February 04, 2020

The Future of COIN

by Rachel S. Cohen

Nearly 20 years after the US invaded the Middle East in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, discussions about the future of air warfare are turning away from the persistent counterinsurgency missions and regional conflict that have defined modern combat.

Military publications and speeches now focus on “great power competition” and looming conflict with Russia and China. They worry that US technology is falling behind, concerned that two decades of focus on the Middle East has weakened the Pentagon’s ability to do much other than play whack-a-mole with the likes of the Islamic State group, al-Qaeda, and al-Shabab.

Yet, not only will insurgency persist in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere, but it will also evolve as insurgents adopt new technologies for their own purposes. Just as ISIS learned to employ small drones for surveillance and strike missions and has entered the world of cyber warfare, the Air Force should anticipate that terror groups will continue to use technology in new ways, and change how they wage war as a result.

“Robots, artificial intelligence, cyberwar, 3D printing, bio-enhancements, and a new geopolitical competition” are among the many emerging technologies that will shape 21st Century warfare, writes Peter W. Singer, a strategist and senior fellow at New America, a Washington, D.C., think tank. “We should also expect them to shape the worlds of insurgency and terrorism.”