18 February 2018

During 2017, a major war on the Korean Peninsula became a distinct possibility. As the rhetoric over North Korea’s nuclear program heated up, the preparedness of Western militaries to engage in a major war, and the likely cost of such a conflict became regular features in the news cycle. This has had the effect of transforming discussions of a major state-on-state war in Asia away from abstract, Thucydides-inspired notions of a China-United States conflict, to the uncomfortably realistic prospect of a preventative strike against North Korea precipitating full-scale war.

The discussion and analysis that has occurred in the media in light of these growing tensions have raised public awareness of the potential costs of a modern state-on-state conflict. The West’s experience of conflict since the end of the Cold War has created unrealistic expectations within the general population as to the realities of modern conventional high-intensity warfare. This is not to trivialise the deaths that have occurred in these low-intensity conflicts, every death in war is a tragedy; however, the level of attrition that the West should expect from a modern state-on-state conflict in Europe, the Middle East, or Asia will likely be on a scale unseen since the Second World War. Concerning the prospect of war on the Korean peninsula, General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has remarked that:

Many people have talked about military options with words like ‘unimaginable’ […] I would probably shift that slightly and say it would be horrific, and it would be a loss of life unlike any we have experienced in our lifetimes, and I mean anyone who’s been alive since World War II has never seen the loss of life that could occur if there’s a conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

The requirements for engaging in a high-intensity conflict against a capable and committed state actor will challenge Western militaries. For airmen, in particular, assuring the use of the air domain – an air force’s prime responsibility – has not been seriously challenged since the Vietnam War. However, there is a realisation that circumstances are changing, and, as Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, Chief of the Air Staff of the Royal Air Force, pointed out in 2017:

[t]he long-expected – by airmen at least – challenge has arrived to the air power supremacy we have enjoyed for the last couple of decades. We will now have to fight – and fight hard – to achieve and maintain control of the air and space.

The need for airmen to re-engage conceptually with the possibilities and requirements of high-intensity warfare has led the Sir Richard Williams Foundation to run a seminar on ‘The Requirements for High-Intensity Warfare’ on 22 March 2018 in Canberra, Australia. The seminar will draw together senior officers from around the world, as well as leading academics, to discuss the past, present, and future of high-intensity warfare. Although it is likely the presenters will raise more questions than they will answer, the presence of so many senior leaders at the podium and in the audience will hopefully give impetus to the intellectual, conceptual, and organisational changes that the possibility of high-intensity warfare requires.

Unfortunately, not everyone will be able to attend the seminar, and summaries can never fully capture the presentations or the follow-up discussions that occur during the breaks. Moreover, not every topic of interest can be covered in a single day. Accordingly, in the lead-up to the seminar, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones are publishing a series of articles that will bring the discussion of the requirements of high-intensity warfare to a broader audience. By running this as a collaborative series, we hope to engage a broader audience in this debate that must be had. However, more importantly, this collaboration has allowed us to diversify the perspectives that can be brought to bear on the issue. This diversity of perspective has been made possible by contributors from around the world and from different backgrounds putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboards) to provide their views. Moreover, these views matter.

Although the seminar will bring together a number of high power individuals, they do not have the monopoly on ideas. High-intensity warfare is a complex challenge for militaries irrespective of their size and operational experience. By contributing to the discussions, the contributors to this series are an essential addition to the seminar.

Twice a week over the next six weeks (possibly more as more potential contributors become engaged in the discussion) The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones will simultaneously run posts that explore different aspects of the topic of high-intensity warfare. Topics will include:

  • Historical examples of high-intensity air warfare
  • The future of war
  • Training and education for a changing paradigm
  • Cultural change in light of a changing operational focus
  • Organisational requirements for high-intensity operations
  • Logistics support to high-intensity operations
  • Use of fiction to frame the future battlespace

As with the seminar itself, we expect that our contributors will raise more questions than they answer. However, unlike the seminar, it is the nature of our articles to encourage ongoing debate and discussion. As such, we ask our readers to be engaged, challenge our contributors, test their assumptions and take their arguments further. Through comments and additional contributions (see here on how to contribute) it is the hope of the editors of both The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones that this series will support and encourage a deeper and more nuanced understanding of what high-intensity warfare will mean for modern military forces and how we can best prepare for its challenges.

To reinforce the relevance of the topic to which we now shift our focus, it is worth quoting from a recent (27 January 2018) special report from The Economist:

[p]owerful, long-term shifts in geopolitics and the proliferation of new technologies are eroding the extraordinary military dominance that America and its allies have enjoyed. Conflict on a scale and intensity not seen since the second world war is once again plausible. The world is not prepared.