The history of warfare has never been filled with good predictions of how warfare would evolve in the future. Aside from the odd science fiction writer, no one predicted the technical, tactical, and strategic nature of World War I. World War II began with gross exaggerations of the threat posed by poison gas and the air forces of the day. Navies that still emphasized battleships in a war that became dominated by submarines and carriers. The uncertain efforts to reshape land forces evolved into blitzkrieg, after armored offensives that initially involved German field commanders that disobeyed order from their high command. After World War II, massive efforts to restructure land, air, and sea forces for nuclear warfighting ended in the fear of mutual assured destruction and the practice of small conventional wars and insurgencies outside the key areas of NATO and Warsaw Pact confrontation. The first Gulf War in 1990 saw major advances in precision strike air power, but it also saw armored exchanges that were far more favorable to the U.S.-led coalition than most military planners and analysts predicted before the actual battles.
The advances that the U.S. made in precision airstrikes in the first Gulf War in 1990 has since created steadily higher demands that every possible effort be made to minimize civilian casualties, and these demands have reached the point where they already can be highly unrealistic. In some cases such demands potentially impose limits on the use of conventional military forces. They also would make it impossible to use such forces to achieve decisive results—while they also act as major incentives for the potential target force to use civilians as human shields, occupy key civilian facilities, and engage in political warfare to exaggerate civilian casualties from modern weapons while avowing any mention of their own far more scattered attacks on civilians. If extremists, terrorists, and insurgents can acquire even relatively short-range UCAVs, they have the potential ability to do critical damage and either simply disperse or make use of human shields, and such delivery systems can be very hard to detect and almost impossible to defend against. As Iran may well have already demonstrated, cruise missiles and UCAVs can also be used to counter or supplement economic warfare and deal with sanctions. They reinforce the fact that the ability to escalate in some military ways is not producing some new form of mutually assured destruction, but is integrating political, economic, and military warfare. Seen from a broader perspective, they are a warning that the only rules to future warfare are that there are no rules, and that the only fully predictable aspect of the future of warfare is that it will be at least as unpredictable as in the past. Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the United States Department of Defense and the United States Department of State.
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