The Future of War
By Major ONAMBELE MENDOUGA Guy Herve,
Cameroon Special Forces (Rapid Intervention Battalion BIR)
Imagine a Swiss businessman in Italy, near the city of Solferino. He probably went there for an important meeting that would increase his fortune. Unfortunately, there is a colossal battle between two opponents' camps while he is there. Gunfire resonates everywhere; soldiers are shouting, crying, yelling; the blood splashes and cuts the soldiers' heads, hands, and feet at every cannonball explosion. In the evening, more than 30.000 wounded and killed in action are abandoned on the field. Some cry, and the others are simply lifeless, dead. Henri Dunant witnessed this atrocity scene on the evening of June 24, 1859, at Solferino during the Italian independence war. The war opposed two camps. On the one hand, the Austrian empire and, on the other hand, the French-Italian coalition. This conflict between many state actors was by its nature brutal and violent, inhuman, and led Henry Dunant to take actions in favor of the wounded regardless of their camp. Later, Dunant's steps would create the international red cross, the Geneva conventions, and the law of armed conflicts. Solferino represents the war as we know it. A bloody military engagement between armies of two or multiple states. This type of war has rules that all the belligerents should respect; otherwise, they commit war crimes.
The above description portrays almost faithfully wars as we imagine them. States against states, armies against armies, mighty kinetic means opposing each other. This conception of war is a legacy of the thirty-year war and has endured for almost four centuries. But history is not static and evolves. So do the character of war, although its nature remains immutable. This implies that future wars are likely to be different from the heritage of Westphalia.
Consequently, it drives the following questions: will future wars be different from what humanity has known in the past three centuries? If so, how? Who will be the actors in the upcoming conflicts? In which arena and context will these clashes occur? How will these conflicts shape international relations? This paper argues that conventional wars will no longer reign as masters in the realm of disputes. It asserts that new types of warfare, including new actors, will coexist or compete with conventional wars. It portrays future warfare.
- Post-Westphalian Conventional wars: Wars in the common knowledge
What is war? "War is politics, and war itself is a political action." For Clausewitz, it is merely the continuation of policy by other means, and Sun Tzu describes it as an art of vital importance for the State. The first two definitions have the word politics in common, and the latter instead prefers the word State. The term policy and politics in the above definition is one way States express themselves. Therefore, one can conclude from the above that war is an act that enables states to solve disputes. Mao would say war is political bloodshed. The upshot of all this is that war as we know it from the movies and contemporary books of history is a brutal and violent political way through which States fix problems. However, this definition refers mainly to conventional conflicts. Those are often associated with states and have been leading the realm of military engagements for more than three centuries.
Indeed, the history of conventional wars is linked with that of States. It is a direct result of the Westphalia's Peace of 1648. Actually, the treaty of Westphalia created a new world order with States as the unique rulers. If medieval Europe were an insecure place before the thirty-year wars (where anyone with money could raise an army and wage wars), the post-Westphalian world would define a new era with the dictatorship of States. With it came words like sovereignty. This "State centric system" is the one the world still lives in today. It grants many privileges to the sovereign States. Among these is the monopoly of legitimate violence or force. An example of this Westphalian order legacy is that only States can declare wars on one another. For instance, in the United States constitution, that prerogative belongs to the congress that can declare war. To sum up, the peace of Westphalia set the foundations of conventional warfare. Warfare between two or many States (eventually kingdoms) fighting through their respective armies with specific types of equipment and rules.
After the peace agreement, war theoreticians that followed confirmed the conventional war as THE way to fight. Napoleon fought all his wars according to that model. It is the model that Clausewitz and Jomini explained in their books. And if we glance at the recent history of conflicts, almost all the wars we know were conventional. The two world wars are typical examples.
Furthermore, what is taught in military academies, staff, and war colleges is how to fight and win in a conventional war. The world today lives the heritage of Westphalia. Even the culture is an ambassador of the conventional wars. According to the internet movies database, 8 of the ten first war movies relate to conventional warfare. We are heirs of the conventional war. The war we know, study, read and prepare to fight is conventional. Nevertheless, the time has come for war thinkers and strategists to expand their horizons and think otherwise. Many other conventional wars will likely happen, but the competition is tough, and other forms of conflicts will arise and challenge the traditional. The future of war does not belong to conventional wars only. A post-Westphalian world has risen.
- The International Relations Arena in the Postwestphalian Era: A fertile ground for a new type of wars
2014, it's freezing on this winter day of February 27 on a peninsula in Europe. Everything anywhere looks normal until it is not. Strange people unknown in the region arrive in military units well organized. The conventional force in charge of security is easily outnumbered and forced to withdraw. One day later, the unknown force takes over the peninsula's principal airport and raises a foreign flag on its parliament. When the soldiers who escaped from this attack are questioned about the invader's identity, they say they don't know. They wore no identified insignias or uniforms. It is hard to tell to which country they belong. This scenario sounds like a fiction movie, but it did happen in the real world. In 2014, "Little Green Men" invaded the CRIMEA peninsula, took the airport of SIMFEROPOL, and raised Russia's flag above the regional parliament. When Putin was asked if those unidentified men were Russians, he allegedly said no. What could the international community do in reprisal? Nothing.
The arena in the post-Westphalian world has changed. The new world order is complex and difficult to apprehend, monitor and control. As we saw above, States with their armies were the almighty in the Westphalian world. International laws, rules, and traditions were the rule. Under the United States' western rule, the international community was in charge of enforcing the rules. Conversely, in a post-Westphalian world, the international relations arena has changed and is likely to change the future of war. At least for two reasons.
First, this paper argues that the ruled-based order will collapse because these laws are now easy to counter. If we think about the Little Green Men story above, it was almost impossible for the international community to sanction Russia since no formal proof existed to demonstrate that the invaders were Russians. To put it bluntly, the existing laws are easy to counter; many gray zones or blurry zones exist where ruling is almost impossible. Consider how states struggle (without great success) to tax the GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple) because nobody knows which regulation to apply. The example can be extended to using cryptocurrencies that escape boundaries and rules. To come back to our scenario, which economic sanction could be possible for the Russian officials if they had most of their assets in bitcoin? After the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, a wave of international sanctions pushed many oligarchs to use bitcoins that escape all regulations. Because international laws are easy today to escape, because many legal and law void exist in the international arena, new actors are likely to emerge and exploit it in the future for a new type of wars.
Secondly, the international arena is changing because even when laws exist, no mechanism exists to enforce them. "There is no international judiciary, police force, or prisons, so it doesn't matter if you ignore it." States have been violating the rules and norms openly without being sued or impeached by the international community. In March 2003, the United States built a coalition to invade Iraq despite many vetoes at the UN Security Council. President Koffi Hannan stated: "I have indicated it was not in conformity with the UN charter. From our point of view and from the charter point of view it was illegal." However, after the US illegal invasion, nothing happened. The example of the UN convention violation by the United States and its allies that went unpunished demonstrates that the United Nations "has abdicated its role of conflict prevention…it did nothing meaningful to stop the wars in Iraq, Syria, Sudan…everywhere." If some States or actors can take measures against the system and escape unpunished, why should we expect others not to do the same? With which legitimacy the United Nations or the United States would speak when Russia invades Ukraine?
To summarize, the post-Westphalian international arena is one where it is easy to counter or escape the laws. Why would the rules of law apply to some actors and not to others? Due to the new arena of non-respect of law or tricking the regulations, the world in the future will face a growing entropy with new forms of conflict rising everywhere. This has already started and means the emergence of a new global system that Sean McFate calls "durable disorder." The durable disorder is the arena in which future wars will happen. Conflicts with new actors, with new ways and rules, and in which winning will change. The durable disorder will characterize and impact international relations and change the face of warfare.
- Wars of the future will have new actors
If State to State wars still have a few days ahead, future wars will mainly be without States actors. In fact, because, in the durable disorder, the international community will no longer be able to protect the innocents (like in Iraq and Ukraine), one will witness the erosion of the State authority. For instance, in 2014, after the US left Iraq, a failed state, the weak country situation favored the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Ultimately, "The vacuum of authority left by retreating states will be filled by insurgents, caliphates, corporatocracies, narco-states, warlord kingdoms, mercenary overlords, and wastelands." In the context of the lost confidence in the Westphalia order and the arrival of the durable disorder, States will lose the legitimacy of legitimate violence. New non-State actors will hire warriors or mercenaries to wage wars on their behalf. Any reason will be good enough for these new players to wage wars. Make money, fight for faith or a belief, revenge, for its tribe…
To take a case in point, the drug cartel fights in Mexico illustrate how new actors will fight each other within states without including national armies or police. In 2019, combats between cartel factions killed 34,582 people. The city of Acapulco was, in 2020, the theater of fierce fights between different cartels groups to control the trade in Mexico. A similar war situation within a State without States actors happened in 1994 in Rwanda. The assassination of the Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana from Rwanda and Cyprien Ntaryamira from Burundi sparked a genocide that killed approximately 1,000,000 persons. This mass killing happened between two ethnic groups, the Hutus and the Tutsis, with no State intervention. In the same order, as already happening in Africa, many insurgent groups will challenge the State's authority and seek to secede or overthrow the government in place. That is the case in Cameroon, where the "Ambazonia insurgency" strives for secession. Obviously, the State will no longer be the only actor in wars; newcomers like rebellions, insurgencies, drug cartels, tribes, and political parties will wage wars.
Likewise, a new tendency that is also likely to emerge in the future is undercover wars. States will fight others states or groups using mercenaries or hired people, not their standing armies. They will frequently use private military companies to dodge international laws and wage wars. Countries will hire these companies to help them fight threats on their soil or abroad. The danger could be an insurgency, a terrorist organization, or whatever. In the Central African Republic, a failed State, the Wagner group rescued the new fragile government of Faustin Archange Touadera. It helped stop the Seleka rebellion and is now protecting the fragile State. The phenomenon is gaining ground as a strong trend. Early in 2022, another failed State, Mali, hired the services of the Wagner group for its security. The tendency to hire foreign fighters to help fight a cause is not only used by Russians or African countries. The united states did it in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2022, President Zelensky publicly called for volunteers across the world to come and help Ukraine fight against Russia. In the future, as these examples show, money will allow States or people to pay private individuals or companies for military security. Powerful corporations or companies like Total, operating in dangerous waters like the Nigerian Gulf of Guinea, will pay private companies to protect them against the sea pirates.
- Wars of the future will have new means and ways
In August 2021, after 20 years of engagement in Afghanistan, the mightiest army in the world withdrew from the country. For two decades, the US military, with all the technological dominance, could not succeed to compel the Taliban to surrender. The imposing F-35 aircraft, Humvees, Abrahams assault armored car, binocular night visions, and sniper rifles, all the fanciest recent sophisticated weapon systems one can imagine, did not help the US win in Afghanistan. As General Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, acknowledged: "It is clear, it is obvious to all of us, that the war in Afghanistan did not end on the terms we wanted, with the Taliban in power in Kabul." The same day, Milley conceded that the war in Afghanistan was a strategic failure. The debacle of the US troops in front of the Taliban, a weak and lousy train foe, means one thing; technology will no longer determine who wins or loses. In future wars, victory won't go to the strongest, but to whom fight the best in the global durable disorder order. If victory will not be assured with the best firepower and recent technology, which ways and means warriors of tomorrow will favor to achieve it?
We have seen that technology will not necessarily win tomorrow's wars. This is because warriors will change the way they fight. They will stop worshiping kinetic means like the best arm systems ever and turn to non-kinetic features. The ways-means of future wars will be "elements like information, refugees, ideology and time." These are elements that warriors of the future will weaponize to achieve victory. Anything that can be used as a weapon to serve one foe's interest will be of great use. This will be the ways and means of tomorrow and has already started today. Consider how Putin tried to weaponize space and the International Space Station for its interest in the Ukrainian-Russian war. The utility of force that Clausewitz so cherished will be thrown to the dustbin, and victors of tomorrow's wars will prefer to be sneaky and favor the economy of force.
In February 2020, a Russian offensive in Syria killed 33 Turkish citizens and angered Ankara, which threatened to open its frontier and let thousands of refugees enter Greece. After the Strike, the whole western world panicked and sought to find an agreement with Erdogan. Putin knew the narrative of Ankara to open its borders would continue to exacerbate nationalism in European Union and feed the migrant crisis that was ongoing there. On the other hand, the Turkish president knew that Europe would not risk another wave of the massive arrival of refugees on its shores like that of 2014 that favored Brexit and brought the far-right into power in Hungary, Italy, and almost France. Both Putin and Erdogan use the refugees as a weapon against Europe.
As we have already seen, the durable disorder is an era where nobody cares about the Westphalian order's rules and laws of the Westphalian order. Belligerents will not care about respecting laws of arms conflicts and will commit atrocities and war crimes. But it will not really matter because the paradigm would no longer be the same. Propaganda and plausible deniability will be stronger than firepower. In the future, victory may sometimes depend not on whose army wins, but on whose story wins." In an era of social media, future warriors will use information as a powerful weapon that will be more dangerous than nuclear warheads.
Furthermore, why will leaders of tomorrow or strategists think in terms of either war or peace? Instead, an intelligent foe could use the space between these two to achieve its political objective. One strategic failure of today's thinkers is that they see war as pregnancy; you are or are not. Tomorrow, the concept of either war or peace will be a false dichotomy. Belligerents will use the "war without war strategy." In other words, a wise thinker will always avoid escalation to an open conflict but sustain the tensions to the edge of war and then deescalate to avoid the explosion. The new condition resulting from the de-escalation representing the new status quo situation. Today's compromises becoming tomorrow's norms and standards. China is doing it in the South China Sea, and Russia did it to annex Crimea.
- Victory will not necessarily look the same as today
In 1945, after having killed the maximum number of enemies and gaining the maximum territories, the allies won World War 2. As a result, on May 8, 1945, Germany signed an unconditional surrender at the headquarters of US general Dwight Eisenhower. In the Westphalia ruled base order, the victor was the one who seized the most territories, killed the most foes, and won the decisive battles. But in the durable disorder order, victory may look different. It won't only be ye who killed the max enemy or won the maximum of battles, but it will be who reached its political objective. In Afghanistan, it is likely that the US-led coalition won more fights than the Taliban and killed more enemies, but they did not win the war. So did it happen before in Iraq and Vietnam. Because victory like war has moved on.
As we have already seen, wars tomorrow will have another face, and so will victory. It will only consist of denying the opponent a clear winning. A sort of just existing as a belligerent until your opponent gets tired and quits. This happened in Afghanistan in 2021. The coalition may argue that it won almost all the battles, but the truth is; it did not win the war. Winning all the battles and still losing the war is a "bifurcated victory" and doesn't mean political victory. The political triumph is what the Taliban achieved. All one foe needs to do for such achievements is deny the political success to the other and keep existing. By existing on the battlefield only, you achieve almost your political victory and deny it to the opponent. In tomorrow's wars, weaker adversaries will win if they don't lose, and more robust will lose if they don't win. The theory of victory for belligerents will be to exist on the battlefield until the opponent resigns and gives up.
Homo homini lupus. This Latin maxim means "Man is wolf to man." In other words, it refers to the aggressive character of humans towards others in the State of nature. Only a superior being can prevent this behavior. It implies that war will never end between humans because it is their nature. Human history is full of war stories from ancient Egypt of pharaohs until the contemporary Russia of Putin. It has been there, present, immutable. Its nature seems eternal, a bloody path to set political disputes. However, its character has evolved with time. For the past three centuries, it was the property of Nation-States, and no one else could wage it. Before this period, influential landowners had the power to raise armies and go to war. Because it evolves with its time, it is crucial to understand what its future will look like to be well prepared. This paper was an essay on its future. It argued that conventional wars as we know them today will decrease; and will emerge a new type of warfare with new actors, new ways, and ends. The main reason for the shift will be the changing of the international paradigm. The world order based on the Westphalian treaty will end with the dominance of Nation-States and rules/laws. A new world order based on durable disorder will arise from its ashes and be the future arena of tomorrow's wars.
In this new arena, States will share the right to wage wars with non-State actors, mercenaries will return, technology will not be the guarantee of victory, plausible deniability will help states wage wars and deny it, nobody will respect the rules of armed conflicts, peace and war will coexist simultaneously, nuclear deterrence through mutually assured destruction will be obsolete, best weapons won't fire bullets, non-State wars will exist, and victory will be fungible. It is up to today's leaders and strategists to anticipate the onset of this entropic era and get ready. Failure to think strategically about the future of war and adapt is an existential threat for countries today. Strategic education in a post-Westphalian world is the commencement of readiness for that dark epoch.
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