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Sandals and Robes to Business Suits and Gulf Streams: Warfare in the 21st Century

April 21, 2011
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Small Wars Journal, 20 April 2011: Warfare used to be a bi-polar structure, state on state. Our defense establishment was more concerned with templating our enemies in a force-on-force engagement that was grounded in understood “rules of war.” The battlefield was linear and structured, with clearly defined battle lines. We could isolate, contain, outflank, and attack our enemies well into the depths of the rear of their formations. Our enemies had tangible and recognizable infrastructures that, when attacked, could shut down their telecommunications networks and transportation systems. We were able to counter their numbers. There were parallel technologies, and in most cases numerical capabilities that we could quantitatively overcome. There were observable indications and warnings that enabled our high-tech intelligence system the advantage to provide the necessary early warning to detect movement of our enemy’s formations. Those were the days.

We are already in the second decade of the 21st Century and find ourselves still struggling to understand what kind of warfare we are in and what kind of warfare we will likely face in the coming years. Although there have been numerous documents written about the environments we are likely to face, seeing and believing in the reality for what it is still causes all sorts of machinations throughout the entire Defense Department. For instance, each of our services is trying to redefine itself as it considers shifting from a bi-polar structure to one requiring incredible agility and adaptability given a highly complex, low contrast cast of adversaries; adversaries who are as comfortable in sandals and robes as they are wearing business suits and flying around the world in gulfstream aircraft. As confident in their ability to defeat our high tech weapons platforms and as cocky to think they can get away with it. This group of future adversaries must be taken seriously.

How should we shape future force structure, how should our intelligence systems be designed to meet future threats, what are the roles and responsibilities of the services, and how does each fit during an era of increasingly growing complexity and where operating within coalition environments is the norm?

While each of these questions should be addressed, this article will narrow their scope and attempt to address what this author believes are the attributes of 21st Century Warfare we are likely to face. For purposes of any debate, this won’t be about which specific capabilities are required or what missions are more appropriate for conventional or unconventional forces. It will address several factors worth considering as we think our way down a very murky path.

The evolution to 21st Century Warfare has not come easily, nor is it well understood. Achieving dominance in a battle space requires a number of activities to be brought together at the right moment and place to achieve some desired effect. These activities range from mud to space, and include the cyber domain that surrounds it. They include activities not related to kinetic military only solutions; and they encompass Interagency and Non-Governmental solutions with people who have very little understanding of military operations. They require rapid and effective team building by strong leaders simultaneously engaged with enemy forces. We must be capable of nation building, negotiating and fighting all at the same time.[More]

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