- - Monday, January 8, 2018

The nature of warfare is constantly changing and evolving. New technologies such as unmanned systems, whether militarized aerial drones, remote-controlled robotic tanks or sophisticated cyber weapons that can remotely destroy an adversary’s critical nodes in their infrastructure, directed-energy (e.g., laser) weapons, as well as anti-ballistic defensive systems that can intercept in mid-air an adversary’s offensive missiles, are all changing the tactics of warfare for the countries that possess them.

In a parallel development, if some non-state adversaries, such as terrorist groups, achieve the capability to employ miniaturized tactical nuclear weapons or cyberwarfare weapons, they could inflict catastrophic casualties on their more powerful adversaries.

With today’s state and non-state adversaries seeking to exploit these and other new military technologies, military planners are aware that new concepts of warfare policies, doctrine, operation and organizational structures are required to address the challenges presented by the constantly evolving revolution in military affairs.

It is not only in the current era that military thinkers are forecasting the future of warfare; they have done this throughout history. As Lawrence Freedman writes, the future of warfare has always been a matter of concern along with “the causes of war and their likely conduct and cause.” Mr. Freedman is emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College, London.

The book’s focus is divided into three parts: the period from the middle of the 19th century to the end of the Cold War around 1990, the period after 1990 to the critical turning point of September 2001, and the impact and effectiveness of the overseas interventions that resulted from al-Qaida’s catastrophic attacks on 9/11 and the responses to the current challenges presented by Islamist insurgencies around the world and how to defeat them.

The first period saw major developments in the technology and practice of warfare that were employed in two catastrophic world wars, in 1914-1918 and 1939-1945, and the Cold War’s conflict between the United States and the former Soviet Union, which also involved their competition for influence throughout the world.

The evolution of warfare during this period, the author explains, began on “an idealized model of warfare geared toward decisive battles that could be used to regulate relations among the great powers,” including, following World War II, the development of nuclear technology that “raised the possibility of the obliteration of whole civilizations.”

The possibility of catastrophic annihilation, the author observes, also introduced “great caution into great-power relations, as war became an extraordinary high-risk venture, and to encourage searches for ways to fight using new technologies that would reduce dependence upon nuclear threats.”

In the second period, following the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, warfare shifted to a more low-intensity form, with governmental responses focused on countering guerrilla- and terrorist-type insurgencies. Al-Qaida’s 9/11 attacks, the author insightfully notes, represented a significant turning point in warfare.

He writes: “Past terrorism was violent and purposive, but it was hard to think of it as war. By contrast 9/11 was experienced as an act of war. It was an odd war that pitted a small band of Islamist extremists against a superpower.”

With governments now focusing on countering such asymmetric warfare by smaller adversaries, the author then proceeds to assess the effectiveness of several counterinsurgency campaigns.

These include Russia’s military campaign in Chechnya against the secessionist rebels (with Russia’s unrelenting air and ground military campaign crushing the resistance, although isolated terrorist attacks continued); and the Sri Lankan government’s success in defeating the LTTE insurgency due to its premise that “terrorism has to be wiped out militarily and cannot be tackled politically.”

Regarding America’s intervention in Afghanistan in retaliation for al-Qaida’s 9/11 attacks, the author observes that government decision-makers should understand “the limits of what a foreign power could do in a country when the regime they supported lacked legitimacy.”

Also of interest are the book’s chapters on the emergence of new types of warfare in the form of hybrid wars (in which the full multidimensional spectrum of warfare now includes countering terrorism, guerrilla insurgency, criminality, and conventional operations, with governments employing not only military measures but information operations to influence an adversary’s public opinion), and cyber weapons.

Responses to these types of warfare, the author adds, are being exacerbated by additional evolving challenges posed by trends such as the movement of populations in conflict-prone countries from rural areas to mega cities, as well as drastic climate change, which can affect a country’s agricultural production, with writers on these issues formulating scenarios to forecast their impact on the nature and magnitude of future wars.

In the concluding chapter titled “The Future of the Future of War,” the author wisely notes that “the future is not preordained,” thus making it crucial to understand “chance events that will catch us unawares and developments already in train that have been inadequately appreciated.” Such insights by a veteran observer make this book an invaluable resource for understanding the evolving warfare trends shaping our world and how to anticipate and counter them in a preemptive manner.

Joshua Sinai is a senior analyst on counterterrorism and homeland security at Kiernan Group Holdings (KGH), in Alexandria, Va.

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By Lawrence Freedman
Public Affairs, $30, 400 pages

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