Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 December 2009 - 6 January 2010
Issue No. 979
New Decade's special edition
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mohamed Abdel-Salam

Endless conflicts

To understand the shape of future wars Mohamed Abdel-Salam * suggests rereading a 2,500-year-old treatise

People often wonder about the nature of future wars, and with a good cause. When it comes to war things tend to change over time, even though human conflicts are repetitive in their nature and motivation, and many principles of warfare remain as valid today as they have been for centuries.

Constant innovation in weaponry has given rise to new forms of confrontations, to non- conventional battlefields, to war in the air as well as the oceans. Asked to describe the plan of operations in Iraq in 2003, one US commander said it was like "spaghetti".

Any discussion of future wars can be approached in several ways. One is to focus on weaponry. Humanity has been a keen inventor of weapons. In the modern age wars have been fought on land and in the air, with tanks, planes, submarines, missiles and nuclear warheads. Military satellites have been launched into space. Innovations will not end, and their impact on future weaponry will be substantial.

Another way to speculate about future wars is to focus on combat operations. For decades, regular wars were the norm. Now regular armies increasingly face irregular ones. Guerrilla wars are now common and it is likely that many of the wars of the future will be asymmetric in nature, posing challenges for military strategists.

A third way to approach the nature of future wars is to discuss the reasons for the conflicts. It is common to think of wars as being triggered by economic or political rivalry but many current conflicts seem to be cultural in nature, giving currency to the claim that a clash of civilisations is afoot.

There is no indication that the future will be more peaceful than the past. War will remain a tool for resolving conflicts. Take any region of the world today and you will find a dozen or so causes for international and civil conflict. As time passes the world seems to become a more dangerous place, with diplomats racing against time to contain conflicts.

If the past two decades are any indication of the future, expect the following trends to continue.

- Hi-tech wars versus conventional wars: conventional wars remain common in places such as Sudan, Somalia and Southeast Asia. But most advanced armies are now equipped with smart weapons. In those parts of the world where the technologically-superior forces of the US and NATO are deployed, military operations tend to be hi-tech. In future wars, smart ammunition and electronic guidance will be the norm. If attacks are ever mounted against Iran or North Korea, high-end weaponry is bound to be used.

- Asymmetric wars versus regular wars: asymmetric wars evolve in situations where forces that are totally unmatched in tactics and armament meet in battle. The confrontation is characterised by regular tactics on one side and irregular ones on the other. As a result even superior armies find it hard to score a clear victory and the conflict may last for years. Afghanistan and Yemen are obvious examples. During a convention organised by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies in Geneva in 2008, experts discussing future wars concluded that the majority would be asymmetric.

- Wars of principle versus wars of interests: it is common to explain everything in international relations by citing strategic considerations and economic interests. Such considerations are likely to continue in the future. As those who wrote about the clash of civilisations predicted, terror groups and ideologically motivated movements seem to be fighting on the basis of cultural grievance.

- Economic versus political wars: when wars are fought over material interests, such as the control of resources, geo-economics overshadow geopolitics. Many of the wars experienced of late had to do with oil and its transport through pipelines and waterways. As prices of raw materials continue to fluctuate, grievances leading to potential wars are expected to rise. Water, it has been repeatedly said, can provide ample cause for future wars. In a nutshell, wars over resources are going to become more common.

Non-governmental combatants are likely to remain significant players in future conflicts, adding an element of unpredictability to international politics. Terrorist groups, organised criminal outfits and ethnic movements are expected to use every means at their disposal to promote their aims, including chemical or nuclear weapons if they are available. We'll see a rise in electronic attacks, maritime piracy and urban warfare. Many countries are now concerned about economic crime, drug dealing, illegal immigration, and smuggling of nuclear equipment. Such security breaches may come to dominate the international scene in the future.

Wars may not always follow the same patterns but much of tomorrow's military strategy are going to be similar to the practices of yesterday. The Art of War by Sun Tzu is well worth reading. It was written 2,500 years ago yet remains valid today. New forms of war will appear, but much of the future will follow patterns that we already know.

* An analyst with the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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