During the next several years, conflict is expected to become more frequent, brutal, protracted, and fragmented. A number of overlapping trends are driving changes in the nature of warfare:
Great power conflict: Major powers are gearing up for conflict against peers or near-peers against a backdrop of intensified global competition. Though direct, large-scale, kinetic war between major powers over the next five years is unlikely, there is a significant risk of miscalculation and widespread harm to civilians as militaries mobilize for scenarios in which speed and lethality are emphasized. This risk is amplified by these countries’ misplaced conviction that precision-guided munitions and the development of lethal autonomous weapons will give them overwhelming military advantage without elevating the risk to civilians.
Proxy warfare: Traditional and rising powers are increasingly relying on proxies and local forces — including community militias, armed opposition groups, elite counter-terrorism and special operations units, and private military and security companies — to gain political, economic, or security advantage without putting their own soldiers in jeopardy. Proxy forces often operate under the radar and without the same constraints and oversight as conventional forces, resulting in harm to civilians for which there is no acknowledgment or accountability. At the same time, this practice threatens to put arms and capabilities into the hands of partners that are not willing or able to protect civilians.
Hybrid warfare: Hybrid warfare — combining “traditional” kinetic operations, information warfare, and cyber warfare — is exposing civilians to a variety of new hardships. In addition to physical violence, civilians are subjected to psychological harm and social fracturing, as they are misled and manipulated by information meant to stoke divisions and exacerbate existing grievances. Given the vulnerability of essential civilian infrastructure like hospitals, water and sanitation systems, and electricity grids to cyber-attacks, hybrid warfare also carries the risk of long-term suffering for civilian populations.
Urban warfare: Conflict has been moving to populated areas at a frightening pace. In cities — where 55 percent of the world’s population currently resides — civilians account for 90 percent of the casualties during war. This is largely due to armed non-state actors’ attempts to find cover in urban terrain and amongst civilian populations, and militaries’ disproportionate use of force to suppress armed groups and the communities that are perceived to support them. Moreover, the use of explosive weapons in populated areas often causes long-lasting damage to essential services, with enduring impacts on civilians’ health, safety, and well-being. Yet, most security forces are not trained or equipped to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure in urban battles.
Internal conflict: In the next five years, civil wars are likely to remain the most prominent form of conflict. The failure of states and presence of vast ungoverned spaces have run parallel with the rise of armed non-state actors seeking to exploit the chaos. When conflict erupts in these conditions, heavy-handed security responses by state forces and brutal tactics deployed by armed non-state actors result in a vicious cycle of violence against civilians. In addition, the proliferation of armed groups, with unclear aims and affiliations, makes it harder for civilians to protect themselves and harder to find political solutions to conflicts.
Political and criminal violence: Criminal and gang activity outside of war zones accounts for an astounding number of violent deaths each year. Overly militarized approaches to countering criminal behavior and excessive use of force in responding to peaceful protests, health crises such as COVID-19, and other forms of disorder magnify the threats civilians face. As security forces and law enforcement are tapped to perform functions for which they are improperly equipped and poorly trained, harm against civilians is likely to increase.