War is not what it used to be. Rapidly advancing technologies are transforming its tools, and the world is facing a set of crises – rising terrorism, the battle against Islamic State, civil wars in Syria and Ukraine and several ominous conflicts in Africa — that are forcing deep changes in the way we think about how and where those new weapons should be deployed, if at all.
In one of his dictums, Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military theorist, made clear that war’s nature does not change, only its character. By nature, said Clausewitz, war is above all an extension of politics by other means. But the characteristics of war — its pace, intensity and strategies — are subject to constant evolution. There are seven key trends presently driving the change.
The accelerating cyber revolution is all-pervasive in warfare. Cyber is now integral to every part of modern networked warfare, from the management and logistics of large military forces to situational awareness, signals intelligence, targeting, and electronic warfare. This is an area of constant flux as the big cyber players – the US, Russia, and China, as well as the UK – evolve their doctrines with technological change. All are investing heavily in cyber military capability, defined as the means to take out an enemy’s networks while defending your own from similar attack. So far states have shown some restraint and there has been no outright cyber war, but an attack on critical infrastructure could yet mean that a cyber war translates into a real war.
In its most recent five-year Strategic Defence and Security Review, the UK committed itself to doubling its investment in cyber. Significantly, the document stated that the UK would respond to a cyber attack “in any way we choose.” This could be taken to mean that a cyber attack on the UK might provoke what is now termed a “kinetic response” — a war with bombs, and missiles.
The use of a cyber offensive capability also carries a risk of blowback, as seen in the case of the Stuxnet computer virus, launched against centrifuges used by Iran in its uranium enrichment programme by the US and Israel. Something went wrong somewhere and the virus infected many networks around the world.
As machine intelligence develops more sophisticated algorithms to allow networks to learn, and artificial intelligence permits greater automation and a leap in robotic capability, cyber will become ever more important.
Arms races among states as well as between states and those intent on overthrowing them are intensifying as technology advances spread. The half-life of a military technology advantage is rapidly decreasing as innovations — and countermeasures — become more widely available.
There is now far wider access to some of the technologies underlying high level encryption, cyber war, drones, guidance systems, and command and control networks. A reminder of this came four years ago when an Iranian cyber warfare unit captured an intact US stealth RQ-170 Unmanned Aerial Vehicle by hacking into its flight control system as it flew over the country.
In Africa higher end technologies are falling into the hands of rebel groups. For instance an African army operating against Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), in a remote part of central Africa found itself up against an adversary with equipment to intercept and locate the cell phones. The result was an ambush in which eight Special Forces soldiers were killed.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are playing an ever-larger role in warfare. UAVs are now manufactured around the world and extensively used for intelligence collection, surveillance, and increasingly for weapons delivery. Infantry sections in the most advanced countries now have mini-UAVS, some that can fit into hand, to provide a look at what lies around the next bend in the road. The US Predator can loiter for hours before releasing weapons and the Global Hawk is intercontinental in its surveillance reach.
Military analysts have speculated that the F-35 Lightning II might be the last manned fighter, with the future given over to Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles. In time, advances in robotics could mean humanity will be faced an unprecedented ethical challenge. Can we trust “killer robots” to make autonomous kill decisions?
The horizon for UAVs and robotics is immense. In one project the US Navy is looking into the idea of lower cost UAVs operating in a swarm, but with the individual craft relating to each other and coordinating tasks. Unmanned vehicles are also being used on land, at sea, and under the sea, and there is a mule type robot that can transport military equipment.
Then there is field of emerging countermeasures against UAVs, which have yet to be battle tested in an environment where air superiority is denied.
The build up of expeditionary capability and special forces to ensure a faster response to crises is being undertaken by an increasing number of countries and defence alliances. With threats of international terrorism rising and some leaders demanding more boots on the ground in the Middle East, the UK, US and Europe are investing heavily in additional expeditionary capability. With this, the need for additional airlift and equipment that can be placed in the belly of military transports is likely to rise.
The requirements for precision and rapid response mean Special Forces are being used more often. The Russians used their Spetznaz forces in their takeover of the Crimea and Iran has used the al-Quds force of the Revolutionary Guards in a wide range of roles in Syria.
Modern conflicts tend to be of the hybrid warfare variety combining aspects of conventional and irregular warfare. Russia’s attack on the Ukraine and its takeover of Crimea combined support for rebel groups, use of social media, as well as conventional weapons attacks with extensive use of artillery. Africa’s conflicts against Boko Haram, Al Shabaab and the rebel groups in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are so far all largely irregular in nature, but the use by these groups of social media and their use of heavier captured weapons shows that hybrid characteristics could emerge in time.
The lines between defence, border security and public security are becoming increasingly blurred. In SA, the army has been back in the business of border patrol for the last two years. In Europe, the surge of migrants from the Middle East and the threat of terrorism means that policing of borders will become increasingly militarised. A similar trend is visible in the USA. Around the world border forces are buying equipment to locate and identify cell phones and sniper rifles to immobilise vehicles, for example.
Corruption and nepotism are eroding the capability of armies in key conflicts. A number of commentators have put the Nigerian failure to defeat Boko Haram down to weapons being sold to the enemy, under-equipped troops, and troops going without pay. The Iraqi army’s poor performance is widely attributed to the corrosive influence on morale of corruption and nepotism.
Is this a risk in SA? A recent report by watchdog Transparency International said there is a risk of corruption on SA peacekeeping operations and political considerations were found to play role in appointments and promotions in the SANDF. Ensuring that even suspicion of this trend is eliminated might be a task for 2016.