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Future Fights

Planning for the Next War

RS1A3 Minirex, a light-armed combat robot developed by Russia’s KB Integrated Systems (KBIS), on display at the 2016 Interpolitex International State Security Exhibition held at the VDNKh Exhibition Centre. Dmitry Serebryakov/TASS (Photo by Dmitry SerebryakovTASS via Getty Images)

by Stephen Peter Rosen

The Future of War: A History. Lawrence Freedman. PublicAffairs, 2017. 400pp.

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has been known to quip that Washington’s predictions about its future wars have been one hundred percent right, zero percent of the time. In early 1950, officials said that the United States would not fight in Korea. In 1964, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson promised that he would not send American troops to fight wars in Asia. Iraq was not on any American’s list of enemies in 1990; after all, the United States had assisted that country in its war against Iran just a decade before. And few people—not even Khalid Sheik Mohammed, one of the architects of the 9/11 attacks—anticipated the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

So why bother thinking about the future of war at all? The answer, for better or worse, is that there is no other choice. If bureaucracies do not carefully consider possible future scenarios, they will make choices that merely reflect their implicit or explicit assumptions about what kinds of wars they will fight. Worse yet, they may simply carry on doing what they know how to do with no regard for the future. It is not enough to follow U.S. President Barack Obama’s injunction “Don’t do stupid shit.” Policymakers must be able to choose among alternative ideas.

In The Future of War, Lawrence Freedman, professor emeritus at King’s College London, comprehensively examines how people have done this in the past. But his analysis will disappoint those seeking practical advice. Although Freedman offers a useful corrective to current tendencies, he may have overlooked some of history’s more useful lessons.


To survey how Americans and Europeans have thought about the future of war over the past 150 years, Freedman consults many different sources, discussing fiction writers such as Tom Clancy, H. G. Wells, and Jules Verne and Vietnam War movies such as the John Wayne classic The Green Berets, in addition to the works of political scientists and military professionals, such as Charles Edward Callwell and B. H. Liddell Hart. He also covers related topics, such as civilian and military casualties, failed and fragile states, and the morality of humanitarian intervention, and provides potted histories of campaigns in the former Yugoslavia and Somalia, which are occasionally interesting even when not closely related to the subject at hand. This wide scope is commendable, as no discipline or mode of thought has a monopoly on insight. But the book’s breadth may also explain some small factual errors that detract from its authority. (Small Wars, the classic book by the military strategist Callwell, displays considerable respect for insurgents, not the imperial arrogance asserted by Freedman. Robot swarms do not require central control, as Freedman writes; they respond to cues from their environment and one another. The actor Peter Sellers said that his character Dr. Strangelove was modeled on the German American engineer Wernher von Braun, not the American strategist Herman Kahn, as Freedman has it.)

In setting up his main argument, Freedman approvingly quotes the political theorist Hannah Arendt: “Predictions of the future are never anything but projections of present automatic processes and procedures, that is, of occurrences that are likely to come to pass if men do not act and if nothing unexpected happens.” He goes on to survey the long history of this flawed thinking. After the seemingly decisive battles of the Franco-Prussian War and the Russo-Japanese War, theorists assumed that the outcomes of future wars would be determined the same way. Even figures such as the Polish banker Ivan (Jan) Bloch and the British politician Norman Angell, who saw in the early 1900s that sudden victories were no longer possible, predicted short conflicts, assuming that no one would tolerate bloody stalemates. After World War I, scholars anticipated the use of poison gas and economic warfare, but not the adoption of blitzkrieg. The Cold War nuclear standoff led some to argue that nuclear proliferation and deterrence would stabilize the global system, a prediction whose accuracy scholars are still debating. The collapse of the Soviet Union produced the famous “end of history” thesis, which heralded democratic peace and the permanent triumph of Western liberalism. The September 11 attacks led observers to hypothesize about religious wars of terror, neglecting the reemergence of great-power military competitions.

Freedman concludes that although there will be many efforts to portray the future of war, “if there is a lesson from this book it is that while many will deserve to be taken seriously, they should all be treated skeptically.” But perhaps historical study can offer more constructive wisdom. There are some alternative ways to think about the subject that have proved useful in the past. And examining the successes—not just the failures—might help strategists constructively plan for future wars.


If a country cannot say with confidence where or with whom it will fight, it still may be possible to narrow down how it will fight. There are some constants, but the character of war does change—sometimes quickly, but more usually slowly. For example, the political scientist Stephen Biddle has described how the increasing lethality of firepower has forced the steady dispersal of troops on the battlefield. This in turn has expanded the battlefield, gradually eliminating what had been rear guards and diminishing the time interval between the onset of war and attacks on the enemy’s heartland.

Identifying these kind of trends has historically helped countries prepare for future wars. During the tsarist era, the Russian military was not in the forefront of military modernization. But perhaps because they led a backward institution, Russian military thinkers were uniquely conscious of how others were changing. These Russians (and later Soviets) understood that revolutions in military affairs would regularly alter the pace and geographic extent of war. First came railroads and rifles; then internal combustion engines, radios, and airplanes; then missiles and nuclear weapons. Each advancement created a revolution that expanded the battlefield and compressed the time within which campaigns would occur. With the advent of railroads in the American Civil War, combat could cover continent-sized areas in a matter of days or weeks, not months or years. And later, aviation brought war to European cities before the defending armies were defeated.

According to the influential American strategist Andrew Marshall, an understanding of this pattern helped the Soviet Union identify the disruptive potential of digital information technology before its impact on war was widely recognized, in the wake of the 1990–91 Gulf War. The Soviet general staff had famously assessed that the antitank potential of American precision weapons was equal to that of tactical nuclear weapons, without the drawbacks. The recognition that the Soviet military industrial complex was unable to compete in the area of digital information processing led the general staff to urge Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to seek some sort of rapprochement with the West, which would enable the Soviets to catch up in an area that was critical to military competition.

Today, the diffusion of digital military technology has given not only the Chinese and the Russians but also the Iranians and their proxy Hezbollah the ability to reach out over long distances and strike at targets with precision. This poses a problem for the U.S. military, which will need to figure out how to fight its way into areas defended with precision weapons. Freedman neglects the implications of this diffusion of precision strike weapons, instead focusing on robots, drones, cyberwarfare, and hybrid warfare.


Still, an awareness of general trends in the character of war does not necessarily mean that a country will know how to prepare. For advice on this front, strategists might consult the work of Burton Klein, who tackled the question of military procurement during periods of uncertainty as an analyst at the RAND Corporation in the 1950s.

When World War II ended, the United States did not know who its friends or its enemies would be. The Cold War alliance structures had not yet emerged, and there was still hope for cooperative relations with the Soviet Union. Washington also did not know what to buy. Ballistic missiles had been used in World War II, but so had manned bombers and primitive cruise missiles. The United States had already developed atomic bombs, but now scientists suggested that superbombs might be possible.

After reflecting on the practices of the U.S. defense establishment during that period, Klein concluded that flexibility should be the principal goal of defense spending during uncertain times. In his eyes, there were two kinds of flexibility. The first could be obtained by investing in expensive, multipurpose forces that were not optimized for any one mission—for example, an aircraft carrier task force. The second kind of flexibility derived from information rather than capabilities. According to Klein, countries could get ahead of the curve by investigating different technologies and investing in prototypes of weapons: some might be failures, but others might be war winners. Such an approach would show strategists many different ways to face many different threats and allow them to iron out problems in advance.

During this period, the United States made prototypes of dozens of missiles and airplanes, many of which it did not buy. The Department of Defense also bought information about large-scale production for military purposes, so that if and when an enemy emerged, it could quickly build the necessary forces. Unfortunately, this approach—known as “industrial mobilization planning”—became a lost art in the United States after the emergence of large arsenals of thermonuclear weapons led policymakers to believe that it was no longer necessary.

View of Soviet ballistic missiles being transported along the route of a military parade through Red Square and past the GUM department store in Moscow, Soviet Union to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia on 7th November 1967. (Getty)


Freedman is right that it is always difficult to predict the future. But sometimes the problems facing a particular nation can be foreseen. Throughout history, successful preparations for war with a known enemy have fallen into roughly two camps: the Clausewitzian type and the Sun-tzu type. The Clausewitzian approach relies on general information about the enemy’s and one’s own capabilities. The Sun-tzu approach depends on a close and detailed study of the enemy.

In his classic book On War, Clausewitz gives examples of how the general characteristics of belligerents can be used to identity what he calls the enemy’s “centre of gravity.” The magnificent 2009 book by the historian Dominic Lieven, Russia Against Napoleon, illustrates the Clausewitzian approach in action. Lieven documents how a simple assessment of geography and national strengths and weaknesses allowed Russian officials to successfully prepare for war against an invading France in 1812. Napoleon was clearly a superior general, and his army was superior, as well—particularly in the use of cavalry and the integration of artillery fire and infantry movements. But Russia was big, and the tsar’s army had many more horses than Napoleon’s. If the war could be extended and protracted, France would run out of horses. And without cavalry, Napoleon would be blind on the battlefield, reducing his operational superiority.

Russia in 1812 is not the only case of a foreseeable war, as the historian Williamson Murray demonstrates in a 2014 book that he co-edited titled Successful Strategies. Murray suggests that strategists can reduce the problem of forecasting the character of a future war by focusing on what can be known with certainty about the enemy. For example, the Union had a demographic advantage over the Confederacy. In a war of attrition, it would win if the forces of the South were constantly engaged—hence General Ulysses S. Grant’s famous order to General George Meade: “Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.”

In some cases, it may be possible to go beyond an enemy’s obvious characteristics to understand its plans and thwart them even before the war begins. As Sun-tzu observed, the acme of strategy is to defeat the enemy’s strategy. Of course, such an approach requires a detailed understanding of or intelligence about the enemy’s plans, which is not always possible. Still, it has been successfully executed in the recent past. The military analyst Peter Swartz has written about how a careful reading of Soviet naval doctrine and the exploitation of still classified intelligence sources showed the U.S. Navy that it had completely misunderstood how the Soviet navy planned to fight a submarine war. A corrected understanding helped the U.S. Navy develop a new strategy. Instead of using U.S. attack submarines to protect American transatlantic convoys from Soviet submarines, the Americans began to use their attack submarines to threaten Soviet ballistic missile submarines, in order to keep the Soviet navy on the defensive. In the event of war, Washington planned to force the Soviet attack submarines to stay close to home instead of going out to sink American convoys. This strategy worked—the threat posed by American attack submarines led the Soviet navy to hold their ballistic missile submarines close to port, in “bastions,” where they would be protected by Soviet attack submarines.


The United States is currently experiencing another period of uncertainty. What is the greatest threat to American security today? China? Russia? Islamist extremism? Officials and experts disagree. Are nuclear weapons obsolete or the wave of the future? Again, reasonable experts disagree. But acknowledging the unknowns does not mean that strategic policymaking is impossible.

As a practical matter, the United States should practice the arts of planning just discussed. If general trends in the character of war persist, they will greatly constrain the ability of the United States to intervene militarily at intercontinental distances, at least in the way Washington has become accustomed to doing. As other states gain the ability to conduct precision strikes, building up the fixed logistical bases and resources necessary for industrial-era war in the theater of operations will no longer be possible.

The United States should also prioritize funding research and development and focus on building a smaller military with higher-quality personnel, soldiers who are able to adapt rapidly to changing conditions. Finally, it should revive the art of industrial mobilization planning, so that when threats become better defined, the United States can make the best use of its still formidable production capabilities. And since the industrial age is over, military mobilization will need to involve newly dominant production technologies, such as chip fabrication and 3-D printing.

Freedman may be right that a fixation on the recent past makes mispredicting hard to avoid. But even so, considering history can still help officials usefully plan for a wide range of future contingencies.

This article was originally published in the March/April 2018 issue of Foreign Affairs Magazine and on ForeignAffairs.com.

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