The future of conflict has never looked so uncertain. Armies have always prepared to fight the last war they fought, that has always been true, but the rise of advanced technology has indicated that the conflicts Britain finds itself engaged in in the future could be drastically different from the previous conflicts she has fought.
The British Army has a long history of fighting successful counter-insurgency operations. Fighting the Irish and occupying Ireland for nearly 800 years and the colonial conquests of India, most of Africa the Malays and North America often meant that the Army was fighting local militias, guerrilla forces and “terrorism” (the line between terrorist and freedom fighter is often very thin, especially when it comes to colonial occupation).
During the occupation of Mesopotamia and Malaysia during and after World Wars I & II, the British fought well organised and equipped insurgents. Using a combination of propaganda, bribes and effective fighting forces, the British secured their dominance for decades to come, until the end of Empire.
This was alongside fighting conventional wars in Europe, Korea and elsewhere, not always successfully. However, the British Army was regarded as one of the best trained, equipped and most effective fighting forces around. Britain has nuclear weapons, special forces, and training for nearly every theatre of war imaginable. With the second-largest military budget in the world, after the United States, the Armed Forces of Britain remain fast-reacting and formidable.
Iraq and Afghanistan
The experience and resources of the Forces were put to the test in the counter-insurgency campaigns they waged in Iraq and Afghanistan. Largely successful in military terms, the work and sacrifice they endured was largely wasted by incoherent policy, insufficient effective investment in rebuilding and rehabilitating the nations, and bad leadership.
These two conflicts were the first fought by Western powers in the area of “asymmetric warfare”. Instead of fighting conventional militaries, the British and Americans were fighting insurgencies, terrorist cells and regional instabilities. This required massive coordination.
As a fighting force, they employed modern technologies like satellite imagery, motion sensors, drones, and precision airstrikes. This was not as effective as military planners had anticipated. Communications were complicated and regularly failed, information was not processed efficiently and soldiers on the ground and in the air found their equipment unreliable. Huge arrays of sensors produced vast amounts of data that was often useless. Incompatibility, connection issues, incorrect interpretation, all dogged the efforts of the people on the ground to fight effectively.
The failure of the Western powers in effectively subjugating their foes points to the limitations of this kind of technology. However, investment continues into more precise weapons, battlefield logistics systems, soldier augmentations like virtual reality overlays and augmented strength, super-secure communications and training to use these systems. The hope is that an integrated information system can give both generals and soldiers access to real-time data on friendly and enemy positions, the terrain, incoming ordnance, and available reserves. Whether this has been achieved or not is another question.
The British Army bought a lot of American kit, as well as producing their own, for the implementation of this new kind of warfare. Large tanks are less desirable, what is needed is quick, manoeuvrable, and able to use the data being fed to it from drones, sensors and “intelligence” to avoid enemy fire. This requires constant communication with base, support and inside the tank. All of which is done electronically and mostly wirelessly.
Which brings us to the future of warfare and the challenges facing the British Army.
The outcome of a war could one day soon be decided by a person sitting behind a desk typing code. The integration and data-based organisation and implementation of modern armies leaves them open to attack from the internet or through jamming communication pathways with static.
The modern form of armies is generally to have small, independent units that use their communication and data feed to coordinate and provide the most comprehensive fighting force. Disrupt that communication and they become small, isolated, lightly armed units incapable of calling for assistance, reinforcements or knowing who is a friend or a foe.
It should be no surprise, therefore, that governments in countries like the USA, Britain, France, Russia, and China have invested heavily in cyberwarfare “divisions”. The American F35A currently costs $94.6 million. It is utterly dependent on the technology within it. If the code that drives it is hacked, it is a $94.6 million dead weight. The British are buying dozens.
Leaving aside nuclear war (Russia and America are developing a new generation of low-yield nukes and renewing their ICBM programs), the next big war could very likely be fought using more conventional weapons as each side comprehensively disables all the expensive and complicated technology of their enemies.
Infrastructure like traffic lights, power, food and water supplies, internet connections and healthcare systems can all be taken offline remotely. It is highly likely that the major military powers have the capability to destroy the infrastructure of a country without even firing a weapon.
The British Army has faced years of cuts, with the number of personnel falling dramatically. Expensive vanity projects like two aircraft carriers, which can be taken out from hundreds of miles away by a new Chinese missile, have squandered valuable resources on trying to fight the last war. The next one will be nothing like anything we’ve seen before.