The Future of Warfare
Noah Dove - Dec. 12th 2008
Warfare is revolutionized when the current
is rendered utterly obsolete by the new
We currently live in a world wherein the proverbial Davids of the world to take on the proverbial Goliaths, and one in which major world powers have finally decided to abandon warfare amongst one another. However, reality always proves that whatever one's current state is, it is unlikely to project into the infinite future. As such, It is pertinent talk about what got warfare up to the point that we are at right now, and what it might look like into the future.
There are many factors that have caused upheavals in the way in which we conduct war, but there have been very few outright revolutions. This is because, I would argue, that in order to have a revolution in the way we conduct warfare, there has to be one crucial factor. That factor is that one side must develop a new technology, structure, or way of fighting war that ultimately takes what the opponent has and makes it totally obsolete, and utterly irrelavent. Of course, that same party tends to set the tone for the next age of warfare, until everyone else can develop so that they are on par with the innovator.
Before I delve into this progression, let me make an example. Gunpowder is largely seen as the reasons why the castle style of warfare went away. Ignore the economic collapse of the feudal manor system for a moment, and focus on the military end to feudalism. Castles were good for two reasons. The first was that they were able to develop on par (at parity) with the existing anti-castle technology. So you built a bigger catapault? So we add an extra foot of thickness to our walls. So you built an even bigger catapault? So we add more thickness, etc. The second was that it allowed for a defensive force to be able to thwart an attacker that was many, many times its size.
Then we introduce the cannon. The cannon made castles, as they were constructed in the middle ages, completely irrelevant. It no longer mattered how thick a castle wall was, a cannon was always going to be able to knock it down quickly, with only minimal effort on the side of the attacker. No longer was there parity between offense and defense. Those who resisted by building thicker walls surely met to their dismay with the fact that the incredible effort required to double the thickness of a fortification was effortlessly countered by the attackers simply bringing an extra cannon. Once cannons made wall thickness irrelevant, a very small number of defenders could no longer defend a castle, leading to a new form of warfare that focused more on mass, on-field, troop movements.
The Beginning: Ancient Warfare
The root of this story begins in ancient warfare. Warfare amongst ancient people was all about the warrior culture. Individual soldiers brought their own equipment, and there was very little leadership. Rather you had something akin to a big mob of individual warriors with a warboss (a warrior in his own right) that had little more control over the whole affair than to steer the mob in one direction or another.
What was key to this kind of individualistic warfare was, unsurprisingly, the individual warrior. Bravery was king, and individual fighting prowess was what was able to turn the tide of any battle. This kind of warfare brought about the great warrior codes that taught warriors how to fight with bravery, honor, and skill.
Slowly but surely, in isolated, yet increasingly frequent periods, a slow revolution started, brought about by a new factor: leadership. With the rise of kingdoms saw the ability for a king to take to a battlefield and, if he had leadership, was able to take his giant mob and break it into different units. These units could be specialized, and, more importantly, could be moved in different ways at different times. It was the birth of tactics as we know them today.
Tactics were revolutionary, because they deconstructed the basic parity ideas of the warrior system. Now, a smaller force was able to beat a larger force, not because its warriors were braver, or because they knew how to handle their weapons better, but because they were better organized. The whole was now more the sum of it's parts. Of course, this revolution didn't happen all at once, because there was still something to be said about having a massively overwhelming force, but the roughly 3,000 Greeks that beat the alleged 3,000,000 Persians at Thermopylae proved a point: it no longer mattered how brave or good your soldiers were. You can bring as many as you like, and it doesn't matter if we have better tactics.
It should be noted that the Romans developed this principle to the apex of it's natural ability. They added such things as rigid discipline, which prevented soldiers from disintegrating into a giant mob (thus making tactics unusable), and professionalizing their army, which not only lead to discipline, but also to the improvement in generalmanship that would define Rome's most successful campaigns. For example, consider Rome's destruction of Boudica's warband. Boudica outnumbered the Roman general 20:1, but because the Romans had a plan and were able to precisely execute it, their Celtic foes were slaughtered to a man (...woman, and child...) with virtually no casualties of their own.
As such, as history marched on, kings that were better able to organize their forces, and generals that were better able to use the specific strengths and weaknesses in clever ways were able to win, even against overwhelming odds. Individual quality had simply lost utility. The warrior code was rendered utterly obsolete, and thus warfare was revolutionized.
This trend would continue until the next revolution, that which was brought about by Napoleon. Napoleon's adversaries, in many ways had reached more or less the logical end of the concept that leaders using tactics won battles. During this time, armies were still largely comprised of miniature private armies. The captain (whether a prince or some other wealthy individual) brought their own private force to the battle, along with many other of these forces, and formed an army.
A rudimentary command structure had started to form by this point. The king (or whoever) would come up with some tactics that he would relay to his generals, who would come up with some sort of sub-tactics to accomplish their particular part of the greater plan, and the captains would then come up with their own tactics for their particular part of the general's plan, etc. etc. It's safe to say that the idea of tactics was as infused into the system as it could be.
The Napoleonic Revolution
Then, of course, Napoleon came by and made tactics obsolete. There were many reforms which he made, but a few of them were absolutely key. Firstly, Napoleon made his army a separate, government organization. Rather than just sort of following the king around the countryside in a big mob and then splitting up when the battle started, there was now a separate chief of staff of the French army. This meant that there was now someone totally dedicated to how units moved around, not on the battlefield, but on the map. This allowed for armies to go nearly anywhere comparatively very quickly. As well, it made sure that armies were now maintained with fresh supplies and reinforcements. It was the birth of logistics. Napoleon now had the advantage of being able to much more readily pick his battlefields, and the speed of his armies made anywhere within 50 miles of a French army worry that it could very suddenly be beset upon far in advance of it's ability to receive aid.
Napoleon also inherited a great deal of power from the new system that he was in charge of. As France was now a republic, in which everyone had ownership of the state (and thus had power over it), French citizens now had a direct stake, which quickly became an obligation, to defend the state that they all collectively owned. As such, while kings were spending personal finances to raise small, private armies, Napoleon was able to levee en masse a million soldiers at a time.
This allowed for the invention of strategy. Now, it no longer mattered what your battlefield tactics were. You could be as clever as you want with your 10,000 troops, but it was utterly useless in the face of 1,000,000 troops that got to attack where they wanted, and, most importantly, had the command structure to split up and attack many places simultaneously (which they also now had the support structure to do). Tactics could help, but against an opponent who was also using tactics, and, more importantly, strategy, tactics were rendered obsolete.
Before I continue, I would like to note that the birth of strategy did not make tactics completely obsolete, they merely overshadowed it so much that it didn't matter nearly as much, and it can easily be said that at least tactics lost parity in the face of strategy. Likewise, the invention of tactics didn't completely render the individual quality of soldiers obsolete. Every new layer does, however decrease the previous layers in turn, so that by the time strategy rolled around, tactics barely mattered, and individual quality of the soldiers almost didn't matter at all (which was convenient, as most of Napoleon's forces were conscripts, and as such terrible individual soldiers).
This new revolution brought about a type of warfare that was focused on movement: not just of little groups of soldiers on the battlefield, but whole armies over long distance to achieve military objectives that had long-term political importance (like, say, marching an army into an enemy capitol). This revolution spread practically overnight, and it took non-French states a short time to react to the new realities of war (thanks, in part, by commentators like VonClausewitz).
After the congress of Vienna, however, Europe calmed down. There were a few Franco-Prussian wars in there, but the 80-odd year peace that fell over Europe made it so that it took until World War I for these principles to really be tested. Of course, technology had changed a lot since Napoleon, and, needless to say, the generals of World War I spent a lot of time being confused about what exactly was going on, and what to do about it.
World War I
The first thing to grow out of WWI was the invention of battle lines. Before WWI, armies tended to be compact units that followed each other around maps like a rabbit chase, occasionally coming together to have a battle. A newer appreciation for strategy (along with some technological improvements) caused a new situation. Two armies would meet, and then, because movement was the name of the game, both armies would split chunks of themselves off in an attempt to gain strategic advantages by outflanking (moving around) the opposing armies. Of course, the opposing army would have to split off a chunk of their army to counter. It didn't take long before armies started operating in very long lines rather than tight little clusters.
Another crucial factor in WWI was the fact that Europe now had railroads. This allowed entire armies to show up somewhere practically instantaneously. This meant that lines were unlikely to move quickly, due to the speed of reinforcement. They did have a drawback, though, in that once an army reached the end of the railhead, they had to reach their objectives on foot. That meant that reinforcements arrived far faster than an opponent was able to exploit an advantage on the battlefield (as the lines of advance moved further from their own rail heads, and closer to those of the retreating enemy). Combined with the massive advantage in defense over offense, created by machine guns and indirect artillery, the war started out from the very beginning to promise a very slow conclusion.
Of course, not everybody realized that right away, and some, particularly the French, spent the early parts of the war in mass charges that wound up being VERY expensive, casualty-wise, which they were unable to follow up with more strategic movement by the time that the Germans were able to reinforce their positions. In any case, the basic principle of war being about movement was being thwarted by technology.
It should be noted that there was another major cause for the stalemate, and that was the idea of defense in depth. People had figured our early in the war that if you had your line, and they had theirs, and they broke through yours, that they would be able to cause a "breakthrough", in which enemy units would pour through the hole and move around behind your troops, surrounding and destroying them. At first, the only solution was to move the entire line back so that it could be reformed solid anew (thus the early gains by Germany in the war).
It didn't take long for someone to come to the conclusion that what was needed was a move away from putting all of your forces into a single line. Instead, rather than trying to defend all points at once, you would somewhat defend all points, and then keep a large part of the army in reserve in a second line that would be able to "catch" any breakthroughs through the first line. This quickly developed to the point where the front line was often little more than skirmisher scouts who were there to tell the reserves where the main attack was coming. As well, you saw an age where an army would be spread out in depth to the tune of 6-12 lines of trenches that extended back from the front line. This, naturally, further slowed down the offensive abilities of the war. This created a lot of confusion and bad (read: repeating things which everyone knew lacked utility) decisions. In the end, it took some clever thinking to break the stalemate.
It was the Germans who figured out how to break trench warfare when they developed light infantry. The basic premise went like this. Let's say that your opponent had 5 lines of defense in depth. What you do is to make 6 different groups where you pool all of your best troops into the first group and the second best into the second and so on and so forth. When you attack, the first group's goal is to penetrate through all 5 lines and punch out through the back. They don't stop to engage enemy troops, they just storm through. The second group attacks and simply runs past the first 4 lines and then stops to attack the fifth defensive line. The third group then attacks the 4th line, the fourth the third and so on. Eventually, you have a situation where all enemy lines are engaged, and your best troops have achieved a breakthrough.
The other point of light infantry had to do with fortresses. An invading army can't simply bypass a fortress (usually), because once they march past the fortress, the defenders can leave their fort and attack your supply chain and disrupt your communications (or worse, work with conjunction of front line troops to attack from the rear and surround and destroy your advancing troops). As well, fortresses were able to convey the old castle advantage of fewer defenders needed per attacking unit (although to a lesser degree than they had in the middle ages. It should be noted that the reason they worked at all was due to an improvement in fortress design that allowed them to withstand cannon fire). As such, strong points on a line tended to be a major pain for an attacker. They had to take out the strongpoint, and they had to do it with more soldiers, freeing up more of the enemy soldiers (who weren't required to hold down the fort) to counterattack or outflank the enemy.
Light infantry came up with a solution to this as well. Just like the spearhead of an attack would race through enemy lines, so they would just blow past enemy strong points. Proceeding attack waves would be called up to handle the fortress, which only really needed to be enough to be able to defend against the defenders of the fort (who were low in numbers, remember) from barreling out and attacking the advancing waves of the assault. Then, much later, assuming that the fortress was able to hold off while being totally cut off, an overwhelming amount of reinforcements could be called in from far in the backfield to take out the forts one by one.
Needless to say, the plan worked very well. German forces, after years of stalemate were able to make massive gains into French territory. There were two flaws, however, that stopped the Germans from walking away with World War I. The first was the indomitable problem of railheads which made it easier to call in reinforcements than it was to support and exploit an attack. The second was that the Germans, by necessity, put their best troops in the first attack waves. This meant that they took abnormally high casualties while running through enemy lines, and because they were less able to be reinforced than the opponents who were called in to stop them. In the end, Germany bought territory with the lives of its elite soldiers. As a result, the German light infantry grand assault ground to a halt when all of it's good soldiers died. When America showed up with a few million troops a few months later, Germany, left with only poorer quality troops, was simply unable to maintain it's war effort, and imploded from within.
It should be noted, however, that it wasn't a fundamental lack of strategy, or something new that made strategy obsolete that ended the first world war. As such, the principles were carried over for a couple of decades to World War II.
World War II
While the conquest of Poland, Norway, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands could be chalked up mostly to massive force and technology disparities and political intrigue, Germany's invasion of France in 1940 was the real test of the way that continuation of old ideas about warfare was conducted in World War II.
For France's part, the lesson that they had learned from the German light infantry breakout was minimal. The assumption was that light infantry was just a sneaky way to attack further than the defender was defending in depth. The basic rules, for the French, however, hadn't changed. They as well noted that what eventually stopped the breakout was nothing more than more reserves coming up in what could be thought as extreme depth (all the way from the training grounds in Paris, for example). As such, the idea was that any attack could still be caught and stopped in its tracks, all you needed to do was to defend in greater depth than your opponent was able to penetrate.
As such, the French defense consisted of two main prongs. The first was to use the entire country of Belgium as one giant defensive bloc in the north, and the second was the Maginot line on the direct border with Germany. The Maginot line was effectively a giant fortress that was a piece of defense-in-depth that was 15 miles deep. Remembering that the German forces in World War I had to advance on foot from their railheads, it would have taken weeks for the German army to be able to penetrate all the way through this very heavily fortified position. France would easily have been able to mobilize and, knowing where the German threat was coming from, they would be able to easily counter it, all with fewer troops, due to the advantages gained through the fortification.
This would have been a great plan, except for the fact that the Germans had found a way to make defense in depth completely obsolete. The Germans had looked at their successes with stormtrooper (light infantry) tactics and felt that they really had something going. They watched as the French built the Maginot line and thought to themselves that there must be some way to be able to breach a defense, no matter how much depth it had. Their answer came from multiple sources that, when combined, became a strategy known as the blitzkrieg.
The first major cause of this revolution was technology. The first big innovation was the idea of mechanized warfare. The big reason that attacks could get bogged down in depthwise defense was that it could only move, at the fastest, at the speed of foot. The Germans, correctly, figured that if you put your entire army in half-ton trucks (properly supported, of course), the whole army could move as fast as the trucks could drive. Given a truck's speed at 50 miles an hour, you could move an entire army from Strassbourg to Paris in 6 hours. Thus, assuming that you could properly breach the defenses, the German army could theoretically conquer the entirety of France in a solid 12 hour day.
There were other key technological advances that made the blitzkrieg possible as well. The biggest reason why light infantry failed was due to unacceptable casualties. Thankfully (for the Germans), there were now ways to achieve the effects of spearheading and holding a breakthrough with much lower loss of life. The first of these technologies was the tank. The tank gets an undue amount of credit for the blitzkrieg, because you have to remember that the Germans only had Panzer I and II's when they entered France which were little more than Volkswagens with a machine gun. The crucial element, however, was that they were immune to small arms fire. This meant that they were able to move fast to keep up with the infantry in Opel trucks while at the same time being able to hold off attackers until they brought up anti-tank weapons (which, needless to say, would be too long of a time). The second major advance was the invention of real, credible attack aircraft. Stuka dive bombers were even more impervious to enemy gunfire and, while they weren't able to hold positions like tanks, were able to move at hundreds of miles an hour. As well, they were excellent at disrupting enemy movement and communications, making it difficult for reserves to move into positions to counter the advancing tanks and infantry.
As well, there was some new strategic thinking that made the blitzkrieg possible. The first was the German pioneering of airborne divisions. The fact that you could move whole regiments of German infantry at hundreds of miles an hour OVER any defensive position really made defense in depth look outright absurd.
Finally, the blitzkrieg had a type of tactical steamrolling effect once it got going. Once the French lines were broken (which they easily were due to defense in depth being made obsolete), the entire line needed to fall back in order to reform in order to be an effective defensive barrier. As such, the entirety of the line that the Germans breached would have to be spending it's time falling back, rather than shooting Germans. Likewise, a few hours later, when the mechanized juggernaut smashed through the reserve lines several miles back, THEY had to spend their time falling back rather than fighting. Then, a few hours later, when the Germans smashed through the redundancy reserve line, THEY had to start falling back rather than fighting. As such, the French army was forced to spend almost all of it's time retreating on foot while division after division of German troops drove past them.
Then you have to throw into the mix the mass confusion caused by the German air force and paratroopers, and the general chaos of unprecedented advances, and communication was, needless to say, wanting, at best. There are scores of anecdotes from the war of French soldiers marching to meet the Germans only to have wave after wave of them blast past them. Eventually, an auxiliary assault line would stop to notify the terribly confused French soldiers that they were, in fact, prisoners of war. Needless to say, Paris fell after only 9 days, along with the rest of France shortly thereafter. France had learned the hard way that it no longer mattered how deep it's defenses were, the German blitzkrieg had simply rendered it obsolete.
The rest of World War 2, then, was really an exercise in learning how to blitzkrieg better, and learning how to stop the blitzkrieg. While the Allied powers took too long to save most of Europe, eventually a strategy was found to return the defense to parity with the blitzkrieg offense. This new defensive procedure was known as the hedgehog defense. In brief, it called for defenders, rather than to fall back in order to re-establish the integrity of the line, to instead form into defensive positions and let themselves get surrounded and fight the enemy from there.
Firstly, it should be noted that the Germans had a distinct advantage in the fact that they invented mechanized warfare. The Allies were, however, quick to redeem themselves, and by 1942, few infantry still needed to cover any terrain save the direct battlefield on foot. As such, after their initial successes, it was no longer possible for German troops to simply drive forward to victory, as defending forces could now drive (and eventually parachute, should they have so desired) right over to meet them. As such, the Germans lost their relative movement advantage (remember that movement is the very heart of strategy). Likewise, the Allied powers made massive developments in their air fleets and tank corps to cancel out those German advantages as well.
Stripped of these blatant advantages, the blitzkrieg swiftly began to lose utility. There were still a few things that gave the attacker an advantage. The first was that these high-speed attacks amplified the surprise factor of any major offensive. The second was that blitzkriegs still tended to have some of the juggernaut feel to them even though it was no longer unbeatable. In the end, a major defensive operation still took time to properly co-ordinate, and if you could drive faster than they could co-ordinate, there was still a large advantage to be gained.
This juggernaut effect was, however, cancelled by the hedgehog defense. Large groups of forces no longer had to wait from HQ in order to move to the right places at the right time, they simply needed to dig in. Likewise, digging in stopped the rolling problem that the French had. Rather than having 95% of your army retreating at any one point, you had 95% of it ready to fight the enemy. Now, of course, this would have been a bad plan if the enemy was simply able to drive right through to your capitol (or wherever), but defenders were now mechanized to the point where they were able to get just enough reinforcements at the key location to tie the attackers up and slow them down.
In this way, a hedgehog could still "catch" a blitzkrieg, and were then in a very powerful position. Think back to the fortresses of World War I. The point of a fortress was that it was easy to defend, so you only left a small garrison to defend it (indeed, when Verdun finally fell in WWI, there were only a few thousand soldiers found guarding it). This small garrison wouldn't be able to pose much of a threat, and thus the blitzing army only needed to keep a token force behind to deal with it. With a hedgehog, however, the isolated pockets of resistance contained thousands up to hundreds of thousands of troops, and could not simply be pacified with a token force.
This meant that more and more forces were required to stay back to protect supply lines and to be able to take out the pockets of resistance. The more troops that had hedgehogged up, the more were required to hang back from the enemy's side. This, of course, made the initial attacking thrust more and more impotent, making it easier and easier for small amounts of reserve troops to drive up to catch the blitz. In the end, the blitzkrieg would grind to a halt, losing any strategic momentum that came from the initial movements.
Of course, this plan relied on a few key things. The first, of course, is that to be successful, the enemy wouldn't be able to achieve local superiority and snuff out the pockets of resistance (at least too quickly). This, however, wasn't as much of a problem as the blitzing enemy would always want to put as much power into the actual attack as possible. The second was that the hedgehog needed the discipline not to surrender despite being completely surrounded. The third, is that the troops in the hedgehog needed to be resupplied, which would be a challenge, given that they were surrounded on all sides.
This hurdle was once again overcome with technology, specifically that of the airplane. Airplanes, as mentioned before, can fly over (and thus ignore) enemy troop positions. They could bring food, ammo, and fresh troops, thus enabling the enclosed pocket to successfully resist (from a dug-in defensive position, no less), and bleed the offensive army dry as it tried to confusedly attack everywhere at once during a time when it had already lost the initiative.
The first, good, solid test of this was the battle of Stalingrad. The real point of taking the city in the first place was less of obvious strategic value and more because the Germans knew that they could draw millions of Soviet troops to the slaughter (which it did, quite successfully). Then, if things turned around and the Soviets were able to advance, Germany planned to use the German sixth army trapped in Stalingrad as one giant hedgehog, a third of a million soldiers strong. This, as planned, proved to be a massive drain on Soviet resources as their "no step back" policy forced alarmingly high casualties as they attempted to stamp out the German army. The Germans were able to be successful, though, because they were able to resupply their army by air.
However, there was something that the Germans didn't expect: the Soviets actually went and built themselves an air force. As Soviet airplanes started to push the Luftwaffe out of the airspace over Stalingrad, the forces inside began to wither, resulting in the ultimate collapse of the German sixth army.
As a quick note, there were a few other notable uses of the hedgehog defense. The first was the battle of Kursk, what I consider to be the real turning point of World War II. In brief, the Soviets had a bulge into the German lines (in the middle of it was the city of Kursk), and the Germans launched a major offensive to pinch off the bulge. Unfortunately, anyone could have expected the Kursk salient to be the target of attack, and as such the element of surprise was completely lost. As such, the Soviets turned the entire Kursk salient (roughly twice the size of the state of New Jersey) into a gigantic hedgehog. Without a strong airforce, and with tanks that were now mostly obsolete in comparison to their superior Soviet counterparts, the attack fell flat on it's face. Even if they could have surrounded the Soviet force, Soviet air superiority would have assured them that they could have survived neigh indefinitely.
Another notable success of the hedgehog strategy was in the Battle of the Bulge. While the Germans were able to stamp out almost all of the pockets of resistance, they paid a heavy price in both casualties and time. As well, the Bastogne hedgehog held throughout the entire operation bleeding the Germans of more and more resources to the point where over a third of the attacking German force was diverted in order to try and stamp out the hedgehog (which was sitting on a strategically vital location). In any case, it was clear by 1943 that the blitzkrieg was stoppable, and that defense had caught back up to parity with offense after it had it's revolution over defense in depth.
And then, in a fraction of a second, the way we conduct warfare was completely revolutionized. The world was suddenly a world that had nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons suddenly rendered the hedgehog defense utterly obsolete. The whole point of a hedgehog is to tightly pack a large amount of force into a small area in order to get it to hold out for long enough against a blitzkrieg. What are nuclear weapons exceedingly good at? Destroying absolutely everything in a small area. This is only exacerbated by the fact that the defender has a lot of forces concentrated in that area. Now, it no longer mattered how many hedgehogs you created or how powerful they were, as it only took one bomb per hedgehog to completely cancel it out.
The other revolution that nuclear weapons made was to a factor that has hitherto been ignored. Both of the world wars were industrial wars. This had already started to make strategy obsolete. This is because it was mattering less and less how well your army was organized and how efficiently it moved if I was able to produce far more, higher level technology than your side. While strategy still mattered in industrialized warfare, if your tanks' shells bounced off of my tanks' armor, and I could build my tanks 10:1 to yours because I have a bigger industrial base, it's easy to see how the world of strategy was already under attack.
Following along with this idea, there was extensive bombing (especially by the allies) of enemy cities with the sole purpose of destroying their factories. In the end, though, strategic bombing was, at best, limitedly successful due to the woeful inaccuracy of the bombers. It was uncovered after the fact that something like only 40% of bombs dropped landed within FIVE MILES of their indented target while only about 20% of the bombs hit anywhere within the target area, namely, somewhere in the city in which the factory was located (at the peak of aerial bombardment at the end of 1944, only 7% of RAF bombs landed within 1,000 feet of the intended target). Nuclear weapons, of course could level an entire city, instantly destroying all of it's factories.
Finally, nuclear weaponry brought about a frightening new proposition. While all warfare since Napoleon required a careful balancing and strengthening of the military, the state, and the people, nuclear weapons had the ability to virtually remove people from the equation. It no longer mattered if the enemy's public supported the war or not, as you could now just destroy the entirety of the enemy's public. In short, warfare seemed messy, drawn-out, and expensive when compared to the idea of simply causing the other side's civilization to instantly vanish off the face of the earth.
As history would have it, there was neither a blitzkrieg, or an attempted hedgehog defense after the first test of an atomic bomb. Indeed the time span between when the first nuclear weapon was used and the surrender of Japan happened to be the same amount of time between the beginning of the invasion of France and the fall of Paris five years earlier. As such, the effect that this revolution has had on warfare has yet to be determined, making the future of war uncertain. It is possible, however to make some predictions.
The Future of Warfare?
The first obvious prediction we can draw is that old-fashioned warfare won't resume until there is another revolution. Until nuclear weapons are rendered obsolete, it is clear that few (and thus far any) commanders have been willing to risk a major war due to the incredible, and at the moment still very utile, power of such weapons. As such, it's easy to see why major war has ceased since the end of World War 2 and why, at least for the near future, it remains unlikely.
The utility of nuclear weapons is, however, not guaranteed. For example, there are military targets like the NORAD command center which, because they were built under a mountain, defy the power of nuclear weapons. Likewise even if the U.S. Government had decided to use nuclear weapons against the Taliban in it's 2001 invasion, it's unclear that enemy fighters, hiding deep within the cave network of Tora Bora, would have suffered substantial losses.
As well, it's important to remember that tactical nuclear weapons (nuclear weapons designed for battlefield use) never promised to be an end-all in the first place. Nuclear weapons are only really effective when enemy forces are highly concentrated. As such, any attacking force that attacked on a broad, dispersed front would provide few choice targets for nuclear weapon attacks. As well, due to the development of helicopters and jumbo jets (which could theoretically move entire regiments around at 600+ miles per hour in a single go) and jet fighters (which can fly at up to 3,000 miles per hour and then deliver guided missiles to destroy their target with super accuracy at long range), the potential for VERY rapid movement of units also depletes the utility of point-and-smear weapons.
But it's not simply a matter of defensive technology achieving parity with nuclear weapons that will allow for major warfare once again. As well, the advantages of strategic nuclear weapons (gigantic warheads that flatten whole cities at a time) need to lose their relative utility, which I believe they already are. Remember that the whole point of strategic bombing in the first place was to destroy an enemy's industrial capability. This was a potentially good idea when you're fighting an industrial war where industrial capability actually mattered.
Now, however, we are living in a post-industrial world. The developed world already barely has any industry in it any more, and as such, the industry-destroying capability of large nuclear weapons is of dubious usefulness. The only use that strategic nuclear weapons really have any more is that they can kill a lot of people: people who will not want their governments to declare war. Remember, though, that strategic bombing of civilians did NOT have the desired effect of reducing morale, or forcing a country's people to riot in favor of peace. It did, in fact, do the opposite, making the bombed side want to win at any cost. As such, the tentative utility of nuclear weapons as a people-killing power is only as good as it's deterrent factor. If the population's fears can be assuaged just enough (like, say, by the government encasing everyone's home in 2 feet of concrete, or by building a missile interceptor system that works), major war will be possible once again.
But what will a major, post-industrial war look like? It's hard to say, as we don't know have a good grasp of what post-industrialism has or will do to most things which can be effected by it. That being said, it is possible to make some guesses. The first thing that we can see from how post-industrialism has effected economies (which are affected by it) is that there will be a massive stress on technology. In the past, industrial, world, a nation had a big advantage if they were able to turn their whole country into a giant factory. Guns were mass-produced, soldiers were mass-produced, logistics services were mass-produced. The post-industrial world, however, does not focus on mass industrial production. Instead, we are seeing an ever-growing push towards a creative, innovative technology-driven economy. Wars always push the envelope of technology, but major war of the future will combine this fact with a post-industrial economic system that was already very good at creating new technologies during times of peace.
As such, there will be a greater overall importance for a country to keep it's research and development levels as high as possible. This will require the nation to put out fewer soldiers, as they need to be thinkers. As well, fewer people will be available to be soldiers because nations of the future will need to keep their economies as strong as possible to be able to support larger and larger segments of the population working in laboratories. As such, I think it's fair to say that the average number of soldiers in the future will be much smaller (or the same size, but with a much lower percentage of the population).
While having fewer soldiers is usually a strategy for defeat, this will undoubtedly be offset (and then some) by said increase in technology. For example, the United States has become very good at producing aerial drones equipped with weapons systems on them. Undoubtedly this type of technology would fare prominently in a future war. As such, even if the U.S. only fields 1% of it's World War 2 sized force, the fact that every time a soldier is killed, what is really "killed" is a drone (which can be easily replaced), while the drone operator is safely sipping coffee in a bunker in Wisconsin.
As well, there will undoubtedly be a continuation of the technologization of the average foot soldier. Soldiers of today are far better equipped than soldiers of 60 years ago. As well, though it is not fully tested (and as such not distributed), plans are already nearly complete on a variety of footslogger technologies. For example, soldiers of even the very near future will have access to personal computers that gives individual soldiers an exact GPS co-ordinate of their position, along with a precise map of where they and their squadmates are. They will be able to have instant communication not only with their squadmates and officers, but as well those responsible for sending in air strikes and the like. Furthermore, a Wi-Fi internet connection will allow a soldier to look up pertinent information (like how to disarm a bomb) instantly from the world wide web. Advances in small-arms technology and personal protection (such as carbon-fiber and even "powered" armor) will be given to the soldier of the future. As such, any one soldier will possess a massive amount of utility compared to a soldier of the past: So much so, that the amount of actual power will go up, even if the number of soldiers plummets.
Finally, it must be assumed that the major wars of the future will involve the use of nuclear weapons. Remember that just because a revolution makes the previous revolution obsolete, it does not make it totally ineffective (and even if it did, it seems to take people awhile to realize that). That being said, the utility of nuclear weapons will be greatly reduced in the future major war (or else there wouldn't be one). Firstly, I don't foresee the actual use of massive, planet-spanning nuclear weapons. Not only have they lost most of their utility already, but anti-nuclear weapon systems are already being developed at a rapid pace. Faced with the chance to use their fissile material on the slim chance of making it through a missile shield (and even if it hit, it would only serve to strengthen the resolve and morale of the afflicted side), or to remove that material and put it into a thousand tactical weapons that will neither enrage the enemy population, and might actually have some real use, I'd put my bet that large nuclear weapons will, in the future, be split up into many small nuclear weapons, most likely in the range of only a few kilotons, and placed on the end of "smart" missiles. The current attempt at making nuclear "hand grenades" is already a step in the direction of the wide distribution and frequent use of tiny nuclear weapons.
As well, it's important to note that there are already pieces of technology that are making tactical nuclear weapons obsolete. It was already noted that the great improvements in battlefield speed reduce the usefulness of nuclear weapons. As well, there are weapons which are now specialized to the point where they can out-compete such a generalized weapon as a nuclear device. For example, the U.S. has already developed "bunker buster" bombs that are capable of destroying subterranean fortifications far better than nuclear weapons. As well, high-air-explosion fuel bombs (such as the MOAB) are able to deliver a sufficient amount of destruction to a larger surface area with much less weight and cost than nuclear weapons. As well, there are non-lethal options that are able to have more utility in a variety of situations (as I call them, weapons of mass annoyance). For example, developing high-frequency sonic generators that can cause an entire city to shut down as all of it's inhabitants writhe in a vain attempt to block out the blasting sound (at which point, the good guys (wearing sophisticated noise-dampening earphones) can easily run in and grab the bad guys).
Before I conclude, there is a major aspect of warfare as we know it that has been absent thus far: guerilla warfare. While "higher" levels of warfare make lower levels quickly useless against them (for example, personal bravery and combat acumen mean nothing in the face of nuclear weapons), this effect actually also works the other way around. If one side of a conflict is able to FORCE the style of warfare down to a low level, higher level styles of warfare will lose utility just as quickly. For example, all the nuclear weapons in the world won't help you if your enemy is able to infiltrate all of your military facilities and launch a massive series of raids. In this case, the offensive side would have brought the level of warfare all the way down to the bottom. As missile crews attempted to defend themselves in hand-to-hand combat against the intruders, combat prowess would actually have a lot of utility, whereas the fact that one side had nuclear missiles wouldn't matter at all anymore.
A classic example of guerilla warfare was the Battle of Grozny. The Russians had nuclear weapons, and trucks and tanks. This meant that the Russian army could have easily crushed the Chechnyan army as Russia had a major nuclear and strategic advantage. The Chechnyans had no nuclear weapons, and no trucks or tanks, which meant that the Russian army could go wherever it wanted. These two advantages, however, had little utility, because the Chechnyans were able to bring the level of warfare down to the very bottom. As such, only personal combat skill and, to a lesser extent, tactics would be of any real use in the battle. It was unfortunate for Russia, because it had spent all of it's time and effort only focusing on the upper levels. Meanwhile, at the bottom, it was highly trained Chechnyan rebels with high combat skill and high morale with competent officers against the Russian force comprised entirely of 16 to 18 year old conscripts with barely any training, and a terrible officer corps.
In brief, the Chechnyans let the Russian army roll into Grozny. Then, using superior tactics, they set up a perfect ambush, which the Russians (with little tactical acumen) fell directly into. Once the Armored column was stopped by crude explosives (as in rocket propelled grenades and thrown sticks of dynamite), the Chechnyans fell on the stationary, confused, surprised, and woefully untrained Russian forces. Needless to say, it was a total slaughter, and the Russians weren't the slaghterers.
Since the development of nuclear weapons, it has been these types of low-level wars that have been rife throughout the world, and will be so long as major powers are too scared away by nuclear technology to engage in major warfare. It should be noted, however, that this type of low-level warfare is finally beginning to be understood by major powers' armies. As such, countermeasures are starting to show up that has caused rebels and insurgents to be unable to conduct their lowest-level operations, but must move up the rungs, where they are more easily destroyable by conventional, high-level armies.
For example, when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, the actual war was of little contest. The U.S. was far better equipped to engage in a high-level war than the Iraqi army, which quickly collapsed. Of course, the insurgents quickly started up a low-level war in which the high-level U.S. army had very little utility. Needless to say, the American troops weren't all that effective, but just as Iraq was threatening to devolve into a complete civil war, the U.S. instituted a change of leadership. The new man was General Patraeus, who literally wrote the new manual on counter-insurgency. The new plan he put forward was quickly coined "the surge".
The Surge included the deployment of additional troops to Iraq, but it wasn't simply throwing more high-level, low-utility troops at the problem. The most important part was a change in strategy (which required more troops to implement) that was designed to lift the level of warfare. For example, the insurgents were able to make the battle one of personal combat acumen (I would note that suicide bombing would technically fall in this level), by being able to walk undetected amongst the population and suddenly engage American troops at close quarters with improvised explosive devices, RPG's and other quick attack methods. The new plan called for places to be walled off and isolated with countless number of checkpoints established. This prevented enemy troops from having the freedom of movement within the major cities to be able to attack at will. Now, individual sectors could be cleared with all of the militants in that sector being forced to stay there and be killed or apprehended. With this (and a few other changes), the U.S. forces were able to destroy the insurgent's combat acumen and tactical advantage in one quick stroke.
Another key element of the Surge was to make alliances with local powerful leaders. This had previously been shunned in favor of getting power properly and hierarchically situated within the Iraqi national government, but the Surge reversed course and dealt directly with local sheiks, especially in high-insurgency Sunni areas of Iraq. With a lot of smooth-talking and billions of dollars in bribes, the U.S. was able to get the sheiks on their side. The sheiks quickly got their respective populations to turn against terrorist cells and to stop being insurgents. Local populations became gigantic informant networks and previous insurgents were turned into "Sons of Iraq": local private sheik-controlled militias (funded by the U.S.) that were working as police officers to enforce the peace, rather than as insurgents to destroy it.
This made large areas of Iraq suddenly very hostile to the remaining insurgents and terrorists. They were forced to leave whole cities at a time in order to find a place safe enough to operate. Of course, once they were moving around the map, they were on the strategic level, which was something that the U.S. army had much more utility in dealing with. As such, the U.S. quickly started to get one step ahead of the insurgents, showing up in likely avenues of retreat in their helicopters far in advance of the insurgents traveling on foot. When the insurgents arrived, they found the U.S. army waiting, and a population which had already become hostile to them.
As such, the insurgents and terrorists needed to compete at a higher level, for which they were ill-prepared. Being unable to operate at the levels in which they had strength, their utility quickly failed them and the violence levels in Iraq dropped precipitously. A year and a half after the most bloody part of the insurgency, Baghdad had a lower level of violence than it had before the U.S. army had invaded in the first place.
Remember that higher levels make lower levels totally obsolete. Now we are beginning to be able to move lower level conflicts into higher levels, which means that major powers are developing technology to put all warfare on the same level once again. It would not be surprising to me if, in the far future, counter-insurgency tactics are so good that it will preclude anyone from engaging in conflict unless they can do it at the highest current level, which will always be out of reach of a vast majority of the nations of the world.
So, what does the future of warfare hold? It's hard to say for sure, but it is this author's opinion that we're likely to see a lessening of guerilla warfare as the different strata of levels of fighting all fall into a single, or narrow band of levels. As well, warfare in the future will likely have nuclear weapons in use, except not in the form of the massive city-killers that came to dominate the cold war. Technology and economics will be key with wars taking place with fewer and fewer soldiers and higher-tech armed forces. At some point in the far, far future, technological, post-industrial warfare will have another level built even on top of that which will make technological war obsolete.
War eventually evolves and adapts, and there is no reason to expect that to stop in the future. Just as the cycle of revolutions has reduced the utility of individual combat ability, tactics and strategy, so revolutions in technology will force nuclear weapons into obsolescence. The implications of which can only be theorized, and as such only time will tell us what the ultimate future of warfare will be.