The United Nations, NATO and the Warsaw Pact defined the international system during the Cold War period which was centered on posturing in various fields: economic, scientific, technological and nuclear. During which period, the international system took on a bipolar character that inadvertently suppressed many regional or nationalistic conflicts and the system was generally effective in preventing violent global conflicts.
There never was any real reason for the two blocs to go to war with each other. Hence the euphoria that followed the end of the Cold War would seem to be misplaced. As a consequence, many of the conclusions that the Western world arrived at in terms of establishment of a new world order, were smashed to smithereens by the conflicts that raged soon thereafter in parts of the former Soviet Union, the Balkans, West Asia and Africa.
The familiar bipolar equation was replaced by what was perceived as an oppressive unipolar one, with the sole super power setting its own agenda. The international community has therefore for some time now been looking for an acceptable form of balance.
Two views on the causes of international conflict are worth looking at as we move ahead in the 21stCentury. The realist view is that "wars arise from the efforts of states to acquire power and security in an anarchic world" and pessimistically questions the usefulness of international institutions in preventing conflicts.
The belief being that strong international institutions can only exist when there is sufficient agreement among the great powers to allow them to exist. That disharmony among great powers makes strong international institutions impossible. The liberal view is that conflicts "are determined not only by the balance of power, but by the domestic structure of states, their values, identities and cultures and international institutions for conflict resolution”.
Proponents of this view support greater trade, since trade makes nations more inter-dependent, and so less likely to go to war. And they theorise that democratic nations almost never go to war against one another. Permit me to suggest that neither view is complete on its own.
By drawing upon elements of both perspectives, it is possible to speculate on two sources of conflict. First, power transitions often lead to conflict. ‘Declining’ nations may attempt to put down ‘rising’ competitors. (One is tempted to speculate that the USA is today in such a position). Sensing weakness, ‘growing’ nations may challenge ‘declining’ ones to secure a more favourable place in the international system. (Can there be much debate China is today doing exactly that?).
The present era therefore is one of dramatic power transitions. However, it is difficult to contest the fact that as things stand, the United States is the only true superpower, with global assets in all the dimensions of power. If the USA was truly in decline, great power conflict would be more likely. To that extent, the enduring and clearly superior position of the USA provides a degree of stability to the international system. Unless of course, it continues to over-reach in trying to run the world on its own.
Second, the nature of power and the ways in which power is exercised, play important roles in causing or preventing conflicts. Economic power has not yet eclipsed military power in importance at the international level. However, the use of military force has become both more expensive and possibly less effective.
Rising powers have fewer incentives for territorial aggression than they have had throughout most of history because the route to prestige and power in the modern era lies in achieving economic success, prowess in high technology, and well-endowed and productive human capital.
The nature of power and of power transitions therefore makes military conflict between the great powers highly unlikely at present. Adding to this stability is the fact that Europe and Japan, two significant power centres, are both democratic and closely allied to the USA. Shared values, stable expectations, and interlocking institutions have become so strong among these three power centres that wars between them are unthinkable.
Other great powers are less stable. In the post-Cold War era both Russia and China are changing; not necessarily very predictably. There is little doubt that efforts by the USA, Europe and Japan to engage China and Russia in the international community and to urge them to make their intentions and military forces transparent are the best means of limiting the potential for conflicts. For a while it appeared that this policy was probably achieving some traction.
The realist view is that "wars arise from the efforts of states to acquire power and security in an anarchic world" and pessimistically questions the usefulness of international institutions in preventing conflicts."
China is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and also participates in several regional and multinational groupings. Engagement with Russia seemed somewhat promising. Notwithstanding the occasional hiccups. (Like the Georgia experience, Ukraine, and Syria). But developments over the last year or so seem to indicate that the road ahead is somewhat bumpy, to state the least.
This could possibly be compared to the engagement approach with the ‘Concert of Europe’ that was formulated in 1815. And just as that Concert was undermined by domestic changes of its member nations, developments within Russia or China could threaten great power stability.
Even so, it is possible to speculate that a strong counter- balancing coalition of democratic great powers, nuclear deterrence, the tremendous advancements in technology, and the limited benefits of territorial conquest, may continue to make direct great power conflict unlikely.
The scope for regional conflicts is more than that of great power conflicts. Regional conflicts take place when one nation attempts to establish regional hegemony; as China appears to be doing today. Such conflict could well draw the participation of the great powers. Even so, in the prevailing international milieu, it would seem that the great powers are likely be united in their view of treating regional aggressors as threats to international stability.
To that extent, regional aggressors will find few supporters. However, it is possible that some states may be willing to go it alone. Should this occur, great powers will be compelled to act to contain the threat and put down the aggression. Hence the great powers, and lesser ones, will find it necessary to maintain sizeable military capacities to deal with such conflicts.
Throughout history, revolutions in the conduct of warfare have manifested in radically different ways. In some cases, technology has come first and then doctrine was developed to use the technology in new ways. In other cases, doctrine has driven technology. In the USA today, technology appears to be driving doctrine. The revolution in military affairs, including artificial intelligence, that is the driving force today, while untested in classic warfare, has set the stage for technological innovations.
The liberal view is that conflicts "are determined not only by the balance of power, but by the domestic structure of states, their values, identities and cultures and international institutions for conflict resolution”.
American perspectives that to lesser extent will also guide war strategies of other countries of the developed world, deal with the ability to project forces across the full spectrum of crisis in the 21st Century. The focus in a doctrinal sense envisions what is termed ‘precision engagement’, ‘simultaneous operations through various echelons’ and ‘information operations’.
Precision engagement implies the ability to assess the adversary at operational and strategic depth, recognise his tactical plans, operational concepts and strategic goals, and select and prioritise attacks on targets. To that end technology will be used to give commanders wide-area surveillance and target acquisition, near real-time responsiveness, and highly accurate, long-range weapon systems.
This will enable commanders for the first time in history, to manoevre fire power rather than forces over long ranges, and execute direct and simultaneous attacks on key assets of the adversary while keeping own forces relatively safe from counter-attack.
Simultaneous operations through various echelons seek to exploit the increasing complexity and non-linear nature of future battlespace by striking directly at the key assets and capabilities of the adversary, in order to disrupt cohesion and bring the conflict to an end quickly. Manoeuvres in the future will be more simultaneous than sequential, and over considerably larger spaces than ever before. The stress will be on faster, lighter and more lethal forces that require relatively small logistics footprints.
In the latter context, technologies like fuel cells and directed energy weapons become more appealing. As one was putting together this piece, an interesting headline apparently carried by India Today on 05 January 2021 drew my attention: “China’s unorthodox weapons, provocative actions escalated situation in Ladakh: Defence ministry” – the report does not elaborate on what the “unorthodox weapons” were.
Information operations at the national level will be a new form of strategic warfare aimed at the adversary’s socio-economic systems. Even in the relatively benign environment of the day, there are disturbing reports about the intrusion by the Chinese into the data-network of other countries including the USA.
"There appears to be little doubt that military forces all over the world are likely to be increasingly applied in roles other than classic conventional warfare. Foremost among these tasks is that of dealing with terrorism and insurgency in one form or another."
At the military operational and tactical levels, information operations will focus on command, control, communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems. Overall, because of the low levels of public tolerance for combat casualties to own forces, particularly in the Western world, there will be increased reliance on unmanned vehicle and weapon systems.
In working towards such capabilities, many countries of the developed world particularly in Europe, have inevitably been forced to undertake reductions and modifications to their military forces. The stress is on more effectiveness with less numbers and reduced costs. In so far as the USA is concerned, the influence of defence industry is more than likely to enable the military to avail of technological innovations and improvements.
The European situation is different, in that it is based on the hope that downsizing of forces would be neutralised by greater integration in regional structures like NATO and ESDP, and in the joint development of defence equipment and systems. The ground reality is that the Europeans are so far behind the USA in technological capability that in the NATO structure they hardly count for much.
Europe’s plea to the USA for assistance in closing the existing gap is met with unambiguous suggestions that the Europeans need to invest more in security. In Russia, China and much of the developing world, attempts at modernisation are being pursued in varying degrees.
Looking into the foreseeable future, there appears to be little doubt that military forces all over the world are likely to be increasingly applied in roles other than classic conventional warfare. Foremost among these tasks is that of dealing with terrorism and insurgency in one form or another, whether it is against ethnic or religious groups seeking secession, terrorists promoting such activity, or drug traffickers.
To categorise this as “fourth generation warfare” as some theorists are beginning to, is somewhat misplaced. Because unlike the first, second and third generation warfare that had their distinct characteristics, counter terrorism and counter insurgency operations primarily require significant readjustment of basic attitudes towards soldiering in the classic sense, innovative use of available sophisticated technology to meet equipment requirements, and imaginative training methods.
Some militaries across the world are increasingly getting into this form of warfare, which the Indian military had already been into for over five decades. In this form of conflict, military personnel are subjected to considerably greater pressures than in conventional warfare for which they are trained, because more often than not, the soldier is required to deal with the terrorist or insurgent with at least one hand (if not both) tied behind his back.
In the sense that unlike classic combat operations where he can engage the enemy without reservations or inhibitions, in counter terrorism/insurgency operations the soldier is inhibited by the imperative that he should not cause casualties to innocent civilians or inflict other collateral damage that would cause resentment in the local population and outrage in the international community. In fact it is invariably part of the military’s mandate to win over the ‘hearts and minds’ of the local populace.
The end of the Cold War and the relative success of Operation Desert Storm, had induced a sense of euphoria that the international community was geared to deal with dangers to international peace and security in a more effective manner than before. However, the experiences of UN peacekeeping in Somalia, former Yugoslavia, Liberia, Angola, Rwanda, etc in the early 1990s, quickly dispelled these expectations, and in fact, induced a sense of retrenchment in regard to UN peacekeeping operations for some time.
In recent years however there has been considerable resurgence in UN peacekeeping and an ever increasing demand for UN peacekeepers particularly for dealing with conflicts in Africa. UN forces are also being increasingly mandated with provisions of Chapter VII of the UN Charter that call for the use of force to deal with belligerents.
Ironically, countries that have the best capability in terms of equipment and training, namely the developed Western world, seem to shy away from participation in UN operations, preferring to participate in operations undertaken under the aegis of military alliances like NATO, or regional organisations like the EU.
Allow me to conclude by stressing that what I have attempted to do is to set out a broad road map indicating the direction in which the militaries of the future will need to move to deal with the situations they are likely to encounter in coming years. No template solutions can be offered for universal application. Each country or set of countries in an alliance or regional arrangement, will need to evolve their own answers. But these will necessarily be within the dimensions of conflict I have tried to explore and the parameters that have been enumerated.
About the Author
Lt Gen. Satish Nambiar, PVSM, AVSM, VrC is a recipient of the Padma Bhushan and is a highly distinguished General of the Indian Army who served as the first Force Commander and Head of Mission of UNPROFOR, during 1992-93. He is a renowned academic, associated with the world's top defence Think tanks, leading strategic journals, and was the former director of the United Services Institution.
(This article was first published in the February 2021 issue of the Defence and Security Alert and has been reproduced with due permission from the author. Views expressed are the authors own and do not reflect the editorial policy of Mission Victory India.)