The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps face daunting times, particularly with the return of great power competition. The known is becoming unknown; the predictable, unpredictable. Surprise at every level is likely—technical, tactical, operational, strategic. Organizations and people who can rapidly and effectively adapt are more likely to prevail; those who cannot, will fail. This, perhaps, is why the old warning not to fight the last war should resonate.2
Prevailing against the capable and powerful opponents that are emerging demands the Department of the Navy (DoN) up its game—it must get better at all aspects of war, from political and strategic thinking through plans and procurement to tactics and techniques. Getting better means thinking and doing differently. Business as usual will no longer suffice.
War is changing at a dramatic rate and scope. Knowledge gained from one’s own experiences informs a shrinking portion of the emerging reality. The DoN must look elsewhere for insights and guidance. This generation’s predecessors looked to history and theory, even in periods of dramatic technological change, geostrategic upheaval, and economic dislocation. Indeed, it was because of such changes that they turned to history.3
Naval leaders must come to grips with how the character of war (how war is fought) is changing within the context of the enduring nature of war (the human element: a politically guided clash of actively opposed wills).4 Understanding and action must be rooted in accepting that war’s fundamental nature shapes and constrains the phenomenon, and that its character flows from and interacts with war’s human dimensions. To do otherwise is to risk basing plans, hopes, and the security of the nation and world on a tenuous footing.5
The old ways are rapidly being supplemented by new ones; legacy organizations, processes, and thought are increasingly at odds with emerging conditions. A return to thinking holistically about war, its nature, its character—indeed, its long history—and the demands it places on nations and military professionals is called for.
Comprehending the future of war will require not only technical, tactical, and bureaucratic mastery, but also a deep understanding of war as a total construct. Because of the changes that are increasingly moving war away from the known and into the unknown, the unforeseen will become the norm. This will place a premium on institutional abilities to handle surprises and adapt to rapidly shifting realities.
Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine has ended a long period of peace—one that saw dramatic changes in technology, global trade and integration (particularly via telecommunications and social media), and, consequently, societal expectations. Few people today have experienced war between great powers. The return of great power competition is the driving trend today and brings with it all aspects of a changing character of war.6
How today’s military—and U.S. naval forces in particular—will deal with the changes and prepare for a radically different security environment are pressing questions. It is not the most experienced minds that will win in the future, but the most flexible and adaptable; it is not the biggest, best-funded bureaucracy that will win, but the most agile and versatile.
War’s Incessantly Changing Character
“War’s nature is violent, interactive between opposing wills, and driven by politics. War’s character, its conduct, constantly evolves under the influence of technology, moral forces (law or ethics), culture, and military culture, which also change across time and place.”7
Commentators, analysts, and even military professionals frequently conflate the lasting nature of war with the ever-changing character of war. While this might seem a trivial distinction, it is not. The fundamental nature of war—as defined by Carl von Clausewitz in On War—is the clash of actively opposed wills comprised of violence, chance, and rational thought.8 By comparison, war’s character is rapidly and continuously evolving. Technology, societal expectations and culture, geostrategic dynamics, doctrine, economics, trade, and even history all combine to shape war in a given era.
Failure to distinguish between war’s nature and character encourages viewing it as something it is not. Such failures have significant and negative impacts on militaries—both in the preparation and the conduct of war. For example, failing to account for the human element (and the derivative elements of chance, friction, fear, and uncertainty) may lead militaries to believe that chaos and confusion can be designed out of war, or that the next technological development will ensure victory, or that forces can be employed with perfect efficiency, controlled by all-knowing but distant commanders. War’s intrinsic human element and all the uncertainty it introduces lay bare the fallacy of such beliefs.
Today, accelerating change is making itself felt across all aspects of war’s character—and not just in each element, but also in the interactions between those elements. The reemergence of great power competition is rapidly altering the geostrategic landscape; the possibility of war between powers at the top of the global pecking order brings with it many new factors that have been ignored for the past 30 years: technical equivalence, the return of mass, the end of air and sea sanctuary, and the reality of weapons of mass destruction.
Technology—military and commercial—offers new capabilities to combatants, from enhanced decision aids to unmanned/robotic platforms, to drone swarms. The maturation of artificial intelligence, big data and data analytics, machine learning, and digital twins herald what the Chinese term “cognitive warfare” as a new domain of war.9 Even more cutting-edge innovations, such as human enhancements, nano- technologies, advances in materials science, and high-power/density energy sources, bring into sharp relief the scope and pace of changes in the character of war.10 As with most tools of war, these capabilities offer a double-edged sword. Cyber weapons, information warfare, and cheap, easy-to-use, effective weapons offer opportunities to exploit as well as vulnerabilities to defend.
A significant part of the technological revolution is the omnipresence of social media. The war in Ukraine showcases this in surprising ways. Despite decades of wars around the world in the internet era, this conflict pits two tech-capable adversaries against each other. The battle to shape domestic, enemy, and global opinion is emerging as a significant element of modern war. This battle is taking place in a new environment, where private companies are direct actors: Elon Musk’s Starlink services are helping Ukrainians stay online, facilitating the social media battle.11 More broadly, the growing role of social media also is a double-edged sword. Not only does it allow immediate reporting of events, but it also opens the door for sophisticated propaganda that can sway populations. The potential to manipulate an adversary’s population will be balanced by how savvy—or (more cynically) how distrusting—those populations are, as well as government efforts to counter enemy information campaigns.
In addition, the evolving nature of globalized trade and its associated finance mechanisms and economic integration offer opportunities and vulnerabilities in military planning. As Nicholas Lambert has argued, today’s global economic system is more like that existing in 1914 than in 1939. The Navy is unlikely to enjoy such a clear anticommerce battlefield as it did in World War II in a future war. Neutrals will abound. On the other hand, the global system offers a new role for sea power in interdicting enemy trade. The integrated nature of the economy—with just-in-time manufacturing and shipping—sends ripples up the supply chain when any element is disrupted. If, as Lambert argues, the British strategy of hobbling the German economy in the summer of 1914 was going to work in months, today’s much faster, more connected world may see such impacts in days or weeks.12
At the same time, legacy elements of war remain valid—implying that in addition to adopting new processes and structures, the DoN must also reinvigorate and renovate existing ones.13 The stalled Russian offensive in Ukraine may well demonstrate the end of the operational offensive or the weakness of a conscript army, as some argue, but it may also underscore the impact of incompetence, poor planning, poor leadership, and slavish dedication to established doctrine.14
A different take on the Russo-Ukraine war may be that a combined-arms force remains central to future war—but it must be supported by effective networks, surveillance, countersurveillance, air power, cognitive warfare, logistics, and agile doctrine. More significantly, this war emphasizes the critical importance of leadership, education, training, and organization shaped by the need for agility of intellect and operations, decentralization of authority to decide and act, and versatility in the face of uncertainty.
The character of war is evolving at an extraordinary rate. The pace of change casts military strategists adrift from previous thought. This is particularly true for the Sea Services. The U.S. Navy has not fought a capable foe at sea since 1945.15 The staggering breadth of change in every domain and at every level since that time poses significant challenges to naval thinking. Naval leaders at the turn of the last century realized that their experiences could not help them anticipate where war was headed. But unlike today, that Navy turned to history and naval theory to inform decisions about the future. The result flowed from works such as Alfred T. Mahan’s 1890 seminal work, The Influence of Seapower Upon History, and ultimately guided the Navy to victory in World War II. In today’s environment of change and uncertainty, there is wisdom in turning to history for insight. In this
way, history, too, is a factor in the changing
character of war.16
The rapidly evolving character of war has significant implications for the Sea Services. As with every major war in the past, tomorrow’s competitions and conflicts will need new doctrine, new organizations, and new service cultures to prevail.
In the face of these changes, experiences in the Cold War and the various hot wars since 1991 will be inadequate. Recourse to historical examples can supplement experience and understanding. This, in turn, raises the need to reinvigorate the development and study of military—and naval—theory. As Jon Sumida has argued, both Clausewitz and Mahan developed theory not as a checklist for fighting, but as a tool for filling in the gaps, for allowing students to empathize with decisions in past wars, and to hone their judgment for when the test comes.17
Effectiveness in the give and take of technological competition will be an essential element of military capability. This may seem obvious, but the character of that competition is changing. First, the U.S. military increasingly competes against peer competitors, not just their proxies. The term “peer competitor” implies an adversary who can acquire the same or better capabilities. Consequently, the U.S. military can no longer take for granted technological superiority. Second, competition at this level means that time and tempo matter in technological developments. Developing and fielding technology must happen more quickly. Third, how adversaries develop and employ technology will differ from U.S. approaches to the same technology. Understanding adversary strategic culture and approaches will be essential.18 Fourth, an era of peer competition means that any technological advantages gained will be temporary. The playing field is more level, which means that reliance on technical advantage will not be sufficient.19 This, in turn, puts a premium on the ability of institutions and individuals to think and adapt quickly. Even as technology offers stunning new capabilities (and threats), the human element remains essential.
A more fundamental implication of the changing character of war is that once again Americans are in a long-term competition between systems, each holding up its own version of global order. This is driving the need for a national consensus on an enduring grand strategy that balances the requirement for sustained national security against the unfinished work on our democracy at home. It will require a whole-of-government approach to competition—the military alone, or even chiefly, cannot solve new strategic dilemmas. Factors long ignored will once again be important: improving the U.S. education system, stoking advantages in knowledge capital, bringing critical manufacturing capability back onshore, overhauling the immigration system, and rebuilding infrastructure. The United States and its allies offer significant strengths in the competition against the rising authoritarian powers. At issue is how well the nation can bring those tools to bear and how long it can sustain the effort.
The need for organizational reform is amplified by the changing character of war as well. In an era in which the adversary is capable, speed is important in everything. Current U.S. military bureaucratic processes have evolved over the past 30 years, with a focus on high efficiency and in an environment where time and tempo were of less importance. Reforming them will involve process change and organizational overhaul, which means fundamental reform of acquisition, careful attention to joint military organizations, a hard look at operational commands and staff processes, and enhanced government–industry teaming.
War’s evolving character also places a heavy demand on military training (preparing for the expected) and education (preparing for the unexpected). The uncertainty surrounding how war is evolving means that military professionals will need to have a firm foundation in theory and history as well as in tactics and techniques. Education will need to broaden and deepen, while training will have to accelerate.
Finally, the U.S. military in general—and the Navy–Marine Corps team in particular—must emphasize intellectual agility, maximize operational fluidity, improve its ability to assess and handle risk, and, in the end, learn how to fight adversaries with greater numbers and better technology. Such changes will bring the need to rethink doctrine, to test new doctrine in games and exercises, and to continuously adapt. And finally, the U.S. military will require toughness in the face of adversity unlike any it has seen in decades. It will have to learn how to fight back after defeat and setback. In wars of necessity, the option of packing up and going home no longer exists.
A new era of warfare is upon us, and myriad emerging technologies will help define how wars will be fought in the future. What is less understood is that many other factors are contributing to the flow of change. Moreover, America’s long-standing faith in technology as a solver of operational and strategic problems, combined with a confidence bordering on hubris regarding recent military experience, tends to minimize the importance of the interaction between the nature of war and its character.20
The U.S. military insists on casting war as it would wish it to be vice as it is. Belief in the power of information technology to allow efficient application of force—with lower echelons being merely executors of plans devised and managed above them—persists. There is little discussion of the chaos of war, leaving little room for surprise, chance, uncertainty, and fear. As a result, while there are doctrinal statements alluding to the need for low-level initiative and decision making, the reality is that these qualities are often ignored if not discouraged.21
Resetting U.S. military thinking about war has become an urgent mission. The U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and their joint service partners must reevaluate all aspects of organization, procurement, training, and operations to align with new realities. For the first time in more than a century, the United States faces the possibility of fighting a war of necessity, outnumbered against very capable adversaries, and under the threat of nuclear weapons. This will require an approach that is starkly different from the technology-centric style to which the military has become accustomed.
Versatility, speed and tempo, individual initiative, and decentralization, along with a comprehensive understanding of what war is and how to integrate the myriad elements of national power to a given purpose, are the keys to prevailing in these challenging times. In short, the Sea Services must adapt to the new realities of war. Doing so will require a deep understanding of both its fundamental nature and its changing character in the coming era.
1. U.S Marine Corps, FMFM 1, Warfighting (Washington: Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1989), 6 and 64. Williamson Murray singles out Warfighting as one of the few service doctrinal statements worth reading in America and the Future of War: The Past as Prologue (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2017), p. 34.
2. General Douglas MacArthur once said, “New conditions require, for solution … new and imaginative methods. Wars are never won in the past.” MacArthur’s point is that slavish adherence to past experiences and doctrine will be ill-suited in a new war. Cited by Frank Hoffman in “The Changing Character of Warfare: The ‘Four Faces’ of the Future,” a brief presented to the Swedish Defense University, 8 March 2022.
3. John B. Hattendorf, “History and Technological Change: The Study of History in the U.S. Navy, 1873–1890,” in his Naval History and Maritime Strategy: Collected Essays (Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Company, 2000).
4. Carl von Clausewitz was the first theorist to distinguish between war’s fundamental nature as a human clash of actively opposed wills and its character in any given era. See On War, ed. & trans. by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), book I, chapter 1, 88-89.
5. Alan Beyerchen, “Clausewitz, Nonlinearity, and the Unpredictability of War,” International Security, Vol. 17, no. 3 (Winter 1992/93), 50-90. Beyerchen argues that chance and uncertainty (stemming from the human element in war) are not just part of war but are intrinsic to it. The interactions stemming from chance are nonlinear and unpredictable. Any theory of—or approach to—war that downplays this dynamic fails to account for war as it is. A superb analysis of Beyerchen’s work is in Jon Tetsuro Sumida, Decoding Clausewitz: A New Approach to On War (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2008), 112–116.
6. See for example, CAPT Sam J. Tangredi, USN (Ret.), “Relearn the Lessons of Desert Shield/Desert Storm,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 148, no.3 (March 2022).
7. LtCol Frank G. Hoffman, USMCR (Ret.), “Will War’s Nature Change in the Seventh Military Revolution?” The US Army War College Quarterly: Parameters (Winter 2017): 23.
8. Clausewitz, On War, 89.
9. Discussion with Jason Bruzdzinski at MITRE, 19 March 2022. See also Yuan-Chou Jing, “How Does China Aim to Use AI in Warfare,” The Diplomat, 28 December 2021, and Jeffrey Engstrom, Systems Confrontation and System Destruction Warfare: How the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Seeks to Wage Modern Warfare (Santa Monica, CA, RAND, 2018).
10. LtCol Hoffman, “The Changing Character of Warfare.” See also Hoffman, “Will War’s Nature Change in the Seventh Military Revolution?” 21.
11. Musk’s activities in this arena have been widely reported. See, for example, Sam Raskin, “Elon Musk Activates Starlink in Ukraine After Vice Prime Minister’s Plea,” New York Post, 27 February 2022.
12. This argument is based on discussions with Dr. Nicholas Lambert as well as his published work. Lambert argues for the importance of economic warfare as a U.S. Navy mission, one that is fundamentally different than what it executed against Japan in World War II. For more in-depth consideration, see, “What Real Economic Warfare Looked Like,” The Wall Street Journal, 18 March 2022, and “What Is a Navy For?” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 147, no.4 (April, 2021); and his Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2012).
13. The author wishes to thank Paul Giarra for pointing out the distinction between reforming for the new and renovating the old.
14. John Q. Bolton and Andrew Senesac, “Does Ukraine Spell the Death of the Operational-Level Offense?” Small Wars Journal, 17 March 2022.
15. Some would argue that the Cold War face-off between the U.S. and Soviet navies constituted war. This author does not hold with that argument. First, Clausewitz argued that war is based on armed violence, not threats alone (On War, 87). Second, while the Cold War naval competition was fraught with danger and knife-edged brinkmanship—and required consummate skill and dedication of its participants—it did not witness the violence and death of actual combat.
16. Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783, 12th ed. (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1943; originally published 1890). Trent Hone, Learning War: The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898–1945, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018).
17. Jon Tetsuro Sumida, Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command: The Classic Works of Alfred Thayer Mahan Reconsidered (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), and Sumida, Decoding Clausewitz.
18. According to Williamson Murray, this is a significant challenge for a U.S. decisionmaking and military establishment that is largely ignorant of its adversaries. See America and the Future of War, 44 and 118. The latter page references a quote from General James Mattis on the importance of studying military history and adversary cultures.
19. Mick Ryan, War Transformed: The Future of Twenty-First Century Great Power Competition and Conflict (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2022), p. 6. The ephemeral nature of technological advantage is underscored by both Martin van Creveld in Technology and War From 2000 B.C. to the Present, (New York: The Free Press, 1989) 228) and Edward Luttwak in Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 1987) 29ff.
20. Murray, America and the Future of War, 29–32.
21. In addition to the Marine Corps’ older FMFM 1, Warfighting statement, see Joint Pub 3-0, Joint Operations, 11 August 2011, and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, USA, “Mission Command White Paper,” 3 April 2012.