Spring/Summer 2014
Number 26

The Changing Character of War

By
T.X. Hammes

There is a general consensus that the character of war is changing. In fact, the British government funded a decade-long, multi-discipline research project at Oxford University called “The Changing Character of War.” The title was carefully selected because the original director of the program, Sir Hew Strachan, Oxford’s Chichele Professor of the History of War, is adamant that the underlying nature of war will not change. War will continue to be driven by Clausewitz’s primary trinity of violence, chance, and reason. Fog and friction will remain a constant element in conflict, and must never be assumed away.

What will change, however, is the character of war—how it is fought. And that, of course, is a key question for strategists today. As the United States considers major force structure reductions and the procurement plan for coming decades, the question of who might be potential enemies and how they will fight is critical.

Future uncertain

As always, conflict will be driven by the political, economic, social, and technical conditions of the particular contestants.(1) It is the interaction between the contestants that defines the “why” and “how” of a fight. Thus, predicting how a potential enemy will fight includes the risky business of considering current trends in these areas, then projecting them into the future, and considering how they might apply to specific conflicts or types of conflicts. Naturally, there are a number of different opinions about what conflicts the United States should be prepared to fight.

In his book, Out of the Mountains, Dr. David Kilcullen presents a convincing argument that the environment in which we will fight will be crowded, littoral, urban, and networked.(2) This is an excellent analysis of one environment where we have a high probability of fighting. In addition, Kilcullen discusses the types of non-state actors we may well have to fight in that environment.

Other writers are adamant that we are more likely to fight a conventional conflict. They see China(3) and Iran as the leading candidates for opponents, with the fight being mostly naval and aerial. Still others see terrorism and the nexus with criminal gangs as a major potential threat to U.S. security, and thus defining the opponents we must prepare to fight.(4)

As usual, the future is less than clear. But one fact is quite clear—the United States is not good at predicting where and when it will fight. The U.S. government actually excluded Korea as an area worth fighting for in early 1950. In the early 1960s, most analysts did not believe we would get involved in Vietnam in more than merely an advisory capacity. In the late 1980s, almost no one was predicting Iraq would invade Kuwait, and in early 2001, no one predicted we would commit major forces to Afghanistan.

But despite our consistent failure to predict the future, the Department of Defense still has to place bets. It does so every day in the choices it makes about force structure and future equipment. It does so in allocating funds either for current readiness or for R&D and procurement to improve future forces.

It is obvious that these decisions should not be based on a singular vision of the future. Rather, the U.S. military needs to examine the trends we think are shaping that future, and then speculate on the range of scenarios that may result.

The past two decades have made clear why it’s necessary to do so. During the 1990s, the Pentagon’s fascination with technology, and its success in Operation Desert Storm, led it to focus overwhelmingly on preparing for a short, high tech war. What it got instead in the 2000s were decade-long insurgencies. As a result, the services were badly prepared for the wars they actually had to fight. 

Shaping forces

Since conflict is shaped by the political, economic, social, and technical trends in society, we need to consider how these trends might mold potential wars. Politically, we are seeing an ever expanding number and type of participants in all aspects of international politics, to include conflict. While nation-states remain the dominant players, many others—from individuals to transnational and international organizations—will shape conflict in the future. Political entities, from individuals to powerful states, are striving to change the status quo.

Economically, the most interesting security development has been the ability of smaller and smaller companies to create great wealth. The industrial age required both huge capital and major intellectual power to create great wealth—think railroads, car companies, and aircraft manufacturers. The information age still required major capital investment, but of a different type, and relied more on intellectual innovation. As we move into the knowledge age, we are seeing small companies and even individuals create great wealth out of knowledge with only minimal capital investment. Obviously, wealth can be converted into various types of destructive power. Thus the range of enemies who can field massively destructive kinetic, information, or biological weapons is increasing steadily.

Socially, we have borne witness to two very interesting trends. First, nationalism is returning. At the turn of the century, many Westerners felt that nationalism was a fading force. In fact, it may still be in the West; for instance, a 2011 Pew Research Center study found that younger Americans are becoming less nationalistic.(5) But rising nationalism is apparent in Asia, and is increasing the possibility of state-on-state conflict there. At the same time, in many of the states formed by colonial powers, we are seeing people shift their allegiance from the nation to an earlier ethnic or social identity. These trends reinforce the potential for conflict, but do so in a different way. Unfortunately, both nationalistic and social causes can be very difficult to defuse.

At the low end of the spectrum of conflict, we are seeing different drivers for insurgencies. Post World War II, insurgencies were driven primarily by anti-colonial sentiment. Once the colonialists had departed, conflicts emerged over which group would rule within the old colonial boundaries. More recently, however, a different driver has emerged: the attempt to redraw old colonial boundaries for nationalistic or ethnic reasons. The Pashtun, Baluch, and Kurds are all examples of such ongoing efforts to change existing borders. Yugoslavia, Sudan, and Somalia are examples of places where partition has already occurred.

Even as the drivers of insurgency are changing, a variety of causes are emerging among super-empowered individuals and small groups. It is very difficult to estimate how or why such groups might turn to violence. While we are pretty sure a single person conducted the 2001 anthrax attacks, we still do not know what motivated him.(6) The motivation for future attacks may not be any clearer. Insurgencies and super-empowered small groups will become a greater concern as the convergence of a number of relatively new technologies amplifies their potential destructive power.

Technically, we will see more nations with nuclear weapons. This is not a new development; we have over 60 years of experience of dealing with nations with nuclear weapons. One of the most important results of that experience has been an informal understanding that when opposing nations possess these weapons, the definition of “victory” in any conflict between the two must change. One must question whether the very idea of victory applies in these situations. Leaders may need to seek conflict termination rather than victory. Fortunately, the planet has little experience with conflict between nuclear-armed states. In the Kargil Crisis (Pakistan-India) and the Zhenbao Island incident (USSR-China), both sides sought conflict termination rather than escalation to victory. In much the same way, the tense Cuban Missile Crisis saw Soviet and U.S. leaders striving to find a diplomatic solution.

We are also seeing accelerating rates of improvement in the fields of information, materials, robotics, biology, and nanotechnology to include both energy and energetics. (Energetics is the DoD’s kinder, gentler name for explosives.) Everyone is acutely aware of the rapid changes in information technology, but what is most challenging is that the massive increase in cheap computing power has meant very rapid advances in these other fields. The increasing convergence of several technologies will create new weapons systems. This convergence is dramatically reducing the price of precision, long-range and powerful weapons.

Since air is the simplest environment for robots to work in, we can expect the convergence of artificial intelligence, materials, and nano-energetics to bring us fully autonomous, cheap, long-range, and powerful aerial drones. They will be followed quickly by maritime and ground systems. Unfortunately for the west, autonomous drones will initially favor the less technologically advanced actor. For instance, they do not own armored vehicles, so their autonomous drones only have to find and attack any armored vehicle—they do not have to discriminate. The same logic means that less scrupulous actors will be the first to use fully autonomous but cheap drones.

So what does this range of political, social, economic, and technological changes mean for future conflict? The famed baseball manager Casey Stengel is alleged to have warned, “Never make predictions. Especially about the future.” Wise planners do not predict, but attempt to see how things might evolve across a range of potential conflicts.

A widening spectrum of conflict

The changes in political, economic, social, and technical fields will broaden the range of conflicts the United States may encounter. State-on-state warfare will remain the most dangerous and deadly form of war, and it will most likely continue to be hybrid.(7) This is not a big stretch, since the major conflicts of the last two centuries have been hybrid wars. They have all involved elements of conventional warfare, insurgency, terrorism, and crime. The mixture has varied from conflict to conflict, but the states involved had to deal with this range of threats simultaneously.

Some may say that such a prognosis is not particularly helpful, since it does not tell a planner exactly what to plan for. But that is actually its strength. The hybrid concept forces the services to consider the range of possible threats they will face in any conflict. Of course this implies the need to maintain a full range of capabilities during a time of dramatically rising weapons and personnel costs and falling budgets.

As it has periodically through history, the tactical balance may be shifting from offense to defense. It may simply be too expensive for the United States to maintain the military dominance it has enjoyed in the western Pacific since World War II. The Pentagon must aggressively explore how new technology paired with creative, mentally flexible personnel can be combined to defeat anti-access and area-denial regimes. The solutions will not be limited to technology. Thus the United States may have to consider alternative strategic approaches that allow it to capitalize on this new class of weapons to achieve its goals in the Pacific.

State versus non-state war will include conflicts with opponents ranging from insurgents to super-empowered small groups and even individuals. Insurgencies will be even more challenging than in the past. If the driver of insurgency is to change the colonial boundaries, then almost all insurgencies will span current boundaries. Thus the counterinsurgent must deal with multiple governments to address the insurgents’ grievance or even to conduct operations. Further, as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Chechnya have painfully demonstrated, the insurgents are likely to be coalitions of the willing/angry who are unable to agree on a single political platform. Thus, no single package of political changes is likely to appeal to all elements—something that will vastly complicate counterinsurgency efforts. Actions that bring one element of the insurgency to the side of the government may well alienate another. In fact, as Sudan, Yugoslavia, and Somalia have demonstrated, one solution may be to let the insurgents separate and form their own states. While there is obviously a great deal of resistance to this idea, it is a likely occurrence as former colonies work to change imperial boundaries to align with social and ethnic ones.

Further, it is unlikely that the American public will support another major counterinsurgency effort this decade. The three major overseas counterinsurgency efforts of the last half century have all been expensive, bloody, and arguably failures. Despite America’s reluctance to get involved in these complex internal struggles, the Pentagon cannot afford to ignore this aspect of warfare. The ongoing struggles in Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia all show that insurgencies will continue to challenge governments. Some of those conflicts will take place in areas of strategic importance to the United States. Thus, the American government and the Pentagon in particular should carefully consider how to assist governments in those cases where it meets U.S. strategic interests.

Here, a major shift must be made from the concept of population-centric counterinsurgency carried out by U.S. forces to counterinsurgency done by assisting the local government. Population-centric counterinsurgency doctrine as expressed in FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency(8) draws heavily on the lessons of Malaya, Northern Ireland, and Algeria. Unfortunately, these were domestic counterinsurgencies, where the colonial powers were still the governing authorities. The United States, by contrast, only does expeditionary counterinsurgency—with all of the limitations that that implies. Yet it also has its merits; when small and indirect, U.S. counterinsurgency—such as we carried out in El Salvador and are using in the Philippines—stays below the U.S. public opinion threshold.

The relative success of these smaller commitments provide a starting point for considering how America should respond to requests for support against insurgents. Refocusing on “advise and assist” missions rather than direct counterinsurgency reduces the requirement to maintain large ground forces as well as reducing the costs associated with such campaigns. U.S. forces should not be structured or trained for major counterinsurgency efforts. Rather, a small cadre must remain focused on the mission to provide expertise and training to the limited number of advisers we will commit to such a conflict.

Super-empowered small groups and individuals will present yet another type of challenge. This threat is becoming more dangerous because very small groups using off-the-shelf technology can create major damage and widespread death. They may do so for a wide variety of causes. Yet the tendency to use everyday elements of modern society to create damage to that society is not new. What is new is that the convergence of exponential changes in bio, nano, and information systems now provides added lethality to very small groups. The opportunity to use materials provided in large quantities by society will increase as simple, cheap technology makes deadly materials more widely available.

Implications for U.S. forces

U.S. forces will have to remain capable across a wider range of conflicts. However, the combinations of changes across society and the decreasing defense budgets means that the DoD cannot continue to operate the way it has in the past.

The United States must be prepared to deal with the unlikely, but highly dangerous, event of a conflict with China. The evolution of anti-access and area-denial technologies, and China’s willingness to embrace them, means the United States must think differently about both the protection of its regional allies and methods by which to contain and influence Beijing.

As noted earlier, insurgencies will continue to be fought in many parts of the globe and some of these areas will be of strategic interest to the United States. However, the fact that many insurgencies will focus on changing the boundaries of one or several countries in a region to align with older social and ethnic communities means the United States will have to think very hard about how to advise a counterinsurgency campaign that spans several national governments. Our current COIN doctrine will not work.

Terrorists will also continue to operate around the world, and some will threaten the United States. Therefore, counterterror will remain a core DoD mission. However, given the increased potential destructive power available to terrorists, DoD must also consider what aid civil authorities may require in the aftermath of a successful attack. In most areas of response and recovery, the assets of civil society vastly exceed those of DoD. Since these assets will be mobilized if needed—as in the case of dump trucks for New York City on 9/11—DoD needs to study those areas where civil society will not be able to provide a sufficient response quickly enough to make a difference. When these areas are identified, the Department will have to decide what, if any, resources it will devote to the mission. At the same time, the possibility of biological attacks means the United States may have to think of public health as part of the national security effort and shift funds accordingly.

The constant of change

As always, changes in political, economic, social, and technical conditions will change the way people fight. The United States cannot simply continue to improve on existing forces and concepts, but must seriously study how the convergence of changes in all these fields will alter conflict. America may have to fundamentally alter the way it fights. National security will require a thoughtful exploration of possibilities and a willingness to consider drastic changes to the U.S. armed forces—and perhaps even our basic concept of the meaning of security.

Dr. T.X. Hammes is a Distinguished Research Fellow at the U.S. National Defense University. The views expressed herein are his personal views and do not reflect those of the National Defense University or the U.S. Department of Defense.


1.    Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Prince-ton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 6.

2.    David Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 237.

3.    Jan van Tol, Mark Gunzinger, Andrew F. Krepinevich and Jim Thomas, Air Sea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, 2010), xiii, http://www.csbaonline.org/publications/2010/05/airsea-battle-concept/.

4.    Jim Garamone, “Kelly Warns of Potential Crime-Terrorism Nexus in Latin America,” American Forces Press Service, March 20, 2013, http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=119588.

5.    Pew Research Center for People & the Press, “The Generation Gap and the 2012 Election: Section 4: Views of the Nation,” November 3, 2011, http://www.people-press.org/2011/11/03/section-4-views-of-the-nation.

6.    Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Amerithrax or Anthtrax Investigation,” n.d., http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/history/famous-cases/anthrax-amerithrax.

7.    For an in-depth discussion of hybrid warfare, see Frank Hoffman’s “Hybrid Warfare and Challenges,” Joint Forces Quarterly, iss. 52, 2009, 34-39.

8.    Department of the Army, FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency, December 2006, http://armypubs.army.mil/doctrine/DR_pubs/dr_a/pdf/fm3_24.pdf.