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Will We Still Call It War?

When Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno says that today’s environment is the most uncertain in his 40 years in the army, it’s easy to see why. Wars are now less about land than ideology. Robots can kill. A cold war with one enemy has given way to a world with myriad, inter-connected conflicts with no one the U.S. can call ally or enemy. Global warming has shifted the very nature of the environment upon which wars are fought.

Our increasingly complex conflict environment is part of what’s driving the contentious debate over the President’s proposed authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against ISIS. How do we define our enemy, and the theatres of conflict, in a war that is metastasizing and changing everyday? As Congress, reviews the proposed authorization, it’s hard not to compare the present to the past – and to wonder about what the future holds. At New America’s Future of War Conference this week, Odierno’s lament helped frame the conversation: if so much has changed in his 40 years of service, what can we expect in the next 40 years?

First , there’s the spread of new technologies – like the proliferation of drones, combined with America’s deteriorating influence in the fields of drone technology and robotics. According to New America’s new World of Drones project, 85 countries have some form of militarized drone, three countries have used drones in combat, and more have considered it.

Dr. Missy Cummings, an associate professor at Duke and former Navy pilot, said the United States has “lost the edge” in the field. Today, the Israelis lead the world in drone development, Amazon and Google lead the world in robotics, and her students can 3D print a drone in a weekend, she said. Cummings even “guaranteed” that U.S. forces would be struck by a 3D printed drone in the future. As other countries and even companies surpass or challenge the United States in the development of key technologies, the American capability to manage crises may decline.

Another reason for increasing uncertainty, according to Sharon Burke, the Former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy Plans and Programs and International Security Program Fellow, flows from changes in the tectonic plates of conflict – such as climate change and resource scarcity. Vice Chair of Naval Operations Admiral Michelle Howard warned of the threats posed by climate change, saying it will be “a challenge for every nation” and reminding the audience that most of the world’s population lives along the coasts.

“It's a holistic mess,” said Nadya Bliss, Director of the Global Security Initiative at Arizona State University.

As are the laws that govern these new types of conflict – or lack thereof. Already the United States has participated in a six-month war against ISIS without congressional authorization. Harold Koh, a former legal adviser at the State Department, warned that if Congress doesn’t pass an ISIS-specific authorization for the use of military force that supersedes the 2001 AUMF and includes sunset provisions, it will be known for passing a “21st Century Gulf of Tonkin resolution.”

Yet, America’s long war is only the tip of this legal iceberg. Rosa Brooks, a senior fellow at New America and professor at Georgetown Law, contended that the line between war and not war is blurring in part because of advancing technologies and tactics. If we get to a point where we can no longer tell the difference, that could fundamentally challenge the law of armed conflict, Brooks suggested.

How do we prepare for this new world of conflict? At least in part by building the space for discussion. As Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Plans Janine Davidson noted, learning to adapt will be essential. But as she noted, former Vice President Donald Rumsfeld was right when he said that since you go to war with the army you have, not the one you want, it’s critical to institutionalize lessons beforehand.

Former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michelle Flournoy summed up one of the biggest lessons learned in the past few years: decision making is improved with a diverse set of opinions at the table.

Fortunately, the field’s lack of diversity is changing. According to Senator McCain, there are more women on the Senate Armed Services Committee staff than ever before. In 2013, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta repealed the ban on women serving in ground combat units. As one Army captain wrote in the Washington Post last year, allowing women to serve in front-line units isn’t just “an exercise in social equality” but also “a valuable enhancement of military effectiveness and national security.”

There is much more to do in establishing a diverse discussion space, and not merely along gender lines. As war becomes more complex and uncertain, we’ll need diverse perspectives and ideas more than ever.

David Sterman is a research associate for New America's International Security Program and a graduate of Georgetown’s Center for Security Studies. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.


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