Writing War Transformed: The Future of Twenty-First-Century Great Power Competition and Conflict seemed an inevitable project for Major General Mick Ryan (Retd.) to mark the end of his military career. After over 30 years of service, Ryan served across a number of operational, staff and training roles; however, arguably his greatest contribution to the Australian Defence Force (ADF) was found in his passion of Professional Military Education (PME).
After quite literally writing the book on Army’s needs for education and training, Ryan would go on to serve as the Director General Training and Doctrine for Army, and finally the Commander of the Australian Defence College.
Ryan’s passion for PME is clearly visible throughout the book, drawing on much of his earlier work and ties to leading academics within the various fields intersecting with the profession of arms. Reinforcing his love of history, he also often uses historical examples (in lieu of personal anecdotes) to make his case. The book is clearly not a memoir, but rather his own contribution to the profession of arms and the study of the future of war.
Ryan’s overarching thesis – that technology alone will not prove decisive in the wars of the 21st century – is not altogether new, or particularly contentious. It is, however, an idea that is worth promoting when the allure of new technologies can distract from investments in any military’s greatest capability: its people.
War Transformed is also not a forecast or prediction of the future of war. Rather, his work could be seen more as a descriptor of the key technologies affecting warfare in the 21st century than as a disruptive position on how Western militaries need to re-evaluate their approach to preparing for these conflicts. In this regard, the book is unlikely to be met with much debate or conjecture within the profession of arms. Similarly, Ryan avoids issues of policy or political controversy in lieu of a narrower focus on how Western militaries need to be responsive to change.
Nevertheless, its value for those seeking to understand war’s evolving character is certainly evident. Predicting the future may well be a fruitless endeavour, but preparing for it never is. In this sense, his central thesis holds true. A focus on the intellectual edge for competitive advantage allows for the creation of an agile force that can embrace change and adapt to war’s evolving character.
The book is also quite timely, being released only a few weeks before the Russian Invasion of Ukraine. So far, Ryan’s assertions have held true to the events that have occurred since then. Technology has not proved decisive, surprise has been enduring, and the wit of a motivated force has continued to prevail over a larger and better resourced adversary.
Ryan concludes with six propositions to prepare for future conflicts. Each is founded on war’s enduring nature – that it will continue to be a human endeavour. By reinforcing the importance of the human in war, he seeks to focus his recommendations on how to ensure those humans are best prepared to navigate an uncertain world. In order to harness the potential of emerging and disruptive technologies, Ryan contends that militaries need to incentivise and nurture intellectual curiosity.
New technologies will require new approaches and new approaches will require a cultural change as much as they’ll require an institutional one. Ryan’s work provides a clear outline of the challenges confronting professional militaries in an accelerated and uncertain world. While he doesn’t provide all the answers to these challenges, he does provide a meaningful contribution to the discussion and a goal to aspire towards. For this, his work deserves the attention of any military professional.