The Future Conflict Operating Environment Out to 2030

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A military base at Perevalne during the 2014 Crimean crisis. Courtesy of Anton Holoborodko/Wikimedia

This Occasional Paper presents a collection of essays about contemporary trends in war and warfare, and how they will shape the actions of belligerents in future conflicts.

This collection of essays is about contemporary trends in war and warfare, and how they will shape the actions of belligerents in future conflicts. Its conclusions have implications for the force design of Western militaries and signposts the adaptations that will need to be undertaken to meet the challenges of the next decade. Its research seeks to stimulate a conversation about the overly restrictive ways in which Western thinkers consider competition, conflict and combat to broaden the discussion beyond an orthodoxy of military interventions in which combat is something bound by laws, behaviours, conventions, ethics, morals, values, and geography. Its deductions naturally lead to a further research question that examines what an adequate Western response might be.

The traditional taxonomy can be confusing. Historical terms such as ‘limited war’ have connotations that lead some to infer direct linkage to counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, or stabilisation operations; things once captured under ‘Operations Other Than War’. The legacy of post-Cold War thinking leaves limited war as a category of ‘wars of choice’ rather than existential conflict. But this does not expose its real limits: either the self-imposed restraint or limited means states deploy. As Lawrence Freedman usefully highlights, ‘[O]ne reason why limited war can be a difficult strategic category is that it is used to refer to conflicts where enough is at stake to demand engagement but not so much as to require total commitment’. Yet in many ways the activities described in this paper are ‘limited’. Not in how they are undertaken (small interventions can often be as ‘high intensity’ as total war to the actors involved), but in the objectives they seek to deliver, whether political, geographic, military resource, or resource based. This distinction is important to understand, but because of issues surrounding Western military taxonomy, the term ‘limited war’ is not used. 

Within this paper, authors use the term ‘school’ or ‘way of war’. This applies to the way in which states understand conflict and expect to fight. It is not simply a military theory: it is the fusion of politics, history, foreign and security policy, and culture. As such it usually has a very distinct national identity. However, this paper assumes a Western way (or school) of war.

While the West has historically encompassed different ways of war, since 1945 these schools have merged with US concepts. In Europe, there have been four distinct ‘schools of war’: French, British, Prussian/German and Russian. None of these have been constant, and whilst there are similarities between them, each differs significantly – from their understanding of the ‘principles of war’ through to command and control. But since 1945, these individual schools of thought have gradually merged with the American into a single Western way of war – in which wars are expeditionary in nature, with a definite start and end, and are planned and orchestrated using ‘ways, means and ends’ processes. Increasingly, this school of thinking about conflict has become based on technological determinism (in which technological superiority assures victory) and has demanded ever-greater cross-government involvement to minimise or mitigate the lack of mass and scale of the military instrument. Notably, Russia, China, Iran and North Korea have each retained or indeed developed their own school of military thought. 

Western schools of military theory are arguably developing more slowly than ever before. The divergence of thinking demonstrated by key states in leading state doctrines of Multi-Domain Operations (for the US), Strategic Autonomy (for the French), Modernising Defence Programme (for the UK), or indeed the absence of will to provide a coherent NATO-wide concept of operations (for the Alliance) has not helped to establish clear, intellectually led thinking. Instead, it is the non-Western concepts of war and warfare that provide the greatest insights into the future. These schools have driven the greatest evolution in military concepts for over 50 years; they need to be understood in some detail.

Scope and Structure

The paper does not deal with total-war scenarios in which the weapons used (including strategic nuclear weapons), territorial scope, combatants involved, or the objectives pursued, are unrestricted – although the activities examined here may be a precursor to such scenarios, and this paper touches on the use of tactical nuclear weapons as an intrinsic element of escalation dominance by some states. Neither does this paper classify today’s character of war as simply a matter of speed (‘hyper war’) or the blending of older tactics with new technology (‘hybrid’, ‘non-linear’, ‘fourth-generation’, ‘next-generation’, or even ‘contactless’ war). For example, in many ways, hybrid warfare is neither new nor a particularly useful observation; even the originator of the concept, Frank Hoffman, has backed off the idea. Much of the discussion over ‘hybrid’ confuses unfamiliarity for novelty: the Viet Cong was a hybrid force according to modern definitions, as were the Boers and LTTE (Tamil Tigers). There are many other examples, yet none of these poses a conceptual problem for us today.

The distraction of fashionable terminology is not a uniquely Western problem. Potential Western adversaries are also using their own terms: ‘Trojan horses’ and ‘fifth-column strategies’ have been highlighted by Russian military leaders, as have ‘local wars under high-tech conditions’ by Chinese leaders. Yet none encompass the highly differentiated nature of war across actors and regions, often relating to their own diverse context and history.

A standard presumption is that preparing for future conflict is a core role of government. The effectiveness of these preparations determines how states are perceived by others, underpinning perceptions about a state’s hard, soft, smart and sharp power, including whether a state is seen as a ‘safe’ place to do business. In many ways, perceptions about the security environment shape trade patterns and impact the prosperity and success of societies.

Designing military forces for the future plays a key role: defence procurement has economic implications, but also underlines the security posture of states. Military force designs therefore require an idea of what equipment is for and what a future conflict may look like – in military parlance, the Future Operating Environment. There have been many documents produced by Western governments, militaries and academics on the future of war and warfare. Many of these have been criticised for not acknowledging the role of other belligerents, being prone to technological determinism and fads, or intellectually lazy.

Whilst there are a variety of methodologies for examining the future of war and warfare, this paper adopts an enemy-centric prism. It acknowledges that the future tends to be a mutated version of the present, and that to understand future conflict one must understand those of the past and the present. As such, this paper takes a baseline of contemporary conflict and key trends and extrapolates from these. The paper goes beyond other similar exercises by incorporating not only a Western perspective, but also interpreting and analysing the activities of competitors and potential enemies.

The paper is not intended to be comprehensive. Given the need for brevity, authors focus on the most relevant factors and evidence across a selection of conflicts and trends. Authors examined the evidence from a five-year period, selecting the key factors and themes during a discussion with leading defence thinkers from around the world. Research included discussions with over 8,500 political and military figures, at every level, from more than 85 states, and a variety of research trips. The key conflicts examined therefore stem from activities by Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea; the future of terrorism is also included. The paper does not predict that these states will be key belligerents in future. Rather, the way they undertake coercion and warfare is a useful indicator of how other states may aspire to act. As such, an important view held by all authors of this paper is that conceptualising their activities is more important than the platforms they use to undertake them.

While this paper is partly speculative, it is grounded in the reality of policy, properly evidenced, and based on a realistic research question: it is not an excuse to keep admiring the problems around future conflict. Given the need for plausibility and utility, the paper keeps its deductions to the period up to 2030. While it is tempting to state that shorter timeframes lead to more accurate forecasting that longer ones, this is not necessarily true or helpful. Many predictions fail to materialise or are warnings that are not heeded. No Western government foresaw the resurgence of Russia before 2014; after 2014, many Western intelligence agencies predicted that Moscow could not afford to maintain such an aggressive foreign policy stance for more than five years. Similarly, many believed that China’s rise would be accompanied by a peaceful and controlled transition from authoritarianism to democracy.

Limiting the timeframe for examination to a decade does, however, allow the paper to discount some of the more unlikely economic and technological trends. It discounts the rise of an unlikely new global military or economic superpower. Technological singularity is deemed unlikely, as is the arrival of strong artificial intelligence. Human biological enhancements, symbiotic neural systems, and transmorsive adaptation are all beyond a 10-year horizon. Instead, the analysis in this paper considers the trends that might shape force design, and the way in which militaries conceive combat, conflict and warfare.

The paper is in four parts. First, it examines the contemporary schools of war: threshold warfare (Russia); proxy warfare (Iran); coercion and economic warfare (China); brinkmanship (North Korea); and terrorism. Second, it examines key influential trends: domestic pressures; societal changes; precision and space; the electro-magnetic spectrum; proliferation of unmanned systems; and technological change. Third, the paper characterises the Western way of war. The conclusion makes deductions from the work as a whole. These essays are not exhaustive conclusions, and the authors acknowledge what has not been considered, including: chemical and biological weapons; ballistic missile defence; urban warfare; and high-intensity near-peer or peer-on-peer combat. Other studies have already covered this ground. While additional sections were considered, extending the scope of the analysis risked distracting from an examination of enemy-centric culture and concepts of war.


Professor Peter Roberts

Senior Associate Fellow

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