3 January 2021


Joe Varner

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.Sun Tzu, The Art of War

In 1999, two Chinese military analysts wrote a book, now famous in defense circles, exploring the subject of “unrestricted warfare” and positioning it as key to future Chinese strategic success. The authors defined the concept as “a war that surpasses all boundaries and restrictions. It takes nonmilitary forms and military forms and creates a war on many fronts. It is the war of the future.” It has been a powerful means with which China has pursued its salami-slicing objectives in the South China Sea. And now China appears to be bringing the playbook to its territorial disputes on land with India.

The concept—essentially China’s variant of the hybrid warfare that has increasingly been a feature of strategic discourse from Washington to Moscow and beyond—might further be broken down into three “non” warfares: non-contact (fei jierong), non-linear (fei xianshi), and non-symmetric (fei duicheng). Non-contact warfare is defined as conflict in which the more advanced side is outside the immediate range of its enemy’s weapons and is therefore impervious to attack while retaining the ability to conduct its own strikes on the enemy. Non-linear warfare is conflict with no distinguishable battlefield due to the advancement of technology and codependent relationship between the opposing sides, and is exploited in the information space. Non-symmetric warfare attacks an adversary in every strategic domain but with the very limited use of military forces. Elements of these “non” warfares have been evident in China’s actions against India in the last year, which have included some of the methods perfected in its actions in the South China Sea.

From Sea to Land?

A NATO In Asia? Not Going to Happen

by Zhuoran Li

After Secretary of State Mike Pompeo completed his Asian tour in October, many observers labeled this tour as “anti-China.” He attended the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) conference in Tokyo and visited states with shared security concerns about China like Vietnam. This tour brought more discussion about the role of Quad in East Asian national security. Prime Minister Abe initiated Quad in 2007 as “an Asian arc of democracy” to contain China. But different interests among its members contributed to its collapse in 2008. Later, Japan, Australia, India, and the United States revived Quad in 2017 to secure a “rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific.” With China’s growing power and assertiveness, many suspect Quad as the first step toward a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-like alliance in the Indo-Pacific. However, a comparison between American security establishments in Europe and Asia shows that a multilateral alliance in Asia is unlikely to emerge.

Since the end of World War II, the pillar of the American-led security system in the Asian-Pacific has been the San Francisco system. The biggest difference between the San Francisco system and NATO is that the multilateral nature of NATO constructs a conflict-resolution institution among its members. The first article of the NATO Treaty calls all members to settle their disputes in peaceful manners. Article Nine establishes the NATO Council, which brings all members together to discuss security problems. This provides an institutionalized mechanism for members to raise and negotiate concerns. The NATO Council itself acts as a broker to resolve potential conflicts. In contrast, the San Francisco system lacks a formal conflict-resolution mechanism because it is a group of bilateral treaties. There is no common platform for American allies in Asia to discuss their security interests. As a result, the United States lacks the means to coordinate conflicted interests and perceptions among its regional partners.


Steve Blank

Stanford University is hosting a brand-new class this fall—Technology, Innovation, and Modern War. Steve Blank, who teaches the course along with Joe Felter and Raj Shah, is writing about each class session—offering Modern War Institute readers an incredible opportunity to learn about the intersection of technology and war and hear from remarkable guest speakers. Read about previous sessions here.


Our speaker for our final class was former Secretary of Defense Gen. Jim Mattis, who gave an inspiring talk about service to the nation. Gen. Mattis joined the Marine Corps back in 1969, and he has led Marines, and later Joint forces, from every level from platoon commander as a lieutenant all the way up to combatant commander as the four-star commanding general of US Central Command. He recently led our entire US Defense Department as the twenty-sixth secretary of defense. We’re fortunate to have him back here at Stanford at the Hoover Institution.

Below are select excerpts from a riveting Q&A session with the teaching team and our students. Gen. Mattis shared a range of compelling experiences and insights that underscored many of the themes of the course.

How do we as a nation compete against China?

Competition Is What States Make of It: A U.S. Strategy Toward China

By Kaleb J. Redden 

They have transformed a poor society by an economic miracle to become now the second-largest economy in the world. . . . They have followed the American lead in putting people in space and shooting down satellites with missiles. Theirs is a culture 4,000 years old with 1.3 billion people, many of great talent. . . . How could they not aspire to be number 1 in Asia, and in time the world? . . . It is China’s intention to be the greatest power in the world.

—Lee Quan Yew, former prime minister of Singapore1

China today represents the “most consequential long-term challenge we face as a nation.”2 While many actors and trends present challenges to U.S. interests, only China has the potential to challenge the United States across so many aspects of national power—to challenge its economic influence and technological lead in key sectors, to challenge its military in scenarios in which it has long held dominance or assumed sanctuary, or to present an alternative governance model that undermines the norms and values that the United States has sought to preserve at home and promote abroad.3 To be clear, China faces many headwinds that may inhibit its rise.4 Yet China has signaled ambitions to be a dominant global power; its economic trajectory, if it continues, would provide significant means to pursue its aims.5 As a result, today China alone can contend with the United States for hegemony within a region and has the potential to mount a serious challenge to the U.S. ability to shape the character of the international system.6

America's rule of law v. China's 'rule by law'


The contrast between America’s rule of law and China’s “rule by law” is presently on vivid display. 

As the world’s oldest democracy, the United States is the foremost exponent of the rule of law, which it routinely posits against authoritarian systems and their arbitrary one-man or one-party diktats.

Communist China, which calls itself a “People’s Republic” and uses the democratic title “president” for its unelected leader, is happy to cloak its governance model in Western-style language. But its contrived rule-by-law formulation is hardly equivalent to democracies’ institutionalized legal systems. The law is what the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) says it is — consent not requested, dissent not allowed, political instability averted. Very neat, very Orwellian.

Despite appropriating Western trappings, the world’s dictators fare poorly on the moral and reputational scale when compared to free countries. That is why the autocratic regimes in Beijing, Moscow, Pyongyang and Teheran are celebrating America’s post-election disarray. The despots find the spectacle particularly delicious since it is being waged precisely on legal grounds.

The rules governing elections — that is, the 50 sets of state rules — were necessarily extemporized in response to pandemic-imposed constraints. That made them ripe for irregularities and for perceptions and suspicions of manipulation.

The Chinese Coast Guard and the Senkaku

By Tsuruta Jun

The Senkaku Islands, including the islands Uotsuri-jima, Kuba-shima and Taisho-jima, are a group of five islands and three reefs north of the Yaeyama Islands in Okinawa Prefecture. Based on both history and international law, the Senkaku Islands are part of the territory of Japan, and in fact Japan has effective control over them.

Following the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE)’s survey report on coastal mineral resources in the fall of 1968, which suggested massive petroleum and gas reserves in the seabed areas around the islands, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued their “Statement concerning the issue of China’s sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands” (the Chinese name for the Senkaku Islands) on December 30, 1971, marking the beginning of the Chinese government’s formal claims of sovereignty over the islands.

In the last few years, China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels have made repeated incursions into the territorial waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands and navigated in the contiguous zone. Here, I would like to point out the need for Japan to prepare for the future by reviewing the relevant movements in 2020.

CCG vessels operated inside the territorial sea surrounding the Senkaku Islands for 111 days, from April 14 to August 2, 2020. On several occasions, the vessels approached Japanese fishing boats operating in the sea surrounding the Senkaku Islands. Moreover, by November 2, the CCG vessels had entered and operated in the contiguous zone for a total of 283 days, setting a new record.

To Face Down China, Should the United States Turn Away From the Middle East?

By Robert Farley

Should the United States de-emphasize its commitments to the Middle East in favor of a more robust competitive stance toward China? As the American political class has grown weary of “forever wars,” calls for disengagement from the Middle East have often revolved around the need to spend more resources in the Western Pacific. One recent framing of this ideas comes from Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo), who argues that America’s commitment to global liberal hegemony went hand in hand with the waging of endless war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. 

Harshly critical of Bush- and Obama-era foreign policy, Hawley calls for the U.S. to redistribute its efforts toward Asia, arguing that China represents a generational threat that may exceed the Soviet Union in magnitude. Hawley’s solution is to build military capacity in East Asia, prioritize alliances with partners across the region, and “[counter] malign Chinese influence in other areas, from Africa to Latin America to our colleges and universities at home.” 

This may sound like an expansive program for a self-declared anti-imperialist, but even granting that Hawley’s commitment to both anti-imperialism and an exit from the Middle East are limited and opportunistic (he supports continued arms sales to the UAE, and continued U.S. military engagement with Saudi Arabia, as well as withdrawal from the JCPOA, and endless military action against Iran) we can nevertheless wonder whether such principles, if sincerely held, would lay out an actionable pathway for avoiding militarized confrontation and “forever war” in the Middle East.

Behind Xi Jinping’s Declaration of Victory Over Poverty

By: Elizabeth Chen


The Chinese state news organization Xinhua announced on November 23 that nine provinces in Guizhou had been lifted out of absolute poverty, marking the removal of all counties from China’s national list of most impoverished counties (Xinhua, November 24). About a week later, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping announced that China had achieved the goal of eradicating absolute poverty and becoming a “moderately prosperous society” (小康社会, xiaokang shehui) before the end of 2020 (China Daily, December 2; Xinhua, December 4).[1]

This heralded a wave of triumphal propaganda. Xi stressed the “critical importance of continuously advancing global poverty reduction” during his remarks at the G20 Riyadh Leader’s Summit on November 22, and held up China’s imminent achievement of eliminating absolute poverty ten years ahead of the deadline set by the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as a model for global emulation (Xinhua, November 23). Chinese official media frequently cited the praise of foreign experts, who were quoted as saying that China’s achievement “gave a hope to the developing countries” and represented a “great historic accomplishment” amid the COVID-19 pandemic (Xinhua, November 25, Xinhua, December 8) On December 14, Xi sent a letter of congratulations to the International Forum on Sharing Poverty Reduction Experience that said, “China stands ready to work with all countries in promoting the process of international poverty reduction and building a community with a shared future for mankind” (China Daily, December 14).

The Strategic Importance of “Poverty Alleviation”


Alison Killing, Megha Rajagopalan

ALMATY — China has built more than 100 new facilities in Xinjiang where it can not only lock people up, but also force them to work in dedicated factory buildings right on site, BuzzFeed News can reveal based on government records, interviews, and hundreds of satellite images.

In August, BuzzFeed News uncovered hundreds of compounds in Xinjiang bearing the hallmarks of prisons or detention camps, many built during the last three years in a rapid escalation of China’s campaign against Muslim minorities including Uighurs, Kazakhs, and others. A new analysis shows that at least 135 of these compounds also hold factory buildings. Forced labor on a vast scale is almost certainly taking place inside facilities like these, according to researchers and interviews with former detainees.

Factories across Xinjiang — both inside and outside the camps — tend to share similar characteristics. They are typically long and rectangular, and their metal roofs are usually brightly colored — often blue, sometimes red. In contrast to the masonry and concrete of typical detention buildings, the factories have steel frames, which can be erected within as little as a month. The steel frame is sturdy enough to hold the roof without interior columns, leaving more space inside for large machinery or assembly lines. Some of the biggest factory buildings have strips of skylights to let light in.

Chinese Navy Expanding Bases Near South China Sea

By: H I Sutton

The lead Chinese Type-075 preparing for sea trials. 

The Chinese Navy, formally known as the PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy), conducted a live-fire exercise several days ago over the South China Sea utilizing a newly expanded naval base.

Harbin Z-9 helicopters took off from a base at Sanya on the southern tip of Hainan and fired anti-ship missiles at simulated targets. The Z-9, a license-built variant of the Eurocopter AS365 Dauphin, is a standard shipboard helicopter the PLAN flies. The exercise itself sends a signal, but the base from which the helicopters took off is crucial. The base has been massively improved over the past year.

The South China Sea is a strategically important and hotly contested region. China claims virtually all of it and has been strengthening its navy’s bases in the region. The airbase is not the only facility that could make a difference in the balance of power in the region. China is also working to strengthen the aircraft carrier base a few miles along the coast.

Hell on Earth: War Against Iran Would Make Iraq Look Like Child’s Play

by Robert Farley 

Here's What You Need to Remember: Regime change might work, but there’s little good reason to believe the chances of such are high. A war would incur serious costs on Iran, but would also commit the United States to the destruction of the Islamic Republic, a process that could take decades, if it succeeds at all.

The Trump administration appears ready to decertify Iranian compliance with the the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), despite a lack of evidence of Iranian violations. For critics of the JCPOA, this represents a move in the right direction; the goal of U.S. policy should be the end of the Islamic Republic and the overthrow of the existing regime in Tehran. As long as this regime exists, no matter how constrained it is by bilateral and multilateral agreements, it will seek to undermine the stability of the established order in the Middle East through overt and covert military means. This position is held in the United States by figures such as Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and by policymakers such as Sen. Tom Cotton. The desire for regime change is also shared by some in the Middle East, including significant elements of the Israeli and Saudi national security states.

To be fair, few of these voices have called for a military campaign to overthrow the Islamic Republic, and generally for good reason; there is little prospect for success and little appetite for paying the costs necessary to succeed. Still, it’s worth evaluating what a war for regime change might look like. The decision of the Bush administration to commit itself to regime change in Iraq undoubtedly helped lead to the war, even if war was not initially the intention. If the Trump administration similarly commits itself to regime change, then war may come sooner or later.

The Powerful Implications of Israel’s Successful Missile Defense Test

Jacob Nagel

The Israeli Missile Defense Organization and U.S. Missile Defense Agency announced earlier this month the successful completion of a series of tests of a multilayered missile defense system using the David’s Sling, Iron Dome and Arrow systems.

Under the auspices of Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, the tests simulated a variety of advanced threats, including low-altitude cruise missiles, long-range ballistic missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles and more. The tests integrated multiple interception systems, using a single command and control node to build a picture of the threats in real time, while deploying each individual interception system to operate independently.

Success was not a foregone conclusion: There are significant technological and operational differences between these systems, such as maneuverability, range and cost. But the tests proved the systems can work simultaneously.

For Israel, this was the first time all three of its missile defense layers worked simultaneously, demonstrating interoperability and enabling Israel to leverage each specific system’s comparative advantages. It was a major milestone in Israel’s capabilities to defend itself against current and future threats.

The Department of Defense Needs to Relearn the (Almost) Lost Art of Net Assessment

Bryan Clark, Dan Patt, and Timothy A. Walton

Tough choices lie ahead for the U.S. Department of Defense. Government relief in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and rising costs to service the federal debt are expected to constrain discretionary spending, including spending on defense. At the same time its budgets are being squeezed, the U.S. military will need to address a peer competitor in China; creative Russian, Iranian, North Korean adversaries; and a potentially unaffordable approach to deterring and waging war.

Tough choices are often unpopular. Consider the opposition to Commandant of the Marine Corps General David Berger’s efforts to restructure his service to fight inside enemy weapons range from places like the islands around China’s coast. The argument made by Berger and other defense leaders is that the U.S. military cannot continue to rely on the forces and concepts that won in Iraq and Afghanistan to deter or defeat sophisticated adversaries like China. The U.S. military is already pursuing new warfighting approaches to overcome the People’s Liberation Army’s robust sensor and weapons networks and growing air and naval forces. In a tight fiscal environment, equipping U.S. forces for these new concepts may require the divestment of some traditional capabilities.

Means-Based Decision-Making: A Case for The Metaphysics of Strategy

Scott J. Harr

The military’s ever-expanding role in the emerging operational environment risks failure to deliver a coherent definition and conception of strategy for practitioners. The debate over the term and the ideas employed to craft workable strategy is healthy, if inconclusive. The Department of Defense defines strategy as prudent ideas used to employ the elements of national power to achieve objectives. Notably, the definition leaves open the methods and models available to formulate such prudent ideas. Recently, military practitioners and professors have criticized traditional models of military strategy, like the Lykke Model’s use of an ends, ways, and means framework as being overly formulaic and “too narrowly construed.” Others have offered more abstract and varied discussions of strategy as a theory of success—aiming only to articulate strategy as the cause of success.[1] Still other scholars have recently encouraged the military to broaden the dimensions of strategy to include formal training in the social sciences. Current professors of military strategy have noted they do not teach a “single definition as the right answer,” thus giving students an opportunity to construct and explain their own models of military strategy.[2] This abstract and varied approach to defining military strategy arguably accommodates the complexities of the emerging 21st-century battlefield and encourages adaptive, creative thinking from military officers. Certainly, holding ideas with a loose grip, as these approaches suggest, prevents dogma while allowing for the healthy circulation of new ideas. 

But a loose grip can result in no grip, and correct ideas require a mechanism for retention. Without it, concepts fail to serve the military practitioner employed to craft strategy: what the strategist gains in creative flexibility may be lost in coherence. The potential collateral damage from holding overly broad and varied concepts of military strategy represents a two-fold tragedy. Not only do military practitioners lack a reliable and/or workable definition for strategy, but, given the perceptions of a rapidly changing threat environment that has dramatically shifted the military’s focus from counter-terrorism to great power competition, they do so at precisely the time they need it most.

Why America must retaliate after massive cyberattack from Russia


American government agencies and private companies were victims of an espionage attack last week. Security experts have said the hacker group Cozy Bear, managed by the Foreign Intelligence Service of Russia, was responsible. The scope of the breach is considerable and could be the largest spying operation in history against the United States.

It exposes flaws in our intelligence system as numerous federal agencies were targeted, including the Homeland Security Department. This attack by Russia marks a clear existential threat to the United States. The breach needs to be taken as a potential act of war against the United States and necessitates a certain and swift retaliation from the government.

But the action by President Trump has been neither swift nor certain. He has taken a similar regretful posture toward this breach as he has toward other cases of aggression from Russia. Despite the mounting evidence of responsibility, Trump has undercut those assertions by security experts, and even by his own administration officials, that Russia was behind this. Trump also made a baseless assertion that China held responsibility and falsely said the attack affected voting machines in the election.

Joe Biden has already indicated that he will take decisive action against Russia after taking office and work with our allies to counter the threat of its aggression in a way that Trump has mostly failed to do. Biden declared the United States needs to work “with our allies to set up an international system that will constitute appropriate behavior in cyberspace” and “hold any other country liable for breaking out of those basic rules.”

The End of the Wilsonian Era

By Walter Russell 

One hundred years after the U.S. Senate humiliated President Woodrow Wilson by rejecting the Treaty of Versailles, Princeton University, which Wilson led as its president before launching his political career, struck his name from its famous school of international affairs. As “cancellations” go, this one is at least arguably deserved. Wilson was an egregious racist even by the standards of his time, and the man behind the persecution of his own political opponents and the abuses of the first Red Scare has been celebrated for far too long and far too uncritically. 

But however problematic Wilson’s personal views and domestic policies were, as a statesman and ideologist, he must be counted among the most influential makers of the modern world. He was not a particularly original thinker. More than a century before Wilson proposed the League of Nations, Tsar Alexander I of Russia had alarmed his fellow rulers

Five Books That Explain the World

James Stavridis

James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also an operating executive consultant at the Carlyle Group and chairs the board of counselors at McLarty Associates.Read more opinion

Every time I set out to visit a country in the NATO alliance when I was Supreme Allied Commander, I’d try to read a book that could help me understand the history, culture and zeitgeist of the place. It could be a novel by a native writer, a history or a work of historical fiction. Can you really understand France without reading Camus and Sartre? To comprehend Russia, including the mindset of Vladimir Putin, I’ve found more illumination in Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and above all Gogol than in most CIA reports, with all due respect to the agency.

So as 2020 ends, I want to offer five books that have helped me make sense of a confusing world in the past year.

Let’s start with a sweeping look at some of the most important global trends: “The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations” by Pulitzer prize-winning analyst Daniel Yergin (disclosure: Dan is a colleague of mine at the private equity firm Carlyle Group). Yergin’s 1990 book about the oil industry, “The Prize,” is a standard text in most graduate schools of international relations. By the way, the world still depends on oil, gas and coal for 80% of its energy — roughly the same as it did when he wrote the book 30 years ago. But so much else has changed.

New Low-Yield Nuclear Warheads That Biden Calls A "Bad Idea" Have All Been Delivered


Anew report says that the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration has finished the planned production run of controversial low-yield W76-2 nuclear warheads for the U.S. Navy's Trident D5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles and delivered all of them to that service. This revelation comes just weeks before President-elect Joe Biden is set to take office. Biden has said that fielding this weapon, which some experts say worryingly increases the chances of the U.S. government using nuclear weapons in a crisis, is a "bad idea."

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which oversees the development and production of nuclear weapons and manages America's nuclear deterrent stockpile, provided the new details about the W76-2 program in its annual Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan for Congress. NNSA released the unclassified version of this report on Dec. 28, 2020.

Britain needs a post-Brexit foreign policy

“Got a feeling ‘21 is going to be a good year,” the stepfather in “Tommy”, a rock opera by The Who, tells his family. The British government is trying to give a similar impression of optimism. After its year of post-Brexit transition, and with a last-minute trade deal that staves off some of the worst effects of leaving the European Union, the new year offers the country a number of opportunities to cut a dash on the world stage. It will take the presidency of the g7 club of big rich democracies, allowing it not just to set the agenda for the group’s annual summit, but also to invite Australia, India and South Korea to come along—an invitation that might be the groundwork for a “d10” of democracies. In November the most important diplomatic event of the year, the cop26 climate conference, will open in Glasgow.

Within weeks Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, will be visiting India, where on January 26th he will be Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s guest of honour for Republic Day. His visit will be part of a much-touted “tilt to the Indo-Pacific”. Britain has opened discussions on joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade area of 11 countries. The foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, is pushing for it also to become a “dialogue partner” of the Association of South-East Asian Nations. The Royal Navy’s flagship, the spanking new aircraft-carrier hms Queen Elizabeth, will soon be Asia bound.

War Has Rules: The United States Must Respect Them

by Jill Goldenziel

It is nearly impossible to get every country in the world to agree on anything at all. But in 1949, the world decided to regulate the very act most fundamental to the birth of the nation-state: war. After witnessing the atrocities of World War II, all of the countries in the world came together to sign four Geneva Conventions, the core documents of the modern law of war. In doing so, they unanimously decided that the worst atrocities of World War II could never happen again. And yet seventy-two years later, a U.S. president would laugh in the face of those laws. President Donald Trump’s contempt for the law of war has damaged U.S. national security by harming our relationships with our allies and partners and also by undermining the honor of our military. President-elect Joe Biden must take an immediate stand to ensure U.S. adherence to the law of war and rebuild the trust of our allies and partners. The legitimacy of U.S. military actions around the world is at stake.

President Trump has made no secret of his contempt for the law of war. In October 2019, when considering a pardon for Army Special Forces Major Matthew Golsteyn, He proudly tweeted, “We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!” The next month, Trump pardoned Golsteyn, who had brazenly admitted to killing an unarmed civilian in Iraq. Trump also pardoned Lt. Clint Lorance, who had been convicted of ordering his soldiers to open fire on unarmed Afghan civilians in 2012; Lt. Michael Behenna, who was convicted of murdering an Iraqi prisoner; and Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, a Navy SEAL who had been convicted and demoted for posing with the corpse of an ISIS detainee in Iraq. Last week, President Trump pardoned four Blackwater contractors who murdered seventeen innocent civilians in Iraq in what became internationally known as the Nisour Square massacre. The pardon was met with international outrage, with victims of the massacre speaking out in the press. The Iraqi Foreign Ministry asked the United States to reconsider the pardons. The United Nations came out vehemently against them.

4 Predictions for Defense, Strategy, and Technology in 2021

By Jacob Parakilas

If I had made predictions for the coming year in December 2019, I suspect most of them would have been wrong: 2020 confounded expectations and frustrated plans from the personal to the grand strategic. 2021 is likely to be a very different kind of year, and doubtless has more than a few surprises in store. Nevertheless, I think it’s worthwhile putting down a few brief markers for what I expect in the defense and strategic space over the coming 12 months.

1. Armed Robots Will Spread To Different Domains

2020 might reasonably be described as the year the armed drone went global, as a widespread weapon of war rather than a specialist tool operated only by the wealthiest states. But the overall robotization of warfare is an uneven process. If armed aerial drones have become commonplace, the same cannot be said for armed ground or naval robots. There are sound technical reasons for this – safe, autonomous navigation on land is much more difficult than in the air, and aerial platforms have obvious military applications in surveillance and strike.

But there are missions that aerial vehicles are poorly suited to or incapable of, and there has been steady but low-profile progress on ground and undersea robots. Given the lack of a legal framework to prohibit arming such units, and the proliferation of low-cost, high-precision compact weapons, their operational debut might well occur in some capacity in the next 12 months.

2. More Hacks, Less Attention


Mick Ryan

Editor’s note: For the fourth year in a row, Maj. Gen. Mick Ryan has compiled a reading list for professional development that the Modern War Institute is pleased to publish. Each installment has generated a wide range of interest from military professionals—in the United States and his native Australia, as well as among military forces of allies and partners. So we’re excited to present the 2021 edition of this annual tradition. Maj. Gen. Ryan is a leading voice on the profession of arms on social media, so be sure to follow @WarintheFuture on Twitter and follow his ongoing series of articles tracing the evolution of the modern military profession.

Welcome again to my annual reading list (previous editions are here, here, and here). As is the case with my previous lists, there are some “carry over” essential resources and classics, but there are also many new books, Twitter feeds, and websites as well.

Albert Einstein once wrote to his biographer, “I have no special talent; only that I am passionately curious.” Reading is one of the most important ways of feeding this curiosity for members of the profession of arms, and for all those who study and work across the national security enterprise. It drives us to look beyond the tunnel vision of our day-to-day duties that often absorb much of our time. It allows us to develop an understanding of the larger context of our profession. This includes issues of national policy, strategic cultures, military strategy, technology, organizational theory, and societal challenges. These all have varying degrees of impact on the training for, and conduct of, military operations and wider national security affairs. Reading also provides the practitioner with an excellent opportunity for vicarious learning, through studying both the breadth and the depth of our profession.

The Tatmadaw’s Role in Myanmar’s New Politics

By Amara Thiha

An activist holds a portrait of Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing during a rally to support Myanmar’s military in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019.Credit: AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo

Myanmar has transitioned into a quasi-democratic administration by completing the seven-step road map laid down by the military regime in 2003. The vision prepared by the Myanmar military (known as the Tatmadaw) with the 2008 constitution is now in full swing. However, there remains one hard nut to crack: The Tatmadaw’s role, a vision for the future, and the recalibration of Myanmar’s political landscape.

After putting together the pieces based on the Tatmadaw’s official releases, here are five things we know about the military’s position in the new Myanmar.

One Country, Two Institutions

The civil-military relationship during the U Thein Sein administration (2010-2015) was not always smooth sailing, but it was still functional due to both institutional arrangements (defense and security meetings) and institutional memories, supplemented with relationships that had developed between the stakeholders during their service years in the military. These functioning mechanisms ceased during the National League for Democracy (NLD) administration. Instead, the Tatmadaw became a separate institution with almost no oversight and minimal coordination between civil and military agencies for the first time.

What’s Ahead In Defense In 2021

Jeremy Bogaisky

THE BIG TREND: Great-power competition with China becomes a bipartisan cause. The era of Sino-American engagement is over. Security experts in both parties now agree China is a threat to America's future, and must be the main focus of U.S. military preparations.

THE UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM: Biden barely cuts weapons spending. That's what usually goes first when the budget tightens, especially under Democratic presidents, but there are no obvious program kills this time around and the joint force is overdue for a refresh.

THE MISPLACED ASSUMPTION: Biden is as opposed to foreign military intervention as Trump was. Actually, he supported intervening in the Balkans in 1999, in Afghanistan in 2001, in Iraq in 2002 and in Libya and Syria during the Obama years.

THE BOLD PREDICTION: Taiwan becomes a flashpoint as Beijing increases military pressure on the island. China's effort to gain control of Taiwan the way it seized control in Hong Kong forces Washington to decide whether it is willing to confront a nuclear-armed state close to its home turf. 

Learning to Fight from Theory


The divide between officers and non-commissioned officers (NCO) is sometimes described as the difference between ‘book learning’ and practical experience. While many of the Australian Army’s enlisted are incredibly well-educated, I still hear some refer to ‘book learning‘ with distaste because I think they have not honed their ability to learn from theory.

I grant you that people know what words the squiggles on a page correspond to, but that skill is to reading like hearing is to listening. To read doctrine or a book, and then understand and apply the content is not an easy skill to master. 

However, like practical training, learning from theory is a skill that can be developed. It starts by recognising that understanding the words on a page and working through them are two different levels of learning. The difference is that working through a text involves breaking down its logic and internalising it. You figure out the crucial premise of the arguments, stress test the reasoning and try finding reasons why and circumstances when it will fail. You then try and figure out what the author would say in response to your challenge. It is a slow process, but eventually you come to a nuanced understanding. 

The ancient Greeks recognised a spectrum of knowledge between episteme and techne; knowing facts and knowing how to do something. For example, knowing the capital city of Spain is an episteme; whereas knowing how to ride a bike is techne because you can know the theory and still be unable to do it in practice. Following a recipe to cook a meal is somewhere in between.