Trends in Warfare: A Conceptual Overview

C. Uday Bhaskar, Deputy Director, IDSA



"Power is superior to knowledge. One powerful man can defeat a hundred men of knowledge. If a man is powerful, he triumphs. By power the world stands firm. Meditate on power. He who meditates on power as Brahman is, as it were, lord over all."

Chandogya Upanishad1


War is defined amongst other meanings as a state of open armed, often prolonged conflict carried on between nations, states or parties and a formally declared state of war is one in which certain internationally recognised conventions are supposed to apply.2 Thus war as a phenomenon involves conflict and violence emanating from divergent self-interest and may be perceived as being deeply embedded in the human psyche.

Whether man is essentially good but corrupted by the collective of society as the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) maintained, or is closer to the view of the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) who asserted that individuals are essentially selfish and aggressive, has been long debated. Sociologists are divided about the inherent nature of man's aggression and as Robert Ardrey notes, "No organism could grow to maturity and reproduce its kind without the pressure of inborn aggressiveness. No oak could pass beyond the sapling stage, no clone of amoebas beyond the earliest divisions, no fledgling eagle beyond the eyrie's rim, no human infant beyond its mother's skirts, were we not aggressive. We should otherwise die. Aggression is normal, inborn, necessary."3

However, a distinction about the nature of aggression is provided by Anthony Storr who clarifies that this is a 'portmanteau term' and avers: "The desire for power has, in extreme form, disastrous aspects which we will acknowledge; but the drive to conquer difficulties or to gain mastery over the external world underlies the greatest of human achievements....One difficulty is that there is no clear dividing line between those forms of aggressions which we all deplore and those which we must not disown if we are to survive..........(aggression) is an instinctive drive which seeks expression just as much as sex."4

Thus war as an activity cannot be separated from human nature and acquires the requisite degree of criticality when it is waged under the umbrella of the social collective, be it clan, tribe, city coalescing into the nation-state in its modern form. The state in turn enters the domain of warfare either as aggressor or defender within the framework of its political compulsions and perceived national interest, and historically, both the nature and objectives of war have been shaped by the prevailing geo-political ambiance and the technology of the period. Therefore in outlining a general principle about war, the centrality of the state and its political umbilical needs little reiteration and this aspect is best summarised by the famous German military theorist Karl von Clausewitz.

In his seminal work, "On War", he asserts: "Now this unity is the conception that war is only a part of political intercourse, therefore by no means an independent thing in itself. We know, of course, that war is only caused through the political intercourse of governments and nations; but in general it is supposed that such intercourse is broken off by war, and that a totally different state of things ensues, subject to no laws but its own. We maintain, on the contrary, that war is nothing but a continuation of political intercourse with an admixture of other means...Accordingly, war can never be separated from political intercourse, and if, in the consideration of the matter, this occurs anywhere, all the threads of the different relations are, in a certain sense, broken, and we have before us a senseless thing without an object."5


The matrix that now evolves identifies state as an entity engaged in the art of war in the furtherance of the national interest - often interpreted in terms of core security interests, and the political context is provided by the human element in the form of the ruling elite and the professional leadership - military and otherwise - who evolve strategies to manage this activity and interact with the peer state group. The geo-political specificity, the dominant military discourse and the related technological index ascribed to the period provide the necessary backdrop and one may propose these determinants as the perennial parameters that have shaped the historical narrative about warfare from the very ancient period to the present times. In summary these include state as an entity and security/national interest as concepts played out against the backdrop of technology as a constantly evolving dynamic and the specific geo-political characteristics of a given temporal period.

Classification of Wars

It is generally accepted that Clausewitz identified the primary strategic priority as one of winning the single decisive battle, the Entscheidungsschlacht and this in turn was embedded in the framework of a general or total war that sought complete annihilation and complete victory over the adversary. Credit must go to the later German historian Hans Delbruck for re-visiting Clausewitz and refining the classification of war as envisaged by the high priest of military strategy. Delbruck discovered that Clausewitz himself had asserted the existence throughout history of more than one strategic approach, suggesting in a note written in 1827 that there were two sharply distinct methods of conducting war. However, Clausewitz died in 1831 and was unable to complete the revisions he had envisaged in his notes about refining the formulations about war. Delbruck interpreted the Clausewitzian distinction as follows: one which he named Niederwerfungsstrategie, (the strategy of annihilation) was bent solely on the annihilation of the enemy; the other Ermattungsstrategie, (strategy of exhaustion) a limited warfare, in which such annihilation was impossible, either because the political aims or political tensions involved in the war were small or because the military means were inadequate to accomplish annihilation.6

This classification of general wars and their lesser cousins, the smaller wars is not confined to Clausewitz alone and there is adequate evidence to suggest that similar recognition and division had been made as far back as the third millennium BC in the writings of military historians and theorists as far removed in time and space as Thucydides, Sun Tzi and Kautilya.7 However, in the modern context the term Limited War or Small War has many other synonyms including brushfire wars, dirty wars, guerrilla warfare, insurgency-counterinsurgency, internal wars, interventions, expeditions, little wars, low-intensity operations/conflicts, political warfare, revolutionary warfare, urban guerrilla warfare, proxy wars, and surrogate wars.8

In deliberating upon limited war a certain degree of semantic consensuality is required and one of the more comprehensive interpretations of limited war is provided by Robert Osgood who states " A limited war is one in which the belligerents restrict the purpose for which they fight to concrete, well-defined objectives that do not demand the utmost military effort of which the belligerents are capable and that can be accommodated in a negotiated settlement. Generally speaking, a limited war actively involves only two ( or very few) major belligerents in the fighting. The battle is confined to a local geographical area and directed against selected targets - primarily those of direct military importance. It demands of the belligerents only a fractional commitment of their human and physical resources. It permits their economic, social, and political patterns of existence to continue without serious disruption.9

Transmutation of Warfare

It is the contention of this paper that the parameters listed at the outset as being contributory factors in war per se - namely state as entity, security/national interest as concepts and the backdrop of the prevailing geo-political ambiance and the evolving dynamic of technology are linked in a complex, non-linear, synergistic manner wherein they shape one another and that the distillate - to the extent it is discernible - has resulted in a transmutation of the nature of warfare in its totality. Each of these strands may be dealt with separately to comprehend the conceptual underpinning of this evolutionary process.

The larger global geo-political ambiance and the dominant discourse that characterises the strategic choices available to states may be reduced to three broad temporal divisions, namely the colonial period beginning circa mid 17th century and predicated on the advances made in military and maritime technology by the European powers, to the end of World War II and the explosion of the atomic weapon over Hiroshima in August 1945; later the anomalous Cold War decades from 1946 to the disintegration of the former USSR in 1991; and finally the current uneasy interregnum that is loosely classified as the post-Cold War years. It may be posited that the nature of warfare-both general and limited in the first two phases, namely colonial and Cold War was premised on the complex weave of prevailing socio-political under-currents-domestic, regional and global on one hand, the advances in technology and their impact on national strategies-military and economic-on the other and the manner in which the entity of the nation-state itself was evolving.

War and Nation

The co-relation between state, nationalism and warfare is best summarised in a scrutiny of the major punctuations along this multiple grid. The French Revolution and Napoleon transformed society, politics and warfare in a dramatic manner and as Edward Carr points out, nationalism has three phases - the first a dissolution of the medieval unity of church and empire; the second from the Napoleonic wars to the advent of World War I in 1914 when there was a democratisation of nationalism-but only in Europe for large swathes of Asia and Africa were differently under the colonial yoke; and finally the 20th century which witnessed what Carr describes as the socialisation of nationalism.10 The dialectical relationship between state and warfare is further reiterated by Michael Howard who opines that "from the very beginning the principle of nationalism was almost indissolubly linked, both in theory and practice with the idea of war.....war was the necessary dialectic in the evolution of nations."11

The emergence of new nation-states is inextricably linked with war and even in the 20th century, the end of each World War and later the Cold War resulted in the creation of new states which may be categorised variously as being post colonial or post-Cold War-India and Russia to wit as obvious examples on one hand at the global level, and Bangladesh in the immediate periphery as another. But the mere emergence or creation of fresh political identities is not enough to anchor state and the injunction of a Deputy in the Frankfurt Assembly in 1848 that "Mere existence does not entitle a people to political independence; only the force (power) to assert itself as a state among others (does)"12 is as relevant even today in a new century.

Strategic Culture

The degree of assertion by a state in a contested domain is essentially a collective behavioral characteristic and is manifest in the blood and gore associated with war. This particular trait of the use of military force by a state is subsumed under the umbrella of strategic culture. This is elaborated by Alastair Ian Johnston as consisting of two basic elements: (a) a central paradigm that supplies answers to three basic related questions about the nature of conflict in human affairs, the nature of the enemy, and the efficacy of violence and (b) a ranked set of strategic preferences logically derived from these central assumptions.13 In analysing the narrative and evolution of war, it is the assertion of this paper that strategic culture is the most significant determinant and perhaps the least acknowledged or comprehended in security studies and international relations due to its inherently obscure and abstract nature.

I argue that strategic culture is a complex and long term distillation of human responses that are influenced by geography, history and the constantly shifting sands of domestic, regional and where applicable, global socio-cultural and politico-military dynamics across the long cycle of history. The individual specificity of such strategic culture can range from what is now broadly termed the Anglo-Saxon or Western variant, the Slavic, the Sinic, the Indic and such like with further refinement and perhaps like ethnicity, strategic culture lends itself to considerable salami slicing depending on the fineness of the scalpel. In essence, states and the ruling elite who steer the ship of state either demonstrate a keen comprehension of the power equation and exploit national capabilities in a pro-active and nimble manner in the pursuit of the national interest, or display a reactive and reticent tendency thereby yielding the initiative to their potential adversaries. How state elite define the national interest, the integrity and breadth of vision associated with such aspirations and the nature of the state-military-civil society relationship forms yet another sub set in the scrutiny of the strategic cultures of states and their dominant social polity.

War and Politics

But to back up, we note a certain co-relation between the political process and the nature of warfare in that the first flush of nationalism unleashed by the French Revolution allowed a dramatic shift from the equivalent of small mercenary armies waging war for monarchs, to the mass national peasant armies who flocked under Napoleon's banner with irrepressible fervour. This swelling of numbers allowed Napoleon to evolve a markedly different military strategy wherein he mastered the art of moving large forces with great speed and we witness the shift from the siege-fortification mode of warfare to more innovative tactics based on mobility.14 Technology abetted these transmutations and the techno-strategic imbrication in terms of warfare is repeatedly evidenced in the evolutionary curve as regards fire-power (the musket, rifle, self- loading gun to heavier artillery, the tank and finally the missile), surveillance and communication (from wireless to radar to satellites) and strategic lift-the tangible tripod of military capabilities.

It is instructive that while warfare was essentially limited in the pre-Napoleonic era due to socio-politcal, economic and technological constraints, a cyclical pattern is discernible during the intervening centuries. Napoleon blazed his way through military history by pitting the whole French nation into the equivalent of a general war but even this was limited in geographical extent and national militaries evolved strategies to engage in specific theaters and win the big battle of Clausewitzian pedigree-a concept later applied to the maritime dimension by Mahan as the decisive battle between fleets in being. This pattern of the large scale general war continued through World Wars I and II and the resultant loss of human life was staggering-but the caveat that merits notice is the manner in which warfare, in a macabre extrapolation of Carr's nationalism has been initially democratised and then selectively socialised.

Ethical Faultline

The concluding stages of World War II witnessed a distressing but perhaps inevitable mix of technology and no-holds-barred political choices enlarging the scope of war per se. Whereas the conduct and objectives of the 'general' war being waged till then involved only the professional militaries of either side in specific geographic locales, and the capture or loss of territory by generals, who then left the political bargaining to lawyers and diplomats, it is the contention of this paper that a major political and ethical fault-line was breached in the final stages of World War II. Technology allowed the use of long range rockets and fighter bombers to target civilian populations and non-military assets and in a way, the symbol of carpet bombing by the Allies and the 'final solution' for the Jews of Europe by Hitler represents both the democratisation and selective socialisation of warfare.

Weapons of Mass Destruction

However, technology and the resultant politico military strategy that characterise warfare underwent a tectonic shift with the arrival of the atomic weapon. Hiroshima first, and Nagasaki later demonstrated once and for all that weapons of mass destruction had arrived irrevocably and the nature of warfare was to undergo yet another transformation. Total war in its holistic sense was no longer a viable option, yet in a seemingly absurd and irrational, but compellingly rigorous manner, the former superpowers amassed about sixty thousand nuclear weapons even as they debated the possibilities of limited strategic warfare that involved the use of nuclear weapons. The denouement to the utility of the nuclear weapon was to await the arrival of Presidents Gorbachev and Reagan and the ultimate dissolution of the former Soviet Union and it is now averred that war can no longer be conceived in a general sense between the major powers. However, the resultant imperative during the Cold War was one of the dominant discourses returning to limited wars a la pre Napoleon. Techno-strategic considerations that expanded the scope of warfare from limited to general in the 19th century were to shrink it back to a limited context in the mid 20th century-but for completely different reasons. Regional conflicts were being abetted and encouraged in a proxy manner in various parts of the world-and this debris of the Cold War is yet to be sifted in a satisfactory manner even though bi-polarity itself has been interred-the tragic example of Afghanistan providing an immediate example. The centrality of technology in limiting wars is only one aspect of the parameters that have contributed to the transmutation under scrutiny. The prevailing political ambiance as reflected in the dominant discourse of the day and related realpolitik compulsions at the regional level also influenced the manner in which states nurtured limited war in theaters ranging from Korea to Vietnam to South Asia the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and beyond.

State as Entity

State as an entity has already been identified as one of the major determinants in the pursuit of war and it is necessary to outline the evolution of state against the prevailing geo-political backdrop, namely the colonial period, the Cold War and the post-Cold War years. Identified by tangible attributes such as territoriality, area, boundaries, stable population and political legitimacy, it is possible to classify the 190 odd states of the world today in three overlapping groups. The first group comprises the post-colonial and post-Cold War states-entities that have emerged after dramatic historical events or war related upheavals, and are attempting to consolidate their identities as nation-states externally and a sense of nationhood internally. The second group is the largely traditional Westphalian state with a clear sense of identity, aspirations and anxiety. The third group is one of the post-modern state that has willingly surrendered certain aspects of its sovereignty and strategic autonomy to the 'great organizer'.15

Before examining the co-relation between state as an entity and the phenomenon of war, a brief scrutiny of the geo-political backdrop and state choices vis--vis war and its objectives is in order. The colonial period was characterised by intense rivalry among the major powers who consolidated their colonies and established a concert of powers wherein Europe was the cockpit and trans-border military power was harnessed to retain colonial empires afar. Thus territory, colonies and the raw material they provided-both human and otherwise were related to the larger political objective of war. The Cold War decades witnessed the dissolution of colonialism on one hand and the intensification of a competitive ideological rivalry against a backdrop of nuclear Armageddon. The Hobbesian characteristic of self-interest and aggression manifested itself in a range of limited wars, which as noted earlier included Korea, Vietnam, the sub-continent the Middle East et al. The major powers themselves did not seek territory or raw material as in the colonial period and war objectives were more related to ensuring ideological empathy and the forging of military alliances. In the post-Cold War period bi-polarity no longer obtains and the end of history has been heralded a la Fukuyama in the ultimate triumph of capitalism, the free market and the forces of democracy and pluralism.

Post-Cold War

In the current period, the efficacy and primacy of State itself has been diluted with the emergence of supra state organisations, transnational corporations and a complex web of commerce and trade, both legitimate and clandestine that recognise neither borders nor states. The technological revolution in its many manifestations has eroded the primacy of state and empowered the individual and the non-state actor in an unprecedented manner. The characteristics of the current period include the primacy of the US led Western alliance in political, economic and military terms; the emergence of China as a major player; the concomitant decline of Russia as the inheritor of the former Soviet mantle and the possible concretisation of an asymmetric poly-centric world order which in comprehensive power relevance may be perceived as a hexagonal construct that includes USA, China and Russia at the primary level and complemented by the EU, East Asia with Japan at the core and finally southern Asia with India at the core.

Security as a concept has also undergone a transmutation in the post-Cold War (PCW) years and has become more inclusive, to the extent that the Cold War pursuit of security was exclusive and focused on the narrow military-nuclear axis. Today state security is comprehensive and includes the primary elements of political, economic and military resilience complemented by technological, energy, societal and environmental determinants. Within this matrix, the primacy of economics is comparable to the nuclear dimension of yore, but with the caveat that economic activity is no longer the preserve of the state-the state at best can be a facilitator.

Along the military strand, security today spans the bandwidth from macro security-namely, trans-border military capability that includes WMD et al through the traditional edifice of conventional military capabilities such as army/navy/air force to the micro - namely, the sub- set of ostensibly non-military threats and challenges to the security and stability of state and society. The latter includes an amalgam of fundamentalism, terrorism, narcotics, small arms and demographic drift and what is of relevance for us is the manner in which the non-state actor, or the fringe player has the ability to challenge the integrity and tranquillity of state.

The technological revolution in military affairs (RMA) has been variously interpreted right since the 1991 Gulf War to the 1999 Kosovo bombing and what merits notice at the conceptual level is the fundamental shift in a dimensional analysis mode. To the extent that all military capabilities can be subsumed under the MLT (mass, length, time) matrix as being analogous to fire-power, range and precision, and command and control respectively, the enormous increase in fire-power (analogous to Mass) in terms of kilo and mega tonnage through WMD, and attaining ranges (analogous to Length) of thousands of kilometers with precision of up to hundreds of meters are well known. However, what is critical is the shrinking of T-the time factor. The information revolution is all about the collapse of time wherein all the principal interlocutors in a military grid are on real time and this poses an enormous challenge for the fifth C that follows command, control, communication, computers-namely consultation-political, military and societal. The management of this factor may well prove to be more challenging than hitherto imagined and the impact on the global media in terms of transparency and speed of real time communication by-passing state structures is a case in point.


Whereas war in the earlier phases-that is colonial and Cold War periods was characterised by predictable attributes such as state primacy and rectitude, nationalistic fervour and an exclusive interpretation of security that respected the sanctity of certain norms and rules such as the exclusivity of the nuclear weapon, today the field is blurred. State primacy is challenged by the non-state actor who is elusive. Nationalism is fragmented into sub-nationalism, supra nationalism and on occasion subterranean nationalism. The latter variant has often adopted the route of terrorism funded by narcotics and misplaced religious zealotry in the pursuit of sectarian goals. This is particularly evident in the Islamic world whose politico-religious footprint is no longer confined to the swathe from the Magreb to Indonesia and this sub set of strategic culture may defy conventional wisdom. State complicity in abetting such trends cannot be discounted and in a complete reversal of the Cold War pattern, today there is a disturbing co-relation between the macro and micro ends of the military security bandwidth. Thus if nuclear weapons ensured that wars remained limited in the Cold War, it is possible that the same capability may embolden states to expand the scope of unconventional warfare that can target the inclusive strands of comprehensive national security such as economic and societal assets and capabilities. And all these trends are likely to take place in full glare of an intrusive media thereby introducing a degree of ruthless transparency that defies the imagination of conservative state apparatus. In short this degree of complexity leavened with dynamism and an information overload is more akin to the essentials of chaos theory and calls for prudent and nimble management that can anticipate the unforeseen yet deal with the predictable.

Do we have precedents to follow in terms of forecasting the trends of warfare with the exactitude one desires? I am afraid not. Military history suggests that professionals have always opted for caution and predicting the future in international relations is hazardous. Forecasts and related studies have never been able to look 25 years down the road with any degree of certitude and this is true of the world in 1900 - who imagined what would follow in the next 20 years? In like fashion the world view in 1925 could hardly have anticipated the Great Depression, Hitler and the atomic weapon. And leap frogging, nobody expected in 1971 that the Berlin Wall would collapse and that the former USSR would become truly "former" in a mere 20 years. Thus predicting the contours of 2025 is risky, but the military professional has little choice but to prepare for the next war in a dialectical manner. The more one extrapolates and prepares for the exigency, the less likely is it to occur - but the wild card in the form of a banana peel is always there. Kargil and Kandahar are two facets of these exigencies in the Indian context.

But we are not alone in dealing with such uncertainty. Many centuries ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle cautioned his fellow citizens similarly: "That is, in arguing about what is for the most part so, from premises which are for the most part true, we must be content to draw conclusions that are similarly is a mark of the trained mind never to expect more precision in the treatment of any subject than the nature of that subject."16


The challenge for India is to read the tea leaves more astutely than we have to date. The nature of the Indian security predicament is without precedent in terms of the geo-political specificity, the vulnerabilities that attach to state and society, the systemic inadequacies and finally the unique blend of a strategic culture that venerates word over deed and is reluctant to grapple with macro power in all its dimensions including recognising its own inherent potential. The more visible security challenge for India is contained within the complex and muddied patterns that are emerging on the periphery in relation to state/non-state complicity and supra nationalism based on militant religious fervour. The possibility of having to deal with more limited wars that can become general is high. Apart from critiquing its own strategic culture and addressing the inadequacies, India will have to astutely discern the characteristics of its potential adversaries even if these are embedded in a time-space-culture continuum that goes beyond the limits we have explored to date.

India's commitment to normative values, pacifism and the power of principle is well taken. But history has repeatedly shown that the power of principle can be realised only if the principle of power is truly comprehended and subsumed. As the French military theorist Count de Guibert warned his own people in 1772, "To declaim against war, to beat the air with vain sounds, for ambitious, unjust or powerful rulers will certainly not be restrained by such means. But what may result, and what must necessarily result, is to extinguish little by little the military spirit, to make the government less interested in this important branch of administration, and some day to deliver up one's own nation, softened and disarmed-or, what amounts to the same thing, badly armed and not knowing how to use arms-to the yoke of warlike nations which may be less civilized but which have more judgment and prudence."17

Whether the world is always poised uneasily between two extended wars , or war is a brief but bloody interlude between two long periods of peace is akin to the Rousseau-Hobbes divide. The early part of this century is dotted with many inter-connected imponderables whose inherent dynamism induces turbulence. For the military professional there is little choice but to find a prudent path in a stubborn fog whose abiding leitmotif is a dialectical tension between a peace-like-war and a war-like-peace.



1. Cited in Richard Lannoy, The Speaking Tree: A Study of Indian Culture and Society, (OUP, 1971 rpt. 1975), p. 320.

2. Readers Digest Universal Dictionary, RD Association, London, 1998, p. 1689.

3. Cited in Krishna Chaitanya, The Sociology of Freedom, New Delhi: (Manohar, 1978), p. 8

4. Ibid., pp. 8-9.

5. Cited in Robert E Osgood, Limited War: The Challenge to American Strategy, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957 rpt 1965), p. 21.

6. Gordon A Craig, "Delbruck: The Military Historian" in Peter Paret (ed), Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, (Princeton, 1986), p.341.

7. For further details see Swaran Singh, Limited War: The Challenge of US Military Strategy, (New Delhi: Lancers Books, 1995), pp. 37-81.

8. Roger Beaumont; "Small Wars: Definitions and Dimensions", in WM J Olson (ed); Small Wars, The Annals, vol. 541, (Sage: Sep 1995), p. 22

9. Osgood, n.5, pp. 1-2.

10. Edward H. Carr, "Three Phases of Nationalism", in John Hutchinson & Anthony D. Smith (eds), Nationalism, OUP, 1994, pp. 243-45.

11. Michael Howard, "War and Nations" in Nationalism, op.cit, pp. 254-257.

12. Ibid. p. 254.

13. Alastair Iain Johnston, Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy In Chinese History, (Princeton, 1995), p. ix.

14. Rear Admiral Raja Menon, Maritime Strategy and Continental Wars, Frank Cass 1998, p. 6.

15. For further details see George Sorensen, "An Analysis of Contemporary Statehood: Consequences for Conflict and Cooperation", Review of International Studies, vol. 23 no. 3, July 1997, pp. 253-270.

16. Cited in WM J Olson (ed) Small Wars, op.cit. p. 9.

17. R.R. Palmer, "Frederick the Great, Guibert, Bulow: From Dynastic to National War"; ibid Paret, op.cit, n. 6, p. 112.