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#WavellReviews the Arms of the Future

‘Arms of the Future’. Russia’s expanded war against Ukraine has been described as a mash-up between “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “Blade Runner”, and with good reason. First person drones attack Russian troops in networks of trenches. Modern fire ships—uncrewed ships guided by Starlink and GPS signals—strike Russian naval vessels in port. Mass artillery batteries are joined by long-range precision munitions and loitering drones to disrupt logistics networks. It is a curious proving ground of both old concepts and new technology.

Image: cover of Arms of the Future
Cover art of The Arms of the Future

It should not be surprising that almost as soon as the war broke out lessons were drawn from the performance of Russia and Ukraine, with swift assessments following suit as to how the character of war was inevitably to change as a result. Most of these preliminary assessments reflected their rush to judgement. Rumors of the tank’s demise were greatly exaggerated. The advent of precision and loitering munitions have not rendered traditional 155mm artillery irrelevant.

With the war entering its second, violent year, more considered analysis are slowly emerging from military experts. Perhaps the finest example of this is Dr. Jack Watling’s “The Arms of the Future” published by Bloomsbury Academic. That Watling’s analysis should be so shrewd and incisive comes as no surprise to those who have tracked the RUSI senior research fellow’s writing.

Watling focuses on the tactical and sub-tactical aspects of modern warfare and its nexus with emerging technologies. It is exclusively focused on conventional land force operations and, to a lesser degree, on supporting tactical aviation. Its narrow focus is a decisive strength in that it bounds his analysis, allowing him to drill down into the details, and prevents it from becoming an unwieldy, overly expansive set of reflections. There are few books out there that truly explore the power generation and battery requirements of units or the practical realities of operating drones in a contested or congested electronic warfare environment.

Indeed, for Watling, drones are just one tool among many—it is how they are used in concert with other capabilities that will define their present and future utility.

Indeed, for Watling, drones are just one tool among many—it is how they are used in concert with other capabilities that will define their present and future utility. The people and systems that support the drones and how it reaches their target is just as important as the drone itself, as is how the diversity and multiplicity of information feeds are integrated into a coherent battlefield picture, thereby enabling maneuver, precision fires, and assault activities. Yet, the picture Watling presents is, rightly, less revolutionary, and more evolutionary, and the proliferation of this new picture will happen at speeds far greater, and arguably at a cost far cheaper, than in the past.

The core argument

Each third of “The Arms of the Future” sequentially builds off its predecessor section, culminating in a series of broad reflections. The first outlines how emerging technologies are affecting and will affect battlefield operations and geometry. Here, Watling focuses on the challenges of operating in a transparent battlefield (rear areas are increasingly vulnerable), the fight for spectrum and electronic dominance (it is not just about more bandwidth), the future of armored vehicles (the tank may not be dead, but it needs to go on a diet in terms of armor and main armament), the need to increase the protection of supporting functions (due to dispersal), and the importance of urban domains. Each chapter elucidates how the battlefield is changing and how militaries need to adapt to these changes in a very measured manner.

The second third argues first that the fundamental geography and geometry of the battlefield requires reconsideration as a result of the changes outlined in the first section. Whereas armies could enjoy protected areas in the rear, long range precision fires and the transparency of the battlefield challenge these assumptions as illustrated by Ukraine’s successful attacks against Russian staging grounds. The necessary dispersal of forces in response necessitates the devolution of capabilities such as medical and engineering, which in turn requires those functions’ “up armoring”. This is especially true as small, dismounted and mounted recce units  bring significant direct and indirect fire against support and logistics units. The traditional push-pull approach to logistics and supply distribution is upended if your adversary can strike your supply chains or any concentration of forces.

With this in mind, Watling then sketches a well-thought-out force structure design that aims to shift land forces away from a mechanized basis and more towards an “informatized” foundation.

With this in mind, Watling then sketches a well-thought-out force structure design that aims to shift land forces away from a mechanized basis and more towards an “informatized” foundation. Centered on maneuver, fires, assault, and support functions, Watling explores how the preceding technologies should shape the development specialist functions. He argues that while generalist forces are suitable for peacetime maintenance, in conflict focused forces are of far greater value.

The level of detail and granularity may pose a challenge for readers not as au fait with formations, capabilities, and functions, yet the detail is crucial—Watling is building tactical units from the ground-up to respond to emerging military dynamics and technological innovation. This approach, as opposed to a top-down force design, better reflects the challenge of operating in this new increasingly contested environment.

The final third then reflects on how this force structure fits into the broader concept of operations. He swiftly—in one chapter—explores the implications of the changing battlefield considerations and force design with other domains such as space, cyber, air, and maritime. Here, he argues that the intersection of land forces with these components occurs at different echelons that will, in turn, see a divergence of mission and priorities in high intensity conflict. It is certainly vital to talk about jointness and integration, but when and if the metaphorical balloon goes up, different domains will have different demands and foci.

He quite rightly, in the third section of the book, identifies a key challenge—the transformation of existing force structures to meet current and future trends. Whereas he enjoyed the advantage of a tabula rasa for his force design, Western militaries are not starting from a clean slate. Balancing legacy systems with urgent adaptation and long-term planning and development is difficult in ideal circumstances and is exceedingly painful when politics enters into the equation e.g. the U.S. Marine Corps Force Design 2030.

Watling sensibly steers clear of trying to boil the ocean, instead outlining five key areas of prioritized reform: networks, shooters, sensors, urban training, and layered defense—each of which are vital to his case for technologically-driven force transformation. This is strategic and operational necessity if the West is to prepare for the future. Indeed, in my conversations with NATO representatives earlier this autumn, this was a recognized challenge—augmenting or adapting the current force design and structure in response to lessons from Ukraine whilst balancing the long-term challenges of planning for the future.

“The Arms of the Future” concretizes the lessons from Ukraine and the challenges and opportunities of emerging technology in a far better manner than any work yet published.

Watling’s book is deeply informed by real-world experiences and observation, both his own and from others. This is a key strength of “The Arms of the Future” as it focuses not on abstract theories, but practical analysis. As he notes, it is often the case that theoretical approaches—even in wargames and especially in “fictional intelligence”—assume the best outcome: the right person, with the right weapon and right munition, is at the right place in time and space. It is rarely the case that the squad in question finds itself confronting an adversary for which it is not prepared.

“The Arms of the Future” concretizes the lessons from Ukraine and the challenges and opportunities of emerging technology in a far better manner than any work yet published. Perhaps the lesson is that in the debate over quality or quantity “armies with sufficient sensors and fires can destroy those who lack them… in a fight between a force capable of seeing first, striking further and with ample area effect munitions, pushing more units into the struggle is simple to take heavier casualties”.

It should be the starting point for considering the real-world implications of technological innovation, not merely the fanciful and fantastic pages of techno-thrillers (with which he rightly takes issue at the opening of the book, and which are all too often seen as setting the agenda; the number of times “Ghost Fleet” has been recommended in and out of the Pentagon would suggest an aggressive and insidious marketing campaign).

Rather than focus on long-term, undefined macro-level trends, his focus on the here and now, and the immediate future means that Watling’s lessons and reflections will likely stand the test of time.

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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