The Changing Character of War in the 21st Century
Is the nature of war changing? This question drives the research agenda of the Changing Character of War Programme. In the period 2015 to 2017 it has led us to explore the ambiguity which surrounds war and armed conflict as a result of the manifold ways in which the character of war has changed.
Our work enhances understanding of the actors, methods, environments, and wider context of contemporary and future armed conflict by exploring the responses of states and international organisations to these factors and tackling issues surrounding their legal and moral dimensions. Through strategic, in-depth thinking and identification of key trends, our research informs decision-making on pressing issues of contemporary conflict and proffers insights on the future character of war.
We address these questions by analysing both the continuities and fresh permutations of war and armed conflict. Central to our research method is an interdisciplinary approach which employs the differing perspectives and expertise of a variety of disciplines: history, political science, international relations, philosophy, law, anthropology, development studies, economics, and computer science, among others. Our team engages in both qualitative research, employing ethnographic and archival methods, as well as in quantitative research. We combine theoretical engagement with practice, doctrine, and strategy, and rigorous thinking on norms. Our work spans the globe, with a particular focus on countries in the Global South.
Research Priorities 2015-2017
Our research has been shaped by the tumultuous events with which the 21st Century began: 9/11 put counter-terrorism high on the agenda, while military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan reasserted the role of counterinsurgency in defence; more recently, the Arab Spring, newly failing states and the rise of China have shifted power balances. The fuelling of conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, the emergence of Islamic State, Russian operations in the Baltic, the use of autonomous weapons systems, and cyberattacks add complexity to the world’s security landscape. These issues have one thing in common: ambiguity.
The concept of ambiguity as a common feature of war was already present in Clausewitz. However, the term has now expanded to embrace changes in the (a) actors, (b) methods, (b) environments, and (d) wider context which shape war and armed conflict today. In particular, we witness the increasing significance of:
- Violent non-state groups
- Urban, peripheral and maritime space
- The information age
Theme 1: Violent non-state groups
Contemporary security challenges are increasingly characterised by the proliferation of diverse violent non-state actors, including insurgents, terrorists and criminals. From ISIS and Al Qaeda in the Middle East, the Lord’s Resistance Army in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Al-Shabaab in Somalia, through to FARC in Colombia and the Sinaola Cartel in Mexico, these actors matter across the globe. Syria alone today counts more than 5,500 different groups. In some cases different violent non-state groups cooperate with each other; in others, they have developed in-house capacities in a variety of violent businesses. The increasing significance of these transnational groups blurs the lines between civilians and combatants, and calls into question the concept of borders, which is at the core of the Westphalian state system. Nevertheless, although forced to adapt to shifting balances of power and to share ground with these groups, the state continues to retain its importance. This trend, then, raises the question of whether the character of war has changed to such an extent that it has become indistinguishable from other forms of armed violence. Has the state become simply one actor among many or does it retain a dominant role in modern warfare? This ambiguity in the character of the actors that dominate current and future warfare needs to be explored by examining the micro-dynamics of conflict including the variety of non-state players on the ground, the role of the state, and the impact on the security of civilians and material goods, including sites of cultural heritage.
Theme 2: Hybridity
21st century conflict has seen increasing hybridity in warfare. As the Ukraine Crisis 2014 shows, a mixture of different tactics, including manipulation, the use of technology, and boots on the ground, has made limited warfare increasingly common yet also more ambiguous. Both here and in other contexts, such as where autonomous weapons systems are used to complement conventional means of warfare, difficulties in attribution add complexity to the issue. The concept of war itself has been challenged through hybridity. When do we consider organised armed violence a conflict, or war, or when is it merely turmoil? Situations like the ‘drug war’ in Mexico or public unrest in the Arab Spring require us to rethink where we draw the lines between conflict, violence, and other forms of contestation, and how we make sense of phenomena that might no longer fit neat categories of past thinking.
Theme 3: Urban, peripheral and maritime spaces
In an increasingly urbanised world, not only favelas and slums, but also richer sectors of megacities constitute battlefields that do not compare with the scenes of urban warfare two hundred years ago. Instead, these megacities have become a playground for a variety of conflict actors who may combine shadow governance with selective killings and conventional warfare to achieve their goals in the midst of mass civilian populations. If exacerbated by the use of biological or chemical weapons, a violent dispute over drinking water, or the unforeseen outbreak of an epidemic, for example, the ambiguous methods employed by such actors to achieve their goals may quickly turn into the chaos of violence. At the same time, peripheral spaces, such as borderlands, are the converging places of conflict and crime. Often dismissed as ‘ungoverned spaces’, such spaces are in fact often illicitly governed, providing safe havens for terrorists, constituting business hubs for organised criminals, and functioning as zones of retreat and reorganisation for conflict actors. Meanwhile, maritime spaces have regained importance. Piracy off the shores of Somalia and disputes in the South China Sea are just some of the current issues which require a thorough rethinking of how we ensure maritime security and which demonstrate how this concept is applicable to diverse challenges in various spaces.
Theme 4: The Information Age
Never before has information been so easily accessible across the world as today. The world’s interconnectedness has been strengthened through information technology, especially the Internet, which has produced new challenges for international security. Social media such as Twitter and Facebook have produced a cyberculture that shapes not only our everyday lives, but has also led to a situation in which conflict far away is visible instantly in our living rooms; in which freedom fighters are recruited easily via the internet; and in which perceptions on how states respond to war are easily influenced. Information is used both by state and non-state actors to manipulate the public. At the same time, cyberspace has become the fifth dimension of war. Cyberattacks and cyber warfare have become serious national security threats that affect countries of all sizes and power across the globe. Nonetheless, information is a blessing as well as a curse: big data offers new opportunities for successful operations in conflict and for limiting violence in war by better targeting.
All four themes require critical reflections as to how we anticipate or respond to these trends.
Cross-cutting Theme 1: Responses to the Changing Character of War
States are no longer the sole actors that matter in conflict: international organisations, regional alliances, civil society organisations and private companies need to be accounted for in contexts that often require a multilateral response. One reflection of the changing character of responses to war is hybrid peacekeeping operations that combine both military and civilian elements. Another reflection is the increasing collaboration between state forces and regional formations such as NATO or the African Union. Not only military responses, but also diplomacy needs to be tailored to these changes in contemporary conflict, by taking on board new actors such as civil society, and encompassing new dimensions, for example through digital diplomacy.
Cross-cutting Theme 2: The Legal Dimensions of the Changing Character of War
The ambiguity in the actors, methods, and context of contemporary war raises many legal questions. Legal voids in the cyber arena, the potential need for new rules of engagement in the light of autonomous weapons systems, and a stricter framework for maritime security are among the issues that need consideration if we are to understand the changing character of war in a holistic manner. The blurring of lines between combatants and civilians is another area for investigation. Today, the norm that civilians should not be killed in war is used to justify armed intervention in Libya or Kosovo, and has been debated throughout the Syrian conflict. The extent to which this is practically feasible in times of high ambiguity is contested.
Cross-cutting Theme 3: The Ethics of the Changing Character of War
The ambiguity of contemporary conflict poses ethical and moral questions that need to be revisited as the character of armed conflict changes. What is the legal and moral status of combatants who fight in a war that is illegal or unjust? Can such soldiers be held responsible for fighting in the war, even if they act in accordance with the Laws of Armed Conflict as they are currently interpreted? Conversely, what is the status of non-combatants who have moral responsibility for the initiation of an unjust or illegal war, even though, as non-combatants, they are not directly involved in its prosecution? Could it ever be justifiable to deliberately target and attack such non-combatants? Is there a case for re-thinking the well-established principle that the laws of war apply equally to all belligerents, irrespective of the circumstances surrounding the initiation of the conflict?
Cross-cutting theme 4: The Future of War and Armed Conflict
In the past, conceptions of future war and conflict were either exaggerated, ridiculed for absurdity or thought self-evident. Ideas about future war today are no less controversial even though planners and strategists depend on forecasting, assessments and assumptions. Intelligence organisations, international institutions and even NGOs are expected to 'know' and governments are criticised when failing to plan ahead accurately. Given the ambiguity and uncertainty in which conflict is embedded today, how can we even speculate about the future? Still, the trends and cross-cutting themes identified above enable us to think ahead and to reflect thoroughly on scenarios that need to be assessed and evaluated if we are to understand and adequately tackle the future character of armed conflict.