How is modern warfare shaping what is required of fighters? Will other requirements be made of them in future conflicts? 

The second of our super-solders posts considers the demands modern war places upon today’s soldiers, rather than really thinking of human-enhancement. The regular deployments and increased bureaucracy make it a great change for a few decades ago where many soldiers never saw any real action, nor had to deal with a myriad of other governmental agencies whilst deployed. Basic soldering appears to be getting harder, as soldiers themselves may be getting weaker – we see applications and pass rates for special forces selection dropping in recent years. As our understanding of the impact of operations expand, are we asking too much of the young men and women we ask to fight for us? And can we guess at how this will play out in the future?


Here’s what we thought:

One of the most telling shifts in recent years in my mind has been the ever increasing surveillance surrounding military operations. ‘Kill cams’ and the like have of course been around for some time in the armoured sections of the military, but more specifically here I refer to the way surveillance is now also being used for the men and women on the ground. For me, this opens up a whole raft of problems in terms of accountability and responsibility in warfare, and strikes me also as a major shift towards the ‘robotisation’ of the armed forces. If a soldier can no longer act free from reprisal (or retrospective reprisal) for even the smallest of actions, then why send a human at all, when a machine will be far more effective?

But robots themselves come with their own problems and associated risks. As the 20th century has taught us, it is not good enough to merely shoot or bomb an ‘enemy’ into submission: we must consider the ‘hearts and minds’ of the populace. And quite simply a robot is not in a position to fulfil this role. I wonder then if, long term, the human takes on more of a humanitarian role, while the fighting is left to the machines.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University

It would seem that the most prevalent trend in modern warfare is operational tempo constantly increasing. We have seen the near-constant deployment of Western special forces since 9/11. The fact that the US have just re-committed to Afghanistan means that there is no chance of the ‘perpetual war on terror’ abating. Thus, it would seem that modern warfare is going to require fighters to fight on a continual basis, with much faster turn-around times between operations than previously. The days of Western nations waiting for the Eastern Bloc to come crashing through Germany are long gone. Indeed, with a terrorist enemy that is capable of attacking anytime, anywhere, it would seem that Western militaries must also be prepared to fight anytime and anywhere.

The strain on the family life of such fighters must be immense. Indeed, we can see in autobiographies of former SAS men that many marriages and family relationships simply fall apart when the soldier in the family is deployed to the other side of the world with only a few hours notice. So, it would seem that the military will require fighters to be totally committed to the causes they are fighting for, rather than their families or themselves. This is, of course totally the opposite of the trend towards providing worked with a greater work-life balance in order to actually be more productive.

Requirements of future conflicts are likely to ask more of soldiers during operations. We already know that counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations in urban environments are some of the most cognitively difficult roles soldiers can be asked to do. Yet, with the likely rise of city states in the near future, they could be asked to operate in such environments regularly. Distinguishing who is friend or foe in todays conflicts is difficult, and we regularly see urban police mistake innocent people for armed criminals (particularly in the US), imagine the difficulty when both these issues are essentially combined in military operations in a failed city-state. Difficulty could be further added due to the reducing size of Western militaries. What if NATO countries transform their militaries into small but highly capable forces, in effect large quasi-special force? Small teams in failed city-states will likely have to fend for themselves if there is not a large enough force able to save them. Stories like Black Hawk Down may become far more regular for Western publics to tolerate.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University.

What do you think?

What is the most significant terrorist tactic of the 21st century so far?

Following on from our discussion last week about the most significant counter-terrorist trend, here we discuss terrorist tactics. There have been many significant tactics used by terrorists in the Global War on Terror. Of course, hijacking planes and using them as a weapon at the outset of GWOT was a massive change from hijacking for money or a political platform. As it has progressed, improvised explosive devices, car bombs, suicide attacks, gaining and holding territory, cyber-crime/hacking and multi-site ‘rampage’ style attacks have all been used by terrorist groups. All of these have been significant changes, and show terrorist groups as both innovative and dangerous in the face of massively more powerful state-actor adversaries. Unfortunately, all of this makes the job of securing populations by state-actors all the more difficult.

Here’s what we discussed at out reading group, followed by some individual thoughts.

  • Technology is neutral (much in the same way that counterinsurgency doctrine suggests ‘The Jungle is Neutral’). It has, however, been repurposed by terrorist groups for nefarious means. Thus, it would seem wrong to try to re-forge technology to be the tool of states – learning how to adapt to it and find ways of preventing adversaries from carrying out terrorist or cyber-crime activities would be a better approach.
  • Approaching cyber-terrorism with a repressive approach may work in the short-term, but in the long-term people always tire of authoritarianism and overthrown such leaders. Furthermore, use of repression or oppression to deal with adversaries puts terrorists on the same side as campaigners for civil rights, leading to tyrannical groups of innocent people as adversaries.
  • The democratisational ability of technology has de-centralised some power, particularly prevalent in this discussion is violent power, from states to individuals. The ability for the stereotypical teenage bot in his bedroom hacking a major corporation or piece of national infrastructure is evidence of this. However, de-centralised power has also created democratised promotional platforms upon which extremists can use as a soap box to feed their messages to impressionable people.
  • This democratised and de-centralised power allows for networks to expand and diversify. The use of the internet soap box allows messages to be accessed by whoever can find them, or can have the message pushed to them – with present day social media, this is far easier than in was in the past. In terms of diversification, the expansion of network into the realm of criminality expose terrorism to organised crime as markets for resources such as weapons and explosives. A question here is what other markets or services become available to terrorists as such networks expand.

The most overt terrorist tactic of the 21st century so far is certainly the suicide bomber – so much so that the bomber is synonymous with both the terrorist and the subsequent ‘war on terror’.
However, beyond the suicide bomber I would suggest that the most significant tactic of the 21st century so far is the computer hacker or cyber warrior. Such is the subtlety and subterfuge with which the cyber warrior wages war we struggle to even know what group the hacker belongs to or whose cause he or she is fighting for. Even as I write this now, there are news items published today suggesting the recent WannaCry ransomware attacks may be attributable to North Korea. But even then, do we know that for sure, and even if we did, what could or should we do about it?
There are also of course suggestions that the American presidential election may have been influenced by cyber warriors, either fighting for themselves or for larger groups. Whichever the case, I suggest the potential impact of attacks such as these actually goes far beyond the direct physical impact of the suicide bomber, and will prove to be our greatest challenge in the coming years.
Mike Ryder, Lancaster University

I’ve recently been thinking about the efficacy of networked command structures. As terrorists do not need to match militaries and law enforcement who have strict command structures, they have the ability to go outside of this traditional model, and function as networks, rather than hierarchies. This arrangement enables most members of a terrorist group to remain hidden and still move forward with their plans, even if one of their number is arrested/captured/killed. Thus, why the rapid operational tempo used by JSOC and other special forces during house raids to try and eliminate networks of terrorist groups rapidly in order to eliminate an entire network, rather than just capturing one or two members at a time. During the Iraq War, special forces would raid terrorist houses, and use the information gleaned to find more targets, raid that house, and then do the same until they brought down terrorist networks. The speed required for this meant that special forces were often raiding 10 properties per night at the height of their campaign.
Furthermore, networking allows for (semi-)autonomous groups to function under a leadership, without strong communication links. This means that there is less chance of plots being found, as less communication will be happening between attackers and known terrorist leaders. Thus, resulting in the need for intelligence services to resort to mass surveillance to find terrorist plotters amongst the crowds of the general public.
Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University.

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What is the most significant counterterrorism trend of the 21st century so far?

We decided that constantly reviewing books and articles was getting a bit on the monotonous side, so we decided to look at answering questions to be a bit more thought-provoking and generate a bit more discussion.

We’ve also decided to incorporate the points made at our face-to-face reading groups into the main posts, rather than a separate post.


Considering that counterterrorism has shifted considerably since the beginning of the ‘Global War on Terror’ from being an almost exclusively police affair, with a bit of military support, to having military forces at the forefront of the fight against international terrorism, we thought it was something we needed to think about.


Here’s what we talked about at our reading group, followed by some individual thoughts from members:

  • The larger role of military counterterrorism seems to have been the biggest trend.
  • Anthony Dworkin suggests that military counterterrorism used to be similar to counterinsurgency, where the winning of hearts and minds was as important at neutralising ‘irreconcilable adversaries’. However, due to there being zero political will for boots on the ground in order to carry out the required role in winning hearts and minds, only the targeted killing of irreconcilables can be carried out.
    • This approach of stopping key adversaries, but not having the power, or political will, to affect a societal change in order to eliminate the root causes of terrorism has a parallel with organised crime. Police forces often ‘keep a lid’ on organised crime so that they do not grow too powerful, but cannot eliminate it completely because it is expensive in both manpower, cash, and political backing. Also, the risk that when one organised crime group is removed, other will then fight for their territory, businesses and power can be too great – it seems a similar approach is being taken towards international terrorist groups.


  • The rhetoric of the ‘Global War on Terror’ immediately put Al Qaida and Osama Bin Laden into a war with the US, rather than being seen as criminals. This gives them more perceived power, as they are in a war with the US which gives them a greater platform, and possibly an assumed equal playing field. This doesn’t reflect the truth in that Al Qaeda were, although effective, just a small group of relatively poor and ill-equipped ex-mujahedeen fighters.
  • In terms of language, both Osama Bin Laden, and George W. Bush used very similar rhetoric to persuade people to join their side.


  • The use of the term ‘loser’ for terrorists by President Trump is, although blunt, probably an accurate description for what are often just young disaffected young men with no prospects and no hope – whether through their own failures, or structural difficulties in their societies. This links in with greater global challenges surrounding the role of men in modern societies, which many young men are struggling to deal with.
  • For some of these people, being subject to targeted killing could become a ‘badge of honour’, in that they have managed to make such a mark with their actions that a foreign government is out to kill them.


Profiling and surveillance are two key areas that have seen massive growth in the 21st century. Harnessing cloud computing and big data, these technologies have given law enforcement agencies access to tools that make them more effective and more efficient at what they do.

And yet these technologies come with great risks. The biggest perhaps is an overreliance on technology, and a prevailing sense of confidence that the technology will always come out on top. This technology has also given successive governments an easy method to justify cuts, relying on the greater efficiency of these new systems, while neglecting the need for community engagement and responding to community concerns.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University


Manhunting/ Kill or Capture. Although these tactics have been around for a long time, they were never the main strategy of fighting the enemy. Yet, in today’s modern counter-terrorist conflicts, it seems that this is all there is. There’s no expansion into counter-insurgency, and trying to win hearts and minds, just the killing of the ‘irreconcilables’. Potentially, the ‘outsourcing’ of the friendly parts of COIN to parts of the state such as DFID make it too great a distance for people to see the link between being nice and not having to fight future wars. Also, the number of aid workers at DFID, rather than defence people mean that the running of international aid could be focussed on helping those in need, rather than those we want to dissuade from becoming adversaries – although this is, of course, a good aim. As long as the military doesn’t do any nation building, and there isn’t the money available for any sort of mass re-building, pure lethality might be the only thing on the table.


Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University


As always, let us know what you think in the comments below, or e-mail us to join the network.