Tomorrow’s wars 1

Here in part is a City Journal article (even more interesting of course when read in full), by the great historian of war, Victor Davis Hanson, on warfare as it has been in the past and might be in the near future.

“Have we not seen, then, in our lifetime the end of the Western way of war?” Two decades ago, I concluded The Western Way of War with that question. Since Western warfare had become so lethal and included the specter of nuclear escalation, I thought it doubtful that two Western states could any longer wage large head-to-head conventional battles. …

Events of the last half-century seem to have confirmed the notion that decisive battles between two large, highly trained, sophisticated Westernized armies, whether on land or on sea, have become increasingly rare… Far more common in the past half-century have been the asymmetrical wars between large Westernized militaries and poorer, less organized terrorists, insurgents, and pirates

Those who have successfully attacked the United States—in Lebanon (1983), at the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia (1996), at America’s East African embassies (1999), on the USS Cole (2000), and in New York and Washington in 2001—did so as terrorists. If nation-states sponsored such radical Islamist groups, they nearly always denied culpability, avoiding an all-out conventional war with the United States that they would inevitably lose—as the brief rout of the Taliban in Afghanistan demonstrated in 2001.

Why does decisive battle wax and wane in frequency, and why has it become rarer again? The political landscape certainly explains much. Empire of any sort can lessen the incidence of warfare. Unified, central political control transforms the usual ethnic, tribal, racial, and religious strife into more internal and less violent rivalries for state representation and influence…

Technology … helps explain the current decline in conventional battles. The battlefield can now be seen and mapped to the smallest pebble through aerial photography, often by unmanned drones that update pictures second by second. Surprise is rare. Potential combatants know the odds in advance. They can use the Internet to download the most minute information about their adversaries. Generals can see streaming video of prebattle preparations and calculate, to some degree, the subsequent cost…

Weaponry is not static. It resides within a constant challenge-and-response cycle between offense and defense, armor and arms, surveillance and secrecy. Body armor may soon advance to the point of offering, if only for a brief period, protection against the bullet, which centuries ago rendered chain and plate mail useless. The satellite killer may render the satellite nonoperational. Sophisticated electronic jamming may force down the aerial drone. Yet for now, the arts of information-gathering about an enemy trump his ability to maintain secrecy, thus lessening the chance that thousands of soldiers will be willing to march off to massive battle.

The cost of today’s military technology, too, renders big battles more unlikely. To wage a single decisive battle between tens of thousands of combatants along the lines of a Gaugamela or a Verdun would cost hundreds of billions of dollars, a figure far beyond the resources of most belligerents. A single B-1 bomber on patrol overhead represents a $1 billion investment. Abrams tanks go for over $4 million. A single cruise missile can cost over $1 million. One GPS-guided artillery shell may cost $150,000; one artillery platform could expend over $10 million in ordnance in a few hours. Even a solder’s M-4 assault rifle runs well over $1,000. The result is that very few states can afford to outfit an army of, say, 100,000 infantry, supported by high-tech air, naval, and artillery fire—much less keep it well supplied for the duration of battle…

Globalization—accelerated by technology—is another reason that decisive battles are uncommon today. Instant cell-phoning and text-messaging, the Internet, access to DVDs, and satellite television have created a world culture that depends on uninterrupted communications. It frowns on massive disruptions in airline flights, banking, and the easy importation of consumer goods. Electronic togetherness hinges on our shared appetites—and a growing communal comfort factor

Finally, changing mores have changed military tactics. The current ascendant belief in the West that war is unnatural, preventable, and the result of rational grievances—that it can, with proper training and education, be eliminated—has probably made battle less tenable among the general public…

We shouldn’t assume, though, that these various forces will always prevent set battles. Similar predictions have proved wrong before…

Human beings remain emotional, irrational, and guided by intangible calculations, such as honor and fear, that collectively can induce them into self-destructive behavior. Armed struggles that at times result in horrific collisions are as old as civilization itself and are a collective reflection of deep-seated elements within the human psyche—tribalism, affinity for like kind, reckless exuberance—that are constant and unchanging. We are not at the “end of history.”

Can big battles, then, haunt us once more? …

Waterloos or Verduns may revisit us, especially in the half-century ahead, in which constant military innovation may reduce the cost of war, or relegate battle to the domain of massed waves of robots and drones, or see a sudden technological shift back to the defensive that would nullify the tyranny of today’s incredibly destructive munitions. New technology may make all sorts of deadly arms as cheap as iPods, and more lethal than M-16s, while creating shirts and coats impervious to small-arms fire—and therefore making battle cheap again, uncertain, and once more to be tried. Should a few reckless states feel that nuclear war in an age of antiballistic missiles might be winnable, or that the consequences of mass death might be offset by perpetuity spent in a glorious collective paradise, then even the seemingly unimaginable—nuclear showdown—becomes imaginable… And these collisions will be frightening as never before.

  • Pie

    Another global total war between major powers would… even if nuclear weapons are somehow negated… would have a greater death toll than any previous conflict… and would likely be about extermination of a people.

    So far much of our technology depends on global cooperation between the best and the brightest, and pyramidal centralized organization and specialization and division of a societies labour. I predict that a major war now would have a cost so great even to the victor, that a new dark age of technological stagnation would likely result, not to mention massive ecological devastation.

    Then there is the issue of biological weapons. Think about the possibility of deadly viruses being genetically modified and then used on an enemy population… they have the vaccine, but viruses are living and can mutate quite quickly…. the UK TV series survivors is really not that theoretically far fetched.

    Either way the capacity for the human caused destruction of all life on earth has never been so great. I like to think that ever since the end of ww2 humanity has enter a moment of quite deliberation relatively speaking. Will unregulated economic growth lead to the inevitable choke points where conflict is again impossible to avoid? Will the class between logic eventually have the victory over ever persistent Ignorant Luddite superstition? Will we somehow advert the tragedy of the commons, and return to sustainability (either by destruction of a large portion of humanity or a new regulated resource based economy)…

    The questions are endless, but this century will be decisive in the future of humanity.