IEET > GlobalDemocracySecurity > Fellows > Jamais Cascio > Military
The End of Conventional War
Jamais Cascio   May 6, 2007   Open the Future  

Few would dispute that the American military is, far and away, the most powerful conventional armed force on the planet, even as depleted as it is by the Iraq war. At the same time, few would dispute that this military force is, and by all signs will continue to be, insufficient to quell the insurgency in Iraq.

While this particular result has dramatic implications for the global position of the US, as well as for the political and economic future of the region (and the world), the larger meaning of this conflict is only beginning to become clear: conventional militaries, as a means of compelling a desired behavior on the part of a national populace, have become obsolete. The question now is how long it will take political leaders to recognize this fact, and adapt to it.

The reasons for this obsolescence are clear: conventional military forces appear to be unable to defeat a networked insurgency, which combines the information age’s distributed communication and rapid learning with the traditional guerilla’s invisibility (by being indistinguishable from the populace) and low support needs. It’s not just the American experience in Iraq (and, not as widely discussed, Afghanistan) that tells us this; Israel’s latest war in Lebanon leads us to the same conclusion, and even the Soviet Union’s experience in Afghanistan and America’s war in Vietnam underline this same point. Insurgencies have always been hard to defeat with conventional forces, but the “open source warfare” model, where tactics can be learned, tested and communicated both formally and informally across a distributed network of guerillas, poses an effectively impossible challenge for conventional militaries.

To be clear, this isn’t a crude argument that networked insurgency forces are “stronger” than conventional militaries. In a stand-up fight against a modern army, whether on attack or defense, the guerillas will lose; in an insurgency, where stand-up fights are avoided, the modern army simply cannot win. But even talking about winning and losing in this context is simplistic. Networked insurgencies are best at forcing costly stalemates. When on the offense, networked insurgencies are less about compellence than about provocation (making the enemy more likely to engage in acts that horrify the populace and undermine the enemy’s support); on the defense, they’re less about protection than about disruption (making the enemy expend increasing amounts of force, money and attention on maintaining its own critical support systems). As a result, a networked insurgency can best be thought of as a deterrent force, promising (and able) to exact a high cost in retaliation for a perceived attack.

(John Robb’s site Global Guerillas, along with his new book Brave New War, document the emergence and capabilities of the open source warfare concept, so I won’t try to replicate that here. And, to be clear, my arguments here are my own, not his.)

If deterrence as a way of making conventional militaries obsolete sounds familiar, it should. Such obsolescence actually began in 1945, with the beginning of the nuclear era. The risk of escalation made conventional conflict between nuclear-armed states functionally impossible, by making it something that must be avoided. While this didn’t stop the US and USSR from building up considerable conventional military forces, it meant (for example) that the Soviets could field a significantly larger conventional army than could the Americans without changing the balance of power. All of the money poured into the conventional militaries by the superpowers was functionally meaningless when it came to the threat each posed directly to the other. The Cold War military build-ups had other drivers—power-projection against non-nuclear states (albeit with limited effectiveness), institutional bureaucracies that needed to be fed, and a conventional way of thinking that simply couldn’t quite believe that the underlying system of military power had changed.

Nuclear weapons make conventional conflicts extremely unlikely between nuclear states. Historically, this meant that nuclear states could still mess around with conventional conflicts against non-nuclear states, with varying degrees of success. The growing empowerment of insurgent forces has now made conventional conflicts extremely costly and nearly impossible to win, as well. In time, this should come to make them extremely unlikely at the low end, too.*

Because this empowerment looks set to accelerate both technologically (such as with the advent of inexpensive fabbers or the proliferation of ultra-cheap, ultra-smart embedded processors and programming know-how) and organizationally (as the increased participation of various globally-distributed guerilla movements increases the pool of tactics and ways to test them), fights against networked insurgencies will only become more and more dangerous. If the lessons of Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon don’t sink in this time, the next attempt to use conventional military forces will lead to even costlier failure, and the next after that costlier still—and, eventually, the fading hegemons, rising superpowers, regional badasses and so forth will finally realize that the Great Game they thought they’d been playing ended years ago.

But what’s the new game? Networked insurgencies are just the latest in a long evolution of conflict. How, then, will the powerful again come to dominate the weak?

That remains to be seen, but it’s almost certain to involve figuring out ways to achieve networked supremacy, rather than simple force supremacy. It will very likely be much more automated, in part due to the growing reluctance of post-industrial nations to give up the lives of soldiers, and in part due to the growing ability of semi-autonomous machines to carry out tasks beyond the capacity of the human body. Ideally, the proliferation of networked systems in the service of “politics by other means” might even allow for the development of tools that minimize casualties on all sides. (The stalled but brilliant web comic Spiders is one intriguing scenario of what that kind of world might look like.)

Despite the end of the utility of conventional force, the lack of certainty as to what the next wave of global compellence power will look like will inevitably lead to strategic mistakes. As we look ahead, it’s clear that if another state—say, China—decides to take America’s place as the leading hegemonic power on the planet by emulating the current American model of extreme emphasis on conventional force projection, that state has already become another Lost Hegemon. The system has changed, and the meaning of power has changed.

Conversely, the first group that cracks this problem has the potential to leapfrog the others in assuming the role of global powerhouse. Given the speed with which technology and organizational models are evolving, we can’t assume it will be a state. Corporations seemed poised to take on that role in the 1990s; non-governmental groups are the lead candidates today. It’s entirely possible that the kind of social organization that will become the next hegemonic force has yet to be invented. One thing is clear: the next superpower, whoever or whatever it is, will be the actor that finally figures out the new meaning of power.

(Also on this topic: The Lost Hegemon (pt 1) and A Post-Hegemonic Future)

* So what about India and Pakistan? They’re both nuclear armed, and yet continue to shoot at each other. Ironically, this seems to be a result of the empowerment of insurgency. Nuclear rivals, not willing to risk the potential escalation of a conventional fight, may turn to the use of networked insurgency techniques as a way of maintaining a fight. As the power of networked insurgency continues to grow, however, even this may become untenable

Jamais Cascio is a Senior Fellow of the IEET, and a professional futurist. He writes the popular blog Open the Future.


Chas. Krauthammer indicates in this piece we have “lost Iraq” (how do you find Iraq?: you turn left at Egypt!), and writes that Iraq was “lost by Obama.”
Not by what has transpired since 2003, but because of—you’ll never guess—Obama’s actions. Golly, if Iraq is “lost”, what do you suppose might happen to Afghanistan?...

YOUR COMMENT Login or Register to post a comment.

Next entry: Poll: Is radio telescope SETI a waste of time?

Previous entry: Existential risks, AI, genetic engineering and space exploration