What Is the Future of War?

Facing a new inflection point, 'Future of War' project members sound off with their take on where conflict is headed in the 21st century.

Whether it has been fought with sticks and stones or improved explosive devices and drones, war has been a seemingly permanent and unchanging part of human history for the last several millennia. It remains a tragedy caused by our human failings, violence and politics crossed to awful consequences.

And yet, it is also clear that the forces that shape warfare, in everything from the tools we use to fight to the locations where we battle, are at an inflection point of change. Indeed, the very definitions of what is "war" and "peace" may even be shifting. It is with this in mind that New America, a nonpartisan think tank network; Arizona State University, the nation's largest public university; and Defense One, the home for innovative online reporting and debate about security, have teamed up to launch a new series on the future of war. The site will host original reporting, commentary, analysis and public databases, all designed to help us better understand the new trends, technologies, and forces shaping war.

Reflecting the ideas that warfare is becoming highly networked and plays out on multiple levels, the project has forged a multi-disciplinary network of experts and leaders. Occasionally, we'll survey them for a "wisdom of the crowd" approach to the key questions.

To help launch the project, we asked: What does a group that ranges from policy wonks and historians, to special operators and technologists think that we get most wrong today about the future of war tomorrow?

Peter Bergen, vice president at New America and professor at Arizona State University, CNN national security analyst and the author of best-selling books about al-Qaeda, including Manhunt: The Ten Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad.

Just as the United States lost its monopoly on atomic weapons shortly after World War II, the U.S has now lost its monopoly on armed drone warfare and effective cyber warfare. These two forms of warfare both take place outside of traditional war zones and so are not really covered by the Geneva Conventions. These conventions don't contemplate the use of drones to assassinate someone in a country where no war has been declared (for instance, in Yemen), nor do they contemplate the use of cyber warfare to inflict significant damage to the national security apparatus of a state we are not at war with (Iran/Stuxnet), or economic damage to an important American industry in a time of peace (Sony/North Korea). We need to construct international laws that would create rules of the road for these new forms of warfare. These would not, of course, constrain groups like the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) or countries like North Korea, but they would make it harder for countries like Iran to give armed drones to groups like Hezbollah or countries like Russia to carry out serious cyber attacks. In the U.S such new laws would likely face opposition from the right (they constrain American power) and also from the left (they legitimize new forms of warfare), but just as the States and indeed the world has benefited from laws about nuclear proliferation we would also benefit from having an international legal framework about these powerful new weapons of war, weapons that right now are only in their infancy.

Rosa Brooks, New America fellow and professor at Georgetown University School of Law; former counselor to the under secretary of defense for policy.

We assume that change will be both predictable and incremental and we will have time to plan and adapt. We're wrong. If we can't accept this and build a strategy that itself premised on uncertainty and exponential change, the U.S. will continue to decline as a global power.

Sharon Burke, senior fellow at New America; former U.S. assistant secretary of defense for operational energy.

We don’t pay enough attention to the big picture: the world order that has favored U.S. prosperity and security is crumbling, and war is becoming increasingly unaffordable for the United States. We face a future of individuals, groups and states that want everything from mischief to market domination, armed with anything from keyboards to nuclear weapons where even nature itself will be more hostile. The great question is whether the United States is up to the challenge of re-imagining what prosperity and security mean in such an age, or if we’re going to just keep building F-35s.

Christopher Fussell, senior fellow at the New America Foundation and a principal at the McChrystal Group. He has spent the past 15 years as an officer in the Navy SEAL Teams.

The vast majority of our current system for considering and engaging in conflict is based on and biased by a nation state-centric optic. As these systems fail, the vacuum will continue to be filled by distributed networks with little recognition of the traditional rules of the game. It is our system, not theirs, that will need to adapt.

Mark Hagerott, nonresident fellow at New America and distinguished professor of cyber security at the U.S. Naval Academy; retired Navy captain, his experience ranges from nuclear engineering to security force assistance/advising to Afghan Army, Air Corps, and police programs.

Warfare and policing have always involving balancing freedom of action by combatants, or citizens and police, with the desire for centralized control exerted from headquarters or political centers. We are experiencing perhaps the "Mother of all Control/Freedom Crises" brought on by proliferating autonomous machines, networked cyber technologies, social media induced social disruption and advancing artificial intelligence. What kind of officers (Defense Department, military, para-military or police) can achieve this new balance with both wisdom and efficacy in the face of novel technologies and social responses (e.g., ISIS, narco-terrorism, hacktivists), in a compressed time scale that is shorter than normal career development cycle?

Shane Harris, fellow at New America and senior writer at the Daily Beast; author of @War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex, and The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State.

The U.S. is far more equipped to identify our adversaries in cyberspace than most people understand. The recent hack on Sony, which was quickly and definitively attributed to North Korea, demonstrates that our national security agencies know who is attacking us. The more important and far trickier question is: what do we do about it? 

Drew HerrickFuture of War fellow at New America and PhD student in international relations & methods at George Washington University.

The use of new war-fighting capabilities is not limited to financial or technical concerns. We need a better understanding of the political, cultural and institutional constraints that influence the skill of a military and shape how actors understand, integrate and use new capabilities. They have a very real effect on force employment and military effectiveness.

David Kilcullen, senior fellow at New America and former special advisor to the Secretary of State, senior advisor to Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq, author of Accidental GuerrillaCounterinsurgency, and Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla

In 1993, during his confirmation hearing to be CIA director, James Woolsey said of the Soviet Union and the Cold War that just ended, "We have slain a large dragon, but now we find ourselves in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes." We spent most of the past several decades confronting these snakes—terrorism, insurgency, narcotics, state weakness, humanitarian crises—but today the dragon is back: we face state and non-state threats at the same time, and in many of the same places. In thinking about future war, we can't ignore state-based threats but we're dealing now with a dragons who've watched closely as we struggled in Iraq and Afghanistan, and learned new ways to sidestep our conventional strength. Strategic paralysis and national overstretch are the risk here – and new ways of war, conceptual and technological, are critically needed.

Ioannis Koskinas, senior fellow at New America, and CEO of the Hoplite Group, he retired from the U.S. Air Force in 2011 after a twenty-year career in special operations.

The aspect of future of war that does not receive sufficient attention is time; there is a vast disparity between the time necessary to achieve results and the time we allot to achieve results. The aspect of future of war that also doesn't get sufficient attention is that of the need for nuanced long-term strategies. Vast disparity between the need for nuanced macro-strategies devised and implemented by specialists in micro-campaigns versus the Defense Department's innate propensity to leverage one size fits all conventional solutions implemented by conventional generalists.

Michael Lind, co-founder of New America, former editor/staff writer for The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The National Interest, author of multiple books including The American Way of Strategy.

The greatest challenges to America's world order goals will arise not from stateless actors but from rival global and regional great powers, which will avoid direct conflict in favor of cold wars involving trade war, propaganda war, sabotage, arms races and proxy wars. The demands of arms races can be met by credible, ever-evolving finite deterrents, while success in proxy wars in third countries will require the intelligent provision of advice, arms and aid, with the introduction of combat forces only as a last resort. We need a military designed for indirect, low-level cold war competitions, not one structured to wage unlikely conventional wars against powerful states.

Tim Maurer, research fellow at New America, focusing on cybersecurity, cyberwar and internet security and freedom.

Modern technology will increasingly provide the option to replace humans in complex decision-making processes. That is not necessarily a bad thing - think of accidents caused by human error. Yet, while much of the worry has been about having humans in the loop, we need more debate about if, when, where and why we need to keep humans in the loop when it comes to the fast paced, complex decision-making and execution of future wars, especially on the cyber side.

Sascha Meinrath, founder of New America’s Open Technology Institute and director of X-Lab; named to the “TIME Tech 40: The Most Influential Minds in Tech.”

The Geneva Conventions state, "the following rules...shall be observed in all circumstances... The civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack." However, "cyberwarfare" as currently conceptualized often targets civilians and civilian infrastructure, as epitomized by shutting down Internet connectivity everywhere from Georgia to Syria to North Korea. International conventions need to be clarified to ensure that cyber attacks against civilian populations do not become the new war norm.

Doug Ollivant, senior fellow at New America; retired US Army officer, he served as a director on the National Security Council, counterinsurgency advisor in Afghanistan and leader of the team that wrote the 2006-7 Baghdad "surge" plan.

The impotence of military force to bestow popular legitimacy on a changed regime (e.g.--Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya). Unfortunately, regime change is frequently a politically assigned war aim. Ignored is the very real danger of trading a bad regime for a worse situation of chaos/suffering/instability, as the military is directed by political leadership to do something outside its capability.

Matthew Pinsker, ASU Future of War fellow; Brian Pohanka chair of Civil War history at Dickinson; professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College; and director of the House Divided Project.

One overlooked key to planning for the future of war is to understand better the past of war. Learning lessons from the past is often a pretty shallow exercise in Washington, but it can be transformed into a rich, vigorous one that fully acknowledges multiple interpretations while always seeking to measure them carefully against each other. The body of historical evidence for war-planners is certainly deep, perhaps more than people realize, with arguably dozens of American wars, declared and otherwise, hundreds of separate combat deployments and countless covert operations in the years since 1776.

Tom Ricks, senior advisor at New America and Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington Post reporter, author of best-selling books about the U.S. military including Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq.

The most neglected area, I think, is the huge difference between possessing firepower and knowing how, where, when and why to use it.

Daniel Rothenbergco-director of the Future of War Project, Future of War fellow at New America, professor of practice at Arizona State University, and co-editor of Drone Wars.

What rules can we use to regulate war and conflict as these practices rapidly change? Are there ways to reconceptualize the laws of war to more effectively include non-state actors; to reasonably address an expansion of the use of force beyond traditional temporal and spatial constraints (thereby avoiding “forever wars” and the dangerous idea that legal conflict can take place anywhere); and to provide guidance for emerging technologies, increasingly automated weapons systems, and ever-more complex surveillance and data-driven targeting? What are the risks of failing to elaborate new, more appropriate, and context sensitive rules on the projection of deadly and damaging force and what are the long-term implications of inadequately creative planning?

Peter W. Singer, strategist and senior fellow at New America, consultant for the U.S. military and Defense Intelligence Agency, author of multiple bestselling books including Corporate WarriorsChildren at WarWired for WarCybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know and the forthcoming Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War.

What was once abnormal quickly becomes the new normal. Non-state actors, unmanned technologies, cyber – these are all important new parts of the present reality and likely future of war. But we don’t talk enough about the trends looming that make us most uncomfortable. Examples like: could 3-D printing do to the current defense marketplace what the iPod did to the music industry? Could ubiquitous sensors and artificial intelligence utterly change the way we think of the observe, orient, decide and act (OODA) loop? What major platforms of today, or even planned buys of tomorrow, are the equivalent of the battleship or Gloster Gladiator of yesterday? How will human performance modification technologies change the human side of war? And, perhaps most uncomfortable of all, because no one wants it but it must be weighed as a real risk, what would the 21st century version of full-out, great power, state-on-state warfare look like?

Anne Marie Slaughter, president of the New America Foundation; former director of policy planning, State Department, and dean of the Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University

War has been a constant of human history; understanding how it is evolving is essential to planning for peace. Much of conflict is in potential flux at its most essential levels: Will the wars of the future be more or less frequent than today? More or less expensive? Who will fight them? And with what weapons? Will we able to distinguish ‘war’ from ‘violence’? These are the kind of fundamental level questions we have to answer.

Ian Wallace, senior fellow and co-director of the Cybersecurity Initiative at New America; previously a senior official at the British Ministry of Defence and the British Embassy, for Washington’s defense policy and nuclear counselor.

Far too little consideration is given to the organizational implications for militaries of new and emerging technologies, up to and including their service structures. The organization of private sector companies has changed radically over the past two centuries, largely in order to stay competitive in a changing world. As the character of conflict evolve, not least as a result of the ongoing information revolution, militaries will also need to face up to fundamental questions about whether the organizational constructs of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are really best suited to winning the wars of the twenty-first century."

Michael Waltz, senior national security fellow with the New America Foundation, and president of Metis Solutions. He commanded a U.S. Army Special Forces unit in the reserve component with multiple deployments to Afghanistan and the Middle East.

The United States government is not organized appropriately to wage current and future warfare. Our authorities and expertise often lie with our civilian agencies while our budget and ability to operate in difficult places lie within our defense department. This gap manifests itself from border control to counterinsurgency to cyber to illicit finance. Stopgap measures such as provisional reconstruction teams and the civilian response corps have been largely ineffective and institutional reform is needed. 

Dan Ward, non-resident fellow at New America, is a bestselling author and expert on military technology and innovation. He served more than 20 years as an Air Force acquisition officer.

In a word, deterrence. We spend a lot of time thinking, talking and writing about how to fight future wars - drones, cyber, the Joint Strike Fighter, various naval ships, etc. - but I don't hear nearly enough discussion about how to not fight a future war. What can and should the U.S. military do to deter and prevent (rather than accept as inevitable) future armed conflict? Yes, we must be prepared to fight, but far better to seek the "ultimate excellence," in Sun Tzu's words, of defeating the enemy without fighting.