by Ed Stacey
On 15 July 2020, Ed Stacey sat down with Franz-Stefan Gady to discuss the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ (IISS) upcoming future warfighting project. After introducing this new piece of work, Franz-Stefan offers some thoughts on the changing nature of warfare, the roles that emerging technologies and the nascent domains of space and cyber might play in future conflicts, and the need to move away from purely technological discussions about future warfighting.
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ES: What is the IISS future warfighting project?
FG: The future warfighting project has just recently kicked off and looks at how great and medium-sized powers would fight high-intensity wars amongst peer and near-peer adversaries in the 2030s. So, what sort of capabilities will militaries need to develop over the next couple of decades in order to deal with specific operational problems in future warfighting scenarios? And how will these powers integrate emerging cyber and space strategies into existing, more classically conceived, options for kinetic and cognitive warfare?
The project explores future warfighting through three dimensions: space and cyber, kinetic and cognitive. Space and cyber refer to the application of primarily offensive cyber capabilities, supported by space assets, in cyberspace (including electronic warfare operations). Kinetic pertains to the use of conventional and nuclear weapons systems and the ‘traditional’ domains of air, land and sea. While the cognitive dimension includes an examination, not only of the use of information warfare but also the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning into military hardware to gain information dominance at the strategic level and to influence decision-making at both the civilian and military level.
It is a fairly broad topic, and notably, we take technology as a starting point. By this, I am referring to the fact that a lot of future warfare discussions focus mostly on technological capabilities and their impact on warfighting. Yet I believe that such capabilities in themselves are fairly agnostic when it comes to triggering change. You can only really trigger change when you merge technological capabilities with new tactics, the right operational concepts and the right organisational structure.
So, the project takes technology as the starting point of a much deeper analysis of these new ideas. In doing so, we are trying to fill a gap that not many other institutions talking about future warfighting are looking at.
ES: What is your methodology for the project?
FG: As I mentioned, we are principally looking at future warfighting through three dimensions: space and cyber, kinetic and cognitive. We use these three dimensions to conduct comparative case studies on how various countries are thinking about future warfighting; and to divide up the literature, all the documents and interviews, and the military capabilities.
The first part of the project looks mostly at how China, Russia and the US would fight a high-intensity war after a breakdown of conventional deterrence. So not really grey-zone scenarios or hybrid warfare (though these are relevant) but rather high-intensity combat between great powers, which we have not really seen for many decades.
ES: What are your main findings so far?
FG: It is very early on, and I am hesitant to draw firm conclusions. But one of my hypotheses is that these three dimensions will increasingly merge into one over the next decade, and simultaneously, we will see a rebalance of conventional kinetic operations vis-à-vis cyber, space and information operations in any high-intensity great power war scenario. At the operational level, this is a result of the presumptive Chinese emphasis on system destruction warfare, the US attempt to move towards decision-centric manoeuvre warfare and the Russian push towards new-generation warfare.
All three forms of warfare attempt to move away from an attrition-centric approach, that emphasises the kinetic annihilation of an adversary’s forces, in favour of an evolving model of dislocation and disruption, that entails undermining an adversary’s battle network in all three dimensions. In this new form of network-centric warfare, you do not try to destroy your enemy and its main force; instead, you try to disable its networks and compromise its ability to fight.
A second hypothesis is that all three great powers will be increasingly capable of fielding precision-strike capabilities in all three dimensions in the 2030s. This will culminate in the establishment of a multi-dimension precision-strike regime, defined by the ability of a great power to conduct precision-strikes in the kinetic, cyber, space and cognitive dimensions against platforms, networks and humans at all ranges and in all warfighting domains.
And these two hypotheses draw attention to a third, which is that armed forces have a cultural problem in being overly focused on kinetic capabilities. My question would be, is this going to be a disadvantage for militaries in the future, as we move from a platform-centric approach to a more network-centric approach? (By platforms I mean tanks, ships, missiles and so on, or how we usually assess the military capabilities of a country – and I think these sorts of assessments are going to become less relevant in the future.)
There is a lot of resistance to this shift. For example, I have just spent some time looking at what is happening in the US, and the US Congress, interest groups and people within the Department of Defense are hesitant to give up certain capabilities that might no longer work in future warfighting scenarios, so-called legacy platforms. It is a huge problem. How exactly can you phase out legacy platforms and what are you going to replace those platforms with?
For instance, are we really going to have manned aircraft in 20 to 30 years from now? The answer is yes, but maybe we need to have a new role for manned aircraft. And maybe we are going to have more autonomous systems operating in the battlespace. What is the role of these new armed platforms? Are they going to be flying command and control centres, controlling autonomous swarms in the air or on the ground or in the oceans?
This question of integration is going to be crucial. You are still going to have legacy platforms 20 years down the road: you are still going to have the F-35 and maybe the F-15; you are still going to have most of the ships that you see in navies today – the aircraft carriers, the destroyers and manned submarines. But how do you integrate these capabilities with new platforms that are being developed? And by integrating, I mean how do you come up with a good operational concept to conduct a successful campaign in the future against a potential peer or near-peer adversary?
You cannot really talk about future warfighting unless you start off with a problem statement. Essentially, what is the operational environment you are envisioning in the future? And from there you try to come up with the kind of force structure you need, the kind of operational concepts you need and then also doctrine (how you train your force to fight in these future conflicts). And, of course, you need the resources and the strategy that comes along with all of this. So, it is a long, long process – and that is what we are trying to shed some light on.
It is a huge problem. How exactly can you phase out legacy platforms and what are you going to replace those platforms with?
ES: Which domain, if any, will be the most important in future warfighting? And does any domain have revolutionary potential?
FG: As I said, I think a key question behind modernisation efforts in China, the US and Russia (and we will also look at medium-sized powers, such as the UK, Germany and Japan – states that have strong military capabilities and relatively high defence budgets) is how they integrate these different capabilities. Ultimately, there are going to be trade-offs. And countries like China, Russia and the US – mostly China and the US, but its partially true for Russia – can handle these trade-offs better than smaller powers because they have the resources to invest in both legacy platforms and new capabilities and create a better force structure. Most other militaries will not have the money to do both, so they have to be very careful about where and what they spend their money on.
This makes your question a pertinent one, in the sense that states do need to prioritise funding when it comes to these capabilities. You can have all the operational concepts in the world and the doctrine, but if you do not have the capability then it just does not work – it is impossible to become an effective warfighting force.
So, when we talk about a new age of network-centric warfare, we are really talking about the creation of what you would call a military Internet of Things (IoT). That is a virtual and kinetic kill chain that creates networks that link the sensor to the shooter in a triangular relationship, or a ‘system of systems’. The sensor identifies the target and then through a network relays that information to the shooter, whether a manned aircraft, a missile or an offensive cyber capability. And the idea behind this is that a military commander would much faster be able to identify a target on a sensor and then through the military IoT direct fire, whether virtual or kinetic strikes, to degrade the target or destroy it.
Obviously, this opens up new attack vectors in cyberspace. And so, you cannot really implement any of these concepts properly unless you have extremely strong cyber defences, and cyber defence almost always entails offensive cyber capabilities.
I think an important technological capability to develop and hone in the future will be AI-enabled cyber defensive and offensive capabilities. When we think about the first officially AI-enabled weapons platform, it is probably going to be an offensive cyber weapon because they are easier to deploy than, let us say, a lethal autonomous weapon system like an autonomous tank or missile. This is because of all the risks that are still involved and the fundamental lack of trust in these platforms unless you test them at great length.
So, to a certain degree, the foundational element of network-centric warfare will be strong cyber defences and, ultimately, AI-enabled cyber defence capabilities. This will entail advances in AI and cyber defence. But if you do not have these, your network is going to be immensely vulnerable and attacks from the electromagnetic spectrum could turn the lights off, so to speak, of any of your networks. At the same time, however, you cannot of course neglect any other capabilities or domains.
In terms of revolutionary new capabilities that are going to fundamentally change the future of warfare, I do not think you will find these in hypersonics, for instance, because they just improve existing capabilities – they will be evolutionary. But when it comes to AI-enabled cyber capabilities, I think these have revolutionary potential.
I have to caveat this, though, by noting that it is very difficult to assess these capabilities because we have not seen high-intensity combat between great powers in which they have been deployed. And this is true of even strategic offensive cyber weapons, let alone AI-enabled cyber weapons. One scholar once called it the ‘fog of peace’, and we really do operate in a fog of peace when it comes to deliberations about future warfighting.
In terms of historical context, we are very much like where we were in the 1920s and 30s when it came to airpower. Because in the First World War you had airpower capabilities but by no means did airpower reach its full potential. It took the Second World War and the aerial campaigns of the Allies and the Axis powers to see whether some of those propositions in the 1920s and 30s turned out to be true.
A lot people said that airpower was going to be the only necessary military capability in future wars; that you could essentially win any future conflict with bombers and fighter aircraft, and that you would not need land forces or sea forces anymore – that airpower makes everything obsolete. That turned out to be untrue. And then there were the others who said: ‘Oh, well, airpower is completely useless; you do not really need strategic bombing capabilities; we only use aircraft for tactical purposes, like reconnaissance and tactical strikes’. And that also turned out to be untrue. At the end of the day, airpower had a big impact but it was, I think, by no means the decisive factor in the Allies’ victory.
So, we are in a similar situation in the sense that there will be extreme positions when it comes to network-centric warfare and all of these new capabilities, particularly cyber capabilities. At the end of the day, the truth will also probably be somewhere in-between the two extremes: one side saying that cyber is not going to be that important, that it is really just an auxiliary to other capabilities, and then the other, saying that cyber is going to be a revolutionary capability.
The difference, though – and I think why cyber has the potential to be more important than airpower, for example, or even nuclear weapons – is that cyber permeates all other dimensions and warfighting domains. It really is a foundational element of warfighting. Without strong cyber capabilities today, you cannot conduct conventional military operations because every system that is in a tank or an aircraft or a ship – all command and control systems – are immensely vulnerable to cyber-attacks. Any idea of new warfighting has to take that into account.
So, I would say cyber and AI-enabled cyber capabilities probably have the biggest potential to revolutionise future warfighting. Of course, there are other capabilities of note as well. But cyber is slightly underestimated by a lot of military planners and defence departments, despite probably having the biggest potential.
ES: You note the revolutionary potential of AI-enabled cyber capabilities. More generally, do you think AI as a technology is a game-changer or is it overhyped? And is an AI arms race inevitable or perhaps already even happening?
FG: I generally do not like the idea that there is an arms race in AI happening. Firstly, AI is not a weapon system or a military capability per se: it is a general-purpose technology, as some scholars have pointed out. And so, we should not consider AI in isolation but instead how this technology might be combined with weapon systems.
In the short term, I do not foresee revolutionary changes when it comes to AI-enabled capabilities. But in the long-term, it is definitely possible.
In the short-term, what we are going to see is an accelerated pace of military operations from AI first arriving in non-lethal roles. And this is already underway when it comes to intelligence collection and analysis, support elements for command and control, decision-making support, and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities – where I see huge potential for AI, such as in AI-enabled satellites.
It is a hugely important field, and AI does have the potential – just like the combustion engine 100 years ago – to revolutionise warfare. But I would not look at it in isolation, and that is an important point to note about discussions around future military technological capabilities in general. What people usually get wrong is not so much predicting a particular technology but rather how that technology will combine with the wider defence architecture to field an effective weapon system.
If you think about the Second World War, for example, you had radio communications, the combustion engine, advances in armour protection, as well as in the ballistics and mechanics of high-velocity guns. But it was only through merging all of these new capabilities that we created the tank – in other words, only in combination did they create a ‘revolutionary’ weapons platform. Yet even that alone did not do that much. All of the Western militaries had tanks and fairly advanced tanks that were relatively equal in terms of technical capabilities. The true change came when the Germans devised a revolutionary operational concept that later on was adapted to doctrine (operational concepts being the precursors to doctrine). By combing all of these technological developments with a revolutionary approach to warfighting, the Germans enabled not a revolution in military affairs but a decisive victory in the battlespace.
In the short-term, what we are going to see is an accelerated pace of military operations from AI first arriving in non-lethal roles.
So, I guess the major point here is that technology alone is not going to determine the character of future wars. It is really as much, and if not more, about how you change your organisational structures, adopt doctrine and so on. And within this, there is the key question of how you integrate all of these new platforms and approaches into an overall force structure that gives you the most capabilities to meet future operational problems.
To return to your question, I guess we have to ask: firstly, what are the most important technologies that AI could be combined with? Secondly, what would be the best operational concepts and doctrine to exploit the full potential of these newly combined technological capabilities? And thirdly, what sort of organisational structure and force posture does your military need to execute missions that exploit the full potential of these new capabilities?
ES: Thinking about other technologies, how significant is it that China is overtaking, or perceived to be overtaking, the US in various areas of research on quantum technology? In the context of the tech war too, is it significant that China is making ground in this space?
FG: Yes, I think so. Quantum technology is an interesting one because we are still probably many years away from fielding military capabilities when it comes to quantum radars or quantum sonar. There is also a debate over whether it will have any impact at all in the military domain. And so, I am hesitant to make any predictions about quantum technological capabilities and their impact.
To answer your point about competition between the US and China, as I mentioned earlier with regards to AI, I just do not see all of these tech races as really being tech races. Firstly, there is a lot of cooperation between the US and China in many fields, and there is more collaboration than you would think in developing these emerging technologies. Secondly, you have to question whether these technologies will actually have a significant impact on the modern battlespace and to what degree they will revolutionise future warfighting.
Just to illustrate why I always try to move away from strictly technological discussions when we talk about future conflict. My approach to military power is based on what the defence analyst Stephen Biddle called the ‘modern system’ of force employment. That is, military power is based, on the one hand, on combined arms operations that increase the effects of precision-guided munitions (what I call the multi-dimension precision-strike regime), whilst on the other, cover and concealment and the dispersion of your forces, for example through stealth technology or the suppression of ISR capabilities, simultaneously offer protection from an adversary’s precision-strike capability.
The aim of combined arms operations is to integrate different services, capabilities and platforms to achieve a decisive effect in the battlespace. In the modern battlespace, the emergence of precision-guided munitions requires militaries to conceal their forces because, in order to conduct these operations successfully, usually you need to be able to mass your forces to achieve a breakthrough on the frontline.
And combined arms operations are really difficult to pull off. Combining and coordinating capabilities and strikes from land forces, naval forces and air forces to achieve some sort of effect and a breakthrough in the battlespace is immensely difficult – and something only a few militaries have been capable of achieving.
To take the example of the first Gulf War, there was a decisive victory by the US and her allies, but this was not just down to superior technologies: it was technology integrated with combined arms operations, and the ability to hide forces and conceal movements, that achieved this one-sided victory. The other side, Saddam Hussain, also had a powerful military and fairly advanced technological capabilities (although not as powerful or advanced as the US). But it was impossible for him to achieve meaningful effects in the battlespace because, on the one hand, he failed to hide his forces from precision strikes, and on the other, to conduct combined arms operations to counter the US and her allies.
Saddam probably could have conducted some form of combined arms operations against elements of US ground forces, by using artillery strikes in combination with tanks, infantry and air strikes. But he failed to coordinate his attacks and successfully manoeuvre his forces. These are the key tenants of any military these days, and the ability of a military to execute these operations is currently the decisive factor in warfighting.
Revolutionary change in the future battlespace is most likely to happen if these warfighting methods are made ineffective by new technological capabilities. Ones that make cover, concealment and dispersion through camouflage or stealth technology, as well as combined arms operations in general, obsolete. That, in essence, are capable of detecting every move on the battlefield and provide complete situational awareness. To date, no such technological capability exists – but I accept that may change in the coming decades.
When it comes to stuff like AI-enabled ISR capabilities or quantum radar and quantum sonar, if these capabilities can facilitate that sort of situational awareness then you might have a revolutionary technology on your hands. Until such a technology exists, however, combined arms operations, or multi-domain operations, will remain the most important factor when it comes to military power.
ES: And finally, how important is space going to be as a future warfighting domain?
FG: New space-based capabilities are crucial to how all major military powers exercise command and control over their forces. They also directly link to the ability to conduct offensive cyber operations and campaigns, which will be a – and if not the – crucial component in any future military campaign. For one thing, space and cyber permeate all other war-fighting domains and so are the new centre of gravity for high-intensity military operations.
Whoever dominates space will have massive advantages in the cyber domain, and without space capabilities, you are essentially not capable of conducting modern military operations. So, all major military powers have been working to deny potential adversaries the use of these capabilities, which until recently basically meant GPS type satellites.
China and Russia have recognised the US is particularly vulnerable when it comes to space.
No longer in the future, however, are you going to have just a handful of GPS satellites you depend on for ISR capabilities, targeting, early warning detection systems and so on. A lot of current discussions in the US are about making ISR architecture less reliant on space capabilities and a desire to diversify and build more resilient space architecture. As a result, we will see a proliferation of smaller, cheaper, low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites in order to create more redundancy in capabilities and to increase the resilience of space architecture and battle networks.
Networks of hundreds to thousands of smaller, more expendable LEO satellites are much harder to disrupt than larger GPS-type satellites. LEO satellites, such as the ones to be developed by OneWeb in the UK, can increase situational awareness in the battlespace, for example by transmitting high-resolution, real-time video directly into the cockpit of military aircraft, such as the F-35, and decrease the reliance on GPS for these tasks. They could also be used to monitor the activities of adversaries and in developments in areas such as optical clocks, which are necessary for accurate positioning and enable high-precision, reliable navigation (and as a result precision-strikes) without the limitations of GPS systems.
China and Russia have recognised the US is particularly vulnerable when it comes to space. They have tested anti-satellite weapons and have been developing cyber capabilities to degrade and disrupt and manipulate satellites. Having said that, the US will continue to dominate the space domain for the foreseeable future.
So, it is going to be a hugely important warfighting domain because it links to other key capabilities: it is very difficult to pull off precision-strikes without space assets, and it is very difficult to conduct offensive cyber operations without space-based capabilities. And it is already a very important domain, which is why countries are working to build more resilient space architectures and, at the same time, looking at alternatives to existing platforms.
It is extremely difficult, though, to achieve uncontested superiority in space because of the nature of the domain – which makes assets immensely vulnerable to all sorts military operations, whether kinetic strikes, such as anti-satellite weapons, cyber-attacks or electronic warfare. And there is a ‘nuclear’ option in space too: a series of kinetic strikes against satellites causing massive debris, which would knock out a large percentage of existing space-satellite architecture.
Ed Stacey is an MA Intelligence and International Security student at King’s College London and a Student Ambassador for the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). The #IISStudent Ambassador programme connects students interested in global security, political risk and military conflict with the Institute’s work and researchers.
Franz-Stefan Gady is a Research Fellow at the IISS focused on future conflict and the future of war. Prior to joining the IISS, he held various positions at the EastWest Institute, the Project on National Security Reform and the National Defense University, conducting field research in Afghanistan and Iraq, and also reported from a wide range of countries and conflict zones as a journalist.