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What Is It Good For?

Reflections of New America's 2016 Future of War Conference

New America and Arizona State University recently hosted the Second Annual Future of War Conference. As the demand for innovative tools and advantages grows, so must the collaboration needed to keep up with such a pace. All of these topics and more were debated throughout the day, and those in attendance left with much to ponder, including these five key considerations.

1. “Educate for the future, train for the current fight.” So said General Robert B. Neller, the commandant of the Marine Corps, in conversation with New America’s Peter W. Singer, about his strategy for moving his force forward The comment speaks not only to how the military needs to think and operate, but also to how those in the academic, policy, journalism, and private sector worlds must position themselves and their respective professions in the context of and preparation for future wars.

The current fight, as Gen. Neller put it and as the conference brought to light, is diverse. The United States is fighting or defending against combatants in nearly every domain. How will those fights be won? By involving, as former President George W. Bush might have said, a coalition of the willing and able. By creating and inventing, for example, unique ways of bringing criminals to justice or at the very least exposing their flaws and subjecting them to the court of public opinion.

2. Instagram and active duty don’t mix. Aric Toler and his colleagues at Bellingcat have done just that with their yearlong investigation into who brought down Malaysian Flight 17 over Ukraine in July 2014. Through the use of open source intelligence – video and photo postings and other forms of social media and online activity – available to anyone with a WiFi router, they were able to identify a brigade of Russian soldiers of the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade with a hard-to-dispute link to the weapon – a Buk M-1 system – that most likely took down the commercial airliner. The Russian soldiers’ ill-advised decisions to post actively about their doings while in Ukraine, a bevy of information that 15 years prior would not have existed, they exposed themselves and their operation to close inspection by journalists and citizens like Aric and the Bellingcat team. Because of the diversity of risks that exist in keeping confidential operations, well, confidential, and diversity of tools that everyday people have at their disposal to exploit those risks, today’s battlefield is not only complicated, but fragile too.

3. No nation is an island. That much was clear to anyone listening to Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, Director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, and panelist at this year’s conference. In discussing the need for social scientists and policymakers and members of the military to more effectively work together, Lt. Gen. McMaster touched on the importance of developing government-wide outcomes to prepare for future wars. Because, he said, the potential for great-power conflict is the highest it’s been in 70 years. This fits with Gen. Mark Milley’s contention that Russia, still viewed by many as having great-power capabilities, is currently the greatest strategic threat to the United States.

4. Affixing a firm end to a war may not make sense, but strategizing on how to end a war and what to do in its aftermath does. Because once the tankers roll out and the troops fly home, the citizens who are left must have a life and a country in which they can exist. As panelists on the “How Will Wars of the Future End? Lessons from Syria and beyond” discussed, the number of ongoing conflicts that seem to persist with no end in sight is hard to believe. One reason, as some of the panelists suggested, is the political will that, as yet, has not accompanied military might. If politicians and diplomats are not given the resources and lack the authority or desire to hold themselves and their counterparts accountable to the people they are effectively serving, unpredictability morphs into persistent uncertainty. Janine di Giovanni, Newsweek’s Middle East Editor, suggested that the distance from which those negotiating the ceasefire in Syria are from the on-ground realities severely limits their understanding of the conflict and thus impedes the efficacy of their work. Educating for the future of war must begin with a deep understanding of past wars, and a self-awareness of future leaders to account for and learn from the mistakes of those before them.

5. Uncertainty is the only certainty in the future of war. Sir Lawrence Freedman, Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London, offered what may have been the most-quoted (or, rather, most-tweeted) remark of the day: “War disappoints.” Rarely, if ever, does war accomplish what those involved in it intend. While some goals are met, most are either discarded or resolved to become more attainable given present circumstances. Plans, while ideologically important, very rarely become practically implementable. The distinction, as Sir Lawrence noted while speaking with New America’s Peter Bergen, between “strategy” and “plan” is critical. A plan starts with a beginning and concludes with an end. A strategy accepts that a “defined end” is a fool’s wish—but one who does not put forth ideas and constructs that could help to mitigate unforeseen occurrences is a fool.


Albert Ford is a program associate with the International Security and Fellows programs at New America.