Modern warfare is about more than guns and planes

by Aleksandar Nacev

While war has long been viewed as competition between adversaries, peace has been defined by absence of such conflict. But what happens when the line between war and peace is blurred and hardly visible? Countries today face a number of actors who use a wide range of political, informational, military, and economic measures to influence, coerce, intimidate, or undermine its interests or those of its friends and allies.

To accomplish military goals without putting one’s nation, civilians, or even opposition troops at mortal risk is certainly the ideal way to win a war. In warfare, each dimension and every strategy are used together in an integrated and comprehensive manner. Just as a traditional military will not exclusively rely on fighter jets to accomplish their mission, complex operations must rely on more than a single strategy to accomplish their goals. Every strategy has strengths and weaknesses, and proper planning must account for these weaknesses by utilising different combinations of functions simultaneously or consecutively. There are three non-kinetic components of modern warfare, which are becoming increasingly important in any given country’s arsenal.

All the global and regional powers have their own unique brand of political warfare, but also terrorist groups, like Islamic State, employ political warfare to varying degrees. Modern political warfare, however, extends beyond proxies and covert uses of force. The US employs its multifaceted soft-power approach globally, Russia employs insignia-less “little green men,” and China uses “civilian” fishing vessels to assert its claims in the South China Sea. Iran employs its shadowy Quds Force, the covert arm, to control a network of proxies throughout Iraq, Syria and the Middle East. Varying forms of economic pressure – bribes, blockades, or highly conditional aid packages – are long-standing tools of statecraft that are now used for political warfare.

What we are also recognising today in several conflicts around the world, is the application of psychological warfare, in which psychological operations are intended to accomplish certain goals by managing the ideas, emotions, and behaviours of the opponent, as a less harmful and less risky alternative to traditional forms of warfare. The ability to program the opponent and control his actions to accomplish military goals without necessarily putting oneself in harmful situations is at the heart of psychological warfare.

The information arena is also an increasingly important battleground. Thanks to relatively low barriers to entry to social media, even non-state actors can wage sophisticated information campaigns to recruit and propagandise.

Both state and non-state actors continually innovate in search of the means of wreaking the most havoc far from their home bases, without firing a single shot. Using mechanisms of information warfare, these actors can advance their territorial interests without provoking a full-fledged military response by their opponents, and always shield themselves with the cloak of deniability.

Additionally, cyber warfare is coming to the forefront in today’s skirmishes and asymmetric operations. Cyber warfare refers to the use of digital attacks – like computer viruses and hacking – by one country to disrupt the vital computer systems of another, with the aim of creating damage, death and destruction.

Future wars will see hackers using computer code to attack an enemy’s infrastructure, fighting alongside troops using conventional weapons like guns and missiles. But, unlike traditional military attacks, a cyber attack can be launched instantaneously from any distance, with little obvious evidence of any build-up, unlike a traditional military operation. Such as attack would be extremely hard to trace back with any certainty to its perpetrators, making retaliation harder and deniability easier.

It is safe to say that security leaders and strategists must consider that non-kinetic effects will matter as much as the kinetic ones in the hybrid arena of modern warfare.  Today every nation must develop the skills needed for the new dimensions of conflict, not only in their militaries and other government agencies, but across societies and within the communities of their security partners.

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