Balancing Force Modernization and the Most Likely Future Wars We’ll be Fighting by Brad Nicholson, Modern War Institute
Today, military planners focus intensely on countering Russian revanchism in Europe and containing Chinese expansionism in Asia. After more than a decade and a half of fighting “small wars” In Iraq and Afghanistan and conducting counterterrorism strikes in many more countries, our national security focus and increasingly prevailing wisdom suggest the international system may be returning to an era of great power war.
Except, it is not.
Despite predictions to the contrary great power conflict will not dominate global security issues in the twenty-first century. Wars between great powers have steadily declined since WWII with the influence of nuclear weapons upon the international system, a trend that pre-dates American hegemony and argues against unipolarity as the sole causal factor. However, while great power war is unlikely to emerge in the near future, war itself will remain a constant feature of the international system. Instead of large-scale, inter-state conflicts, though, the prevalent form of conflict for the foreseeable future will be civil wars. Nationalism, or even fragmented and atomized derivative identities, will be the driving factor behind these conflicts, manifesting principally as insurgencies.
The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the bipolar balance of power thawed previously frozen conflicts. From the Balkans to the Caucasus, through the Middle East, to Africa and Southeast Asia, issues of ethnic and nationalist identity have driven political conflicts that have often become violent, and have frequently taken the form of insurgencies. Both contemporary scholarship and US military doctrine indicate insurgents often adopt identity-focused strategies based upon religion, language, or ethnicity. The slow unraveling of artificially constructed and imposed nation-states that has contributed to these post–Cold War insurgencies has far from run its course; the majority of these states and their boundaries remain, and the unraveling will continue throughout this century. The conflicts of the future are going to look more like the ongoing civil war in South Sudan than a great power war across the Taiwan Strait.
The contemporary debate involving the manning, training, and equipping that the US military should undertake in order to modernize and prepare for future conflicts continues to build momentum. In large part this conversation is a reaction to the winding down of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Many observers view the Russian intervention in Ukraine and Chinese actions in the South China Sea as a glimpse into the nature of future security threats that the US military will likely be forced to confront. Such situations present potential threats to US interests, the case for modernization goes, and other, similar challenges will occur in the near, medium, and long term. Modernization advocates highlight the nature of these threats in order to justify extensive and expensive rearming, retraining, and restructuring initiatives…