Paper: Indecisive War Will Define Future Conflicts

Paper: Indecisive War Will Define Future Conflicts

Soldier aiming down sights
Photo by: U.S. Army/Staff Sergeant Matthew Foster

Despite advancements in technology, the world is entering into a new era of conflict that will be defined by indecisive warfare, according to a new paper published by the Association of the U.S. Army. 

In “Stalemate: Are Changes in Warfare Leading to a New Age of Indecisive War?” authors Maj. Gen. Christopher Smith, an Australian Army officer serving as deputy commanding general for strategy and plans with U.S. Army Pacific, and Maj. Ben Flores, who is serving as Smith’s executive officer, write that this new era of conflict will be defined by stalemate, close-quarter fighting and limited war aims.

“We are entering a new age of indecisive warfare … in which only limited war objectives are possible,” Smith and Flores write. “While limited warfare is nothing new, these emerging changes to warfare run counter to some prevailing narratives about contemporary and future warfare, including rapid single campaigns, grand fait accompli and high-tech, knock-out blows culminating in decisive victory. These changes might lead nations to reconsider the relative utility of war.” 

In their paper, Smith and Flores write that six major features of warfare have emerged in the fighting in Ukraine and over the past several decades. 

Warfare is taking place among bigger and denser populations; populations resist occupation at least as vigorously as at any time in the past, even when faced with a stronger and more advanced adversary; and there is greater restraint in the use of force, especially in the West, they write.

Additionally, the costs of maintaining armed forces and waging war have become oppressive; reconnaissance strike complexes—the combination of far-reaching sensors and long-range precision weapons—has made movement and maneuver especially deadly; and there seems to be a pronounced advantage to the defender, particularly if they possess advanced reconnaissance strike capabilities, Smith and Flores write.

The past 20 years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan provide insight into what indecisive warfare will look like, the paper says.

“In the case of the United States, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the corresponding initial defeats of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein’s regime were, in a sense, quite easy,” Smith and Flores write. “The challenge came from the ensuing occupations, which dragged each war out far past what military planners had anticipated. In fact, the occupations became the wars themselves, where the high-tech American war machine faced off against lightly armed insurgents.” 

Future conflicts will be complicated by increased restraint in the use of force, Smith and Flores write, at least in the West. 

“Whereas the Russians have shown through their actions in Ukraine and Syria at least some willingness to use terror against the civilian population to achieve their objectives, the West is not as willing to utilize such tactics,” they write.

Adversaries can exploit this unwillingness to their advantage, as they did in Iraq and Afghanistan, “by staging and fighting from among civilian populations in both cities and villages,” the authors write.

Moving forward, the Army will need to adapt to indecisive warfare, Smith and Flores write.

“If there is indeed a new age of indecisive war for limited objectives, there is also a need for some new thought on strategies for dealing with it,” they write. “While the functions of rapid seizure of limited territorial objectives and its counter, deterrence by denial, are joint tasks, land forces will inevitably play a decisive and essential role, even if those objectives are islands. To that end, the U.S. Army should play a leading role in the thinking and experiments necessary to adapt to the challenges of this new age of warfare, including—perhaps particularly—for contingencies in the Indo-Pacific.”

Read the paper here.