The Future of War: a review

BY Robert Salisbury   /  26 January 2018

Professor Lawrence Freedman and Sam Goldwyn have at least one thing in common: neither much likes making predictions, particularly about the future.

Paradoxically, Professor Freedman’s reluctance to prophesy is entirely sensible in a book entitled ‘The Future of War.’ On the penultimate page he says: ‘It would be against the spirit of this book predict the incidence and form of future wars’. Indeed, he quotes at the beginning of his final chapter, and with approval, Major General Bob Scales: ‘The least successful enterprise in Washington DC (was) the one that places bets on the nature and character of tomorrow’s wars. Virtually without exception, they get it wrong.’ And as Professor Freedman says, the task of prediction is today more difficult than ever: ‘There is no longer a dominant model for future war, but instead a blurred concept and a range of speculative possibilities.’

What he gives us, therefore, is a predictably authoritative tour d’horizon of war in the late nineteenth and in the twentieth centuries, followed by an analysis of wars in the twenty-first ( so far), and an assessment of the threats we face today. In doing so he gives us a history of the history of future conflict. And he is unashamedly and understandably writing from an Anglo-American point of view. To set out with clarity such a complex brief in under 300 pages is the sort of thing we have learnt to expect from Professor Freedman who has been an integral part of the Whitehall and defence establishment for decades.

He is interesting about too many things to discuss them at length in a short review, but there are some surprises on the systems front.

For instance, he is coolly unpanicked about the threat of cyber attack, likening it to irregular war, but not a way to win a conflict. I hope he is right about that. We are terrifyingly dependent in our everyday lives on computer systems. Equally, as part of the ‘range of speculative possibilities’ he refers to, cyber attack could prove an effective weapon in a broader armoury.

He is also curiously reticent about space. Treaties are supposed to have demilitarised space. However, conflict between great powers, which Freedman rightly sees as once again a possibility, would surely sweep such impediments aside in a twinkling. The great powers are certainly increasingly capable in space, including the Chinese.

There are other questions on the systems front on which one would have welcomed more of the author’s wisdom.

He makes a passing reference to over-reliance on large platforms. In that context it would have been interesting to have heard more about, for instance, whether aircraft carriers are obsolescent and therefore whether spending £7 billions on a brace of them without nuclear propulsion, and without being able to afford enough of the wrong kind of aircraft to equip them with, is altogether wise of the Royal Navy. For a country which above all should be a maritime power, there might be more effective ways of spending the money.

Equally, the author gives us a fine analysis of the history of nuclear deterrence. There is a view that the nuclear theology devised so brilliantly by Michael Quinlan and which served us so well in the Cold War no longer protects us in a multi-polar world. Besides, is a submarine-borne strategic deterrent any longer technically convincing? Submarines are increasingly difficult to hide and over the next forty years, which is the projected life of the Trident replacement, they may be floating in seas that have become virtually transparent. We need a strategic deterrent in this country and we are spending billions on an updated version of Trident in order to retain one. However, we have a habit of beginning to fight the next war as if it were the last one. It would have been interesting had Professor Freedman waded into the argument and reassured us doubters by dispatching us to the boundary.

Professor Freedman, of course, is not suggesting that, because even the experts are bad at predicting the future, we should fail to prepare as best we can to defend ourselves and our interests. How governments should tackle this task has changed. It would have been interesting to have heard more on this, since with change comes the need for redesigned or at least adapted machinery for defining what is needed.

There is a view that a suitable mechanism might not be too difficult to bring into being.

Defence used to provide the overwhelming proportion of security. Now, things are different: the old distinction between home and abroad has dissolved; and more departments of state have a role, not just the MoD, the FCO and the Home Office, but others too, such as Education or Energy. It is therefore sensible for there to be a central coordinator whose job is to assess risks and threats, to recommend to Cabinet how much should be spent on what and which, when, as inevitably happens, things do not pan out as expected, has the obligation to review and adapt.

Theoretically, we have such a body in the form of the National Security Council. It is chaired by the Prime Minister and run by a distinguished Civil Servant. I suspect it nevertheless does not have the clout to perform the continuous heavy-lifting role we need. A chairman in the form of a cabinet minister in the William Haig mould, with the full confidence of the Prime Minister, who would do nothing else would provide the necessary heft. A joint committee of Privy Counsellors from both Houses could provide Parliamentary oversight and the NSC’s Chairman would report to the Overseas and Defence Committee of the Cabinet which, of course, would be chaired by the Prime Minister.

However, in the end all such matters are mechanics: important mechanics, but mechanics nonetheless. A successful Defence and Security Policy depends on more fundamental matters, although they are less easy to measure. What sort of country do we want to be and therefore what interests and aspirations will we need to defend and promote? Do we have the resources to fulfil our aspirations and are we prepared to commit them for long enough? How do we ensure that the electorate is signed up to these aspirations and continues to be so when the going gets rough? Any one who lived in America in the late sixties could see how impossible it was for the government to conduct the Vietnam war on the home front by lying to itself and then to the public about events in S.E. Asia. Iraq,Afghanistan and Syria provide further proof if further proof were needed of how failure drives the power out of a great nation and reduces it to the impotence of Darius’s Persia or the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Not only does its international clout evaporate, but it loses the respect of its own people. That is why Harlan Ullman’s latest book ‘ Why America Loses every War it Starts’ is so timely.

Professor Freedman’s latest is useful and, like everything he writes, should be required reading for anyone interested in the subject (which ought to be all of us). I hope his next book will touch on some these other matters as well. No one is better qualified to comment and advise.