Military organizations have profound influence over everything from domestic and international politics to innovation, technology, climate change, resource management, cyber issues and transparency. Understanding what underpins military strategy today means understanding combat in an age of hyperconnectivity, rapid technological evolution, and hybrid and asymmetric wars. It also means understanding what the ever-widening diversity of threats, actors and interests means for military personnel.

A new international security context

For the past two decades, the rise of well-organized and well-armed non-state aggressors has been a common theme in security discourse – along with the limitations of individual states in responding to them. Some of these asymmetric security-related challenges have emerged from weak states that had been propped up by Cold War dynamics until the early 1990s. Others relate to the rise of global terrorist networks.

In this new reality, victories on conventional battlefields no longer translate into mission victories, and conflicts have no obvious end. Unlike, say, the Second World War, there is unlikely to be any formal surrender from the likes of ISIS or Boko Haram. Modern wars have neither a clear start date nor a clear end date.

Alongside the rise of such non-state aggressors, however, we have also seen a return to strategic geopolitical competition among a few large, economically powerful and regionally dominant states. The resulting Cold War-like tectonic shifts will have consequences on all fronts: economic, political and societal.

The future role of militaries cannot, therefore, be conceptualized in post-Cold War or new-Cold War terms. Militaries have to anticipate a mix of symmetrical and asymmetrical conflict in which each new mission will likely involve a complex mixture of traditional and novel strategies in volatile and fragile environments.

Tomorrow’s militaries will need a range of capabilities: force posturing, deterrence and high-intensity warfare, but also low-intensity nation building, counterinsurgency, protection of populations, and even planning for disarmament, demobilization and reintegration. Their leaders will need the intellectual flexibility and managerial agility to work effectively with government agencies beyond the armed forces: diplomatic corps, intelligence agencies, local security and police forces in the operational theatre.

Without an interdisciplinary approach in rethinking military strategies, the risk is not just that we fail to tackle an asymmetric threat, but we make it worse. When militaries react to insurgencies with broad, one-size-fits-all campaigns, rather than conducting deep analysis of the particular root causes and devising rigorous and nuanced campaigns and strategic follow-ups, the threat may be perpetuated rather than contained.

The miniaturization of warfare

Hyperconnectivity or the digitization of warfare has already helped to shape the evolution of the military. Images from the battlefield that are projected instantly around the globe can also rapidly change global opinion.

Adversaries such as ISIS exploit social media for recruitment and propaganda – yet their rapid territorial gains have often been due to surprising their foes with simple, non-technological battle plans. In response, the militaries of tomorrow will need to become better at deploying social media for psychological counteroffensives. For example, how might footage of the public surrender of an extremist fighter most effectively be used to undermine the group’s appeal?

Another well recognized threat is cyberattack. As digital technologies accelerate and our dependence on them deepens, future conflict between advanced actors (state or non-state) will also increasingly involve elements of cyber conflict. In contrast to traditional military thinking, in cyberspace it is much easier to attack than to defend – and while defensive cyber capabilities have just about held offensive capabilities in place so far, there is an increasing worry that this is changing. Attackers have multiple potential points of entry, and just one chink in the cyber armour of a military infrastructure can tilt the balance of a conflict.

Nor is it only military infrastructure that is a concern: energy security is now a key part of any modern, forward-looking national and international security paradigm. Concerns are growing over vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure, ranging from electrical grids to energy-production facilities and fuel-distribution networks. In recent years we have seen attacks such as the Stuxnet virus disrupting uranium processing in Iran, and the wiping of 30,000 computers in Saudi Aramco.

Cyberspace is not a lawless domain – national, international and humanitarian law all fully apply – but rapid developments make existing legal frameworks sometimes difficult to put into practice. The boundaries between actors are increasingly blurred, as are those between the physical and the virtual, and power can be exerted directly, by states, non-state actors or by proxy. Cyberspace has become a new battleground alongside the traditional arenas of land, air, sea and space; it is thus best understood as a new, but not separate, component of the complex conflict environment.

Looking to the future, accelerating scientific work in emerging technologies (both in the civilian and military space, such as robotics, nanotechnology, unmanned air and sea vehicles, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, 3D printing and synthetic biology) will increasingly present new opportunities for improving security. But they will also pose new threats with the potential to wreak untold damage. There are serious concerns over ethics, accountability and oversight, as technological developments are already outpacing the ability of governments and regulators to formulate effective policies.

These concerns are, however, likely to be sidelined by costs. Drones are much cheaper to buy and operate than classic combat aircraft, which traditionally require boots on the ground as forward air controllers.The drones’ appeal is in how they maintain military power while implementing defence austerity measures. These technological innovations are likely to change military doctrine as we know it. It’s unlikely, however, that they will fully replace the human element of a military response.

In this fast-changing landscape, we can’t predict some of the challenges that will confront us in years to come – and it’s yet to be seen whether this recent shift in military doctrine contributes to or harms international stability.

Security in supply lines

Progress in many of the aforementioned technologies will be driven by the private sector – and, conversely, there will be many civilian applications for technologies currently being developed by or for the military (and vice versa), such as the development of extreme heat-resistant materials and the capacity to generate electricity from underwater waves. There is growing acceptance of the need for close collaboration between military decision-makers and highly specialized civilian companies: sharing knowledge to enable planning with foresight, preparedness, accountability and agility.

This applies beyond the realm of emerging technologies. In many countries, defence and security account for the largest portion of public procurement. In turn, the defence and technological industries are heavily affected by decisions of national governments and in some cases multilateral institutions, on matters ranging from international transfers and financing regulations to foreign-policy priorities and macroeconomic austerity measures.

These companies face an increasingly complex and competitive operating environment, marked by geopolitical and regulatory uncertainty, reputation risks and the complex demands of managing a global supply and value chain. To address these challenges there will need to be greater emphasis on communicating a company’s values and goals to everyone involved.

The adoption of the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty in 2014 is an important step towards governing the defence industry and market. The UN system must, however, be fit for purpose; it must seek to improve interaction and understanding. Governments around the world need to engage with a wide range of private-sector actors on security matters as they rely increasingly on private-sector expertise, technology and solutions to manage international (and national) security risks. The security of supply lines often depends on the non-defence realm. Companies in industries ranging from aerospace to aeronautics, technology, infrastructure, energy and health also play an important role in the security ecosystem.

In states that are not under attack, there is a growing sense of political and public disinterest in understanding how the military operates and whether it does so effectively. This has, in some cases, allowed strategic, logistical and institutional challenges to fester. Faced with myriad threats, multistakeholder collaboration will increasingly need to involve the pooling of knowledge and sharing of resources among governments, accepting the concessions that this requires in some instances.

Sea power and maritime security

The world’s oceans are as strategically important as ever. The majority of the global population lives within a few hundred kilometers of the shore, and most military installations and critical infrastructure are also within close proximity of critical waterways.

The seas also matter for international commerce: it is estimated that 90% of the world’s products travel by sea; containerization (as it is known) has revolutionized global shipping, but also brought new national security concerns. We have seen a dramatic increase in the importance of other sea-based economic activities, from fishing to hydrocarbon and seabed-resource mining. Emerging markets, in particular, are dependent on maritime resources and trade for continued prosperity.

A particular concern is that much of the world economy depends on the safe transit of commercial vessels through stretches of water in Asia and Africa, which are increasingly subject to territorial disputes or criminal activities. The growing trends of maritime militarization, posturing and projection of power thus raise worrying questions about what platforms or weapons might prove decisive in tomorrow’s maritime operations.

The role of soldiers

Future generations of soldiers will be doing much more than fighting in a conventional battlefield, and veterans of war will become an increasingly blurry concept – including not only returnees from the field but also a growing number of people who have worked at drone operation centres.

Thanks to both technological and medical advances, soldiers are more likely to survive battleground injuries. This means a greater need for long-term support of veterans; and while we have made significant progress, the process of re-acclimatizing to civilian life poses unique and often serious health and socio-economic challenges.

In recent studies in several of the NATO countries, experts estimate that between 10 and 20% of all veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have post-traumatic stress disorders in any given year. The percentage is estimated to be even higher among local troops in war-affected countries in, for example, Africa. Aside from the human cost, the socio-economic price tag of post-combat care is significant. Often these veterans are no longer able to be part of the civilian workforce.

Thus, an effective policy in managing issues related to veterans is critical. Among the key questions are the societal ramifications of sanctioned drug use, for battles and post-traumatic stress disorder. Militaries of tomorrow could also profit from deploying more soldiers in counterinsurgency missions that embed them in cultures and build relationships, rather than only engaging in high-intensity combat-orientated missions or remote logistical missions that foster the notion of “the other”. They could also deploy soldiers to provide logistical and security support for peacekeeping or humanitarian missions, with the aim of mitigating the emotional horrors of battle by reinforcing a sense of contribution to a worthy cause.

It is critical that veterans receive the continued support of the elected representatives who made the decision to send men and women to fight. When public opinion turns against a particular conflict, it may be politically unpopular to speak up for the veterans – but politicians who supported the mission should be held to account.

Towards a safer tomorrow

When it comes to reducing global security risk, everyone stands to benefit from collaborative thought leadership. The World Economic Forum, offering the largest global platform for public-private interaction, is particularly well placed to convene companies, government decision-makers and regulators (not to mention military leaders, intelligence experts and members of civil society) to evolve, prepare and act in the changing security landscape. The Forum’s ultimate goal is to grow these engagements and shape a new international security transformation agenda that cuts across communities, industries and networks.

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Author: Anja Kaspersen, Senior Director, Head of Geopolitics and International Security, World Economic Forum

Image: German Bundeswehr army soldiers of the Delta platoon, 4th company, 391 mechanised infantry battalion part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) take a break during a mine sweeping operation in Chahar Dara in the outskirts of Kunduz, December 13, 2009. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch