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Changing Characteristics of Conflict

In a world of cyber-attacks, biowarfare, and misinformation, traditional military forces are increasingly complemented by less visible assets and capability.

Globalisation and ever more digital connectivity have made all nations more vulnerable to attack. A wide range of new technologies, including cyber, electronic, and drone warfare are now available to more rogue states and actors. Some nations, Russia, the US and China, for example, are also developing offensive weapons in space. This is a major cause for concern for international communications, critical intelligence, surveillance, and navigation, not to mention national infrastructures, from mobile phones and cashpoint machines, to stock markets. Understanding the likely direction of this new theatre of warfare has raised fundamental questions around the type of equipment necessary for the Armed Forces, and the kind of people and the skills required to serve. “Going forward, we will be trying to create peace in the digital world, rather than the physical world. This is definitely a military challenge. The majority of capability is now online, and you need to protect the nation.”

Key in all of this is the fact that distance is becoming increasingly irrelevant as a security buffer. As a result, both the 2021 Integrated Review and associated Defence Review argue that the UK should shift focus from conventional equipment such as aircraft carriers and tanks, and invest instead in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, robotics and space. However, despite faster technological innovation, new frontiers and forms of combat, old problems remain. Many we spoke to were convinced that in addition to developing new defence capabilities, it is also important to maintain a traditional force, and to ensure that there is a deployable capability to support allies across the world. “There will always be a need for boots on the ground”.

That is not to say that the make-up of the Armed Forces will stay the same. Physical warfare itself is changing. It will become increasingly technical and precise, while at the same time, be less formal, with a shift away from traditional battle grounds to a type of hybrid warfare, centred on disinformation, much of which will be played out in a grey zone just below the threshold of open conflict. To adapt to this, a future force will have to become more technical, operating in the newest domains of space, cyber and under-sea. It will also have to become more nimble, “it will be less about tanks and more about data.” Adapting to this new environment means significant change for the Armed Forces, including the development of different skills for serving personnel. “If your human tactics, structures, and support don’t exploit the technology, then actually you are just wasting your money – or only exploiting 10-20% of the effect that you could have with support structures around it.”

Looking ahead, expect a leaner military and fewer instances of physical conflict. The positive effect of this will be fewer physical casualties, but the consequences of these new forms of engagement may tend to have lasting psychological impact. For example, serving personnel could be deployed in the long-term surveillance of individuals and their families prior to an attack. This more personal involvement may lead to an increase in mental stress for Armed Forces personnel. “Although we are getting further back from the front line (think of drones) – in some ways we are becoming closer, so moral injury will be a growing issue”.

Alongside this, public attitudes are also changing. “There is a greater desire for social consent before action, and a greater awareness of the impact of war. This is shaping the public response”. Some we spoke to believe that the public’s ambivalence to warfare is still affected by the long shadow cast by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that this has had an impact on recruitment. Looking to the future, a lack of confidence in the morality of war, combined with an increased skills requirement, may mean that those who would traditionally serve in the Armed Forces will choose a different career. All this talk of change is unsettling and may result in an increase in the number of transitioning Service personnel, as the realignment takes place following  the 2021 Defence Review.

Example Implication: The demand for technical skills over physical ability will attract different applicants who will have different capabilities, needs and opportunities on their transition.

 

 

Discussion

2 Comments

Lifting our Sights Core team

This MIT article is worth a read https://www.technologyreview.com/2019/10/10/132262/why-remote-war-is-bad-war/ as it looks at how new technology can ( or cannot) prevent conflict "Technology makes fighting war easier and more palatable—but it dangerously changes the nature of the fight"

Anonymous

Today we characterise conflict as how the US fights wars. If you look at war over the ages, war has always been more complex. The way we conceive and think about military action can be driven by Hollywood – rather than the reality.