Insights about modern war from the NIC’s 2020 Project

Summary:  the papers from a workshop of the NIC’s 2020 Project provide valuable insights.  This post discusses a paper by Martin van Creveld, and then ends with a speculative question.

As part of their “2020 Project”, the National Intelligence Council held a workshop on the “Changing Nature of Warfare” on 25 May 2004.  Key topics and questions focused on surveying the prospects for conflict around the world between today and 2020.

  1. What are the contemporary characteristics of war that are likely to persist into the future?
  2. How can we tell, are there signposts?
  3. What are the characteristics of contemporary conflict that are likely to be consigned to the dustbin of history by 2020?
  4. What are the emerging characteristics of war?

Many of the papers are relevant today and worth reading.  One in particular seems prophetic four years later:  Martin van Creveld’s “Modern Conventional Warfare: An Overview“.  As usual for his work, it was packed with insights. 

Globally speaking, as conventional war became smaller and much more expensive, both its importance and the political results that it could yield declined.  Not only did nuclear proliferation limit it to weak states, but it was accompanied by a very large number of conflicts fought between, or against, political organizations that were not states.  As those conflicts evolved and multiplied, a very large number of terms were used to describe them: be they brushfire war, or insurgency, or guerrilla, or low intensity conflict, or asymmetric conflict, or terrorism (the most recent one), or whatever. 

Whereas the threat of nuclear escalation limited conventional warfare from above, sub-conventional war did the same from below. As a result, it has been caught in a vise.

Since he wrote those words these dynamics have become clearer.

First, what should be the focus of our armed forces?  Can we prepare to fight both COIN and conventional war?  For example, see Glian Gentle’s (Lieutenant Colonel, USA) articles in Armed Forces Journal and World Politics Review.

Second, van Creveld foresaw an aspect of COIN that is not yet fully recognized: the incredible cost vs. its shrinking yield.  A trillion or two dollars spent so far — including the long tail of post-war expenses and interest (we have borrowed the money).  And the meter is still running. 

Whatever the benefits of the war, consider what we could have done with this money.  We could have converted almost every home and factory in America to an alternative power source (e.g., solar power, wind) for this sum.  That means 4 terawatts at a $5 per kilowatt capital cost, not including installation, of wind, solar, or geothermal.  Or we could have converted much of the US transportation system from gasoline to electric.  Or build a vast number of coal to liquid plants.  Or, more logically, some combination of these things to reduce our dependence on imported oil and improve our environment.

Imagine the other benefits.  The jobs this would have created.  The incredible improvement of our trade balance by reducing oil imports.

Instead we conducted our geopolitical decision-making like a rich wastrel, to whom money matters little.  Even now “expert” discussions of the war ignore consideration of expense, relative benefits of the war vs. alternatives, and odds of success.

A question for you

Zeev Maoz presented a paper with one of the most intriging titles I have ever seen:

“The Revolution in Military Affairs and the Middle East:
If this is a Revolution, then we are the Counterrevolutionists”

The paper did not live up to its title.  What should a paper with this title have discussed?  Two things come to mind…

  1. In the age where States tend to decline and non-Trinitarian conflicts increase, are we stuck in the role of counter-revolutionaries?  As the most powerful State, the global hegemon, do we have the most to lose from deterioration of the Westphalian order?  Like William Buckley, are we on the train of history screaming “stop!”
  2. So far the evolution of 4GW since Mao brought it to maturity has benefited local insurgents over foreign occupiers.  This development was responsible, as much as any other factor, for freeing much of the world from western colonialism — and increasingly from western influence.  Our COIN programs attempt to work around 4GW methods, attempting to counter 4GW — which the true revolution in military affairs of our time.  Can we break out of this impasse, and either adopt 4GW methods to our ends — or even transcend them?

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).  

For more on this topic

The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld — Links to most of his online articles.

Archive of posts about 4GW

3 thoughts on “Insights about modern war from the NIC’s 2020 Project”

  1. Ralph Hitchens

    In thinking of ourselves as the hegemon, aren’t we falling back on the obsolete Westphalian model? We should not conflate our military-economic dominance with a traditional hegemonic mindset; we are seeing, in Iraq, the dangers of engaging in geopolitical reengineering in the absence of a firm consensus within the developed world.

    I like Tom Barnett’s model — we need to act in the context of the “core,” and adopt an integrated approach to dealing with problems in the “gap.”

    As for 4GW, I wonder if we are making too much of our unfortuate experience in Iraq. If we’re out of there within, say, a couple of years — as seems almost inevitable at this point in time — will the region be fundamentally destabilized? Will anything that happens down there pose a serious threat to the “core?” The forces driving this exercise in 4GW seem politically and socially regressive, unable to go beyond waging irregular warfare against readily available targets (our troops in Iraq, and the IDF).
    At some point the fighting will probably subside and the sociopolitical bankruptcy of these jihadists will become evident to the surviving civilian populations in the areas they frequent.

    I really believe that the material and social advantages of the developed West/Pacific Rim will prove strong attractors in the “gap,” draining it of the “best and brightest” over time. (Of course I also believe in the Easter Bunny.)
    Fabius Maximus replies: Why is Westphalian model obsolete? It might be fading, or under attack — but States remain the dominant political and military agents.
    “Out of Iraq in the next few years …as seems almost inevitable at this point in time” — Is there any evidence of this? None of the 3 major Presidental candidates thinks so.

  2. Can we break out of this impasse, and either adopt 4GW methods to our ends — or even transcend them?

    The central problem relates to the word, “we.” Who is this “we.”

    To adopt 4GW methods would render obsolete or redundant many skills now valued, to the detriment of those who have those skills.

    Despite assertions that “9/11 changed everything” and that “we” are “at war,” there has been remarkably little turnover in the personnel in leading institutions such as politics, military, journalism, business. Nor have these institutions changed much. Any change to a 4GW warfare oriented society would entail massive displacement of these personnel as well as radical reshaping of these institutions.

  3. Robert Petersen

    Two short answers to your two questions: To the first one “yes”. We are trying to stop the wheels of history and we are failing. To the second one: “Perhaps”. It is like a British admiral once said “we are out of money, its time to think.” What the United States needs to do is to realize it is losing and learn from it. Unfortunately what 4GW actually has achieved until now is only a stalemate: Neither side is able to decisively defeat the other just like in the First World War. What the United States actually needs is a clear-cut defeat that can’t be explained away like the Vietnam War was after 1975. If the United States still keeps building stupid and expensive weapons like the F22 “Raptor” after a decisive defeat – well, then were are all doomed.

    And let me stress the word “we”. The United States is the leader of the Western World and I know from my own knowledge that everything that comes out of the United States is treated like the gospel by the military in my own country Denmark. So we try to copy the American way of warfighting with American weapons. And thus we repeat the American mistakes. Like right now were we are considering to throw another few (or more) millions in the development of the Joint Strike Fighter, which the Danish air force so dearly wants to buy even though there are more reasonable alternatives.

    One way or the other: If the USA fails we all go down the tubes.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: