Peer-To-Peer Tactics In The 21st Century

Horrific scenes of the bloody conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia have recently made the rounds on social media. Strategic analysts around the world have made note of Azerbaijan’s employment of suicide drones, or “loitering munitions.” I’ve read articles detailing tragic and unacceptable losses on the Armenian side to these cheap and effective weapons: hundreds of dead soldiers, entire battalions of equipment lost, with some estimates of the losses at over 1 billion USD.

I was shocked to see the effects of a weapons system which has been in development for quite some time now. As of writing, most modern militaries have an inventory of these “loitering munitions,” and I couldn’t help but recognize some parallels between our current strategic situation and that of the distant past. I think that the next wave of peer-to-peer conflict across the globe threatens to be far more deadly than most strategists anticipate, and in my estimation, they are making many of the same mistakes that their counterparts were making in the years leading up to the First World War.

Over 100 years ago, European powers met on the battlefield with largely untested tactics and weaponry, and the result was devastating. Since that time, military historians have come to understand that tacticians were unprepared for peer-to-peer conflict for a number of reasons. Firstly, many of the troops were used to asymmetrical warfare in overseas colonies, where they faced adversaries with inferior tactics and technology. Because of the low casualty rate in these conflicts, tacticians became over-reliant on offensive tactics and became complacent in their defensive capabilities. Similarly, offensive technologies had progressed dramatically, while defensive technology lagged hundreds of years behind. While troops now had fully automatic weaponry and air support, they were still wearing the cloth and leather uniforms worn by musket men hundreds of years prior. Finally, the development of information technology created an even deadlier and less predictable battlefield. The invention of the telegraph, radio, and rail, created front lines that were highly fluid and responsive. Where a surprise charge may have earned territory in the past, armies now shifted battlefield resources in real-time to account for the movements of enemy troops. The result of all these changes was the same: the battlefield was far more deadly than it had been in the past, and now hundreds or even thousands of lives could be extinguished in seconds.

I’d like to make the case that modern tacticians are no better off than their WWI counterparts, for very similar reasons. Firstly, we should recognize that defensive technology has not kept pace with the development of offensive capabilities. As was demonstrated in Nagorno-Krabakh, modern troops will find themselves completely defenceless against a host of newly developed offensive weaponry. Chief among these are “loitering munitions.” Current LM technology represents little more than the prop-driven drones we are familiar with, outfitted with a few pounds of explosives. In the future, however, loitering munitions could spend days or weeks over enemy positions, waiting for the opportune moment to inflict maximum casualties. There is no way to protect against such attacks, short of air superiority.

In my estimation, though, the most dangerous adaptations to new offensive technologies have already taken place. The greatest tactical threat to human life on the modern battlefield is the missile barrage. Once they are launched, there is no recalling the rockets, nor is there any good defence to withstand a direct missile strike. Defensive technology depends on systems like Israel’s Iron Dome, but that is a losing proposition because the defensive missiles cost more than the incoming missiles. Israel, or any nation that utilizes a missile defence system like Iron Dome, face the reality that they can only afford to shoot down a handful of missiles. Countries utilizing the missile barrage tactic invariably have many times more missiles than their adversaries could ever afford to shoot down.

Also, new hypersonic missile technologies threaten military assets all over the world, and there is no conceivable way to ever defend against these attacks, short of an enormous leap in laser-powered anti-air technology.

Another point of similarity to WWI is the failure by modern tacticians to fully consider the scope of the modern battlefield. Back in 1991, Iraqi SCUD missiles killed more than two dozen Americans more than a hundred miles from the Kuwaiti border, demonstrating that missiles can put assets at risk anywhere in the world. Chinese strategists have recently identified logistical infrastructure as viable targets during conflict with the United States. This puts refuelling aircraft, joint-use airbases, and other non-combat personnel at risk of attack. We can also expect, during the next major peer-to-peer conflict, a lack of distinction between military and civilian targets- an ominous prospect, considering the large inventories of nuclear and conventional ICBMs stockpiled by major powers.

Perhaps the largest shift in tactics will be necessitated by the end of “air superiority” as the dominant combat strategy employed by major powers. Recently, China unveiled an advanced radar system, capable of tracking and killing 5th generation stealth aircraft. This should be a wakeup call for Western strategists, whose war plans rely on waves of stealth aircraft penetrating and neutralizing defences before any other activity is permitted. I think the result of these technological developments will create air combat that is sporadic, operating over ever-shifting safety envelopes on the ground. It seems likely that decisive air campaigns could quickly render entire armies vulnerable to destruction before ground troops have time to respond.

Of course, there are also new domains of warfare to consider. Space, cyber, and “multi-domain” conflicts require radically different tactics and capabilities. I think conflict on these terms will be unpredictable and uniquely bloody, and that cyber warfare may represent a modern “maxim gun” of unparalleled carnage. There are no experts or think tanks that can credibly present a worst-case scenario of a large-scale cyberattack, but it is assumed that such an attack would be at least as bad as a worst-case WMD attack. It’s easy to imagine, for example, how disastrous losing access to water or electricity might be for a place like New York City or Tokyo.

Advancements in information technology also have radically transformed the battlefield of tomorrow. Never before have militaries had such access to the inventories, rosters, and budgets of their opponents, so strategists can plan more accurately and carefully than was ever possible in the past. The level of information we have now could permit the targeted assassination of an entire army’s officers, the bombing of every international supplier for an arms manufacturer, the manufacturing of the perfect number of anti-tank weaponry, all based on irrefutable data collected in real-time. This data has the potential to change the nature of war in ways that few people understand.

All of that data plays a role in the missile threat too. Now countries can target all the relevant infrastructure of their opponents ahead of time, to be destroyed at the flip of a switch. This includes airbases and training camps, but also includes civilian-run research labs, strategic industries, and any other relevant targets.

Lastly, many of the world’s armed forces are “dug in” on a level previous strategists could hardly imagine. Deep underground bases, enormous strategic reserves, and continuity of government plans have fortified modern militaries far more so than any of the great militaries of the past, and strategists would be wise to reconsider their abilities to defeat any of these “consolidated” regimes. Iran, for example, has a huge network of underground bases that, when utilized, could largely protect personnel loss during a bombing campaign. The United States has strategic reserves of oil, natural gas, and grain, which would allow the military to fight even when the entire global economy has completely collapsed. Many nations have enough underground infrastructure and reserves to basically prevent any other nation from conquering them from the air. As was demonstrated in the fight against ISIS in Syria, it is very difficult to force your will on the modern battlefield from the air alone. Even war against a smaller, less equipped nation, like Iran, would need boots on the ground to achieve Israeli and US objectives like confiscating nuclear material or deposing the national government in Tehran.

In summary, tacticians should recognize that this new era of peer-to-peer conflict presents us with an opportunity to avoid the mistakes of the past by highlighting the uniquely steep costs. Instead of running headlong into conflict with technologically formidable enemies, we should recognize that the arduous processes of diplomacy and business will probably cost less in the long run than trying to reshape the geopolitical arena through force with the existing balance of power and technology.

Those of us involved in the peace movement should remind aggressive generals and advisors of the mistakes of their predecessors, and let them know they will be held accountable when they take caviler risks with our brothers, sons, and livelihoods. I hope the anti-war movement seizes on the tactical lack of confidence I’ve outlined to rally for political and diplomatic solutions wherever possible.

Julian Rizk


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