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Sensing the Future of Warfare

By Richard Kaipo Lum, PhD

The Challenge of ‘The Future of Warfare’

Today, discussions on the future of warfare and on the changing character of conflict abound, and deservedly so. Even before the pandemic introduced such extensive disruption around the globe, the world had been in the midst of multiple, simultaneous transitions. Who we expect to be fighting, how we expect to be fighting them, and even if we should consider it a “fight” or some other form of contest have all become pressing questions today.

One of the challenges in tackling a big, complex question like this is that it can be difficult to balance having an expansive enough view to generate sufficient insights without getting overwhelmed in a tsunami of information. The “future of warfare” is not alone in this; leaders thinking about the future of topics like education, health, and finance face the same exact challenge. One of the ways that foresight professionals handle this challenge is by using models and frameworks tailored made for understanding and anticipating change in the world.

Within VFS, we have a number of original frameworks and foresight methods we use in our work. One of those we have been using is our Sensing Model for change, which we use a lot in our work on the futures of irregular warfare. It is a model that is specifically built for detecting and considering emerging signals of change.

A Sensing Model for Change

One of the first frameworks introduced to students in futures studies programs is STEEP, which stands for Social, Technological, Economic, Environmental, and Political. It is a very straight forward framework used to ensure that a researcher or analyst is thinking broadly about the future of a topic. Variations on STEEP abound, and it is used in a variety of ways in foresight projects. It is often used for environmental scanning as well as for scenario development.

The STEEP framework is useful because of its simplicity, which is also its limitation. It relies on the user to provide most of the nuance and versatility needed to generate good insight. This is where a framework like our Sensing Model becomes extremely valuable. Whereas the classic STEEP framework is really a list of very broad categories to make sure that an analyst isn’t, say, only thinking about “technology” as a driver of change, the Sensing Model was built from the ground up as a tool for sensing change in the world and for exploring the interactions they have and what results.

Four Aspects, Multiple Lenses

The Sensing Model is built on four aspects that broadly cover the sources of change in warfare: Contextual, Material, Cultural, and Institutional. Across history, we have observed how important drivers and contests over change in warfare occur in these broad areas. In this way, the model is informed by precedents and patterns in history, while also considering dynamics of change that can upend historical patterns. Warfare doesn’t automatically change simply because someone invented a new weapon (although sometimes it does), nor does it change without interaction with internal culture and external actors.

Figure 1: VFS Sensing Model for Future Warfare

The model breaks out these four broad aspects into twelve “lenses”, or areas that start to zoom in on more specific questions and dynamics. And questions are key when using the model: good foresight frameworks are about helping you ask new and better questions about change and about the future. With each of the lenses, you are exploring changes that may be occurring within that space, as well as considering how changes in the environment might impact that area in the future. Emphasizing how we use the model in our irregular warfare work, the twelve lenses include:

  • Threat: dealing with things such as the definition and perception of threats

  • Experience: considering direct experience in conflict; the impact of observing others in war and the diffusion and imitation of concepts and practices; and wartime-driven innovation

  • Relationships: thinking about power relationships between actors; behavioral patterns and norms among actors (e.g. treaties, alliances, norms)

  • Power Resources: examining the many resources actors use to create power (the ability to make intended things happen, e.g. money, information, new technologies, etc…)

  • Constraints: concerning material constraints such as natural resource base, budgets, and manpower; physical and logistical constraints such as geography and physics

  • Systems: looking at things like the broader infrastructure in society, supporting technology systems; the broader technological context and sociotechnical systems

  • Values: exploring things like societal values, generational shifts in values, and evite vs. popular values

  • Aspiration: delves into goals, preferences, definitions of success and failure; visions of preferred futures

  • Narrative: dealing with deeper issues like the dominant (and competing) narratives of warfare and conflict; images of future warfare; dominant or popular symbols of war

  • Doctrine: considering institutional doctrine, strategy, and policy; peace time forms of innovation within institutions; contests over these between key stakeholders in society

  • Patterns: thinking about the dominant (and upstart) forms and patterns of organization, within institutions and in the broader society; nature of key processes; considering all these in terms of both administration (e.g. bureaucracy, general staff, etc…) and operations (e.g. fighting formations)

  • Participants: examines the range of actors involved in conceiving, planning, and executing war

The model works well for foresight projects in part because it specifically guides you to ask questions about real and specific dynamics of change that affect the character of warfare. While technology is an obvious (potential) driver of change, we sometimes neglect the critical role institutional culture plays in deflecting or accelerating change, and we often overlook the importance of shifting narratives and values related to conflict and competition. The Sensing Model offers a way to cover a lot of ground while asking the kind of questions that are most relevant for understanding and anticipating change.

At the same time, the model is not intended to be a mental straight jacket. It is meant to be a flexible and adaptable tool for sensing and exploring change. As with many foresight frameworks, it can and should be adapted to fit your specific situation. These frameworks are meant to help people think more critically about the future, not to enforce any particular approach to doing so.

Using the Model

For those who might be new to foresight work and the ways in which we use these frameworks, the following are just a few ways the model can be used in foresight, in this case dealing with the future of warfare.

  • Anticipating change in how an individual actor approaches warfare: identifying various trends and emerging issues across the twelve lenses and exploring how they might interact

  • Comparing how different actors may evolve separate approaches to warfare, in reaction to the same (future) changes in the operating environment: e.g. states vs non-state actors, states vs private organizations, traditional actors vs novel actors

  • Exploring how warfare (and competition) between two or more actors could change over time: using the model to explore how actors in sustained conflict may coevolve, in the larger context of a rapidly change world

For example, we could use the model to think about the different impacts that “influence operations” conducted by adversaries against the United States could have on future approaches to conflict. We could explore how social media manipulation done to amplify community anger and mistrust (Experience) might interact with emerging capabilities in AI and automation (Power Resources) to change American definitions of conflict (Narrative) and change the role of machines in defense of the country (Participants). Again, the model is intended to be flexible, and these are just some of the ways you can use it to develop foresight.

Comprehensive and Relevant Foresight

Thinking critically about the future is never an easy task, and the disruptions we are experiencing today have only amplified the challenge. Good foresight frameworks provide the structure and guidance to help you ask good questions about change in the world and keep you focused on relevant issues. As this unprecedented year continues to unfold with more surprises, we need new and better tools to help us make sense of the successive disruptions we are experiencing and to identify more opportunities for taking advantage of these changes.

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