Battlefields of the Future

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

February 4, 2011

When most leaders think about the locales of war, their eyes are drawn to the burning places on the map. They try to find which state is about to collapse (Pakistan, Yemen?) or become the next crisis (Iran, Korea?) Those who see themselves as latter day Bismarcks wrestle with broader grand strategy and tend to view the globe as more like connecting tectonic plates, with rising powers like China or India changing the geopolitical landscape. These strategists typically look for where the regional spheres of influence overlap, trying to find the seams from where the earthquakes of war might emanate. But those who step back from the map will notice something even more: there are even greater shifts occurring that will shape the where of war in new ways in the coming century.

From the very first pre-historic battles over new hunting grounds to the European wars over gold in the “New World” (and one might even argue the more recent conflicts over Middle East oil fields), whenever we humans have discovered a new locale of value, we usually then fight over it.  As we filled out the blank spaces on the map, though, it was new technologies that then shaped new spaces in which we contended. For 5000 years of war, for example, humans only fought on the land and then on top of the sea. Then, at the turn of the last century, technologies that had only recently existed in Jules Verne novels allowed the combatants of World War I to fight under the water and in the air above. These entirely new domains of submarine and air warfare required new forces to fight there and then new laws of war to regulate them.

Today, a series of 21st century parallels are emerging. For example, the Arctic has long been a foreboding place that no one much cared about in policy circles. But through changes that our technologies have created upon the global climate, the waters are warming up. As a result, this once whited-out part of the world map is yielding new and valuable navigable trade routes, as well as potential drilling spots for energy and mineral resources (with some believing there may be as much oil and natural gas at stake as Saudi Arabia has).

But opening up a new part of the globe yields new security questions; indeed, there hasn’t been a geographically as large an area to resolve sovereignty issues since 1493, when Pope Alexander VI tried to divide the New World between Spain and Portugal (which spurred wars by the powers left out of the deal). Today, while conflict is by no means inevitable, various players are preparing for a polar scramble. One advisor to Russia’s Vladimir Putin declared, “The Arctic is ours.” The Canadians, Norway, the United States, and even non-Arctic contiguous states like China don’t seem to agree and have started to build up their capabilities to stake out their claims.

Outer space is a similar once inaccessible domain, now of rapidly growing commercial and military value. The realm of Fritz Lang and George Lucas movies is now populated by 947 operational satellites, sent up by over 60 nations, through which runs the lifeblood of global commerce and communication, as well as military operations (Over 80% of U.S. communications travels over satellites). In an ironic echo of Clausewitz, US Air Force General Lance Lord described that “Space is the center of gravity now” and the Pentagon has carried out over 20 studies of space warfare.

Of course, as Dr. Yao Yunzhu of the Chinese Army’s Academy of Military Science has warned, if the United States believes that it is going to be “a space superpower, its not going to be alone…” The Chinese passed the United States in launch numbers last year and plan to add more than 100 civilian and military satellites in the next decade. More important, both nations have demonstrated kinetic anti-satellite capabilities repeatedly over the past several years, with Russia, India, Iran, and even non-state actors like the Tamil Tigers also at work in counter-space operations and satellite jamming.

Unlike underwater, in the air, the polar cold, or outer space, Cyberspace isn’t merely a domain that used to be inaccessible, it literally didn’t exist just a generation ago. Yet its current centrality to our entire global pattern of life is almost impossible to fathom, as the numbers involved are so high as to sound imaginary. The global Internet is made up of almost a quarter billion websites, while almost 90 trillion emails were sent last year. The military use is equally astounding. The Pentagon alone operates 15,000 computer networks across 4,000 installations in 88 countries.

But with so much of real value being located in this new virtual domain, it is also becoming a locale for crime, political and economic contestation, and even conflict. Symantec identified more than 240 million distinct new malicious programs sent out last year and more than 100 organizations have been reported as engaging in sophisticated military, intelligence, or terrorist cyber operations. Indeed, the FBI described cybersecurity as the 3rd more important global security threat, notable considering that its Director didn’t even have a computer in his office ten years ago. In reaction, the US Cyber Command, for example, went from imaginary concept just a few years ago to an organization of 90,000 personnel that coordinates more than $3 billion in spending.

While the majority of the cyber discussion has been on mostly overblown scenarios of “electronic Pearl Harbors,” Russian-Georgian-Estonian “cyberwars,” and the wiki-leaking of embarrassing policy memos, the vast majority of these attacks remain nuisances for now, the equivalent of cyber-graffiti or cyber-leaks, not war. The real danger may actually lie in the less sexy, but gradual, long-term undermining of innovation and intellectual property, so key to economic and national security strategy in the West. It is estimated that US and European firms suffer approximately $1 trillion a year in lost business, wasted R&D investment, and added spending due to cyberattacks that appear to be directed by political, military, or intelligence entities. The multinational Joint Strike Fighter program, for instance, had several terabytes of data (a terabyte is 1,000,000,000,000 bytes, roughly the equivalent of the entire Internet’s size just a decade ago) stolen by hackers emanating from a certain large East Asian land power. These trillions of stolen bytes represent not just billions of research dollars, but also 10-20 years of technologic edge lost in both the global marketplace and potential future battlefields.

The lesson we should take away from these trends is that as important as the concern over the next year in Afghanistan or the looming rise of China is, policymakers in security must also be mindful that there are even broader changes afoot. The 21st century is seeing immense value being created in locales that either were inaccessible or literally didn’t exist before. But this also means that we are (yet again in history) gearing up to fight in new places off the map we’ve never previously fought. For those who care about peace, the same lessons hold. One can either ignore these new domains, the non-strategy of merely hoping for the best, or stave off future conflict and crisis by establishing the norms and institutions needed to stabilize and regulate the new spaces shaping our world.