War Transformed: The Future of Twenty-First-Century Great-Power Competition and Conflict by Mick Ryan. Naval Institute Press, 2022, 312 pp.
In a crowded field of books anticipating future warfare, Mick Ryan’s War Transformed: The Future of Twenty-First-Century Great Power Competition and Conflict stands apart for seeking to avoid a breathless emphasis on change. Rather, War Transformed seeks to remain grounded in continuity while stressing areas that military institutions should seek to reform (66).
This approach can be seen in Ryan’s opening anecdote of violence breaking out between India and China in June 2020, a twenty-first-century outburst characterized by some of the same weapons used by cavemen, like clubs. Ryan similarly explains that Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine “shows how war never really disposes of any old ideas or capabilities. It just combines them in different and sometimes new ways” (81).
Mick Ryan, a recently retired Australian Army general, first explores the relationship between revolutions and military change to situate his work within the fourth industrial revolution of the “acquisition” of knowledge (5). Concurrently, Ryan challenges technological determinists by contending that technology is “largely a level playing field” that may offer only the most “transient” of advantages (172). A more lasting advantage can be secured by appropriately hitching the technology to a suit of supporting ideas, institutions, and properly trained and educated military professionals (7). This point is at the heart of the work’s argument.
Regarding specific technologies, Ryan suggests that artificial intelligence, robotics, quantum computing, biotechnology, energy weapons, hypersonics, space technology, and additive manufacturing will probably be the most important technologies to watch. None of this will greatly surprise the reader with a passing acquaintance in future warfare. But, then again, the work’s strength is not its deep dives into technology but rather its balanced approach to future warfare.
As such, Ryan incorporates discussion of larger disruptive global patterns of demographic change and demography and urbanization and identifies seven trends for future warfare agnostic to any specific technology. These trends include: (1) a “new appreciation of time”; (2) the “battle of signatures”; (3) “new forms of mass” that require more creative approaches; (4) more “integrated thinking and action”; (5) an increased reliance on human-machine teams; (6) reevaluating how one targets a nation’s psyche; and (7) the need for nations to reduce dangerous supply chain dependencies (82–84).
Ryan’s discussion of time highlights his approach’s strengths and weaknesses. Well-versed in the literature on modern and future warfare, Ryan draws on maneuver theorist Robert Leonhard’s breakdown of time into four categories: duration, frequency, sequence, and opportunity. Of those, Ryan believes that duration and frequency will be of greatest importance. Regarding duration, Ryan unsurprisingly stresses the tension between the preference of Western nations for shorter conflicts and the ability of some of its opponents to work against Western preference. More interesting is Ryan’s emphasis on frequency, by which he means the “pace at which things occur” (86). The author allows that events may occur faster and that speed potentially “deepens the strategic reach of military activities,” a point at which the author vaguely refers to cyber and information war by way of example (87).
Yet Ryan notably stops short of embracing hyper-war, arguing that “cting at the right time will always be more important than acting at speed” (88). In a five-page section, the author introduces several issues for consideration, offering a springboard for the interested reader to pursue in greater depth.
About halfway through the book, Ryan introduces another set of themes to explore the five best historical ways to gain an advantage: geography, mass, time, technology, and intellectual advantage (169). Since some of these categories overlap with his previously discussed set of themes, the author then pivots to focus largely on the last category, a logical choice since he spent his last assignment in the Army before retirement commanding the Australian Defence College.
Ryan seems to suggest that China has moved ahead in this area. He certainly pulls no punches in taking Western militaries to task for mushy thinking, such as for using terms like “grey zone” (70, 211). He finds such phrases to be problematic in allowing for a shared understanding needed to counter potential opponents. But he does not always apply the same rigorous standards to his quoting and unpacking of Chinese and, to a lesser extent, Russian military thinking (34, 86–87, 124 149).
But other examples of Western jargon receive a pass, such as multidomain operations. Ryan notes that peer and neer-peer adversaries have “invested in new operational concepts that are designed to attack Western systems and joint forces where they are weak” (134). He further recognizes that the Chinese have “assessed that a key weakness in Western military organizations is the operating systems that link forces in the different domains” (143). But Ryan also insists that Western militaries must “pit” their advantages against their adversaries’ weaknesses. But, in this case, multidomain operations may just constitute a known weakness that may not offer enough of an offsetting advantage.
Again, continuing his emphasis on cognitive advantage, Ryan suggests the need for almost constant adaptability in professional military education (196). Disappointingly, this section lacks compelling examples of how he oversaw such change within the Australian Defense College, particularly regarding how to better prepare military leaders to seize the advantages of artificial intelligence.
He also never quite balances how one remains grounded in key patterns of continuity given his countervailing emphasis on “spark[ing] continuous change” (143, 155). This is a delicate balancing act that desperately needs more discussion as there are real limits in quality when institutions pursue constant change.
The author also sees an unexpected boon from the COVID-19 pandemic in professional military education (PME), providing more online, continual learning. But Ryan does not demonstrate that this format actually improves learning outcomes (203). Likewise, he stresses continual learning but does not provide practical suggestions regarding how overworked officers can jam PME into their weekends with anything more than the most cursory and cynical engagement.
For those already conversant in issues surrounding future warfare, Ryan’s work offers an excellent synthesis of some key literature that will help to identify gaps or areas worthy of further study for the reader. For those not up to date on these debates, the work is still highly accessible. Amid a slew of books offering technological silver bullets, Ryan provides a steady and wide-ranging approach that can be mined for additional study depending on one’s familiarity with the topic at hand.
Heather Venable, PhD