Changing Character of Conflict: Shape of New Wars to Come

The nature of conflict does not change; however, the character of conflict evolves with the passage of time. Particularly since the end of the Cold War, there has been immense change in the character of conflict. A balance of power system, tentative and skewed as it was, ensured that the world has so far been spared the spectre of a Third World War, which, if it occurs, will inevitably see the use of dozens of nuclear weapons.

Perhaps history is now working in reverse: the possession of nuclear weapons has ensured that the days of large-scale inter-state wars are almost over and, in their place, the world is witnessing the rise of what Martin van Creveld has called ‘crummy little wars’ — fought by insurgents, terrorists, guerrillas, bandits, drug cartels and criminal networks.

The prevailing security environment is radically different from what it was even a decade ago. The probability of conventional conflict between states or groups of states has been steadily declining while, at the same time, sub-conventional conflict is gaining prominence. ‘Wars of interest’ were supplemented by ‘wars of conscience’ as the international community, newly awakened to the horrors of the violation of human rights, moved to relieve the suffering of those who had been long oppressed and those who were being victimised over sectarian and ethnic differences.

To these two categories of ‘wars of interest’ and ‘wars of conscience’, a new category ‘wars of intervention’ has been added, and military intervention is being justified on many grounds. Non-state actors with transnational presence are emerging as important entities and are gaining importance that is (almost always) disproportionate to their size and status.

The changing character of conflict is indirectly influencing the conceptualisation of national security in the 21st century. The concept of the Westphalian nation-state has begun to fray at the edges. In the post-Cold War world order, power blocs have been slowly giving way to cooperative regional groupings like the European Union (EU), though Brexit has dented EU cohesion, and trade blocks like Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). While regional groupings such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) enjoy the advantage of proximity and cultural understanding, these do not possess suitable operational capability to maintain stability and conduct peace-support operations.

Regional groupings have been better at issuing declarations and identifying principles than at formulating concrete operational policies, for reasons of conflicting national priorities and domestic political considerations. This is not unusual, given that most of them were founded on the mandate of trade and development and have begun exploring security cooperation only recently.

Along with West Asia, Southern Asia has gradually emerged as one of the key epicentres of conflict and instability in the world. Being host to a mix of indigenous peoples and migrants, Southern Asia has witnessed the movement of people for several centuries and many Southern Asian states have rarely seen true political unity. Territorial disputes, religious fundamentalism, radical extremism, ethnic tensions and socio-economic disparities are the hallmarks of Southern Asia.

The shadow of nuclear weapons has also contributed to instability in Southern Asia. At present, it appears unlikely that a genuinely cooperative security framework will emerge in the Indo-Pacific from the ashes of the ongoing conflicts.

Emerging contours 

In the increasingly globalised world, the emerging security challenges are no longer products merely of conventional inter-state rivalries but of economic, demographic and societal tensions that are transnational in nature. The incidence of conflict is on the rise due to multiple factors ranging from weak and illegitimate state institutions, marginalisation of people in border areas (generating sanctuaries for various insurgent groups), large-scale population displacements and ineffective regional security arrangements. Modern conflict is more likely to be a consequence of regional struggles involving a range of actors rather than inter-state tensions. Instability is likely to arise as a consequence of the rise of autonomous armed groups and non-state entities and the weakening of governments and state institutions.

Given the rising importance of cities as political, economic and cultural centres of gravity, the battlefields of armed conflict are increasingly shifting towards urban settings. An emerging phenomenon that is gradually gaining momentum is the use of the techniques of information warfare, organised crime and acts of terrorism, fostered by cross-border linkages between disparate terrorist organisations.

Cyber-security is posing new challenges and nation-states are finding it difficult to cope with the increasingly sophisticated hacking techniques being employed by non-state actors and rogue individuals. Non-contact warfare like economic measures designed to harm a country’s economic stability — for example, through the circulation of fake currency — will add to the security planners’ challenges to overcome.

The rising competition over limited energy resources is generating new tensions in geopolitical relations. Its adverse impact is being felt increasingly in the Southern Asian region as well. Future water wars are already being spoken of in hushed tones as a distinct possibility. Though trade wars are in the realm of speculation at present, with increasing economic competition in the future, these may not be far off. However, in the foreseeable future, asymmetric, amorphous, cross-cultural conflict will continue to dominate the strategic landscape.

These changes in the character of conflict are leading to the gradual transformation of military forces. Formerly designed primarily for conventional state versus state conflict, these are now being re-oriented to be able to fight a conventional war as well to act decisively against non-state adversaries.

As future threats and challenges are becoming increasingly more difficult to predict due to strategic uncertainty, in areas that are devoid of territorial disputes, the force transformation trend-line will be to move from threat-based to capability-based forces. Similarly, training regimes will need to be configured to train for certainty and educate for uncertainty.

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi)