June 02, 2017

Res ad Triarios venit: Aging and Warfare in 2050


Artur Varanda 

 May 25, 2017

“Things have come down to the Triarii." This is an old Roman saying, meaning that the situation has come to its bitter end. When the legions were essentially made of conscripted citizens, the Triarii were the oldest and wealthiest soldiers, and in battle they stood behind the lighter and younger Hastati and Principes. Usually, the Hastati were employed first, followed by the older and wealthier Principes, which usually were enough to win the battle. Having to commit the Triarii—the oldest, most influential citizens—into the mêlée meant that the situation was dire, and that victory was to be attained at all costs.[1]

The trend of relying on the youngest troops to do the bulk of the fighting has generally dominated warfare since the first states warred, but so has the demographic trend of having a predominantly young population with positive growth rates. The latest demographic projections show a general increase in the median age of populations across the entire world and a decrease in their growth rate.[2] This can be attributed to the increasing longevity and the declining fertility of populations, specifically in developed countries. For the first time in history, barring plagues and other black swan events, total population might even begin to decrease, and over one fifth of the world’s population could be above 65 years old in 2050. Aging is relevant, as it is both a cause and an effect of a great number of changes society is experiencing. For instance, populations with negative growth rates can make traditional welfare systems unsustainable. Or when coupled with other recent trends, such as automation and interconnectedness, even the nature of work could be transformed.

Projected Percentage of Elderly (Ages 65 and Over) by Country in 2050 (Population Reference Bureau)

We then seem to be living through a paradigm shift, but although we perceive change everywhere, there is also a great deal of continuity. War has been a part of our history since man began to organize in political entities, and while the current global system makes large-scale, interstate wars less likely, other forms of conflict are growing in frequency, fought within states by irregular forces which often serve as proxies for larger entities.[3] As with the other spheres of human activity, warfare is also changing, but war itself remains.

But how does aging change warfare? If the growth rates of developing countries start to decrease, the most evident effect will probably be a reduction in the percentage of fighting-age males worldwide.

If we analyze the effects of this decrease through a reductionist perspective, we could be led to think that it would cause a general decrease in the level of violence worldwide: wars are mostly fought by fighting-age males.[4] A decrease in growth rate worldwide will eventually lead to a decrease in the percentage of military-age individuals, which could in turn make societies less inclined to employ violence, fearful of losing a significant percentage of their youngest adults. Cynically, one can even risk saying that a human life is worth much more today than ever before, which results in a higher reluctance to deploy “boots on the ground” or any military activity which risks human lives. One can already see such reluctance in the deployments and operations of developed countries, which tend to use standoff solutions such as airpower or local proxies.[5]

This almost linear relationship between variables doesn’t consider that aging occurs in a system, an increasingly more interconnected, ever-changing, global system. When we consider other system-wide trends, such as technological evolution, globalization, and the resulting change in patterns of conflict, the linear relationship between aging and war disappears: technological evolution, through increasingly autonomous weapons systems, could cancel out the decrease in violence that we attributed to the aging of populations, or even reverse it.

What aging and those systemic trends—technological evolution and the changing patterns of conflict—all point at is the deep change in who will fight the coming wars. Conflicts will require the regular use of professional, specialized troops like the Triarii, and militaries or other armed entities will have to adapt to a world where Hastati are no longer the less valuable and more abundant troops. Militaries based on conscription could well become a thing of the past, and for some countries there may not be enough individuals to satisfy the manpower requirements. Furthermore, in an increasingly interconnected world, alliance defense becomes more important than solely national defense; this also favors investing in the Triarii.

Thus, when coupled with the systemic trends mentioned above, aging could provide the perfect opportunity for a paradigm shift in military organization and culture. We should strive to build leaner and shallower organizations which completely leverage the capabilities of every available soldier instead of relying on the bottom ranks for cannon fodder (i.e., to create the critical mass of manpower required to fight a peer adversary in an interstate war). Since the required mass will tend to be increasingly provided by autonomous systems, this frees up available personnel to the positions requiring human ingenuity, intuition, and creativity.[6] These less abundant—but also increasingly educated, specialized, and empowered by technology—soldiers blur the line between officer and enlisted, requiring change in the personnel systems and deeply affecting the organizational culture of military forces.

A possible end state could be a force closer to a modern gendarmerie than to a nineteenth-century army, in the sense that each police officer has a much greater degree of independence than an equivalently ranked enlisted soldier in a traditional army.[7] Such forces are usually organized in small, lean, regionally-oriented, highly autonomous, and decentralized modules ideal for dispersed operations amongst the populations, requiring little guidance besides overarching guidelines like “maintain the peace, enforce the law.”[8] They are also complemented by specialized modules for niche tasks that can be added to each unit as required. Organizing future military forces along these lines will only be truly possible once the mass required for the increasingly small likelihood of interstate warfare between peer adversaries is outsourced to autonomous weapons systems, which would allow a higher level of exploitation of the decrease due to aging amount of human potential.[9]

Deep changes to the structure of military forces are not in and of themselves a bad thing: some aspects of the current paradigm in military organization and culture can be traced back to the French Revolution or even earlier, and are now increasingly distant from the contemporary world. As societies change—their demography, their technology and their conflicts—so must their armed forces. We should then embrace this change, and use the aging of the population as a catalyst in the transformation of those who defend it.

Artur Varanda is a Portuguese Army officer especially interested in the future of warfare. The opinions expressed in this essay are solely his own

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