What war has in store

Story highlights

  • Douglas Ollivant: Everything you think you know about the "future of war" is wrong
  • The most likely outcome — barring some shock to the world system — is that future wars will resemble those occurring now

Douglas A. Ollivant, a senior fellow at New America, served as director for Iraq at the National Security Council during the Bush and Obama administrations. He is senior vice president of Mantid International LLC, a consulting firm that has business interests in the south of Iraq, including security, defense and aerospace clients. This is the seventh in a series, "Big Ideas for a New America," in which the think tank New America spotlights experts' solutions to the nation's greatest challenges. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. The New America think tank is holding conferences Monday through Wednesday in Washington on cyber security and the future of war, to be live streamed below.

(CNN)Everything you think you know about the "future of war" is wrong.

An elite consensus on the "New Way of War" has been emerging for some time now. Among defense policy experts, think tanks, echoed at Aspen and Davos, the way forward seems clear. The future belongs to cyberwarfare and includes a terrorism problem that will be dealt with by drones and SEALs, and the need to be prepared for the possibility, however remote, of a large-scale naval and aviation campaign in the Far East against a rising China.
This new American way of war—clean, precise, and (unless things go very bad with China) low-casualty -- seems to capture the persistent technologist mood of America.
    Unfortunately, reality seems uninterested in conforming to this strongly held belief. We see instead the future of warfare unfolding in a very different way: as the Israelis struggle against a well-trained and organized resistance movement, Hamas, in Gaza; as ISIS fights against not only the Arab Iraqis and Syrians, but also in Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon and even Jordan; while in the Ukraine, we see local separatists being either assisted, or used as "useful idiots," by the forces of President Vladimir Putin's Russia. In short, these are not the wars we were anticipating.
    And yet here they are. So what are some common characteristics of these wars? And how should the United States respond to this new reality?
    First, they are in general low-tech and manpower intensive
    Low-tech does not mean "no-tech," and even a 40-year old Soviet tank can be a significant weapon if one is not prepared for it. Further, there will be "islands" of technology that are equivalent or even superior to that used by Western militaries. But this is not a universally high technology force. This manpower is also highly trained, or at least has a critical core that is highly trained, whether ISIS cadres or the "little green men" (Russian intelligence officers) of the Ukraine. We should expect to encounter professionals.
    Second, they intermingle with the population
    This is "war amongst the people," with all the messiness, ambiguity, byzantine relationships and background noise associated with a population center. Much of the combat will occur in cities (warfare has urbanized along with the population), but in more rural areas, towns and villages will still be important.
    Finally, they occur outside the bounds of normal nation-state conflict
    Gaza isn't really a state and both Ukrainian separatists and ISIS, respectively, have stripped Kiev and Baghdad of effective control of the territory they operate within. This is not to say that state boundaries are unimportant, because they are (that Iraq has invited airstrikes against ISIS, while Syria has not, is a key differentiator), but that they are of lesser importance. But many to most future conflicts will occur in these spaces that belong to no state, or only tenuously to a state.
    Douglas A. Ollivant
    The United States has a lamentable tendency to "mirror image" its rivals. In this thinking, because we spend significant time and resources developing viruses to disable Iranian centrifuges, our enemies must be making parallel efforts. And perhaps they are. But to date, what we have seen (in Georgia, Ukraine and Iraq alike) is a much simpler approach to cyberwarfare — the distributed denial of service attack.
    This is, as many readers will know, the "brute force" form of cyberattack, overwhelming a network by sending an excessive amount of data to the target, effectively consuming available resources and leaving none for legitimate connections. While there is some art in getting the machines arrayed to attack (or in outsourcing it to cybergangs), the attack itself is just one of mass. So yes, it's cyberwarfare, but of the most primitive and least technical kind.
    Expect more crises
    We should continue to expect crises to emerge. Some will occur in areas where key U.S. interests are at stake. Others will happen on the periphery of U.S. national interest. But they will continue to tend to involve well-trained cadres, in contact with the population, and in areas without strong state control. In short, these combats will be remarkably ambiguous.
    Allies may be in constant flux (for example, are the Sunni tribes facilitating ISIS or hoping for support in fighting them? The answer to both seems to be "yes.") and enemies may well melt into the population (a phenomenon that veterans of both Iraq and Afghanistan are quite familiar with). This will require remarkable flexibility from all involved, from the rifle squad to the National Security Council staff.
    So what can the United States do to face an enemy that will not conform to our desires — that does not lend itself to the capabilities of Joint Special Operations Command or Cyber Command or the Seventh Fleet?
    How to buy hardware
    First, we need to rethink the way we go about buying our military hardware. Are we seeking to buy weapons that can face a near-peer opponent, or ones that will retain their utility against a trained, but lower-technology land-based opponent?
    For example, one can question the utility of U.S. aircraft carriers in the South China Sea in a missile-rich environment. But the USS George H.W. Bush has been a very useful power-projection platform to launch F-18s for strikes against ISIS in Iraq, which thankfully has neither ground to sea missiles nor attack aircraft, to date.
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    Further, acquisition strategies must be retooled for the modern age. The debacles of both the F-35 aircraft and the Army's Distributed Common Ground System intelligence architecture are well documented. Cost over-runs have been coupled with performance shortfalls in both systems. While some human error and contractor misconduct may be involved, the bulk of the issues here are structural, and statutory.
    The way that the United States does contracting — more concerned about being "fair" than getting the best product for the defense dollar — may have worked for producing lower-technology items, but falls far short for more complex weapons systems.
    Rise of the 'Green Berets'
    Second, we need to promote our forces who work best with allied forces in these spaces where the state is weak or nonexistent: the Army's Special Forces (popularly known as "Green Berets"). These forces have undergone significant neglect in the past decade, as the anti-terrorism capabilities of Joint Special Operations Command (SEAL Team Six and Delta Force) were seen as the most pressing need.
    In both Iraq and Afghanistan, Special Forces teams were known to be tasked by their commands — or decide on their own — to pursue a more aggressive "kill and capture" mission, rather than work "by, with, and through" their indigenous partners. It will require cultural change (and likely an improved funding stream) inside the military to emphasize that these Special Forces teams — seen as considerably less glamorous than their Joint Special Operations Command counterparts — are the capability most needed for future warfare.
    Third, we need to continue to focus on prepared and ready land power — our own rifle squads, companies and battalions who can do the dirty business themselves, if need be. Some of these situations may lend themselves to the use of indigenous land power (someone else's soldiers) supported by U.S. airpower (n.b. The USAF should be tasked to retain the capability to provide exactly this support). This will continue to be the preferred technique. But for in extremis situations, the United States must continue to have a reliable, well-trained, well-led and well-equipped ground force. Of these, training and leadership remain the most important. This is fortunate, as our technological advantage, particularly at the individual soldier and small-unit level, may be fleeting.
    Commercial products (e.g. those supporting extreme sports) will be available to any international buyer, and many of these may give an edge to America's adversaries in the close fight. It will continue to be — as it ever was — difficult and realistic training under competent, seasoned leadership that will give U.S. land power its critical edge.
    Decentralize information
    Fourth, the Pentagon should focus on systems that push power and information to the "edge" of the system. We have lived in an age of extreme centralization of information. This has worked out only because the force of choice for the last decade, the SEALs and Deltas of Joint Special Operations Command, are considered a "national asset" and therefore have had access to this centralized information.
    The forces of choice for the future, rifle companies and Special Forces detachments, will not be privileged with this access. We should think about systems that push information to their level. This may mean that forces at this level must be empowered to gather such information for themselves. For example, future warfare may privilege a force that has a UAV/drone that downloads the information directly to the user on the ground, rather than a UAV/drone that sends it to a central repository, and only secondarily to field users.
    Fifth, many observers have pointed out that the military's traditional personnel management system has defects, both in recruiting and development. There are a host of suggestions, but any proposal that increases flexibility and expands the talent pool without degrading the necessity of producing leaders who can lead young men into combat should be seriously considered.
    Long-standing suggestions to increase language training, allow for late entry and/or sabbaticals, increase technical skills, get input from subordinates on their leaders, and recruit outside traditional pools -- for instance, in Silicon Valley -- should all be seriously considered. All will be necessary for these coming ambiguous fights.
    How war won't change
    Finally, we need to regard with extreme skepticism those who believe that warfare has fundamentally changed in any real way. Yes, cyberwarfare has the potential to be real, but primarily to disrupt communications or perhaps sabotage infrastructure.
    Let's be clear, it is a new capability that must be integrated into warfare, as was the combustion engine and the radio. But it doesn't fundamentally shift what war is and will be. Warfare has absorbed far more earth-shaking developments (airpower and nuclear weapons) without changing its fundamental character.
    War will continue to be fought over issues of fear, honor and interest. Despite increasing automation, it will be fought primarily by young men (despite the increasing presence of older men and young women). The next war will likely be very recognizable to someone who fought in one millennia ago.
    It is possible that our next war will resemble nothing that anyone has predicted, perhaps a naval battle over the Arctic, or — God forbid — a nuclear exchange. And yes, it is possible that war could emerge between China on one side and South Korea, Japan or even the United States on the other in the South China Sea, though it is not overstatement to claim that this would bring about the end of the world economy as we currently understand it. But the most likely outcome, barring some shock to the world system, is that future wars will strongly resemble those occurring today.