New ways of war

Adam Roberts' 2010 novel New Model Army holds some interesting lessons about the future of warfare

New ways of war
Image: Andrew Liptak

Just over a decade ago, Adam Roberts published what I think of as one of the best – and most underrated – works of science fiction novels ever written: New Model Army. It was released in 2010: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were still lurching forward, and just before what would become the Arab Spring would erupt a couple of months later in December.

In it, Roberts imagines a radically different military: England has erupted into a brutal civil war, one in which a decentralized, democratically-driven insurgency is engaged against the British military. One side can coalesce and vanish with ease, while the other, a top-heavy, regimented organization, is equipped with superior tools at their disposal, but is ill-equipped to deal with the nature of the threat before them. It's an intriguing treatise on how organizations are put together; how their inherent values translate into effective action.

At the time, I enjoyed reading it and thought there were some interesting ideas embedded in it, but didn't quite see how prescient some of those idea were at the time. Since then, we've seen some considerable transformations on the battlefield: insurgent groups that coordinate via isolated cells, or terror movements that are linked by ideology but not necessarily with strong organizational ties.

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Yesterday, I was listening to a program on NPR that spent some time discussing the situation in Ukraine and one element in particular: the Wagner Group, often described as a mercenary group that's worked to further Russian interests since 2014. There's conflicting descriptions though: I've seen some experts describe the group as part of Russia's MOD, while others have said that it's not an actual company, but something more along the lines of a decentralized organization that's supported by a network of other, specialized companies that feeds them weapons and money. (I can't actually seem to find the radio story that I heard.)

The latter description caught my attention, because it's an interesting development in the recent history of war, and one that feels congruent to Roberts' book: a demonstration that changes in how militaries are organized affects how war is carried out.

Technological changes have always changed how we fight: the introduction of horses and cavalry led to different formations and types of weapons deployed against them. Cannons changed how we designed forts, and advances in firearms has continually changed how we fight.

The tools that we deploy in wartime garner a lot of attention from military historians, but tools such as the radio, email, text message, communications satellites, and computerized data are equally important in the preparation and conduct of warfare. Tools such as artificial intelligence (not, mind, the Terminator-style AI, but something like machine learning) will likely have a huge impact on those underlying, below-the-surface elements that help militaries organize and communicate with themselves.

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In Roberts' book, the Pantegral (fighting on the side of Scotland) isn't so much a standing military than it is a collective: every member has their say on how they're conducting said war, from strategy to tactics. It's warfare by way of crowdsourcing expertise and knowledge, allowing individuals to react quickly to changes, or to become medics as the need presents itself. We've seen some interesting elements of this in Ukraine: Ukrainians (and other social media users) who have taken to Tik Tok to share their expertise on how to drive Russian vehicles to making Molotov Cocktails, and so forth.

There's a grain of salt to be taken with New Model Army: military training and organization is designed to impart clarity and skills up and down the chain of command, and I still have a difficult time imagining a crowd-sourced method being an entirely effective fighting force. But then again, we've seen in recent weeks what happens when an inept and under-prepared military goes up against a determined population.

That line of thought really only extends to the type of warfare where you have two militaries going up against one another in ways that are somewhat matched: think about armored divisions that the US and other NATO allies (as well as the training that's been undertaken in Germany and Europe over the decades) that were specifically designed to roll up against their Soviet / Russian counterparts.

The internet and the tools that it's brought with it has warped how people think about the concept of warfare. Decades of conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Israel, and now Ukraine have demonstrated the power that something as simple as Twitter can hold on the battlefield, and how weird warfare has become. A Ukrainian millionaire saw Russians inside his mansion via a webcam and asked the military to bomb it, a guy tracked the Russian soldier who stole his AirPods via Apple's Find My feature, and Ukrainians have been using facial recognition software to ID dead Russian soldiers and then contact their families to try and break through the wall of propaganda that the Russian media has been pumping out.  We've seen organizations like Bellingcat crowdsource intelligence (OSINT) to generate an incredible wealth of information about the conflict in ways that strategists would have killed for decades ago.

There's been no shortage of books recently about the changing state of warfare, from policy wonk-aimed titles like 2034 by Elliot Ackerman and James G. Stavridis to Ghost Fleet and Burn-In by P.W. Singer and August Cole to more conventional sci-fi titles like The Red and The Last Good Man by Linda Nagata. But it's worth reading Robert's book because he neatly captures the idea of unexpected technological transformation that warfare has undergone, and the sense that those changes will come not from more effective weapons, but more effective tools to coordinate, organize, and carry out one's mission.

And, it drives home the idea that we won't ever see wars like you've read in the history books, and they won't be confined just to the physical locations in which bullets are flying: it'll be a new global war, waged by people who can contribute in unexpected and frightening ways.