Militaries generally prepare for the future war under the shadow of previous ones. Domesticating horses, invention of the wheel, crossbow, and the onset of the Industrial Revolution have been some of the epoch-making events in the evolution of warfare. The trail-blazing mechanisation of the Industrial Revolution had profoundly affected the conduct of warfare and its operative military systems. The race between new military hardware impacting doctrine and tactics and vice versa, has been as old as humans itself.
The nom de guerre assigned to the prevalent and future mode of warfare is “hybrid warfare”. It is loosely referred to as the application of military and non-military force (especially media including social media networks, SMNs, IT, espionage, surveillance, propaganda and perception management tools, etc), involving and targeting military and non-military components of an adversary.
This article will try to fathom the theory and conduct of future warfare after a brief look at the environment. The US-China zero-sum competition would ultimately lead to China’s rise and America’s fall. Declining US/European economic potential would pivot the global economic order towards Asia, which mercifully remains lightly touched by the ravages of the pandemic. Tensions in Asia Pacific, upheaval in Europe, emboldened Russia, turmoil in the Middle East and above all, the dread about the post-pandemic global and economic order, would continue to inject uncertainty. Weak economics would force military downsizing, shrinking defence-industrial and economic base diluting the power and leverage of sanctions.
Other trends include increased competitiveness and capability of Chinese and Russian forces; rise of Iran (using proxies, cyber tools, missile/rocketry, drones and nuclear know-how) and North Korea (employing rocketry and nukes). These less capable and less sophisticated sides would resort to asymmetric capabilities employing “gray-zone tactics” — using incremental aggression, information warfare, proxy forces and covert special operations, without tripping adversary’s large-scale conventional response. Wars as we have known, may phase out.
“States monopoly over violence” will weaken. War would be increasingly outsourced to public-private enterprises given the changes in military and communications technology; and commercial availability of the latter to non-state actors and proxy forces. These sub-conventional forces may destabilise states with relative ease. Paradoxically, states may augment control through enhanced surveillance.
Environmentally, rising temperatures would affect health, reduce economic productivity and imperil basing of military forces, making stand-off application of military force a preferred option. Water Scarcity — in already unstable places like the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of Asia will feed conflict. Opening of the Arctic would exacerbate potential conflict among the US, Russia, and China. Extreme weather induced migrations would foster violence, requiring substantial security resources. Greater urbanisation would compel states to stabilise frequent breakdown of law and order. Mega cities would complicate differentiating military and civilian target, particularly for airpower.
Melissa M Lee, in a December 2019 essay titled “Subversive Statecraft Changing Face of Great-Power Conflict,” claims that modern conflict plays out indirectly through proxy warfare called “foreign subversion”, involving non-state actors “deconsolidating” target states and creating ungoverned spaces, aiming at “creating bargaining leverage for the sponsor”. She cites the Russian subversion of Ukraine and Georgia, Pakistani subversion of Afghan state, Iranian subversion against Yemeni government and Saudi Arabia, as examples.
Another trend in future wars is the emergence of “virtual societal warfare” enabled by the advanced information environment. This morphs into possible cyber-aggression to manipulate and/or disrupt economic and social systems. This conflict is waged between and among networks which are mostly non-attributory and increasingly difficult to understand, profile and retaliate against.
“Swarming the battlefield” is a recently re-emergent concept. It stipulates several units conducting a convergent attack on an adversary using multiple axes. Theorists of swarm warfare cite Scythian horse archers (4th century BC) to Iraqi and Syrian paramilitaries in Baghdad (2003) practising swarm tactics and formations.
RAND studies — while acknowledging the pitfalls of forecasting the future warfare — highlight that modern warfare is constrained by international laws, public opinion, and media coverage besides other well-known trends. Future warfare may entail increasing public concern for civilian casualties, especially in perceived “wars of choice”. The state with an edge in “lawfare” — manipulating international law to its advantage, will be able to restrain its adversary. Pakistan needs to do this more effectively for Kashmir/IOK following Hamas’ example.
However, it is the emerging technologies — robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), autonomy, unmanned systems, data manipulation, networking, etc — that have changed the character of future warfare. Most of these technologies are based in the private sector with twin effects. States need to cooperate and co-opt the private sector more intently; and non-state actors can easily acquire these commercially available technologies. Militarily. these technological capabilities need compatible military systems including policies, doctrine, operational strategy, training and developmental strategy (organisational structures and acquisitions).
AI in particular is one such disruptive technology with no state monopolising its access. Militaries all over the world are integrating “AI and autonomy” into their organisational processes, C2 (command and control) systems, logistics and weapon systems. Military applications of AI, however, induce serious risks and ethical concerns. AI might affect deterrence through inadvertent engagement of friendly or civilian targets by autonomous systems, leading to technical accidents or failures. Deterrence, essentially a human function, once delegated to autonomous machines can no longer remain fully under human control. Pakistan needs to work closely with China to offset any Indian advantage in AI. More on AI next week.
Space remains a contested environment with possible space-based weapons including nukes. Proliferation of commercial space activities in recent years and growing private entities launching microsatellites (mainly imagery and communications) again amplify civil-military partnership.
With shrinking conventional forces, resumption of nuclear proliferation is likely, eroding relevant treaty limitations. There is a stronger argument such erosion may lead to Russia, India, Pakistan and possibly China resorting to tactical nuclear weapons in the future.
Cyberspace will become the primary target of espionage as more and more data is digitised and stored in the cloud. With proliferation of smartphones and SMNs, controlling images the public sees and the surrounding narrative would be increasingly complex. Disinformation — using media/SMNs — including increased distribution of opinions over facts, fake news and rising influence of partisan news sources — as seen in the 2019 India-Pakistan stand-off — will erode public trust, affecting national morale. Media jingoism and pressure might induce miscalculation at policy levels, replacing wise decisions with popular decisions.
For Pakistan, the strategic dilemma of preparing for future war and its inability to completely break from conventional mode, under a challenged economic situation, can be resolved through a bold and aggressive nuclear policy. Through increased range, precision and stand-off in the air-delivered, sea-launched or even ground-based weapons, Pakistan can comfortably maintain a credible second-strike alternative-platform capability. Modi and his hysterical mob know no other language. It is now or never.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 28th, 2020.
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