War is inextricable from the place it’s fought. Cadets still walk the battlefields of the US Civil War and World War II to learn how commanders harnessed geography for their side. The battlefields of the future will be just as important, but they will be shaped by technology that allows soldiers to strike targets from thousands of miles away, to soar overhead using autonomous drones, or even leave the atmosphere behind entirely. Here are some of the places where militaries are preparing for war and diplomats are hoping for peace.
In 1935, famed American general Billy Mitchell told Congress: "I believe that in the future, whoever holds Alaska will hold the world." As climate change decimates the Arctic ice cap, opening its seas to ship traffic, that prediction looks prescient.
The North Pole and its waters are today regulated by the Arctic Council, an organization of eight nations and six indigenous groups. But countries continue to jostle over claims and resources. In a 2007 stunt, the Russians used submarines to plant a flag on the Arctic sea floor. The US and its NATO allies are stocking up on ice breakers and conducting military exercises in Norway to prepare for Arctic conflict. And even China sees strategic value in placing a foothold in the retreating ice. Beyond claims to oil, gas, and rare earth minerals, the nation seeks to establish what it’s calling a “Polar Silk Road” through the northern passage.
In a speech in Finland, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo warned against Chinese interest in the region, pushing back against China’s assertion that it is a "near-Arctic nation." "There are only Arctic states and non-Arctic states," he said.
The Arctic Circle is losing its thick shell. According to a NASA study, sea ice at the poles that is four years or older is now just 2% of what it was in 1984. When sea ice ages (by surviving seasonal temperature changes), it gains thickness. But with warming temperatures, less ice is surviving and the ice sheet is thinning. Thin ice means more access to the region for more countries, and more potential conflict.
New passageways present opportunities for national militaries looking to establish missile defense systems, or thread nuclear submarines past traditional chokepoints, or—even—to launch ground campaigns.
A failed satellite launch by Iran in August prompted US president Donald Trump to tweet and, as a result, declassify intelligence imagery of the event. Defense wonks quickly noted that the quality of the photo couldn't be from a commercial satellite.
The United States of America was not involved in the catastrophic accident during final launch preparations for the Safir SLV Launch at Semnan Launch Site One in Iran. I wish Iran best wishes and good luck in determining what happened at Site One. pic.twitter.com/z0iDj2L0Y3— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 30, 2019
"I was surprised at the clarity and detail," Brian Weeden, a space surveillance expert at the Secure World Foundation, told Quartz. "We now have a better idea of what people say when they talk about ‘exquisite’ intelligence sources.”
Spy satellites aren’t the only military assets in space. The US relies on spacecraft to communicate with far-flung troops, defend against missile attacks and guide weapons to their targets. Satellites are vital to the US nuclear deterrent, warning of attacks, connecting submarines and bombers to strategic command, and guiding warheads to their destinations. At least nuclear weapons themselves are banned in space thanks to the Outer Space Treaty.
Technological progress is now allowing other nations, particularly Russia and China, to catch up to the US advantage in space.
Satellites have largely been safe from interference or conflict because it’s so hard to reach them. But as technology gets cheaper, more countries are developing missiles that could potentially blow them up, or devices to jam and interfere with their transmissions, and even lasers to blind them.
It’s not science fiction: A recent US defense intelligence agency report (PDF) describes the use of electronic warfare and directed energy weapons. "China likely is pursuing laser weapons to disrupt, degrade, or damage satellites and their sensors and possibly already has a limited capability to employ laser systems against satellite sensors," it states.
Kim Jong Un has significantly improved North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities. And he has successfully used the threat of those weapons to win concessions from world powers.
Analysts believe the country has the capability to now hurl atomic warheads at Japan, US bases in the Pacific, and even the US mainland. Much of the best information on the deeply insular state’s nuclear program is gathered by satellites in space.
Studying commercially-obtained images like these—alongside propaganda photos and data released by military observers in the US, South Korea and Japan—it’s now possible for the public to know almost as much about North Korea’s nuclear program as the CIA. That helps us understand how vulnerable the US could be.
American military personnel call the process of intercepting a nuclear attack the “kill chain.” This is how it goes: The US has to spot the threat far enough in advance that it has time to communicate the missile’s telemetry back to interceptors, which then must be launched in time to meet the attack before it hits its target. This all must take place in a matter of minutes. The US doesn’t have the ability to do this yet, but it is racing to develop cheap radar satellites that can.
Satellites are also being used to hunt nuclear processing and storage facilities in North Korea. In the worst-case scenario of a conflict with the North Korean regime, finding “loose nukes” hidden across the country before they fall into the wrong hands would be a priority. Such a conflict would likely require hundreds of thousands of troops—and that’s only after dealing with North Korean artillery capable of dropping 10,000 shells a night on South Korea.
In the Cold War, strategists fretted about the Red Army pouring through the Fulda Gap into West Germany and setting up an apocalyptic Iron Curtain showdown. Today, NATO generals are focused on the Suwalki Gap, a stretch of border between Poland and Lithuania, alongside the Russian territory of Kalingrad. It’s the only land access available to NATO allies to protect the small Baltic states that were once part of the Soviet Union, in the event that Russia tries to use its strategy in Crimea to quickly seize them before the US and other allies can respond.
At issue is the concentration of forces. Russia has more soldiers, and a lot more artillery, deployed in the area than NATO does. The NATO strategy is to have a small force “blunt” a potential Russian attack until reinforcements arrive, but analysts don’t think that defensive force is enough to hold the Russians before the cavalry arrives.
The simple solution is more of everything: Troops, tanks, artillery and planes. But that costs money, and with the Trump administration already nickel-and-diming NATO and driving up the national debt, it seems unlikely that major US investment will be forthcoming. That leaves America’s sworn allies in a precarious position.
China’s rise as an economic power has coincided with a new focus on expanding control of regional territories. Beijing longs to take back Taiwan. And in the last decade China has made other territorial claims along the so-called “nine dash line” it drew through the South China Sea.
China’s People’s Liberation Army has been fortifying the disputed islands and has amassed a huge rocket arsenal that analysts say would win a fight with the US Pacific Command. China never signed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty, allowing it to build whatever rockets it wanted. One argument behind the Trump administration’s departure from the treaty is that it was pointless to adhere to such limits while China freely expanded its own arsenal.
The US has the diplomatic advantage, however. China’s neighbors are worried about the country’s regional influence (even as they welcome its prosperity), and so look to the US as a counter-balance. This gives the US leverage in global negotiations, like trade agreements.
To balance China’s rise, the US can’t just spend more this time. China’s economy is now larger than the US economy, and its strategy is focused regionally, instead of globally, allowing it to concentrate military resources. The US military, on the other hand, is stretched across the globe. So to counter China, it will have to rely on a coalition of countries in the region. That will mean working with nations that don’t necessarily like each other, like Japan and South Korea.