Spring/Summer 2014
Number 26

Predicting the Future of Warfare

James F. Dunnigan

ow will warfare change in the next 30 years? Military leaders and many of the people they protect are constantly trying to figure this out. More often than not, the answer has proven elusive—so much so that the old axiom of militaries always fighting the last war has become conventional wisdom.

There is, however, an easy way to get some good insight into the future. Simply go back 120 years to 1894 and note the state of warfare and military technology at the time, then advance by 30 years at a time until you reach 2014. By noting the changes during each 30-year period, one can gain a good idea of what will change between 2014 and 2044.

The state of war in 1894

The year 1894 came at the end of a century that featured the Industrial Revolution, a watershed that transformed the economies of Europe and the United States and changed warfare more in one century than at any other time in history. What was happening was not just change, but an unprecedented rate of change. Periods of rapid technological transformation had taken place before, but nothing like those witnessed in the 19th century. This rate of change, more than anything else, was to fundamentally alter warfare in the future.

By 1894, many infantry were still using single-shot black powder rifles. But a radically different new weapon was beginning to enter service. The major innovation here was smokeless powder. This new propellant burned faster, cleaner and more predictably than did black powder. Add this to earlier 19th-century innovations (metallic cartridges, rifling and standardized manufacture of metal parts) and you got the modern bolt-action rifle.

The modern machinegun had been invented in 1883, but it took about two decades before armies began adopting them on a large scale. Smokeless powder helped make this happen because, as with the rifle, it was much more difficult to see where the machine gun fire was coming from, and easier for the machinegunner to see his target. Smokeless powder and the bolt-action magazine rifle made possible the modern sniper and accurate machine-gun fire. There had been sharpshooters before, but smokeless powder made it more difficult to see where the sharpshooter was, and these new rifles (because of standardized parts, less fouling of the barrel and consistent performance of the new ammo) enabled a sniper to hit targets at a longer distance on the first shot and quickly get off additional accurate ones. Armies that spent the money to let troops practice shooting a lot (like the British) had much more effective infantry as a result.

In 1894, most artillery was still short range, not very accurate, and could only fire at targets the crews could see. Horses pulled or carried equipment and the infantry marched a lot when not being moved long distances by railroad or steamships. Modern, quick-firing artillery was only then coming into wide usage, and was still unproven in battle. But the new guns used smokeless powder, and it was obvious that this could dramatically change the effectiveness of artillery as well.

Communications in 1894 still relied on the telegraph, a half-century-old invention that revolutionized, in just a few decades, the way commanders could talk to each other over long distances. This had marked a major change in wartime communications, allowing comparatively rapid contact between battlefield commanders. Cavalry was then still important for scouting, although less useful for charging infantry, a trend that had begun when infantry got muskets with bayonets two centuries earlier.

Military thinking also began to change in the 1890s. Many of the new ideas of the time originated in Germany, and not all of them were recognized. For example, German historian and reserve officer Hans Delbruck applied common sense and modern analytical tools to accounts of ancient warfare and clearly demonstrated what had been real (or at least possible) about warfare in the distant past, and what was not. The Germans perfected many of the tools and techniques all military planners and staff officers came to use and take for granted.

1924 and the promise of much more

By 1924, three decades of largely unexpected changes had had an enormous impact on warfare and the world. This was again because science and commerce were unleashing even more new technology, and doing so in much less time. This was particularly true during World War I, where the sense of urgency common in most wars was multiplied by the potential for technological progress that could be increased rapidly with sufficient funding and focus. The industrial revolution had also produced considerable wealth, so the scientific community did not have to be overly concerned with limited resources during wartime. As a result, between 1914 and 1918 many unexpected weapons appeared. These included combat aircraft (fighters and bombers), mortars, effective ocean-going submarines, aircraft carriers, chemical warfare, tanks, parachute infantry, individual automatic weapons and radically new infantry tactics.

By 1924, smokeless powder rifles, machineguns and artillery were the standard. This made combat more lethal, to the extent that World War I was the first major war where combat casualties were more numerous than non-combat ones (brought about by disease and accidents). World War I rifles (millions of which are still in use) fired faster, more accurately, did so without a cloud of smoke, and were far more effective than most 1894 models. The modern machinegun had arrived, and every infantry battalion had many of them. There were even light machineguns that individual troops could carry. Artillery also was much more accurate and capable, due to hydraulic recoil systems and better propellants. At the same time, armies were beginning to use trucks to replace horses—a process that would take another three decades to complete.

During World War I, aircraft were a new technology—one less than ten years old and used only for reconnaissance. They proved to be the perfect scouts, able to see what distant enemy troops were up to. Thereafter, fighter aircraft were invented to keep the enemy aerial scouts out of your “air space” (a term unimaginable in 1900). There was also wireless telegraph (radio), which revolutionized warfare to an ever greater extent than did the telegraph. This was especially true for the navy; no longer were ships out of touch with their governments for long periods. On the ground, armies learned how to quickly lay temporary telephone lines in the field. A complex system of signal flares (courtesy of 19th-century breakthroughs in chemistry and manufacturing capabilities) allowed widely dispersed infantry to communicate with each other and headquarters.

The critical problem that accompanied such changes was that the major armies had not figured out exactly what to do with all this new technology. This produced years of stalemate and millions of casualties in World War I (1914-18). That conflict saw the development of so many new weapons in such a short period of time that commanders were unable to effectively incorporate the latest innovation before yet another entered their arsenal. This problem was not new; perceptive observers noted that the British had encountered these future-shock problems during the 1899-1902 Boer War in South Africa. But it was significant nonetheless, and the early 1920s were defined by such failures of integration, so much so that many debates over World War I technology were not settled until World War II.

1954 and the end of war as we knew it

Between 1924 and 1954, the enormous changes witnessed during World War I had been overtaken by even more dramatic technological advances that were in evidence during World War II (1939-45). Nearly all the major military technologies of the 20th century were present by 1945. This included electronic warfare, smart bombs, ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, wire-guided missiles, antibiotics (which greatly reduced the death rate in combat), modern assault rifles, radar, aircraft carriers, modern sonar, portable radios, practical body armor, a large variety of armored vehicles, jet aircraft, portable anti-tank rocket launchers, commandoes, operations research, heavy bombers, computers, self-guided torpedoes, naval bottom mines, land mines, chemical warfare, nuclear weapons, and much more. Some of the dramatic changes are less well known. Take the widespread (and continued) use of Operations Research (OR), the use of quantitative techniques such as statistics to solve problems and help leaders make decisions. OR has been around for centuries, but in the 1930s it came to be recognized as a distinct discipline and its tools were organized and applied systematically. OR was used extensively during World War II to solve numerous problems—everything from how best to use radar for submarine hunting to running factories and getting supplies to troops more efficiently. Without OR, World War II and subsequent wars would have been messier, costlier and longer.

By 1954, the transformation of military affairs had become more pronounced than at any other period in history. In less than a century, warfare had become unrecognizable to any pre-20th-century soldiers. (By contrast, the 19th-century warfighter would have been recognizable to someone from the 16th century, when firearms were introduced.) Military, and political, leaders now had to deal with the speed of change, as well as the changes themselves. It was an entirely new situation in human history.

The need for speed in 1984

Compared to 1954 and 1924, 1984 was witness to less dramatic change. This was due to one new technology, nuclear weapons. Nukes were the scariest weapon ever invented, and discouraged wars between the major powers. The resulting lack of a major war, which always accelerated the development of military technologies, meant much slower and more expensive development of new military technology. Instead, what had transpired by 1984 was that many of the new technologies from World War II had been perfected, or at least made cheaper and more reliable. There were some new developments, however; guided missiles, night vision devices, spy satellites, laser range finders, and weapons guidance systems, UAVs, remote sensors, ICBMs, SLBMs, composite armor, stealth aircraft, nuclear submarines, all-weather aircraft navigation systems, miniaturized electronics (transistors), heat sensors, and more. But these new technologies, developed as they were during peacetime, generally took longer to materialize and were more expensive to develop than those created during wartime.

Nonetheless, regional conflicts prompted at least some change. The war in Vietnam sped up the development of laser-guided bombs, the first American assault rifle (the M-16), night vision devices, the helicopter and fixed wing gunship, and more effective body armor. It also prompted the realization that effectively dealing with the media had become a battlefield necessity. The defining feature of the time, however, was that the new innovations from World War II became smaller, cheaper, deadlier, and more reliable.

But perhaps the biggest change of the period was not noted until the 1973 Yom Kippur War. During that conflict, the speed with which modern weapons and other systems could destroy the enemy and speed up combat shocked generals worldwide. At this point, everyone began to ponder the impact of this transformation. The Russians, for one, concluded that speed in decision-making would become decisive, as would the growing Western edge in precision weapons. Thereafter, in the 1980s, they proposed that computers be used more by commanders to speed up the planning and execution of battles. This concept had been pioneered in the 1960s by John Boyd, a U.S. Air Force officer who demonstrated how the speed of assessing a combat situation, developing a plan and executing it was decisive. By the 1980s, some Russian theorists saw computers as a possible enhancement to this process—but it was the West that had the technological edge.

The unexpected jump to 2014

The impact of high-speed warfare was demonstrated after September 11, 2001, when American forces used computerized data mining and analysis to speed up their decision-making during counterterrorism operations in Iraq. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban quickly learned that if an American raid was accompanied by intelligence specialists carrying biometric tools and communications links to huge databases of information on known terrorists and their organizations, there would quickly be additional raids. A few new names found on one raid would spawn additional raids, and within 24 hours large terrorist operations could be rolled up. Microsoft contributed by developing a thumb drive that could quickly extract useful data from a laptop while rough (but effective) machine translation of many Arabic documents could quickly provide more leads, locations and targets. (Iraqi Army intelligence specialists understood this, and were bitterly disappointed when their government refused to allow any American troops to remain after 2011. In contemporary Iraq, terrorists have found that without the U.S. present they have a much easier time operating and rebuilding their organizations.)

Most of this high-speed transformation of warfare was not covered by the media, because few journalists understood or appreciated it. But military specialists worldwide, especially in Russia and China, saw what was happening and were impressed at how American technology and eagerness for new solutions had again revolutionized warfare.

Another largely unreported revolution took place in the reduction of friendly and civilian casualties. The death rate (losses per 100,000 troops per year) of troops in Iraq, for example, was only a third of what it was in Vietnam and World War II. How did American troops attain such low losses? The reasons had to do with better equipment, tactics, weapons, leadership and training. With an all-volunteer force, the troops were smarter, more physically fit, and more eager.

The dramatic drop in casualties was the product of another big shift as well. In World War II, one in three battlefield injuries proved fatal. By Iraq and Afghanistan, only 12 percent were—the result of better body armor and much improved medical care.

Even without the impact of Iraq and Afghanistan, by 2014 there were a number of radical new technologies in evidence—GPS, the Internet, bulletproof body armor, UAVs, combat robots, and personal (and extremely portable) computers—that transformed warfare more than anyone expected, especially when it came to friendly and civilian casualties and the speed of operations. World War II technologies continued to mature, especially when combined with later technologies like miniature computers. The improvements in communications and night vision sensors had made it possible to operate around the clock and attack with more accuracy and deadly effect. Speed had always been a powerful weapon, but now speed included the ability to quickly move anywhere on the planet and attack with enormous effect.

What’s past is prologue for 2044

This review of military history provides a useful prism for looking at the future. Combat will be faster and deadlier by 2044. Information war will be more than a buzzword by then, because better sensors and data processing technology will make situational awareness more decisive than ever. Hackers are now already major players, and will be even more so in the future.

By 2044, the expected breakthrough in batteries (like fuel cells) will be closer to providing the infantry with enough power to operate a great deal of new gear. In addition to carrying several computers and sensor systems, the future war-fighter might wear body armor that also provides air conditioning, satellite communications and two-way video. Exoskeletons are already in the works and may mature by then. A great deal depends on breakthroughs in battery technology, although engineers are also finding out how to do more with just a little “juice.”

What will remain constant, however, is the accelerating rate of change. Throughout the 20th century, disruptive technologies arrived with increasing frequency. These technologies transformed warfare in ways no one expected, and did so in large part because no one anticipated them. Fortunately, disruptive technologies are only disruptive for a short time, as a younger generation familiar with new innovations incorporates, and creates, yet more new technology.

Past experience suggests that the next disruptive technologies will probably include rapid and unpredictable evolution of robotic equipment and weapons. As in the past, this will not be the appearance of something completely new, but the rapid maturation of an older technology. What has been historically the most difficult to predict is exactly how new technology will be employed, and to what effect. Yet if there are no major wars between 2014 and 2044, it is safe to envision that the evolution will be more about perfecting what is already there than creating new battlefield technology. On the other hand, if major wars do occur, the process will accelerate.

Whatever the case may be, the future will be different—but not totally unfamiliar. The devil, as they say, is in the details.

James F. Dunnigan is publisher of StrategyPage (www.strategypage.com), where an earlier, shorter version of this article first appeared.