Image proudly created by Matt Cavanaugh. Image proudly created by Matt Cavanaugh.

*Editor’s Note: A version of this essay will be presented as remarks to the War Council event on May 4, 2015. The panel discussion will be focused on the dominant trend that will shape warfare over the next 20 years.  

The Continuum of Conflict

Why do bad things happen to good people?

It’s a question that we had better start thinking about. Because when enough people start thinking this thought, when a critical mass of people start thinking this thought – whether it’s due to barrel bombs or burning pilots or killing cadets – that’s when society calls for the use of force.

That’s right; in modern war, we kill cadets.  Last June the majority of the 1,700 cadets at the Iraqi air force academy were “gunned down as they marched out of the camp to take their [summer] leave.”

Even cadets are in play and a legitimate target to ISIS.  This is the world we live in.  I don’t write this to attempt to scare people into studying war.  I do so analytically. These are the facts, and they are facts we must learn from. If we think critically about our environment, we can learn from it.

One example: in November 1940, the British struck the Fascist Italian Navy at Taranto Harbor by projecting aircraft from carriers – firing aerial torpedoes in shallow water – against docked battleships.  Sound like Pearl Harbor?  It should – this attack was what gave Admiral Yamamoto the idea that an attack on Pearl was possible.

Modern war can teach us, if we only choose to pay attention. I often describe strategy as an art, like painting or musical performance.  And so it is imperative that we listen to the “music” that’s playing right now in Yemen, in Ukraine, and Syria and Iraq.

It’s weird, but when we’re educating members of the Profession of Arms we often set our gaze too far behind us.  I don’t write this to disparage history, clearly, it’s study and use can be helpful.  Yet limited.  Historians cover war as it was at one point in the past. Beyond that, we believe that we can learn about contemporary military operations indirectly from other’s experiences.  This also is limited. Just think about how different the world is since I last fought in Iraq in 2006.  As Tom Friedman put it:

“Facebook didn’t exist. Twitter was still a sound. The cloud was still in the sky. 4G was a parking place. Linkedin was a prison. Applications were what you sent to college. Big Data was [an obscure] rap star. And Skype was a typographical error.”

So my experiences in Iraq, and those with experience in Afghanistan, are helpful, but not sufficient.  We have to get much better at studying current and coming conflict.  We can’t just leave it all to the newspaper editors and journalists.  We will fight out there, in the yet-to-be discovered future. That’s what really matters, why we ought to think about these things now.

Image proudly created by Matt Cavanaugh. Image proudly created by Matt Cavanaugh.

How the U.S. Army Sees the Future

I drew this to help think through how the U.S. Army sees future war.  I see the central tension as between trends & technology (non-stop change) and history & humanity (continuous continuity).  What will win the next war? Humans or tech?  Where should we place our bets?  With natural constraints and choices to be made, there is always a fight over how to spend them.

It’s sort of like a music producer trying to decide between supporting a record by, say, the electronica of a Daft Punk or the full throated imperfection of a Johnny Cash.  Which will be more successful in the world we live in?

The technologists focus on trends and believe that everything is changing.  For example, technologists might believe that the revolution in military affairs + net-centric war that “lifts the fog of war” will give us rapid, decisive operations.  As the saying goes, “if we can see it, we can kill it,” and in the future we’ll be able to see everything.

At least two British senior officers have published books endorsing this view.  General Sir David Richards and Greg Mills write in their book Victory Among People: “Conventional war is a thing of the past…Why should [our enemies] risk everything in a conventional attack, if they can instead achieve their aims through the use of proxies, or through economic subterfuge and cyber-warfare?”  General Sir Rupert Smith’s book, The Utility of Force: “War [as we knew it] no longer exists.”  Of course, that’s too far; we shouldn’t just throw out the book of human experience with war.  This was the post-9/11 conceit: the belief that we lived in a new world where none of the old rules applied.  Over time, as depicted in the drawing above, our belief in battlefield technology was shattered as $265 bombs successfully struck American soldiers, imposing costs numbering in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

There’s another view that has become dominant.  It goes like this: war is human, and humans have not changed. Therefore, war will be as it always was.  There’s a push in the Department of Defense to support the “human dimension,” what we are now calling the Human Aspects of Military Operations (or “HAMO” – pronounced hay-mo).  Interestingly, this follows the private sector’s turn.  LRN CEO Dov Seidman described this recently as it pertains to corporate advertising:

“Chevron is now ‘The Human Energy Company.’ Dow is ‘The Human Element.’ Deere is ‘Human Flourishing.’ Ally Bank is ‘time to bank human again.’ Samsung is competing with Apple by saying ‘Designed by Humans.’  Every institution is starting to proclaim its humanity.”

Historians can fall deeply into this belief.  Consider Cornell University’s Barry Strauss, a well-regarded classicist, who recently, without any irony, used Cyrus the Great’s example as a framework to guide American Middle East policy, and that modern North Korea can be explained as a sort of Sparta with nuclear weapons.   This is too much. Clausewitz warned of the use of poor and inappropriate historical examples; he was right.

The Gulf War convinced us that technology was our silver bullet; Iraq and Afghanistan have convinced us to turn away from technology.  I think we’ve overcorrected, and we will do so at our peril.

Image proudly created by Matt Cavanaugh. Image proudly created by Matt Cavanaugh.

Exponential Information Warfare

We are living through the dawn of exponential information warfare.  Though it’s early, we should look to the trendlines, not just the headlines.  When we do, we’ll find that there’s reason to believe information warfare has yet more room to grow.

In 1997, 2% of world’s population was online. We’re now at 3 billion people online, which is 40% of the world’s population.  Though 80% of the people in rich countries use the internet, only 30% do so in developing countries.  Companies like Google and SpaceX are in a race to provide these people the internet, going so far as developing “sky-fi” – satellite/high altitude balloon internet service.  Projections are that by 2020, 80% of adults will own a smartphone connected to the internet.

The influence of this trend is growing.  Think of Psy’s “Gangham Style” video (2.3 billion views and growing). Kony2012 (34 million views on it’s first day) or #bringbackourgirls.  Abu Ghraib, Collateral Murder.  “Little Green Men” and #RussiaInvadedUkraine.  Even a 16 year old singer from New Zealand can be heard world-wide. If Steve Jobs’ innovation was to put 1,000 songs in your front pocket, his second trick, the iPhone, has put 1,000 wars in your back pocket.

Why are we seeing this growth?  In one word: cheap.  The Russians have spent $140 million to develop Sputnik, their information carrier to 25 world offices – in places like Beijing, Berlin, Washington – with 30-100 staffers each, providing radio and foreign language websites in each to get the Kremlin’s message out. After Sochi, it appears Putin has embraced the economical output that exponential information warfare provides.  And, it’s effective.  As one Crimean resident put it, “Goebbels has got nothing on these guys.”  Russia Today (also known as “RT”) has 600 million viewers world wide, and their accompanying YouTube channel has has 1 billion views.

What can exponential information warfare do?  For starters, it levels the playing field.  Everyone is equal on the internet.  Let’s put a spin on the old “three guys walk in a bar” joke.  Imagine that Bill Gates, Pope Francis, and I are in an internet discussion forum (or simultaneously on Facebook).  Though in real life we have radically different stations, on the internet, individually, neither of them has a natural advantage or privilege over me.

Information warfare doubles the suffering by hurting the victim and then impacting the viewer.  And, lastly, it works: as Osama bin Laden wrote to Mullah Omar in 2002, “It is obvious that the media war in this century is one of the strongest methods; in fact, its ration may reach 90% of the total preparation for the battles.”

What does this all mean?  If we live in a world where everyone has a phone – which means everyone has a camera – then everyone can be a land war correspondent. There’s even an app for that: Periscope – perfect for live streaming in public riots or to document war crimes.

One example: in 2006, 75 Tibetans tried to leave for Nepal, to freely practice Buddhism, through the Nangpa La pass (19,000 feet). Chinese PLA border guards opened fire on them, killing a 17 year old nun.  Even at this high elevation, in this remote environment, a Romanian photographer took video of the incident – and shamed the PLA for their actions, bringing on a global shaming campaign.  The lesson: our soldiers and military will be on camera wherever they go, particularly on land!

One more thought: a recent study of smartphone use found that Baby Boomers used their smartphones 10% of day; Generations X and Y used them 25% of day; Millenials were about double that at 45% of the day. It is not hard to make the logical leap that as Milennials grow into leadership roles in the government and business that they will figure out new ways to employ these technologies to advance strategic causes.  The “Digital Natives” will find new and scarier ways to wield exponential information warfare.

In short, the future of warfare is information because war goes where people “are” and threatens what they value – the more people that enter the digital world – the more war we’ll see there.

Image proudly created by Matt Cavanaugh. Image proudly created by Matt Cavanaugh.

The Disaggregation of Strategic Victory

Assuming that my logic is sound, how should we think about military victory? With apologies to Notorious B.I.G. – mo’ information, mo’ problems.

I’ve written about this once before, but here goes with an adaptation.  The old way to military victory was to defeat the army and everything would follow.  This worked with Napoleon, Hitler, and should hold true against the likes of North Korea.  I like to call this the “single haymaker” – one punch – theory of victory.

But we live in a world where CDs are a thing of the past – why would anyone buy and entire album when they only like two songs?  We’ve seen the disaggregation, the fracturing, of music purchases.

The same is true in war.  Modern wars are contested in three separate places: fought on fields of fire for victory, prosecuted by politicians for power, and argued through advocates for an accepted narrative.  The military creates the monopoly of violence; politicians certify this new monopoly; and the people consecrate the monopoly on violence by choosing a particular narrative that supports the monopoly’s continuance.

Strategic victory in war has fractured.  We have to account for all three much more than we ever have before.

But there’s one other subtle point – I’ve suggested the disaggregation – but I also want to suggest that the balance has shifted.   As the image above depicts, the human head weighs about 7 percent of a human’s total body weight while the arms weigh about 5 percent. The body (from the torso down, including the heart) is a person’s mass.  In today’s world, roughly as the metaphor in the image is apportioned, defeating the military (arms) and convincing the political elite (head) may be challenging while also the relatively smaller part of the total effort in modern warfare.

In short, when facing a disaggregated enemy, the strategic narrative matters more.  This was true in Afghanistan and Iraq, I think, largely due to the growth in significance in information warfare – the dawn of exponential information warfare.

Image proudly created by Matt Cavanaugh. Image proudly created by Matt Cavanaugh.

How should we think about the future of warfare?

First, one must cultivate a deep sense of humility – we should pursue the course I like to call “strategic modesty.”  We must expect that neither the pure techno-optimists or the myopic historians will have the answer.  We must avoid single, stove piped, mono-disciplinary approaches to understanding modern warfare. The battlefield punishes intellectual vanity. Achilles is dead.

Second, in one word, the future of warfare will be “surprising.”  What we prepare for will not be what we see, precisely because the enemy will avoid what we are prepared to do.  Do not expect to anticipate everything your enemy does; you do not have the psychic powers of Miss Cleo or that Octopus that picks winners at the World Cup.  Give credit to our enemies; they are smart and always fight better than we expect.

Ultimately, what I’m most certain of is that when enough good people start asking why bad things are happening, we will inevitably send soldiers to the wrong place at the right time.  Both these facts are inevitable.  Those in the Profession of Arms and beyond have an obligation to think through the coming conflict.

Prepare your mind – reason matters much more than the radio or rifle – that’s where wars are really won.


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