Future war & peace

By Robert Hickson 29/04/2014

While this past weekend the country has looked back on wars past, what of the future of war?

There are two questions here – will there be wars in the future, and if so, how will they be fought?

Armed conflicts have been declining (both in terms of number of wars and casualties) over recent decades, particularly following the end of the cold war.

Source: Center for Systemic Peace - http://www.systemicpeace.org/conflicttrends.html
Source: Center for Systemic Peace – http://www.systemicpeace.org/conflicttrends.html


Source: The Economist
Source: The Economist


The amount spent by western nations on their armed forces is also declining, although other countries are increasing their military budgets.

But will this continue?

Conflict tracker monitors current areas of conflict, while the Asia Foundation has a report on potential conflicts within the Asian region

Others are attempting to predict future conflicts – although they didn’t flag the recent Ukrainian crisis, so more work on their models is required. But what to do to prevent these conflicts erupting?

Some suggest we won’t see the scale of last century’s wars again, due to spreading globalization and democracy, fewer colonies seeking independence, the end of the cold war, and/or a range of other factors.

However, the Economist  has noted that some conditions now are similar to those 100 years ago just before the onset of WWI  (also available here). They see the biggest danger as complacency, where leaders in both the public and private sectors don’t act beyond their own narrow self-interests, and consequently let madness over run rationality. Wars usually occur because one or both sides think that they are in a more powerful position.

There is also debate over whether competition for resources by rapidly developing countries, and the effects of changing climates may exacerbate or create new conflicts.  The Economist also reports on a study by Hsiang, Burke & Miguel that looks at the historical evidence for links between climate and conflict. The recent IPCC report also suggests climate change may drive conflicts.

While imperial colonialism is supposedly on the way out, “land grabs” by rich countries of agricultural land in poorer countries is likely to be an additional conflict trigger.

It’s sometimes said that the military always plans with an eye directed backward – the next war will be just like the previous one (or the current one) but with new weapons.  That seems to be the case with a recent war game the US Army played which was set 15 years hence.

The US National Intelligence Council has, though, noted a likely different geopolitical environment in the coming decades. The Sydney Morning Herald is also urging the Australian government to produce a more forward looking Defence white paper to guide the future shape and purpose of their military forces.

A lot of attention has been given to the possibility of future conflicts (and armed forces) being more about the use of unmanned autonomous vehicles (even printed ones), cyborg soldiers, robots, and artificial intelligence ,and/or being undertaken in cyberspace (see here too). The military industrial complex is already gearing up for these.

Some consider that robots and enhanced soldiers will reduce casualties because they’ll be more precise, although there is likely to be a reluctance (socially, politically and militarily) to have robots and drones make their own decisions to use lethal force. While the manufacturers of military robots and software are typically confident that they’ll be safe and controllable, others are concerned that the development of AI and robotics will outstrip ethical and moral safeguards, and so more caution is required.

While we honour and lament the tragic loss of life and destruction in past wars, what will be our attitude to future conflicts where fewer humans may have to fight or die? Will we be more comfortable sending in robots and make less effort in preventing conflicts reaching a lethal level? Will we honour injured and fallen military robots (some soldiers already do)? Do we lose some of our humanity by allowing machines do the thinking and killing for us?

The warnings already gone out that a new approach to peace keeping is also necessary.