Where Will the Next World War Start?

July 25, 2020Nolan Peterson
The Navy’s forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) sails while underway. Ronald Reagan, the flagship of Carrier Strike Group 5, provides a combat-ready force that protects and defends the collective maritime interests of its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kaila V. Peters.

The Navy’s forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) sails while underway. Ronald Reagan, the flagship of Carrier Strike Group 5, provides a combat-ready force that protects and defends the collective maritime interests of its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kaila V. Peters.

Just two living generations ago, the deadliest war in human history was fought. Some of the soldiers who fought in that war, and the civilians who survived it, are still alive today.

Thus, no one should think that another war like World War II is impossible, or that the events of our time are somehow immune to history’s perennial cycles of war and peace. It’s easy to assume that history automatically arcs in the right direction, or that the era of world wars is over. It could never happen again, we want to believe. However, there are hotspots around the globe that are just one “Franz Ferdinand” event away from erupting.

American war correspondent Martha Gellhorn once wrote: “Unless they are immediate victims, the majority of mankind behaves as if war was an act of God which could not be prevented; or they behave as if war elsewhere was none of their business. It would be a bitter cosmic joke if we destroy ourselves due to atrophy of the imagination.”

In the end, the only way to prevent the next world war from happening is to believe that it could. With history as our guide, one thing is clear: wars happen. The only question is where it will it start.

Ukraine and Eastern Europe

Ukrainian troops on their way to the front lines in July 2014, at the height of the war. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.

The war in Ukraine is not a civil war. It never was. It always has been, and it remains, a Russian invasion.

In Ukraine, the combat regularly exceeds the intensity of anything most have experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tank battles, rocket attacks, heavy artillery, trench warfare, and even a civilian airliner shot down by a surface-to-air missile — the war in Ukraine is terrifying.

In September 2014, I watched a tank battle from a hilltop in the coastal city of Mariupol. It was like something out of a Hollywood movie. Except it wasn’t. It was for real. A tank battle in Europe, in our time.

The next day, Sept. 5, 2014, the war’s first cease-fire was signed. All that remained was a wasteland of charred, destroyed tanks and armored personnel carriers. And lots of dead soldiers, too, their bodies frozen in the moments and motions of their deaths like the plaster molds of the dead at Pompeii.

But what was even more shocking is that it all felt like a secret. And it still does.

Many towns in eastern Ukraine, such as Semyonovka, shown here, were heavily damaged by fighting in 2014. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.

Today, more than six years after the war began in April 2014, Ukrainian troops remain hunkered down in trenches and improvised forts along a roughly 250-mile front line in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. There, Ukraine’s military continues to fight a static, trench war against a combined force of pro-Russian separatists, foreign mercenaries, and Russian regulars.

It is a limited, conventional war, similar, in many ways, to World War I trench warfare on a smaller scale and with a high-tech edge. So far, the war has killed nearly 14,000 people — more than half of whom died after the second, February 2015 cease-fire supposedly went into effect.

For years, international cease-fire monitors have not worked at night due to safety concerns. As a result, the war has adopted a nocturnal routine in which the use of heavy weapons ramps up after the sun goes down. It’s not uncommon to see the night sky light up with tracer fire or the distant flash of exploding shells. That’s not to say, however, that sporadic fighting doesn’t go on during the daytime. Because it often does.

It has become a long-range battle in which soldiers hardly ever see at whom they’re shooting. At some places, no man’s land can be several miles wide. At others, the Ukrainians and their enemies are close enough to shout insults at each other. Neither side is fighting to achieve a breakthrough or take significant new ground. Rather, both sides simply go on fighting to not be the one that backs down first.

Ukrainian soldier Konstantin Bernatovich enjoys a quiet moment in the front line town of Pisky in June 2015. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.

The war remains an existential threat to Ukraine because it could, at any moment, spiral into something much worse. There’s always the chance for an unanticipated escalation. And the longer that precarious status quo continues, the greater the chance that an unforeseen accident could ignite a much bigger war that spreads well beyond the limits of the Donbas battlefields.

In fact, the war in Ukraine has already sent shockwaves across Eastern Europe, spurring many countries to prepare for a bigger war. Today, the three Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (all of which are a part of NATO) are among the most rapidly militarizing countries on earth, in terms of defense spending increases. And Poland has dramatically increased its military spending, too.

For its part, NATO is rotating military forces and holding exercises across Eastern Europe at levels unseen since the Cold War. Mutual distrust is increasing — and so is the danger of an accidental conflict — as NATO and Russian forces interact more often.

As U.S. military forces in Europe repaint their desert-tan equipment in forest green, there’s a feeling of déjà vu among those few troops who can remember the Cold War. And as the sounds of gunfire and artillery echo across the Donbas, it’s also important to remember that during World War II Ukraine was the deadliest battlefield of history’s deadliest war.

A U.S. Army Stryker convoy passes through Estonia in March 2015 as part of Operation Dragoon Ride. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.

According to multiple military sources and civilian experts, Ukraine’s armed forces now have about 40,000 personnel currently deployed to the eastern war zone. Of that number, about 17,000 to 19,000 are likely at front-line positions at any given time, according to estimates by civilian experts.

Inside Russia’s two so-called “breakaway territories” in the Donbas, there are thousands of Russian soldiers embedded within a larger force of about 34,000 pro-Russian separatists and foreign mercenaries. There are also about 40,000 Russian troops currently garrisoned in Crimea. Poised on Ukraine’s borders, Russia has positioned about 80,000 troops capable of launching a rapid, armored invasion.

The whole region is like a powder keg, ready to ignite with one ill-timed spark. The unthinkable could happen again because if the war in Ukraine accidentally escalates into a bigger conflict, there’s a good chance that Russians and Ukrainians won’t be the only ones fighting in it.

The Pacific Islands and the South China Sea

The Independence-variant littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS 10) conducts routine operations in the South China Sea, July 2, 2020. Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Brenton Poyser/U.S. Navy, courtesy of DVIDS.

During the “island-hopping” campaign of World War II, U.S. forces leapfrogged across the Pacific, battling the Empire of Japan for strategic advantage on remote islands that few Americans had ever heard of before the war.

When looked at from the remove of history, the utility of those often-savage battles can be hard to fathom. After all, no one island was essential to winning the war. Yet, in the end, the island-hopping campaign gave the U.S. an invaluable strategic advantage. The Pacific Islands, above all, provided airfields from which America’s land-based B-29 bombers could strike the Japanese homeland.

Today, those same islands are once again on the fault-line of clashing civilizations. And the lesson from World War II remains clear: Strategic control of the Pacific Ocean hinges on who controls those remote atolls and islands.

According to the Defense Department’s 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, China “seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and, ultimately […] global preeminence in the long-term.”

Greater sway over the Pacific Islands would expand China’s regional economic and military influence — it would also help China undercut Taiwan’s network of regional allies, experts say. Thus, in the minds of America’s military leadership, a quiet battle in the larger contest between the U.S. and China for global dominance is currently underway in the Pacific Islands and the South China Sea.

Two U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancers assigned to the 9th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, deployed from Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, fly a 10-hour mission from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, through the South China Sea, operating with the U.S. Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Sterett (DDG 104), June 8, 2017. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Richard P. Ebensberger/U.S. Air Force, courtesy of DVIDS.

China has had a recent spate of maritime confrontations with Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea, ratcheting up an ongoing dispute over freedom of navigation in that body of water after Beijing began transforming natural atolls into military outposts. Other nations with territorial claims in the South China Sea include Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia.

The U.S. Navy routinely conducts so-called “freedom of navigation” missions in the contested region, sometimes skirting nearby atolls and islands over which China has claimed ownership to assert the ability of vessels under any nation’s flag to lawfully traverse through recognized international waterways.

Highlighting the region’s newfound importance to the U.S., the White House National Security Council recently created the new position of director for Oceania and Indo-Pacific Security. And, looking forward, the Pentagon is set to beef up the U.S. military’s presence in the Indo-Pacific, taking advantage of existing partnerships and developing new ones to pre-position U.S. forces and equipment.

U.S. Marines have maintained a rotational force based in northern Australia since 2012, underscoring America’s long-term commitment to safeguarding the region, according to Pentagon officials.

Marines with Company G., Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, launch a volley of mortars for suppression during a live-fire exercise here, July 13, 2012. Photo by Cpl. Jonathan Wright, courtesy of DVIDS.

With its withdrawal last year from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the U.S. has also floated the possibility of deploying ground-based, medium-range missiles to the Indo-Pacific theater — part of a broader effort to push back against China’s rising military footprint in the region.

If the Pacific Islands were important as launching pads for the bombing of Japan, then in this new era of strategic competition those remote spits of land will be equally as strategically important for the placement of U.S. missiles capable of striking Chinese forces.

Signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, banned missiles with ranges between 300 and 3,400 miles. The U.S. suspended its obligations under the INF Treaty in February 2019, claiming that Russia had been developing and deploying missiles in violation of the pact’s limits for years.

China was never bound by the so-called INF treaty’s missile restrictions. Consequently, some experts say the U.S. decision to pull out of the pact was also intended to not let China gain an advantage over U.S. forces operating in the Pacific Ocean and South China Sea.


U.S. Soldiers in the 4th Battalion, 118th Infantry Regiment, 30th Armored Brigade Combat Team, North Carolina Army National Guard, attached to the 218th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, South Carolina Army National Guard, provide M2A2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles for support to Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) eastern Syria Oct. 31, 2019. Photo by Spc. DeAndre Pierce/U.S. Army Reserves, courtesy of DVIDS.

On the ground in Iraq and Syria, ISIS has lost its caliphate and now operates from the shadows. The terrorist army may be in its death throes, but it has not been totally defeated. Consequently, American military personnel remain on the ground in both Iraq and Syria.

In Syria, as well, Russia has deployed its military to bolster the regime of embattled dictator Bashar al-Assad, who has presided over a deadly civil war since 2011.

Even though ISIS has been decimated, in some ways the Syrian battlefield is now equally as fraught with danger for American troops as it has ever been. U.S. pilots and ground troops are frequently rubbing shoulders with their Russian counterparts, and the chances of an accidental confrontation are on the rise. And at sea in the Mediterranean, U.S. Navy vessels report frequent run-ins with a wide gamut of Russian naval vessels, including submarines.

A pair of U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles fly over northern Iraq early in the morning of Sept. 23, 2014, after conducting airstrikes in Syria. Photo by Senior Airman Matthew Bruch/U.S. Air Force, Released.

It is, in many ways, a return to a Cold War-era back and forth between U.S. and Russian forces, in which both sides maintain a so-called gentleman’s agreement about where the red line exists between professional and provocative encounters. There are hotlines between U.S. and Russian commanders meant to ease communication and prevent a mishap in case of mistaken identity. Yet, recent reports suggest that dangerous encounters between Russian and U.S. forces are increasing.

“These are not daily occurrences, but they have been increasing in number, and thus is troubling,” James F. Jeffrey, America’s global envoy for the war against ISIS and the top diplomat overseeing the war in Syria, told reporters in February.

On Feb. 7, 2018, a force of mercenaries from the Russian outfit Wagner advanced on a Syrian Democratic Forces compound where U.S. special operations troops were also present. U.S. forces queried Russian commanders about the identity of the advancing militants. “Not our forces,” the Russians reportedly responded.

The Americans weren’t buying it — nor were they willing to risk being overrun. So, U.S. warplanes wiped out the advancing force in a wholesale rout. Reports vary, but hundreds of Russian mercenaries may have died.

The so-called “fog of war” is an unavoidable reality of any conflict. And the risk remains that an accidental shooting encounter between Russian and American forces could happen at any time in Syria. If it does, both sides will have to demonstrate restraint to avoid an escalation into outright hostilities exceeding the limits of the Syrian battlefield.

The Arctic, Outer Space, and Cyberspace

An Atlas V AEHF-6 rocket successfully launches from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., March 26, 2020. The launch of the AEHF-6, a sophisticated communications relay satellite, is the first Department of Defense payload launched for the United States Space Force.  Photo by Joshua Conti/U.S. Air Force, courtesy of DVIDS.

In one of his most famous World War II speeches, Winston Churchill said: “[W]e shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

In this new era of warfare, we’ll be fighting in those places, too — as well as in the Arctic, outer space, and in cyberspace. These new battlefields will require new technologies, new types of warriors, and new definitions about what the word “war” actually means.

Changing climate conditions have steadily eroded the extent of the Arctic ice cap, opening up hitherto unavailable nautical passages, as well as access to vast natural resources.

Russia, which has some 34 military installations in or near the Arctic, has stepped up its military operations in the region. Russia has also stood up a new Arctic Command and is building or refurbishing dozens of airfields across the Arctic. Moreover, Russia has recently modernized its ballistic submarine fleet and added new nuclear-powered icebreakers.

A U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, flies in formation over the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, July 18, 2019. Photo by Staff Sgt. James Richardson/U.S. Air Force, courtesy of DVIDS.

China, too, has set its sights on the Arctic region. In January 2018, Beijing’s so-called Polar Silk Road Arctic strategy declared China to be a “near-Arctic state” — even though China’s nearest territory to the Arctic is some 900 miles away.

To counter these emerging threats, the U.S. Air Force has been shifting some of its most advanced military hardware to Alaska.

The recent creation of the Space Force similarly reflects the very real threats the U.S. now faces from its adversaries in space. Protecting America’s satellites is a vital national security interest, upon which much of our modern world depends. (Think GPS, satellite communication, weather forecasting, etc.)

We’re also at the dawn of a new era of edgeless warfare, in which war and peace may be measured on a spectrum, not as binary conditions. In the next war, U.S. military personnel will face much more confusing battlefields where nothing can be taken for granted — especially communication — and where decisions on the use of lethal force will be less clear and have graver consequences.

The old paradigms of the justice of war — which include metrics, such as the proportionate use of deadly force — are being challenged in this era of so-called gray zone warfare. For instance, is it ethically defensible to launch lethal airstrikes in retaliation for a cyberattack?

Our military and civilian leaders need to grapple with these tough ethical issues today, so that we aren’t trying to craft novel moral guidelines about the just use of military force in the throes of a military conflict.

The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial is home to the graves of more than 9,380 of our deceased military members, most of whom lost their lives in the D-Day landings and ensuing operations. Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Sarah Villegas/U.S. Navy, courtesy of DVIDS.

Throughout history, the U.S. has enjoyed “warm-up” periods in its wars to arrive at a coherent strategic vision and develop workable tactics to achieve victory.

Famously, U.S. military forces had a chance to hone their combat acumen on the North African front in World War II before embarking on the liberation of Europe.

In his Pulitzer-Prize-winning account of the Allied North African campaign, “An Army at Dawn,” Rick Atkinson wrote, “Like the first battles in virtually every American war, this campaign revealed a nation and an army unready to fight and unsure of their martial skills, yet willful and inventive enough to prevail.”

In Korea, U.S. forces rebounded after Pusan. In Vietnam, America flirted with myriad strategies and tactics over more than a decade of aimless warfare. And in the post-9/11 era, the U.S. military learned how to fight counterinsurgency conflicts while already in combat, over the span of years.

Today, America’s military has spent a generation fighting below its weight class in combat theaters where the consequences for indecision, both strategic and tactical, never truly risked defeat. No one ever seriously thought the Taliban or Al Qaeda had the means to drive U.S. forces off the battlefield. There would never be an American Dunkirk in Afghanistan or Iraq. Could there be, though, in Estonia or the South China Sea?

Against a near-peer adversary like Russia or China, there will be no warm-up fronts on which to hone America’s tactics and confidence. The next war will be over before we learn how to fight it.

Nolan Peterson
Nolan Peterson
Nolan Peterson is a senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine and the author of Why Soldiers Miss War. A former US Air Force special operations pilot and a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Nolan is now a conflict journalist and author whose adventures have taken him to all seven continents. In addition to his memoirs, Nolan has published two fiction collections. He lives in Kyiv, Ukraine, with his wife, Lilya.
More from Coffee or Die Magazine
Coffee Or Die Photo
From the Team Room to Team Room Design: An Operator’s Creative Journey

BRCC partners with Team Room Design for an exclusive T-shirt release!

Coffee Or Die Photo
Get Your Viking On: The Exclusive 30 Sec Out BRCC Shirt Club Design

Thirty Seconds Out has partnered with BRCC for an exclusive shirt design invoking the God of Winter.

Grizzly Forge BRCC shirt
Limited Edition: Grizzly Forge Blades on an Awesome BRCC Shirt

Lucas O'Hara of Grizzly Forge has teamed up with BRCC for a badass, exclusive Shirt Club T-shirt design featuring his most popular knife and tiomahawk.

BRCC Limited Edition Josh Raulerson Blackbeard Skull Shirt
From Naval Service to Creative Canvas: BRCC Veteran Artist Josh Raulerson

Coffee or Die sits down with one of the graphic designers behind Black Rifle Coffee's signature look and vibe.

Medal of Honor is held up.
Biden Will Award Medal of Honor to Army Helicopter Pilot Who Rescued Soldiers in Vietnam Firefight

Biden will award the Medal of Honor to a Vietnam War Army helicopter pilot who risked his life to save a reconnaissance team from almost certain death.

dear jack mandaville
Dear Jack: Which Historic Battle Would You Want To Witness?

Ever wonder how much Jack Mandaville would f*ck sh*t up if he went back in time? The American Revolution didn't even see him coming.

west point time capsule
West Point Time Capsule Yields Centuries-Old Coins

A nearly 200-year-old West Point time capsule that at first appeared to yield little more than dust contains hidden treasure, the US Military Academy said.

  • About Us
  • Privacy Policy
  • Careers
Contact Us
Contact Us
© 2024 Coffee or Die Magazine. All Rights Reserved