Our Great War Synthesis

February 4, 2015

For special access to experts and other members of the national security community, check out the new War on the Rocks membership.

Remember when the next war started? Now you do.

If we were to describe one of the main missions of the Atlantic Council’s Art of Future Warfare project, it would be using stories to create those “Remember when?” moments about events that have yet to happen. About characters who have yet to change the course of history. Places that will be marked forever as the spot where stone and steel met to spark a global conflagration. Or the information void into which we will peer, seeking any sign at all that the human catastrophe of the next “Great War” might be averted.

Men like Army Maj. Morgan Maltz. Places like the Moscow Starbucks on Ohotnyy Ryad Street. Or the long pauses in the Pentagon briefing room punctuated by empty answers about what is really happening to U.S. forces in Estonia.

The project’s “Great War” war-art challenge called for journalistic accounts of the outbreak of the next major global war. They offer a tangible yet entirely fictitious way of thinking about the unthinkable.

Of the contest’s excellent submissions, one was selected as the winner and five more were highlighted on the Art of Future Warfare website. See the winner and the featured entries.

Details and the Big Picture

While each story was distinct in structure as well as in its details, they shared some striking similarities. The caution with any such selection is being aware that you risk only looking for what you expect to happen, rather than the world-changing outlier . There is value in the similarities among different visions, as well as conceptions of the future that run counter to widely shared assumptions.

“Coffee, Wi-Fi And The Moon,” the winning entry by Nikolas Katsimpras, opens with the most analog of activities: a journalist of the future tapping away on a typewriter after a massive cyber attack. Typing on a typewriter was something the author, a former Hellenic Naval officer and technology expert, had actually never done before. This story, like the others, treats debilitating cyber attacks as a given in the next global conflict. Worldwide connectedness carries so much promise, as Katsimpras pointed out in an interview, but it can lead to “a life of blank screens” in an instant.

The ability to have situational awareness, be it by the press or government, is essential when you consider the simultaneous acute crises portrayed in the newswire updates collected by Saku, who writes under a pseudonym. The “shot heard around the world” is a Chinese anti-satellite attack on U.S. communications assets in “Pacific Plunged Into The Abyss!” The domino tipped over in that attack kicks off a sequence of increasingly dire crises that sees U.S. Air Force bombers dispersed to rural airports in preparation for strike missions in the Pacific and the Panama Canal fall to Chinese special operations forces. Saku’s “War of the Fleas” in the Pacific is troubling enough, but how quickly it escalates to include attacks on Hawaii should be a reminder not to temper worst-case scenario development. After all, the conflict he envisions spreads from there.

In Sydney J. Freedberg, Jr.’s “Tallinn Is Burning” the painful gaps in knowledge about what might have happened to the Army 1st Cavalry Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team after they deployed to Estonia only seem to get worse. As more time passes, there is less information, offering a demarcation point at which the arc of America’s increasing global omniscience suddenly became a “before and after” moment. The psychological value of information denial becomes as important as the operational constraints it imposes on the Pentagon.

Another writer using a pen name, hipbonegamer, treats information overload as essential to understanding the origins of the outbreak of a future conflict centered on the Middle East. Limitless information is on tap in the world he creates. The challenge is in knowing what to look at, and how to break through the noise when it is time to share it. The first-person story, “News Enhancement In An Info Overloaded Age,” charged head-on at the complexities of regional politics and strategy with a barely constrained fervor for the notion that the “truth” at hand at any given moment may shift underneath your feet depending on whom you are listening to, and how long they can hold your attention.

A Matter of Characters

The stories we love to tell the most to one another are usually character-driven. Technology is interesting on its own, but it is the people wielding it, or succumbing to it, whom we can relate to best.

Reading about Vladimir Putin’s pacemaker getting hacked at a Starbucks in Moscow, is something you will never forget. Another world leader who suffered a similar fate might be forgotten, but the pairing of this man and machine, so to speak, is part of what made “Coffee, Wi-Fi And The Moon” such an effective story. That juxtaposition of the Russian leader’s personal vulnerability with America’s susceptibility owing to the nation’s own cyber-dependency is fitting. As outliers go, playing for high stakes resources off-world is an even more surprising twist and this was the only story to do so.

Historic characters, though, do not always lead nations. They may be the unknown individuals who, on terms not of their own, destroy them as Gavrilo Princip showed in 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. In Matthew Cavanaugh’s “Fear Paralyzes Pacific As Army Major Awaits Hearing”, a disgruntled Army strategist emerges as the unlikely actor whose treason could singlehandedly give China the justification to commit acts of war in the Pacific. Artificial-intelligence insight for senior U.S. military leaders was not enough to head off a conflict. For Major Maltz, on the way to being forced out of the Army a year before full retirement benefits, his access to the military AI offered the ultimate currency to offer America’s rivals.

Adversaries, or even villains, are not always so easy to classify or even identify in the first place. In Edward Osborne’s “Blind To Our War,” the call comes from the op-ed page to recognize disparate events as signs pointing toward a chilling future portending war even if few are willing to face that reality. Just what the next Great War will look like depends on when you take a snapshot.

In Osborne’s world, highly skilled armed environmental groups such as the Union of Natural Authority, operating in a remote but strategically important corner of Canada, signal that something tectonic is shifting. They look nothing like the Islamic terrorists that one might imagine as a contributor to such destabilizing forces today. Instead, this eco-commando group is backed by a nation-state and, according to the lone survivor’s account of one of its raids, a very professional for-hire fighting force. On its own, this is a troubling revelation for Canada and the US. It is made more so by a mysterious drone swarm in the Southern Hemisphere on the coast of New Zealand, raising the possibility that the Commonwealth is on its way to war. What kind of war remains to be seen. From Osborne’s perspective, with instability and conflict spreading with each day, uncertainty is the only certainty.

If we whipsaw between information overload and denial, face individuals who are able to shape global events singlehandedly and risk a technological and societal reset with our electronic connectedness, then it is worth having a serious discussion about the means with which we can ensure these stories remain in the realm of fiction. That could manifest as an ongoing conversation about conflict avoidance. It may lead to practical solutions, such as establishing an exclusive “red phone” hotline for cyber events between Beijing, Washington, Moscow and London like the line that once linked the White House and the Kremlin.

After reading these stories, however, it’s clear such a hotline should certainly use a rotary phone. And have a typewriter at the ready.

 

August Cole is the director of the Atlantic Council’s Art of Future Warfare project and a non-resident senior fellow at the Council. He is a writer, consultant and analyst. His first novel, GHOST FLEET, co-written with Peter W. Singer, will be published in 2015.

We have retired our comments section, but if you want to talk to other members of the natsec community about War on the Rocks articles, the War Hall is the place for you. Check out our membership at warontherocks.com/subscribe!

One thought on “Our Great War Synthesis

  1. Before I completed reading this article, a story filled my brain.

    Remember when the Malaysian Islamic radicals hacked the Russian defense communications, blacking out contact between Moscow and their nuclear weapons. These forces assumed that Moscow no longer existed and began the process to activate launch of the nuclear fleet. Russian cyber security quickly blocked the hack and established communications with 87% of the arsenal. With missiles away, the United States launched a proportionate response to the Russian attack. Moscow realized that annihilation was nigh, and initiated a complete launch of its nuclear stores. China joined the fray as Washington authorized total destruction. In Kuala Lumpur the Islamic radicals sipped tea as they felt the earth shudder from the conflagration a hemisphere away. Each smiled as the realization that Islam was now the only force in the world.