Future war

Paul Hirst
17 October 2001

We are all concerned about the course and outcome of the current “war” on terrorism and what its long-term consequences will be. A great deal is predictable, and the papers are full of briefings and projections. The war is being fought with today’s weapons, by states and political forces we know, and in an environment that is familiar. None of these things may be true in the not too distant future. If people are frightened by the prospect of military action now, then they should be terrified by the things that are likely to happen in this century.

For the past fifty years people in the developed countries have enjoyed unprecedented peace and prosperity. Today’s world resembles that before August 1914 - another period of rapid economic internationalisation and growing prosperity. Until 11 September it was widely believed that the future belonged to trans-national companies and to markets, not states. The state was supposed to be declining in the face of ever growing global interconnectedness and the ability of people and information to move across borders. That now joins other myths (like endless inflation-free growth) on the junkheap of over-hyped ideas. In the aftermath of 11 September companies are in crisis and are begging for government help. Public authorities and financial institutions cooperated to limit turbulence in the foreign exchange and equity markets. The state is back, loyalty to country is back, and so are borders.

Anti-modernisation brings no solution

This is not August 1914. The major powers will not fight each other because of New York and Washington. No state of any consequence supports the terrorists, but all states are seeking to profit from the US-led coalition building. Russia’s help comes at the price of a free hand with the Chechens. China’s support comes at the price of easy WTO membership and a blind eye in Tibet. India and Pakistan have already benefited from the US drive to win support, the sanctions imposed after their nuclear tests having been lifted.

This does not mean that there will be no serious consequences from military action. Even before the crisis Pakistan was a fractured society and a weak state. It could still disintegrate if the regime aids the US in serious fighting in Afghanistan. The real threat is the long-term impact on the disaffected masses of an arc of fragile regimes from Algeria to Saudi Arabia. The majority of the population in these countries is under 21, ill-educated and under-employed. The future economic prospects of the region are bleak. Oil and gas are declining assets and tourism is unlikely to thrive in a climate of political instability. Political Islam is a response to stalled modernisation.

The problems of the Middle East are simply part of a greater challenge to peace that will become more widespread. The world is not going to even up economically as the advocates of “globalisation” have naively believed. International inequality will most likely grow, not diminish. This will leave the developed countries as oases of prosperity in an impoverished world. Africa is already in a desperate plight. Latin America is crippled by staggering levels of domestic inequality that already choke off growth. China and India will be hard pressed to grow fast enough to absorb population growth; both will have 1.5 billion people by 2025.

Most of these countries will in consequence be relatively weak, including China. They are unlikely to pose an aggressive military threat to the West for the foreseeable future. There is also no alternative strategy for modernisation, as Third World socialism appeared to be under Mao and Nasser. This means that most ideologies of resistance to the West and to the domestic rich will be oppositionist and rejectionist. We can expect more terrorism and attempts to use weapons of mass destruction on the populations of wealthy cities. Such a cycle of terror and repression is likely to undermine liberal societies and weaken advanced economies.

The environmental triple whammy

If the cycle of terror continues, there will be draconian controls on travel from certain countries. Paramilitary repression cannot be confined to terrorists, it affects whole populations. The problem with a “war” on terrorism is that it has to be fought but cannot be won. Equally the terrorists face the problem that they can disturb the peace of the world but they do not have the ideas to change it. They are not the gravediggers of Western capitalism but are recurring disease that weakens the victim but cannot kill it.

The difficult economic situation will be reinforced by an environmental and resource crisis that will become increasingly acute form mid-century onwards. We shall face the triple blows of climate change, oil depletion and population explosion. The best estimates of global warming should concern even the most hardened sceptic. Global warming is an accelerating process and the best we may be able to do, even if we take measures far more drastic than Kyoto, is to slow it down. By 2080 most of the Arctic ice will have melted. The consequences? Large parts of the Chinese, Indian, and eastern US coasts are vulnerable to flooding, and most of Bangladesh will be uninhabitable. Flooding, drought and turbulent weather will threaten large numbers with famine and displacement. The developed countries will either have to become much more hospitable to refugees or vicious to millions of displaced people. Farmland, water and oil will be in short supply.

The prediction that the world’s population will stabilize by 2040 is based on the assumption of economic progress in the developing world. Poverty and uncertainty will lead to population growth (children are an insurance policy). Oil reserves are likely to deplete rapidly after the next 20 years, raising the price. This will threaten the poor countries that cannot afford high-tech alternatives. Asia is particularly short of oil and the reserves in the Middle East will be in chronic decline. The prospect that states and peoples will not fight in these circumstances is remote. States will seek to secure basic resources for their peoples and will have to ration them. Old economy constraints will return and markets will be less important.

Intimate weaponisation

In this unstable social and physical environment new military technologies are likely to make war even nastier than today. We are familiar with weapons of mass destruction, but they are likely to get smaller, cheaper and more widely diffused. Proliferation to states is the lesser threat; governments can be deterred by the fear of retaliation. The real threat, as New York shows, is possession of nuclear or biological weapons by terrorists who have nothing to loose. The danger of an attack by such weapons in the coming decades must be high. Equally threatening is information warfare. Western societies are so dependent on IT that it is impossible to protect every asset against attack by hackers or speculators. If they can’t hack into the Pentagon, cyberwarriors will hit the traffic control computers in a mid-western American city.

“Conventional” weapons will evolve in equally disturbing ways. The current high-tech weapons possessed almost exclusively by the US are likely to be superseded in the next three decades by entirely new families of deadly and intelligent machines. Developments in computer miniaturisation, robotics and nanotechnology will combine to make entirely new weapons possible. Weapons and sensors will fuse, creating a decentralised network of intelligent automatic killers. Small remotely piloted aircraft will be able to carry huge numbers of micro devices that will find their way into any space – making bunkers or tanks death traps. Something like a “Terminator” may be possible: a robot capable of fighting in jungles and cities, capable of making decisions on the basis of its sensors, and allowing advanced armies to kill at low cost to themselves.

Such weapons will threaten conventional armies and at worst they will turn war against them into a massacre. However, they may actually undermine the current conventional offensive dominance of the USA. Such decentralised systems will use generic technologies in widespread civilian use. They will thus be easier to copy and to counter than complex centralised information systems like AWACS, on which the USA now relies. Countries like China will have the capacity to make and sell versions of these systems. Such systems will be sown in dense defensive webs that even the most advanced weapons will find it hard to penetrate. Their components will communicate and cooperate to form a network with powers many times greater than the relatively simple parts. At the lower end, intelligent mines that go off when they hear English and shower the area with homing sub-munitions would make occupation by Western troops extremely difficult.

The USA will respond to threats both nuclear and conventional by exploiting its advantages in space. The current missile defense plans are merely the start. If the USA wishes it can build weapons that will dominate space, deny others satellite communications, and attack conventionally from low orbit.

The new weapons may blunt Western dominance, but they will not end wars. Wars between machines in which nobody gets hurt are a fantasy. The new weapons will be brutal to civilians, and they will favour those most ruthless in their use. Turned into terror weapons or set loose against masses of desperate environmental refugees they have the power to make the latter part of this century even more bloody than the first half of the last.

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