Future Wars and the Digital Insurgency
Everyone who followed the events the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement last year could tell that something big was happening. To most people, the “big things” were the events themselves; they saw the toppling of the Tunisian and Egyptian governments and the large, international Occupy protests as landmark events in activism. Those who examined the events more deeply, however, saw that their true impact was not so much in their immediate effects, but in what they implied for future revolutions and guerilla movements. Military leaders, in particular, would do well to take note of these events as they offer strong hints as to the means by which future insurgencies and low-intensity conflicts will be fought.
It is often remarked that generals always fight the last war, and this is unfortunately very true. Modern militaries though have gone to pains to correct against this trend, and have begun to demonstrate remarkable foresight on a strategic level. Predictions concerning hybrid warfare in specific seem increasingly prophetic, and the ready acceptance of this by many military leaders is encouraging. For all the strategic foresight that is being demonstrated, however, the future tactical situation is being almost entirely overlooked.
The Arab Spring and Occupy movement should have been seen as a wake-up call to military planners. Wireless communications and the Internet have become so ubiquitous and accessible that even something as massive as the Tahrir Square demonstration could be organized spontaneously. This should prompt some big questions concerning the tactical implications of social media and instant collaboration: If you can have a viral video, could new enemy TTPs (Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures) also become viral? If someone can easily organize a flashmob, how easily can they organize a flash ambush? How do you win the information war against an enemy who can blog, tweet, and retweet about an event before your media affairs officials have even received the first word?
Much of the advantage for conventional militaries in combating irregular forces lies in their vastly superior command-and-control systems, awareness of the battlefield, and in their ability to share “lessons learned” and effective new tactics faster than an irregular force. As wireless communications continue to proliferate – particularly in developing nations where their lighter infrastructural demands are most attractive – this advantage will increasingly shift in favor of the more agile irregular forces. Conventional forces already face a difficult tactical dilemma from enemy-sympathizing local nationals who report on their every movement. Imagine the threat these so called “spotters” will pose with the assistance of smartphones and simple apps that allow them to instantly stream information on military movements and activities. Instead of disparate cells working in isolation from one another, they could use technology to enable them to instantly collaborate and organize much larger and more effective offensives. As wireless encryption also improves, the earlier advantages in signals intelligence exploiting these collaboration tactics will also quickly vanish.
While it is true that there’s no Jihadist Twitter or guerilla Facebook right now, such platforms are easy to develop and well within the capabilities of those same states capable of waging a hybrid war. The inherent advantages of these platforms make them simply too good to pass up. Perhaps more alarmingly, with each passing year these tactics and tools only become more effective and easier to implement.
This same tech-savvy enemy also poses a wide range of additional and previously unknown threats to a larger, less adaptive force. While large militaries have correctly seized onto the threat of cyberwarfare, they fail to contemplate the ramifications of other emerging technologies and the weaknesses in other parts of their own technology. What good are GPS-guided munitions and battlefield tracking systems if GPS jamming technology is even cheaper and easier to implement? How useful is it to target and destroy enemy weapons caches and supply lines when they can easily print a gun in their basement? These are only the obvious questions; far more devious ideas are probably already in the works.
The most classic mistake of amateur chess players is getting too excited whenever they begin to win, and then beginning to fixate on their own next move instead of their opponent’s next move. In a way, this is the same problem facing the conventional military forces of the world right now. Instead of devoting so much time and effort towards studying how to employ new technologies in their own formations, they need to begin considering what technologies their enemies will be employing and how to combat them. The answers won’t be easy, but they’re probably not as hard as losing.