Endwar As The Beginning?

Image: Ubisoft

The year is 2025, Europe has unified into a Federation for its own collective defense after the US chose its own security concerns over those of its allies. An antagonistic relationship becomes the status quo on both sides of the Atlantic. Meanwhile, a revisionist Russia has clawed its way back to prominence thanks to a crisis-driven oil boom. It plays self-interested Western nations against each other, certain that both Europe and America desire its destruction, and must be stopped at all costs, even if it means open war.

This is the world of Tom Clancy’s Endwar, a franchise of novels and a Real Time Strategy game. When I first encountered the franchise in 2008 I thought it was the most ludicrous, unlikely thing the ambitious Tom Clancy entertainment empire had ever created. Now, in 2017, it feels in some ways prescient. We live in a multipolar world, where old alliances, and even the foundational assumptions of the modern international order are being deliberately tested to the breaking point. Great power conflict no longer feels unimaginable. We are thankfully far from armed conflict with Russia (let alone with European states). But the fictional war scenarios of the game and novels can provide some insight into how such conflicts could start and escalate.

To be fair to my past self, there are plenty of elements that make the exact scenario in Endwar rather far-fetched. A nuclear holocaust in the Middle East is what sparks the global oil crisis, and in the aftermath, a series of space-based weapons serves to enable an escalating conflict. Space-based defensive weapons essentially render ICBM’s obsolete, a la Reagan’s “Star Wars” program. Offensive systems lurk in orbit too, including  kinetic bombardment weapons and an American satellite named the “Freedom Star” that can deploy “three companies of US Marines anywhere in the world within 90 minutes.” Meanwhile, ground forces operate with what appear to be functional energy shields, although it is unclear whether this is canon or simply a requirement of gameplay (there is no mention of energy shields in the three Endwar novels). While these details stretch the bounds of credulity about America’s defense acquisitions and development pipeline, the broad strokes of the political tensions described in the series feel like less of a stretch.

Perhaps most notable element in Endwar’s fiction is the prominence of Russia as a threat. Moscow escaped the attention that China and India received at the time as global power players; in a sense, calling out Russia as a top threat seemed like either Cold War nostalgia or an insightful counter-intuitive prediction as the main antagonist in a high stakes conflict two decades out. That said, a massive conflagration in the Middle East such as the one depicted in Endwar could indeed lead to certain economic benefits for Russia. What is perhaps most interesting is how intriguingly Endwar imagines the Russian government’s motivations: Sergei Iztov, the most notable Russian character in the game and head of the GRU in Endwar’s fictional universe, describes their actions mostly as a kind of pre-emptive strike. He seems certain that the US and new European Federation will join forces and strike Russia if they ever overcome their tensions with each other. This seems to surprisingly mirror what many muse could be Russia’s real-world motivation for offensive actions: fear of Western encroachment and the possible reduction in status as a great power. While the massive military modernization and buildup in Endwar stretches plausibility, Russia is in fact undergoing a more modest, but still significant modernization process that enhances its conventional deterrence and overall military ability. While these capabilities still don’t scratch the surface of what becomes possible in the game. Perhaps most notably, Russian forces (and indeed every faction) can cross oceans and invade enemy territory with impunity, seemingly without regard for what today are known as Anti-Access Area Denial weapons (let alone logistics). The Russians likely won’t be able to drop an armored Spetznaz company onto the White House’s front lawn anytime soon, but in Endwar, it’s relatively easy. Such capabilities may not remain science fiction for long, however. Some thinkers anticipate a highly fluid and overwhelmingly fast character of war which has garnered the name “Hyperwar.” In such a conflict, forces could conceivably move swiftly and silently under a protective net of constant cyberattacks and brilliant tactics concocted on the fly by AI-empowered commanders. In such a state, smaller units could perhaps achieve the remarkable leaps envisioned in Endwar, pouncing on capitals and military bases before large forces can be maneuvered to counter them.

Where Endwar could perhaps be especially instructive is in its depiction of how the US and the burgeoning European Federation eventually come to blows. In the Endwar narrative, the US pursues a single-minded strategy of ensuring domestic security, even at the expense of the safety of allies. This manifests with a weaponized space station capable of destroying the space-based missile defense system put into place by other countries, thus threatening to bring back the possibility of nuclear annihilation mere years after helping eliminate the decades-long worry. Compounding this threat to strategic deterrence, the US takes extreme action when threatened by a non-state actor, in this case a fictional militant organization known as the Forgotten Army. In response to an attack by the group, the US utilizes special operations forces to kidnap a European official who the US believed had information about the attack. These aggressive US actions, combined with an apparent lack of communication with its former European allies and its inability to unravel a Russian plot to drive a wedge between the two states, eventually leads to a shooting war between the US and Europe.

While more complex than any simple list, there are indeed key takeaways from the Endwar universe relevant in 2017:

  1. The development of capabilities that can hamper the strategic deterrence of other powers should be pursued carefully, or else they risk igniting conflict even with closely aligned states.
  2. Constant communication, even with antagonistic actors, is key, especially when strategic weapons are involved.
  3. Military reactions to provocations must be carefully considered, even in the face of tragedy.
  4. Human and signals intelligence are paramount to prevent hostile actors from exploiting the weak points in the relationship between the US and its allies.

What is perhaps most poignant about the Endwar franchise is how recognizable characters from other Clancy video game titles are pitted against each other. Memorable characters of the Rainbow Six, Splinter Cell, and Hawx franchises find themselves on opposite sides of a horrific global war. It helps provide context for how fragile our world is today. We live in a world that is perhaps more uncertain than it has ever been in my admittedly short lifetime. Back in 2008, the Endwar franchise did not fully anticipate the power of information operations to shift global thought, or anticipate how growing ambiguity and uncertainty might help fuel the fires of fundamentalism and populism. In today’s world, far more options exist for stoking conflict than in that of Endwar, and their application can be much subtler. Friends can be made into enemies, old alliances can erode, and chaos can be inspired with far more delicate pushes in the arenas of misinformation, social engineering and cyber-conflict. In Endwar, a rather ham-handed deception is pulled off, pivoting great powers against each other by clouding the judgment of top decision makers. But what happens when the minds of entire populations, rather than just leaders and bureaucrats, become open to attack? This is the kind of future warfare that Endwar previewed and that we are only beginning to come to grips with.

Alec Medén is a writer-at-large for The Art of the Future Project. For his story “Willie Pete Has No Off Switch,” Alec Medén was a finalist in the Atlantic Council Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security Global Trends 2035 creative contest that called for writers to explore the technologies, trends and themes that will shape the world two decades from now. He is also a past winner of the project’s “Space” war-art challenge with “From A Remove,” judged by bestselling author David Brin, for a story that envisioned the future of space conflict during the last decade of the 21st Century. Alec is majoring in screenwriting and creative writing at Chapman University in Southern California. He can be found on Twitter @alecmeden.