Why you should care

These new facets of war could determine the future of human society. 

When the U.S., France and the U.K. launched 105 missiles into Syria earlier this month, their challenge wasn’t only to hit the planned targets — facilities associated with chemical weapons — with precision. They needed to outwit Russia, which, through its ambassador in Lebanon, had threatened to shoot down any missiles entering Syria. And the western allies needed to accomplish their task without forcing Russia to retaliate.

They appear to have succeeded, and President Donald Trump, in characteristic style, was quick to drive home the achievement on Twitter. But America’s National Defense Strategy unveiled by Secretary of Defense James Mattis earlier this year suggests the challenges the country and the world face are far more nuanced than can possibly be squeezed into 140 characters.

The threat of terrorism remains real, but America’s status as the world’s undisputed military power is also being challenged in ways unseen since the end of the Cold War — in theaters ranging from heavily populated Iraqi cities to outer space. “We will continue to prosecute the campaign against terrorists that we are engaged in today, but great power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of U.S. national security,” Mattis had said while releasing the document in January, an assessment many experts agree with.

Brief history warfare

As this new era of military rivalries intensifies, OZY brings a series aimed at giving our audience a ring-side view of the closely guarded and often confidential ways in which the militaries of the U.S. and others are preparing for the wars of the future.

Make no mistake, this examination isn’t some academic review. Throughout history, whether rightly or wrongly, victors of wars have shaped the future of human civilization. And staying ahead of rivals, through of a combination of strategy and technology, has been a driving force of military planning from the very first war recorded in history — and in every century since.

Back in the 23rd century B.C., Sumer’s Sargon of Akkad relied on arrows and spears, chariots pulled by horses and soldiers to sacrifice as a means for expanding his empire. A century later, Egypt turned cargo boats into battleships, forming the first navy of its kind.

But it was discipline and cunning in military planning that allowed the Roman Empire to defeat the Gauls in the 1st century B.C. — a conflict immortalized in René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo’s Asterix and Obelix graphic novels. Some six centuries later, the Greeks relied on an incendiary device — likely a cocktail involving sulfur — that flamethrowers unleashed on rival ships to gain decisive naval advantage.

Then, in the 10th century, the Chinese developed gunpowder and invented hand grenades, while Arab armies in the 13th century started catapulting dead horses into enemy territory to spread disease — an early form of biological warfare. Trench warfare emerged from the 100 Years War between England and France in the 14th century, and the Chinese used metal canons mounted on the Great Wall to ward off Mongol invaders in the 16th century.

The flintlock ignition mechanism devised in France in the 17th century made guns more reliable, and cartridges, developed the same century, made it easier to load rifles. The 18th century brought shrapnel, while revolvers were invented in the 19th century. By the end of the 19th century, electricity and internal combustion engines gave birth to the first war-ready submarines.

And the devastating wars of the 20th century propelled a nonstop race for destructive weapons, none more so than the nuclear arsenals that at least nine countries today possess.

But where it took decades for new military technology to be refined earlier, and decades more for it to become obsolete, the life spans of tools of war — from conception to relative redundancy — are far shorter now. Had the United States used the Patriot missiles it launched to shock Iraq during the Gulf War of 1991 to try to target Syrian facilities in 2018, it’s likely the projectiles would have been shot down.

From tricky combat in densely populated cities to missiles that not even the U.S. is prepared to defend against, and from sharpening contests over outer space to the new-age submarines that may rule the depths of the oceans, the nature of warfare is changing fast.

To make sure these changes don’t slip past you, stay tuned to OZY and our new series The Future of Warfare.

OZYOpinion

Interviews, op-eds, and analysis to help you make sense of the news of the day and the news of the future.