In a book review in Foreign Affairs, Professor Stephen Rosen, of Harvard, analyzes ‘The Future of War: A History,’ a new (late 2017) book by Sir Lawrence Freedman, a noted military historian. But he uses the “review” process largely as a platform to offer his own suggestions which I find to have considerable merit. After, first, taking Professor Freedman to task for some small factual errors, Stephen Rosen writes that “In setting up his main argument, Freedman approvingly quotes the political theorist Hannah Arendt: “Predictions of the future are never anything but projections of present automatic processes and procedures, that is, of occurrences that are likely to come to pass if men do not act and if nothing unexpected happens.” He goes on to survey the long history of this flawed thinking. After the seemingly decisive battles of the Franco-Prussian War and the Russo-Japanese War, theorists assumed that the outcomes of future wars would be determined the same way. Even figures such as the Polish banker Ivan (Jan) Bloch and the British politician Norman Angell, who saw in the early 1900s that sudden victories were no longer possible, predicted short conflicts, assuming that no one would tolerate bloody stalemates. After World War I, scholars anticipated the use of poison gas and economic warfare, but not the adoption of blitzkrieg. The Cold War nuclear standoff led some to argue that nuclear proliferation and deterrence would stabilize the global system, a prediction whose accuracy scholars are still debating. The collapse of the Soviet Union produced the famous “end of history” thesis, which heralded democratic peace and the permanent triumph of Western liberalism. The September 11 attacks led observers to hypothesize about religious wars of terror, neglecting the reemergence of great-power military competitions.” It’s almost like saying “what’s the point?” But, Professor Rosen says, “If a country cannot say with confidence where or with whom it will fight, it still may be possible to narrow down how it will fight.“
“There are some constants,” Stephen Rosen says, “but the character of war does change—sometimes quickly, but more usually slowly. For example, the political scientist Stephen Biddlehas described how the increasing lethality of firepower has forced the steady dispersal of troops on the battlefield. This in turn has expanded the battlefield, gradually eliminating what had been rear guards and diminishing the time interval between the onset of war and attacks on the enemy’s heartland.” It’s important to remember that the allies “won” World War I without ever reaching German soil, and Japan surrendered without an allied soldier setting foot on the home islands but, especially in World War II, air power allowed us to attack the homeland from a (relatively, in infantry terms) “safe” distance ~ but don’t try to tell the people of London, Portsmouth and Coventry that they were at a “safe distance” from Germany.
Professor Rosen explains that “Identifying these kind of trends has historically helped countries prepare for future wars. During the tsarist era, the Russian military was not in the forefront of military modernization. But perhaps because they led a backward institution, Russian military thinkers were uniquely conscious of how others were changing. These Russians (and later Soviets) understood that revolutions in military affairs would regularly alter the pace and geographic extent of war. First came railroads and rifles; then internal combustion engines, radios, and airplanes; then missiles and nuclear weapons. Each advancement created a revolution that expanded the battlefield and compressed the time within which campaigns would occur. With the advent of railroads in the American Civil War, combat could cover continent-sized areas in a matter of days or weeks, not months or years. And later, aviation brought war to European cities before the defending armies were defeated … [and] … According to the influential American strategist Andrew Marshall, an understanding of this pattern helped the Soviet Union identify the disruptive potential of digital information technology before its impact on war was widely recognized, in the wake of the 1990–91 Gulf War. The Soviet general staff had famously assessed that the antitank potential of American precision weapons was equal to that of tactical nuclear weapons, without the drawbacks. The recognition that the Soviet military industrial complex was unable to compete in the area of digital information processing led the general staff to urge Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to seek some sort of rapprochement with the West, which would enable the Soviets to catch up in an area that was critical to military competition.”
“Today,” Professor Rosen adds, “the diffusion of digital military technology has given not only the Chinese and the Russians but also the Iranians and their proxy Hezbollah the ability to reach out over long distances and strike at targets with precision. This poses a problem for the U.S. military, which will need to figure out how to fight its way into areas defended with precision weapons. Freedman neglects the implications of this diffusion of precision strike weapons, instead focusing on robots, drones, cyberwarfare, and hybrid warfare.” The impact of technology on war was dealt with in three of The Economist‘s series on the future of war ~ I provided links to them here. I explained that, in my view, the “basics” of war remained the same and that technology simply enabled new tactics. We, the US led West, I suggested “must be masters of the technology, not its servants.“
After reviewing the ground breaking work of Burton H Klein and the other people at RAND, Professor Rosen says that “Freedman is right that it is always difficult to predict the future. But sometimes the problems facing a particular nation can be foreseen. Throughout history, successful preparations for war with a known enemy have fallen into roughly two camps: the Clausewitzian type and the Sun-tzu type. The Clausewitzian approach relies on general information about the enemy’s and one’s own capabilities. The Sun-tzu approach depends on a close and detailed study of the enemy.“It doesn’t matter which approach one chooses there is an ongoing requirement for a capability to have, as I said back in 2015, “A structure to collect and collate information, from all sources and from all over the world and provide useful strategic intelligence to the cabinet and operational intelligence to departments and agencies.” Stephen Rosen provides an example: “In some cases,” he explains “it may be possible to go beyond an enemy’s obvious characteristics to understand its plans and thwart them even before the war begins. As Sun-tzu observed, the acme of strategy is to defeat the enemy’s strategy. Of course, such an approach requires a detailed understanding of or intelligence about the enemy’s plans, which is not always possible. Still, it has been successfully executed in the recent past. The military analyst Peter Swartz has written about how a careful reading of Soviet naval doctrine and the exploitation of still classified intelligence sources showed the U.S. Navy that it had completely misunderstood how the Soviet navy planned to fight a submarine war. A corrected understanding helped the U.S. Navy develop a new strategy. Instead of using U.S. attack submarines to protect American transatlantic convoys from Soviet submarines, the Americans began to use their attack submarines to threaten Soviet ballistic missile submarines, in order to keep the Soviet navy on the defensive. In the event of war, Washington planned to force the Soviet attack submarines to stay close to home instead of going out to sink American convoys. This strategy worked—the threat posed by American attack submarines led the Soviet navy to hold their ballistic missile submarines close to port, in “bastions,” where they would be protected by Soviet attack submarines.” As I said, in describing the capabilities Canada needs after gathering intelligence a country needs “A super-structure to make strategic plans and to control and manage [its] military forces.“
Professor Rosen concludes by saying that “The United States is currently experiencing another period of uncertainty. What is the greatest threat to American security today? China? Russia? Islamist extremism? Officials and experts disagree. Are nuclear weapons obsolete or the wave of the future? Again, reasonable experts disagree. But acknowledging the unknowns does not mean that strategic policymaking is impossible … [in fact, he says] … As a practical matter, the United States should practice the arts of planning just discussed. If general trends in the character of war persist, they will greatly constrain the ability of the United States to intervene militarily at intercontinental distances, at least in the way Washington has become accustomed to doing. As other states gain the ability to conduct precision strikes, building up the fixed logistical bases and resources necessary for industrial-era war in the theater of operations will no longer be possible.“
He adds, and I agree and assert that Canada needs to do this, too: “The United States should also prioritize funding research and development and focus on building a smaller military with higher-quality personnel, soldiers who are able to adapt rapidly to changing conditions. Finally, it should revive the art of industrial mobilization planning, so that when threats become better defined, the United States can make the best use of its still formidable production capabilities.” Canada doesn’t need a smaller military but it does need to have the best people ~ mentally and physically able to meet the challenges and withstand the shocks of the next war for which we are, most likely, unprepared.
“Freedman may be right,” Stephen Rosen says, “that a fixation on the recent past makes mispredicting hard to avoid. But even so, considering history can still help officials usefully plan for a wide range of future contingencies.“