- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Col. Chip Bircher IV, U.S. Army
Best Defense Future of War entrant
Before talking about the future of conflicts, I believe it is important to frame the environment in which these conflicts will occur.
- The operating environment of 2030 and beyond will be shaped by an increasingly interconnected global economy in which resource competition and information access are the two driving factors. The need for water, food, and even petroleum products will force nation-states, and non-nation-state actors, to explore new ways to meet the basic needs of their populations.
- Non-nation-state actors will continue to grow in importance and presence in this contested environment as populations "opt in" — not just to local communities, but to global organizations based on perceived needs, collective similarities, and access to information.
- While the expansion of mega-cities such as Mumbai and Hanoi will continue, we will also see the emergence and importance of "micro-cities" — self-sustaining city-states populated by people who have similar ideological, social, and economic traits. Think of these micro-cities as gated communities — except they will have private security forces, further complicating the operating environment. This resource competition, perception of "haves vs. have-nots," and the ubiquity of information access will drive the nature of future conflicts.
Conflicts will continue to require physical presence — the nature of human behavior demands interpersonal relationships. However, cyberspace will have become so pervasive that it is inextricably intertwined with the operating environment. Leaders will no longer think of cyberspace as an additional "thing" to consider in operational planning — instead, it will be considered up front as the medium through which, and in which, our forces can create effects in the physical environment. Cyberspace operations will be developed to affect not just information systems, but more importantly to affect the decision-makers and adversaries who rely on these systems.
The flip side is equally important: Our adversaries know how critical Mission Command systems are to our operations and we can anticipate constant attempts to deny, corrupt, or usurp our decision-making and command and control systems. This potential vulnerability becomes even more critical in the future because of the expanded use of autonomous, semi-autonomous, and robotic systems for both intelligence gathering and direct confrontation.
The Army of 2025 remains largely based on a model developed in the 19th century for an operating environment that was industrial-based. Sure, some of the technologies have changed — we have Stryker Brigade Combat Teams instead of Dragoon Regiments, but the staff structures, human resource management systems, and warfighting functions remain Napoleonic. In order to meet the challenges of the future operating environment and meet the nation’s needs for a strategic landpower, the Army must undertake a change in philosophy and institutional culture.
Combined Arms Maneuver, a core competency, must expand beyond traditional combat arms parochialisms to include cyber capabilities, social sciences, and information operations.
More and more, we will execute actions in the operating environment to create effects in the information environment — to inform, educate, inspire, motivate, and influence key audiences abroad. The cornerstone of this concept will be persistent engagement — relationships both in the physical and cyber environments will matter more than ever, and it is the nurturing of these relationships, based on mutual trust, that offer the best potential for conflict mitigation and resolution.
The philosophy of Mission Command must become the enabling factor for smaller and smaller unit engagements and actions in support of the larger national narrative. The narrative is simply the strategy: the verbal, and non-verbal, description of why we are engaging.
Colonel Chip Bircher is the director of the Army’s Information Operations Proponent Office, Mission Command Center of Excellence, Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. This article represents his own views, which do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army or the Defense Department.
Tom note: Got a Future of War essay? If it is good, send it to me.