Twenty-First Century Military Innovation: Technological, Organizational, and Strategic Change beyond Conventional War

Image of Twenty-First Century Military Innovation: Technological, Organizational, and Strategic Change beyond Conventional War
Release Date: 
September 7, 2022
University of Michigan Press
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“This volume will be of certain interest to anyone trying to examine what has changed in warfare and where these trends might for in the near future.”

The recent conflicts in the Middle East and now Ukraine have highlighted a number of trends in the means and methods of warfare. Although the nature and motivations of conflict remain constant, new technologies are just one of the many factors changing how and by whom wars are being fought. In this new book, author Marcus Schulzke examines some of the most significant 21st century innovations, grouping them into technological, organizational, and strategic innovations, which he then examines using seven different themes to examine these developments for their broader implications for the nature of war for the next several decades.

His reference framework is what he describes as the “Westphalian system”—that is, the political system of sovereign nation-states that have fixed borders and a monopoly of military power within their borders along with the exclusive authority to wage war across borders. The innovations the author chooses to analyze are primarily those that have the biggest potential to threaten this system and potentially bring conflict to a greater part of the globe without regard to geographic borders or the sovereignty of national governments.

As the author notes in his introduction, making predictions about the future of war and warfare is always fraught with analytic peril, but he has made some pretty solid if sometimes dated choices. There is no doubt that drones and cyberwarfare, two major technological innovations, will continue to play larger roles in future conflicts as countries seek ways to inflict damage on their opponents militaries without incurring their own excessive casualties. Drones in particular are likely to play an increasingly important role in conflict as they become more than just combat systems, but begin to perform logistical and support roles usually reserved for troops on the ground.

The absolute requirement for modern command and control systems to tie geographically separated forces together as well as providing vital logistical support will continue to elevate the use of cyber weapons as essentially their own component of modern combined arms warfare. His choice of non-lethal weapons as a major technological innovation may have a declining impact as America’s Middle East interventions end and Western militaries, especially as the U.S. once again turns away from the messy involvement with population-centric counter-insurgency and nation-building and begins once again to refocus on great power conflict.

In addition to these technical innovations, the organizational and strategic innovations scrutinized by the author may have more significant impacts on warfare in the long run. Two of these—the use of Private Military Contractors (PMCs) and the use of targeted killing—are probably the prime drivers of his theses of the breakdown of the traditional “Westphalian system” as more countries that have traditionally had strong conventional militaries such as Russia, turn more to PMCs to provide deniability for military actions like the 2014 seizure of the Crimea, or to avoid domestic political scrutiny by deploying large numbers of Russian PMCs to support the Assad regime in Syria.

Targeted killings, particularly of top terrorist organization leadership, has been a significant part of America’s means of waging the Global War on Terror for nearly two decades and remains a major strategic weapon using America’s global covering fleet of drones. Other countries, such as Israel and potentially Russia, will likely emulate this strategy as it offers a means of strategic messaging without inflicting large numbers of civilian casualties from conventional air strikes.

Some of his other organizational and strategic innovations are very much focused on counter-insurgency type military action, which, along with non-lethal weapons, may have less applicability to future conflict as great power wars make a reappearance. However, the next few months of the Russia-Ukraine War may indeed evolve into a low-level insurgency or guerilla war as Russia tries to incorporate conquered Ukrainian provinces into Mother Russia against the wishes of a majority of their residents.

There’s no doubt that all of the world’s major conventional militaries are closely watching the events unfolding in Ukraine while still trying to understand the implications of the last two decades of conflict across the Middle East, from Libya to Afghanistan. The rise of non-state actors like Hezbollah, the Taliban (although they are now state actors), and ISIS has indeed broken many of the traditional notions of the Westphalian System. How much further the use of the technological, organizational, and strategic innovations analyzed in this book will make warfare more complicated and bloody as traditional norms of the “law of armed conflict” and the “rules of war” decay remains to be seen, but the author is certainly prescient in highlighting these possibilities.

This volume will be of certain interest to anyone trying to examine what has changed in warfare and where these trends might for in the near future. The author’s thesis is compelling and seamlessly woven throughout the book and based on a solid analytical framework.