Small Wars Journal

Fundamental Changes in Warfare

Thu, 05/26/2016 - 2:59pm

Fundamental Changes in Warfare

Dylan Farley

This paper was developed through the TRADOC G-2 Mad Scientist E-Intern Pilot in 2016.  The objective is to educate the students on emerging concepts that will impact the future of the Army, as well as to leverage the E Intern thoughts and approaches to addressing these challenges.  As a part of the program, students were given monthly assignments where they were encouraged to apply their specific interests and talents toward a Mad Scientist focus area, in this instance, Dense Urban Areas and Megacities of the Future.  TRADOC G-2 Mad Scientist team is exploring the possibility of expanding the E-Intern effort in order to develop a global cultural knowledge network of cross-disciplinary scientists for the future force and employ the E-Interns to refine our approach to providing socio-cultural intelligence products.

Fundamental changes in the character of war and warfighting technologies necessitate that the United States Army focus on developing its personnel and continuing to advance technology innovations. As we move into an increasing complex world and unprecedentedly intertwined international system, our adversaries can acquire new technologies much quicker than ever before. In addition, our enemies are improving themselves in a diverse array of capabilities, including some large overarching structural changes. These adaptations are being made with the express purpose of challenging American military preeminence in the international system. The strategic environment will be engaged at a variety of angles as we see an increase in hybrid warriors as well as highly skilled cyber forces in even middle-tier states. If the United States wants to be prepared to engage each threat, whether individually or simultaneously, it must make significant training and strategic changes in order to effectively address each threat.

Enemy Adaptations

The Department of Defense 2015 National Military Strategy explicitly lists strategies directed towards Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and what is termed “violent extremist organizations”, which specifically mentions ISIS and al Qaeda (National Military Strategy 3). These states and state-actors have a variety of ways they have been trying to militarily compete with the United States, with increasing reliance on training and technology, instead of prior reliance on quantity of forces and terrorist warfare. State adversaries are conducting structural overhauls in an effort to compensate for their comparative weaknesses that they have already identified.

The first broad category that our adversaries have been addressing is increasing various programs within their own militaries that closely mirror American and European military norms. For example, China and Russia are designing and executing new training programs equivalent to those used by Western militaries. A new style of training exercise in these two vying powers is combined arms maneuver, where they seek to integrate a wide variety of capabilities into more combat effective operations. (Chinese Strategy White Paper through US Naval Institute) This is a direct copy of modern American and European exercises. Although there previously were large-scale maneuvers, especially within the Warsaw Pact, these are a new and significantly more advanced version previously unseen by the states in questions. This plan has a clear three-step progression of:

“First, increasing professionalism by overhauling the education of personnel and cutting the number of conscripts; second, improving combat-readiness with a streamlined command structure and additional training exercises; and third, rearming and updating equipment.” (Gressel)

These increasingly dynamic military exercises are also part of a process where specifically Russia is introducing “high-readiness combat-brigades” as primary fighting formations instead of the divisions of the past. Again, this is a copy of American Brigade Combat Team system, which uses self-sustaining brigades as the basic modular unit that goes on deployments. Formerly, Russia had a series of understaffed divisions that prior to any engagement would have to be surge filled with conscripts and personnel pieced together from other units. These were not reserve mobilizations units, but poorly staffed line units. Now Russia has eliminated these reduced formations in favor of readiness brigades, which makes it easier for them to fight a peer-style conflict with Western states. (Gressel)

Russia and China have also been designing and implementing new professional development programs for their personnel. Just as the American military stresses continued education for its officers and noncommissioned officers, these two states are now infusing more development into their NCO and officer cohorts. Russia for example has condensed its large and unorganized system of schools into a few extremely proficient schools, including an NCO academy. China has started taking similar measures. In addition to educating the higher ranks, both states have started to better educate its conscripted forces in order to make them an effective fighting force against professional militaries, such as the Western states. (McDermott; Chinese Strategy White Paper through US Naval Institute)

The Russian conscription system is notorious for using inexperienced and untrained recruits to staff troop formations. As a result these soldiers are definitively weaker in combat against trained, professional forces. Russia noticed this especially in the 2008 Georgia War, where the much smaller yet professional Georgian Army put up a stiff resistance against the Russian counterattack toward Tbilisi. Additional issues were that the conscripts never were trained on heavy equipment, and also were unprofessional in their media relations, oftentimes compromising operational security due to loose lips. From there the Russians decided to develop a more substantial fighting force by either ending conscription or even just training the conscripts better. By professionalizing the military, the Russian armed forces will be much more adept in any conflict against American forces. (RT; Pifer)

Another way that these major militaries are mirroring American military successes is by increasing the size and capabilities of their special operations forces. Although the Soviet Union was famous for its spetznaz, there had been little use of Russian special forces until the Ukraine Crisis. During the crisis Russia effectively used its special forces - the ‘Little Green Men’ - to quietly, quickly, and efficiently seize control of the Crimean peninsula. These troops moved quickly to various regional and local nodes and took over the entire region without a fight. Similar to American Special Forces state-building capabilities, the Russian special forces integrated well with the local population and easily established rapport. In a turn unlike American policy however, these Russian special forces orchestrated the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation. Such a move to asymmetric warfare and remarkably successful employment of special operation forces marks a turning point in modern warfare where again American forces will have to be cognizant of peer special operations and strongly employed use of hybrid warfare. (Pifer)

The other significant program underway in Russia and China are respective equipment modernization programs. Both of these programs are intended to close the gap between their individual militaries and the American predominance in equipment technology. This includes main battle tanks, ships, and many other examples. Both of these programs have a specified end date of 2020, in order to completely rearm and refit the military. With the completion of these equipment modernization programs, there will only be a very small technology gap between the American military and the Russian and Chinese militaries. (Gressel; Harress)

An interesting adaptation that the Chinese are making is more civil-military integration. Before, the Chinese military was an authoritarian and cloistered structure. In recent developments however, China is seeking to improve cooperation between various aspects of civilian professions into the military. For example, China outlined in a Chinese Strategy White Paper through US Naval Institute that it would be actively:

“Accelerating CMI [civil-military integration] in key sectors. With stronger policy support, China will work to establish uniform military and civilian standards for infrastructure, key technological areas and major industries, explore the ways and means for training military personnel in civilian educational institutions, developing weaponry and equipment by national defense industries, and outsourcing logistics support to civilian support systems. China encourages joint building and utilization of military and civilian infrastructure, joint exploration of the sea, outer space and air, and shared use of such resources as surveying and mapping, navigation, meteorology and frequency spectra. Accordingly, military and civilian resources can be more compatible, complementary and mutually accessible.”

This is a significant development because it would advance Chinese military technological capacity and technical competency. By improving its institutions and structures for technological advancement, China will continue to climb at a rapid pace, closing the gap between Chinese and American military power. (Chinese Strategy White Paper through US Naval Institute)

The above segment also addresses Chinese expansion into a variety of strategic realms. The Chinese Navy, for example, is increasingly aggressive in the South China Sea and is significantly present in the Indian Ocean. It is not unforeseeable that the Chinese become engaged in deep sea exploration and becomes a common presence in global waters, especially as states increasingly compete for natural resource exploitation. China will also have an increased space presence as well, and if there is a new space race the likely participants will be the Americans and the Chinese, instead of the Russians. By diversifying their strategic operating environments, America’s opponents create additional opportunities to subvert American power and defeat them in alternative battle realms. (Minnick)

Another large structural change towards alternative operating environments is the explosion of cyber warfare and the increased reliance on digital technology to protect economics, infrastructure, and various other facets of the American state. Cyber attacks keep occurring and our enemies are at the forefront of these aggressive acts. The United States has strong capabilities, but our enemies are investing and expanding at a much faster pace and are therefore closing any gaps. By using cyber forces to perform asymmetric warfare functions like compromising information and intelligence or attacking banking institutions, an enemy can fight a non-linear war in order to deny the United States an advantage in strategic capacities (Brunner; Yadron).

The other major change in adversary behavior is a much higher level of structural advancement. As they expand, Russia, China, and to an extent Iran are beginning to take more unilateral action in the international arena. All three states are trying to expand their respective spheres of influence in order to establish themselves as powers with a considerable regional backing. This grab for strategic partners is not a new thing in strategic history, but is a new development in our modern post-Soviet era. These states with newfound power are taking unilateral action without the consultation of international bodies or other states to address issues. These proactive behaviors have been termed by Western observers as bellicose, but they run far deeper than any preemptive aggression. The fact that these states are challenging American unipolarity shows that they do not see us as a global hegemon or as a collaborative partner. American global hegemony is not necessarily the primary state interest, but collaborating and being a strong negotiating power in an international concert is important to national security. If these states challenge us diplomatically, they may choose to address their grievances militarily as well.

Exploitation of the Strategic Environment

Whatever war is next will be fought across the breadth of the strategic environment. This means not just the air, sea, and land trifecta that has been the status quo for the past hundred years, but also includes recently exploited areas such as outer space and the cyber realm. Rising states will challenge American power in all aspects of the strategic environment in order to gain the best comparative edge.

The newly explored cyber realm is the most asymmetric realm because so much damage can be caused by comparatively little force and resources. Because cyber is personnel based, it is naturally cheaper than traditional operations simply because it is exceedingly cheaper to train a human than to buy tanks, aircraft, and ships. Cyber is also more likely to be used by non-state actors because it is hard to track due to such a soft footprint. For example, Iran has had some success using non-state cyber proxies to complete various mission sets without being tied directly to Iran. Iran’s new cyber network was developed very quickly and within a few years of its inception began to rival the United States, Russia, and China. Cyber forensics are difficult to track or attack, with Israel having the most success up to this point in relation to detecting the sources of cyber crime initiated by its adversaries (Brunner).

Part of the danger of the cyber realm is that the technologies can be learned at home or purchased directly off a technology store shelf. Any person with a computer can access the realm and become a threat, with the proper training and will to do evil. A cyber attack targeted at American nodes is remarkably asymmetric, because so little equipment would have such a detrimental impact. This makes cyber use by non-traditional military forces likely for a strike against the United States. Among conventional enemies, the Chinese military has a large and advanced cyber force that is capable of, and has attacked, Western businesses and defense systems. The American military cyber capabilities are small compared to the Chinese system, which makes any cyber realm conflict potentially more hazardous. (Yadron; Valentino-DeVries)

Another new strategic realm that the Chinese mentioned in their strategic expansion report is outer space capabilities. As both a symbolic gesture of power parity and a general strategic goal, China wants to expand its extraterrestrial operations. A space expansion would not necessarily mean that the next great conflict will be a space war, but it does mean that China can have more access to natural resources, as well as communication nodes in outer space. The competition for natural resources on Earth is so intense that it is possible that in the near future there will be similar competition for space resources. Additionally, China could use extraterrestrial bodies to station enhanced communications array in a futuristic step towards enhanced information and cyber warfare (Sullivan and Erickson).

China is additionally expanding into using the deep seas as an operating environment. As discussed earlier, China is expanding its Navy, including its force of aircraft carriers. This modernized navy has been increasingly assertive in the South China Sea conflict and has operations around the Indian Ocean as well. This mobility is part of the Chinese goal of achieving “tran-theater mobility” in its military operations. America has been the preeminent naval power since the end of World War II, but now that preeminence is being challenged by the rise of China. Although a symmetric development, it is still important because it is a new development that we have not had to address recently. An additional reason for states to expand into deep-sea operations is resource competition, especially newly found energy resources in various world oceans. (Chinese Strategy White Paper through US Naval Institute; Sullivan and Erickson)

This Chinese advancement of naval forces and expeditionary power is similar to Russian strategic goals of military involvement. Russia has become increasingly more expeditionary in its operations, first fighting in only the post-Soviet states but now has expanded into fighting in the Middle East, with the recent aerial campaign in Syria. Russia has made it a point to improve its expeditionary capabilities in light of the 2008 Georgia conflict. The new readiness brigade structure described earlier is the result of the Russian goal of capable expeditionary operations. Russia has also begun to modernize its Air Force and strategic missile system, in another significant power projection method (Pifer).

The United States is still the strongest world power in air, sea, and land capabilities because it maintains the largest Armed Forces and has the largest sea fleet. Although there has been significant advancement on behalf of China, Russia, and Iran on new air, land, and sea capabilities, their current strategies suggest that these are mainly in order to increase regional hegemony, not directly confront the United States. The advancement of competitor militaries would have to be in an alternative warfare type in order to have an edge over the American military.

Adversary Technology Investment

Our enemies are going to continue to invest in technologies in order to obtain a differential advantage and undermine American global superiority. This will come in different forms addressing the breadth of military capabilities, with several specifically targeted programs. Russia is currently in the process of modernizing all of its equipment, especially its artillery and its airplanes. China also is modernizing its equipment, with both states espousing 2020 as the completion date of the equipment overhauls. New vehicles being developed are intended to gain parity with American military vehicles in order to be competitive in a peer conflict. (Gressel; Pifer)

The technological investment of other states has been growing while at the same time the United States has been decreasing its military investments because of budget constraints. Although we still retain the advantage, pundits are still claiming that the gap is quickly closing between the United States military power and the rising powers. Additionally, old advances are becoming common and are available in the civilian market. The best known example is unmanned aerial vehicles, previously a purely military capability that now can be purchased by civilians and used to do whatever they decide to use it for, whether delivering packages, or delivering bombs.

American Course of Action

The United States needs to follow two courses of action in order to maintain its national security in the next fifteen years. These measures are not necessarily meant to increase American hegemony, but rather to protect its interests and national borders in the face of increasingly complex adversaries. The first course of action is a strategic level focus, and the second partner course of action is an increased investment in personnel.

On a strategic level, American forces and intelligence personnel need to work closer with international partners on several levels. For general situational awareness, international collaboration should be increased in order to identify threats faster. Information sharing should be extensive in such an interdependent international system, and with the rapid movement of people across the globe it is necessary to share information of threats and dangerous personnel across the globe.

America also needs more adept partners to engage in balancing in East Asia. Although we have strategic partners in the region, it is primarily American forces that balance against emerging Chinese power. A better regional concert would be all the ASEAN states engaging in strong balancing together, rather than relying on American forces to augment their forces in case of any military actions.

Another way to increase strategic partnerships would be to create a NATO cyber team, which would be a collaborative body that combats cyber threats and combines the best professionals in the Western world together. Such a team would be immensely capable of preventing cyber attacks on NATO states, as long as they are given proper leeway to operate within mission intent.

The United States needs to invest in personnel more in order to meet the demands that complex warfare will present in future conflicts. The first step is to better educate our military personnel. One way to do this is to increase lateral entry of cyber professionals in a similar manner that we currently bring in doctors and chaplains. In that manner, the military gets experienced professionals without having to drag them up through the ranks. We also need to focus on better training our enlisted personnel. In the world of the “strategic corporal”, low-level leaders and the Soldiers underneath them need to be prepared to handle intense and diverse situations, especially in emerging environments like megacities (Krulak). Soldiers need to have multiple and diverse skill sets in order to be on par with their rivals and to operate to the same proficiency American forces have in the past.

In planning training programs and doctrine, it is necessary to understand how best to train individuals for future challenges. If we are training to fight hybrid warriors, we should be training to fight as hybrid warriors. We need to have more dynamic smaller units, similar in style to our special forces independent operating capabilities. Having increased platoon and squad level patrolling independence would increase the combat effectiveness of fighting small, highly mobile hybrid warriors, especially in megacities. Although entire divisions may be needed to operate in a megacity, it will be much smaller units actually maneuvering against the enemy in enclosed urban areas.

That being said, the likelihood of a near-peer war is more likely now than anytime since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. In the case that a large, terrain-based war is the next conflict, we must still know how to fight against combined arms units. It is not necessary for us to increase the size of active personnel, but instead we need to increase mobilization and conscription capabilities, especially speed. Other large states are reorganizing their strategies to be more effective in a fast-paced operating environment and we should do the same. The two important metrics are speed of mobilization and number mobilized. A way to combat our current deficiency is to have a mobilization plan already in place, with ghost divisions that can be fully staffed within a matter of weeks. In addition, it would be prudent that those registered for the selective service have a baseline of military training to expedite the process of delivering them to mobilized units. Essentially, with the amount of enemies we face, it is necessary to have a Cold War-esque mobilization strategy close at hand, ready to be enacted at any minute.


The United States is still the preeminent military and diplomatic force in the world. However, states that we consider as adversaries are quickly closing the gap and catching up to us. They are expanding into new realms that we have not calculated into our strategic interest before, as well as developing and using technology at a rate never seen before. As we see this competition increase, it is important that we train our personnel to retain a distinct advantage in warfare. Through a variety of structural adjustments and alternative considerations, the American military will develop into a more effective force ready to confront new threats in the complex future world.

Works Cited

Brunner, Jordan. "Iran Has Built an Army of Cyber-Proxies." The Tower. The Tower, Aug. 2015.

"Defense Ministry to Improve Conscripts' Preparedness through Military Lessons in Schools." RT International. RT International, 26 May 2016.

"Document: China's Military Strategy." US Naval Institute. US Naval Institute, 26 May 2015.

"Exercises of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation." Ministry of Defense Mission. Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation.

Gorenburg, Dmitry. "Impact of the Economic Crisis." The Cipher Brief. The Cipher Brief, 08 Apr. 2016.

Gressel, Gustav. "Russia's Quiet Military Revolution, and What It Means for Europe." International Relations And Security Network. 31 Dec. 2015.

Harress, Christopher. "China State Visit 2015: China's Military Is Closing The Gap On US Defense Technology." International Business Times. IBT Media, 22 Sept. 2015.

Horowitz, Michael C. "The Looming Robotics Gap." Foreign Policy. Foreign Policy, 5 May 2014.

Kamphausen, Roy, and David Lai, eds. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army in 2025. Carlisle: United States Army War College. Federation of American Scientists. Federation of American Scientists.

Krulak, Charles C. "The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War." Marine Magazine. Jan. 1999.

McDermott, Roger. "Russian Military Plans New NCO Training Center." The Jamestown Foundation. The Jamestown Foundation, 8 Sept. 2009.

Minnick, Wendell. "China Challenges Army With Realistic Training Scenarios." Defense News. 10 Oct. 2015.

“National Military Strategy 2015”. United States of America. Department of Defense. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Department of Defense, June 2015.

Pifer, Steven. "Pay Attention, America: Russia Is Upgrading Its Military." The National Interest. The National Interest, 3 Feb. 2016.

"Reform of the Russian Armed Forces." Sputnik News. Sputnik News, 12 Apr. 2009.

Sullivan, Alexander, and Andrew S. Erickson. "The Big Story Behind China's New Military Strategy." The Diplomat. The Diplomat, 5 June 2015.

Yadron, Danny, and Jennifer Valentino-DeVries. "Cataloging the World's Cyberforces." The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, Inc., 11 Oct. 2015.

Categories: Mad Scientist

About the Author(s)

Dylan Farley is a senior at the College of William and Mary finishing up his BA in a self-designed interdisciplinary program, Geostrategic Security Studies. His focus is in two areas; post-Soviet frozen conflicts and anthropological development of terrorist organizations and insurgencies. Originally from Cranston, Rhode Island, Dylan is an ROTC cadet who will be commissed in the US Army Reserves in May as a Signal Corps Officer with the 443rd Civil Affairs Battalion in Newport, Rhode Island.