Peering Into War's Foggy Future

"I don't try to predict the future of war." Sir Lawrence Freedman, March 10, 2016

Anyone who attended New America and Arizona State University's "Future of War" conference on March 10 and sought a clear vision of the future was in for disappointment. The picture that emerged from a fast-moving series of panels, interviews, and TED-style talks was one of muddled uncertainty. But perhaps that is to be expected when trying to pierce the never-ending fog of war.

The conference, co-hosted by CNN and Defense One, successfully avoided becoming yet another Washington talkathon, instead bringing together a diverse crowd onstage--including senior military leaders, journalists, academics, and innovative junior officers--who engaged in extensive Q&A sessions with an equally diverse (for Washington) audience.

Over the day, the pace of the talks moved rapidly, accompanied by a robust #FutureOfWar social media conversation that led New America President and CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter to quip to the crowd, "There are those of us in the room, and there are those on Twitter. It's like a second conference."

Though the conference touched on a wide range of topics, there was a particular focus on three areas of discussion:

  • Strategic insights into the future of war
  • Future threats
  • The increasing challenges of reporting on war

Strategic insights into future of war

Amidst the focus on the future, some speakers cautioned that the future of war was not necessarily going to be radically different from current or past wars. Sir Lawrence Freedman, Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King's College London, advised that "the best guide to future wars is past wars," while the Marine Corps Commandant, Gen. Robert Neller, explained his philosophy as "educate for the future, train for the present."

At the same time, there was widespread agreement that the nature of conflicts and the tools used to fight wars are in a state of flux in the current era.

Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, who has been consistently lauded as one of the Army's most disruptive thinkers for now approximately 25 years, provided his own assessment. "Current conflicts are once again about territory. Geopolitical dynamics and threats and have the chance of conflict ... Geopolitics is back; the invasion of Ukraine punctuated the end of the post-Cold War era."

Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown University law professor and a Senior Fellow at New America's Future of War Program, noted that while contemporary war kills fewer people, the difficulty of defining it and "putting it in a box" has given it the opportunity to spread in more insidious ways.

Rob Johnson, the director of Oxford University's Changing Character of War Programme, noted that the world is in a "transition era between the Information Age and the Synthetic Age," which includes the introduction of "robots and the like" as tools of warfare. Freedman echoed Johnson's comments on the changing face of war, noting that "options are being created for war that didn't exist before. Presidents can do things they couldn't do before."

Earlier in the day, Gen. Mark Milley, the Chief of Staff of the Army, challenged one misconception about the evolving tools of war. Milley criticized the notable trend to call for the use of special operations forces in all forms of conflict. These specialized troops, Milley said, can't do everything. "They're not designed to do it all ... It's a pot of gold. It's a myth."

Amidst the conversation on contemporary and future war, McMaster drove home the point that understanding the history and culture that shape a potential friend or foe are overwhelmingly valuable guides in warfare. "I relied heavily on academics from multiple disciplines to help in Afghanistan & Iraq," he said. Building on his point about the importance of developing regional knowledge and being open to outside ideas and opinions, McMaster later warned about self-delusion. "We tend to define the future of war as we want it to be," he said. "We have to guard against self-delusion," which often results from an insular decision-making process.

Threats for future

During a one-on-one conversation between CNN's national security correspondent Jim Sciutto and the Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. John Richardson, the focus changed to near-term threats. Richardson assessed that despite regional rumblings, the chances of war with Russia or China in the next decade are "very small," and said that he wants to be the "world's expert at not going to war with Russia and China." With those two countries in mind, Richardson warned that "we must be careful to not oversimplify any of our adversaries. They are largely rational actors." Ultimately, Richardson said, "no matter who becomes the commander-in-chief, we must be thoughtful and provide careful advice about employing the military."

Looking beyond potential threats in the form of foreign nations, conversation at the conference turned to potential weapons of future war. During his Q&A, Neller was asked to identify the most important threat of the future. He unhesitatingly fingered the risks in the cyber domain as the evolving threat to which the U.S. needs to pay the greatest attention

Punctuating Neller's remarks was a presentation by two junior officers working on the Army's cyber efforts, captains Brent Chapman and Frederick Waage. The pair walked the crowd through a scenario in which they had developed a tactical "cyber rifle" that "shot" lines of code over radio signals for under $150, and had used the rifle to knock drones out of the sky and to open a locked door. While they acknowledged that the demonstration was not performed in a truly real-world environment, the low-cost and low-effort success they achieved was a fitting coda to Neller's warning.

Challenges of covering war

While perhaps not as far-reaching in scope as the previous themes, a panel featuring media stakeholders-ranging from an AP bureau chief to an Army officer who co-founded the Military Writers Guild to encourage creative and analytical writing-laid out an in-depth scenario in which wartime news coverage was becomingly increasingly more chaotic, more underfunded, and more democratic with every passing year.

The panel's moderator, Foreign Policy contributing editor Tom Ricks, advised the crowd that to better cover war, "don't study journalism. Study culture and languages," echoing McMaster in acknowledging the importance of cultural understanding when seeking to change or cover the changes in a foreign country.

Vivian Salama, AP's Deputy U.S. Political Editor and former Baghdad Bureau Chief, warned the audience that there is no longer money in the business of reporting, which hurts not only publication employees, but also harms freelance reporters who can't sell their stories. And "when you have budget restraints, you can't be where the stories are. You end up reporting by phone."

In the absence of professional journalists, more pressure falls on citizen journalists like Abdalaziz Alhamza, who is the co-founder of Syria's Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently. Alhamza, who as a citizen journalist represents one of the few sources of news in Syria, painted a tragic tale of his efforts. He said that it is difficult to access wifi or transmit information because Assad's government forces track signals. He dispelled any myths about the glamor of reporting from dangerous territory, noting that four of his friends and six family members have been killed while supporting Raqqa's reporting efforts.

In the future, disappointment awaits

The Future of War conference did not provide conclusive answers on many fronts. It did, however, raise a plethora of questions, and exposed many to the eminently quotable Freedman, who reminded a forward-looking audience that "the trouble with preventative war is that you are turning a possibility for the future into a reality now."

"Most wars never end," Freedman said, and ultimately, no matter how pure your cause, "war disappoints."

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