The Maginot Line was arguably the most sophisticated system of fortifications in history. Kilometers thick at points, it had observation posts, anti-tank ditches, fortresses with retractable turrets, flood zones, and thousands of bunkers. Contrary to the way it is often described in history books, it wasn’t irrelevant. It blocked an invasion route through northern France, including and especially Alsace-Lorraine, which France had fought for at great cost. It simply wasn’t as relevant, or relevant in the way its designers intended, after the character of war changed.
War has an unchanging nature. War is violent, interactive, and fundamentally political. War’s character, by contrast, changes, and reflects how technology, law, ethics, and many other factors influence combatants’ use of violence to create political outcomes. The character of war is a semi-regular topic of discussion among military theorists, and one that has an unfortunate tendency to descend into esoteric arguments that are fascinating to a small number of people. But debates over the character of war might be more important than they have been in decades. The evolving nature of information technology and its use by militaries may change the character of war. If and when this takes place, competence in and even mastery of some previous ways of war will become less relevant. Failure to lead the next change to the character of war could result in the U.S. military’s advantages in training, resources, and technology quickly diminishing or disappearing altogether.
Changes to the Character of War in History
The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars saw a shift from limited wars of maneuver by professional armies to decisive battles fought, in many cases, by massive armies driven by nationalism. One of the first indications of this shift took place at the Battle of Valmy. The Prussian army fought a mostly cautious battle, then withdrew rather than risk their expensive soldiers. The French army, by contrast, showed the first signs that they would replace the caution of 18th century warfare with the rapid movement, decisive battle, and willingness to absorb casualties that would come to define Revolutionary and Napoleonic warfare. Both sides claimed victory. While the Prussian leaders were not exactly wrong to do so, the changing character of war was already invalidating their perspective and creating defeat out of what seemed to be a victory.
What was foreshadowed at Valmy became reality during Napoleon’s campaigns. Both the size of armies and the casualties from battle increased quickly. Prior to the French Revolution, battles rarely involved more than 100,000 combatants. By Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, the largest battles had more than 500,000 combatants and more than 100,000 casualties. Battle also became far more decisive. By 1805, Napoleon’s defeat of an Austrian and Russian army at Austerlitz caused the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire and the end of the Third Coalition against France. A short time later, Prussia’s crushing losses at Jena and Auerstedt resulted in its subjugation for nearly seven years.
More than 130 years later, the Battle of France served as an abrupt notice of another change to the character of war. French forces rather famously prepared for a repeat of 1918’s Western Front, complete with the Maginot Line’s massive fortifications, centralized control, and armored support to infantry formations. By 1940, the French army was broadly considered the best in Europe and was prepared to defeat the German forces if they tried to reenact the Schlieffen Plan. Unfortunately for them, their preparations were no longer relevant. German forces employed concentrated and fast-moving armor, aircraft observation, and bombing. They proved able to coordinate operations over the radio to increase their speed and reach, outpacing their opponents both physically and mentally. The German forces swept those of the French aside not because the latter failed to fight well, but because they fought using tactics that had lost much of their relevance since the end of World War I.
Both of the cases above show that a failure to adapt to or even predict a change in the character of war can be catastrophic. Armies that once excelled become far less effective without losing any of their expertise. In both cases, competence in a new way of fighting became more important than expertise in the previous ways of war.
Information Technology and the Character of War
Napoleonic warfare found agrarian societies pitting their armies and, at its pinnacle, most of their resources against one another. Similarly, World War II showed the devastation that industrial nations could produce. The four possibilities below explore how information technology may affect the character of war.
Many conversations about information technology, especially AI, in national defense and national security focus on autonomy. Militaries may be able to digitize and automate key bottlenecks in operations, allowing them to make decisions and act at machine speeds and at greater scale. At slower speeds, staffs and commanders will need less time to process data and generate options, and will have more time to consider their choices. At faster speeds, algorithms will make decisions at a rate humans cannot comprehend. In these cases, a military’s ability to create software that responds effectively and to delegate authority to it appropriately will be as important as any other warfighting skill.
Systems with autonomous components may also change the relationship between humans and machines. Rather than have many humans in charge of one machine, one human may direct many machines, or a small number of humans may direct many machines that will in turn direct even more humans. This would allow militaries to have unprecedented ubiquity of sensors and weapon systems, and extremely fast targeting. While an increase in weapon lethality might shorten war, it might also make it difficult for adversaries with autonomous capabilities to employ tactics that require large formations to maneuver, which are typically a key component of decisive victories.
Autonomy, with all of its potential, is a worthwhile pursuit. Most of its possible benefits, however, are closely tied to the American military’s current advantages in logistics, intelligence collection, and precision strike. While autonomy may change the way in which wars are fought, the U.S. military should not stop with autonomy. It is likely that other applications of information technology will produce more qualitative changes, and an accompanying loss of relevance for militaries that do not change quickly enough.
Software’s Acceleration of Adaptation
Militaries’ ability to quickly adapt software may soon become a key component of their ability to compete. Modern militaries are reliant on software as much as hardware — software helps collect intelligence, creates common operating pictures, and helps service members interact with one another. Software can also play a more active role by guiding weapons, or by actually being a weapon in the case of cyber attacks.
One consequence of software’s increasing importance is that tactical adaptation will include, and in some cases require, software changes. Weapon guidance systems will need to better track adversaries using new camouflage, control systems will need to respond slightly faster to outpace enemies, and electronic warfare platforms will need to better affect enemy systems. This will be especially true as systems with autonomous capabilities begin to play a larger role.
Engineers can develop and implement software updates far more quickly than new hardware is designed, manufactured, and distributed. This is especially true when engineers are enabled by AI. While hardware is constrained by physical limits, such as the speed of shipping, engineers can update or even create new programs as quickly as they can type and verify code. Imagine weapon adaptation taking place at the speed that Silicon Valley can produce software updates instead of in the time required to produce and ship new military hardware. Twenty years ago, a ship departing the United States for a combat zone arrived in theater with the same capabilities as it had when it departed. Soon, a ship that receives updates to its electronic warfare suite and the programs that control its autonomous and automatic systems will have different capabilities when it arrives in theater than when it departed the United States.
The acceleration of adaptation may change the character of warfare in two ways. The first is to increase the importance of learning. While organizational learning is important today, once it takes place at machine speeds, organizations that collect useful data and learn more quickly than their adversaries will be able to overcome significant disadvantages, and those that learn slowly will perform poorly. Phrased differently, militaries build combat power today by building mass and seizing advantageous terrain. As adaptation rates accelerate, militaries will also increase their relative combat power by establishing effective, software-enabled learning systems, collecting data and feeding it into those systems, and denying their adversaries the ability to collect relevant, legitimate data.
Second, rapid adaptation may reduce the role of continuity in warfare. Today, and in previous conflicts, there existed a high probability of continuity from one battle to the next. Adaptation at the rates described above would reduce continuity. If this takes place, militaries that do not develop the technology and processes to adapt at machine speeds will find themselves frequently surprised by their adversaries’ capabilities — even adversaries they have previously fought.
Infrastructure as a Weapon System
The use of infrastructure as a weapon system may also change the character of war. Infrastructure will become increasingly vulnerable to abuse as it becomes more autonomous and more automated. Infrastructure becomes a weapon system when hostile actors deliberately use air and ground traffic systems, electrical grids, water systems, and communications infrastructure to coerce or compel. This differs from attacks on infrastructure, where hostile actors destroy infrastructure to coerce or compel. The use of infrastructure as a weapon system might be as irritating as creating traffic jams, rolling power outages, or interruptions in connectivity. It might also be as damaging as flooding communities, electrical grid fires, or crashing aircraft.
The widespread use of infrastructure as a weapon system would be a qualitative change to warfare. The employment of force for strategic effect is ultimately about forcing an adversarial political group to act in a manner that better aligns with one’s interests by threatening or making vulnerable its political base. Traditionally, this has revolved around the direct use of force by one armed group against either another armed group or a civilian population. This has been equally true for forms of warfare that differ as much as the highly conventional battlefields of the Napoleonic Wars and the irregular warfare seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. The use of infrastructure as a weapon system is a new and direct way to attack a government’s political base, often without going through its military first. This would bypass battle-centric methods of achieving strategic effects, reducing the importance of battle and therefore the importance of traditional military forces like brigade combat teams, ships, and aircraft.
Individualization of War and Politics
States may also be able to achieve strategic effects by micro-targeting individuals at scale to create a specific outcome by using both lethal and non-lethal effects. Targeting is certainly not new — American counterinsurgents in Iraq used social network analysis to map terrorist groups’ members and relationships, then target key nodes for influence or removal.
Today’s technological and social landscape, however, may supercharge individual targeting. Biometric identification combined with genetic databases, facial recognition technology, gait analysis, wireless network sensors such as RF-pose, online behavior, and the growing ubiquity of sensors are making it far easier to find, analyze, and target individuals than it was just a short time ago. As machine learning-enabled analysis becomes even more sophisticated, states may be able to disrupt military operations or even achieve strategic effects in conventional conflicts by individually targeting key political and military actors. This may be much more efficient and much more difficult to counter than operations that rely on destroying part of a military, or threatening an important state resource.
Sentiment attacks are likely to be even more enhanced. The digitization of economic and social interaction increasingly allows those with access to data to map and predict human behavior. Cambridge Analytica used a version of social network analysis powered by much larger databases and machine learning to launch sentiment attacks to shift the behavior of societies. In effect, states can bypass each other’s militaries and directly target each other’s populations at the individual level to make courses of action politically unpalatable. This differs qualitatively from historic uses of propaganda that tried to achieve the same effects. Previously, propaganda existed in public, creating the opportunity for public discourse about the relative merit of different ideas. Now, significant portions of a population can be targeted with propaganda individually tailored to their personality, all without their neighbors or even family members knowing.
Discovering the Character of Future Wars
It is difficult to know the character of future wars. After all, “it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Beyond the usual challenges of prophecy, the effects of a new type of technology are only fully revealed when two well-developed forces fight each other, creating emergent effects that cannot be predicted by viewing the forces in isolation. No-one knows the system behavior that will emerge when information age forces fight each other. This is the same condition that faced European militaries in 1914 — they understood the effect increasing firepower had on colonial adversaries, but did not understand that firepower and massive armies, combined with western Europe’s terrain, would give the defense an advantage.
To overcome the unpredictability of changes to the character of war, the United States should attempt to create the next character of war rather than just predicting it — or, even worse, being a victim of it. Doing so requires rigorous experimentation at the tactical and strategic levels that produces changes to operational concepts, doctrine, the military education system, and military technology.
Experiments with software adaptation rates should figure out how quickly software can adapt if highly skilled programmers and machine learning experts with the right authorities, system access, and hardware can participate in tactical exercises. Experiments with infrastructure as a weapon system requires a more strategic approach. Wargames should explore what might happen if, during a military operation, electrical grids start mass wildfires, dams flood towns across America, and air traffic control systems begin causing accidents rather than helping avoid them. How might Americans and their political leaders react? How would these disasters affect military resources and planning? Experiments with the individualization of warfare could be the most challenging. What might happen during a training exercise if a well-resourced opposing force was allowed to target key players, unexpectedly removing them from the exercise?
Not Just Technology
The possible qualitative changes listed above focused on technology. It is worth noting that qualitative changes in warfare have rarely, if ever, come from technology changes alone. They have typically been equally or even more driven by social change. While social change is difficult to predict, today the rise of nationalism and urbanization are the most likely to impact the character of war. The extent of that impact and what it might be remains to be seen. The above list is also not an inclusive list of potential technology-based changes to the character of war. Artificial intelligence will almost certainly have impacts not anticipated here, and other types of technology, such as biotechnology or nanotechnology, may have consequences that are even more significant.
Qualitative changes to warfare have always come in the past. There is no reason to suspect this time is unique, that the current way of war is somehow permanent. What would happen if, rather than preparing to fight the war Americans expect and have prepared for, adversaries prepare to fight a type of war that invalidates or reduces American advantages? Could that result in defeat? What might be the consequences of a tactical, operational, or even strategic loss? If they are severe enough, the Department of Defense should go back and see if there’s any reason to believe their assumptions about the character of war may in fact be invalid, and that a different type of war may emerge. In this case, as shown above, the potential exists.
While the United States would be foolish to abandon its current advantages, it would be just as foolish to discount possible change. Doing so will allow the American military’s strengths, just like those enjoyed by the Prussian army before the Revolutionary Wars and by the French military before 1939, to suddenly become far less relevant. The Department of Defense and the rest of the national security community need to anticipate, prepare for, and, if possible, create the next qualitative change in warfare. If they do not, someone else surely will.
Justin Lynch served as an active-duty Army officer before transitioning to the Army National Guard. As a civilian, he has served in multiple roles in the national security enterprise, including roles focused on information technology. The opinions expressed in this article are his alone, and do not represent those of any organization with which he is associated.
Image: Imperial War Museum