Future warfare: How can we prepare for it? Image Credit: Niño Jose Heredia/©Gulf News

Ever since the beginning of communities, warfare has been a recurring phenomenon. Essentially, the aim of war is to subjugate adversaries and achieve various political, economic, security, or other goals. Warfare differs according to the parties involved, objectives, ethical and legal status, weapons used, and other factors. There are just wars, wars of aggression, defensive wars, offensive wars, wars of necessity, preventive or pre-emptive wars, civil wars, proxy wars, guerrilla wars, national liberation wars, religious wars, economic wars, cultural and media wars, and information wars among others.

Nevertheless, the many types of war never remain at the same pace; rather, they develop through time, from one era to another. Hence, throughout history, the world has come to know several generations of warfare, each with its own features, in terms of weapons, the nature of plans, battlefields, and so on.

First Generation Warfare (1GW) was characterised by mobilising troops, direct confrontations between armies on a specific battlefield, and the use of primitive rifles and cannons. The Napoleonic Wars in Europe at the beginning of the 19th century are an example of First Generation Warfare.

On the other hand, Second Generation Warfare (2GW) relied more on firepower than concentrations of troops. In addition, as a result of the development in weaponry that the Industrial Revolution offered, 2GW used advanced weapons such as heavy tanks and machine guns.

Third Generation Warfare (3GW) came about during the Second World War (1939-1945) and was characterised by the great development in tanks, greater dependence on air power, speed of movement, the element of surprise, and manoeuvres behind enemy lines. Therefore, they were known as preventive wars, pre-emptive wars, or blitzkrieg. They also relied on the use of trenches.

Although the previous three generations of warfare differ, they share the fact that they were essentially wars between regular armies.

However, Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW) strikes enemy lines from the inside by causing unrest and mutiny, and by inciting civil or sectarian conflicts. Society then becomes its own enemy or a tool of its own destruction.

The book You Are Your Enemy’s Army: 4GW, published in 2016 in Arabic, accurately sums up the contents and features of this generation of warfare. Using false excuses and pretexts and pushing forces to clash, fight, and work against their own security and stability, these wars lead the society to become — consciously and unconsciously — an enemy of itself. The Arab region has been going through such wars since 2011 in the context of the so-called Arab Spring.

Information warfare

In addition to the four generations of warfare, there is Fifth Generation Warfare (5GW) — a hybrid warfare, which combines conventional and unconventional methods such as information warfare and cyberwarfare. Both 4GW and 5GW are importantly characterised by two features: they aim to topple ruling regimes and do not acknowledge the status quo within countries. Despite the features characterising each generation, they overlap, one way or the other, so that they cannot be strictly distinguished from one another.

In reference to its ever-changing nature, the renowned general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) compared warfare to a chameleon. Although this description applies, in different degrees, to warfare, the rate of drastic changes currently witnessed in warfare, and those expected to be witnessed, makes Clausewitz’s phrase seem as if it was written for our times.

The changes in warfare and the expectations for future warfare have reached a level that pushed James Mattis, US Secretary of Defence, to say in February 2018 that artificial intelligence (AI) casts shadows of doubt on his fundamental thoughts on the essential unchanging nature of warfare.

Along these lines, future wars are expected to be drastically different from warfare today, or the foreseeable future. The development taking place in weaponry and warfare in general is quite broad; nevertheless, it is only a small portion of the expected or anticipated development in this regard. This is due to several reasons, most importantly:

1. Major technological advances are taking place and are expected to happen in weaponry, defence, and armament

There is discussion about moving towards the use of robots in war, implying less dependence on manpower. The US Department of Defence’s budget for 2017 has allocated $3 billion for this aspect — developing self-navigating drones that are not remotely navigated, as well as unmanned submarines that cannot be identified or monitored.

In addition, in 2017, Russia announced the production of the first remote-controlled tank, ‘Platforma-M’. Furthermore, the US Department of Defence’s budget for 2017 has allocated $1.7 billion for electronic systems that employ AI in wars.

Also, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was commissioned by the US Department of Defence to conduct research on the production of a bullet that can have its direction remote-controlled. There are also “energy weapons”, which are laser weapons being developed; these cost relatively little compared to other kinds of weapons. The Missile Defence Agency has asked the Pentagon for $66 million in the 2019 budget to develop laser weapons that can be installed on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and that can destroy enemy missiles while still on their launch pads, or shortly after launch, as well as other features of technological advances in weaponry.

2. The emergence of new types of war such as space warfare, asymmetric warfare, and electronic warfare or cyberwarfare

This pushes armies to reconsider their work programmes, plans, methods of training, and armament. In February, 2018, the US Air Force Chief of Staff, David Goldfein, in his address before the Air Force Association’s 34th Annual National Convention in Florida, spoke clearly about space wars. He indicated that it is only a matter of time until his country begins to fight in outer space — in a few years war will break out in space, and so his country needs to be ready for this kind of war.

3. The change taking place on battlefields

At a symposium in Washington in July 2017, US Chief of Staff General Mark Milley reiterated that methods of war have changed from the past as nowadays 80-90 per cent of the world population resides in highly populated urban areas. Wars are no longer fought in deserts; rather, they take place on crowded city streets. Cyberspace has also become a battlefield through destroying or hacking into computer systems or sending destructive viruses to enemy electronic systems. An example of this is the Stuxnet virus that hit the Iranian nuclear programme in 2010, causing a major problem. Ralph Langner, a German computer expert, said at the time that the malware set back the Iranian nuclear programme by two years.

4. The increasing role of non-state actors in warfare, making irregular forces the only actor in future warfare

The role of private companies, also known as private contractors, is expected to increase. Despite the fact that the US has had a leading role in this direction through Blackwater in Iraq in 2003, the future carries many anticipated advances in this regard, where private contractors become a major element in the structure of the armed forces of several countries. In addition, countries are no longer the only party making decisions about waging or announcing wars; there are groups or parties that have military power and can control decisions about war and peace, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, Al Qaida, and Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).

5. The staggering cost of armament, the transformations in the nature of warfare, and technological developments

These push armies in the direction of depending on smaller, more effective armies, that is, quality over quantity, which is bound to change the standards or criteria of power for various countries. Large armies will no longer be a measure of power; in fact, they may become a disadvantage and a burden. Furthermore, dependence on tanks and heavy artillery may become significantly less important over the coming years in favour of new weapons in tandem with the changes occurring on battlefields — from deserts to city and cyberspace — and their type, including cyberwarfare, asymmetrical wars, space wars, remote wars, hybrid wars, and others.

In light of the above, future armies and warfare may be characterised by the emergence of new types of wars; weaponry that relies less on humans; smaller, yet more effective armies; and changes in the battlefields; as well as the transformation of war tools, which will no longer be restricted to rifles, aircraft, or missiles, but will include computers, the media, and even the environment — causing earthquakes and volcanic eruptions on enemy territory. Consequently, warfare will result in less bloodshed, yet more losses and destruction.

Such transformations in the field of weaponry and warfare are expected to increase in the future and require those in charge of armies, especially in the Arab region, to:

■ Reconsider current armament, where interest should shift to the quality of weapons instead of quantity, focusing more on unmanned weapons as well as other significant matters.

■ Reconsider planning, training systems, and curricula in military academies, so that they keep up with the changes on battlefields, the nature of warfare, parties involved, and types of weapons.

■ Revise the theories of national security, especially when it comes to external dangers, sources of threat, the nature of alliances, and others.

■ Improve old military equipment by linking it to modern technology, making it adaptable to advances in arms, especially in cases where the amount of such equipment is large.

■ Bear in mind that facing dangers threatening national security for countries, in light of the large developments in the field of armaments and types of war, entails major difficulties and complications. Therefore, it is essential to take into consideration that it will only be possible to effectively confront these dangers through regional or international cooperation and partnership.

■ Pay attention to the legal and ethical aspects of future warfare, especially military robots and unmanned weapons. These matters are expected to give rise to major legal and ethical problems over the coming years, which, in turn, will have repercussions on warfare and will limit the ability to utilise AI in wars. There are debates in the West about the ethical and legal aspects of AI, especially its military uses. It is vital that the Arab world is aware of these discussions and their outcomes because AI is one of the important variables affecting the development of armies and their tools and mechanisms in the coming years.

Today’s warnings

In April 2018, after reports about an agreement to develop killer military robots, the media reported that 50 academics signed a letter calling for a boycott of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) and Hanwha Systems.

This brings to mind the warnings by Albert Einstein and his colleagues in the 20th century against developing nuclear weapons and the dangers they pose to humanity. Einstein’s warnings were not able to halt the drive towards weapons of mass destruction; hence, in my estimate, warnings against using AI in warfare will also lead to nothing.

Military companies will not stop their advances to develop the most dangerous, lethal, non-ethical and inhumane weapons.

It is, therefore, essential to deal with the matter on this basis and be prepared for dramatic and drastic transformations in future warfare, regardless of the fears or warnings of scientists and scholars. History has taught us that such fears count for nothing against weapons companies that seek billions of dollars, and our concerns cannot deter the desire to excel and gain great power.

Dr Jamal Sanad Al Suwaidi is a UAE Author and Director-General of the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research.