Books | Mick Ryan, the author of War Transformed: The Future of Twenty-First Century Great Power Competition and Conflict

There is a Need for More Integration of Knowledge Between Military and Civil Academic Institutions, as Well as Between Military and Opensource Intelligence Agencies


Mick Ryan, the author of War Transformed:What prompted this book? What were the challenges in writing this book?

The future of war and ensuring that we were well prepared for it has been something that has fascinated me ever since I was a very junior officer in the Australian Army. I have nurtured this interest over the decades through self-study as well as the kinds of staff jobs I sought in between command appointments.

When I assumed command of the Australian Defence College in 2018, I was determined to ensure we were absolutely rigorous, evidence-based and intellectually ruthless in ensuring our future leaders had the best possible preparation for the known and unknown challenges of the future. After teaching there and speaking to many students, it became clear that there was a place for a book that looked at future wars as less a technology challenge, and more a challenge of human intellect and creativity. That is what I sought to explore in War Transformed.


How do you perceive the defining elements of future wars?

First, they are going to be a mix of the old and the new. There will be a lot of continuities like surprise, close combat, disciplined violence and good leadership. But there will also be new elements such as autonomous systems, AI, as well as the new concepts and organisations to use them more appropriately than legacy institutions might.

Second, future wars will be more integrated. By this I partially mean more joint. But it will also have a more careful balance of kinetic and non-kinetic (cyber, inflict, EW) actions. There is also a need for more integration across different agencies of national governments in both competition and conflict. There is a need for more integration of knowledge between military and civil academic institutions, as well as between military and opensource intelligence agencies. Finally, the integration of alliance approaches is vital.

Third, we will need a better understanding of the temporal aspects of war. While news cycles, OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) loops and electoral cycles are important now, we will also have to fight in millisecond with AI, in seconds with hypersonics and autonomous systems, and in decades to compete with the techno authoritarian regime. And we have to somehow balance all these and build strategic patience in our citizens.


How can human resources be improved to adapt to the new wars?

There are a range of areas where we might improve our performance related to personnel. First, we can increase how we value education for our people. Traditionally, military institutions place a high value on training, but education does not quite have the same value proposition. That needs to change. Second, we will probably need to rethink our talent management because not all talent is about tactical or even operational leadership. There are a range of areas such as cyber, strategic influence and strategic logistics that probably need more development for career models and professional development.


In the AI driven wars, do you visualise changes in the nature of war? If so, in what ways?

I don’t think AI changes the nature of war. For at least the foreseeable future, war will remain a human activity. But AI will certainly change the character of war—the ‘how’ we fight aspect of war. It will improve the discrimination of meshed sensor networks, enhance support to human planning and decision-making and have a major impact on logistics and personnel management.


How important will ethical and moral issues be in robotic war considering autocracies are unlikely to forgo technological advantage on ethical grounds?

For nations that purport to have institutional values, ethical approaches to AI and autonomous systems will be important. We already see countries such as the United States placing limits on autonomous systems killing humans. But in many respects, the demand for autonomous systems to act ethically should parallel those same demands we place on our people. Our values, whether military or societal, should apply to both people and machines.


Which emerging technologies are possible in the short, medium, and long term?

In the short and medium term, autonomous systems in the air and land domains will proliferate even more than they have. Autonomy in the air domain is the most advanced, but I expect that autonomous land systems will begin to become more prevalent. In the medium to longer term, we will see more autonomy in the maritime domain, which is quite difficult (especially the underwater domain).

New materials are starting to enter the market, including those that have thermal properties and memory. These will have an impact across all warfighting domains.

Hypersonics are coming in the short to medium term. These will offer an expensive but capable way of attacking high value targets. However, their speed will also force a reconsideration of command and control, and decision making, at the tactical and operational levels.

In the longer term, biotechnology will be available that will enhance both the physical and cognitive performance of humans. This is probably the most ethically challenging new technology because it evolves our view of what humans are. Also, there are challenges around how ethical it is to enhance humans and the ethics of de-augmenting humans after military service.


Changing mindsets is often difficult. Is it fair to call it the biggest roadblock to embracing the transformation in warfare?

Yes. There is an old saying that the hardest thing to change in a military institution is an idea. We are conservative for good reason, but that can often be taken too far.


What would you say to the militaries still making investment in technologies and concepts of the past?

There will still be a requirement for some of these older technologies. Artillery for example is still vital, but it will need to be more mobile to survive. Tanks will still be needed, but perhaps we need to work on their signatures and have them more as a protected networking hub. And old ideas might also be good with systems. But there are other systems such as helicopters and manned bombers that might be in the sunset of their careers. They key is to be honest about vulnerabilities and to evidence-based cost benefit analysis of multiple different capabilities when we look at new military systems.



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