The Future of War: Hybrid Conflicts, Civil Chaos, Cyberattacks, Border Disputes. Impact on defence spending, Superpowers Military Strategy - keynote speaker

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$1.8 trillion a year on global defence spending  - mostly wasted money

A few years ago, I gave a lecture to 500 generals, admirals and senior military personnel from the Pentagon (USPACOM), on how to reduce risks of future wars and reduce international tensions. It was one of the toughest assignments I can remember.

Our world spends over $1.8 trillion every year on weapons and other defence costs, or 2.5% of global GDP, down from 4% in the last days of the Cold War, equivalent to $250 per person on earth. 

Combined sales of the largest 100 arms companies is around $320 billion a year - yet most of it is completely irrelevant to the conflicts of the future.  So how do we ensure world peace?

A key theme of mine was how spending more on diplomacy and aid (and less on arms), would help build international trust. How multiple asymmetric conflicts will allow tiny number of people to humble, frighten and wear down very large nations. And how hybrid conflicts will make traditional troops and battle technology irrelevant.

Truth is our world is almost entirely at peace - for first time in generations

Here is a surprising fact: at the time of publishing this post - December 2017 - there is not a single example of a nation at war with another nation anywhere on earth - in the traditional sense.  North and South Korea are technically at war - never declared peace - but the rest of the world is officially at peace.

That is strikingly different from popular perception - influenced by several complicated civil conflicts and border issues which dominate headlines each week in nations like Syria or Yemen or Sudan or Tunisia.

Here is an extract from The Future of Almost Everything - book published in 2015 - judge for yourself how good the predictions were...

40% of all military spending is by America alone

40% of all global military spending is by one nation alone: America, which burns up more in this way than the next 15 highest-spending nations combined. 

This is a truly spectacular imbalance of military fire-power, and will be unsustainable in the longer term as we will see. 

9.5% of global spending is by China, next is Russia at 5.2%, UK 3.5% and Japan 3.4%.

America only needs to spend 3% of GDP on arms to achieve such dominance – compared to Russia which today spends 4% of a much smaller economy, China 2%, India 2%, UK 2%, France 2%, Israel 6%, Saudi Arabia 9% and Oman 12%. 

This relentless and unchallengeable build up of ultra-powerful weaponry will continue to feed tension, resentment and fear over the next two decades.

American military power will continue to be dominant for 15-20 years

America’s army, navy and air force will be dominant globally for the next 15-20 years, despite rapidly increasing military budgets in Russia and China.

However, the perceived “moral strength” of America and reputation as the world’s “police force” is likely to continue to weaken rapidly around the world, following adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, news reports on abuse or torture of prisoners, held sometimes for years without trial, and because of routine killings using drones, of foreign citizens in other nations. 

China and Russia will enter a new arms race

How long for China to catch up with the global military power of America? 

It depends if you measure this in size of armies or smartness of missiles and other tech. 

Even if China raised military spending from 2% to 5% of GDP, and even if China’s GDP grows 4% faster each year than America, it would probably take over two decades for overall capability to catch up with America’s military, unless America slashed spending.

Russia will not be able to create such global strength in 40 years, but within 5 years could easily mass a million troops in Eastern Europe, up from half a million today, backed by huge numbers of lower-tech weapons, and smart tactical nuclear delivery systems.

So then, both China and Russia will be able to engage in significant military excursions in their own regions, if they choose, even if far-flung conflicts of any size will be difficult to sustain, acting alone.

Only America will have the global power to try to stop them, which on the whole, it will be very reluctant to try to do.

New Nuclear threats and the Space Race

Expect to see major nuclear scares over the next thirty years as various countries or groups claim to have got hold of nuclear weapons or material, or to have developed their own, and threaten to use them.

We will see an accelerating nuclear arms race in a growing number of emerging nations, with rapid upgrades of small tactical nuclear weapons, by Russia and America.

America will really struggle to develop an effective anti-ballistic missile defence, following many failed attempts to shoot down intercontinental rockets in tests, despite spending almost $100bn in 12 years.

Russia and China will also try to crack this problem.

The trouble is that intercontinental missiles travel at 10 kilometres a second, and can release large numbers of decoys in flight. 

And  “ordinary” looking satellites could also be launched, containing hidden nuclear devices which could be detonated on flying over a country like America or Russia.

No nuclear warhead has been used in anger for 50 years. As I say, expect someone to threaten it somewhere and massive international confusion about how to respond.

Do other countries threaten to go to war against a nuclear weapon-using nation, if a warhead is used by such a country in self-defence, after repeated warnings to an aggressor?

How would such a war be waged? Where do you target your first or second strike(s)? 

How many warheads do you retaliate with, of what size, and how rapidly do you press the fire button? How do you counterstrike against an invisible terrorist group, which has no national support base? What happens if a group threatens again, and explodes a second warhead?

Countries in such a crisis may have only hours or a couple of days to work out how to respond.

National arms industries

As I predicted, there has been significant consolidation in the arms industry, with more to come.

Defence research is only cost-effective when there are large economies of scale. That means selling to other nations, whose policies and behaviour may make many uneasy, despite the argument that if we don’t sell to them, someone else will.

Rethink about high-tech weapons

High-tech weaponry will not be enough to win future wars. 

Most wars will be much more ordinary: guerrilla wars fought wall by wall and house by house, ethnic conflicts or terrorist attacks; mucky wars where tank commanders park their vehicles inside a large children’s hospital, where civilians are caught up in bombing attacks.

Traditional military hardware, fired in shopping precincts, around public libraries, by ancient stone bridges and in fields of corn.

Landmines and other messy weapons

New weapons replace old, which move down the arms chain, into the hands of the poorest (and often most unstable) nations where they are often used for internal repression.

Then arms fall into the hands of criminals.

Weapons are also lost or unaccounted for, like the machine gun I stumbled across in woodland near London one day.

Landmines are global menace, designed to be hidden and “lost” from the moment they are scattered.

Tens of thousands of square miles will remain uninhabitable because of the indiscriminate use of anti-personnel devices, which will remain dangerous for at least three more decades.

Over 110 million mines have been laid and lost, affecting at least 70 countries. 2 million more are planted each year. Each mine costs $700 to detect and recover, in work that kills many experts every year. 

A million ordinary people have been injured or killed in 25 years, mainly children (who often pick them up as toys), women and old people.

A further 100 million land mines are neatly boxed in military stores across the world, waiting to be used.  Landmines will continue to be scattered widely, not only to protect bases and kill armed men, but also to stop farming, travel and trade.

Power of the few will break the mighty

Gigantic military strength is almost useless in delivering many types of strategic objectives – as America has repeatedly discovered.

For fifty years, America has struggled to “win” a single “foreign” war, and even more to “win” a lasting peace, whether in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan.

This will reduce America’s willingness to embark on yet another major war in the next 10-15 years, barring a Nato-triggered response to a major Russian offensive against Europe, or more major terror attacks.

As Stalin once said: “A single death is a tragedy, but a million deaths are just a statistic”. 

Surveys show that Americans paid more attention to the beheadings of two US journalists in the Middle East, than to any other news report over the previous 5 years. 

As a direct result, 75% of Americans said they supported air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq, 66% supporting air strikes against rebels in Syria.  

This was a complete reversal – 12 months earlier, only 20% supported missile attacks on the Syrian government after chemical weapons were used. 

Such huge emotional reactions to tiny numbers of American deaths are proof of how vulnerable the nation is to being provoked and goaded into large-scale military reactions. 

This is very encouraging from an enemy point of view, and makes further beheadings of hostages or similar atrocities inevitable.

Enemies of the US will ask:

“What will it take to tempt America into another assymetric conflict which will wear it down further? Another ten journalists beheaded, or would it take 20, or a larger attack on US soil?” 

The answer of course is that it will depend on many different factors, but probably far fewer deaths than many might suppose. 

Fewer unilateral decisions to embark on major wars

As we have seen, by 2030, global military power will be more equally distributed, with relative decline of America, and this will also result eventually in restructuring of the old UN security council.

Individual nations will be less able or likely to embark on major military action some distance from their borders, without acting jointly with several other nations.

This also means that major multinational wars (or a Third World War) will become less likely, but expect many minor conflicts over resources / borders / sea bed rights and other issues.

Worrying results from War Games

Every large nation in the world is playing War Games on a regular basis, the Pentagon more than most, exploring outcomes of imaginary conflicts in far away places. 

However, many such War Games show the same thing in the Middle East. Small, highly motivated groups on the ground, with tiny budgets, easily provoke large, foreign military powers into long term fighting at enormous cost.

War Games also show rather worrying outcomes from any scenarios which begin with a sudden, major Russian assault.

The greatest weakness of American military strategy, is that the public is not usually prepared for more than a handful of American forces to be killed abroad. Servicemen are rarely motivated enough by the “cause”, to engage in widespread suicide missions. 

Therefore, future military strategies will be based mainly on technical power, firing long distance weapons, at eye-watering cost, using very few human beings on the ground. 

So a young drone operator sits in an American city watching live video, firing smart missiles into targets in a nation he has never visited, the other side of the world. He thinks the enemy are terrorists that could threaten America. 

On the other side perhaps, is a young man with a gun who will soon sacrifice his own life as a local hero, for his own people, and for the “rightness” of his cause. He thinks that he is a freedom fighter.

The trouble is that the history of warfare shows that those who fight with greatest passion for the “rightness” of their cause, tend in the long term to win.  So who above has the strongest passion?

Terrorist or Freedom fighter? 

This battle over perception will be central in many future conflicts, as during World War II with the French Resistance, and with the Nicaraguan Contra movement which was covertly funded by America in the 1980s, together with the Afghan mujahideen.

More double and treble agents with strange results

America’s budget for intelligence agencies has more then doubled in real terms since 2001, to $75 billion a year, while Russia’s intelligence spending has also soared.

Expect huge growth in double agents, treble agents, quadruple agents – people or networks working for more than one intelligence service, infiltrating activists and militia groups, playing one off against another with disinformation and subterfuge. 

 For example, sending a fake report to a drone operator, hoping that women and children will be killed “by mistake”, further damaging America’s image.

Expect many strange events and news headlines. 

At times the numbers of spies planted inside some terrorist groups and militia may exceed the number of genuine members. 

Expect many moral dilemmas, and legal action in future – spies will often have to prove they are not spies by carrying out attacks or atrocities themselves.  And one day the shocking truth will be revealed… with ethical and legal questions.

This strange world is being shaped further by the massive expansion of cyber-monitoring and surveillance, which in future will be added to by many tens of thousands of tiny low-cost drones, to watch us from the skies. 

Hybrid wars – blur between war and peace

We will see combinations of traditional military; threats and economic bullying; humanitarian aid; paramilitary groups; informal militia (volunteers and mercenaries); concealed, rebadged or disguised armed forces with official deniability; criminal gangs; terrorist acts; drone assassinations; insurgency and cyber-destruction – all accompanied by social media, fear campaigns, subtle propaganda, bending the truth.

The gap between war and peace is already blurred. 

And future conflicts will be very confusing, hard to interpret – with conflicting reports, and uncertainty about who the “enemy” is, or if there really is a conflict at all.

Covert activities will include commercial espionage; buying members of Parliament as consultants; buying up key companies; blackmailing influential bankers, or business leaders, or media owners, or government leaders; and funding dissident groups. 

Blackmail will be a particular risk for high-profile business leaders who take senior jobs in some emerging nations, where they will be targeted, compromised and corrupted, with the aim of controlling them when they return home. 

This will mainly be about enhancing national interests and economic growth in a hyper-competitive world.

Challenges from failed states

 Time and again, the might of the most powerful nations will be brought down to earth by the difficulties of ensuring stable regime change, in so-called “failed states”. 

Whether a nation like Zimbabwe or North Korea, Sudan or Syria,  it will be even clearer in future that it is usually impossible to mend broken States by sending in foreign armies in traditional fighting machines. 

One of the greatest challenges will be how to find ways to bring healing to broken States, by other mechanisms, which may include friendly support from neighboring countries, IMF development loans, NGO activity, use of UN peacekeepers and so on.

The net result of all these trends will be radical reshaping of military spending by all major military powers over the next two decades. 

It will always be true that “real” wars will require “boots on the ground”.

Tens of thousands of troops, artillery, tanks and other hardware will always be persuasive when massed close to borders.

But we can also expect developed nations to invest in more drones, smart missiles, rapid response troop vehicles and helicopters, and better intelligence, for longer-distance operations.


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