Books | When Future Coalesces With Present

Military institutions must make a series of bets on the likelihood of possible future scenarios and their potential impacts. An extract

Mick Ryan

War Transformed

The services of the U.S Defense Department have adopted varying approaches to the development of this more lethal and effective multidomain force. The Army in December 2018 issued its capstone plan for multidomain operations, “The U.S. Army in Multidomain Operations 2028.” It describes convergence of capabilities in the physical, cyber, and influence domains at multiple levels so that they might “prevail in competition” but also be able to “penetrate and disintegrate enemy anti-access systems and exploit freedom of maneuver. In 2016 the Air Force chief of staff listed multidomain operations as one of his three focal areas. Later, he noted that “multi-domain operations is about thinking through how we penetrate, where we need to penetrate; how we protect what we need to protect inside a contested space; how we persist in that environment for the period of time.

The multidomain concept has begun to influence conceptual development and the procurement of weapons systems, and it is also shaping organizational reform. The U.S. Air Force has created a new Space Force that oversees U.S. access to space-based capabilities. The U.S. military has continued to explore different elements of the multidomain theory. One example of this is the work by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop mosaic warfare, described as “a new asymmetric advantage—one that imposes complexity on adversaries by harnessing the power of dynamic, coordinated, and highly autonomous composable systems.

The foundational idea of mosaic warfare is to overcome Chinese and Russian advantages in precision, long-range attack systems (including kinetic, cyber, and influence activities). It also seeks to generate a sustained, long-term advantage for U.S. forces. One study of this concept by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments describes it as “leveraging distributed formations, dynamic composition and re-composition, reductions in electronic emissions, and counter-C2ISR [command, control, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] actions to increase the complexity and uncertainty an adversary would perceive regarding U.S. military operations and degrade the decision-making of opposing commanders.” While several nations are acknowledged as the potential adversaries driving this work, much of the U.S. effort is focused on what it sees at the principal threat to global security—China.

One of the best-known treatises on war, The Art of War, is of Chinese origin. Upon this heritage, the Chinese people’s Liberation Army is constructing new theories of competition, warfighting, and military operations. China, and the motives of the Chinese Communist Party, are at times difficult for Western observers to understand. But there are sufficient Chinese documents available, such as defense white papers and the Military Forum journal, that supply insights into their thinking about how their institutions and ideas will underpin their future military activities.

American scholar Tai Ming Cheung, a long-time observer of Chinese military developments, has described how “China’s leaders see science, technology, and innovation as essential ingredients in the pursult of power, prosperity, and prestige. This is especially the case in the military realm. So this has proved over the past two decades. With its growing military ability, the Chinese PLA has established new institutions to enhance its capacity to influence competitors and conduct long-range strike against military forces around the periphery of China. One such new organization is the PLA’s Strategic Support Force.

Emerging from significant reforms to the PLA in 2015, the Strategic Support Force was established to command space, cyber, electronic, and psychological warfare capabilities. It brought together what had previously been disparate capabilities located in different land, sea, and air services under a unified and more strategic approach. Not only is this institution unique, it also is designed to implement a key idea from the 2000s, the three warfares—legal, public opinion, and psychological.

At the same time, China has pursued new ideas to enhance its capacity in the global competition with the United States. Strategically, it seeks a more integrated approach to technology development under its civil-military integration program. China national defense strategy, released in 2019, describes an approach called active defense whereby it sustains a defensive strategy as well as the capacity for offensive operations at the operations level. Like the United States, China has embraced multidomain operations, but from its own perspective. Its National Defense Strategy notes that “efforts have been made to build the military strategy into a balanced and stable one for the new era, which focuses on defense and coordinates multiple domains.”

Three core ideas of this Chinese approach to future war and competition stand out. The first is the concept of gaining advantage through informatization and intelligentization of warfare. This refers to being able to bring together all forms of information for analysis, supporting this process with AI and other automated systems, and then disseminating this in a way that can be acted on more quickly and decisively than an adversary can. A second core idea is the theory of systems destruction warfare, which describes how future war will be “won by the belligerent that can disrupt, paralyze, or destroy the operational capability of the enemy’s operational system. This will be achieved through kinetic and nonkinetic strikes against key points and nodes.” The final core idea is political warfare. This has been explored over the past several years but has been a prominent element of Chinese behaviour in 2020 as it has sought to coerce, bully, and threaten multiple nations with economic sanctions.

The Chinese Communist Party and the PLA possess massive conventional military forces that have been the beneficiary of new injections of highly advanced, lethal, and precise weapons. However, these forces are made significantly more capable by the large investment in the development of new institutions and ideas to wield them. The structural and conceptual reforms of the various arms of the People’s Liberation Army over the past decade—and which we should expect to continue—will pose a serious and ongoing threat to Western military forces. Any underestimation of Chinese military ability in future competition or warfare is likely to have disastrous consequences for our military institutions and possibly our nations. We must significantly upgrade our capacity to understand not only what equipment the PLA possesses, but also how it thinks.

In exploring the efforts of these nations to divine optimum pathways for successful competition and conflict, several themes are apparent. The first theme is that military institutions have accepted that future warfare will be very different from what has preceded it—a recognition of the changing character of war. It is also an acknowledgment that new technologies and the new geopolitical competition have changed how nations compete and how they may fight against each other or fight through the use of proxies. As the British describe in their 2021 document, Defence in a Competitive Age, “The nature and distribution of global power is changing as we move towards a more competitive and multipolar world.”

A second theme is the desire of many nations to integrate military activities more tightly within national approaches to power. Whether it is the more efficient and effective use of strategic and operational capabilities or the desire to avoid systems destruction by Chinese forces, a tighter linkage of all military capabilities in a national power construct is a feature of current military development. It will shape all future developments in the institutions and ideas of Western military forces.

The third theme is that the major military powers appreciate the need for new concepts and organizations that are appropriate for twenty-first-century competition and warfighting. Demonstrations of this include the formation of the Chinese Strategic Support Force, the Australian Information Warfare Division, and the US Space Force. At the tactical level, new multidomain task forces and Russian battalion tactical groups stand out as new organizations that can use new technologies and ways of collecting, sharing, and exploiting knowledge. At the same time, these new ideas about competition and conflict are an acknowledgment that tactics, processes, and strategies must be developed, implemented, and adapted more quickly than ever before. Speed and adaptive capacity at all levels must be principal features of every future military institution and idea.

Finally, notions of future warfare will continue to evolve as technology, strategy, and the global system change, large nations such as the United States and China will continue to anticipate change while concurrently responding to the actions and strategies of external actors. This environment places a premium on the ability to adapt at every level and at the appropriate pace. This notion of adaptive capacity will be explored later in this chapter.

These themes demonstrate just how difficult it is to anticipate the form and duration of future conflict. The challenge institutions face is to gain an understanding of what is changing (and at what pace) and what is not (continuities). They must then use this knowledge to construct achievable theories of victory and translate this into the resourcing to build organizations (including people and equipment) able to achieve these theories of victory.

Military institutions must make a series of bets on the likelihood of possible future scenarios eventuating and of their potential impacts. They must do this (at least in Western military institutions) in an environment of close government oversight and military budgets that are rarely assured or, if they are, rarely sufficient to address all potential future threats. The better these military institutions can understand the likely future security environment, potential changes and continuities, threats, and opportunities, the better informed their bets might be. To ensure they can make such investments with some level of assurance, military institutions need to evolve their current approaches to military effectiveness.

Mick Ryan
Naval Institute Press, Pg 312, Rs 4134


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