WORLD CONFLICTS: CHANGING NATURE OF WARFARE

A few decades ago, it was relatively easy to talk about the nature of warfare, as it was intimately linked to statecraft, so one identified an adversary state and prepared oneself accordingly. In fact, one could even quantify threats and capabilities to arrive at a predictable outcome. In the 21st century, this is no longer so. Shades of grey have crept in; threats are not easy to quantify and, sometimes, even to identify. There is a merging, a fusion of various types of warfare; international rules do not apply to adversaries who are non-state actors; and deterrence, coercion and escalatory dynamics have been turned on their heads in a large number of cases.

Against such uncertainty, it is no longer easy to define the capabilities that a nation requires to meet its aspirations and obligations, and safeguard its vital national interests. To offer a perspective against such a background is, indeed, a daunting task. The character of warfare is determined more by political, social, economic and strategic imbalances than it is by changes that may occur on the military front alone. The disintegration of the Soviet union in 1991 led to the end of the Cold War. However, the cataclysmic airborne terrorist attacks on the USA on September 11, 2001, transformed the definition of security, and, today, we live in an uncertain security scenario of “no war, no peace”.

There has been a paradigm shift in the very nature of conflict. Though territorial issues are important, other issues related to historical differences, ideological biases, economic disparity, energy security and water shortage are contributing factors for conflict. Modern-day conflicts are not merely confined to states, but have expanded to include sub-nationalities, terrorists, insurgents, religious fanatics and ethnic interests. The nature of conflict today encompasses sabotage, subversion, non-kinetic confrontation and traditional armed conflict in all its forms. Thus, the state’s response needs to be balanced, inclusive and one that incorporates political, economic, societal and military measures. Future threats will also encompass the war on drugs, radical groups, control of resources and religious extremism. The use of space and cyber space has added a new dimension to the scope of conflict. As the battlefields merge, the conflicts of the future would also be conducted with energy, trade, and aid employed as weapons. Therefore, the very concept of national security needs to be reexamined, and realigned to the new dimensions of the 21st century.

War is distinct from conflict. The latter is a vast canvas and includes all shades of discord, involving both states and non-state groups. There are various instruments to address conflict. Here, we will largely restrict ourselves to an exploration of one of those key instruments—military power—which, exercised by any entity, is the essential component of warfare, as war is specifically about employment of force to achieve a desired political end. Technology is the driver of changes and this is no less so in warfare. What is less certain and not easy to predict is how technology will develop and how it will be adapted to improve military capability. However, it would be safe to say that the future is unlikely to be a linear extension of present trends. Who could have predicted the impact of social networking—the way it has shifted the balance between oppressive state regimes and their disaffected populace.

In principle, war has become not only politically but also economically unattractive for the developed countries. The costs outweigh the returns. In “post-heroic” societies, wherein the concept of self-sacrifice is no longer an ideal, the highest value is the preservation of human life, and with it, the multiplication and intensification of individual sensations of well-being. Developed societies, therefore, remain vulnerable because of their advanced socio-economic state, and no degree of military superiority can eliminate this vulnerability.

Developed nations cannot adopt asymmetric warfare as they are based on the rule of law and political participation and will do their utmost to avoid body bags, which is possible only through superior military technology. The strategists of terror have recognised that “post-heroic” societies, with their lifestyle and self-assurance, are particularly vulnerable to attacks by individuals who value martyrdom. Terrorists are unlikely to achieve the power to destroy the developed nations, but will continue to cause anxiety, selective harm and, sometimes, immense psychological collateral damage.

A return to the forms of war which the nationalisation of warfare brought to an end during the 16th and 17th centuries and replaced by a disciplined military organisation, can already be observed. Civilian targets are now taking the place of military objectives, starting with towns and villages being overrun and despoiled by militias and warlords, and extending to the symbols of political and economic might that were targeted in the USA by terrorists in 2001. Suicide bombers compensate for their military inferiority by giving up any chance of survival. A new perverse form of “heroism” has developed, which “post-heroic” societies are ill prepared to deal with from a military or psychological point of view.

In the last few decades, the enormous destructive power of strong conventional and nuclear capabilities has resulted in weaker states and non- state groups adopting sub-conventional and irregular means to achieve their political objectives. Conventional conflict is increasingly intertwined with sub-conventional conflict, with irregular forces using unconventional means and tactics. The irregular forces are becoming increasingly lethal, with access to technology and equipment that previously only conventional state forces could afford. The characteristics of future conflict can, thus, be summarised as under:

  • The spectrum of conflict will range from conflicts between states to conflict with non-state actors and proxies.
  • The boundaries between regular and irregular warfare are blurring. Even non-state actors are increasingly acquiring limited conventional capabilities that were earlier the exclusive preserve of nation-states.
  • Conventional conflict could also be preceded and succeeded by a period of irregular conflict, which would include low intensity conflict and prolonged stabilisation operations.
  • Technology has empowered the individual and today, a single terrorist/guerrilla can cause severe damage to adversaries through cyber, financial and kinetic attacks, which earlier only large organisations or states could do. The suicide bomber has added a very destructive dimension. Future conflicts will demand concurrent investment in sharpening softer skills like cultural awareness training, language skills, psychological operations and human intelligence.
  • Non-contact/non-kinetic aspects of warfare are coming to the fore, specially between well-armed and nuclear capable adversaries. Cyber and space are the emerging frontiers, as is a combination of data mining and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to influence the human mind. Nuclear sabre-rattling by irresponsible states like North Korea and Pakistan is beginning to upset the nuclear deterrence which has prevailed so far.

Hybrid warfare is a military strategy that blends conventional warfare, irregular warfare and cyber warfare. This approach to conflicts is a potent, complex variation of warfare. Hybrid warfare can be used to describe the flexible and complex dynamics of the battle space, requiring a highly adaptable and resilient response. Hybrid threat actors seek to master unrestricted operational art in order to reconcile overmatch and protect or advance their interests. The hybrid threat concept represents the evolution of operational art and a potential paradigm shift as a doctrinal and organisational Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA).

Baptised in its modern form after the 1991 Gulf War, the hybrid threat construct is a sophisticated amalgam of unrestricted threat activities that have resisted codification. As an unrestricted collective methodology, the hybrid concept bypasses the cognitive boundaries of traditional threat characterisation and the application of organised collective violence.

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