Sunday, November 10, 2013


Not so long ago soldiers lined up in a mass and blasted away at one another until one line finally broke.

Today any soldier who exposes himself on a battle-field risks getting shot.

This is one of the revolutions in warfare that will make the next war, again, so different from the last.

I put some thoughts together on this concept for the Canberra Times . . .


It’s been 68 years since World War Two ended in the sudden, fierce glow of the second atomic bomb. Since that moment we’ve become accustomed to the relative stability of a world where conflict between the superpowers has seemed unthinkable. But the sleeping demons have again begun to stir.

New ways of thinking about war are destabilising the balance of terror. For the first time in many decades we must again confront the very real possibility of devastating conflict. The danger of conflict is being exacerbated by new technology. This time it’s not visions of Soviet armoured divisions ploughing through the Fulda Gap in Germany that trouble the dreams of strategists, but new weapons that have begun to utterly destabilise the old established order.

The very geography of Asia – and particularly the sea-lanes separating the major combatants – increases the possibility of war. Naval combat has a qualitative difference to fighting on land. During the Falkland’s conflict the British and Argentine forces effectively quarantined most of the killing to an exclusion zone around the islands. By limiting the war to a specific area (although the UK did breach this, attacking planes and ships destined for the fighting sector), combat became possible because it was effectively limited. The question is; are similar factors encouraging a dynamic propelling us towards another war.

China appears increasingly ready to assert territorial demands that have, until recently, remained dormant. Recently, its rhetoric has become increasingly strident and accompanied by physical occupation of territory. The possibility of conflict over something stupid is increasing. China’s particularly exercised about asserting its right to sovereignty over barren rocks; the so-called second island chain running from the South China Sea north to Japan.

The dispute’s ostensibly about oil reserves on the seabed and fishing rights. But it’s also about China’s rightful place in the world and how it will deal with its neighbours. The problem is the danger of an unintentional, accidental clash suddenly escalating into a shooting war is mounting daily.

Exacerbating this issue is the perceived military advantage accruing a first strike. The amazing precision of missiles offers massive rewards to the side that gets its shots off first. An enemy fleet can be destroyed before it’s even aware it’s in danger.

The US fleet is based around aircraft carriers. These launch the jets that dominate the waters and are protected, in turn, by interlocking belts of air-defence. Now the Chinese have developed A2/AD (Anti-access, area denial) capabilities. Swarms of missiles harness the rules of probability. America’s defences are good, but suppressing every assault is like attempting to stop the rain. The only way the US can combat such attacks is by getting in first or risking an attack on mainland China where the missiles are based, attempting to destroy them before they’re launched. This represents a particularly dangerous option.

Any slight miscalculation could be disastrous, because timing would become critical. Military requirements (the need to maintain conventional superiority) enter into what should be discrete, political, calculations. Similar issues occurred in World War One.

Back then, the German generals insisted they needed to invade Belgium. This was, they insisted, the only way they could defeat France before the massive Russian armies rolled over their forces in the East. The railway timetable took on the force of law; the soldiers launched their forces on their inexorable course towards destruction and Belgium was invaded. This was a cataclysmic blunder because the British Empire had, in turn, guaranteed that country’s neutrality. Before long a minor dispute over the Balkans had become a world conflict that was to kill millions. Whenever the tactical advantage is seen to lie with the aggressor, the risk of war increases exponentially. Nobody wants to wait until they’re hit before firing back.

China’s not about to disarm. It thinks the swarms of missiles like its DF-21’s have transformed the balance of power – particularly in the contested seas where US carrier fleets once sailed unchallenged. This is an anti-ship ballistic missile dubbed the “carrier killer”. For decades, nuclear weapons made warfare too horrific to contemplate but now that stasis looks as if it’s being overturned in the western Pacific.

These dynamics have been in play for years. In 2009 a RAND study modelling conflict in the Taiwan Straits sounded an early warning of the changing military balance. The rhetoric of the Chinese military has been hardening. US warnings of retaliation don’t cut it. As one Chinese general said in the early ‘90’s, “you care a lot more about Los Angeles than Taipei”. 

The global balance of power is being re-written – and not in America’s interests. The difficulty is that we won’t have any idea about what effect these disruptive new technologies will actually have on the balance of power until they’re used. Uncertainty is another danger.

The one constant in war has been surprise. Every war is different – either the sudden emergence of new weapons or radical new tactics for their use transform conflict. There’s no reason to suspect the next war will be any different.


  1. In a Colonel Blimpish sort of way you've hit the issue on the head ("but seriously folks") technology and tactics change in each new war. While a nuclear war is unlikely, the development of more lethal; conventional weapons and then correspondingly counter-measures constantly shifts the ebb and flow of strategic advantage. Navies, are on the whole, nowadays simply aquatic missile platforms despite their love of all manner of other weaponry and the latest update of old technology, naval gunnery.

  2. That's a great line; "simply aquatic missile platforms despite their love of all manner of other weaponry and the latest update of old technology, naval gunnery". I'll use it!

  3. Lol, remember the convention of attribution of sources ;-)