War Transformed: The Future of Twenty-First Century Great Power Competition and Conflict by Mick Ryan. (Naval Institute Press, February 15, 2022. 300 p)
War Transformed: The Future of Twenty-First-Century Great Power Competition and Conflict provides insights for those involved in the design of military strategy, and the forces that must execute that strategy. Emphasizing the impacts of technology, new era strategic competition, demography, and climate change, Mick Ryan uses historical as well as contemporary anecdotes throughout the book to highlight key challenges faced by nations in a new era of great power rivalry. Just as previous industrial revolutions have advanced societies, the nascent fourth industrial revolution will have a similar impact on how humans fight, compete, and build military power in the twenty-first century.
After reviewing the principal catalysts of change in the security environment, War Transformed seeks to provide a preview of the shape of war and competition in the twenty-first century. Ryan examines both the shifting character of war and its enduring nature. In doing so, he proposes important trends in warfare that will shape all aspects of human competition and conflict in the coming decades.
Natural skepticism pervades my consciousness when I learn a new book on military strategy and transformation hits the bookshelves. I mean, professional military libraries are already crowded with such titles, and you can only slice and dice the topic in so many ways! However, that notion would be absolutely wrong with the publication of retired Australian Army Major General Mick Ryan’s new book, War Transformed: The Future of Twenty-First Century Great Power Competition and Conflict. In all humility, I should know a bit about what ‘right’ looks like in this respect, as I am a career educated and well-practiced military strategist myself. And so is Mick Ryan. Having the consummate education and operational experiences one might expect of a military strategist, Ryan commanded at all levels. He also graduated from the US Marine Corps Command and Staff College (as a Distinguished Graduate), The Marine Corps’ School of Advanced Warfare, the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies with a Master of International Public Policy (with distinction) and commanded the Australian Defence College to cap off his career—amongst many other accolades.
Ryan’s book sets the context for warfare today. He bridges those notions to the future through a lens of competition and conflict, lays the groundwork for the strategic environment of military actors and ideas, then hits the point home that professional military people make the whole system work and are the vital catalyst for the transformation. Ryan’s grasp and credibility to write such a work is both timely and necessary because it captures our imagination concisely and draws from his extensive experience and knowledge learned in the classroom, the battlefield, but just as importantly, from his own personal curiosity and interest. This latter point—a focus in the last chapter—should not be underestimated, as professional military education provides point experiences of relatively short duration (a year or less). Ryan contends, rightly so, that lifelong learning in the discipline not only transforms the individual but is the very substance that makes strategies, institutions, technologies, and new concepts of warfare actionable.
One of the most impressive aspects of this book is how Ryan uses a vast array of sources, experts, and their writings to solidify his arguments. He touches upon long-dead military theorists like Carl von Clausewitz, Antoine Jomini, the likes of John Boyd, Sun Tzu, and (also impressively) Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui. If you don’t know Liang and Xiangsui, start by reading Unrestricted Warfare. There are many other experts he draws from, too.
Ryan packages his ideas about people, ideas, and technology as a force to better understand the enduring nature of, and changing character of, war. In doing so, he posits that globalization and the forces that drive it have led, and will continue to lead, to increased competition and conflict not only between militaries but the nation states that fund and support them. What will distinguish the leaders in these competitions will be how people who are professionally and self-educated take existing ideas and technologies, new technologies, and evolve them into new war-fighting strategies and concepts.
This book should become part of all war college curricula across the world, as well as being read and studied by broader national security professionals. It is not only very readable, but its insights will also spark the debates and discussions in the classrooms, as well as around the defense and military establishment’s water coolers for years to come.