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The Future of Warfare

Foreign Policy Brief #139 | By: Brandon Mooney | January 12, 2022

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Policy Summary

With the War in Afghanistan having come to an end and the neoliberal experiment of nation-building being tossed on the metaphorical scrap heap, the U.S. confronts a radically changing world in which traditional conceptions of warfare are both antiquated and ultimately disastrous. The American war machine, built in the Cold War for slugging it out with a clearly identified military, is not equipped for such an environment, and must change itself to meet the demands of our time. In this brief, we will explore what the future of warfare may hold for our nation and the foreign relations that will act as lynchpins.

Conventional warfare is typically defined as direct land, naval, air, and related means to defeat an enemy, regulate desired territory, and prevent future attack. Conventional warfare of the type seen in WWII, Iraq, Vietnam, and across the world during the past century causes widespread damage and loss of life, along with being extremely costly. With the development of sophisticated technologies and state governments wishing to reduce costs, there has been a concurrent increase in so-called irregular targeted warfare. This includes mercenary companies, hacking, special operations, intelligence gathering, and misinformation.

With the relative ease of acquisition and the low cost of technology, state and nonstate actors can quickly build capacity and generate threats to U.S. national security. Enemies can be everywhere with the use of drones, satellite technology, genetic engineering, encryption, and more. Lines are not so easily drawn between direct combat and less obvious means of attack. America’s competitors are now utilizing non-military action as methods of war, such as media attacks, propaganda, and misinformation. 

Terrorist groups can now use endless, easily created social media accounts to attract new recruits. Governments supply money and assistance to automated online trolls and chatbots to sway voter opinion. Private companies are now privy to and responsible for the safety of citizen’s private information, identities, health care information, spending habits, and much more. Some multinational organizations are even generating their own foreign policies. For example, the Women’s Tennis Association suspended all matches in China, while the National Basketball Association censured players for expressing anti-CCP sentiments over social media. In fact, private sector cyberwarfare innovation is far outpacing the U.S. government, raising questions about the true ability of the state to protect its citizens.

Looking at specific foreign policy issues, the outlook seems clouded at best and at the worst: bleak. The U.S.’s once-expected global hegemony is slipping as adversaries like China Russia and Iran grow. This makes old enemies bolder and allows new challengers to test established boundaries. Customary European allies are becoming increasingly more concerned with issues at home or are unable to exert power abroad as they once did.

China’s rapidly growing power threatens traditionally stable relationships in Asia, as U.S. allies reconsider whether it is in their regional interest to side with us over an expanding power closer to home. China’s soft power base is only growing stronger through international development projects in Africa and Latin America, while state-led Chinese companies gather intelligence on sensitive technologies and violate international copyright laws. Artificial islands are being built in the South China Sea, journalists and Hollywood are being pressured to self-censure by the CCP, and economic actors must “play nice” with their narratives to do business within Chinese markets.

Russia has grown so bold as to meddle in U.S. elections with online disinformation, fanning the flames of domestic division. They have released malware on needed national infrastructure, provided the Assad regime with air support, and given assistance to nationalist and anti-ally European political parties. Iran now offers both military and economic backing for nonstate terrorist groups and conducts offensive cyber-attacks.

Policy Analysis

Everyone hates the person who points out all the issues and then disappears with a shrug of the shoulders. What can be done? Well, there are several critical components of future warfare that the U.S. should invest in. First, debatably, financing further warfare automation and AI strike mechanisms. There is little doubt that adversaries will do so. However, there are serious humanitarian and moral questions about creating robots with warfare capabilities or computers that can operate without human interaction. I leave this quandary to my betters, with the caveat that I personally have reservations.

Second, there should be investment in technologies focused on more  precision-strike capabilities. What does this mean? Take the use of drones. Their use has only increased over the years, and they are now an oft-used method for the U.S. military. However, they have been severely criticized, for good reason, due to widespread civilian killings and the inherent separation of humanity from shifting figures on a screen. If the U.S. wishes to continue claiming the moral high ground when it comes to military interactions, it must ensure that utilized technologies are accurate in the field

Third, the U.S. should begin understanding the culture and politics of our adversaries and support campaigns to expose their human rights abuses, oppression, corruption, and violence of growing authoritarian regimes. To address any threat, you must first comprehend it. Our future policymakers and military personnel need to know about Russia, Iran, and China. History, language, etc. matter in this context.

Drone strikes have killed innocent civilians in warfare.

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Fourth, the U.S. government needs to create connections with and uncover mutual priorities with private industry. At this point, it could be argued that the private sector has more access to citizens than the state. The private sector can also lend legitimacy to authoritarian regimes and adversaries by operating in their markets or censoring themselves to fit authoritarian narratives. The U.S. must appeal to its private sector that solely making a profit is not worth the sacrifice of democratic values and tacitly supporting oppression. 

The U.S. has a responsibility to encourage democracy, human rights, and resistance to authoritarian power. Although I do not support everything the U.S. does and has done, and believe in critically evaluating our history, this is what I hope for and believe the U.S. should stand for. That is the U.S. that I can support in times of war. 

Yet a new future is coming. Will our adversaries collapse like the USSR, with local populations rising to demand change? As China’s power grows, our traditional tactic of imposing economic sanctions may dwindle in effectiveness. 

Will this encourage physical combat or the greater use of cyberwarfare? As the power of our enemies increase, will the U.S. be forced into going to war? Who can tell?

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on resource URL to visit links where available 

Rand Corporation – interesting, downloadable eBook by a D.C. think tank on the future of U.S. warfare.

World Economic Forum – a released statement listing probable action points and needs for a successful military moving forward into the future. 

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