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The Nature of Warfare in the Late 20th Century

Updated on June 15, 2012


Warfare is a constantly evolving art, it changes from era to era, and in the 20th century, warfare experienced some of its biggest changes in history. The 20th century was a period of unprecedented technological development and industrialization. As such, warfare evolved a lot from what it was at the begging of the century. In the late 20th century, warfare is distinct in 2 ways; there is an unprecedented use of technology, and the need for large standing armies is non-existent. Instead of large standing armies, modern warfare requires small, elite units which can be deployed in a matter of hours to any location in the world. To further illustrate my points, I am going to bring up four examples from recent history which demonstrate the modern nature of warfare. With new technologies, new types of warfare were created, namely nuclear warfare, and cyber warfare. These new types of weapons can be hundreds of times more devastating than any conventional weapons. Special Forces have played an increasingly important role in warfare. Today, no operation can be successful without the use of these elite, easily deployable troops. In the late 20th century, technological advancements and new tactics have revolutionized the nature of warfare.

Twin Towers

The twin towers were taken down by terrorists on September 11th, 2001. This event is the what initiated the war on terrorism, and symbolizes the struggle of western powers against terrorism.
The twin towers were taken down by terrorists on September 11th, 2001. This event is the what initiated the war on terrorism, and symbolizes the struggle of western powers against terrorism. | Source

Cyber Warfare

Cyber warfare is a relatively new concept, and only really came around after the creation of the internet in the late 1960s. Cyber warfare issued more and more by nations to spy on their enemies, or to disable enemy weapons systems or power plants. To bring up an example, recently the western world has been concerned with the rapid development of nuclear technology in Iran. To slow down Iran’s nuclear development, the US and Israel created a virus called stuxnet. This virus disabled the power plants in Iran and significantly slowed down the development on their nuclear technology. Without cyber warfare, the only way to disable these power plants would be through conventional means, such as bombs. This shows how cyber warfare is changing the nature of warfare. Another good example would be the recently-discovered flame virus, which attacked and infected computers around the Middle East. This virus was used for espionage, and has been spying on Iran for two years now. Although no nation has admitted to developing this virus, it was clearly developed by a nation, and was written by an English-speaking person. The fact that no one can determine the origin of this virus shows how developed cyber-warfare has become, and how it is changing the nature of warfare. Countries now are competing for who can get the upper hand in cyber warfare, because it has proven to be more effective than conventional means of warfare, and does not cost as much troops or resources as conventional warfare. Another use for cyber warfare would be to take out a county’s electric power grid. In 2009, Russia and China infiltrated the US power grid, and left some malicious software that could potentially harm the US power grid. China has denied that, but Russia has released no public statements. Although the US power grid was not actually attacked, Russia and China could have easily shut it off, causing mass power outages, which would disrupt the economy and distract the nation from a conventional attack. There have been instances of cyber attacks which are still attacks, but have been more humorous in nature. The MI6 hacked into the Al-Qaida website and changed the recipe for explosives for a recipe for cupcakes. Humor aside, this shows how cyber warfare can be used by states to combat terrorism and protect their citizens. There have been a few measures taken by countries to protect themselves from cyber attacks. Counter measures include disconnecting the power grid form the internet, and manually catching and removing viruses which are used for espionage. Cyber warfare is still a relatively new type of warfare, and has a lot of potential. Although it has not reached its full potential, cyber warfare is already changing the nature of warfare as we know it.

First Internet Server

This was the world's first internet server. This was the beginning of the most sophisticated type of warfare that the world has ever seen.
This was the world's first internet server. This was the beginning of the most sophisticated type of warfare that the world has ever seen. | Source

Nuclear Warfare

Nuclear warfare is another type of warfare that was developed in the 20th century. During World War II, there were fears of Germany developing an atomic bomb. Albert Einstein sent a letter to the US president, and warned him about that possibility. This led to the Manhattan project, where the US successfully created the world’s first atomic bomb. Since then, there have been only two instances of these destructive weapons being used in warfare. At the end of 1945, the US wanted to intimidate Japan into surrender, so they detonated one atomic bomb in Hiroshima, and one in Nagasaki. There is a good reason as to why these weapons have never been used again. The destructive potential of a nuclear weapon is so great that a country would have to be truly in danger of complete annihilation to use one of these weapons. Soon after the US detonated these weapons, the Russians built their own atomic bombs. This led to the nuclear arms race during the cold war, and had the greatest impact on the nature of warfare. The bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined killed 200,000 people. These were the two smallest atomic weapons ever used. With the US and USSR both owning nuclear weapons which could easily wipe out entire cities, the possibility of war between the two nations was virtually non-existent. This is because both nations knew very well that if they indeed did go to war, it would result in the extinction of all life on earth. That concept is known as MAD, or mutually assured destruction. The fact that these two super-powers could no longer duke it out head-to-head, they had to come up with new means to disrupt each other. This led to the popularization of guerrilla warfare and terrorism. Nuclear warfare did not only change warfare by preventing conventional war, it created a new type of warfare, called guerrilla warfare, commonly referred to as terrorism. Although guerrilla warfare existed before, it was not really used a lot, and was never state-funded, however, in the cold war, since the countries could not fight because of MAD, they resorted to supporting guerrilla wars against each other. Examples of this include Vietnam, where the USSR equipped and trained the Vietnamese to be able to take on the Americans, and resulted in America being defeated in Vietnam. Another example of this is the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, where the US supported the mujahedeen, and is the reason why the mujahedeen were able to defeat the US. Other than Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons also cause major problems in Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The USSR was placing nukes in Cuba, and this forced the Americans to blockade Cuba. At that point in time, the world was minutes away from war, but due to MAD, the Soviets turned around. Nuclear warfare is the most destructive type of warfare created by men. Nuclear weapons can disable a country, and a nuclear war is sure to end in the destruction of the human race. Nuclear warfare not only prevented conventional warfare, but also created a new type of warfare called guerrilla warfare, which was used by the US and the USSR during the cold war to attempt to weaken each other. Nuclear warfare is the most revolutionary invention in the history of warfare, and changed the nature of war forever.

Tsar Bomba

The Tsar Bomba was a Soviet nuclear bomb, and was the largest bomb ever detonated. With a blast yield of 50 megatons of TNT, it was capable of obliterating everything in a 35 KM radius.
The Tsar Bomba was a Soviet nuclear bomb, and was the largest bomb ever detonated. With a blast yield of 50 megatons of TNT, it was capable of obliterating everything in a 35 KM radius. | Source

Special Forces - Success

In addition to technological changes, there have been changes in tactics. Due to nuclear warfare, wars are no longer fought between conventional armies; rather they are fought through Special Forces. In the 20th century, there were less and less wars being fought conventionally. This called for the need for small, elite units that can be deployed everywhere, or Special Forces. One example of this is Operation Entebbe, carried out by Israeli Special Forces in 1976. In 1976, terrorists high jacked an Air France flight, and flew it to Uganda, where they released everyone except the Israeli hostages and threatened to kill them if Israel did not comply. In response to that, Israeli Special Forces organized and planned a rescue operation which is to this day considered to be one of the most amazing feats of modern warfare. Israeli commandos flew to Uganda, took out all 7 terrorists, all while coming under attack from Ugandan armed forces. In the end, 4 hostages were killed, but 104 were rescued. The Israeli commander was killed, so were 45 Ugandan soldiers. 11 Ugandan mig-17s were also destroyed. This sparked outrage among communist and Arab countries, but received praise from the western world. To this day, it is considered an amazing feat of warfare. This circumstance shows the increasingly challenging situations that governments have to deal with. Increasingly so, governments have to deal with terrorists and guerrilla fighters. Conventional armies do not fare well against terrorists, to effectively combat terrorism, a nation needs Special Forces. That is why nations have all been creating Special Forces teams, and shifting their focus away from conventional warfare. This changes the nature of warfare because for thousands of years, conventional warfare has been the dominant form of warfare in the world. Now, more and more wars are fought between Special Forces units and terrorist. It is also why you need to be able to deploy units very quickly. The operation that was executed by the Israeli commandos lasted 53 minutes; 53 minutes to land, take out all enemies, rescue the hostages, and get out. That is only possible with Special Forces, as conventional warfare requires extensive supply lines and it takes much longer for a side to claim victory in conventional warfare. The nature of warfare in the late 20th century is very unique, in the sense that it is no longer based around conventional armies. Special Forces will be used more and more, and have already changed the nature of warfare.

Entebbe airport where the Israeli Commandos carried out their daring rescue mission.
Entebbe airport where the Israeli Commandos carried out their daring rescue mission. | Source

Special Forces - Failure

There was another famous Special Forces operation, but instead of succeeding like Operation Entebbe, it failed. This operation is a perfect example of why countries need to focus on their Special Forces units and why countries need to adapt to modern warfare. IN 1980, during the Iran revolution, 52 Americans were taken hostage. In order to attempt to rescue them, the US military devised Operation Eagle Claw. This operation was inspired by Operation Entebbe, but was too complex to be properly executed. Instead of being quick and efficient, the operation was supposed to last 2 nights, and relied on too many factors to succeed. During the operation, several US aircraft ran out of fuel, and one of them crashed, resulting in 8 US deaths. The reason of this failure was not the incompetence of US soldiers, but rather the lack of training provided to their special forces, the over complexity of the mission, and the fact that the US did not adapt to the rapidly changing nature of warfare. This proves that the nature of warfare did indeed shift, because had it been a conventional situation, the US could have just used conventional means of warfare, but that is no longer the way in which wars are fought, because the nature of warfare has changed. This example is meant to illustrate that conventional means of warfare can be useless against terrorists and the situations which governments often face today, such as hostage takings and highjackings. These situations did not exist 50 years ago, and are unique to the late 20th century, demonstrating that the nature of warfare has changed dramatically, and that conventional armies are not as important as they used to be.

American RH-53Ds

These were the helicopters used by the US military in the operation.
These were the helicopters used by the US military in the operation. | Source


In conclusion, technological advancements and new tactics resulted in warfare in the 20th century being completely unique and different than warfare in all other ages. Several very important advancements in technology, namely the internet and nuclear weapons have changed the nature of warfare faster than ever before, which greatly contributed to the unique nature of warfare in the late 20th century. There were also changes in tactics, making conventional warfare much less important than it was in every other age. Special Forces are now very important to any nations, because most wars are against terrorists, which are essentially guerrilla wars, and conventional warfare is ineffective in guerrilla wars. The nature of warfare in the 20th century evolved greatly and as it stands today, warfare is centered around technology and highly trained elite units.

German GSG-9

German elite special forces, the GSG-9, formed in 1972after the Munich Massacre.
German elite special forces, the GSG-9, formed in 1972after the Munich Massacre. | Source


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    • canforces profile image

      canforces 6 years ago from Richmond Hill, On.


    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 6 years ago from Missoula, Montana through August 2018

      Very interesting and helpful. Up & helpful

    • canforces profile image

      canforces 6 years ago from Richmond Hill, On.

      Thank you, and to answer your question, I think that Operation Eagle Claw was a perfect example of what happens when technology fails. The more we rely on technology, the likelier that something will go wrong. There is a very interesting concept called "Murphy's Law", which states that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. I think that the more technology we use, the more things can go wrong, and therefore the likelier that there will be an operational failure. On the other hand, if a country lags behind in technology, they will be easily defeated because their weapons, as well as communications and logistics would be inferior.

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

      Pavlo Badovskyi 6 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      This was interesting. Yes, the army tends to be more and more technology dependent. I wonder what happends if technology fails one day? I liked your hub!!


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