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Retiring Chinese general He Lei recently made news by suggesting that China’s greatest military weakness compared to the United States was that it has never fought a real war. He noted none of Beijing’s increasingly advanced weapons, jets, and ships have been tested in combat. Moreover, the large People’s Liberation Army continues to rely upon conscripts rather than the long-serving professionals in the U.S. military. He argued the Chinese military “will be ridden with doubts until they get into a real fight.”

But Beijing’s candid general is only partially right. It is certainly true that few if any militaries in the world share the depth and breadth of combat experience of the U.S. military, especially among its leaders. Senior U.S. generals have often served two, three, four, or even more combat tours overseas, encompassing everything from conventional combat to prolonged counterinsurgency operations against guerillas and sustained strike operations against terrorist groups.

However, this deep bench of U.S. combat experience brings with it hidden flaws. As we recently wrote, assumptions and expectations about the next war are often deeply affected by recent experience, because the past is often a subconscious compass that navigates thoughts about the future. Thinking about the next war can be too easily bounded by projecting past experiences forward, a natural human tendency to think linearly about what might be, colored by what has been.

But the next war, especially if fought among great powers, may have strikingly little in common with wars of the past. It may unfold in completely unanticipated ways, quickly surging outside the intellectual fence lines of even the most creative military thinkers. The next major power war will be the first war of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and it may dramatically disrupt everything we think we know about the character of modern war.

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Category: Science