Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The Future of War essays (entry no. 6): Bet on surprises, and get ready to adapt

By Jeff Williams Best Defense future of war entry So we have the question of what will future war look like? In our look at war, it is difficult to think of a conflict that transformed itself into an event so completely different from the early notions of all the combatants at its outset than ...

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By Jeff Williams
Best Defense future of war entry

So we have the question of what will future war look like? In our look at war, it is difficult to think of a conflict that transformed itself into an event so completely different from the early notions of all the combatants at its outset than the First World War. By contrast, the Second World War -- excluding the development of nuclear fission -- seems in retrospect more a qualitative refinement of the notions, concepts, and appliances of war developed in 1914 -1918.

That experience leads one to wonder if a new war will end up being as much of a surprise how it unfolds as World War I was to its warring contenders? Will we find that our nation's current stock of weapons and doctrines are more of a look back into the past, or that they are a discerning glimpse into the future?

By Jeff Williams
Best Defense future of war entry

So we have the question of what will future war look like? In our look at war, it is difficult to think of a conflict that transformed itself into an event so completely different from the early notions of all the combatants at its outset than the First World War. By contrast, the Second World War — excluding the development of nuclear fission — seems in retrospect more a qualitative refinement of the notions, concepts, and appliances of war developed in 1914 -1918.

That experience leads one to wonder if a new war will end up being as much of a surprise how it unfolds as World War I was to its warring contenders? Will we find that our nation’s current stock of weapons and doctrines are more of a look back into the past, or that they are a discerning glimpse into the future?

Could our preconceptions about how a future war will evolve be confirmed much in the same manner as the U.S. Navy’s pre-World War II wargaming which foretold the actual pattern of the Central Pacific offensive, leading to Japan’s doorstep? Like previous wars, will we have time to correct material and doctrinal shortcomings or will we be stuck with the force we have rather than the one we need?

In history we find if not explicit answers to our questions, at least some plausible hints about future war. In the First World War, the process of rethinking war began with the very first encounter battles in Alsace. These rethinks did not always lead to success, but nonetheless continued throughout the war for all sides so that the end of the war was a very different thing than its beginning. Virtually all the preconceptions and notions about what war would look like in August of 1914 were violently torn away and the war took a course of its own, as wars tend to do.

Traditionally, the shifting dynamics of war have played to America’s strong suit of innovation, flexibility and great organizational aptitude. Yet one cannot help but wonder if in a future war we may not have the time to regroup and realign our forces to whatever the stark new reality happens to be.

Will connectivity, networks, and profuse real-time communications ease the burden on commanders as is intended or, ironically, will they have the opposite effect? Too much information and too little time could make for a whole host of difficulties that may dramatically shape the character of future war.

However, one aspect of the phenomenon of war remains absolute to this day and will as long as man uses war as an instrument of policy. The character and the nature of war may change but Clausewitz’s dictum that "the ultimate objective of war is to impose your will upon the enemy" will remain firm and unchallenged.

If war is in our future, what we will require from our leadership is, in Clausewitz’s fine phrase, "a far-reaching act of judgment" to appreciate the kind of war they are embarking on and not mistake it for something other than it is. Not as easy as it sounds, but in the long run probably the single most crucial consideration the state can make once a decision for war has been made.

Jeff Williams is a retired Wall Street type.

Thomas 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 ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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