Illustration by Hannah Robinson

US military planners, wary of what the future holds, are turning their focus away from counterinsurgency operations, the central focus of combat operations since late 2003, to what the future of warfare will look like in the rest of the 21st century.

Two important documents have recently been published by the US Department of Defence that outline what the future of war may look like, and both indicate a drastic change in the nature of warfare. First is the National Defence Strategy summary, which articulates a strategy for how the USA should respond to the return of ‘long-term strategic competition’ against peer competitors, namely Russia, China, and Iran, on the diplomatic, economic, and mainly military fronts. The second is the Commandant of the Marine Corps’ Planning Guidance, which articulates a vision of the role and purpose of the Marine Corps in future conflicts that could arise from a war with these peer competitors, and looks into what the future war will look like.

However, this shift of focus has not been without controversy. The conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan have not subsided and are a quagmire with no end in sight. There remains an ever-present threat of a resurgent Islamic State or new radical Islamist group in the Levant and the potential of a Taliban victory in Afghanistan.

The NDS lays out a strategy for the shift to conventional state-to-state conflict. This focuses on the cultivation of talent, modernisation of the forces, increased focus on lethality and winning a conflict. In a section on non-military matters it stresses a need for the cultivation of deeper cooperation with allies and states with mutual interests through economic cooperation and alliances; and greater civilian-military engagement on the how to better challenge these threats.

Soberingly, the NDS foresees conflict arising between the USA and her allies with these peer rivals as struggles for geo-strategic control over the international system are likely to emerge.

As China is seeking to further assert itself in Asia and to export its authoritarian model, friction if not outright hostilities between the PRC and the US is highly plausible. On a strategic basis, containing China is critical as it limits her ability to threaten the global order through offensive militarism or predatory economic measures; while on a practical level, America has long-term alliances in the region with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and de-facto Taiwan- the most likely point of contention between the two- that the USA has a treaty obligation to protect.

Meanwhile, Russia is attempting to match the power and prestige of the Soviet Empire through both militarism and territorial expansion. Russia’s actions in the Donbas region and Crimea in Ukraine, the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions in Georgia, and recent efforts to further integrate Belarus into its sphere attest to that- and also show a worrying trend that could ensnare the Baltics and thus NATO into a conflict.

The Planning Guidance responds to the future the NDS presents in an important way: it is an articulation of how to achieve a strategic victory against a peer competitor. Focusing on China and a hypothetical future conflict, General David H. Berger says that “Visions of a massed naval armada nine nautical miles off-shore in the South China Sea preparing to launch the landing force… are impractical and unreasonable”. Instead, a conflict with China will most likely be smaller and dynamic, based upon the capture and control of small Pacific islands and creating zones of control which deny enemy ships and aircraft passage through vital sea lanes.

In this situation, the role of the Marine Corps is vital, as they will be the main combat force fighting this type of war. They will do the work of fighting for control over the islands and establishing the critical denial systems. In order to do this Berger believes that the Marine Corps needs to leave precedent aside and focus on how to win. He proposes that the Navy and the Marines should return to being a combined force and argues for the need for new technology and people to operate that tech, better and smarter officers, and a focus on retaining talent through quality of life changes, such as parental leave reform.

Both documents discuss the role of hybrid warfare, cyber warfare, and how space warfare may affect the battlefield of the future: all hot topics lately due to the Russian usage of hacking tools during the Ukrainian conflict and surface-to-space missiles being tested by the Indian government around the same time as its latest skirmishes with Pakistan. And both stress the USA needs further investment in its cyber capability to counter Russian, North Korean, and Chinese hacking efforts, which represent foreign threats to the homeland. This will have beneficial second order effects for all Americans, as it will provide security for business, and infrastructure.

Critically, both documents acknowledge that the future of warfare is uncertain, and that rigidity and dogma will not cut it. A newfound dynamism and willingness to slay sacred cows is allowing the US military to focus on the future and on how to protect its soldiers. And hopefully these plans mean it will not make the mistake of planning to fight the last war when the unthinkable event of another great power conflict occurs.