The Future of Unconventional Warfare (2035 – 2050)

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Women in Future Operations Holds Its First Working Group

What do you see when you conceptualise the future of unconventional warfare? What an outstandingly complex, convoluted and complicated question. This is the question that was posed to over twenty Defence and Security experts this month during the first virtual Women in Future Operations working group, presented in partnership with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).

Women in Future Operations (WFO) is a platform within the Future Operations Research Group (FORGe) at UNSW Canberra at ADFA, co-founded by Jenna Allen, Katja Theodorakis (both from UNSW ADFA), and Major Lyndsay Freeman (Chief of Army Scholar). In its own words, the initiative aims to leverage women’s expertise and cultivate a network of leaders and thinkers who utilise their diverse expertise to help work past the current cultural status quo. This aligns with FORGe’s overarching aim of pushing the intellectual edge and drive forward-thinking for the future operational environment and global security issues that military forces and security experts will face – based on the four core research themes of Future Urban Warfare, Future Unconventional Warfare, Emerging Flashpoints and Emerging Future Technologies.

As was highlighted by Lisa Sharland, the head of the International Program at ASPI and coordinator of ASPI’s Women in Defence and Security Network (WDSN), the platform seeks to amplify the voices of ‘women who happen to be experts’ – a frequently made distinction in the context of ‘women in national security’ that seeks to prioritise exchanging expertise over a mere inclusivity- or diversity agenda.

The three panelists undertaking this colossal question were Professor Sarah Kreps, Dr Marina Miron and Associate Professor Sarah Percy. Of the many ideas, vignettes and views that were raised throughout each panelists discussion, the following is a brief synopsis of those ‘take-aways’ from the viewpoint of this author.

Dominant cultural ideas about war are ‘sticky’ as Associate Professor Percy explained. They stick to our consciousness through history and as a result they frame what we determine as ‘normal’. With that foundational understanding we need to be cautious in what we think is ‘conventional’ and therefore ‘unconventional’ as this will have the potential to hamstring our ability to imagine the future battlespace and tactics of our adversaries.

What we regularly define as unconventional warfare, often thought of as both violent and non-violent use of all five domains against legitimate military targets and the civilian populace, will definitely be incredibly prevalent in the future. This would be inclusive of cyber attacks, ‘Defending forward’ through similar tactics to the NSA blocking Russian cyber activity during national elections, weaponizing information and AI, as discussed by Professor Kreps. Despite this, it should be understood that conventional armed conflict will be ongoing.

Great powers utilising proxy warfare will as always be ubiquitous, however we will see multiple, simultaneous dilemmas through insurgencies, militants, non-state and state actors from both proxies and great powers.  Through the contemporary example of Russia in Syria, Dr Miron surmised that when considering the future of unconventional warfare, it will be more advantageous to consider the adversary than the battlespace. This change in mindset from a defined battlespace will allow practitioners and experts to quickly adapt to the newest threat as it arises.

As suggested by Associate Professor Percy, a potential lens through which we can utilise the past to predict the future is the nexus between organised crime and security. Like many examples of organised crime, the motives, networks, financing and desired outcomes for legitimacy are often similar to the actors that are seen conducting unconventional warfare.

An interesting and wise warning provided by Professor Kreps was that not only will deterrence of unconventional warfare and irregular tactics be difficult, but when entering the arms race of the future with systems such as AI, we run the risk of deploying systems before they are appropriately mature and as such, worsening the condition of unconventional warfare in the future.

According to some, the organisation that will be key to combating these future threats will be special forces. Although these force elements are smaller and take time to train, they do not risk great political capital as discussed by Dr Miron. It is easier to justify the deployment of special forces when contemporary conflicts are seen as less about ‘national survival’ and host nations see the deployment of these soldiers as less of an ‘armed intervention’ than a larger conventional force.

The working group concluded with the practical exercise of collating and considering the discussion through the activity of curating a team to deploy in 2050. What does it look like?

Will this require force elements with anthropological and linguistic expertise, a high level of EQ and cognitive abilities as well as the regular disciplines required for force protection? What should we consider in terms of building partner capacity and capabilities?

The questions to consider are as great as ‘unconventional’ warfare itself and as Associate Professor Percy stated, ‘Adaptability is key. We will get it wrong as much as we will get it right.’

About the author: Jess Ward is a currently serving Australian Army Officer with over a decade of experience. Jess has commanded within Combat Brigades, on operations and as an instructor. Jess has been published in ‘Winning Westeros: How Game of Thrones explains modern military conflict’ as well as several professional military education websites. Jess curates The Bookshelf. Follow Jess at @JessPixWard