Though it claims to support local populations in warfare, the US military nonetheless tends toward enemy-centric operational behavior. That is, units spend most of their time focused on destroying the enemy and comparatively little on local civilian populations’ needs, behavior, and interests. This can be said of most American conflicts since World War II, including the counterinsurgency operations in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, where enemy forces mingled with the indigenous population. As Kalev Sepp has argued in lectures at the Naval Postgraduate School, enemy-centric conventional-minded American forces, when frustrated by the comingling of an enemy force within a population, tend to ignore the irregular aspects of war and double down on large-scale combat operations as the centerpiece of conventional warfare.
The current conflict in Ukraine, however, highlights the reality that populations involved in modern conflict, with increased access to advanced modern technology and internationally supplied weapons, have become super-empowered in their ability to resist occupation and stand against more powerful military forces as a new decisive actor in the outcome of war. This power shift has significant implications for the American strategy of “Integrated Deterrence,” in which American global primacy relies on the combined elements of national power, including allies and partners. Although stronger military forces have historically leveraged better weapons and technology over relatively weaker populations, these advantages are greatly reduced or eliminated in conflicts with super-empowered insurgents. In light of the role that super-empowered populations will play in determining the outcome of future conflicts, US policymakers and analysts should stop thinking of conflict as a combination of conventional and irregular warfare and reframe the future of warfare as population-centric conflict in which the agency and strategic choices of a super-empowered population, rather than the stronger military, determine who wins and who loses.
Understanding the power of the super-empowered population means recognizing that new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and social media are increasingly available to everyone. Access to these technologies increases the potential for insurgencies, rebels (that is, any non-state, substate, insurgent, partisan, or similar actor that serves as a threat to a government’s stability), partisans, and local civilians to deny much of the strength advantage historically enjoyed by the world’s most powerful armies. Not only will future conflicts become more heavily influenced by international military support from competing great powers through continued globalization, but the widespread affordability and applicability of AI and advanced technology for open-source intelligence (OSINT) have also significantly reduced the intelligence asymmetry between populations and advancing military formations. Indigenous super-empowered populations maintain the advantage of the low-tech forms of lethality that American forces dealt with in Afghanistan and Iraq while adding the benefit of effective and decentralized social media OSINT networks. In short, combat operations are becoming more about competing for the population’s will than they are about military strength, as super-empowered populations have proved problematic for great power forces in both irregular and conventional warfare. Success in the future of warfare requires an understanding that even the most conventional of military operations will become population-centric.
Understating the Population’s Role in Warfare
The significance of the super-empowered population follows from an understanding of the populations’ strategic role in classic insurgency theory, as outlined by Mao Tse-Tung, David Galula, David Kilcullen, and others. However, these models remain limited by an internal view of counterinsurgency theory emphasizing the state and the population and thus fail to account for the expeditionary nature of American military involvement in counterinsurgency-based conflict. Understanding the nature of future conflict requires a review of scholarship addressing the full complement of counterinsurgency actors, including the state, the rebel forces, and a third-party expeditionary intervening military.
Gordon McCormick’s “Magic Diamond” model offers an understanding of the distinction between warfare and insurgency conflict, including the degree to which the indigenous population determines who is most likely to win. McCormick notes that insurgency-based conflict features a natural power asymmetry between the sovereign state’s robust security forces and a weaker force of rebels living within their indigenous population. Theoretically, although the stronger state actor wields a size advantage over the weaker rebel force, the rebel force enjoys an information advantage relative to the state. The dilemma of insurgency is that rebels know where to find the state forces, but are too weak to engage them decisively, while the state simultaneously has the strength to destroy the rebels, but cannot distinguish them from the rest of the population. Therefore, the logic of the Diamond model explores the agency of the indigenous population, such that the population can either help the state target the rebels or help the rebels hide from the state.
Further exploration of the dynamics between a state, the rebel force, and the expeditionary force underscores the degree to which indigenous populations wield agency in such conflicts over time. “The Liberator’s Dilemma” explores the tendency for third-party intervening forces to lose support from an indigenous population over time. The logic of the Liberator’s Dilemma assumes that although the “liberating” force may experience strong indigenous popular support at the onset of their invasion, violence from the liberator gradually erodes popular support relative to the incumbent regime, which now acts as the insurgency. At this point, the harder the liberator fights the incumbent state, the more harm comes to the indigenous population, and the faster support declines. Eventually, the population switches from supporting the liberator to supporting remnants of the incumbent regime, resulting in a strategic loss for the liberator.
The Super-Empowered Population: The Future of Conflict
The dynamics of these population-centric models are made more complex by access to globally sourced advanced technology. Although strong state actors previously enjoyed superior technology against insurgent forces, access to technology in future conflicts is becoming more evenly distributed. Low-tech weapons smuggling routes like the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Vietnam conflict remain easy for local populations to hide against expeditionary military forces in more recent conflicts. In Afghanistan and Iraq, where insurgents made use of such routes, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) caused “roughly half of all [US and coalition] deaths and injuries.” The capacity for indigenous population networks to introduce low-tech weapons into population-centric conflicts is now augmented by their ability to access and employ high-tech solutions as well.
In the Ukrainian conflict, the super-empowered population has been able to resist the conventional strength of the Russian military thanks to the lethality and availability of low-tech IEDs, combined with the availability of AI-enhanced drones, which enhance situational awareness, enemy targeting, and force protection, and the information provided by sophisticated social media OSINT platforms. Even before the invasion of Ukraine, P.W. Singer and Emerson Brooking recognized the potential for weaponized social media to create conditions in which power is defined “not by physical strength or high-tech hardware, but by the command of attention.” They argue that not only can viral social media attention affect the popularity of presidential candidates and shape election results, but also that it has caused “conflicts of popularity and perception … to merge with conflicts of flesh and blood” as when #AllEyesOnISIS began to “sow terror, disunion, and defection” as the top-trending hashtag on Arabic Twitter. More recently, Singer has used the term “LikeWar” to describe how weaponized social media, a new form of OSINT, provides unprecedented near-intelligence parity between the indigenous Ukrainian population and a conventional invading military.
Not only has the invasion ofUkraine unveiled the power of the super-empowered indigenous population in holding off a once-feared army, it has also provided a wake-up call for all nations with similarly powerful conventional military forces. Adding to pre-9/11 research findings from Andrew Mack in 1975 and Ivan Arreguin-Toft in 2001 about the potential for weaker non-state, sub-state, and trans-state actors to leverage an indirect advantage over strong state actors, the outcomes of post-9/11 conflicts suggest that the technological overmatch does not advantage great powers for very long. The power of super-empowered populations against conventional military forces is on the rise, regardless of the size of a state’s alliance networks or whether the state is authoritarian or democratic. Although the need to consider popular support is recognized as a part of irregular warfare, the rise of the super-empowered population has elevated popular support to the forefront of both irregular and conventional conflicts. Strategic pivots from one form of warfare to the other do not affect the importance of learning how to gain and sustain popular support.
When Military Strength is Strategic Weakness
Although the conclusion of two decades of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency marks a critical turning point for American military strategy, a pivot from counterinsurgency to conventional warfare does not eliminate the reality that all warfare is now population-centric warfare.
In the future of warfare, large-scale, hierarchical, attrition-minded conventional armies will remain necessary but insufficient for promoting global stability and strengthening balances of power across complex alliance and partner networks. Likewise, success in future warfare will require that both conventional and special operations forces recognize the super-empowered population as the true Clausewitzian center of gravity through meaningful population-centric training and professional military education.
Furthermore, senior military leaders must recognize that population-centric warfare requires new ways of thinking about the efficacy of traditional leadership in the future of warfare. Mission command, the exercise of authority and direction by the commander, will require increasingly agile and adaptive leaders who can operate outside the confines of traditional centralized command and control. In population-centric warfare, hierarchical initiatives like the Joint All-Domain Command and Control program will remain necessary for modern planning and campaigning, but simultaneously insufficient for decentralized population-centric warfare. Future military leaders require a new way of thinking about the meaning of leadership in population-centric warfare, which is less about historical cases of command and more about the decentralized empowerment of leaders through multiple complex networks across a culturally diverse human domain. The traditional military education programs that shaped the historical evolution of the modern military will no longer remain sufficient to support the operational needs of future military organizations.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for the US military is learning to lead in increasingly complex networks of partner forces and indigenous populations where traditional military leadership behaviors and command-and-control processes will either fail to resonate or degrade operational effectiveness. As seen in some examples of abrasive partner-force leadership in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rigid nature of military discipline with local partner forces and indigenous populations can inspire resentment and backfire. Overcoming this challenge requires the American military to adopt a new way of thinking about how it leads and can win over civilian populations that stretch across vast cultural and geographic boundaries. Although future armies must demonstrate traditional military strength, strength alone will not prevail in population-centric conflict. The US military must act now in educating itself to lead and thrive within cross-cultural, multinational, and multilevel networks of allied and partner force military formations and paramilitary organizations, all while operating in combat environments dominated by technology-leveraging, super-empowered indigenous populations. Otherwise, the United States’ military strength might become its strategic weakness.
Dr. Joseph Long is a retired Special Forces officer and a Leadership and Ethics Professor and Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Joint Special Operations University.
Photo Credit: Sgt. Anthony Jones, 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team