Featured image © Collins Aerospace
In the chaotically changing field of modern warfare, battlefields now transcend land invasions, naval conflicts and typical air battles. The Russo-Ukrainian War (2022 and beyond) has shown that cyberspace and space networks for data collection and transfer play a key role in the course of conflicts. Internationally, there is an illusion that the Russo-Ukrainian War started on 23 February 2022 with the invasion of Russian troops into Ukraine.
In reality, the war between the two states had begun at least a month earlier where, according to Microsoft research, Russian cyber warfare forces began conducting inactivation operations against software usage of energy plants, Ukrainian naval stations, the Ministry of Finance and other infrastructure. This article delves into an analysis of the areas where the ‘next war’ is most likely to be won - examining the strategic importance and vulnerabilities associated with each sector.
Earth: The Core of the War Process
Earth has been the traditional geographic battleground throughout human history. Conventional land forces, naval fleets and air squadrons have been the primary means of imposing power through troops. Now, advances in technology have revolutionized these battle structures. The US, through the ambitious JADC2 program, is creating a ‘system-of-systems’ of manned and unmanned systems, loitering munitions, missile swarms and drone swarms for 24/7 surveillance operations in coordination with space satellites.
It can be seen that both the US and Chinese warfare methodologies have land-based force structures as the core of the warfare process and use satellite-based combat structures and cyber operations as a complementary tool for surveillance and support of land-based forces. As we have seen in the Ukrainian war, satellite space structures (Starlink) operate in support of other ground forces by providing artillery targeting and data collection about enemy movements. In contrast, cyberspace – as will be discussed below – is the domain through which the war process is now being initiated.
Space: Unifying the Army
As we can understand from Paul Scharre's book ‘Four Battlegrounds’, space is now a battlefield in which the US wants to have absolute dominance over like-minded adversaries. Through synergies between private companies and the state sector, they have built up a numerous satellite network with the central operational goal of creating resilience to anti-satellite weapons manufactured by China, as well as to specialized cyber weapons manufactured by China, Iran, Russia and North Korea. Thus, the US is focusing on developing numerous satellites for tolerance to enemy strikes, but also on high-quality advanced sensors for data collection and transfer.
Through applied artificial intelligence, satellite networks can predict and monitor movements of Rocket Forces (PLA structure) and Anti-ship Battalions from Danger Zones (based on Hil Brands methodology). Through this operation, they can synthesize a predictive model of enemy force dispositions in areas of interest. It is immediately apparent that space, in the warfighting process, functions in a complementary manner to ground and conventional forces. Its use is crucial, but it is not employed for the total victory of a war.
Cyberspace: The fog before the War
Cyberspace is emerging as the most critical and potentially dangerous area of modern warfare. Unlike Earth and Space, cyberspace permeates every aspect of society, geographic commerce and military operations. A well-coordinated cyber attack could cripple critical infrastructure, disrupt communication networks, and even neutralize banking systems, causing widespread chaos without deploying conventional forces to a battlefield. As a case in point, the State of Israel overcame the geographical and operational obstacles of invading Iran and managed to inactivate their nuclear program through the use of the Stuxnet cyber weapon.
The United States military, aware of these vulnerabilities, has expressed concerns about a possible "cyber Pearl Harbor" - a large-scale cyberattack that could disable critical infrastructure of the nation (including banks and fund managing companies). This term could be characterized as hyperbolic, however, given the international reality, it is plausible and raises legitimate concerns. The Chinese Cyber Warfare Forces have managed to hit the U.S. Pentagon, Department of Energy, and Department of Defense as well as high-ranking U.S. State officials, dozens of times.
Then, as we have seen from the War in Ukraine in 2022, cyberspace is the first temporal field of conflict in which the war process will take place. The Russian Cyber Warfare Forces started to inactivate state and private entities on the territory of Ukraine as early as January 2022 in order to prepare for ground invasion by forces facing as little resistance as possible. War is a chaotic process and cyberspace helps states to start entering this process as easily as possible, bloodlessly and holistically.
In the year 2024 – considering the modern war methodologies and the combat doctrines of the major powers – we realize that conventional military forces, satellite combat networks and cyberspace will work cooperatively and jointly in the war process. Undoubtedly, the area in which a war between two states will be launched is that of cyberspace, in order to inactivate as much of the resistance structures of the enemy state as possible. Both satellite systems and conventional troops will operate at a later stage.
With regard to the question “where the next war is most likely to be won on earth, in space, or in cyberspace”, the answer is on earth. There is no conflict in human history that was not ultimately determined by ground troops and the ability of conventional forces to occupy enemy territory. As we saw in the Battle of Bakhmut (2022-2023), no matter how technologically advanced space infrastructure the Ukrainian Army used, no matter how much artificial intelligence software it developed (DELTA), and no matter how much quality training it received on the Mission Command Doctrine, it was the resilience to human casualties and the focus on infantry forces by the Russian Army and Wagner that gave victory on the battlefield. And that, unfortunately, is the reality. Advanced technology and artificial intelligence cannot replace human blood in the warfare process.
But there is one exception to this historical rule. What do we define as victory? Is victory considered "the capture of enemy territory" or "the suppression of all state infrastructure of an enemy state"? Our answer differs depending on the field of operations and the countries involved. In the Ukrainian theatre of operations, as we understand, it is the ground forces that will determine the ultimate victory, if there is one. In future fields of war, such as that of a possible China-Taiwan conflict (with possible US involvement) it may be the first time in history where a state can only be inactivated through cyber operations. Military history is full of blood and casualties.
This rule can’t change. At least not yet.