Are we living in the age of relative peace? Should we prepare for conventional war?
This article was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by Matthew R. Doherty. Matthew is a graduate of the Universities of Leeds and Edinburgh. He specialises in military studies, with an emphasis on counterinsurgency operations.
THAAD stands for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense and is an American weapon system designed to intercept and shoot down short, medium and intermediate range ballistic missiles before they can strike their targets.
The development of this system (and others like it) could herald a new phase in warfare. The concept of an anti-missile defence goes back many decades. However, unlike Reagan’s Star Wars, which literally never got off the ground, this system is proven, suitable for mass-production, and is operational in many countries today.
Since the development and large scale building of nuclear weapons during the 1940’s and 50’s, the superpowers of the world have not dared risk a global confrontation of conventional armies – for fear of the rapid annihilation and dispersal of their forces through nuclear strikes. In short, as with the longbow to plate armour, or the machine gun to massed infantry, the offense has overtaken the personal defence.
The sheer destructive potential of nuclear weapons has, for this long, so outstripped any potential defence that even the thought of pursuing large-scale war between the superpowers is anathema to most sane politicians. Of course, proxy wars have been fought from Vietnam to Angola, but we have not yet seen repeats of Kursk, Stalingrad or the Bulge.
But what if the defence is steadily catching up? Could anti-missile systems, or systems in orbit, effectively shoot down all nuclear and non-nuclear ballistic missiles deployed against a conventional unit? Could THAAD, and later improved systems, be adapted to screen such units in conventional operations? Perhaps one day, mobile anti-missile launchers will be as crucial a part of an armoured division as its Main Battle Tank? However unlikely such an eventuality is, military planners looking at long-term projections must at least allow for the possibility.
Despite the intentions of the CND, the Pandora’s Box of nuclear weaponry will probably never be shut. If missiles were prevented from being the main method of deployment, there are other options, all with drawbacks. Planes can be used to carry nukes, but planes can be shot down easier than a missile. Nuclear artillery could be pressed back into use, but it would be slow moving, difficult to deploy and use effectively, and its size and slowness would mean it could be easily spotted and destroyed. Nuclear demolitions are another option – but they require careful planning and are limited in scope.
So could the defence overtake the offense to the point where large scale conventional land warfare could rear its ugly head again? The prospect of thousands of Russian tanks overrunning inadequate and underfunded NATO forces in Western Europe, or of a resurgent China taking on Russia. The prospect of India and Pakistan squaring off conventionally. These are very plausible future scenarios if the threat of nuclear strikes are eliminated or dramatically reduced.
For now the focus for Western armies is, understandably, on counterinsurgency and asymmetrical warfare. As the global population increases and the effects of climate change are felt, a score of bitterly fought Londonderry’s in the mega-cities of the developing world awaits. But what of thirty, forty or even fifty years from now? Electronic detection and scrambling will no doubt refine. AI in warfare will become ever more prevalent. Anti-missile technology will, I believe, improve in leaps and bounds.
Is the relative peace we have enjoyed since the terrible examples of Hiroshima and Nagasaki simply borrowed time? Are we gradually shifting from the era of small wars into the next confrontation the world will have with itself?