By Squadron Leader Jenna Higgins

Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare being held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Squadron Leader Jenna Higgins examines some of the possible characteristics that may define high-intensity warfare in the future.

High-intensity war is often equated with conventional or regular war, as after the Middle Ages, this was the ‘usual’ type of war. However, high-intensity war has somewhat fallen from the regular discourse. Being replaced by what is ironically known as irregular war. However, as was highlighted in the opening post to this series, this is starting to change. High-intensity war has become a distinct possibility in the near future, so we must prepare for and try an understand what that means for us. This article aims to explore the possible characteristics of future high-intensity war as a crucial step in preparing ourselves for it.

An attempt to control a domain typifies high-intensity warfare.[1] In recent decades, the requirement and ability to control the air domain has been somewhat of a non-issue. Recent conflicts have instead been labelled irregular or low intensity, and seeks to hurt, harass or demoralise the enemy; there is less of an intent, or perhaps a requirement, to control a domain. In looking to the future, we need to consider the context in which control of a domain, which in the case of this article is air, is required before any further action.

The ability to forecast when and where this high-intensity war will occur with any accuracy is challenging to say the least. However, with that said, why should we have to predict such an occurrence? If western air forces were able to maintain a seamless mastery of the full spectrum of operations, then the finer detail such as whether it was to be high or low intensity, would not matter. We would be prepared regardless. However, as Austin Long, an Associate Professor at Columbia University asserted ‘no military has been able to achieve this goal.’[2] In preparing for high-intensity warfare, the best we can do is outline potential realities with the aspiration that they will, in some way, prepare us through the generation of discussion and preparedness of the mind.

One. Displacement, trauma and bloodshed are unavoidable. According to The Economist, in:

[2040] two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities. The number of megacities with populations of more than 10 million has doubled to 29 in the past year, and each year nearly 80 million people are moving from rural to urban areas.[3]

So, while the exact location of future conflict is unknown, it is safe to assume, high-intensity war will be fought in an urban environment.  More significantly, these urban areas will be more densely populated than any time in history. High-intensity warfare in such an environment will be confronting to the moral sensibilities of a western society conditioned to small-scale conflict in less populated areas. This will be further compounded as scenes of mass destruction are broadcast over media networks worldwide. One needs only to recall the recent global outcry over the Syrian civil war as an illustration. The humanitarian disaster that unfolded in the wake of the Syrian civil war would be nothing compared to high-intensity conflict in a modern mega city. Syria had a pre-civil war population of 22 million, but only two cities with a population more than one million. One can only imagine the implications of a war in a city with a population ten times that of a Syrian city.

Destroyed_neighborhood_in_Raqqa
The city of Raqqa after fighting in the city during 2017. (Source: Wikimedia)

Civilian death, displacement and trauma are not the aims of modern democratic governments, noting that there have been some historical exceptions, but are unfortunately unavoidable. Combine a high-intensity conflict and a significant population centre, and the scale of destruction is exponentially increased from anything witnessed in recent history. The effect of a large-scale humanitarian catastrophe will be two-fold. There will be a requirement to prevent the overflow of conflict and refugees into surrounding nations and potentially cause further unrest. However, secondly, as these images are broadcast into our living room, it will be the responsibility of the government to maintain a supportive domestic base in the face of such horrific scenes. The morality of this scenario is complex and must be considered prior to its eventuality.

Two. Competition with near-peers will challenge our resilience and capacity. For the first time in 10 years, the United States has released a new National Defence Strategy in which it outlines strategic competition to be the ‘central challenge to US prosperity and security as Russian and Chinese military capabilities expand’. This document highlights that great power competition is now the focus. Given the accelerating regional military modernisation that is occurring in the Asia Pacific region, Australia too must focus resources on overcoming the challenges that the growing confidence of China or Indonesia poses. The fight against a near-peer offers several challenges not experienced in the preceding decades. One such example is the effect of a significant loss of platforms, refer to Rex Harrison’s post on attrition. There are assets in the Australian order of battle that will not be able to enter a contested environment without a high probability of loss, and to do so would deplete capability at an untenable rate.

Should we lose aircraft at an untenable rate, we also face the prospect of losing our highly specialised aircrew. With such a small air force relative to our potential adversaries, we lack the capacity and redundancy offered by larger forces. To win the high-intensity war, an organisation needs enough people who are willing to commit their lives to the higher objective. Unfortunately, due to the small population of our nation, we lack the recruitment pool to both enlist personnel at a high rate in the case of war or prepare adequately through the employment of additional personnel in times of peace for redundancy.

Three. High-intensity war will be fought through a multi-domain construct. One hundred years ago there was debate as to the utility of an independent air force. With the acceptance that land and maritime control could not exist without control of the air; an independent, specialised air force was born.  In 2018, the same argument must be made for the cyber and space domains. Without control of the cyber and space domains, we do not control the air domain. Greater knowledge of the benefits and limitations of these domains must be established and socialised within the broader warfighting community if success in a high-intently war is to be achieved. In fighting a high-intensity war, warfighters cannot continue to think from a domain-first perspective. Success in high-intensity war will need to:

[f]eature militaries capable of complex combined arms operations, as well as lethal offensive threats. These conflicts will engage US allies and disrupt the ability of the future joint force to move within operational reach of the adversary.[4]

In analysing the ‘Context of Future Conflict and War,’ Jeffrey Becker explained that:

[t]hreats will transcend tidy categories, cutting across land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace, while being distributed across military domains and/or reaching across broader geographic range and scope.[5]

It is not only Western militaries that are faced with this realisation. Chinese military publications also indicate that war is no longer a contest between units or specific services. The Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) refer to this concept at systems confrontation [体系对抗]. Systems confrontation is:

[w]aged not only in the traditional physical domains of land, sea, and air, but also in outer space, nonphysical cyberspace, electromagnetic, and even psychological domains. Whereas achieving dominance in one or a few of the physical domains was sufficient for war fighting success in the past systems confrontation requires that “comprehensive dominance” be achieved in all domains or battlefields.[6]

This inevitably leads to the question as to the suitability of the current organisational structure, and if we are truly ready to fight the joint fight. However, that is a whole other post.

20161128raaf8185068_0567
The Royal Australian Air Force’s first P-8A Poseidon flies down the St Vincent Gulf coastline near Adelaide in South Australia, c. 2016. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

Four. Implications for capability transition. From an Australian air power perspective, we are both blessed and disadvantaged by the new capabilities entering service. In the coming five years, the RAAF will see several new platforms enter service. Platforms such as the F-35 Lightning, EA-18G Growler and P-8 Poseidon enable greater integration with coalition forces, while also enhancing connectivity with command. However, while the RAAF may have exceptional new, high-end capability, if these assets cannot fully integrate into the joint fight, or, if the wider warfighting community does not fully understand their capabilities, then their effectiveness is partially lost. With capability transition must come education. Air power practitioner’s need to emphasise the effects of their platforms rather than just assume the joint force knows what each platform brings to the fight. High-intensity warfighting must emphasise effects-based operations.

Five. We cannot rely purely on advanced technology to win; we need a contest of ideas.  Given the intricacies of the new, high-end capabilities as well as a large number of unknowns within the new domains, it will take everyone, from airmen and women to the Chief of Defence Force to achieve success in an effects-based operation. No one person, organisation or government holds the panacea to predicting and defeating an adversary in a high-intensity war. It is vital members at all levels are engaged and given the freedom to voice their ideas and concerns. It is through the contest of ideas that innovation is realised. This concept was aptly summarised by Air Marshal Leo Davies, Chief of Air Force, when he states that:

It is far, far better that we should respectfully engage in that contest than to hide our thoughts, only to find them wanting when it matters most.[7]

It is only through engagement and conversation that we become truly prepared for the future.

The five observations mentioned above about the character of future high-intensity warfare are in no way to be considered an exhaustive list. However, a common thread can be identified. Education and discussion into the broader warfighting community are vital. Future high-intensity war cannot be considered from a single-domain perspective, and consequently, a greater knowledge of all domains and capabilities is required.

Squadron Leader Jenna Higgins is an Air Combat Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force and editor at The Central Blue. She can be found on Twitter @jenna_ellen_ The opinions expressed are hers alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.

Header Image: A Royal Australian Air Force F-35A flies in formation with a US Air Force F-35 during trial flights from Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix Arizona, c. 2016. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

[1] Michael Muehlbauer and David Ulbrich, Ways of War: American Military History from the Colonial Era to the Twenty-First Century (New York: Routledge, 2014), p. 3.

[2] Austin Long, ‘Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence – The U.S. Military and Counterinsurgency Doctrine, 1960-1970 and 2003-2006,’ RAND Counterinsurgency Study – Paper 6 (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2008), p. 28.

[3] Matthew Symonds, ‘The Future of war – The new battleground,’ The Economist, 25 January 2018.

[4] Jeffrey Becker, ‘Contexts of Future Conflict and War,’ Joint Forces Quarterly, 74 (2014), p. 18.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Jeffrey Engstrom, Systems Confrontation and System Destruction Warfare: How the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Seeks to Wage Modern Warfare (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018)

[7] Editorial, ‘A Central Blue debrief with Air Marshal Leo Davies, AO, CSC – Chief of Air Force,’ The Central Blue: The Blog of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation, 20 August 2017.

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