Future Operating Environment

War is Dead: 5 Areas for Investment & Modernization for Future Conflict

By J. David Thompson August 14, 2019

War is dead. “[S]ince the conclusion of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, only two of thirty-six interstate wars begun have been accompanied by declarations of war; and only six of thirty-eight wars have ended since 1949 were concluded with a formal declaration of peace.”[1] War, in the formal sense, is over. There are proxy wars, cyber wars, civil wars, and other military operations other than war (MOOTW). Most of these “wars” have armed conflict and look a lot like war. Journalists, politicians, and civil society commonly refer to them as war. Despite the common vernacular, formal declarations of war never come.

The question, what areas do we need to invest in and modernise if we are to be ready to win future wars, is therefore obsolete. When asking how the military wins future wars, one presupposes that there will be war. The likelihood of a near-peer adversary entering into a formal declaration of war is nil. However, the likelihood of increasingly complex MOOTW is almost certainly guaranteed. Joint Publication (JP) 3-07 states that MOOTW “encompass the use of military capabilities across the range of military operations short of war.”[2] Answering the question, what areas do we need to invest in and modernise if we are to be ready to win future MOOTW, is, therefore, paramount.

To address future MOOTW, allied nations need to invest in and modernise five areas. First, allied nations must train for the challenges they face and not for the troops they have. Second, there needs to be better opportunities for spouses to pursue their career ambitions. Third, allied nations need to invest in intellectual development in the officer and non-commissioned officer (NCO) ranks. Fourth, allied nations need to restructure themselves with a focus on enhanced logistical capabilities. Lastly, allied nations must invest in multilateralism and coalition building.

Training for the future challenges

Allied nations must train for the challenges they face and not the troops they have. In the United States, the military primarily trains for large-scale combat operations (LSCO). Field Manual (FM) 3-0 states, “[l]arge-scale combat operations present the greatest challenge for Army forces.”[3] These scenarios often include a formal military and an insurgent presence. We also train on counterterrorism, unconventional warfare and more. The reason we train for LSCO is because that is what forces we have.  

We fail to adequately train on how to respond to climate change, refugee situations, enforcing human rights, disruption to international trade, or mass human migration. According to FM 3-0 trends for threats include: “competition for resources, water access, and declining birth rates in traditionally allied nations, and disenfranchised groups.”[4] Despite this acknowledgement, combat training centers continue training for LSCO. Climate change serves as a threat multiplier for already complex issues.[5] We fail to train on reintegrating the nearly 75 million displaced people across the world.[6] We fail to train on how to respond when 5 million people lose their homes due to rising sea levels. The biggest threats we face in the future are ones that lack a common enemy. The international community will not be able to always point to a person with a deliberate mens rea.[7] Future conflicts will be more protracted, complex, and some will lack a malign actor.

Retaining the service family

Second, there needs to be better opportunities for spouses to pursue their career ambitions. Spouses are no longer “dependent” upon the service member to be the sole income generator. Spouses have careers and professional ambitions. Unfortunately, military bases often lack the surrounding infrastructure to support spouses. Frequent moves disrupt spouse’s career goals. If spouses cannot pursue their careers, it threatens to limit the talent pool for the military. Military bases need to work with the public and private sector to enable better opportunities for spouses.

Career management in the military needs to develop with the understanding that service comes at a cost for families. Time in grade (TIG) and retention control points (RCP) restrictions in the U.S. military mean that a service member may be discharged if s/he fails to promote. Maybe this means a service member cannot get promoted unless the person moves, but the person should be eligible to continue serving. If a service member is forcibly discharged because the spouse cannot move his/her career, then the military limits the talent pool. Failing to modernise for co-working spouses threatens national security.

Developing the intellectual component of fighting power

Third, allied nations need to invest in intellectual development of officers and NCOs. In the U.S., we give a half-hearted attempt at intellectual development. We have opportunities for officers and NCOs to achieve graduate degrees. Although, instead of empowering them to use their newfound knowledge, we place them where we have an opening. Unfortunately, some organizations prioritize tactical schools over graduate degrees for promotion of senior NCOs. Further, we fail to recognize that not all degrees are equal. We prioritize the piece of paper over cognitive stimulation and academic integrity. Officers and NCOs need better opportunities to develop critical thinking skills in a legitimate academic environment. They then need to be able to use that knowledge to benefit the force.

Prioritisation of logistics reform

Fourth, allied nations need to restructure themselves to focus on enhanced logistical capabilities. Future engagements depend less on combat arms and more on the ability to move logistics forward. In the U.S., logistics branches comprise approximately eighty percent of the Reserve forces. There are no infantry, armor, field artillery, etc. forces in the Army Reserves. These branches are on Active Duty. Nations should nearly flip Active Duty and Reserves. This switch communicates priorities. It allocate more funding to the professional development of personnel in logistics branches and enables better responses to future engagements. Militaries would retain special operations forces and a sufficient number of conventional combat arms to remain ready. Those forces provide the initial response. During that time, combat arms in the Reserves prepare to deploy. When they arrive in theater, logistics are already in place.

The importance of coalitions

Lastly, allied nations must invest in multilateralism and coalition building. Increasingly complex and protracted situations require a coalition of partners. The rise in domestic nationalist movements comes at a bad time. Addressing root causes of radicalization, creating economic empowerment, reversing climate change, and promoting human rights require multinational coalitions. Bringing countries together to galvanize the public and private sector creates longer, more sustainable effects. Nations do not sacrifice independence when they help write rules and get everyone moving towards common objectives. International issues require international responses.

While war, in the legal sense, is dead, there are plenty of MOOTW ahead. To ensure that allied nations remain ready for any contingency, there are five areas for investment and modernization. First, allied nations need to train for actual threats instead of training for the forces they currently have. Second, allied nations need to provide better career opportunities for spouses and modernise restrictions to enable working couples. Third, there needs to be a concerted investment in intellectual development for officers and NCOs. Fourth, allied nations need to build operational capacity for logistics while creating Reserve opportunities for combat arms. Lastly, allied nations need to invest in multilateralism and coalition building between the public and private sector. Investment and modernization in these areas will help ensure nations recruit, retain, and train the best talent.

End Notes:

[1] Fazal, T., Wars of Law: Unintended Consequences in the Regulation of Armed Conflict, (2018), pg. 1.

[2] Pg. vii.

[3] Para. 1-4.

[4] Para. 1-21.

[5] Hagel, C., Department of Defense 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, (2014), Foreward.

[6] UNHCR, Global Trends 2018, (2019), pg 5.



J. David Thompson

J. David Thompson is a U.S. Army Civil Affairs Major. He has a Juris Doctorate from Washington Lee School of Law. He also holds a BS in Economics and MBA-Leadership from Liberty University. Outside the military, he's worked at the UN Refugee Agency, Department of Defense, and Physicians for Human Rights – Israel. Check out his website at www.jdavidthompson.com.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.


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