InterRegional for Strategic Analysis held a panel discussion on Tuesday, 16 May 2023, on expected transformations in future wars. The panel featured Dr. Ash Rossiter, Assistant Professor of International Security at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi, and examined the effects of technology on the projected characteristics and trends of future warfare. It also offered recommendations for improving states’ abilities to grapple with these changes.
Impacts of Technology
The nature of war has not changed. The classical understanding of war as consisting of violent conflict between rival entities for political reasons remains the same. Although the nature of war will not shift in the future, the forms that war takes will continue to evolve. These transformations are not linear and have recently been accelerating.
The panel discussion shed light on various dimensions of how technology could reshape warfare in the future, including the following points:
1. Technology has rapidly reshaped how war is fought: During some wars there have been major breakthroughs with technologies used during the conflict. For example, the use of nuclear weapons marked a revolutionary shift in warfare. The accelerating pace of change in the field of military technology has contributed to further developments in warfare. Until the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century, wars largely depended upon mercenaries and a very small number of soldiers in national armies. This changed with the establishment of nation-states, which primarily relied on the citizens they recruited into national armies to fight its wars, which also fostered a sense of national belonging and patriotism.
With regard to future forms of warfare, there would be more automation of naval and aerial military systems over the next three to five years, with similar but more limited changes in land systems. There would be progress in the ability of parties to armed conflict in launching targeted strikes, and that there would be broader applications of sophisticated military capabilities. This will include both horizontal change (i.e., wider prevalence of these capabilities across all countries), and vertical change (greater use of sophisticated capabilities by non-state actors, such as armed militias or terrorist organizations).
2. Human factors also influence warfare: Technology has had an enormous impact on the forms of warfare in the world today and there is particular interest at the moment in the idea of wars fought by robots. However, that technology is not the only determining factor, and drew attention to other social, economic, and political dimensions of conflict. While it was important not to minimize the role of technology in warfare, its role also should not be overstated.
3. Use of sophisticated weapons by non-state actors: The widespread accessibility of sophisticated military technologies has allowed new actors to participate in war and armed military conflicts. States no longer have exclusive control over modern weapons, and it has become possible for other non-state actors to obtain sophisticated military capabilities, including drones, and to employ them for their own interests. This has bolstered the ability of those actors to become more involved in conflicts and wars, and marks one of the most significant changes in warfare over the last thirty years.
4. Increased risks of covert electronic warfare: It was important to follow developments in electronic warfare, also known as covert warfare, for two reasons. First, modern wars are being fought in the midst of major developments in the electronic sphere. This means that what states or other parties can do in a conflict is limited by their capabilities to employ new technologies in electronic warfare, such as drones or anti-missile air defense systems. These capabilities can decisively shift the balance of power in arenas of conflict towards one side or another.
Another reason for the escalating risks of electronic warfare is the ability to broadly utilize these technologies outside the scope of armed battle, such as to strike non-military targets in other states or to obstruct fifth-generation networks. This has become a matter of concern given increasing reliance on the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), and other modern technological applications.
5. Utilizing drones is a double-edged sword: Although drones play an important role in launching more precise military strikes against enemy targets, there are also negative elements of this phenomenon, whose risks should not be overlooked. As a result of pervasive use of drones, especially in light of lower production costs, there has been an increasing need on the part of states to strengthen anti-missile and other air defense systems in order to fend off potential drone attacks. This means that states face increasing costs in order to protect their national security.
There were several likely trends with regard to potential forms of future warfare, including the following:
1. Reduced importance of strategic surprise in wars: One consequence of the widespread use of modern technologies such as satellites is that strategic surprise plays a lesser role in warfare, if it has not disappeared already. This is due to the huge amount of information made available by technologies, which in turn has bolstered capabilities to closely monitor enemy movements on the battlefield and anticipate attacks before they happen. For example, before military operations began in Ukraine, various reports had observed Russian military mobilization and reinforcements along the Ukrainian border.
2. Increase in wars of attrition and protracted conflict: The war in Ukraine was likely to continue with no end in sight. Future wars might have different contexts and drivers than the current war in Ukraine, but that the most important features of this war would continue to figure into future armed conflict. We are likely to see further "wars of attrition," since quick victory is no longer possible. Countries no longer have the ability to launch lightning wars or achieve decisive outcomes in a short period of time. One important feature of future warfare will be the protracted nature of conflict, which may drag on longer than some expect.
3. Lopsided offensive vs. defensive capabilities: The success of any one state in developing superior AI capabilities beyond the scope of other states could tempt it to use its strategic advantages to strike first. In other words, there will be an imbalance between capabilities for attack and defense in the future, which means war is more likely to happen. This scenario could apply to the fierce competition between the US and China.
There were concerns regarding fair access by various countries around the globe to AI technologies and capabilities. The panel discussion discussed the concerns that the potential for these capabilities could become dominated by certain international powers such as the US, Japan, and China, while other states might have only limited access.
4. Continued importance of large armies in war: Some earlier projections about the war in Ukraine had not come to pass, such as the potential for armies to be replaced with modern military technologies. Since these technologies bolster the fighting capabilities of armies, there was speculation that the scope of armies themselves might become less important.
Historical experience of war has shown this is not the case. For example, some had high hopes in the 1960s that laser weapons would have unlimited potential. However, military technology cannot do everything. The size of armies remains important to their fighting capabilities, and that armies still need large numbers of soldiers, huge weapons stockpiles, strong military supply chains, and the ability to allocate enormous numbers of resources during wartime.
5. Previous wars provide instructive models: The conflicts that the world is experiencing today as very instructive because previous conflict can become a guide for armies and countries in projecting how warfare might develop in the future. Both armies and armed militias have tried to constantly learn from previous wars to better equip themselves for impending future conflicts. For example, various armies around the world learned lessons from the Gulf War of 1991, particularly because of the revolutionary changes in the nature of modern warfare during the conflict. That war had a particular influence on the arms doctrine of the People’s Liberation Army in China.
The panel discussion made several suggestions regarding how states could deal with the threat of future wars, including the following:
1. Focus on innovation as key pillar of future warfare: It was very important to bolster the capabilities of countries to stay a step ahead of their enemies and strategic rivals with regard to obtaining and implementing modern military technologies. Innovation was central to future warfare and that this would require countries to be more prepared and on the alert. States will need to improve their defense capabilities against the threat of electronic warfare in particular, since this could have direct implications for various spheres of national security.
2. Diversify suppliers of modern technologies and weapons: Modern technology was closely linked to national security and that obtaining and further developing modern technologies would boost defense capabilities. National security could also become threatened by the producers of these technologies who could exert pressure to further their own interests, and could eventually cut off supply lines. As an example, he cited the restrictions imposed by the US on exports of semiconductor materials to China. The best way to avoid this kind of predicament was to manufacture technologies locally or to diversify suppliers.
3. Wars unlikely to be decided by AI: Despite the role that AI technology plays in strengthening states’ defense capabilities, it is unlikely that AI and unmanned systems will play a decisive role in warfare. For example, Russia previously experienced technological challenges when it decided to test automated combat systems in Syrian battlefields. Only in the relatively long term—20 or 25 years in the future—would robots and automated systems be able to decisively reshape the world of warfare. With regard to the potential for AI technologies to replace people in decision-making, he said this was a controversial question, and warned that giving greater authority to automated systems could pose ethical concerns.
4. Maintain balance of traditional and modern military capabilities: Traditional weapons remain very important on the battlefield. The war in Ukraine has demonstrated that it is crucial to combine modern and traditional military capabilities, rather than only relying on modern technologies which are still being tested. Certain large-scale traditional military equipment, such as tanks, also remain important, especially when used with infantry and other offensive capabilities.
5. Secure weapons stockpiles and establish a military-industrial base: There was a need to learn from the experience of the war in Ukraine, particularly with regard to securing sufficient weapons stockpiles containing arms, ammunition, and military equipment. It would also be necessary to build a sophisticated military-industrial base locally, or to ensure access to diverse and reliable military supply chains. The panel discussion recognized the importance of strengthening states’ defensive capabilities through combining traditional and non-traditional systems.
In conclusion, the potential shifts in future warfare and conflict did not necessarily mean that states would experience radical transformations in which they would need to replace all existing armies or military capabilities. Instead, the panel discussion suggested that keeping pace with technological developments and identifying optimal uses for modern military technologies would offer both challenges and opportunities.