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The more war stays the same, the more it changes

The more war stays the same, the more it changes
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War never changes. War changes all the time — sometimes in revolutionary ways. These sentences do not contradict each other. That is a surprisingly hard point to get across, even to seasoned fighting men and women. But early this month, Gen. Mark MilleyMark MilleyPush to combat sexual assault in military reaches turning point Congress, not the courts, say who has authority to court-martial servicemembers Overnight Defense: Former Navy secretary reportedly spent .4M on travel | Ex-Pentagon chief Miller to testify on Jan. 6 Capitol attack | Austin to deliver West Point commencement speech MORE, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave it his college best at events hosted by the U.S. Naval Institute and the Brookings Institution. At the Naval Institute’s Defense Forum Washington, for instance, he prophesied, “The nature of war is probably not going to change, but the character of war does change and it changes frequently.”

Distinguishing between the “nature” and “character” of war, as Gen. Milley does, is common parlance in defense circles. War is a human enterprise, if a lamentable one. It involves a violent interaction of human wills in which each contender tries to impose its will on an unwilling foe. It kindles dark passions such as hatred, spite and vengeance. Such sentiments deflect policy, strategy and operations from a purely rational course predicated on calculating costs, benefits and risks. The classics of strategy implore makers and executors of strategy to keep cost/benefit logic in charge when making war. All the same, we refer not to the dispassionate statecraft of Achilles but to the rage of Achilles.

Life imitates art.

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The human dimension — war at its most fundamental — is the dimension that’s least likely to change, according to Milley. Perhaps human beings will someday stop fighting to get their way. Lambs will lie down with lions; swords will be beaten into ploughshares. There is little reason to believe that day is at hand — which is why works about classical Greek and Roman warfare retain their allure, despite the rudimentary weaponry the ancients bore and the outdated tactics they unleashed against one another on the field of battle. Implements and tactics metamorphose over time; human nature stays the same. That’s why insights from antiquity remain as fresh as those out of Vietnam or Afghanistan. 

To all appearances, the nature of war is everlasting. 

Not so the character of war. The phrase refers less to the human factor than to circumstances — technology and war-making methods in particular — that prevail during a particular historical epoch. These factors are fluid, combining and recombining in sometimes unforeseeable ways. Noted Milley at Brookings, military forces today increasingly enjoy “an ability to see and an ability to hit at range that has never existed before. Those two facts — just those two alone — indicate that we are having a fundamental change in the character of war.”

The late Capt. Wayne Hughes, author of the landmark treatise on naval tactics, adds depth and texture to the chairman’s words. For Hughes, the determinants of effectiveness in marine combat are “scouting,” meaning the ability to detect, track and target hostile forces using shipboard and remote sensors, combat systems and computer data links; “weapon range,” meaning the ability to inflict damage at long distances; and “tactics,” meaning the art and science of handling forces in contact with the enemy. Scouting effectiveness and the range of a fleet’s weaponry determine the tactics available to commanders to get the upper hand on a foe.

Both are advancing at breakneck speed — transforming tactics before our eyes.

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Capt. Hughes considered the ability to “fire effectively first” the key to success in naval warfare. Why assume a hair-trigger posture? Because, generally speaking, warship hulls are fragile relative to the hard-hitting precision arms — chiefly, anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles — that menace them. One hit can put a ship out of action. There’s a premium on getting in the first blow when there may not be a second. Not only do superior scouting and weapons range entitle a fleet to launch the first salvo, they grant it the luxury of taking free shots while its antagonist tries to close within reach of its own sensors and armaments to return fire. The battle might be over before one force gets to engage — which is the point for weapons designers.

The dynamic in sea warfare is something like boxing. Put a rangy, heavy-hitting pugilist in the ring with a smaller opponent. Guess who has the advantage? The diminutive boxer has to endure stiff punishment from his long-armed opponent just to get within reach to counterpunch. The lesser contender might still prevail — but the odds skew against it.

What goes at sea goes for air and ground warfare. That’s what Milley was driving at when explaining how the character of war is morphing. Technology is extending scouting and weapons range for peer combatants such as China and Russia, as well as the United States. Uncrewed aircraft, submarines and surface vessels now go sleuthing for hostile units. Sensors look down from orbit and up from the sea floor. Missiles can reach out and smite hostile forces with precision hundreds if not thousands miles distant. Range opens new tactical vistas — and with improved battlefield prospects come improved prospects for strategic and political triumph.

Small wonder armed forces are racing to develop newfangled technologies such as artificial intelligence, cyber-warfare systems, and autonomous aircraft and ships. Whoever harnesses gee-whiz technology best stands to profit most in societies’ perpetual quest for martial supremacy.

Hughes would agree with Milley: A brave new world is upon us.

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and the author of “A Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy.” The views voiced here are his alone.