Steven Metz |Friday, Dec. 18, 2015
All wars are tragedies, often victimizing most the people who had least to do with starting them and no ability to stop them. But beyond this common feature, each war is usually very different. This can make it difficult to draw generalizations and prepare for tomorrow’s conflict. Nonetheless it is important to look for the signposts of future war in current ones and prepare as much as possible. This is particularly true for the United States as it continues to try and build or manage global stability.
|Iraqi security forces at the front line with Islamic State militants,|
Ramadi, Anbar province, Iraq, Dec. 2, 2015
Among today’s violent conflicts, the wars in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine seem to offer the clearest sign of where war is headed. One thing they show is that order and governance can disintegrate quickly in the contemporary security environment. When this happens, armed groups can rapidly move into the vacuum. Future wars—like the ongoing ones in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine—will not pit state militaries against each other in a binary contest, but rather will involve a complex, shifting array of conventional armed forces, militias, foreign fighters, warlord armies and mercenaries. While state militaries take time to mobilize, giving warning that a conflict is imminent and offering at least a chance to head the violence off, militias, which require less training, equipping and preparation, can enter the fray rapidly. By the time other nations and the global community reacts, the hatred born of violence is already deeply rooted, making resolution elusive. The inherent indiscipline of militias also inflames passions, again making resolution difficult.
If the Iraq, Syria and Ukraine conflicts are indicators of the future, then the initial phase of tomorrow’s wars will be dominated on both the tactical and strategic levels by swarming, as local groups mobilize and join in, external groups and organizations become aware of the conflict and begin to participate, and other national governments take sides or attempt to mediate. Often there will be no clear battle lines or rear areas. Instead the combatants will be interspersed in a patchwork of pockets controlled by one or the other of them, often mixed in with civilian populations.
Once the combatants are hardened by the initial violence, future wars will devolve into stalemates and slogs.
During the swarming phase, combatants will fight with what they have on hand but also look for innovative ways to use available technology, much like the insurgents in Iraq used artillery shells, vehicles, remote controls and other readily available technology to build improvised explosive devices. The adaptation of off-the-shelf, commercial technology to destructive uses will be a benchmark of future war, as everything from cheap drones to hacking software from the dark corners of the Internet is weaponized.
Once the combatants are hardened by the initial violence, future wars will devolve into stalemates and slogs. Refugee flows and humanitarian crises will draw outside attention. But this will seldom be enough to force conflict resolution. Foreign fighters, whether motivated by ideology or money, will arrive. Most importantly, a war economy will develop. This means the people with the power to end the conflict will have a financial interest in sustaining it.
During the slog phase, the combatants will continue to experiment with new technologies and new ways of using old technologies. Unlike 20th-century wars, where the combatants built new technology themselves and sometimes gained an advantage from it until the enemy reacted, much of the technological innovation in future wars will be bought abroad or provided by an external state. Other states and even corporations may use conflicts as laboratories for their new products, just as Nazi Germany tried out its new aircraft and air tactics in the Spanish Civil War before using them in World War II. Most of the time, though, technological innovations will be used as soon as they are available, rather than being saved until there is enough of an advantage built up to be truly decisive. But even with constant innovation, future wars, like most of the past ones, will end by exhaustion rather than a technological trump card.
As the slog phase drags on, wars will have cascading effects, challenging and destabilizing neighboring nations and even countries further away, as refugees seek sanctuary and combatants use transnational terrorism to deter or punish those who support their enemies. The war economies in conflict zones will link to transnational criminal networks to solidify funding, bring in foreign fighters, and buy war materiel. This connection will make conflict resolution even more difficult.
While some future wars may end the old-fashioned way with a victory by one side or the other or a negotiated settlement, others may simply drag on for years or decades, with violence, war economies, ethnic segregation, depopulation and refugee flows becoming the new normal. Just as Iraq or Afghanistan have known no real peace in the traditional sense for many years, so it will be in Libya, Yemen, Syria, Ukraine and the unfortunate nations that succumb to conflict in the future.
For the United States, this picture of future war should be terrifying. America excels at politically unambiguous, short wars where a clear enemy must be defeated; where the quality of the military force, both technological and human, that the combatants come with is the deciding factor; and where someone else does the long, dangerous job of stabilization to assure victory. That is not what future wars will be like, however.
If the ongoing wars in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine are, in fact, portents of what is to come, the message is clear: Even if the United States preserves its current battlefield dominance, war itself is changing in such a way that this type of dominance may no longer matter.
Steven Metz is the author of “Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.” His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons, appears every Friday. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_metz.