The Great Revamp: 11 Trends Shaping Future Conflict


Our thinking about future wars is often held hostage by the tension between continuity and change. We tend to embrace the known past and continuity with it, sometimes too tightly. But thinking about future wars and preparing the Joint Force for success beyond today’s battles has to be based on more than extrapolating from history or clinging to the immutable realities of war. This is not a task for the faint of heart, as Colin Gray notes, “the further away from today one peers and tries to predict, the foggier the course of future events becomes.” Certainly we can benefit from deep immersion in history and its lessons, but we also must peek around the bend into the future. Since warfare often presents changes that are more than cosmetic, per Clausewitz, Joint Force developers must continuously balance their search for relevant lessons from the past while scanning for indicators of trends that will yield change in the future.

Some critical questions that guide this search are: Has war, either its nature or character, been altered in some way? How are our enemies adapting to contemporary conflict? What potential “game changers” are to be found in new forms of technology and how might we, or just as importantly, how might future adversaries, exploit them? What has changed over time, and what could change further? What is merely possible and what is probable? Which of the consequences of these changes are unacceptable to policymakers? In a world with rising powers, reduced resources, but also rising disorder, which kinds of warfare might the Joint Force have to be prepared for?

Numerous contributors have addressed this challenge here at War on the Rocks, including Dr. T. X. Hammes. He assessed the United States’ inordinate investment in exquisitely expensive programs in the face of the increasingly evident trend toward swarms of small and inexpensive systems using asymmetric tactics that will negate many of our high-end hardware investments. This should not, however, lead us to ignore technology altogether — that would be a serious mistake in light of the continuing diffusion of advanced technologies to both state and non-state actors. We have no reason to be complacent. As Shawn Brimley and Paul Scharre commented earlier this year, trends “in the democratization of violence will result in a future operating environment that is more contested, transparent, and lethal.”

These are but two of a number of shifts that can be deduced from past and present changes in the character of conflict. The following list of trends builds on the ideas of these scholars and updates an earlier assessment published more than five years ago.

1. From global commons to contested zones. We should not delude ourselves that our interests can be secured by merely dominating the global commons as argued by MIT Professor Barry Posen. While such dominance is critical to success, it is fundamentally an enabling function, not to be confused with a primary means of securing U.S. interests. For this we will need to dominate and maneuver within the contested zones, in the littorals and in the urbanized coasts where our interests and those of our partners are most at risk.

2. From open terrain to complex terrain. This is a derivative of the preceding trend, and it reflects a longstanding shift that has yet to be recognized in service program priorities. Recently, though, the U.S. Army has begun studying the unique requirements for operating in mega-cities and Dr. Dave Kilcullen has offered some insights on urban systems and power flows within cities. The future conflict environment will be more congested, cluttered and contested.

3. From a forward-stationed force with fixed/static bases to a dynamic presence posture. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey has noted, we are being driven by reduced force levels to accept more periodic deployments or what he called dynamic presence. This posture accepts some element of risk in regaining access as we react to incipient crises. Properly managed, we should be able to extend our influence and maximize our freedom of action.

4. From formal state allies to ad hoc partnerships. This necessitates an ability to form and manage highly fluid organizational arrangements and information sharing practices with multiple partners. From this follows the need to shift from a military-centric model of conflict planning and execution to more comprehensive approaches that are multi-agency enabled in order to bring in the appropriate skill sets. We will need stronger and more agile players in this age who are able to plan and conduct complex campaigns in contested domains, as suggested by leading practitioners like Ambassador Ron Neumann, Admiral Dennis Blair and Admiral Eric Olson.

This will require a revamping of our leadership development models. U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno has commented that such complex missions require extensive high-level interaction with local and international partners, so they need high-level leadership cadres. Taken with the other trends noted above, this suggests that senior leaders will need to spend their time very differently, shifting from “managing the kinetic fight” toward “shaping the interaction” through their personal contacts with senior partner leaders and other high-level actors. This will require military leaders to adapt our concept of the Profession of Arms from Harold Lasswell’s Manager of Violence to one that embraces a Full Spectrum Mindset that embraces a wider range of missions and the comprehensive use of all instruments of power.

5. From concentrated to more-distributed ground forces. Speaking down in Australia, the American strategist and educator Eliot Cohen suggested that greater numbers of boots on the ground do not mean as much as they once did. We agree that ground combat in contemporary conflict appears to be more disaggregated, but this may not result in a reduced requirement for ground troops. It is certainly true that a battalion may now cover the geographic space of a brigade with fires, sensors, and influence. Yet, while ground forces are spread out, they forces may be covering a far much larger area, or they may be assigned to longer missions requiring greater endurance which require more replacement units for subsequent rotations. Thus, the aggregate need for trained and ready ground forces may be greater today than in the past, not less. As the Chief of Staff of the Army commented, our Army can expect its operations to be diverse and distant, with simultaneous missions characterizing the future, rather than the traditional focus on one or two all-consuming major theater wars.

This shift will require us to adapt how we prepare leaders and develop small-unit excellence. Achieving small-unit domi­nance will demand a quantum leap in how tactical units are equipped, trained, led, and prepared — emotionally, psychologically, and intellectually. As retired Army Gen. Robert Scales has recommended, “The technological challenge is to provide mounted and dismounted small units greater survivability in the close fight while remaining effective.”

6. From mass/quantity to investing in quality and human aspects. While we may reduce our combat mass, we will have to preserve quality and investments in human capital, including language and cultural competence. As retired Col. Joe Celeski recently noted, a growing number of strategic thinkers are now tuned to the various aspects of the emerging concept of the human domain and the need to maneuver within and achieve effects within that domain. Maneuver is redefined within this concept as leveraging the human domain to put the enemy at a disadvantage. “Our ability to deliver truly strategic land power,” Odierno once said, “requires an improved understanding of the convergence of the human, cyber and geographic terrain in which we will operate.” Strategic results can only be achieved by influencing people, and doing so effectively. “Success depends as much on understanding the social and political fabric of the surroundings as it does on the ability to physically dominate them.” This should not be a cognitive challenge to any fans of Clausewitz given his emphasis on the clash of wills that is inherent to war.

7. From hierarchical adversaries to protean enemies. We have lost the luxury of dealing exclusively with neatly categorized (and relatively slow thinking) enemies such as the Red Army or Saddam’s military. The doctrines and capabilities of future enemies will be less predictable and more ambiguous. The context for many contingencies will be more ambiguous and incorporate aspects of political conflict and unconventional warfare. As Georgetown University’s David Maxwell has written in these pages, we should not be bringing any spoons to these gunfights. Future threats will be increasingly using unique hybrid options, a convergence of war modes. The convergence of conflict modes is far deeper than the recently rediscovered nexus of criminal and terrorist organizations. As noted by Jeff Becker, a leading futurist in the joint warfighting community, we face protean and novel combinations of threats from numerous kinds of opponents:

These threats frequently transcend neat or tidy categories, cutting across land, sea, air, space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum, while being distributed or reaching across broader geographic ranges. Each military service tends to have a well-defined range of responsibilities in which its competence and professionalism are unrivalled. Adversaries, unable to confront superior capabilities within service domains, are experimenting with combinations of overlapping capabilities capable of cutting across seams or boundaries between services, or avoid them altogether.

We must anticipate more experienced opponents capable of smart swarming and focused attacks on our critical systems and vulnerabilities. In the next generation of IEDs, the “I” will come to stand for “intelligent,” not “improvised.” In short, we can expect a steadily diminishing technical edge and constant challenges to our ability to adapt both equipment and tactics.

8. From combined arms to combined actions. Combined arms warfare (including heavy armor, artillery, and close air support) in urban scenarios remains part of our future. Some would like to revert back to standoff warfare, but per Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, we learned that “American forces must cope with the political and human dynamics of war in complex, uncertain environments. Wars like those in Afghanistan and Iraq cannot be waged remotely.” We face an era of complex conflicts, not clinical wars or what General McMaster has called the “the pipe dream of easy wars” fought from distance. Combined actions reflect the requirement to apply traditional military power with political, information, and reconstructive tools. Our maneuver forces must be able to discriminately apply lethal forces with stability resources and information activities. This will require us to gather a keen degree of discrimination with a wider range of lethal, non-lethal and non-military capabilities. Wars fought with partial commitment, by half measures and incrementalism, do not have a great track record. Some of these wars will have to be conducted as combined actions employing more than just kinetic means in order to achieve our desired political effects.

9. From silos of technological modernization to converging disruptive breakthroughs. Recent research at the National Defense University identifies critical technologies with great relevance to our future security. This work shows that increased danger lies not in parallel or singular applications, but in their combinations. Ongoing revolutions in biotech, robotics, information and cognitive sciences, nano and materials developments, and energy production will present an accelerating number of changes, in commercial and military applications. This is why efforts to define an offset strategy would be wise to avoid searching for a singular silver bullet, and instead embrace a range of competitions and combinations of technologies.

The greatest sources of innovation in the future will be from combinations of man and machine. Our current lead in unmanned systems has benefited from the IT revolution, and advances in materials sciences and power sources may extend our capabilities. But they still require skilled operators. Further, as Sam Brannen at the Center for Strategic and International Studies has noted, we do not face an exclusive choice between manned systems and drones, but a future pregnant with teaming and full integration of manned and unmanned systems. We may not be in danger of losing the robotics revolution, but we certainly will not have any monopoly on such systems.

10. From full-spectrum overmatch to competitive technological innovation. The barriers to entry for actors to develop sophisticated counters to U.S. technological overmatch are dropping. The sources and character of technological innovation has evolved, with more breakthroughs coming from outside the defense labs and outside the United States. The Department of Defense has chosen to preserve science and technology spending and prioritize modernization, but modernizing within existing paradigms for warfighting will not be sufficient to sustain the U.S. military’s advantage into the middle of the 21st century. Disruptive technologies under development will not only force new countermeasures, but fundamentally “change the rules of the game.” Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work, speaking at National Defense University, observed,

Our forces face the very real possibility of arriving in a future combat theater and finding themselves facing an arsenal of advanced, disruptive technologies that could turn our previous technological advantage on its head – where our armed forces no longer have uncontested theater access or unfettered operational freedom of maneuver.

Some implications coming from this trend are already evident: n many ways, the U.S. military’s dominance in traditional warfighting is a liability in terms of adapting to disruptive change, because bureaucratic interests within the U.S. defense establishment are heavily invested in a particular way of fighting and will likely be resistant to alternative approaches. Furthermore, adapting to these approaches will require experimentation, focused and competitively driven technology development, and the willingness to take risks, all of which have proved difficult for U.S. force developers in recent years.

11. From cost-generating to cost-imposing strategies. As suggested by Hammes, we are overly reliant on the wrong technical trend, and are generating costs upon ourselves instead of our opponent. One of the prime reasons for investing in the small, cheap and many — as opposed to the few and exquisitely expensive — is that it holds the promise of drastically increasing the costs imposed on an opponent to counter the larger numbers of tactical threats. We are currently on track to be the victim of our own approach, producing an ever-smaller joint force, unless we reverse the tide by changing our paradigm with a wide array of cost-imposing measures. These can range from simple deception measures and mobile basing, to complicated targeting by large-scale missile threats, to potential game changers like directed energy weapons that may make “saturation” attacks prohibitively expensive.

The foregoing discussion of trends scratches at the surface of many ongoing shifts in the operating environment and their potential implications. The future will always be a mystery, but one can gain insights by thinking about these trends in terms of scenarios and alternative futures. We should not be interested in predicting the future as much as understanding the potential contours of the contexts in which force will be applied and how future adversaries will fight. We are more comfortable with what we have experienced directly, but with the myriad combinations that will arise, victory in tomorrow’s wars will come from a deliberate program of discovery that seeks out and evaluates signposts and anticipates emerging developments. That effort cannot be devoted solely to U.S. preferences for war or an overemphasis on technology at the expense of the human dimension. We will not be successful in a complex world without exploiting our own combinations and hybrid solutions.


Frank Hoffman and Pat Garrett were both commissioned into the Marine Corps in 1978, and served as infantry officers and in various assignments at Marine Corps Headquarters and the Marine Corps Combat Development Command. Colonel Garrett retired in 2006 and is an independent security consultant based in the Pacific Northwest. Frank Hoffman retired from the Marines in 2001 and works as a national security analyst in Washington, D.C. These comments reflect the views of the authors and not the policy or position of the U.S. government.