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Defense Futures: Why All Our Scenarios Should be Disruptive

(note: this article was originally published in 2016)

I am often struck by the fact that, from a futures perspective, many of the scenarios generated for the US military for either wargames or “studies” of the future are simply not that realistic. Do they feature more capable or more aggressive adversaries? Sure. Do they feature more powerful or more pervasive technologies and weapon systems? Of course. Yet they so often feature a future context in which the major systems in which we live and operate have remained fundamentally unchanged. The amount of social, socio-economic, and socio-technical change is typically very little. Key operating assumptions about how we approach things and how we are oriented to the world in general are typically held constant. From a futures perspective, these scenarios are not as disruptive and challenging to our assumptions as they need to be.

From an institutional perspective, there are easily understood reasons why this is so often the case. Projects are launched in response to specific leadership challenges. Budgets are the result of internal political processes. Initiatives are conceived in part to wage internal campaigns for control over domains and to justify resource levels and stature. And few individuals ever have a huge incentive to jump way outside the current mainstream thought process and advocate for a more radical view of the future. And this is just as common in the corporate world as it is in the military. If anything, the pressure to have a short-term view is stronger in the business world than in defense.

Despite this, if we truly want to think critically about the future of American security, if we are genuinely concerned with preparing ourselves for the future, then the long-term scenarios we generate about the future security environment need to be much more disruptive than they have been in the past. Scenarios looking out 25 years from now need to feature worlds that look significantly different than the one we live in right now. They shouldn’t just feature faster and smaller and longer-range technology, they should overturn key assumptions about the security landscape and about how we organize for defense and power projection. Our 25 year scenarios shouldn’t look like “today,” just more tense; they should feature worlds in which things like doctrine and force structure have to be completely rethought.

Mark Twain is credited with saying that, “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” In this instance, history gives us good reason to anticipate that it will once again rhyme, and that the decades of the 2040s (out at that 25-year mark, if anyone was counting), will confront us with a world that is in many important respects disruptively different than the one we currently experience.

Looking Backward to Look Forward

When it comes to generating 25-year scenarios, history should be used as a strong guide for forecasting. Not for making specific predictions about the future, but for understanding how divergent our forecasts should be from the present. The experiences of the United States military establishment for the past seventy years tells us that we should assume a great degree of divergence in key aspects of the security environment and in how we think about defense and security. Consider the following sets of changes that confronted the US military over the past seventy years:

1945 - 1970

In 1945, had the US War Department looked forward twenty-five years to 1970, the future they would have logically envisioned would have been different in key aspects from the one the United States actually experienced in 1970. Forecasters would have likely missed key societal shifts like the civil rights movement, the anti-war sentiment with regard to Vietnam, and the drastic change in the way citizens perceived and trusted government. The emergence and evolution of a world-defining Cold War, a grand strategic policy of Soviet containment, de-colonialism, and a geostrategically critical Middle East would not have played central roles in any forecasts about 1970.

1970 – 1995

In 1970, the US Defense Department did not plan on a twenty-five-year future in which the Soviet Union was gone, in which the US was the sole superpower that would, in the span of a few short years both easily defeat a “million-man army” in Iraq and have its mission in Somalia against local warlords abruptly ended without victory. The emergence – and quick death – of the notion of a New World Order in which nations live (and importantly, trade) together in peace would have been thought fanciful had they been featured in serious forecasts. The incipient rise of the computer and the information revolution, stealth fighters, and pagers on everyone’s hips were all technical shifts and developments that would have eluded planners and forecasters in 1970.

And did I mention the internet?

1995 – 2016

While a few years short of a twenty-five-year time horizon, planners in 1995 looking forward to 2016 would not have built their forecasts around “power transition” models and they would not have explored in any great depth the South and East China Seas as important fulcrums on which regional – and even global – security would pivot. Over a decade waging a painful “war” on terror across the planet, the domestic and geopolitical legacy of US operations in Afghanistan and Iraq (for a second time), and a deep and powerful imprint on the worldview of an entire generation of Americans who came of age during this time. Insanely powerful and versatile “smartphones,” the growing ubiquity of wireless high-speed internet access, and the pervasive role that social media plays in daily life and the crazy array of operating models that it enables would have been missed by planners. Synthetic biology, DIY bio, blockchains, and computers already talented and powerful enough to beat humans at both chess and go; these developments might have been fringe imaginings in 1995, but they certainly wouldn’t have shaped the scenarios presented to top leadership.

In short, each time “rational” planners grounded in mainstream reality looked forward over the next 25 years, they would have gotten key elements of the future security environment very wrong. This is not about the details; it is about the degree of divergence from the present structure of things. It is about how disruptive reality turned out to be against key assumptions about what the world looks like and how we are operating in it.

Learning from History

It should be clear from the examples shown above that when we try to anticipate the future security context twenty-five years from today we should make sure that the scenarios we create to explore logical alternatives challenge essential assumptions about the security context and the practice of providing security. If the scenarios are not presenting us with futures that are in some fundamental way different from what we are used to dealing with, then they are not doing their job. Long-term scenarios should be challenging and they should make us uncomfortable; they should place us in unfamiliar contexts that require us to rethink our goals, strategies, and organization.

At the same time, I am not advocating an “all disruption, all the time” approach to scenario forecasting. Rather, the long-term scenarios we do develop should always challenge key assumptions, while simultaneously making clear those aspects of the future that remain the same. Both change and continuity are essential ingredients for logical and rigorous foresight work in the security domain. The important point is that our scenarios should never assume that all of our key assumptions about the world remain unchanged and unchallenged in the future.

We should remember that scenarios are merely a tool for developing foresight and foresight is not about prediction. In trying to wrestle with the uncertainty that is “the future,” we turn to foresight in an attempt to be more critical about what the future could become. And in this case, history provides us with ample evidence that all of our scenarios about the twenty-five-year future should be disruptive.

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