The future of war: embrace the new, remember the old

Review: There’s no template for modern warfare, but Mick Ryan combines both his professional experience and his extensive historical knowledge to present us with a vision of human unity over technology and argues the case for rapid agility and adaptation in wartime.
war mick ryan
Technology and the Weapons of the First World War, 1914-1918. Credit: Vintage_Space / Alamy Stock Photo.
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War Transformed: The Future of Twenty-First-Century Great Power Competition and Conflict by Mick Ryan. Naval Institute Press, 2022, 312 pages, hardback £41.95

Government, intelligence, and defence personnel are eager to know what the future holds. Specifically, they need to ascertain looming international confrontations and the emerging character of warfare. On such assessments, they will plan how to protect their public, business, and values, how to project their influence, and decide on their priorities in expensive equipment programmes. 

Major General Mick Ryan, an experienced and thoughtful officer recently retired from the Australian Defence Force, posits in War Transformed: The Future of Twenty-First-Century Great Power Competition and Conflict that in the coming decades technology will not deliver the decisive effects that it is purported to do so. He argues there should be greater investment in the unchanging variable of human actors. The Russian war against Ukraine has demonstrated that large-scale formations, armed with modern equipment, but handled by poorly motivated and badly-trained troops, can be outmatched by smaller numbers of determined people. The Ukrainian forces utilised mobile and dispersed groupings, in part to avoid the concentrated firepower they knew the Russians possessed, but also as part of a defensive plan that maximised stealth and lethality. These were redolent of Finland’s ‘Motti’ tactics of the Winter War in 1939, where small bands used their local initiative to move deftly around and strike lumbering Soviet columns. Such tactics require great nerve and self-reliance, but also considerable skill. 

It is perhaps unsurprising that Ryan places the emphasis on the human dimension of warfare. He devoted his career to the professional military education of Australian personnel and he knew from his extensive historical knowledge that fighting spirit, cohesion, and the willingness to endure all manner of loss and hardship have characterised the most successful forces. 

Nevertheless, in Ukraine’s case, we have to acknowledge that technologies have had considerable influence too. The Ukrainian resistance would have been less effective without the most advanced variants of anti-tank weapons and air defence systems. Ukrainian information was not solely dependent on locals, so-called human intelligence, aka HUMINT, but was aided by Western surveillance and open-source media. Ukrainian successes in mid-2022 were also, in part, the result of advanced long-range missile and artillery batteries provided by the West. 

Ryan does not dismiss the importance of technology, but he notes that when modern forces are equipped with similar systems, the results are disruptive, not decisive. The solution, he argues, is rapid adaptation which itself requires a flexibility of mind and a broad military education. 

Every military force seeks advantage when it comes to the fighting. They try to find some advantageous position in the terrain — with good observation, cover for their own troops, space for manoeuvre, and wide fields of fire. They may seek supremacy in the air, and in their ability to acquire ‘situational awareness’ to avoid surprise, locate key positions, and track the movements of the enemy. They will want to achieve dominance in firepower, and, at sea, strike enemy vessels or missile systems before they can engage their own. In twenty-first-century-warfare, there is also the requirement to assert the most compelling case in the information space, to neutralise cyber malware, and interdict hostile communications. 

Nevertheless, as Ryan notes, modern military forces also require an intellectual edge for advantage. Decision making must be swift, judgement sound, and leaders must be alert to the distinctive character of the conflict they find themselves in. There can be no ‘template solutions.’ Each encounter will be different, although, as he demonstrates, history offers a repertoire of experience, hard-won by our ancestors, on which the modern commander can draw. 

The nature of war is that it is part of the human condition. As Ryan notes, our societies and our economies are reflected in our organisations and institutions, and therefore in the way we conduct warfare. He notes that the drivers of war have their continuities but everything is constantly changing, so adaptation is essential. Organisations that were fit for one conflict will rarely be right in the next. Occasionally there are revolutionary changes in warfare, and the failure to keep up with those will lead to setbacks. This involves more than the military institutions. War is an issue that affects the whole of society, a view echoed in other recent works by Sean McFateChristopher Coker, and David Kilcullen

Ryan advances six propositions to prepare for future conflicts. The first is that ‘war and competition will remain human preoccupations,’ and the second is that ‘future military power is not just about the military.’ It is striking that he appears concerned by the distance between Western society and the realities and demands of war. He calls for ‘better mobilisation strategies that develop technologies and build large quantities of them.’ Despite the scepticism about technology, Ryan acknowledges there would be less appetite for the sort of mass human mobilisation that characterised the twentieth century. Instead he sees technologies developed to produce mass, but ones that require conscious political choices, industrial capacity, and public support. 

Ryan’s third proposition is that ‘military institutions must win the adaptation battle at all levels.’ War is full of uncertainty and its dynamic nature produces unexpected outcomes. Moreover, things just go wrong, systems sometimes fail, and outcomes will, at times, as Napoleon once acknowledged, depend on which side made the fewest mistakes. Ryan argues that the odds are improved when military personnel are well prepared to meet any eventuality. They need a flexibility of mind. 

His fourth proposition is that ‘ethical and creative’ human (and ‘human machine teams’) decision-making ‘will underpin future military effectiveness.’ It is not surprising that a Western military officer should call for a maintenance of moral standards and human creativity while acknowledging the rapid development of artificial intelligence for the processing of vast and complex data. What is unexpected is his advocacy for a future where pilots and infantry might disappear altogether. Automated and even independent systems could be imagined, but there will be significant vulnerabilities in the communications and control of such systems that are likely to require humans to remain in the front lines.

This fits closely with Ryan’s fifth proposition, that ‘people are at the heart of all military advantage in the twenty first century.’ His sixth proposition therefore follows logically, that we ‘must understand how others see war and competition.’ He deduces that the relative reduction of violence of the world compared with earlier centuries has been transferred into non-human systems, and the adversaries of the West are waging an undeclared war using largely non-military tools. That said, he cautions that what the West considers to be routine deployments can appear, in that same adversary’s mind, to be part of an orchestrated campaign to infringe their national or ideological interests. 

These final propositions would have been familiar to soldiers and statesmen in previous eras. How a state perceives a threat can be as important as physical actions. That said, many authoritarian regimes have found it convenient to attribute their rivals with threatening behaviour or designs against the leadership in order to justify their violence, both internal and external. 

Ryan’s book was completed before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He concluded that the West’s setbacks in the wider Middle East in the early twenty-first century had taught states like Russia and China how to make use of the information environment to undermine the West’s decision-making. In fact, Vladimir Putin assumed such political weakness in the West that he issued an ultimatum on 17 December 2021 calling for a withdrawal of NATO and the demilitarisation of Eastern Europe. The conduct of Russia’s invasion was characterised by the use of old tactics, dumb mass, and established technologies rather than the high-tech operations most expected. Russian troops also exhibited low morale, indiscipline, and abuse of civilians. Ukrainians showed courageous defiance against significant odds. As Ryan had warned, in war the human factors matter most. 

While many books on war today focus on new contexts, Ryan’s book on ‘transformation’ contains important reminders about the unchanging aspect of all war, namely, its elemental nature. War is, in essence, a visceral struggle, physically demanding, and prone to lurch to unlimited violence. It is inherently escalatory, as each belligerent strives for even the slightest edge over their enemy. It requires agility, to offset the incoming blows and launch offensive force on which, ultimately, one must assert the objectives. 

This struggle for advantage means that, as new technologies emerge, flexibility is needed to assimilate them and realise their full potential. It is not the technology itself that does this, but the human decision makers and the operators. 

His message appears to be: embrace the new, but don’t forget the old. 

Rob Johnson

Dr Rob Johnson is the Director of the Changing Character of War Centre (CCW) at Pembroke College, University of Oxford. CCW is funded by the Ax:Son Johnson Foundation and carries out research into strategy, operations, new technologies and the conduct of war. Dr Johnson is a former army officer, and has extensive experience of conflicts and their analysis. He has published a number of books, including Lawrence of Arabia on War, which was the winner of the Military History of the Year Award in 2021. His most recent publications include: The Conduct of War (2021) and World Information War (2021). He is currently working on strategic decision making in the two world wars.

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