THE FUTURE OF WARFARE IN THE 21ST CENTURY

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Expert analysis forecasts that in the short-to-medium term, conflict will take the form of asymmetric warfare between established states and non-state actors, conducted mainly through drone operations and cyber warfare. Widespread access to weapons, the existence of fragile and failed states, and the emergence (or re-emergence) of competing ideologies have provided fertile ground for complex conflicts that may not qualify as conventional warfare, but nonetheless require diplomatic, economic and military responses. Asymmetric warfare and international terrorism will likely remain defining features of conflict throughout the twenty-first century. While these are not new phenomena, technological developments and the nature of the geopolitical order have given them greater prominence in recent decades.

Asymmetric capabilities have fueled the spread of insurgency and terrorism, aided by technological advances. Consequently, some of these tools and technologies have spread across North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, including modern infantry weapons, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and suicide bombs. This has enabled the development of capabilities within guerilla warfare, insurgency and terrorism, despite the significant asymmetric capabilities possessed by the US, which seeks to maintain its supremacy.

In future conflicts, stronger links between militaries and the private sector are inevitable. The industry-government relationship is essential for sustaining national defense efforts. Modern militaries must adapt to working alongside contractors, whose role is gradually expanding from logistics to involvement in military operations. Contractors are expected to continue to play a vital role in twenty-first century warfare.

Technological trends related to future warfare suggest a dramatic rise in the use of drones. A significant rise in the development of a diverse range of new unmanned technologies is a precursor to the further expansion likely in the years to come. Increasing levels of robotic intelligence and autonomy open up a new frontier for weapons development. A new generation of unmanned combat aircraft are being designed to fly faster and farther, and to better evade enemy defenses, but are very different to their predecessors due to their ever-increasing autonomy. They are designed to take off and land autonomously, and to execute a range of missions on their own, such as penetrating enemy defenses and refueling in the air. Moreover, drones are predicted to become more intelligent, and as a result more capable.

Cyber warfare is another arena able to facilitate offensive operations at a lower cost than in conventional theaters. Military operations in cyberspace will be central to future warfare; tomorrow’s electronic battlefield will require network defense, intelligence-gathering, information warfare and offensive cyber operations, carried out by infiltrating supply chains. Cyber-weapons will be wielded by releasing malware to trigger a series of major attacks. In this complex space, there is a significant need for robust cyber defense. While international action looks unlikely to deliver arms control or regulation of cyber weapons in the near future, regional alliances and partnerships could help improve the effectiveness of cyber defense.

A focus on human factors within future warfare is extremely important, particularly when it comes to intelligence. Modern intelligence has become a powerful tool for states, and increasingly for non-state actors.

Intelligence, more specifically intelligence cooperation, is vital for confronting the threats now faced by Arab Gulf states, each of which faces major challenges to their stability and security interests. These challenges vary from country to country, but include religious extremism and terrorism; asymmetric threats; the Iranian missile threat; sectarian, ethnic and tribal divisions; and demographic pressures. Arab Gulf states must revise every aspect of their security structures, moving away from a focus on conventional warfare and fragmented internal security efforts, toward a focus on a spectrum of interconnected issues, including; maintaining internal security; counterterrorism; civil–military peacekeeping operations; low to mid-level asymmetric wars that may involve conventional forces; conventional wars using asymmetric means; the use of weapons of mass destruction; and, cyber warfare.

The analysis suggests that the future of warfare in the Middle East will shift from conventional military action between regional actors. Instead, warfare will be based on two fundamental state approaches; continued preparation for conventional war – buying sophisticated weapons, and, joint and individual exercises for deterrence; and, a focus on the asymmetric dimension, based on broader intelligence work, using non-state actors to ensure plausible deniability.

In light of this, states regionally and globally must integrate their efforts and adopt the latest technological developments if they are to achieve their objectives. They should explore strategic options that give the greatest chance of preventing wars, while bolstering their ability to manage conflict in the event of it occurring. The aim is to mitigate the threat and reduce tragedies by finding deterrent solutions that favor a balance between powers, to achieve sustainable security for nations all over the world.

Author: Several co-authors

Publisher: The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR)

Year of Publication: 2014

 

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