How People Fight. . .

The risk of conflict, including inter-state conflict, will increase during the next two decades because of diverging interests among major powers, ongoing terrorist threats, continued instability in weak states, and the spread of lethal and disruptive technologies.  The last 20 years’ trend of decreasing numbers and intensities of conflicts appears to be reversing: current conflict levels are increasing and battle-related deaths and other human costs of conflict are up sharply, according to published institutional reports.  Furthermore, the character of conflict is changing because of technology advances, new strategies, and the evolving global geopolitical context—challenging previous concepts of warfare.  Together these developments point to future conflicts that are more diffuse, diverse, and disruptive.

  • “Diffuse” because the greater accessibility to instruments of war will enable a variety of actors, including states, nonstate and substate entities (terrorist groups, criminal networks, insurgent forces, mercenaries, and private corporations), and motivated individuals, to engage in conflict.  One example of the diffusion of conflict is the growth in the numbers of private military-security firms and organizations that provide personnel who complement and substitute for state militaries in conflict zones and potentially as peacekeeping forces.  Conflicts will become more complex and the traditional distinctions between combatants and noncombatants less meaningful as the range of participants expands.
  • “Diverse” because the means of conflict will vary across a wider spectrum—ranging from “nonmilitary” capabilities, such as economic coercion, cyber attacks, and information operations, to advanced conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction (WMD)—and occur in multiple domains, to include space and cyberspace.  The diversity of the potential forms of conflict that might arise will increasingly challenge the ability of governments to prepare effectively for the range of possible contingencies.
  • “Disruptive” because of an increasing emphasis by states and terrorist groups, on disrupting critical infrastructure, societal cohesion, and government functions rather than on defeating enemy forces on the battlefield through traditional military means.  Adversaries will almost certainly seek to exploit greater connectivity in societies and the ubiquitous nature of cyberspace to create disruption.  Terrorists, for example, will continue to exploit social and other forms of media to spread fear and enhance the disruptive impact of their attacks on the psyche of the targeted societies.

Major Trends

Four overall trends are likely to exemplify the changing character of conflict during the next two decades regarding how people will fight:

The blurring of peacetime and wartime.  Future conflicts will increasingly undermine concepts of war and peace as separate, distinct conditions.  The presence of nuclear and advanced conventional weapons will contribute to deterring full-scale war among major powers, but lower levels of security competition will continue and may even increase.  Such conflicts will feature the use of strong-arm diplomacy, cyber intrusions, media manipulation, covert operations and sabotage, political subversion, economic and psychological coercion, proxies and surrogates, and other indirect applications of
military power.

  • The goal of these approaches is to stay below the threshold of triggering a full-scale war by employing mostly noncombat tools, often backed by posturing of military power, to achieve political objectives over time.  This trend is already occurring: China’s and Russia’s actions—in the South China Sea and Ukraine respectively—are contemporary examples of this approach.
  • While such approaches to conflict are not new, states like China and Russia view these methods as an increasingly integral part of future conflicts compared to traditional military capabilities.  Technology advances, such as cyber tools and social media, are also enabling new means for conducting conflicts and sowing instability, below the level of full-scale war.  These capabilities also will often obfuscate the source of attacks impeding effective responses.

These strategies, combined with a continuing risk of periodic terrorist attacks, will probably lead to persistent, economic, political, and security competition—occurring in the “gray zone” between peacetime and full-scale war—as the new normal for the security environment during the
coming decades.

  • States’ employment of “gray zone” approaches seek to avoid general war but will probably increase the risk of inadvertent escalation, through miscalculation, accident, or misinterpretation of adversary “red lines.”
  • States and nonstate entities alike will employ “nonmilitary” tools, such as information networks and multimedia capabilities, to exploit faith-based ideologies, nationalism, and other forms of identity politics to legitimize their cause, inspire followers, and motivate like-minded individuals to take actions.  China, for example, views media, legal, and psychological forms of warfare—the "three warfares"—as important to ensuring international and domestic support for future Chinese military operations and for weakening an enemy’s resolve, according to Chinese
    military writings.

Nonstate groups capable of creating greater disruption.  The spread of disruptive and lethal technologies and weapons will enhance the ability of nonstate and substate groups—such as terrorists, insurgents, activists, or criminal gangs—to challenge state authority.  Such groups, motivated by religious fervor, political ideology, or greed, are likely to become more adept at imposing costs and undermining state governance.  For example, activist groups, such as Anonymous, are likely to employ increasingly disruptive cyber attacks against government infrastructure to draw attention to their cause.  Nonstate groups will also wield greater firepower.  Terrorist groups, like Hizballah and ISIL, or insurgents in Ukraine are examples of nonstate and substate groups that have gained access to sophisticated weaponry during the last decade.

  • This trend is likely to continue because of the ongoing proliferation of commercial technologies and weapons and the support from states that seek to use such groups as proxies in advancing their own interests.  The proliferation of increasingly lethal and effective, advanced, man-portable weapons and technologies, such as antitank guided missiles, surface-to-air missiles, unmanned drones, and encrypted communications systems, will enhance the threats posed by terrorist and insurgent forces.  Access to weaponry, such as precision-guided rockets and drones, will provide such forces new strike assets to attack key infrastructures, forward operating bases, and diplomatic facilities.

Such groups also will probably exploit commercial technologies—such as additive manufacturing, autonomous control systems, computer processors, and sensors—to create tailored weapons and “intelligent” improvised explosive devices, complicating the development of countermeasures.  These groups will often seek to enhance their effectiveness and survivability by operating in
urban environments.

  • The spread of lethal and disruptive technologies will provide opportunities for insurgents, terrorists, and weak militaries to conduct “irregular” forms of warfare more effectively.  The use of satellite navigation systems and mobile communications will enable more effective, coordinated, small-unit attacks and dispersed operations to impose casualties and wear down an opponent’s resources and political resolve while avoiding large-scale, direct engagements with superior military forces.
  • A potential implication of an increasing privatization of violence and diversity of actors is the emergence of many small, but interconnected conflicts that overwhelm the ability of governments and international institutions to manage.

Increasing capabilities for stand-off and remote attacks.  The proliferation of cyber capabilities, precision-guided weapons, robotic systems, long-range strike assets and unmanned-armed, air, land, sea, and submarine vehicles will shift warfare from direct clashes of opposing armies to more standoff and remote operations, especially in the initial phases of conflict.  Precision weapons and unmanned systems have been a mainstay of the US arsenal, but the continuing proliferation of these capabilities increases the potential of both sides possessing these capabilities in a future conflict.  Long-range, precision-guided, conventional ballistic and cruise missiles, unmanned vehicles, and air defense systems will enable advanced militaries to threaten rival forces seeking access to the air and maritime commons surrounding their territory.  The development of scramjet engines and hypersonic vehicles will also significantly increase the speed at which targets are engaged.  For example, developing long-range precision strike capabilities—including missiles, hypersonic vehicles, and manned strike assets—are critical to China’s strategy of increasing the risks to US naval and expeditionary forces operating in the western Pacific, according to US military experts.

In addition to countering foreign military intervention, long-range, standoff capabilities might enable some states to assert control over key maritime chokepoints and to establish local spheres of influence.  Cyber attacks against critical infrastructures and information networks also will permit actors to impose costs directly on rivals from a distance, bypassing superior enemy military forces.  Russian officials, for example, have noted publicly that initial attacks in future wars might be made through information networks to destroy critically important infrastructure and disrupt an enemy’s political and military command and control.

  • The increasing automation of strike systems, including unmanned, armed drones, and the spread of truly autonomous weapon systems potentially lowers the threshold for initiating conflict, because fewer lives would be at risk.  Adversaries also might employ massed “swarms” of unmanned systems to overwhelm defenses.
  • The proliferation of long-range, precision-guided weapons will probably promote cost-imposing strategies involving strikes on critical infrastructures, such as those related to a state’s energy production, communications, diplomatic facilities, economy, and security.
  • A future crisis involving militaries similarly equipped with long-range, precision-guided conventional weapons risks being unstable, because both sides would have an incentive to strike first, before their own systems are attacked.  In addition, command, control, and targeting infrastructure—including satellites that provide navigation and targeting information—would probably become targets of attacks for forces seeking to disrupt an enemy’s strike capabilities.  Russia and China continue to pursue weapons systems capable of destroying satellites on orbit, placing US and others’ satellites at greater risk in the future.
  • Terrorist groups will almost certainly engage in a “poor man’s” version of long-range strike by recruiting and inspiring like-minded individuals to carry out terrorist acts in the homelands of other countries.
  • Cyber attacks against private sector networks and infrastructure could induce a response that draws corporations into future conflicts.  This trend, combined with opportunistic cyber attacks by individuals and nonstate groups, will muddle the distinction between state-sanctioned and private actions.  Protecting critical infrastructure, such as crucial energy, communication, and health systems, will become an increasingly important national security challenge.

New concerns about nuclear and other WMDDuring the next two decades, the threat posed by nuclear and other forms of WMD will almost certainly remain and will probably increase as a result of technology advances and increasing asymmetry between rival military forces.  Current nuclear states will almost certainly continue to maintain, if not modernize, their nuclear forces out to 2035.  Russia, for example, will almost certainly remain committed to nuclear weapons as a deterrent, a counter to stronger conventional military forces, and its ticket to superpower status.  Russian military doctrine purportedly includes the limited use of nuclear weapons in a situation where Russia’s vital interests are at stake to “deescalate” a conflict by demonstrating that continued conventional conflict risks escalating the crisis to a large-scale nuclear exchange.

  • Similarly, Pakistan has introduced short-range, “battlefield” nuclear weapons that it has threatened to use against Indian conventional incursions, which lower the threshold for nuclear use.  Nuclear “saber-rattling” by North Korea—including its development of ICBMs—and the possibility that Iran might renege on its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the Non-Proliferation Treaty and develop nuclear weapons also will probably remain concerns during the next two decades.
  • In addition, the proliferation of advanced technologies, especially biotechnologies, will potentially reduce the barriers to entry to WMD for some new actors.  Internal collapse of weak states could open a path for terrorist WMD use resulting from unauthorized seizures
    of weapons.
  • At-sea deployments of nuclear weapons by India, Pakistan, and perhaps China would nuclearize the Indian Ocean during the next two decades.  These countries would view these developments as enhancing their strategic deterrence, but the presence of multiple nuclear powers with uncertain doctrine for managing at sea incidents between nuclear-armed vessels increases the risk of miscalculation and inadvertent escalation.
  • The technical barriers to developing biological agents into weapons of societal disruption or terror probably will shrink as the costs of manufacturing decreases, DNA sequencing and synthesis improves, and genetic-editing technology become more accessible on a global basis.
  • Some states are likely to continue to value chemical agents as a deterrent and for tactical use on the battlefield.  The ease of manufacturing some chemical weapons will make their potential use of by terrorist or insurgent groups a concern.

Key Choices

The implications of how people fight in the future will depend heavily on the emerging geopolitical context and decisions made by major actors that increase or mitigate risks of conflict and escalation.  Although US relative advantages are decreasing in some areas, the United States will almost certainly retain key security and military advantages compared to other states as a result of the country’s economic strength, favorable demographic profile, geographical position, technology edge, openness to information, and alliance systems, providing Washington opportunities to shape the emerging security environment.  However, other states and nonstate groups will continue to view the US military as an object of competition—as well as for emulation—in developing their own concepts and capabilities for future war.  Furthermore, key uncertainties remain about the future likelihood of major war, its costs, and potential for escalation.  These uncertainties also suggest potential opportunities for the United States and its partners to mitigate worst outcomes through confidence-building measures, increasing resilience, and promoting international agreements to restrict the development and use of the most unstable escalatory capabilities.

How global and regional players respond to future geopolitical developments and security challenges, such as transnational terrorism, sectarian violence, intrastate conflict, and weak states will significantly shape inter-state competition and the potential for wider conflict during the next two decades.  China, Iran, and Russia will probably seek greater influence over their neighboring regions and will want the United States and other countries to refrain from interfering with their interests, a situation likely to perpetuate the ongoing geopolitical and security competition occurring around the periphery of Asia and in the Middle East, to include the major sea lanes.  Tension between major and regional powers also could increase in response to the global redistribution of economic and military power and the rise of nationalism in state politics.  The diversity of security threats and the potential for future, multiple, simultaneous regional contingencies risk overwhelming the capacity of the US military to manage, emphasizing the continuing need for competent military allies and multilateral approaches.

  • The choices that major powers make in response to increasing competition will determine the likelihood of future conflicts.  Constraints that inhibit full-scale war among major powers, such as nuclear deterrence and economic interdependence, will probably remain.  However, changes in the character of conflict will probably introduce greater risk for miscalculation that would increase the likelihood of major-power conflict, unless competing states undertake mitigating confidence-building measures.
  • The continuing threat of transnational terrorism and state use of “gray zone” strategies would probably increase the incidents of external powers intervening in future intrastate conflicts and engaging in proxy wars.  Cooperation among major powers and international institutions in resolving intrastate conflicts could bring much needed stability.  However, the involvement of a diversity of actors with competing objectives risks prolonging and expanding local conflicts, creating broader instability.

The proliferation of long-range strike systems and cyber attack capabilities and more sophisticated terrorist and insurgent operations suggests a trend toward increasingly costly but less decisive conflicts.  The strategies of major powers and nonstate groups that emphasize disrupting critical infrastructures, societies, government functions, and leadership decisionmaking will exacerbate this trend and increase the risk of future conflicts expanding to include homeland attacks.  The character of future conflicts would change significantly if an unexpected advantage in cyber attack capabilities creates the ability to cripple advanced, information-dependent military systems found in most modern militaries.

  • Future conflicts will probably be fought in multiple domains beyond traditional air, land, sea, and undersea domains to include computer networks, the electromagnetic spectrum, social media, outer space, and the environment—as adversaries seek competitive advantages and new means of imposing costs.  Future conflicts in the environmental domain, for example, are likely to involve controlling access to water supplies or intentionally creating environmental damage to impose economic costs on rivals.
  • Efforts to enhance resilience, by increasing the security and redundancy of critical infrastructure and networks, deploying defensive systems, and enhancing societal emergency preparedness levels, for example, would decrease the ability of adversaries to impose crippling costs.

Advances in military capabilities, such as unmanned, automated weapon systems and high-speed, long-range strike systems, which reduce response times, are likely to create new, but uncertain, escalation dynamics in times of crisis.  Furthermore, the rapid pace of technology developments—in areas such as cyber, genetics, information systems, computer processing, nanotechnologies, directed-energy, and autonomous, robotic systems—increases the potential for surprise in future conflicts.

  • Conflicts with an asymmetry of interests and capabilities among the combatants are probably most ripe for deliberate or inadvertent escalation, as some states might choose to threaten escalation against a superior conventional force—including WMD use—to deter a military intervention or to compel a cease-fire.

The Changing Character of Warfare

Traditional Forms of Warfare Emerging Forms of Warfare
Targeting of enemy forces Targeting of enemy perceptions, society
Direct clash of militaries Remote strikes using standoff precision weapons, robotics systems, and information attacks
Destruction of military personnel and weaponry Destruction of critically important military and civilian infrastructure
Deterrence by fear of retaliation Deterrence by fear of escalation
Winning by defeating the enemy on the battlefield Winning by disrupting the support systems (political, economic, information, etc.) on which the enemy military depends