The Future of Military Force

Non-Lethal Force Could Be the Future of Warfare
Story Stream
recent articles

“Killing people and destroying things for some political purpose” is how prominent defense scholar Richard Betts describes the essence of military force. Betts’ description reflects the pervasive view of military force held by most military and foreign policy experts. However, it does not account for a variety of non-lethal options that policy makers will have to consider using in future conflicts.

America’s use of conventional military force since World War II has achieved mixed political results.  In the future, the traditional instruments of national power may be even less effective because of America’s domestic problems and shifts in the geopolitical environment. These conditions will force security experts to develop new approaches to national power projection. As America struggles to maintain its position in the international system, it will be faced with the dilemma that its expensive military tools may not be appropriate for the political task at hand.

The ultimate objective of using military force is to apply enough pressure to the targeted state to compel it to accept an outcome favorable to the aggressor. Historically, applying pressure in great power wars resulted in the deaths of millions of civilians. David Rothkopf notes that during World War II hardly any Americans objected to the incineration of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians, and throughout the Cold War few objected to the principle of killing on an even wider scale in retaliation for a Soviet attack. Today, post-Cold War norms and Pentagon lawyers have put those ideas out of bounds and that type of thinking is no longer deemed legitimate. The decline in casualty rates during interstate conflicts clearly reflects the shift in global norms.

Another factor that a generation of American policy makers has not had to contend with is the threat to the U.S. homeland by foreign militaries. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has reiterated that America is no longer a sanctuary, as advances in missile technology, cyber weapons and even capable Special Forces pose a real and growing threat to America’s security. Knowing that American civilians and infrastructure are at risk during episodes of conflict, decisions to use lethal military force will be even more difficult to make.  

Experts from the Center for a New American Security recently noted the lethality of conventional military weapons is rapidly increasing.  Ironically, the increased lethality may make their actual use as taboo and as muscle-bound as their nuclear relatives have been for decades. America should shed its love affair with overwhelming firepower and consider other military options when coercive pressure is necessary.

While the United States and its western allies may find it difficult to shift from their pursuit of more lethal weapons, some states are already exploring other tactics. As Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation notes, “Successful coercive psychological warfare is the realization of ends for which one is prepared to go to war without having to take that final step and engage in active, kinetic, destructive warfare. From the Chinese perspective, given the destructiveness of nuclear weapons and even conventional forces, there is also significant incentive to develop coercive psychological approaches in order to achieve strategic ends without having to resort to the use of force.”

Three emerging families of military capabilities have great potential for broader use: information based weapons, wide-area nonlethal weapons, and directed energy weapons. All offer the potential to apply pressure to a targeted state without resulting in death or permanent destruction.  It is important to think beyond the current state of technology and consider the gap that exists between our current engineering practices and the laws of nature.  The following examples highlight how non-lethal force could be used as a coercive instrument in the future.

Electromagnetic blockade. In April 2007, Estonian government and media websites and online banking services were targeted by a series of cyber-attacks. The attacks continued intermittently for ten days and resulted in the national economy coming to a virtual halt. Similarly, in April 2010, internet traffic from U.S. federal agencies was unknowingly rerouted to servers in China. Information from the U.S. Senate, all four military services, the Secretary of Defense, and other federal agencies was affected.  One can assume the United States has similar capabilities to deny or disrupt communications as well. How and when to use this type of force is not clearly defined and the potential outcomes are not well understood.

Offshore control enforcement. One strategy currently being discussed for the unwelcome scenario of a military conflict with China is off-shore control. At the heart of this strategy is the ability to intercept and divert supertankers essential to China’s economy. Disrupting navigation systems, disabling computers and control systems, or even incapacitating the ship’s crew could provide viable options below the use of lethal military force.

Conflict termination: If military tensions escalate at sea, the United States may be faced with intervening in small-scale naval skirmishes to support critical allies. Ship-based non-lethal capabilities could be used to terminate or suppress an incident. Capabilities could disable weapons, control systems, or communications of one or both belligerents. In future state level conflicts, maintaining regional stability may replace the traditional notion of winning.  Reducing or prohibiting casualties may minimize resistance and animosity that destabilizes a situation and may result in adversaries being more willing to accept terms of conflict termination.

Wide-area denial. Several small sparsely populated island chains in the Pacific could be the impetus for military conflict in the future. Should these islands become the object of military occupation, non-lethal force could be used to temporarily prevent occupation of the disputed territory, providing additional time for diplomatic efforts to take hold.

By comparing Israel’s use of conventional military force against Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981 to the use of the Stuxnet computer virus on Iranian nuclear facilities in 2010, it is clear that the way states engage in interstate conflict is evolving.  As technology continues to advance, new military capabilities will emerge.  As some futurists argue, wars will be fought without human fatalities and with far less human involvement. This scenario will make most of today’s international relations paradigms obsolete.

In this era of constrained defense resources, difficult tradeoffs are inevitable and many are already underway. Consider that the number of soldiers in the U.S. Army is declining, while at the same time the Army is investing in new cyber weapons. In effect, boots on the ground are being exchanged for ones and zeros in cyber space. Policy makers and military leaders must fully understand the advantages and limitations these emerging weapons offer and how they fit into the national security decision making process. While non-lethal force will not eliminate conventional warfare, its expanded use may prevent strategic paralysis caused by a mismatch among military capabilities, political objectives and global norms. 

Show commentsHide Comments