Over the past two decades, war has become an ever-present affair for the United States, and despite declarations of victory over ISIS in Iraq and Syria recently, it doesn’t look like that’s bound to change any time soon.  We can expect to see a broader approach to combat operations in Afghanistan in the coming year, as well as further involvement in anti-terror efforts in places like Africa.  This type of warfare has become the standard issue hardship for America’s war fighters for a long time now, however, and a new type of threat is looming on the horizon.

Although anti-terror operations remain an integral part of our national security, the potential for war with peer and near-peer opponents has resurfaced in recent years, and has increasingly been the focus of the U.S.’ training and modernization efforts.  It would seem the days of fighting ill-equipped guerrillas in caves may not be coming to an end, but we may soon have to balance those efforts with others posed by opponents that will undoubtedly possess technology and assets approximating our own in some regards.  Worse still, the complex web of geopolitical alliances could expand any number of nation-level conflicts into the makings of another world war.

Unfortunately, the question of, “which conflict might start World War III?” comes with a complicated answer – as it’s entirely likely that a cascade of alliances and bad decisions could spur a global conflict in regions ranging from the Middle East to Asia and back again, but there ARE a few hot spots worth keeping your eyes on.

The Korean Peninsula

(KCNA Photo)

Although tensions on the Korean peninsula seem to focus specifically on Kim Jong Un’s regime and their continued nuclear and ballistic missile programs, war with North Korea, if it can’t be avoided, must be approached with a fair amount of political tip-toeing.  If the United States is seen as the aggressor in a military conflict with North Korea, Kim’s regime could enlist the support of nearby diplomatic opponents Russia and China.  Kim’s PR machine has already been hard at work trying to advance the narrative a conflict with North Korea would be brought about through American aggression (which they characterize as some sort of pseudo-imperialism) and both China and Russia have offered tacit support to that line of thought.

If gone about the wrong way, war with North Korea could lead to skirmishes with Chinese and Russian forces.  With American allies South Korea and Japan involved from the onset, such skirmishes could rapidly lead to all-out war.  Politically and economically, this outcome seems unlikely, but then, the scope of previous world wars also seemed unlikely at one point.

The Baltics/NATO’s Eastern Front

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(Kremlin photo)

Ever since Russia’s military annexation of Crimea in 2014, tensions have once again been on the rise between Putin’s Russian regime and NATO, particularly in the area around the Baltic states, where Russia’s enclave of Kaliningrad offers Russian forces a unique offensive opportunity.  The Suwalki Gap runs for about 65 miles between Kaliningrad and Russian ally Belarus.  If Russian forces were to capture this narrow stretch of land, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia would be cut off from supply lines and reinforcements coming from other NATO nations.

NATO has been rapidly expanding its defensive posture throughout Europe’s Eastern flank in a move American defense officials have referred to as a shift from assurance of local allies to “deterrence” of Russian aggression.  While air intercepts with Russian military jets and bombers are common the world over, nowhere are these interactions more frequently qualified as “aggressive” or “unprofessional” than over the Baltic and Black Seas, where tensions continue to rise.  With Vladimir Putin set to run for reelection, his state-media helmed narrative of a vast Western conspiracy intent on destroying Russia could bolster support for military action against perceived threats.  Though Russia’s economy could not support a long-term war against the likes of NATO, with support from allies, Russia could find that a major war is just what they need to end their fiscal stagnation.

South China Sea

(U.S. Navy photo)

The South China Sea is among the most heavily trafficked waterways on the globe, and by some estimates, accounts for more than a third of all commercial shipping worldwide.  The South China Sea is also home to vast natural resources ranging from fertile fishing grounds to crude oil beneath the seafloor, making the strategic, economic, and diplomatic advantages to maintaining control over the region nearly incalculable.  China, keen to stake a claim over as much of the South China Sea as possible, has been aggressively expanding throughout the waterway’s entirety, pushing other nations out of their own sovereign territory, developing man-made island chains, placing military assets in disputed territories and conducting sail-through and fly-over operations with their quickly growing military.

The United States exercised a great deal of restraint as China set about declaring the majority of the South China Sea as their own under the Obama administration, and under Trump, the U.S. Navy has expanded its Freedom of Navigation operations intended to ensure China knows that America does not acknowledge their claims of ownership over what are legally international waters.  As tensions begin to boil over, a conflict with China would undoubtedly result in the involvement of allies throughout the region, including India, who could potentially draw opponents like Pakistan into the conflict.  Iran and North Korea would likely come to China’s aid if requested, and U.S. allies Japan, South Korea, and even newly friendly Vietnam could see involvement very quickly.

Cyberspace

(Air Force photo)

While we tend to think of World Wars as kinetic conflicts, it’s increasingly likely that World War III will be precipitated by wide-spread cyber attacks intended to cripple a nation’s ability to conduct military operations, cripple its domestic economy, or even shut down important facets of infrastructure, like the power grid.  A successful cyber effort could potentially do far more harm to a nation’s well-being than most conventional weapons, and if the U.S. were to fall victim to such an attack, it would have to be considered, and treated as, an act of war.

That war would undoubtedly involve America’s allies, and if the culprit was Russia or China, we would once again find ourselves facing the likelihood of a global conflict.  Other ne’erdowell nations like Iran or North Korea are just as likely to take this offensive step, and depending on how the dominos fall as America recovers and retaliates, even those actors could potentially draw international support from like-minded nations.

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America’s ever-increasing reliance on satellite communications and GPS assets in orbit would undoubtedly coalesce with our digital dependency, as a cyber attack coupled with the destruction of our orbital infrastructure would leave the United States military scrambling to organize, communicate, and respond.  These very concerns are what prompted both Congress and the Senate to push for increased emphasis on space in the 2018 defense budget… but somehow, the two groups couldn’t agree how to go about doing so, so they opted instead to put it off, pending further analysis.

Conclusions

Although recent history has proven dramatic and tense, it seems unlikely that World War III will kick off in 2018, but the conflict looming over these regions, and many others around the globe, aren’t subsiding any time soon.  As long as the potential for conflict persists, we have to work tirelessly to avoid allowing a small conflict to ignite the geopolitical powder keg that, in many ways, seems more primed to blow than it has been since the darkest days of the Cold War.  In some ways, it seems like a major conflict with peer-level competitors is fast approaching, and if tensions don’t begin to subside, we’ll likely see World War III discussed with more frequency in terms of “when,” rather than “if.”

 

Feature image courtesy of KCNA