War in the 21st Century

The recent news of the daring raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan is a welcome development in the ongoing war against terror and clearly a significant step in that process.   As details emerge, it seems the raid itself was a feat of significant daring reminiscent of military feats stretching back to the heroes of the wooden horse in the siege of Troy.  The modern paraphernalia of warfare – the helicopters, weaponry, technology and so on – are subsumed by our interest in the warrior action itself.  It seems that this sort of incident or operation is only superficially changed from those of the wars recently commemorated on Anzac Day or even back into ancient history.

In reality, of course, actions such as those of this week are only a very small part of modern warfare.  Occasional frontline coverage provides patchy ‘on the ground’ images, but little real understanding of what is happening.   Most of the media coverage and discussion focuses on why – the rights or wrongs of whether Australia should be fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere.   But what about how a modern war is conducted:- how war has changed due to modern technology, weaponry, communication, media coverage, and today’s social values?

Although there are some things that have not changed for millennia, there are at least seven key attributes of War in the 21st Century that make it fundamentally different from what has gone before – even as recently as the Vietnam era.  These attributes include:-

  • The primacy of ad hoc military coalitions:- In every action since the end of the Cold War,  a coalition of the (variably) willing is assembled by Governments, forcing unfamiliar allies to meld together on the ground and to plan as they have never had to before for combined operations.  Each nation’s troops must depend on others for close logistic and tactical support, operational understanding and planning.  The resulting operational complexities are immense, but cannot be acknowledged openly.
  • The media factor:- The immediacy of modern media has moved far beyond the “prime time battles” of Vietnam.  The stories of twitter messages providing immediate reportage of the attack on Osama underline how much this has become a prevailing influence in modern warfare.
  • The urbanisation of some conflicts and the necessity to micromanage collateral damage, understand the nature of fighting within the local population and the nature of the unidentifiable enemy, has introduced in some instances significant constraints and limitations on how warfare is conducted.
  • The overall consideration in “Insurgency Wars” is bringing the population along – making life better for the locals.  The Vietnam era lament of ‘not knowing who the enemy is” is becoming the standard operational situation.
  • Modern surveillance and communication technology has led to an “order of magnitude” increase in battle-field situational awareness:- Even in short dramatic actions like the Osama raid, live communication with Washington was an operational reality.
  • Technological change  There is increasing dominance of ‘on call’ precision weapons .  The increasing quantity and quality of remote surveillance and sensors and their integration into systems and networks.  The increasing use and utility of unmanned aerial vehicles and warfighting within the cyber domain.  All this has had a profound influence far beyond the fantasies of Hollywood.
  • At the ‘big-picture’ level the combination of multiple factors has dramatically increased the ability of adversaries to politically and operationally undermine the threat and use of force.

Putting these influences together, the overall change in the nature of warfare has been a move from deliberate to adaptive planning, and the concomitant execution of dynamic military operations.

The requirement for dealing with multi-layered complexity in battle requires a different type of warrior, with extraordinarily different training to those of the cold war.  It is testimony to the lack of understanding of these changes that some of the Australian population still perceives ‘the army’ as being a suitable place for the otherwise undisciplined, unskilled and unemployed, and that ‘the army’ should be used for natural disaster clean ups.  It is time for much better public understanding of the fundamentally changed nature of modern warfare.

Tim Owen AM is the newly-elected MLA for Newcastle.  Until recently he was an Air Commodore in the RAAF, and served as second in command of Australian Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He was the speaker at a public forum on “Warfare in the 21st Century” hosted by The New Institute at Souths Leagues Club on Tuesday 10th May at 7pm.




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