The war in Ukraine has not only marked the largest European land conflict since the Second World War but has also unveiled a new chapter in the history of warfare. In addition to the traditional battles fought on the ground, this conflict has escalated into a large-scale confrontation in cyberspace, pitting two technologically advanced nations against each other. The significance of technological and information capabilities has become crucial to both sides, particularly for Ukraine, which finds itself outmanned and outgunned. As a result, this conflict has evolved into what is known as a Total War, a type of warfare where all available resources, including civilian populations, become part of the war effort. It is an alarming shift that exposes civilians to heightened risks and targets non-offensive infrastructure.
With the constant advancements in technology such as artificial intelligence (AI), unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and cyberweapons like malware and disinformation campaigns, we find ourselves in dire need of a comprehensive understanding of the role they play in modern warfare. Jordan Richard Schoenherr, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, delves into this pressing matter in a recent paper, shedding light on the importance of sociotechnical systems in shaping strategic thinking. Simply put, sociotechnical systems refer to the intricate relationship between technology and human organizational behavior within a complex and interdependent system. This perspective represents a departure from the traditional understanding of warfare, emphasizing the need to investigate the potential and vulnerabilities of such systems in order to effectively plan for future conflicts.
To gain insights into the Totalization of warfare in sociotechnical systems, Schoenherr examines past cyberwarfare incidents, including conflicts in Kosovo, Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. By reviewing these cases, he highlights the evolution and significance of cyberwarfare while underscoring the need to update our understanding of modern warfare. Earlier forms of cyberwarfare were primarily limited to website defacement, but as we entered the present era, state and non-state actors recognized the potential of combining psychological warfare with emerging technologies like AI-based malware and drones. The ongoing war in Ukraine has already witnessed the involvement of non-state actors such as IBM, Elon Musk’s Starlink, and hackers aligned with both sides. As AI, UAVs, and 3D printing make their way onto the battlefield, Schoenherr contends that studying supply chain dynamics becomes increasingly crucial. Specialized components are essential for high-tech weapons to be effective, but geopolitical tensions can result in illicit sales and smuggling by third parties, as exemplified by the discovery of Western-made parts in downed Russian drones.
In the past few decades, the concept of Total War has undergone a profound transformation. Boundaries between militaries and civilians have blurred, and the distinction between the start and end of wars has become murky. Schoenherr warns of the pervasive culture of paranoia that fueled the nuclear arms race during the Cold War, highlighting its persistence in the present day. This cultural mindset has the potential to exacerbate conflicts, escalating them beyond control. By gaining a deeper understanding of the factors contributing to this evolution, Schoenherr believes that we can equip ourselves to manage and de-escalate conflicts more effectively.
As we navigate this new era of totalization in sociotechnical systems, it is evident that warfare has evolved far beyond traditional battles and geopolitical tensions. The integration of advanced technologies and the reliance on information dominance have forever altered the landscape of modern warfare. However, while these developments present new challenges, they also offer opportunities for strategic thinking, adaptation, and innovation. It is of utmost importance that we strive to comprehend the complexities of sociotechnical systems and the implications they hold for future conflicts. By doing so, we can work towards a more secure and peaceful world, where the risks and consequences of warfare are understood and minimized.