rate of technological change and through it the available means of coercion, the composition of the international system, and the degree to which political units in that system can secure their internal domains--interact in a trinity-like manner. As these trends interact, they produce an emergent character of war. To describe the future operational environment, military professionals should first define the likely future character of war and use the resulting forecasts to develop new concepts and modernization priorities.

The article proceeds by establishing what the character of war is and uses the construct to situate a new approach to describing the future operational environment. From this vantage point, we look at major findings in future studies by the Army and the broader US national security community since the 1970s, highlighting how the interaction of technology, the international system, and governance tends to produce evolutionary as opposed to revolutionary change. …

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