Today, warfare is characterized by low-intensity conflicts, nuclear deterrence, and emergent cyber conflicts, yet the United States military must engage in all three while simultaneously remaining prepared for high-intensity conflicts. For the U.S., the main character of conflict post-World War II has been in limited warfare. For example, the U.S. has not committed all its resources, such as nuclear weapons, into any specific conflict because a total war with a nuclear country would obliterate entire populations. The modern era has also seen the rise of compelling and effective non-state actors who have become influential by using social media to organize and resource their activities.
As a global superpower, the United States is forced to confront the entire spectrum of conflict. The U.S. government and the American people promote a free and democratic way of life, yet attract ever-increasing hostility as a result of extensive economic and military concerns abroad. In order to protect its interests, the U.S. government may need to engage in conflict as matter of policy. As the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz noted, “war is the continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means.” Where diplomatic, informational and economic solutions have been exhausted, when leveraged, warfare remains a legitimate option that will need to be clearly articulated to the American public.
The U.S. will need to continue to define the legal, moral, and social dimensions of removing the individual from the battlefield as technological capabilities improve.
The reality of limited warfare reflects that in today’s very complex environment, policy must continuously inform the warriors on the ground. Well-informed commanders and soldiers reduce the margin for catastrophic errors that sway public opinion. The concept of the “strategic corporal” that can influence public opinion and operations through his/her own personal comments and actions emphasizes an aspect of Clausewitz’s maxim. Seemingly insignificant actions of a single soldier can aggregate and upend strategy and policy in record time.
The range of operations that make up low-intensity conflict includes counter-insurgencies, counter-terrorism, countering transnational organized crime, and sometimes humanitarian assistance efforts. Low-intensity conflicts most easily reflect the development of technologies and intelligence capabilities that no longer necessitate the need for total war scenarios. In low-intensity conflict, victory is generally sought through minimal and efficient use of force. It is in this arena that non-state actors have begun to emerge as influential participants by leveraging social media to have outsized effects relative to their resources. For instance, the Islamic State demonstrates the capacity for an obscure regional organization to leverage its technologically-savvy human capital to recruit globally for their local conflict and incite lone-wolf attacks. In fighting limited wars, policy decisions should seek to clarify objectives for domestic audiences by clearly communicating which objectives will entail military force, ultimately looking to achieve success without committing all of the nation’s resources to the conflict. The advent of improved air power and the introduction of drones enhances a nation’s abilities to reach further while minimizing casualties. The U.S. is at the forefront of these technologies and will need to continue to define the legal, moral, and social dimensions of removing the individual from the battlefield as capabilities improve. Questions of legitimacy in victories and possible dissociation between the use of force and its impact in the cost of lives will resurface just as they did after the use of nuclear weapons.
The U.S. and Soviet Union defined the Cold War era with a nuclear arms race. Since then several other major world powers have developed nuclear weapons as a last line of defense. The continued proliferation of nuclear weapons by nation-states has the benefit of pressuring interested nations to adhere to strict security and safety practices, however it also increases the likelihood of expanded threats by non-state actors acquiring black-market weapons-grade resources to use as tools for terrorism. Future strategies will include continued dialogue that has existed since the inception of the nuclear weapons: How many nuclear weapons are enough to protect one’s own nation? More importantly, however, will be how well do all nations with nuclear capabilities police each other, and how well might they prevent an attack by non-state actors that have less vested interests in maintaining the status quo.
Future political and military strategy considerations will need to identify the levels of response for different types of attacks.
Cyber warfare marks a new dimension that seems to follow the same set of characteristics as low-intensity conflicts, where minimal effort is used for maximum effect. However, it is not fully defined in terms of implications. Examples of cyber warfare, such as the North Korean attack on Sony and purported Russian attack on the Ukrainian electrical grid, highlight that nation-states are willing to engage in cyber-attacks because there are reduced, or zero, repercussions. The incursions into the U.S. and European elections provide evidence of cyber utility in shaping political outcomes with minimal or without physical force. Currently, it does not appear that nation-states are willing to enter into kinetic warfare over cyber-attacks, but these attacks will play increasingly important roles in the conduct of warfare in general. Future political and military strategy considerations will need to identify the levels of response for different types of attacks. How do we determine that a cyber-attack resulted in the loss of life, and would such a result warrant a military response, either in kind or with conventional weapons? Furthermore, does the loss of life by cyber-attack constitute the only threshold for a kinetic response? The international community needs to reach some consensus and craft norms and standards to help prevent full-scale cyber conflict that possibly spills over into other domains.
The U.S. military must maintain its technical and technological superiority to prepare for the prospect of high-intensity conflict. Such preparation is sometimes considered an obsolete objective. However, states such as Russia and China still retain –– and, in many areas, are increasing –– their capacity to conduct warfare at that scale. Strategy considerations include force planning for such scenarios. How much of the force needs to be active versus reserve? What percentage should be trained for high-intensity conflicts versus low-intensity conflicts? Can segments of the force be trained to conduct both high-intensity and low-intensity conflict while still deploying to ongoing contingency operations?
The most complex challenges that will emerge in the future, and which will pose the greatest challenge to the U.S., are the very technologies which are being developed today, such as remotely-piloted, cyber, and energy weapons.
The most complex challenges that will emerge in the future, and which will pose the greatest challenge to the U.S., are the very technologies which are being developed today, such as remotely-piloted, cyber, and energy weapons. Their effectiveness in low-intensity conflicts are defining their initial capabilities. Technological advancements complicate generally accepted and understood views of how warfare is conducted. Failing to consider them properly can leave one side at a disadvantage in any given conflict. Advancements in remotely-piloted weapons will minimize the loss of life and possibly increase the propensity to use force. The rise of cyber warfare in terms of a capability that can inflict damage and loss of life without sustaining your own casualties is an increasing planning factor. The ability to disrupt and even cause physical loss of life through the conduct of cyber warfare will pose a significant challenge to nations trying to decide whether to retaliate. It is very difficult to directly attribute responsible parties to an attack without revealing one’s own capacities. The development of energy weapons systems will increase the lethality and non-lethality of weapons and redefine how often and willingly they can and should be used. It remains crucial for the U.S. to ensure the appropriate resources are matched to corresponding threats and policy communicates this appropriately. As the world becomes smaller through technological advancements and the conduct of war becomes blurred by non-state actors and automation, Clausewitz’s instrumental view of war as the continuation of policy through other means is a salient reminder that success cannot be achieved without the proper alignment of strategy to policy.
Vincent Dueñas is a U.S. Army Officer and is an Associate Member of the Military Writers Guild. The views expressed are the author's alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: "Future Site of Low-Intensity Conflict" (Creative Commons: Rubin Starset)
 Clausewitz, Carl Von, Michael Howard, and Peter Paret, On War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 610.