On a clear crisp fall day, not too many years ago, I entered the classrooms, located just off Fleet Street in London, of King’s College. I was a graduate student in War Studies, a field of study that, to this day, raises eyebrows and often prompts quizzical looks. For those unacquainted with this outstanding program (please excuse the obvious personal bias) War Studies is analogous to security studies—a mélange of history, politics, military science, with a dollop of other fields. As I took my seat amongst my peers I eagerly awaited the opening lecture delivered by the doyen of the field—Sir Lawrence Freedman himself.
As an undergraduate I read many of his works, it was hard not to come across him at some point if you were studying national security affairs, international relations, or a similar field. He was, and is, a titan in the field.
His course, grandly titled the “Conduct of Contemporary Warfare” (CCW as we wrote in shorthand) was a survey of conflicts in the modern age, from World War I to the insurgencies of Iraq and Afghanistan. For each lecture, even guest ones, Sir Lawrence provided context and clarity. Contemporizing distant battles and remote locations in his magisterial, but not condescending tone.
For those who have not had the pleasure of taking a course from Sir Lawrence, you would do well to pick up his recently published “Future of War”. As with his CCW course, the book covers the breadth and depth of recent warfare, but takes to task the futurists and forecasters of conflict. Sir Lawrence surveys the futurists of their times. From Basil Liddell Hart to Hermann Kahn to Henry Kissinger and to the COINdinistas of recent years, Sir Lawrence adroitly places their forecasted futures into the context of the times and highlights the shortcomings.
He is, however, largely limited to analysis of the U.S. and UK. Whereas his previous work, Strategy, surveys the breadth and depth of Strategy from the Bible to contemporary strategic analysis. The Future of War doesn’t mine from as broad a vein as Strategy, but this is somewhat made up for by in its inclusion of fiction authors such as H.G. Wells and others.
Unsurprisingly, we are ineffective in predicting the future of warfare, forever suffering from “last war-itis” as its been called; and it is not going to get any better. We are blinded by the circumstances of our times. At the time of their creation, innovations and technologies often appear as novelties with limited implications for conflict. It takes time and bold visionaries (seen as well outside the mainstream) to see how these technologies will dramatically affect the conduct of war.
Tanks, which revolutionized warfare, were at the time seen as just a vehicle to bridge the trenches. Airplanes certainly changed reconnaissance and battlefield support, but few saw the implications of carrier-based aircraft so devastatingly displayed during Pearl Harbor. More recently the Internet—part of a program to harden communications during the Cold War—ushered in a new realm of warfare, fought with ones and zeros on an invisible front.
We are just as bad at predicting political outcomes. Few saw or wanted to see the implications of the Treaty of Versailles. Fewer still, saw the coming collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting fallout. While some warned about political instability in Afghanistan, 9/11 was not an expected outcome.
It is equally the case that too much emphasis is placed on innovations or short-term developments as being revolutionary, transformative, or indicative of the longer term. Strategic bombing was supposed to break an enemy’s will. Shock and awe, too, would stun the enemy into compliance. Soldiers riding on horseback, supported by GPS bombs and local allies were to be the future of conflict. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of admirals and generals, the enemy still has a say in warfare.
So, should we continue to predict the future of warfare? Or should we just pack it in and call it a day? The obvious answer is no, we shouldn’t stop. Forecasting the future of conflict is critical to every aspect of national defense, obviously. Sitting around and waiting for the future to happen is a recipe for invasion and disaster.
Prediction allows for developments and innovations, in an attempt to create tactical, operational, and strategic outcomes. What we need to get better at, is recognizing the weaknesses and fundamental flaws that underpin our ability to forecast the future. Questioning assumptions, red teaming scenarios, counterfactual analysis/assessment are just a handful of tools that, when used properly, strengthen forecasts and predictions.
Even still, we must be prepared to be surprised.