- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Puong Fei Yeh
Best Defense future of war contest entrant
The future of war scares me.
It scares me the most when I think about the world we live in — the long-standing threat of nuclear weapons and proliferation, the rise of unmanned combat platforms, cyber weapons, and not-yet-invented or imagined ways to conduct war. Some of the earlier posts in this blog have touched on the inviolate laws of war, and therefore what we can expect war to look like in the future, but if there is one law that gives me pause it is the power law of war.
I’m not referring to the capacity of countries or groups to wage war, but rather Lewis Fry Richardson‘s insight in 1948 that wars exhibit a power law relationship.
Richardson discovered that the magnitude of wars as measured in how many people die is inversely proportional to the frequency with which those wars occur along a smooth curve. At one extreme end of the scale are the First and Second World Wars, in which tens of millions of people were killed, and at the other end of the spectrum are greater numbers of conflicts in which the number of causalities range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. Conflicts like the Vietnam War (1965), Iran-Iraq War (1980), and the Taiping Rebellion (1850) lie in the upper range of the curve. Since Richardson’s discovery, scholars have duplicated his results using larger datasets and subsets of conflict-related data, including fatalities attributed to terrorism. Power law explains a diverse range of natural and human phenomenon, from the magnitudes and frequency of earthquakes to the population of cities.
Are we (or our kids) due for a high magnitude event? One of the most frustrating things about Richardson’s discovery is the complete lack of predicative power. Simply put, power law is nice, but as many others have pointed out, so what? Knowing in the aggregate that a lot of people die in a few wars and not as many in many more wars doesn’t help us plan for the future. Although that’s true, I believe Richardson’s insight is useful in providing some perspective and humility about the future, both near- and long-term. First, wars will continue: People, in large numbers, will continue to die. Second, the unthinkable — the risk of another world war or even a more localized, regional war — should not be unimaginable. Power law suggests events of intense severity will occur more often than random chance. Unfortunately, we lack of a good sense of where we lie on the curve.
So whether we think the next big one is an all-out war between China and the United States, a global cyberwar, a regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan, or a terrorist organization detonating a nuke in one of the world’s top 10 cities, managing the risk that stems from any of these wars occurring is just as important as reducing the risk that these deadly conflicts will start. Borrowing from Nassim Taleb’s theme of antifragile and other works on resiliency, what series of steps can we begin to take to mold our system today — political, military, economic, and social institutions — to withstand devastating shocks? Ideally, you’d like to take a series of short-term steps towards solving what is hopefully a long-term problem, because if you don’t, you’re screwed when the high-magnitude event arrives.
If I’m going to make a bet on the future of war, I will bet on the country that is most adaptive and most resilient as the one to survive and prevail through the next series of shocks.
Puong Fei Yeh is an analyst at the Department of Defense, specializing in WMD and arms proliferation. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Defense or the U.S. government.
Tom note: You’re smart, you can do things. When you get back from taking Michael to the airport, why not jot down 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.