How can it start?
There is an old adage that militaries set themselves up by failure by preparing to fight the last war. When it comes to 21st Century warfare, the problem however may not be with looking back, but that we aren’t looking back far enough.
For the last two decades, leaders in London and Washington have become focused on operations in places like Sierra Leona, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Syria, where the worry was, and is, weak and imploding states.
But bigger trends are at play globally. We are seeing the return of great power politics – and with it, the risk of powerful states going to war.
A Syrian army jet is guided out of the hangar at al-Dumayr military airport, 40 km north-east of Damascu Credit: Getty Images
Conflict with the likes of Russia or China was something that seemed buried with the end of the Cold War. Yet today’s simmering tensions mean there is a risk of such an outcome becoming all too real.
As in the past, it is perfectly possible that a third world war could start with a small event, or even by accident.
One of the many Russian bomber planes now probing NATO’s borders could collide with an RAF Typhoon, prompting an aerial skirmish the likes of which the world has not seen for decades.
Indeed, the skies over Syria are starting to get dangerously crowded, with Russian jets flying near US planes on bombing runs, and sparring with NATO air defenses in neighboring Turkey.
Perhaps it could happen at sea, when a Japanese or American ship scrapes paint with its Chinese Navy counterpart amid the reefs in the Pacific that are being militarized as part of Asia’s current arms race.
Conflict could also come as part of larger decisions to try and reshape the world. Power trends in Asia are already starting to shift as its military and economy begins the match those of the West.
President Xi Jinping has already made the connection between military strength and national primacy in his “Chinese dream” speech, which envisioned the concept of “Guanjun Guojia Genti”, or replacement of the US as the world’s leading power.
Meanwhile China’s economic ascendance bears the promise of lifting more people out of poverty than at any other point in human history – and along with it, the possibility of a nation looking to reorder the global system as befits it reacquired strength.
Throughout history, rising powers have repeatedly tested the status quo by using their might: Harvard professor Graham Allison found that, since 1500, 11 out of 15 such cases have resulted in conflict.
Or the decisions might be ones driven not by rising strength, but weakness. Russia is a once-great power now in economic and political decline.
A child born in Russia has roughly the same life expectancy as one born in Haiti. And yet the game played by Putin with these ever weaker cards is to push harder on his borders and send NATO to its highest levels of alert since the mid 1980s.
How might a third world war unfold? Undoubtedly differently from the “small wars” of today – which, though they have proven so tough, have also led many in Beijing and Moscow to think they prove our true weakness.
When we set out to explore what a modern-day war between 21st century great powers might look like in our new book, Ghost Fleet, it was clear that the setting would quickly move beyond the familiar fights on land that we have grown accustomed to.
Unlike the Taliban, or Isil, or even the militaries of powers such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, true state powers can deploy forces in every domain.
We’d see the kind of battles for control of the air and sea we haven’t experiences for over 70 years – and they would, unfortunately, be fights that would call into question some of the major purchases we are in the middle of making.
The UK is currently buying £12 billion worth of new fighter planes – but their program has been hacked on multiple occasions, and they have less range than their World War II equivalents. We’re spending £6 billion on a carrier that lacks some of the key defence needs of modern warfare.
British Armed Forces – by numbers Play! 01:08
But, as the hacking illustrates, we’d also see fights in two new domains: space and cyberspace. Space is now part of the military’s nervous system.
It’s not just military spy satellites: over 80 per cent of NATO military communications travel on commercial satellites, which make them targets that are arguably as strategically important as airfields or shipyards.
China’s anti-satellite capabilities have been demonstrated repeatedly since 2007; Russia is also believed to be working on weapons that will target space systems in order to leave NATO forces in the dark.
The US military, meanwhile, has just budgeted $5 billion for its own space war plans.
Cyberspace has also moved from the realm of science fiction to being integral to military affairs – indeed, the battles may already have begun.
Watch: Turkey shoots down Russian military plane on Syria border Play! 01:26
Chinese-linked hacking groups have penetrated everything from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program (the plane was to give Western allies advantage on a future battlefield a generation ahead, but China is already preparing to export its own J-31, which looks like the plane’s twin), to the personnel files of every security clearance holder in the US. They have stolen 1.1 million fingerprints.
An outright war in the real world would see this stealing of information turn into something more in the cyber world. The Russian use of cyber attacks to attack communications and commerce in Ukraine and the US use of the Stuxnet digital weapon to physically damage Iranian nuclear research facilities show how cyberwar would come with physical costs.
The very same industrial control system software that Stuxnet targeted is used in everything from London traffic lights to Royal Navy warship engine rooms.
This isn’t just a matter of great powers having at their disposal planes and missiles with ranges far past what Isil or Bashar-al Assad could contemplate. In space and cyberspace, there are no geographic borders and, moreover, the military and civilian networks are intertwined, whether it’s undersea fibre-optic cables or domestic telecoms networks.
Military communications and intelligence shares bandwidth with grandmothers sending e-mail. GPS is used by both the latest generation of RAF drones and families navigating home from a vacation.
Electioneering: Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, visiting the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility
Electioneering: Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, visiting the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility Credit: AP
Admittedly, such a conflict is neither wanted nor inevitable; a third world war would be an epic failure of deterrence and diplomacy. But the possibility means we must weigh our calculations in a way that we haven’t for decades.
Too many leaders and thinkers mimic their counterparts of a century ago, who thought that trade and progress had somehow made the risk of war between states obsolete.
In turn, too many military officers take the opposite tack of mimicking their historic counterparts and being unduly optimistic about such a fight if it were to happen, using words such as “short and sharp”. .
It is no longer politic to avoid talking about these trends. It may seem like a fear of the distant past or the realm of fiction, but if there is a hope of averting such great power fights, a frank and open discussion about their real risks of and likely horrors is needed.
Not persuaded? At least weigh the statement of a Chinese military officer in an official regime publication last year.
“The world war is a form of war that the whole world should face up to”, he said. It is a statement to be both considered and chilled by.
PW Singer is a strategist at New America and August Cole is a Fellow at the Atlantic Council.
They are the co-authors of Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War