Sunday, October 11, 2020

Future of warfare: high-tech militias fight smouldering proxy wars

Helen Warrell 

January 21 2020

“Future wars will not begin and end; instead, they will hibernate and smoulder,” wrote defence strategist Sean McFate in an article outlining his prediction for the future of conflict. His portrayal of a grey zone between war and peace — now widely accepted among experts — will be the result of evolving international relations and changes to who appears on the front line. 

Insecurity over natural resources, the pressures of climate change and population growth, as well as long-running sectarian and religious tensions, are all likely to lead to conflicts that bubble continuously, analysts say; occasionally they will spill over into the public arena. 

Meanwhile, by 2050, the power of the state is expected to give way to autonomous regions, megacities and private interests, thus multiplying the range of protagonists in hostilities. 

Affecting all this in the next three decades will be advances in technology. 

Theories about future wars tend to focus on a dystopian vision of the rise of the killer robot, an autonomous lethal weapon that outwits its human inventors. Countries such as Russia and China are thought to be investing in research on these sorts of systems, while the US insists its military uses of machine learning will focus more on cyber defence and aircraft maintenance.

Nevertheless, the west’s adversaries are pursuing a number of advanced technological capabilities that threaten to undermine democratic values. These may be carried out on social or traditional media in the civilian sphere, yet they are still very much a military response within a grey-zone conflict — as seen with Russia’s interference in the 2016 US election. 

“Russia is . . . pursuing greater use of machine learning and automation for its global disinformation campaigns,” John Shanahan, director of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center at the US Department of Defense, warned recently. 

Lt. Gen. Shanahan, who met Nato leaders last week to discuss potential collaboration on military applications of AI, was also particularly concerned about what he sees as China’s irresponsible sales of weapons with potent machine learning capabilities. 

“China is also facilitating the sale of AI-enabled autonomous weapons in the global arms market, lowering the barrier of entry of potential adversaries and potentially placing this technology in the hands of non-state actors,” he said. 

The accessibility of sophisticated weapons to smaller militias and armed groups is an important consideration in the future of warfare. The next 30 years will accelerate competition between the great powers; defence analysts believe China will be able to contend with the US militarily by 2040. 

However, as the major economies become more integrated, especially through trade, the costs of going into conflict increase. As a result, fighting is expected to shift from explicit conflicts between states to proxy wars, conducted at arms length with a buffer of deniability. Iran has already built regional influence within the Middle East through a wide network of proxy groups including Hizbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. 

“The actors important in conflict are likely to be quasi-state groups, which are not operating under international legal norms such as the Geneva convention,” argues Jack Watling, an expert in military science and land warfare at the London-based Royal United Services Institute think-tank.

The danger is that war becomes more lawless and unpredictable, because proxies and militias will not be bound by the multilateral agreements that are currently accepted by all UN member states, including China and Russia. 

Mr Watling adds: “The expectation is that there will be more conflict between groups like militias and, when conflict does break out, these groups will get access to relatively high technical capability because of the likelihood that great powers will be backing them.” 

The move from state conflict to warfare among smaller groups will be one of the contributing factors to Mr McFate’s vision of grey-zone hostilities — a state of what he calls “durable disorder” — without a clear beginning or end. 

Changes to established national structures will also expand the number of militant groups. In 2018, the UK’s Ministry of Defence made predictions about warfare in 2050 in its paper “Global Strategic Trends”. It suggests that the economic and political power of cities will grow relative to that of countries, creating a more decentralised form of government. 

The MoD also argues that a few international companies could grow increasingly influential because they provide vital state services. “Militias will change — not so much armed groups and guerrilla fighters but autonomous entities working on behalf of a city, which has its own foreign or security policy distinct from the state, or company with its own armed security component,” explains Mr Watling. “It’s a more complex patchwork of organisations on a spectrum from violent terrorist groups to civic institutions.” This will make way for a revival of mercenaries, especially as weapons and assets once thought of as the preserve of countries — from special forces to war-fighting helicopters — will become increasingly available in the marketplace. Private armies, as seen in history, are inevitably part of the world’s military future. “This is one of the most dangerous trends of our time,” Mr McFate writes. “Yet it’s invisible to most observers.”

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