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#WavellReviews “Next War” by John Antal

“Next War: Reimaging How We Fight” by John Antal is available from Casemate.

Determining the future of war is fraught with peril.  Sir Lawrence Freedman penned a superb book “The Future of War” which explored how successive generations thought the character of war would change and evolve, and their strategic surprise when it didn’t turn out as expected.  Whilst the future of war almost never looks as one thinks it would (or should) identifying and anticipating disruptions is a useful exercise, and one to which author John Antal offers a welcome contribution in “Next War”.

Antal draws his lessons from three recent conflicts: the 2020 Second Nagorno-Karabakh War (about which he has written a standalone book “7 Seconds to Die”), the Israel-Hamas war of 2021, and Russia’s 2023 invasion of Ukraine.  While a small sample size, the three conflicts are nonetheless instructive about the changing character of modern warfare.  He restricts his focus to the tactical and operational domains of warfare.  Each of the nine disruptors he identifies will have strategic implications that result from their battlefield impact, but Antal sensibly keeps his focus narrow. 

Each section is prefaced by a fictional, but real-world-inspired scenario that illustrates the disruption about which he is writing.  For example, about the “transparent battlefield” he pens a fictional account the 2014 Battle of Zelenopillya, which saw a single Russian artillery strike nearly destroy two Ukrainian mechanized battalions in a matter of minutes.  In Antal’s telling, it was Russian subterfuge that saw a Ukrainian mother call her son in one of the battalions that led to his position being fixed and ultimately finished. 

Opening with the “transparent battlefield” Antal identifies eight other disruptors: first advantage strike, AI and the tempo of war, super swarm, kill web, visualize the battlespace, top attack, fully autonomous, and decision dominance.  None of these disruptors will be surprising to military or defence professionals as they are all informed by the current conflict and slight extrapolations of ongoing trends.  He avoids prognosticating about the far future, which is welcome.  He takes each of these disruptors in turn, analysing them in practice and theory, and extrapolating how they may be applied in the future.  He does, at times, veer into the realm of technological admiration, but is generally balanced in his analysis. 

Antal’s concluding two chapters are standouts in the book.  In the penultimate chapter, he offers up a detailed list of “command post rules” that aim to operationalize the lessons he has drawn and address the disruptions that result.  His list of 18 rules seek to create a smaller, more mobile, distributed, and masked command post, that can better survive a transparent and swarming battlefield, but successfully execute operations.  It is disappointing that he did not carry his fictional intelligence approach through to this chapter.  A modernized “Defence of Duffer’s Drift” would have suited this section well, seeing a fictional commander try and fail to adapt to this new environment, learning along the way and ultimately achieving success in the end. 

Forging battleshock

Antal carries this focus on command through to the final chapter “forging battleshock”, which he defines as “operational, informational and organizational paralysis induced by the convergence of key disrupters in the battlespace”.  In essence it is overwhelming an adversary through the pace, scale, and scope of activities, preventing them from adapting or responding to one’s actions. 

Here he elaborates how the armed forces need to “lead, design, train, fight, and support and win” to generate battleshock in an adversary.  In and of itself it is not a new or novel concept.  Every military tactician and strategist seeks to shut down the adversary’s ability to act.  It is his application of the disruptors to these elements that is of interest.  As Maj. Gen. Mick Ryan in “War Transformed” and Lt. Gen. David Barno and Dr. Nora Bensahel write “Adaptation Under Fire”, it is not enough to focus on the technology, it is ultimately the people that truly drive adaptation and innovation. 

An analytical trilogy?

Antal’s book is, ultimately, really one third of a necessary analytical trilogy.  Whilst he succeeds in delivering a thorough primer on how the battlefield disruptors will change the way in which Western militaries fight, it is written very much from that perspective.  A second book, and one does indeed hope he takes up the challenge, is to analyse what the armed forces of Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea are learning from these conflicts.  It is likely the case that many of these lessons are the same, yet the responses are almost certainly different.  Strategic culture, existing doctrine, and technological and industrial differences will filter the lessons learned and generate different military outcomes. 

The third book of this theoretical trilogy is how to counter these disruptors; the central iterative process of military adaptation.  As seen in Ukraine, not all of these are effective e.g. Russia’s “cope cages” over tanks to defend against top-down attacks and the placement of tyres over aircraft on-the-ground.  Russian forces are, nonetheless, learning and adapting, making for a more formidable defender.  An overwhelming preponderance of the lessons Antal identifies are reliant on increasingly advanced and distributed technology.  This creates new vulnerabilities and opportunities for exploitation and counter.  The distributed architecture he rightly advocates carries with it an increased surface area for cyber-attacks, jamming, electronic warfare, and even deception and spoofing. 

It is equally the case that much remains unchanged.  Russian and Ukrainian forces are fighting from trenches; for all the vaunted technology and uncrewed systems, both sides are overwhelmingly reliant on artillery fires the demand for which is straining national industrial bases.  As ever, much returns to the question of acquisition.  For all the technology that Antal identifies, an attendant change in the way that defence institutions purchase capabilities is needed.  Change is underway in the United States, and was outlined in the UK’s Defence Command Paper, but military disruption will almost always outpace institutional change. 

“Next War” is a useful addition to the literature of the changing character of war.  Its scoping and focus, and its application of the identified disruptors to current challenges offer immediate insights for today’s commanders and defence policymakers.  One hopes that Antal continues this analytical path that he has started on, as doing so would yield and invaluable contribution to future planning. 

Joshua C. Huminski

Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and a George Mason University National Security Institute Fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.

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