Future of War (14): It is gonna be pretty much like it was for the last 4,000 years

Future of War (14): It is gonna be pretty much like it was for the last 4,000 years

By Capt. Michael Junge, U.S. Navy
Best Defense future of war entrant

On January 22nd, Tom opened up his “future of war contest.” Two days later, he posted about Churchill, the tank, and the airplane. The short yet thought-provoking post included this gem: “As a general I know says: all warfare is a lethal version of Rock-Paper-Scissors.”

The juxtaposition of the two stuck in my brain and I did what Mark Twain advised — when I feel like writing I lie down until the feeling goes away. While I am no longer lying down, the feeling did not go away. How can someone ask on Wednesday for thoughts on the future of warfare and on Friday put forward such a simplistic idea as “all warfare is a lethal version of Rock-Paper-Scissors”? Aren’t the two ideas in conflict?

Actually, they aren’t. Well, that’s not true. If you are a real RMA-believing, innovation-pushing tech warrior, then the idea that war is synonymous with Rock-Paper-Scissors (RPS) is anathema. But, when you pull back a bit, that simple child’s game tells us so much about the future of warfare.

For common understanding, as well as for the one or two who have never heard of the game, RPS is a game played by two people who simultaneously make one of three shapes with their hands, a closed fist (rock), a downward facing palm (paper), or the index and middle finger extended (scissors). The hierarchy of victory is circular. Rock smashes scissors, scissors cuts paper, paper covers rock.

This is where the RBIPTW says “with a sharp enough pair of scissors I can cut that rock.” Sure, and doing so violates the rules of the game. Rules? War doesn’t have any rules! Well, yes, it does. And not the Law of Armed Conflict kind, but real, no kidding rules that have existed since the beginning of warfare and will continue into the future.

1. The rules exist. They can be modified, but not thrown away.
2. Whoever has more bullets than enemy soldiers wins.
3. Victory isn’t about killing the enemy. It’s about fixing the problem that led to the war.
4. The key to winning is in recognizing and exploiting non-random behavior.

The rules exist.

This rule is like that wonderful witticism of “Rule No. 1: The captain is always right. Rule No. 2: If the captain is wrong, see Rule No. 1.” There are basics of rules. Operational art and its reliance on the factors of time, space, and force show how the interplay of variables has existed since the beginning of warfare. No matter how many times someone says “it’s all different now,” it really isn’t.

Whoever has more bullets than enemy soldiers wins.

All war remains based on attrition. Each side seeks to attrite the other’s soldiers, resources, or will to fight. That hasn’t changed. It won’t change.

Victory isn’t about killing the enemy. It’s about fixing the problem that led to the war.

War can be about all sorts of things. While many cold warriors think that winning is about killing the other guy (getting the other poor dumb bastard to die for his country), the reality is that warfare is political and the only way to resolve the conflict — to win the war — is to address the underlying condition that led to the war. Drones, nukes, k-bars, limpets, Molotov cocktails, IEDs don’t address the underlying condition of the conflict. People address the underlying condition.

The key to winning is in recognizing and exploiting non-random behavior.

This is where we come back to RPS. Unlike coin tosses, RPS has an element of randomness to it. In general, opponents devolve to non-random actions. The person who favors rock over the other two options will return to rock often enough that his opponent can eventually counter with paper. Numerous computer programming contests have shown that computers can be programmed to defeat human players — unless that human player is playing completely randomly. How rare is that? While political science is replete with the concept of rational actors, how common is the irrational actor? When one remembers that rationality is bounded and learns to look at the opponent’s actions in relation to what the opponent seeks to achieve (like lying about WMD to stay in power) we can predict what will happen next. Having the resolve to act, well, that’s another issue altogether.

So, what does the future of warfare look like? Pretty much like the last four millenia. One group will insist that the nature of warfare hasn’t changed while another insists that everything is different. And like all things, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Capt. Michael Junge (USN) is a military professor at the Naval War College. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the college, the Navy, the Navy Department, the Defense Department, or the U.S. government.

Tom note: Got your own views of the future of war? Consider submitting an essay. The contest remains open for at least another few weeks. Try to keep it short — no more than 750 words, if possible. And please, no footnotes or recycled war college papers.