SecurityEconomyInternationalKey TopicPolitics

The bygone future of war

13. February 2024 - from Dr Gerd Portugall

Novel tactics, state-of-the-art weapons systems, all-seeing reconnaissance – advanced technology and digitalization are changing the face of modern armed conflict. Yet at the same time, traditional forms of warfare are experiencing a comeback. Is this the beginning of a new era in the history of war?


The war in Ukraine has swept away the illusion that modern conflicts would somehow be fought in cyberspace with few human casualties. Instead, a new type of high-intensity war is raging. According to United Nations data, up to half a million Ukrainian and Russian troops have been killed or wounded in the conflict. Thanks to satellites, drones, sensors and mobile phone data, battlefields are increasingly transparent. Moreover, the war has been devouring weapons and ammunition at a ferocious pace, posing huge production and logistical challenges. If Ukraine is to have a chance of prevailing against Russia’s war machine in the long run, a lot will depend on how much equipment and financial aid it receives from its Western partners.
(Image: Getty Images / Libkos)

Trench warfare

Scorched and cratered landscapes, mud and deep trenches – what to us calls to mind the First World War and the fruitless battles of the Western Front over a century ago, are a grinding daily reality now for soldiers fighting in Ukraine. The front currently runs for around a thousand kilometres, with very little movement in recent months, as here in Bakhmut. The conflict has evolved into a brutal war of attrition, greedily consuming men, women and material.
(Image: Getty Images / Libkos)

Land warfare

Traditionally, minefields and self-propelled howitzers prevent the enemy from advancing. This aerial photograph shows a Ukrainian T-64 tank heading into battle near Bakhmut. Drones have been in action in Ukraine to an extent never seen before. They are omnipresent, identifying every troop movement. Now more than ever, the view from above is shaping the way the war is seen – in terms of military reconnaissance and social media alike. Disseminated on the internet, images of destroyed tanks or captured troops purport to be evidence of success on the battlefield; but the accuracy of such propaganda shots can seldom be verified.
(Image: Getty Images / Libkos)

A war of attrition

As in the trench wars of the last century, soldiers on both sides were quick to dig in. Now they attempt to hold the line while subjecting each other to machinegun, mortar, and tank fire. Multifarious weapon systems run through ammunition at an astonishing rate. Both sides have long since been forced to ration their shells. In the meantime, the pace of ammunition procurement in the EU is picking up. More than anything else, Ukraine needs artillery shells. As the world’s largest producer of artillery ammunition, Rheinmetall can tip the balance here.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, the increasingly blatant military threats directed against Taiwan by the People’s Republic of China, North Korea’s attempts at nuclear intimidation and the recent flareup of fighting in the Middle East have largely reduced the already shaky architecture of international peace to rubble. Throughout the West, people have been quick to criticize the long years of disarmament and the accompanying “peace dividend” that followed the end of the Cold War. This seems unfair. After all, it was a time when Germany was “completely surrounded by friends”, as the country’s then defence minister, Volker Rühe, put it in 1992: boosting German defence spending would have been illusory. Besides, politicians and the public were demanding just the opposite back then: less money, fewer troops and less equipment for Germany’s armed forces – the same as elsewhere in Europe.

A new dimension near at hand

The ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war has forced many nations to fundamentally rethink their procurement policies. It has also revealed how geographical proximity and distance influence public perceptions of military conflicts. The contrasts are glaring, supposedly rampant globalization and worldwide media coverage notwithstanding. While bloody civil wars have been raging in Syria ever since the “Arab Spring” in 2011 and since 2014 in Yemen, subsequently internationalized by the intervention of outside actors (much as in the Balkan wars), the concern triggered by these conflicts has been quite muted in Europe. And this despite Syria directly bordering on Turkey, a NATO member nation on the periphery of Europe.

By contrast, when war broke out in Ukraine almost two years ago, the shock to European civil society was huge. The millions of Ukrainians who have sought refuge in various European countries heightened the emotional impact and public awareness of the war. By the same token, those countries – such as Germany – that have provided Kyiv with military, humanitarian and financial aid have repeatedly been the target of various forms of hybrid warfare, with attacks traceable back to Russia and other actors. The impact of events currently unfolding in Israel and Gaza has played out differently, with the regional conflict in the Middle East increasingly making itself felt in the streets in Germany and all over Europe.

Hybrid warfare – blurring the boundary between war and peace

Violent conflict today is taking on new forms: the Kremlin is waging its war not just with soldiers but with a combination of military and political pressure, including cyberattacks, disinformation and covert operations. On 7 October 2023, Israel suffered a massive attack by the terrorist organization Hamas, in which the means selected were in marked contrast to a conventional military assault. But what makes hybrid warfare qualitatively different – and in what ways does it reflect the constants found in every war? What threats do we have to prepare for? And what lessons can we draw from what has already happened?

Thinking in “either/or” categories – something we are all too inclined to do in Germany – won’t result in an adequate answer. One thing is for sure: the complexity demands a “both/and” approach. In its current manifestations, war has become a mix of archetypal contradictions, in which the boundaries between war and peace become blurred and military action spreads into civil domains. The following phenomena are characteristic:

  1. Modi operandi: Openly, in ways that can be clearly traced; and covertly (e.g. espionage and propaganda)
  2. State and non-state actors (e.g. political parties, corporations, NGOs and terror organizations)
  3. Military and non-military instruments (diplomatic and economic, for example, but also manipulating migration)
  4. Symmetric peer-on-peer wars and asymmetric guerrilla wars and terrorism
  5. Conventional and unconventional ways of waging war
  6. Regular and irregular combatants

The arsenal of hybrid warfare primarily serves one purpose: asserting one’s own aims, including in the face of resistance, while avoiding open military conflict. Mounting a direct attack can have grave consequences, resulting in an all-out defensive effort by the country on the receiving end, right through to multinational intervention by allied third parties. Some are therefore inclined to speak of a Cold War 2.0 between Russia and the West.

Paramilitaries are on the march worldwide

Concealment at several levels is a typical characteristic of hybrid warfare. This includes using mercenaries and regular troops without national insignia. The latter played a decisive role in the violent seizure of Crimea in 2014. “Little green men” – Russian troops without insignia and therefore irregular combatants under international law – caused confusion in Ukraine as well as in the West.

The best-known private military company in the first decade of the 21st century was Blackwater USA, which was primarily active in Iraq. Today, the most notorious mercenary force is the Russian Wagner Group, who have been conducting their nefarious activities first and foremost in Syria, the Sahel and, until recently, in Ukraine. Criminals from the worlds of organized crime, terrorism and piracy can mutate into security policy-relevant actors. Examples include the drug cartels in Colombia and Mexico or Islamists and pirates in Somalia.

In mercenary forces, in paramilitary groups, in warlord-led militias and foreign legions, foreign and domestic volunteers are paid to go to war, with perhaps the prospect of a new identity. Convicts, too, are recruited as “volunteers” with the promise of a pardon. This situation comes very close to what the German political scientist Herfried Münkler calls “buy-your-way-out post-heroic societies” which are unwilling to sacrifice their own jeunesse dorée, i.e. the children of the elite, on the battlefield. But for state actors, too, deploying their own regular troops can be problematic. It’s not a coincidence that unmanned and quasi-autonomously operating systems like attack drones are augmenting traditional “boots on the ground”, thus reducing the need to expose troops to the hazards of combat operations.

Night after night, an aerial war has been raging in the skies over Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities on a scale the world has never seen: Israel’s “Iron Dome” air defence system in action against rockets fired from the Gaza Strip. (Image: Getty Images / MAHMUD HAMS)

Civilians as human shields

Non-state actors often misuse civilians as human shields. When, for instance, an organization like Hamas operates in a densely populated urban area and is suspected of placing its command posts under mosques and hospitals, combatting them with military means is obviously difficult, especially given the high political price of the unavoidably large number of civilian casualties this is bound to entail. The situation is doubly difficult for regular armed forces, which, as instruments of state policy, are obliged to adhere to international humani-tarian law, including the Geneva Convention and the Hague Convention respecting the Rules and Customs of War on Land, to which paramilitary forces and terrorists clearly never feel bound.

Palestinians posing with a captured tank on the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel. The brutal surprise attack by the Islamist terror group Hamas came as a shock to Israel and its Western allies. (Image: picture alliance)

New forms of geopolitical conflict

Today, physical damage can be inflicted not only through kinetic-physical means but by cybernetic-digital modalities as well. Technical advances in the Information Age have long since given rise to a new form of warfare: cyberwar in virtual space. National critical infrastructure and civilian facilities are especially at risk. The supposedly US-Israeli malware program “Stuxnet”, which is believed to have damaged Iran’s nuclear centrifuges, is just one example among many. Outside of conflict zones, not only government agencies but private-sector companies are vulnerable to cyberattacks. Here, too, the boundaries of war are increasingly blurry.

Global climate change harbours additional potential for interstate conflict. Natural disasters trigger massive population movements that can have a destabilizing effect on transit and destin-ation countries. As was recently the case with Belarus, autocratic regimes instrumentalize refugees as a means of exerting political pressure. At the same time, climate change is leading to increased competition for scarce resources like water, while in the Arctic, our warming planet is making precious natural resources accessible and opening new trade routes of great geostrategic significance. Nations are getting greedy.

Threats of violence: the rhetoric of escalation

In addition to attacking Ukraine physically, Russia has been waging what amounts to psychological warfare in Europe. The UN Charter states that “threats or the use of violence are incommensurate with the goals of the United Nations”. This hasn’t prevented Russia from repeatedly threatening to use nuclear weapons. As if nuclear sabre rattling wasn’t enough, Moscow regularly tries to intimidate the nations of NATO’s eastern flank, particularly the Baltic States and Poland – to say nothing of threatening to cut off the flow of oil and gas.

At the same time, Russia continues to meddle in the internal politics of Western democracies, focusing on far-left and right-wing populist parties. In the United States, moreover, Moscow’s efforts to manipulate the domestic political debate during the 2016 election campaign have been attributed to tipping the election to Donald Trump. In Germany, both the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, and parts of the far-left Linke party have willingly allowed themselves to be courted by Moscow and instrumentalized for its Great Power policy ends. Both parties sit in the German Parliament, or Bundestag, as well as in many of the country’s state parliaments.

The threat from the net

Cyberattacks have long since emerged as a serious threat. Almost the entire German economy is now affected. The ensuing damage now costs the country EUR 148 billion annually. Since the start of the Russian invasion, most of the attacks have originated in Russia and China.

Fake News as a weapon

The Information Age has more than just a technological dimension, the virulent stuff of cyberwar. It also has a psychological one: targeted disinformation. Both are elements in the information war, though cyberwar is a far more recent concept than psychological warfare, which goes back to the work of the British brigadier general and military historian J.F.C. Fuller in the 1920s. Today it takes the form of conspiracy theories, alternative facts and fake news. Instead of rational arguments, manipulative messaging aims to undermine the cred-ibility of an opponent’s government institutions and the mainstream media, ultimately causing people to lose faith in everything and to believe in nothing. If the objective is to achieve public opinion supremacy, then social media – X, -Instagram, Facebook, Telegram, TikTok, etc. – are the battlefield where the rival parties engage in a virtual propaganda war.

Old and new: peer-on-peer war

Hybrid warfare has broadened the battlefield to include the economy, politics and society, including critical infrastructure and the information domain. The Russian-Ukrainian war leaves no room for doubt on this score. In purely military terms, this brutal conflict has manifested itself in an ambivalent mix of traditional tactics and military hardware from earlier wars with the very latest in high-tech weaponry. Long dismissed as antiquated, such traditional elements of warfare as trenches, minefields, tank traps, and the massive use of armour and artillery have featured prominently in this conflict. At the same time, all-seeing sensors mounted on high-tech drones, vehicles and machines support heavily armed troops on the ground engaging in networked operations. Unmanned aircraft and autonomously operating tanks are now a reality.

The war in Ukraine has also altered estimates of force requirements. Until now, the idea of mass armies – the traditional levée en masse – seemed to have no place in 21st century military doctrine. As a result, many countries abandoned conscription. Even though Russia and Ukraine weren’t among them, during this protracted conflict both have been forced to call up new cohorts. High-intensity combat exacts a heavy toll, both human and material. To meet the immense demand for weapons, munitions and equipment, Moscow and Kyiv have both placed their economies on a war footing.

AI and digitalization

At the same time, both sides in the war have – as far as possible – adopted innovations in the way modern war is waged, including C5ISR, an operational network standing for Command, Control, Computers, Communications, Cyber, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance. Many high-tech military solutions are based on this: swarms of attack and kamikaze drones, for example, or satellite-supported GPS reconnaissance and the control of weapons systems via networks like Starlink, operated by the US aero-space company SpaceX. Thanks to advances in digitalization, mobile phones can be located for target acquisition, while modern air defence systems deliver reliable protection against short- and very short-range threats and enable interception of longer range ballistic missiles. But frontline communication via standard social media platforms also plays an increasingly central role.


The terms “hybrid war” and “hybrid warfare” were popularized between 2005 and 2009 by Dr Frank G. Hoffman, an American strategy expert and former Marine Corps staff officer. A few years earlier, a German political scientist, Professor Herfried Münkler, coined the expression “New Wars”. Written in the shadow of the terror attacks on 9/11, his homonymous book explores the ambivalence and complexity of modern forms of war.

Traditional stockpiling vs flexible supply chains

Something else revealed by the war in Ukraine: the move away from traditional stockpiling after the Cold War to flexible supply chains in modern military logistics has had a negative impact on operations. In conflicts characterized by high-intensity combat, material wear quickly brings logistic support to a grinding halt. In February 2022, Russia was counting on a swift victory. Moscow assumed at the time that its forces were vastly superior, equipped with modern systems and professionally led. That its invasion failed even before reaching Kyiv was a further confirmation of the famous pronouncement of the Prussian chief of staff Helmuth von Moltke: “No plan survives first contact with the enemy!” Following the first defeats on the battlefield, military leaders in Moscow realized the need to adapt the structure of the Russian armed forces. This is why the militaries of both countries have demanded a mass mobilization of manpower, while the defence industry is increasingly calling for a return to traditional stockpiling of materiel.

New military doctrines are changing modern warfare

In addition to modifying their plans on land and in the air, many countries are shifting their naval doctrine from blue water battles to littoral warfare, including the ability to project military force from ship to shore. As already alluded to, air force doctrine now assigns an increasingly important role to unmanned systems. The trend here is towards mixed forms of manned and unmanned platforms, in short, a “system of systems”. The militarization of space and cyberwar and the corresponding technological underpinnings are opening new dimensions.

Conversely, the geostrategic consequences of modern warfare also mean a return to the tried and true: in the West, a forced renaissance in both conventional and nuclear deterrence is underway. What’s new here, though, is that conventional superiority now lies with the West, unlike in “Cold War 1.0”. Just as with Spain and Turkey at the time, in the new confrontation between East and West traditionally neutral nations like Finland and Sweden are now eager to come under NATO’s defensive umbrella or have already done so.

Lessons from the war in Ukraine

Following “Cold War 1.0”, thanks to the “peace dividend” and digitalization, European armed forces were expected to do more with less, i.e. enhancing their military capabilities with less money, fewer personnel and less materiel. With Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s proclamation of a “turning point in history”, everything changed. Germany’s new defence policy envisages massive rearmament of the Bundeswehr, coupled with far-reaching financial and material support for Ukraine. Olaf Scholz, a lawyer who in the 1980s belonged to the peace movement, could theoretically underpin his policies with the words of the American president and pol-itical scientist Woodrow Wilson when he took the United States into the First World War in 1917: “Law and justice are more precious than peace.” In the meantime, the German defence minister, Boris Pistorius, has announced his intention of making the Bundeswehr “war-worthy” again.

Faced with this threat situation, NATO agreed to new defence plans at its summit in Vilnius in summer 2023 that spell out which capabilities are necessary to deter an aggressor in a crisis and to defend Alliance territory. Moreover, these plans extend beyond ground, air and naval operations to include space and cyberspace. Moving on from the goal of urging NATO member states to invest two percent of gross domestic product in defence, in Vilnius a two percent minimum was agreed.

Looking ahead: the armed forces of the future

Officials responsible for equipping the armed forces have already drawn lessons from the current conflict. New military capabilities are now the order of the day. At the same time, however, traditional military hardware and methodology are experiencing a renaissance. Speaking off the record, moreover, the military admit that much of what they had been saying about threat scenarios and modern warfare in recent years was completely wrong. It is therefore no coincidence that the German government is eager to rebuild the Bundeswehr’s ammunition stocks – and not just for artillery. A second lot of Puma infantry fighting vehicles for the mechanized infantry corps is on order, as is the nuclear-capable F-35A Lightning II fighter aircraft.

Furthermore, plans are now in place that will enable effective air defence against strategic threats as well as in the short- and very short-range spectrum. In a major step, the German Army’s Air Defence corps, deactivated in 2012, is now being reinstated. The vital importance of this capability has been plain to see in both Ukraine and Israel. Even before the Vilnius summit but after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the European member states of NATO launched an initiative to improve the continent’s defences against missiles, artillery shells and aircraft, the European Sky Shield Initiative, or ESSI (see article on page 24f). Under this initiative, procurement and service contracts for guided missiles, automatic cannons and high-energy laser weapons can be expected.

A decade-long task

The need for action is therefore multifaceted: in the conventional domain, ammunition depots need to be restocked, tanks, weapons systems and trucks reordered, and previous military capabil-ities re-established. At the same time, the next war – may it never come to pass – will require maximum digitalization and networkability, new forms of ordnance such as drones and other unmanned systems, and high-tech reconnaissance and countermeasure assets. Regaining the ability to wage war will take at least a decade and a society-wide effort. It will require substantial financial and human resources – and above all the declared will of society to protect its values and if necessary to defend them.


Dr Gerd Portugall

has worked as a social scientist and journalist specializing in security policy and military issues for over 35 years. He has served as a freelance editor for a military publishing house in Germany since 2022.

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