Understanding Warfare in the 21st Century

By James Turitto
Volume XVIII, No. 3: Winter 2010

The 21st century has witnessed faster communication times and closer international networks, increasing the number of people engaged in warfare and complicating the dynamics of it. In turn, the battlefield has expanded. Technological developments over the past two decades have driven this change, and have done so in several ways.

First, different actors engaged in a conflict have adopted the use of cutting-edge tools in warfare. The United States has led the pack in developing conventional military weaponry. As Andrew Callam discusses in his article “Drone Wars: Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Modern Warfare”, the U.S. military relies heavily on drones to target al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders in ungoverned areas of Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Through DARPA, the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, the military is designing new models of drones, some that resemble hummingbirds and spiders, which will be used for surveillance against enemy targets.

Non-state actors, groups like al-Qaeda and Hezbollah that operate outside the territorial boundaries of the nation-state system, have also exploited new technologies for their tactical and strategic effects in warfare. Because non-state actors must be nimble and operate in the shadows, these tools go well beyond conventional military implements. They include not only the use of improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers, but also activities on the Internet to recruit members, raise money, transfer information, and generate public awareness.

Second, there has been a proliferation of real-time war reporting. The way that warfare is visualized on television and the Internet, in newspapers, or through daily communication, has a direct affect on how it is understood. Diligent attention to the news might cause someone to think that war is rampant. But just because pictures of war appear on CNN or BBC more frequently today does not mean that conflict is on the rise. Quite the opposite. Armed conflict is declining and there have been fewer deaths in war since the time of WWII than there were in both world wars.[1] It could be there is a positive correlation between increased knowledge of ongoing wars and the decline of war. As people become more aware of the horrors of war from images of death and disease they see in the news, perhaps they lose the romance for war, or begin to doubt its advocates.

The next generation of real-time conflict reporting is already starting to emerge. With the rise of user-generated content and Web 2.0 technologies—Youtube/Facebook/Twitter—witnesses to warfare are emerging not just as bystanders, or victims, but also as reporters. Youtube has shown itself to be a particularly powerful tool for documenting incidents of violence. The world watched in horror last June as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard trounced the opposition movement. Independent reporting led to the viral video of a young Iranian girl, Neda, seen graphically shot dead on camera. Pictures and videos such as these provide dramatic confirmation of the atrocities taking place, just as CNN’s reporters verified the genocide in Rwanda more than 15 years ago.

Finally, the instantaneous transfer of information via the Internet has increased the number of participants in war. Unarmed actors thousands of miles away can participate in a conflict even by sitting at their computer. In the span of a millisecond, satellite images depicting population migrations can be transferred from the office of Refugees International in Washington, D.C. to a remote computer in El Fashir, Sudan; video files from Darfur refugee camps can be uploaded to the internet for the entire world to view; and, a student studying war and conflict at George Washington University can communicate directly with members of the Sudan Liberation Movement. In the same time span, a disaffected Somali-American living in St. Paul, Minnesota can send remittances to Mogadishu, Somalia to support the cause of Al Shabab insurgents. The battlefield has become virtual. It is no longer fought on the ground but also on the web. Any willing person can become a belligerent in war, not just by fighting, but also by instantaneously transferring information, money, or technology.

As new tools enter battle, the battlefield continues to expand. It is both real and virtual, it is urban and rural. As 21st century warfare continues to evolve, it will become more complex. Understanding the way technology has changed warfare and the way it is viewed is important to the wars of the future: how they will be waged, and how they will be resolved.


[1] Human Security Center, University of British Columbia. Human Security Report 2005: War and Peace in the 21st Century (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2005).

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