|Chapter 5: Warfare in the 21st Century
War is an integral part of human life. It is ubiquitous, shaping society and individual lives. Did anything define the twentieth century as much as the two world wars? Wars are fought for many reasons, but the primary reason for war is fear—the fear of what the other side will do to your nation if you don’t go to war. This fear is neither irrational nor pathological. It is a very reasonable way to look at the world. Israelis and Palestinians fear each other. Americans and Jihadists fear each other. Germans and French feared each other. Rome feared Carthage. There was much to be feared on all sides. Those who weren’t afraid were out of touch with reality.
We will deal with the origins of this fear later. For now, we need to think not about why wars are fought but about how they are fought. That is determined by two things. First, by where wars are fought, the geographic and demographic environment in which the war takes place. Second, they are defined by how wars are fought, the weapons and other technologies that are used to kill the enemy. The where and the how together define the culture of war, a term used to explain the extraordinarily complex processes that constitute war, a human constant.
It was the Europeans who globalized war. Global empire led to world war. Conflicts that appeared to be local in nature took on global implications. For example, in the 17th and 18th centuries, wars between the Iroquois and Algonquin, in the past a local affair, became caught up with the global struggle between the English and French for empire.
Globalization also applied to the culture of wars. The way the North American Indians fought their wars was reshaped by the European culture of wars. Firearms were ultimately more effective than Indian technologies. Therefore, the Indians adopted European technology. In adopting the technology, they had to move toward European tactics. Some nations mastered the lessons well, such as the Ghurka or the Japanese. Some, like the North American Indians never fully mastered it and were crushed. In the European age, there was a single global system and therefore a single global military culture.
The European redefined the scope of war and the ways wars were fought. The distance between the wars of the 15th century and the 20th century was unprecedented. They brought all of the technologies discussed in the last chapter to bear, turning the battlefield into an arena for hydrocarbon driven engines and explosives. European technology and the technology of war developed together, standing on an identical platform. That is always the case, but nowhere was the outcome as extraordinarily radical as with Europe.
Global War, Total War
To understand European war, two principles have to be borne in mind. One is global war, the other is total war. Instead of soldiers fighting soldiers, entire societies fought entire societies. Mass society meant mass warfare. The entire society was mobilized to field armies and to supply them. War was also fought globally, as nations hurled themselves against nations. The distinction between soldiers and civilians, always tenuous, completely collapsed in the global wars of the 20th century. War became an extraordinary display of carnage, unlike anything yet seen—both global and total.
The roots of total war are to be found in the nature of warfare since the emergence of ballistic weapons—guns and bombs. A ballistic weapon is simply one that, once fired or released, can’t change its course. The aim has to be perfect. A rifle or a World War II bomber depends on the same guidance system, hand-eye coordination. Anyone who has fired a rifle knows how difficult it is to fire precisely. The first time a Japanese heard a rifle fired he was stunned. The fifth time he knew that a trained man with a sword could defeat a poorly trained man with a rifle. When the British first started night bombing attacks over Germany, the bombs were so far off target, the Germans couldn’t figure out what the target was supposed to be.
Since accuracy was impossible, the only solution was to saturate the battlefield with projectiles. From the first skirmish lines using muskets to saturation aerial bombardment in World War II, the solution to the problem of inaccuracy was to increase the chance of successfully hitting a target by massively increasing the number of weapons that were fired. It was estimated that in World War I, ten thousand bullets were fired for every man hit. To kill the enemy, large numbers of soldiers had to be firing large numbers of weapons simultaneously.
Armies soared in size. Thousands of soldiers were needed to fire thousands of rounds of ammunition. Large numbers of supporting men and women were needed to feed the soldiers, deliver ammunition, care for the wounded and so on. Most important, you needed large numbers of men to deliver the gasoline to the trucks, tanks and airplanes, and to maintain and repair them. Delivering gasoline to the battlefield became one of the major tasks of an army.
Paralleling the growth of armies was the need for factory workers who built the weapons, refined the oil, canned the food and produced the ammunition. In order to fight a European war, the entire society had to be mobilized, industrial production diverted to war and most of the workforce involved in weapons production. Between the army, industry and agriculture, the entire society was waging war. By the 20th century, the outcome of wars required such a level of effort that nothing short of the total mobilization of society could achieve victory. War consisted of one society hurling itself against another.
Victory depended on shattering the enemy’s society, damaging its population and infrastructure so completely that it could no longer produce the masses of weapons or field the massive armies required. Nuclear weapons, as we have seen, were the logical conclusion to total war. They created a system whose primary purpose was the efficient destruction of an enemy’s war making ability through the destruction of enemy society. Destroying a factory could paralyze an army. If the factory couldn’t be destroyed, then dropping incendiary bombs on the workers, burning them to death while they slept, achieved the same goal.
During the 20th century the annihilation of society became the means of making war, of defeating an enemy army. Total war was a war of masses of men, the mobilization of the entire economy and the abolition of the distinction between soldier and civilian, since a civilian making a weapon—or a spouse cooking his meals—was as dangerous as the soldier carrying the weapon.
Military power rested on three things:
A large population.
An industrial plant able to maintain society and produce weapons.
Access to raw materials, particularly oil.
World War II was fought by the Germans and Japanese to gain access to raw materials in order to feed their nation’s industrial plant and feed their armies. The allies won the war by destroying the German and Japanese industrial plant and annihilating their armies. The nation that had all three of the essentials for military power and could protect them from destruction would inevitably win the war. The Soviets had all three, but lost millions of its population and suffered a great deal of damage. The United States had all three, lost comparatively little of its population and suffered no damage. It was the real winner of the war. Everyone else, including the British, lost.
Nuclear Weapons and the Transition of Warfare
World War II introduced massed aerial bombardment designed to destroy the enemy’s industrial plant and shatter the fabric of society. A huge effort went into directly attacking the population, as opposed to the enemy armed forces. The theory of massed aerial bombardment was developed by the Europeans after World War I. It was most thoroughly implemented by the United States and its ultimate expression was Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
World War II was about the destruction of enemy societies. The fire bombing of Tokyo in three days of relentless attacks by a thousand B-29 bombers each day, killed almost 100,000 people. It was the embodiment of the destruction of an enemy society by destroying its industrial plant and workers. The theory was that the more explosives were dropped, the more destruction was wreaked, the more quickly enemy resistance would be broken.
Bombing a city with a thousand bombers is a vast and costly undertaking. Imagine if you could achieve the same outcome with a single plane and a single bomb. It would achieve the goal of total war at a fraction of the cost. That was the logic behind the atomic bomb. Rather than being a new weapon, it was the logical outcome of European warfare. The atomic bomb was designed to destroy an enemy society so quickly and efficiently, that the enemy would capitulate rather than face the bomb. Technically the atomic bomb was radically new. Militarily, it was simply a continuation of a culture of war that had been developing in Europe for centuries.
If one nation possessed atomic and later nuclear weapons, then it could dictate to the world. If, however, two nations possessed them, then another logic took hold. Marry nuclear weapons to Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, and you have an unstoppable catastrophe. The two victors of World War II both developed ICBMs and nuclear weapons and bought European mass warfare to a surprising conclusion: stalemate.
The Americans and Soviets accepted the idea that society was the battlefield. They also understood that nuclear tipped missiles assured that the result of any war would be mutual catastrophe. The only winner would be third powers who sat the war out. Therefore, the Americans and the Soviets carefully avoided having a nuclear war. They also avoided any action that could possibly lead to a nuclear exchange. Neither side would allow itself to be beaten in a conventional war with the other without using nuclear weapons. That meant that they could not fight a conventional war with other.
Nuclear weapons stabilized U.S.-Soviet relations. Without the existence of nuclear weapons, we find it unlikely that a major war between the two powers could be avoided. With nuclear weapons, the primary goal of each sides foreign policy was to avoid anything that could lead to a nuclear war There were intense wars, as in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan. But these were wars between one of the powers and the other’s proxy, not a direct war. And none of these wars threatened either fundamental interests of the other, or could possibly result in the destruction of their society. In all three cases—and in many others--each superpower accepted stalemate or defeat rather than resorting to use of nuclear weapons.
As other nations achieved nuclear technology stability actually increased. For all of Mao Tse Tung’s wild talk before acquiring nuclear weapons, Chinese foreign policy became more conservative after they got the bomb. India and Pakistan had fought several major wars before getting nuclear weapons. They never fought one after they got them. Egypt and Syria attacked Israel, a major nuclear power, confident that Israel’s nuclear capability would be countered by the Soviets, and therefore never used. Of course, neither Egypt nor Syria planned to threaten Israel’s survival. And Israel was not eager to go nuclear.
In the first part of the 21st century, the threat does not come from nations that possess massive nuclear arsenals. The threat comes from nations that have one or two nuclear weapons, who can devastate a city or two, but cannot devastate society as a whole. The basic atomic technology is over half a century old and knowledge of how to build nuclear weapons has become widespread. The equipment needed to construct them is much rarer and rarer still is the expertise, but it is altogether possible that some additional nations will acquire nuclear weapons.
If a nation uses nuclear weapons to destroy a city in an advanced country which also has nuclear weapons, that nation must assume that its society will be annihilated in response, and the leadership with it. A nation cannot annihilate a major society with one or two weapons (Israel being a potential exception and therefore a wild card). There could, of course, be a madman scenario. But it is difficult to imagine a case in which a state has the discipline to create a deliverable nuclear device but is simultaneously insane. But should such a thing happen, to be simply cold blooded about it, the destruction of one or two cities would not destroy the United States while the response would destroy the madman and his country.
We cannot rule out the madman scenario although the result of a lunatic gaining access to nuclear weapons may make him more careful. Outside of these parameters, the use of nuclear weapons has not taken place in spite of the fact that countries who owned them were engaged in wars they were losing.
Nuclear weapons have not abolished geopolitics. They do not stop competition among nations nor wars. They are, in fact, the last weapon of the European Age, a transitional weapon. Nuclear weapons are the reduction ad absurdum of total war. And as we shall see, total war ceases to exist when new technologies are bought to bear in the American Age.
Radical War: Accuracy and the 21st Century
The brute nature of nuclear weapons forged a technical revolution. Neither the Soviets nor Americans wanted annihilation. They also understood that disarmament was meaningless. The threat did not rest in the existence of weapons but in the knowledge of how to build them and that could not be eliminated. No matter what treaties said, nuclear weapons could reappear suddenly if needed
Rather than disarm, the Americans and Soviets sought another solution—the ability to destroy enemy nuclear weapons without having to destroy enemy society. In other words, they sought a way to create a nuclear battlefield that excluded society as a whole. The instrument for this was the creation of a system of nuclear warfare that was built on precision, the precise destruction of nuclear weapons and only nuclear weapons.
For this outcome, two things were needed: precise knowledge of the location of enemy weapons and ultra-precise delivery of nuclear weapons at intercontinental ranges. This counterforce strategy, designed to take out enemy nuclear weapons in silos, had little impact on nuclear warfare, but it bred a fundamental cultural change in weaponry, that is in the process of transforming warfare: the culture of accuracy.
Nuclear weapons drove both sides of the Cold War into space. While manned space projects were the public side of the move into space, the primary motive was the need to know precisely where the other side had located its nuclear missiles. Space surveillance satellites of various sorts were created and launched alongside Sputnik and the Mercury program. These satellites evolved into real time systems that could pinpoint enemy launchers within meters, allowing them to be targeted.
In addition, tremendously increased accuracy was needed by missiles. When the primary purpose of these weapons was the destruction of cities, megatonnage, not accuracy, was the issue. When the issue became the destruction of weapons with minimal collateral damage (a relative term with nuclear weapons), accuracy became critical. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the obsession became real time intelligence of enemy missiles combined with hyper-accurate means of attacking them.
The culture of accuracy, and many of the technologies used to achieve it, quickly migrated from the area of nuclear weapons to conventional weapons, creating a class of weapons called precision guided munitions. Used in a primitive state late in the Vietnam War, then seen in a more mature form during Desert Storm, precision guided munitions could strike a target at an exact point if it had the intelligence of what point to strike.
PGM changed the mathematics of war. European military culture involved massed weaponry to compensate for the inaccuracy of ballistic weapons. PGM, due to an increase in accuracy, required vastly fewer weapons. Therefore, they required fewer troops to maintain, fewer vehicles, less petroleum, fewer factories, fewer workers. Precision Guided Munitions greatly contracted the scope of war.
These were early weapons, like the Tomahawk Cruise Missile. Launched from ships or submarines, the Tomahawk in 1991 contained a digitized map of the terrain it would be passing over on its way to the target. Using sensors in its nose and flying on using jet engine, the Tomahawk compared the pictures in its memory with the terrain it was seeing to guide itself to the target. On approaching the target—say a building—it would call up an image of the building, compare it to what it saw, and strike the window that had been designated. The Tomahawk wasn’t perfect and there is dispute of how often it was successful. But if it was successful only 10 percent of the time (and it was much better than that) it would be a quantum leap over World War II. And this was a primitive PGM. They have obviously improved over time.
Vast concentrations of forces became easy targets for annihilation when the enemy uses precision weapons. Operation Desert Storm was the first major war that pivoted on PGM. There was a huge ground force present, but the precision guided munitions devastated the Iraqi army in Kuwait before the main force went into battle. The United States had demonstrated that it could annihilate a mass, European style army built around armor and artillery, with PGM. Desert Storm in 1991 was the end of European style warfare. It was no longer necessary to crush an enemy society to defeat it. War was now a question of defeating an enemy army again. Both the mathematics of the new weapons and survival strategies against them argue for much smaller armies in the 21st Century.
This change in scale is of tremendous advantage to the United States which has always been at a demographic disadvantage in fighting wars. The U.S. has created a culture of war in which the size of the force is either unimportant, or in which large forces are actually a disadvantage. What is needed is not a large force, nor even a vast industrial plant. Rather, what is needed is a smaller number of extremely well trained and sophisticated warriors.
It is important to see how the weapons culture created by the United States parallels the demographic shift. With an aging and contracting population, the maintenance of mass forces becomes difficult if not impossible. The United States has historically been dealing with the population deficiency even before the demographic shift. It therefore was compelled to use the revolution in nuclear precision for conventional warfare which allowed the U.S. to achieve its global geopolitical imperatives without requiring a mass armed force.
The total nature of war is changing. The global nature of war is not. Precision Guided Munitions allow the surgical destruction of enemy forces and infrastructure, but they must still be the target. A Tomahawk cruise missile in 1991 had a range of about 1,000 miles and traveled at about 500 miles an hour. It had to be carried to within a thousand miles of the target—which could take weeks by ship—and then take two hours to the target. It wasn’t useful against fast moving targets.
The problem is two fold. First, crises blow up out of nowhere. The single biggest weakness of the U.S. military is the time it takes to get to the battlefield. By the time it gets there, the war can be long over. It too six months to build up forces to go to war in both Desert Storm and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Second, using airpower requires deploying aircraft near the target. That takes time, particularly to get the fuel in place and it commits the aircraft to one theater when another region might blow up and need the aircraft more. It takes a lot of planes to cover all theaters. There are planes that can be based in the United States and carry out long range bombing. The B-1, B-2 and the venerable B-52 can all do that. But it can take well over 12 hours for a plane taking off from the United States to reach Iraq for example. You can only hit non-moving targets, and only a few at that.
What is needed is a weapon that can be based in the United States, reach the other side of the world in under an hour, maneuver with incredible agility to avoid surface to air missiles, strike with absolute precision, and return to carry out another mission almost immediately. If the U.S. had such a system, it would not have to deliver a tank eight thousand miles away, or a ship. It would not have to pre-commit its forces to a region, but could base everything in the United States and strike wherever needed.
What is needed is called a hypersonic, unmanned aircraft. The United States is currently engaged in the development of hypersonic systems, systems capable of traveling in excess of five times the speed of sound, or about 4,000 miles an hour. Powered by what are called scramjet engines, the craft are air breathing, not rockets. Their range currently is limited. But as scramjets develop during the century—along with new materials that can withstand extremely high temperatures caused by friction with the air—both range and speed will increase.
Imagine doubling of speed, to mach 10 or about 8,000 miles an hour with an equivalent range. Traveling at that speed a missile fired from the east coast of the United States would hit a target in Europe in under half an hour. Increase this to mach 20, and a strike could be delivered in less than 15 minutes. The American geopolitical need to intervene rapidly with sufficient strength to destroy enemy forces would be solved in time to make a difference. Building enough hypersonic missiles to devastate a potential enemy would be extremely expensive. But considering the savings on the current force structure, it would be manageable. We should note that this system would reduce the need for huge stockpiles of petroleum to fuel tanks, planes and ships at a time when the hydrocarbon energy system would be in decline.
The result of deploying hypersonic systems would be to reverse the trend in warfare that has been underway since Napoleon. The armies of the 21st century will be much smaller, more professional and highly technological. Precision allows the reintroduction of a separation between soldier and civilian. It is not necessary to devastate entire cities to destroy one building. Soldiers would increasingly resemble the highly trained medieval knights rather than the GIs of World War II. Courage would still be necessary, but it would be the ability to manage extremely complex weapon systems that would matter the most.
Speed, range, accuracy—and a lot of unmanned aircraft—would substitute for the massed forces that were required to deliver explosives to the battlefield in the 20th century. But they would have to know where the target is. And for that, warfare must continue to expand its presence in space.
From Total War to Space War
War in the 21st century will expand globally, but it also will have a much lighter touch. Instead of the intense local combat devastating a region, the shape of war will change and diffuse. A base launching hypersonic aircraft in the United States to affect the outcome of a battle in South Korea might be targeted by an enemy in Europe, with strikes taking place in a matter of minutes. Bringing fire to bear on the target will no longer require being close to the target.
One thing remains unchanged, however, no matter what other changes are taking place in warfare. The commander of a battlefield must have knowledge of the battlefield. The relatively small and compact battlefields of the middle ages, for example, required only that the commander be able to see what was going on and command through the use of signaling devices like flags, drums or trumpets. So long as the battles were fought by human muscle, they had to be compact as the warriors had to come face to face. Even the archers at Agincourt had to see their enemy.
With the advent of artillery, the commander could no longer see the entire battlefield. The artillery could fire, in indirect fire mode, over hills and beyond the range of vision. In order to see the battlefield, the commander needed scouts, usually in the form of cavalry, that could rapidly scout and return with information. As the battlefield spread in size, command and control became increasingly complex. The first use of aircraft was to replace the cavalry as scouts. Their mission was to provide intelligence as to the location of enemy forces, and permit artillery strikes. In due course the aircraft became a weapons platform and delivered their own strike.
The global battlefield may be radically different than the traditional battlefield, but the principle of the commander’s knowledge remains in place. In a global battlefield, command and control must be tied together with knowledge of what the enemy is doing and what your own forces are doing. The only way to achieve this in a global battlefield is from space. The essential principle of warfare was always to hold the high ground, on the theory that the high ground provides visibility. The same theory holds true in global war. The high ground permits visibility and therefore, the high ground is space, the area in which reconnaissance platforms can see the battlefield on a global basis.
Global war will become space war. This is not by any means a radical innovation. Space is already filled with reconnaissance satellites designed to provide a large number of countries intelligence on what is happening around the world. For some, particularly the United States, space based sensors are already creating the global battlefield, identifying tactical targets and calling in air strikes or cruise missiles. The weapon systems have not yet evolved, but the platforms are already there and moving into maturity.
Obviously, therefore, any nation planning to go to war against another nation, but particularly the United States, must blind the enemy. Blinding the enemy in this case means destroying the space based systems that allow the enemy to target. In addition, there are navigational systems, communications systems and other space based systems that must be destroyed if the enemy’s warfighting capability is to be crippled. Therefore, the destruction of enemy satellites will become an essential piece of 21st century warfare. These can be destroyed by other satellites, or by lasers designed to blind them. But destroying the satellites will be critical.
Therefore defending the satellites will be critical. The simplest way to defend a satellite is to allow it to maneuver out of harm’s way. This is not as simple as it sounds. First, it requires reaction mass to maneuver a satellite, and that is heavy and costly to boost into orbit. A satellite has only so much of that available. Second, maneuvering won’t save it from an ASAT that can also maneuver, and certainly not from a laser beam. Finally, these are orbital platforms, inserted in a certain orbit in order that they cover the necessary terrain. Maneuvering shifts the orbit, degrading the usefulness.
Therefore, the best defense of a satellite system is an offensive system, one that either destroys or deflects an enemy satellite or that blocks a laser beam. The inevitable result of this will be the satellite battle group. Like a carrier battle group, where the carrier is protected by other vessels, the reconnaissance satellite will be protected by other satellites with various capabilities and responsibilities, from blocking laser beams, to attacking attack satellites. The problem of defending space based systems will pyramid rapidly as each side increases the threat and thereby increases defense measures.
A satellite costs several billion dollars. A satellite battle group will cost even more. Currently, except for relatively rare instances, a damaged or failed satellite is a total loss. The more extensively space is used, the more valuable platforms will become and the less this total loss model will work. Particularly as space becomes a battleground, the need to repair space platforms will become an imperative. To repair complex, damaged systems, men will have to go in to space to perform those repairs.
Launching men into space each time a repair has to be done is inherently inefficient. Launching spacecraft from the earth will cost more than moving spacecraft, already in orbit, around in space. At a certain point it will make more sense and become more economical to station men permanently in space to carry out repairs. Obviously, these men will become targets themselves and will have to defend themselves. Since they will be in space, they can also manage the space based systems. Autonomous systems will obviously be used in space. Robotics will spread to space first, and are, in fact, already there. But manned systems will need to be located there as well.
It’s not just a matter of repairing multi-billion dollar satellites quickly. The communications link from earth to space is complex and subject to interference. Any enemy will try to disrupt communications between ground and space. The simplest method might be just the destruction of earth based transmitters with car bombs. In addition, launch facilities might be attacked. Assume that the two major U.S. launch facilities, Kennedy Space Flight Center and Vandenberg Air Force Base came under attack by enemy missiles, causing enough damage to shut down operations for months. Then the United States would be unable to launch more equipment and whatever was already in space at the time of the attack would be all that would be available. Maintaining those systems could mean the difference between victory and defeat. Therefore, having repair teams deployed in space will be critical.
Space provides line of sight and secure communications. It also provides clear tracking of hostile objects. Battle management will therefore move from earth to space. There will be space stations—command platforms—at various distances out from earth, tasked with commanding robotic and manned systems as they maneuver around evading enemy attack, attacking enemy platforms and conducting operations on the surface of the earth.
Firing weapons from space to earth will happen, but it is more complicated than it appears. A weapon is space is moving at thousands of miles an hour. The earth is rotating as well and the moon is revolving around the earth. It is a mass of moving parts. Hitting a target on the face of the earth from space is harder than it looks. That will develop more slowly than surveillance from space but it will develop. The best and clearest information will be obtained in space. That’s where the commander will sit. Transmitting this data to earth takes time where seconds count, the signal can be jammed, and the ground facilities are easier to destroy than space based systems.
During the 21st century, the geography of space will change. Currently, the highest orbit used is geostationary at about 27,000 miles high. At this altitude, the speed of a satellite would match the rotation of the earth, and a satellite would remain stationary over a single spot on the earth. This is the location of most communications satellites and some intelligence satellites. At Middle Earth Orbit we find the navigational satellites. At Low Earth orbit, just outside of the earth’s atmosphere, are the bulk of the intelligence gathering satellites.
It’s a rule of war that holding the high ground gives a decisive advantage. Holding space is the global high ground. You can see the global view and hurl weapons down to earth much more easily than firing up at tiny objects in space. Space warfare, like naval warfare in the 16th century, will spread outward. Geostationary orbit is strategic and will be fought over. But it will only be one strategic point.
The other will be the surface of the moon. Bases on the moon will provide a stable platform—not encumbered by an atmosphere—for observing both the surface of the earth, and the battle raging in space. It takes too long for a weapon on the moon to reach earth—probably days. But a signal can reach a hunter-killer satellite moving in to destroy a repair facility in seconds. Sustaining and defending a base on the moon will be easier than doing the same for orbiting systems—on the moon, you can move underground.
Space provides a complex and even weird geography. Between the earth and the moon there are two points at which an object will remain stable and unmoving relative to the earth and moon. Called libration points, a space system placed there can strike in either direction, or simply monitor and manage the battle. It will be essential to hold these libration points.
Battles will be fought for control of low orbit space, geostationary space, libration points and the surface of the moon. The purpose of the battles will be to deny an enemy the ability to utilize these areas, while guaranteeing a nation’s own military access to them. Treaties or not, where humanity goes, war goes. Humanity will be going into space. There will be war in space.
Like all war, it will also be about economics. The world already depends on space for communications and navigation. In the 21st century, the world will also depend on space for energy. Those vast arrays of solar collectors and the factories that will be arrayed around them will be prizes as valuable as the Persian Gulf is today. Controlling them or destroying them will be important economic as well as political goals. Defending them and using them will be just as vital.
Controlling the world’s oceans from space will be critical. Even today, the U.S. Navy depends heavily on space for making the fleets effective. In the 21st century, control of the sea will be less dependent on ocean going fleets than on space based systems that can see enemy ships and target them. Whoever controls space will control the sea.
Building fleets to challenge U.S. naval dominance is extraordinarily difficult, expensive and time consuming. Mastering the technologies and operational principles of aircraft carriers can take generations. Most navies have abandoned any attempt to do so. Few will be in a position to attempt it in the 21st century. Nor is it clear that the best way to attack a fleet is with another fleet.
Apply the same technology to naval warfare. In the past, it was necessary to maneuver ships into close proximity to each other to make war. Recently it was necessary to bring them within hundreds of miles of each other in order to fire missiles or launch aircraft. In the 21st century, hypersonic missiles and aircraft will obviate the need to bring vessels close to each other.
Imagine that China, for example, instead of building a fleet, will build a vast array of long range, high speed, maneuverable missiles and unmanned aircraft that will be used to attack U.S. carrier battle groups. While U.S. ships have anti-missile defenses, these can be overwhelmed by speed, agility and numbers. It is a lot cheaper to build missiles than carriers. If that were to happen it would be possible for the Chinese to attack and destroy U.S. fleets, allowing China to deny the U.S. control of the seas, and allowing them to practice remote control.
For this to work, the Chinese would need to know the location of the U.S. ships with sufficient precision to target their missiles. Since naval warfare is global, the only practical long-term solution would be spaced based maritime surveillance satellites. In addition, to protect their launch sites from U.S. counter-measures, the Chinese would need to destroy U.S. satellite surveillance. In such an encounter, the U.S. would need to deny China its space based assets.
While we expect humans in space to maintain and command space based warfighting systems, these will be augmented by robotic systems. Maintaining a human being in space is a complex and expensive undertaking and will remain so throughout the century. Autonomous systems are already common in space, as are remotely controlled systems. Unmanned space flight is routine. In fact, space is where much of the pioneering work on robotics has been done and will continue to be done.
The application of robotics to warfare will not be confined to space. Indeed, this will be a technology, like the microchip, that will be underwritten by U.S. defense research and development. There are literally dozens of projects underway to develop robotic systems for the battlefield. One example is the development of a robotic mule—a system to carry large weights into combat. Currently, an infantryman might carry up to 100 pounds of equipment on his back. As weapons grow more complex, there will be even more to carry.
As weapons become more accurate, the number of men needed for a mission will decline. Using human beings simply to serve as pack animals makes little sense, particularly as demographics shift and manpower becomes scarce. Substituting a robotic equipment carrier is a necessary and logical step. The technology is sufficiently developed that the U.S. Department of Defense already has fairly advanced projects in this area. We will see—or are already seeing—robotic aircraft, repair modules for satellites, intelligent torpedoes at sea. Toward the end of the century a robotic infantryman for relatively simple tasks, such as rushing fortified positions to avoid human casualties is likely. This is not even a slight stretch of the imagination.
Some things will change dramatically. Some things won’t. The defeat of an enemy army is one thing. The occupation of an enemy country is very different. Where there is a will to resist, technology plays a small role. So long as the occupier is prepared to endure some casualties, the resistance will fail. But if the occupied are prepared to resist and the occupier wants to crush the resistance so there are no more casualties, technology will be of little avail. If the U.S. wants to occupy Iraq and lose a thousand soldiers a year, it can do that. But if it wants to occupy Iraq and eliminate a determined resistance, technology will do little to help. It will be easier to defeat an enemy army than to occupy an enemy country.
The 21st century will, therefore, find itself militarily trapped between two competing trends. On one hand, the use of guerrilla warfare will continue. It will require the fielding of large armies using relatively primitive weapons to defeat the enemy. On the other hand, the emergence of new classes of precise weapons will reduce the need for large armies, placing a premium on small numbers of scientists and engineers—many acting as soldiers—to wage war. In neither case will total war be needed. You don’t need to mobilize an industrial base to fight a guerrilla war, on either side. You need a very small slice of the industrial base to fight a conventional war. Nevertheless, things appear to be going in opposite directions.
Guerrilla wars, by themselves, cannot succeed militarily. In Vietnam, the United States lost about 50,000 killed. In Afghanistan, the Soviets lost about 30,000. In Iraq, the U.S. has lost about 3,000. In countries whose populations exceed a quarter billion people, these are very small numbers. In any of these wars, each of these sides was demographically and militarily capable of enduring these sorts of casualties indefinitely, had it been necessary. The problem is the definition of necessity.
Guerrilla warfare normally occurs when a major power occupies a lesser power. The major power normally has only a secondary interest in retaining control of the country. The inhabitants of the lesser power have a great interest in taking control of their country and the guerrillas are therefore prepared to pay an enormously higher price in the war than the occupier is. Both are being rational. One is pursuing core interests; the other is pursuing secondary interests. Without a core interest being at stake, the guerrillas cannot fight. Without a core interest being at stake, the major power will choose not to fight. Thus, while the occupier can easily pay the price in some abstract sense, from a geopolitical standpoint, it makes no sense. Therefore, even though the guerrilla force suffers horrendous casualties relative to the occupying country, the guerrillas tend to win.
During the period of total war, this was not necessarily the case. From the Napoleonic wars onward, and particularly in World War II, the occupying powers had an enormous interest in remaining where they were and were prepared to impose overwhelming devastation on the guerrillas and the population. The concept of total war rationally justified annihilating or deporting entire populations that were deemed hostile.
But to do this, there had to be massive armies, since the process of annihilation requires major force on the ground. Modern warfare, with its emphasis on technology, has abolished massive armies. Even today, the United States lacks enough troops to crush the Iraqi resistance. Therefore the ability to conduct direct attacks on populations, even if the will were there, doesn’t exist.
We need to add to this equation one final event—the democratization of explosives. Guerrilla resistance is at its most effective with the universal availability of the assault rifle. Easily mastered by anyone, it creates a direct threat to enemy armies. But more important, is the existence of explosives that can be used by guerrilla forces against the occupying force, even at times, in the home country. Guerrilla warfare has always existed, but the use of firearms and explosives has allowed the guerrillas to do more than simply evade and survive. They can resort to terrorism and if not shut down societies, can destabilize them.
The military problem of the twenty first century can therefore be defined this way. The re-professionalization of warfare makes it easy for a primary power to occupy a secondary power. It makes it easy for a secondary power to impose a guerrilla war on the primary power that will compel it, out of its own interest, to withdraw. It means that two new classes of powers emerge—the highly technological power, regardless of size, and the highly committed power, regardless of strength.
But this isn’t new. From the most ancient of times, there has been a distinction between the destruction of enemy armies and the occupation of enemy territory. For the Romans and Persians, who both excelled at the destruction of enemy armies, the occupation of enemy territories was a complex political, economic and military process. It also involved the willingness to absorb some degree of casualties in the occupation.
We can see that the end of the total wars of the 20th century leads to the rise of global warfare in the 21st. Even more radically, war will expand into space and even to the earth’s neighboring planet. We also can see the two technologies that are the basis for war in the 21st century: the hypersonic cruise missile and plane, able to strike globally in under an hour and space based systems that will guide them. Control of space will mean control of the earth. At the same time, controlling the earth will not mean subduing it. The problem of occupying a hostile population will be as challenging in the 21st century as it was to the Romans. If someone is prepared to die, technology cannot mitigate the danger he poses.
The globalization of warfare does not, therefore, mean the expansion of global destruction. To the contrary, in the 21st century we will see four things:
War will remain as constant a feature of the human condition as it was in the past
The scope of war will expand until the geography of the tactical encompasses not only the world, but even the neighboring planet.
The destructiveness of war will contract, re-establishing older distinctions between civilian and warrior.
The occupation and pacification of countries will remain as difficult as ever.
But there is a revolution in warfare going on and it is very real. This revolution is at a very primitive stage. The precision of existing classes of weapons—like cruise missiles—will only surge while precision will be extended to classes of weapons not yet touched, such as the infantryman’s rifle. As the revolution extends itself, the number of weapons that are needed will plummet. The number of soldiers that are needed will decline. The number of factories and factory workers producing these weapons will plunge. The need for total mobilization will decline. The utility of destroying entire societies will decline. And therefore, the age of total war will end.
What remains to discuss about war is the will to wage it. With all the technology in the world, wars cannot be won without the will to do so. And will is a cultural question, to which we turn next.