The future of war is here

  • Themes: War

Military institutions – and the broader national security community – in the twenty-first century will need the discipline to explore new ideas, discard old concepts and institutions, constantly learn and adapt, and develop their people in new ways if they are to be successful in addressing the challenges ahead.

Ukrainian drone operator Leonid works to correct artillery fire in the city of Bahkmut.
Ukrainian drone operator Leonid works to correct artillery fire in the city of Bahkmut. Credit: Madeleine Kelly / SOPA Images / Sipa USA / Alamy Stock Photo

The twenty-first century has already provided abundant evidence that war remains a core part of human existence. The wars spawned by 9/11 in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Chinese-Indian standoffs on their shared border, Russia’s multiple invasions of Ukraine and operations in Syria, the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War and ongoing Chinese aggression against its neighbours point to another century of competition and conflict.

These conflicts offer tantalising glimpses of the evolution – and some revolution – in how wars will be fought in the coming century. In their book on Military Revolutions, The Dynamics of Military Revolution 1300-2050, Williamson Murray and McGregor Know wrote on the late twentieth century that, ‘A new pulse of technological developments in the past two decades, including data management, artificial intelligence, and autonomous systems, has driven a renewed debate on how transformational such tools will be for human warfare.’ We are in a similar pulse of change now. And it is defined by a range of trends in military affairs.

While many are driven by new technologies, the trends are the result of the interplay of new technology, old technology and new ideas on their application in peace and war. Understanding these trends provide a start point to develop Western theories of victory for the inevitable conflicts ahead.

The battle of signatures

All human and military equipment has a signature, be it visual, thermal, aural, or electromagnetic. Larger military organisations also possess signatures. These include known tactics and patterns of operations. In Ukraine, the large thermal and electromagnetic emissions signatures of Russian headquarters and troop concentrations has been an irresistible target for HIMARS rockets. Military organisations must be able to reduce their signatures while leveraging knowledge of enemy signatures everywhere humans fight or compete.


With the introduction of algorithmic support to intelligence and decision making, as well as hypersonic weapons, and faster media cycles the speed of military planning, decision-making, and action is increasing. The wide and rapid availability of open-source intelligence, in evidence in Ukraine, is only intensifying this trend. People and institutions at every level of military endeavour must be capable of intellectually and physically exploiting this environment with the better use of time for enhanced decision-making.

New forms of mass

The world is returning to an era of mass, industrial-scale warfare. This integrates large-scale use of conventional forces, the massed use of autonomous systems, and the global application influence operations, and is underpinned by the ubiquity of cheap autonomous systems across the land, sea, air, and space domains, and better use of data and algorithms. Military organisations in the twenty-first century will need to construct forces with an appropriate balance of expensive platforms and cheaper, smaller autonomous systems which they can adapt to an array of different missions.

Human-machine integration

Autonomous and semi-autonomous systems, big data, and algorithmic support to decision-making are being absorbed into military organisations at a rapid rate. The War in Iraq saw a huge expansion in the use of semi-autonomous systems, and the wars in the Nagorno-Karabakh region and Ukraine have continued this trend. Combining human physical and cognitive capabilities with autonomous systems and algorithms to generate greater mass, more lethality and improve the quality and speed of decision-making is a critical capability for military institutions in the twenty-first century.

The evolving fight for influence

Human competition and conflict has always been a balance of physical and moral forces. New technologies have enhanced the lethality of military forces at greater distances but also the reach of influence campaigns against different friendly and enemy populations. The ISIS influence campaigns in Iraq and beyond, the Russian interference in the 2016 US elections and the Ukrainian global influence campaign in 2022 are all examples.

Greater sovereign resilience

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted many weaknesses in global supply chains. The past four years has demonstrated the need for greater national resilience in supply chains for critical materials, manufactures and weapons. But it has also shown that societal resilience is critical. It builds national unity, and the capacity to respond to natural disasters as well as resist coercion and aggression from external actors. In essence this is a national responsibility. Countries must have secure sources of supply within national and alliance frameworks as well as effective national resilience frameworks like those endorsed by NATO.

More integrated thinking and action

In their influential 1999 book, Unrestricted Warfare, two Chinese Colonels, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui wrote that: ‘The new principles of war are no longer using armed force to compel the enemy to submit to one’s will, but rather are using all means, including armed force or non-armed force, and lethal and non-lethal means to compel the enemy to accept one’s interests.’ Space and cyberspace have joined the older realms of land, air and sea warfare. Military operations now occur in all five domains concurrently, and institutions must be able to undertake these operations, within more integrated national security operating constructs.

Understanding these trends, and the development of responses, is an important part of designing, building, employing and adapting military organisations in the twenty-first century. But, it is not a total solution in deterring conflict, or winning wars.

A model for success is required. This should build on existing ideas but must also be responsive to surprise, constant change in the strategic environment and the uncertainty that is an enduring aspect in military endeavours. Five key elements are purpose, new ideas, new and evolved organisations, an enlightened approach to failure and adaptation, and people with an intellectual edge.


Purpose is a fundamental component of any nation’s strategic outlook. For Colin Gray, purpose is part of a construct that sees strategy as a bridge between purpose and action. As Clausewitz writes, ‘the political object – the original motive for the war – will thus determine both the military objective to be reached and the amount of effort it requires.’ Therefore, purpose matters in generating strategic advantage.

So has it been with the Ukrainians in their ongoing defence against the Russian invasion. Providing purpose is a central responsibility for leaders; purpose or rationale is more important than the ‘what’ of any strategy or task.  Purpose for Ukraine has been provided by the speeches of President Zelensky. Thus it is with all strategic endeavours. Purpose is an essential pre-requisite for Western nations to resist coercion and aggression in the twenty-first century.

New Ideas

Technologies can provide an advantage in both strategic competition and in warfare. However, the possession of technology alone is insufficient. New ideas are required to exploit technologies – whether they are old and evolved, or entirely new and disruptive. As Pentagon strategist Andrew Marshall wrote in a paper he titled Some Thoughts on Military Revolutions – Second Version in 1993:

The most important competition is not the technological competition.  The most important goal is to be the best in the intellectual task of finding the most appropriate innovations in the concepts of operation and making organisational changes to fully exploit the technologies already available.

Nations such as China have done this over the past two decades. Shocked by the transformative changes in warfare heralded by the American victory over Iraq in 1991, Chinese concepts and thinking about war have changed dramatically in the past 20 years. They have developed concepts and approaches for the integration of civil and military technology sectors, and for the conduct of more effective influence and military endeavours. Systems confrontation and destruction, intelligentisation and autonomous warfare has been at the heart of this new Chinese thinking about competition, war and leveraging disruptive technologies like artificial intelligence and autonomous systems.

Western nations must embrace a similar investment in new and evolved ideas. Smarter thinking is necessary to effectively use such technologies, and to do so in a way that aligns tactical outcomes on the battlefield with desired political objectives. In The Dynamics of Military Revolution 1300-2050, Williamson Murray and McGregor Knox describe them as:

Periods of innovation in which armed forces develop novel concepts involving changes in doctrine, tactics, procedures and technology.

A new period of innovation is needed. Lest Western nations fall into the same trap as the current Russian military, significantly expanded investment in what Dima Adamsky calls in The Culture of Military Innovation the ‘software’ of a military institution is necessary.

Different Institutions

Since the beginning of the first industrial revolution at the end of the 1700’s military institutions have been influenced by the changes in society and technology.  And one of the most significant impacts has been on the different organisations that make up a nations’ military instrument.

The first industrial revolution, with its new mass manufacturing and steam-based transport, allowed military organisation to deploy further and campaign for longer. The birth of the telegraph allowed better communication and coordination. These innovations drove the birth of organisations such as signals corps, and logistics units to supply the bigger field armies of the 1800s. At the same time, bigger armies with different capabilities demanded that its leaders be educated differently – and in a more standardised way. Thus, military academies and staff colleges emerged throughout the 1800s and underpinned the birth of the modern profession of arms.

The second industrial revolution drove even larger changes. In the twentieth century, new organisations such as air forces, armoured divisions, carrier attack fleets and strategic bomber commands emerged as responses to operational problems and the capabilities of new technologies. At the same time, new educational facilities such as war colleges emerged in the interwar period and massively expanded in the post-World War Two era.

Military institutions today must also be open to new or evolved types of organisations to not only exploit new technologies, but to also leverage the new ideas (explored earlier) that might be developed in forward thinking organisations. Recent developments such as the Chinese Strategic Support Force and the United States Space Force are just the leading edge of new institutions that will be required to enhance the strategic effectiveness of future military institutions.

One example might be intelligence. Better access to data, and the proliferation of algorithms to exploit it, has been a key part of the Ukraine War. Open-source intelligence and government-provided classified intelligence are more closely interwoven than ever before; will new institutions be required to leverage this interplay between open source and classified intelligence?

Another area that is bound to change is the ratio of humans and autonomous machines in military units. Whether it is ground, air or maritime environments, humans may soon be a minority in many combat and support units across military institutions. Not only will this demand new ways of thinking and operating, this will require innovative ways of organising military formations, wings and fleets.

A final area might be the training and educational functions of military organisations. New ideas about warfighting, new forms of operating in teams where humans partner with, instead of operate, machines may demand new learning centres and organisations. At the same time, specialised institutes for developing tactical, operational and strategic leaders who can exploit new ways of managing and using information may also be required.

An Enlightened Approach to Failure, Learning and Adaptation

An important component of building effective future military institutions is the development of a culture that embraces the need to change quickly to remain effective in a rapidly evolving geopolitical, technological and tactical environment. In strategic competition and in conflict, the various participants must be continuously finding ways to outthink and out fight their adversaries. This adaptation battle is a vital part of war, but it demands that military institutions nurture an internal learning culture well before any conflict begins.

Such a learning culture requires mechanisms for exploring change. And, As Frank Hoffman proposes in Mars Adapting: Military Change in War, this should include a transparent experimentation system, which is underpinned by a coherent approach to analysing results. This in turn is founded upon an enlightened leadership culture, the nurtures curiosity, permits failure in the pursuit of learning, and recognises the profound importance of investigating the unknown, even where it challenges fundamental existing ideas.

A better understanding of failure is also fundamental. As Dietrich Dorner writes in The Logic of Failure:

People court failure in predictable ways. Having identified and understood these tendencies in ourselves, we will be much better problem solvers.

If military institutions can better understand failure, use it to learn and leverage this in developing a deep culture of learning and adaptation, they will be much better placed to face the strategic challenges of the twenty-first century. As a recent report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment notes, ‘innovation is never a simple or fast process, but every step of progress made in the present will save lives in tomorrow’s war.’

People and the Intellectual Edge

The personnel that are recruited, trained, educated and led by military institutions are the basis for every military capability. And it is people have continued to be the brain, the heart and the spine for every form of military advantage. Historically, military advantage has four broad categories: geography, mass, technology and an intellectual.

During periods of conflict and strategic competition in the decades ahead, western military organisations will face significant challenges to these historic elements of military leverage and influence. Geography is no longer a guarantor for retaining national sovereignty and western militaries may frequently lack the mass of their adversaries. Further, the advantages of advanced technologies are now declining. Compounding the challenge, when a technological advantage is developed, it is likely to be only a transient rather than an enduring one.

Military organisations must therefore devote more resources to cultivating another source of advantage: the intellectual edge. The clever application of military forces within a national approach is built on the best ideas being applied to tactics, operational concepts, strategy and different organisational constructs.  A well-honed intellectual edge can be used to offset the growing military, financial and information capabilities of potential adversaries. This intellectual edge has two components.

The first element of an intellectual edge is individual excellence, or what might otherwise be called professional mastery. The intellectual edge for any individual military leader is their ability to creatively out-think and out-plan potential adversaries. This requires a diverse range of training, education, experience and talent management. And it means all military personnel must now have baseline skills – at the very minimum – to work in human-machine teams with human, robotic and algorithmic components.

This second component of the intellectual edge is institutional. This is an organisations’ capacity to effectively nurture and exploit the disparate intellectual talents of its individuals to solve complex institutional problems. Such an approach requires all kinds of institutions – not just the military – to sustain and treasure their recruiting, individual and collective training, as well as educational activities. The institutional intellectual edge is also a vital part of the institutional learning capability explored earlier.

Designing, building, using and evolving military institutions remains an essential responsibility of governments. It is often difficult to predict the next conflict or where it might occur. But it is possible divine certain trends in the strategic environment and then develop hypotheses about solutions most likely to lead to military success within that environment. And while the solutions to future military challenges will utilise many disruptive technologies, these are an imperfect response. As Max Boot wrote in War Made New: Technology, Warfare and the Course of History in 2007, ‘technology only sets the parameters of the possible…what indeed produces an actual innovation is the extent to which militaries recognize and exploit the opportunities inherent in the new tools of war.’

Military institutions – and the broader national security community – in the twenty-first century will need the discipline to explore new ideas, discard old concepts and institutions, constantly learn and adapt, and develop their people in new ways if they are to be successful in addressing the challenges ahead.


Mick Ryan