Marco J. Lyons is a U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel who has served in tactical and operational Army, Joint, and interagency organizations in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, Afghanistan, and in the Western Pacific. He is currently a national security fellow at Harvard Kennedy School where he is researching strategy and force planning for war in the Indo-Pacific. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature, nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: An Assessment of Thinking Big About Future Warfare
Date Originally Written: April 15, 2022.
Date Originally Published: May 2, 2022.
Summary: There are critical, outstanding disconnects between U.S./western military theory, forces, and doctrine that hamper linking military strategy to national policy. Big ideas about future warfare matter primarily around seizing and maximizing advantages over potential adversaries to compel favorable policy outcomes. The big ideas are useful and matter because identifying, developing, and deploying warfighting advantages unfolds over long periods of time.
Text: Far more than any particular revolution in military affairs, western powers are witnessing what may be called an extended revolution in strategic affairs. Such dramatic and wide-reaching change in warfare and how it is conceived involves 1) fundamental questions of the utility and most effective forms of power and diplomacy; 2) challenges to future force planning caused by advances in information technologies, long-range, precision fires, and hybrid combinations of symmetrical and asymmetrical capabilities, and whether these define a new warfighting regime and character of war; and 3) influences of globalization – or more specifically, the security environments created by the various forces making up social and economic globalization – on militaries. Bringing these three dynamics together – and more may be added to the list – in a deeply integrated way will almost certainly yield a new paradigm of warfare.
Both change and continuity are expected characteristics of the future security environment. Thinking about future big ideas is really only possible because there is enough continuity in history and military affairs. Understanding future war is helped by elaborating on seven critical contexts or broad categories of circumstances: political, social-cultural, economic, military-strategic, technological, geographical, and historical.
It is difficult if not impossible to talk about big ideas in future warfare without referencing the possibilities for revolutionary change. One of the more popular ideas about the likelihood of new forms of warfare is the revolution in military affairs, or RMA, which nearly dominated defense publications and discussions in the 1990s. The term has a special linguistic power by implying historic, almost inevitable change. Examinations of military history yield periods of profound change in war’s ever-changing character, and sometimes these periods may be called revolutionary, but these assessments are still difficult to complete in a fully persuasive manner. There is no consensus view of the RMA as a way of thinking about future warfare.
The early days of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) seemed to fall both within and outside the more traditional lines of western war. But just because the U.S. Air Force contributed the core capabilities that allowed Joint Force commanders to achieve effects with air power in Afghanistan following the 9/11 terrorist attacks did not mean that the character of military operations more broadly had changed. Early OEF was a case of what was possible given the seven critical contexts identified above. Although there are convincing reasons to believe that the character of future warfare will change, and probably change in significant ways, the fundamental nature of war will remain the same.
Defense planners thinking about the character of future warfare will be well-served by using a simplified list of four operational challenges. These operational challenges could be used to explore needed capabilities and force postures. The four might be: 1) early halt of an invasion with depth (e.g., Ukraine) or without (e.g., the Baltic states); 2) early attack and early counteroffensive to destroy an enemy combined arms army without the benefit of a massive force buildup first (e.g., Taiwan); 3) effective and low-risk intervention in an ongoing, complex conflict zone or region; and 4) effective low-risk peace enforcement in complex terrain including megacities. There is nothing revolutionary about these four.
It is inherently difficult to predict the exact course of future change, especially since future enemies will invariably have a say in these eventualities. Nonetheless it is important for defense planners to have a clear sense of the character and general scope of future conflict. While technology will almost certainly continue to evolve, including in the critical areas of reconnaissance and long-range precision fires, there is no overwhelming evidence that the character of future operations will change dramatically for ground forces in most types of missions, and especially in close combat in complex and urban terrain. Tactical continuity is supreme.
Big ideas about future warfare matter primarily around seizing and maximizing advantages over potential adversaries. Generally, the big ideas are useful and matter because identifying, developing, and deploying warfighting advantages always unfolds over longer periods of time. Finally, the exact nature of future warfighting advantages is highly situational – or contextual – and potential adversaries are presumably trying to counter friendly attempts to secure advantages. The tension in “big idea versus context” illustrates the interactive nature of war.
Doctrine and the other dimensions of force development are profoundly shaped by the reigning big ideas that capture the attention of military leaders and organizations. Those big ideas sketch what the organizations in question are prepared to do, against which opponents, in which operational environments. So the U.S. Army, on the one hand, may want to cling to the big idea that the most consequential future conflicts will be major theater, conventional forces, maneuver and fire campaigns. Nonetheless, the indicators are that irregular fights – alongside large-scale combat operations – in complex hybrid combinations are not going anywhere.
Implementing big ideas involves turning vision into things, concepts into capabilities and formations, and orchestrating grand actions in accordance with the vision. Big ideas matter but after all, success is judged by adaptation.
Land forces, and particularly the U.S. Army, have been affected more than other military forces by the existential crisis in supposed relevance caused by the end of the Cold War, the lopsided victory in the First Gulf War, the advent of information technologies, revival of irregular and stability operations, and globalization. There are critical, outstanding disconnects between U.S./western military theory, forces, and doctrine that are, most likely, hampering the effective linking of military strategy to national policy.
 Colin S. Gray, “Another Bloody Century?” Infinity Journal, no. 4 (Fall 2011): 4–7, https://www.militarystrategymagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Infinity_Journal_Special_Edition_war_and_strategy_back_to_basics.pdf#page=14. Gray makes some of the most reasonable and persuasive arguments against assuming too much change in the character of war over time.
 Colin S. Gray, “The 21st Century Security Environment and the Future of War,” Parameters 38, no. 4 (2008): 18, https://press.armywarcollege.edu/parameters/vol38/iss4/7/. Also see Warren Chin, “Technology, War and the State: Past, Present and Future,” International Affairs 95, no. 4 (July 2019): 765–783. Chin concludes that the relationship between war and the state may be in for dramatic change – an existential crisis – as another wave of industrialization, impacts of artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies on societies and economies, as well as possible global climate emergencies tax the modern state to the point of breakdown.
 Lawrence Freedman, The Revolution in Strategic Affairs, 1st ed. (London: Routledge, 1998), 7–8.
 Carlo Alberto Cuoco, The Revolution in Military Affairs: Theoretical Utility and Historical Evidence, Research Paper, no. 142 (Athens, Greece: Research Institute for European and American Studies, April 2010), https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/115259/rieas142b.pdf.
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 Michael E. O’Hanlon, The Future of Land Warfare (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2015), https://library.oapen.org/handle/20.500.12657/25774.
 Colin S. Gray, The Airpower Advantage in Future Warfare: The Need for Strategy (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University, Airpower Research Institute, December 2007), https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/pdfs/ADA477043.pdf.
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 Robert H. Scales, Future Warfare: Anthology (Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute, 2000), https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/pdfs/ADA365316.pdf.