As the events collectively known as the Arab Spring show, ad hoc organisations can coalesce into loose coalitions to bring down Governments. All this suggests that the future strategic environment will see constant political turmoil as the fragile Governments that populate it fall with dizzying frequency….Continuing failure to understand and prepare for the changes underway in the strategic environment could be dangerous…
During the 1990s, the U.S. Department of Defense concluded that it was in a “strategic pause.” With the Soviet Union gone and no equal threat on the horizon, the Pentagon had the luxury of doing things like building a “futures” industry to think big thoughts about long-range changes underway in the security environment and the nature of armed conflict. But today strategic futurists face hard times. As the defense budget shrinks, money and time for forecasting and analysis are hard to come by. There is no doubt that cuts in defense spending are needed, but if thinking about the future falls by the wayside, the result could be deadly. After all, big changes in the nature of conflict and warfare are already underway. Preparation must begin now.
Current trends suggest that the future strategic environment will be very different from that of today. Take the global movement toward increased connectivity the density of human connections is greater today than at any time in history. The profusion of information sources and narratives is changing the way people develop beliefs, perceptions, attitudes and preferences. It is often impossible to know where an idea originated and thus difficult to judge its validity, leading to an erosion of traditional authority and legitimacy.
Connectivity also lowers the start-up costs for political organisations and movements as well as for violence-based entities like criminal gangs, terrorists and insurgents. The ability to draw resources from multiple, often transnational sources helps sustain such groups. Yet as the events collectively known as the Arab Spring show, ad hoc organisations can coalesce into loose coalitions to bring down Governments. All this suggests that the future strategic environment will see constant political turmoil as the fragile Governments that populate it fall with dizzying frequency.
Dense connectivity allows rapid technology dispersion. Most new technology and, more importantly, methods and systems to utilise it will continue to emerge from the private sector rather than Governments. Connectivity makes technology available to any State or non State organisation willing to pay for or steal it. Because of this, the U.S. military will not be able to assume technological superiority over all future opponents and may even face occasional technological inferiority.
Dense connectivity and the profusion of information will continue to make networks based on swarming techniques more effective on the battlefield. This type of enemy has no center of gravity but only a series of shifting and rapidly replaceable nodes. Identifying these nodes requires a deep and constantly evolving understanding of the adversarial network and its cultural, social, political and economic environment. Connectivity means that conflict in any part of the world has cascading effects. These effects are most intense in neighboring states or regions as combatants, refugees, money, disorder, crime and weapons flow back and forth across common borders. But in most cases the consequences of conflict will spread even further. Major conflicts anywhere affect the global and American economies, increasing commodity prices, disrupting the supply of goods and services and creating uncertainty. U.S. economic growth will depend, in part, on whether the global economy is generally stable or becomes conflict-ridden. This will make it increasingly hard for the United States to totally opt out of major conflicts, even if it will not necessarily intervene militarily in every one.
As the defense budget shrinks, money and time for forecasting and analysis are hard to come by. There is no doubt that cuts in defense spending are needed, but if thinking about the future falls by the wayside, the result could be deadly. After all, big changes in the nature of conflict and warfare are already underway. Preparation must begin now.
Connectivity and technology have greatly increased the velocity of change in human society. For most of history, change was slow. Most people lived and thought almost exactly as their ancestors had hundreds of years earlier. Now change is frenetic and omnipresent in all but the most isolated pockets of the world. While this may be most evident in terms of technological change, it is also true of beliefs, perceptions, values, priorities and forms of social interaction. Only a few decades ago, the bulk of human interaction was direct and personal. Now a growing proportion is technology-based.
The velocity of change means that security challenges, threats and modes of armed conflict also evolve rapidly. To maintain their advantage, military organisations will have to maximise the speed and effectiveness of adaptation and develop inherent versatility. In the coming years, the more a military organisation is based on large, expensive, complex systems rather than human teams, the more difficult it will be to make major changes in the way it is used and hence the less adaptable and versatile it will be.
Increasing connectivity and velocity combine to form the third dominant characteristic of the 21st-century strategic environment: complexity. Not only are the lives of most individuals more complex than even a few decades ago but so too are organisational structures, functions and interactions. Old-fashioned organisations with cumbersome processes and single chokepoints are vulnerable to failure. The U.S. military remains very good at bringing down Governments and militaries with these kinds of structures. But complex, decentralised, networked, resilient opponents, which are becoming more common and more important, are a different story.
Connectivity, velocity and complexity mean that armed conflict increasingly will be dominated by the “small and the many” rather than the “few and the large.” Large, extremely complex systems will be forced to devote an increasing amount of resources to self-protection and will not have the sort of complex, direct understanding of the operational environment necessary to achieve constantly shifting human effects, particularly in conflicts against networked, swarming opponents rather than old-fashioned states. Rapidly adapting teams rather than large platforms will dominate the battlespace. Preventing conflict, containing conflicts that occur and building sustainable post-conflict security systems will be as strategically important as winning wars. Constant, rapid, deep and effective adaptation will be the key to success from the tactical to the strategic level.
The big question, then, is whether the U.S. military is ready for the coming changes in the strategic environment and the nature of conflict. Today it doesn’t appear so. The U.S. military continues to spend billions on small numbers of extremely high-tech systems like the F-35 fighter and carrier battle groups. It persists in developing a force optimised to defeat other state militaries even though trends suggest that other types of enemies will be the most common and most challenging. It seems to be decreasing the attention and funding devoted to building partner capacity and stabilising post-conflict regions. And it retains an organisation and career track largely developed in the 18th century.
Continuing failure to understand and prepare for the changes underway in the strategic environment could be dangerous. The greater the inherent versatility of the U.S. military, the greater its chances for strategic success. Conversely, a U.S. military very adept at a narrow range of tasks will be unlikely to attain strategic success, since opponents will adopt asymmetric countermeasures. Yet that is precisely the direction the U.S. military is headed. Admittedly, it is hard to peer into the future and think creatively in a time of rigid austerity. But failing to do so could find the U.S. military continuing its present inertia, relying on ever smaller numbers of ever more expensive and complex platforms designed to defeat the expensive and complex platforms of other state militaries at the very time that trends in the strategic environment make this type of conflict rare or even obsolete.
Steven Metz is a defense analyst and the author of “Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.”