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The Battlefield of Tomorrow Fought Today: Winning in the Human Domain
James B. Linder, Spencer B. Meredith III and Jason D. Johnson
The battles of tomorrow have already begun today. Threats facing the United States continue to multiply across state and non-state conflicts, yet these challenges come from more than hostile narratives and power politics. Violent conflict has deep roots across societies, ideologies, and the political systems that support them. This fact goes beyond individual countries or histories. We see it in the long-silent fields of the Somme, burned out villages in the Nigerian jungle, and the once vibrant Aleppo reduced to smoldering ruin. Thus, despite centuries of peacemaking efforts, the nature of war remains a fixed point in reality. Whether fought for the glory of the nation or expectations of eternal bliss, human nature and its connection to organized political violence have been a constant throughout social changes over the centuries. As disheartening as that is, changes continue to occur in the character of war, in both the means of violence and the context in which it occurs. Past changes were more than simply the advent of gunpowder that relegated armored knights to the annals of European history, or industrialization of troop movements through railroads and motorized vehicles on land and in the air. Those made tremendous differences in the locations of war, as much as in the lethality of warfare in general. Yet the biggest changes to the character of war seem to be ahead of us as the 21st century opens what looks like Pandora’s Box.
Social media analysts and urban planners point to two central features of the new millennium, factors that can be seen as a rise of “voice” alongside a fall of “place”. Both shape the ongoing changes to the character of war. The first is evident in the ubiquity of smart phones and personal wi-fi hotspots to connect every device to untold amounts of information. Yet the expansion of the “internet library” pales in comparison to the social connectivity it offers to average people across the globe. Virtual communities spring up based on narrowly defined interests and interpretations of events through a narrow narrative lens. Narrow-casting media reinforce this by shoring up their bases of support rather than engaging in dialogue across the aisle. Increasingly visual torrents of information also help to create even more powerful messages that demand control over events, rather than participation with others in the pursuit of solutions. Popular input is certainly a necessary element to build elite accountability and responsive government. However, in the face of increasing pressures to dominate the political spectrum at the expense of all others, compromise will likely remain in short supply, and conflict an increasing reality in the public sphere.
It is specifically this ability to access data that once remained closeted within the halls of political and economic power, which changes the character of war for the foreseeable future. Past social revolutions relied on limited numbers of intellectual elites as the storehouses of information. These “vanguards” decided who and when the masses became enlightened. That has changed forever, as Kissinger noted in World Order that “events whose effects once would have taken months to unfold, ricochet globally within seconds.” It seems now that in the face of populaces armed with Prometheus’s gift of fire, government and traditional social leaders’ ability to control is giving way to the imperative to influence.
The second change of increasing urbanization to megacity populations appears to be equally momentous. Megacities stand to rise both in number and density, topping ten million residents each, many of whom will languish in urban squalor and broken communities. These most vulnerable populations will continue to be the fodder for anti-status quo, violent non-state actors. They will also be the pawns for states whose forms appear to be democratic, but whose substance is anything but democracy. Kilcullen correctly identifies these broken spaces as more than just coastal, crowded, and connected in his 2015 book, Out of the Mountains. They are also clear examples of the human aspects of conflict that deal as much with ideas and identities, as with the material conditions of life.
Both of these changes speak to the current and future operating environment as a battlefield of the mind amidst a war of words that continues to influence even traditional battle spaces. When combined with increasing movements of people within and across countries, the operational physical domain can easily draw more attention to close quarter battle and defense of vital infrastructures. Yet as retired Lt. Gen. Cleveland indicated in recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year, the human domain cuts across all areas of conflict – it focuses on individuals; their identities, perceptions and cognitive processes; alongside group dynamics and the belief systems that shape them all. Confirming this assessment of the complexities of “human-centric warfare,” more than a decade of counter-terrorism efforts reveals the need for complex analytical tools, rather than just more hardware. Therefore, despite the increasing digitization of defense, the context of war will always be more than buildings and hardware because the human environment is the central element that unites voice and place. It does so by highlighting the ways “people power” develops and gets mobilized, and when violence will likely occur as a result. To that end, several recent projects from within the U.S. Army offer a way ahead for both understanding the changing character of war, and the resources needed to succeed in those new fights.
Where We Fight: Warfare in the Gray Zone
The Gray Zone was first described by Kissinger more than six decades ago as he detailed the complexities of the emerging Cold War. Kissinger highlighted those areas where neither clear military superiority could deter aggression, nor could diplomacy resolve all differences. In essence, and as has become widely observed today, the “gray areas” occur in the space between peace and war. They cross national boundaries and ultimately defy simple categorization as a single issue or problem to be solved. The past 25 years have seen the resurgence of the Gray Zone with the collapse of the bipolar world order, as horrifyingly predictable as it was with trip wires in the Fulda Gap and mutually assured nuclear destruction around the globe. In its place, more than two and half decades of Wilsonian-esque liberal idealism ran headlong into areas previously left unaddressed on the geopolitical stage. Gone were the days of great power politics, replaced by waves of non-state terrorist threats, popular revolutions, and the rise of social media to redefine identities and interests the world over, or so we were led to believe.
Instead, we have seen the resurgence of great power rivalries across the political, economic, and social arenas. As a result, threats proliferate as much from violent extremist organizations, as from state sponsors who can just as quickly mobilize “little green men”, as disrupt banking systems through denial of service attacks. To make matters even more challenging, state and non-state threats have an almost unfettered access to people power through the profusion of voice, and the seemingly insatiable expectation of immediate change that it produces. This greatly increases the use of misinformation to mobilize populations. As such, adversaries have greater incentives to weaponize information, especially to counter democratic societies that already face challenges managing the electorate’s often mutually exclusive demands. Taken together, the human domain can be clearly seen as the most common battlefield of the 21st century.
What should the United States do in the face of these challenges to our democratic system and national interests abroad? Doubling down on past strategies will be less effective in the human domain, as our focus widens on the need to persuade people from rallying to the forces of violent change in the world. Given those efforts, America’s brand of pragmatic realism offers a path for effective statecraft in the Gray Zone, one guided as much by core U.S. values of responsive government and entrepreneurship, as assessments of what can and cannot be done in the service of the nation. This has been a long-standing expectation of the American people for their national leadership, and now is the time to ensure its success.
How We Fight: Shape, Deter, and Defeat
Great power politics have reemerged, but with important differences from past epochs of international competition. Now combined with the availability of people power and ready-to-order non-state assets from an array of issues and geographic areas, the challenges of the Gray Zone abound. Two rival strategies confront the United States in that space between peace and war. First, Russia’s “hybrid warfare” combines all elements of national power around a few simple goals centered on Russia’s image as a regional hegemon with global reach. Differing from the previous Tsarist regional empire and the Soviet globalist one, the new Russian foreign policy has a more pragmatic goal. It aims to build different types of buffer zones against NATO encroachment to the West and U.S. counter-terrorism efforts in Central Asia. These can come as much from misinformation campaigns as traditional basing in former Soviet countries, what U.S. Army senior analyst Timothy Thomas describes as a flexible “initial period of war”. Most critical throughout these considerations, remains the reassurance of sovereignty from foreign challenges to the Kremlin’s control over its vast historic empire, to include the Caucasus and parts of Ukraine.
China’s “unrestricted warfare” follows suit with striking similarities, even if the configuration of national power tilts more towards economic influence. Yet economic power serves the same goals as do manmade atolls that visibly violate international maritime laws. Both are clear symbols of power projection, just as joint military training and image branding also play more than supporting roles in the promotion of China’s efforts. Like Russia’s approach, unrestricted warfare recognizes the human domain as the critical area of competition, and both identify society as the current and future battlefield.
These strategies present serious challenges for the United States, not least because they utilize successful U.S. strategies of the past century – shaping perceptions to support goals through all elements of national power. More challenging though than countering twisted versions of democratization and capitalist development, are the flexible uses of asymmetrical strengths against fundamental vulnerabilities of Western civilization – namely the free and open societies we so dearly cherish and fight to defend. Confronting those challenges requires nimble, pragmatic strategies that rely on US strengths.
In the face of those proliferating threats, the United States possesses equally capable means to counter and prevail in the Gray Zone conflicts facing the nation. Of particular note is the ability to shape and influence the human domain before conflicts arise. Termed as operational preparation of the environment, these “left of bang” efforts focus on three aspects. First is identifying the sources and nature of social interests, and grievances when those are not met. Then, where possible, efforts work to establish effective governance or at least the means to build it in the near future. Finally, when necessary to prevent conflict or resolve it, organization of people power moves towards positive goals. When done in conjunction with broader U.S. efforts through the Department of State, USAID, and the intelligence community, these measures can succeed. They do so by following common patterns of mobilization found across successful organizations, regardless of their political leanings or goals. At the core of those efforts can be found empathy for another’s condition, empowerment through opportunities, and efficacy that builds a sense of fulfilled purpose. These approaches have broad application and are used effectively across a spectrum of political goals from “get out the vote” campaigns, to violent extremist narratives and nationalist slogans emanating from Moscow or Beijing.
To meet these challenges, the United States Army recognizes the need to highlight specific core competencies across the force. Several recent articles from PRISM, War on the Rocks, Small Wars Journal, and numerous Department of Defense Joint Staff Strategic Multilayer Assessments, point to capabilities for succeeding in the human domain. In particular, the recent Army doctrine, ADP 3-05 emphasizes the need to shape the areas of consequence to national interest, prevent conflicts through special operations and conventional deterrence, and achieve victory when the fight becomes necessary.
Supporting those goals, the U.S. Army Warfighting Functions address ways to identify, utilize, and maximize combat power in diverse operational environments. In recent years, the Army has considered the expansion of a seventh warfighting function that specifically focuses on the human domain. Built on the concepts of coordinated strategic planning and operational execution across all arenas of conflict, this expanded maneuver concept identifies core tasks and resources to win in the human domain that intersects all others. Foremost in this effort is viewing the environment from a joint, interagency, intergovernmental, and multinational lens. This enables analysis that covers multiple bureaucratic interests and resources, while also recognizing the diversity of paradigms and narratives that characterize the human domain.
Effectively confronting Gray Zone threats in the human domain requires an emphasis on warfighters as much as the technology that supports them, for this is at the core of the character of war. As Maj. Gen. (ret.) Robert Scales argued in his assessment of current and future conflicts (Scales on War), the human element of conflict requires a broad spectrum of resources. Prevalent among them are abilities to adapt to diverse cultures, while preserving core objectives. This “alien environment” presents challenges for established doctrine and operational practice. However, by recognizing the imperative to invest in Soldiers who can successfully engage with foreign populations, the United States can meet and overmatch the diverse threats facing the nation today and into the foreseeable future.
The authors thank the USAJFKSWCS Commander’s Initiative Group for their efforts supporting this project.