When the next big scrap comes, as eventually it must, all the high-tech wizardry that we find so beguiling may turn out to be useless.
Our last peer-on-peer war ended in 1945. Yet that's still the model that informs the consciousness of today's military planners. After a couple decades of fruitlessly raining death and destruction on little brown people wielding Korean-war vintage assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades on behalf of uppity, corrupt and unreliable regimes in the Middle East, the Pentagon figures that All the King's Horses and All the King's Men should return their focus to the Big Nasties, Russia and China.
The United States Air Force has even war-gamed a first-strike, stealth sneak attack on China. The idea seems to be that, by turning China's air defences - it's radar networks, surface to air missile batteries and its airfields - into smoking ruins, the Chinese would cry "uncle" and promptly do America's bidding. Only that's not very likely to ever happen.
The fall edition of Foreign Policy focuses on "the future of war." It observes that we're being overtaken by technology so rapidly that the strategy of dropping weapons from stealth bombers or stealth strike fighters may already be obsolete.
The purpose of warfare is to achieve a political end by breaking an adversary's will to resist. It's about forcing the other guy to capitulate. Nuclear weapons are one way but there's too much risk of both sides obliterating each other. Conventional weapons just drag everything out and lead to the risk of nuclear escalation. The opponent's civilian population may be far more useful to you alive than dead.
Who needs mass slaughter when you can wage cyber-war against your adversary's economy and essential infrastructure?
Anxious discussions about the future of war and the destabilizing impact of novel weapons are hardly new. So why would Foreign Policy wade into the debate again now? The reason is that this is one of those moments when technology is moving so fast that the old, settled ways of fighting wars are rapidly being overturned. And nobody knows what, exactly, will follow.
But we can start by asking the right questions. That’s what Tarah Wheeler of Splunk and New America does in “In Cyberwar, There Are No Rules.” Her sweeping overview of the rising threat of cyber conflicts shows where the real dangers lie: not in cutting-edge technology but in badly maintained infrastructure that’s so outdated it can’t be hardened against even primitive cyberattacks.
Of course, cutting-edge technologies also pose new dangers. In “A Million Mistakes a Second,” Paul Scharre—a former U.S. Army Ranger who now works at the Center for a New American Security—looks at the race to build autonomous weapons systems and warns that as we cede authority to machines that can act and react far faster than we can, we increase the risks that accidental conflicts could spin out of control.
But artificial intelligence is just one reason emerging technologies are hard to constrain (as Pope Innocent II learned back in the 12th century). Wheeler points out that countries today can’t even agree on what, exactly, constitutes an act of cyberwar. Hard as it is to get governments to behave, private actors are even harder to wrangle. Yet as the Israeli journalist Neri Zilber (“The Rise of the Cyber Mercenaries”) and the University of Pennsylvania’s Michael C. Horowitz (“The Algorithms of August”) bring up, that’s just the problem we now face with cybersecurity and AI, since both involve general purpose technologies largely developed by corporations—with their own private agendas.
The changes, and problems, aren’t just limited to high-tech. In “Food Fight,” Kate Higgins-Bloom of the U.S. Coast Guard argues that the explosive growth of the global middle class is creating an insatiable demand for middle-class food—namely protein—which is why the next great-power war is likely to be waged not for territory or treasure but for fish. And FP’s Robbie Gramer travels north to the Arctic, where disappearing sea ice has opened up a vast new territory primed for accidents and conflict.Keep these things in mind if you're looking harshly on the Trudeau government's reluctance to empty the federal treasury for a few dozen costly yet less than reliable and unproven stealth light bombers. Under what scenarios would we ever use them that might justify the costs and other sacrifices these stealth vehicles demand?
Another issue about cyber warfare is that it breaks the states' monopoly on martial-grade violence. Warfare has traditionally been the exclusive preserve of nation states because they alone could afford battleships and bombers and armies of troops and machines in the field. Who needs any of that when there are new, much less lethal means of compelling a civilian population to demand their political leadership sue for peace?
Why bomb a nuclear power plant when a few lines of malicious code can cause it to self-destruct? What happens to a major city that one morning finds itself without functioning sewers or water? How long does society function without satellite communications, GPS, etc.? How much good will those squadrons of F-35s be, their critical software scrambled, unable to leave the hangar?