There are wars that matter to the world economy, which are not very easy to see. In 2022 I talked about the importance of Hot Wars in Cold Places (space, the high seas, the Arctic) and Cold Wars in Hot Places (superpowers contesting spaces in Africa and the Pacific for strategic footholds and hard assets like food, energy, and minerals). But, there are other materially important wars that we need to understand if we are going to navigate the future better. These wars are invisible.
For example, the war among the superpowers is increasingly invisible. It’s about silent and invisible tech. The British Intelligence Service apparently dismantle their official cars “surgically down to the last nut and bolt” and yet recently discovered that the Chinese Government had “at least one SIM card capable of transmitting location data was discovered in a sweep of government and diplomatic vehicles which uncovered ‘disturbing things,’ a serving security source confirmed.” This “hybrid warfare” has been around for a long time, but it’s intensifying.
For example, it’s not about confronting the opposing military. It’s about invisibly attacking the opponent’s civilians through the use of “digital Fentanyl” called Tik Tok and other methods that influence social coherence and cohesion. Special Forces are increasingly invisible too. They are present and yet not present. They are using a new way of warfighting known as “by, with, and through,” which involves teaching and supporting local partners rather than fighting themselves.
In another example, Russia’s new Zircon Hypersonic Missiles are not just fast and powerful. They are invisible. Tass reports (which one might normally take with a grain of salt, but Zircon’s are truly invisible), “During flight, the missile is completely covered by a plasma cloud that absorbs any rays of radio frequencies and makes the missile invisible to radars. This allows the missile to remain undetected on its way to the target.” In another example, an Indian publication recently spoke of “China’s war strategy as an “invisible war.” The kind of “shooting war” that the press would relentlessly cover is the last thing China wants. Instead, China cultivates the quiet but effective invisible strategy that allows them to “own” intelligence assets inside the establishment of Western governments and universities. The spying game is back with a vengeance, often in obscure places where nobody would think to look, like academic institutions in Sweden and public institutions in Taiwan. Who is the invisible man of WWIII? AI? A guy down the road? A camera? Facial recognition? A database? Surveillance is increasingly invisible
.There is also an invisible war within militaries as we shift from a world that had land-based “voluntary” wars like Iraq and Afghanistan to one in which wars are now “involuntary” and increasingly naval. There are some serious problems arising from this shift. First, the reporters and the world of journalism are not used to covering naval wars. They won’t write about wars until and unless somebody is getting killed. But modern warfare has become invisible in a number of ways. When planes over ocean expanses and ships have near misses, it matters. These events send all kinds of signals to the warring parties about intention, level of nerves, and the risk of escalation. When superpower submarines play cat-and-mouse games, it matters. They are usually armed with nuclear weapons. The new ones are increasingly silent and invisible to the opponent which brings new meaning to this invisible game. The domains are hard to track. The oceans are vast. The atmosphere is an ocean of its own. That ocean continues to be dominated by conflicts, as is evident from headlines like this: “US Space Force practices 'space combat tactics' to win a European conflict” and “In a major step, Space Force takes over all military satellite communications.” Such headlines are entirely invisible to the general public even though they have huge implications for the public.
I call this the Army-Navy Game Problem. The Army and the Navy in most nations fight each at least as much as they fight the enemy. They should, by all means, take old rivalries to the football pitch in America or some military charity walk for donations in the English countryside. But modern geopolitics is now far too serious to have the Army, Navy, Marines, and Space Force spending their time squabbling over who should get the defense spending, especially now that it is coming in ever-larger amounts. Note that the 2023 Omnibus Defence spending bill gave the Space Force alone $26.3B ($1.7b more than the Pentagon even requested). The DoD got $797.7B. The world of defense spending has the biggest invisibility cloak of all. Now militaries are heading into space, pumped with money. As ever, anything that happens in space is very likely to remain invisible to the rest of us. All this invisibility makes it even harder to understand or manage the confrontations between the superpowers.
I haven’t even mentioned bio/chemical warfare, where nobody but a scientist with a microscope can see the weapons. The war on COVID and the Sars Cov 2 virus has resulted in an invisible illness that we call “long COVID”. That’s an invisible war of its own. Every day we are battling the invisible “dopamine loop” that lasso’s us into playing around with our smartphones till we get the dopamine hit we crave. The tech giants are waging an invisible war on and for our attention. Scientists now say the human biome is driving behavior. Is everybody in an invisible war with their own gut? The Psychobiome Wars?