As “location, location, location” is the central truth that unlocks the mysteries of property valuation,
so context, context, context decodes the origins, meaning, character and consequences of warfare.1
The future is never fully knowable. Making sense of the changing security environment and what it means for the future joint force depends on our collective ability to discern and select those key environmental conditions that influence how conflict is conducted. Appropriate mental models of the future require a coherent view of what issues are important, the relationship between causes and effects within these issues, and understanding how a diverse set of issues may be linked or otherwise connected. Without these structured mental models—that is, theories of what attributes of the environment are important in war—military change seems to be a ceaseless flow of disconnected, causeless happenstance and chaos.2 For the defense futurist, this leads to the unenviable position in which terms such as uncertainty and complexity are among the few guideposts for developing tomorrow’s joint force capabilities.
To prepare the joint force for the future, however, these terms are wholly inadequate. As General James Mattis, USMC, noted in The Joint Operating Environment 2010 (JOE), “it is impossible to predict precisely how challenges will emerge and what form they might take. Nevertheless, it is absolutely vital to try to frame the strategic and operational contexts of the future in order to glimpse the possible environments” where joint forces might be employed.3 The JOE was the last attempt to present a coherent picture of the operational contexts that future joint forces would likely encounter and should prepare to address. An operational context anticipates a broad set of military challenges that are not limited to particular adversaries and “stock” planning scenarios.
In his Chairman’s Strategic Direction to the Joint Force and in numerous written speeches and congressional testimony, General Martin Dempsey has repeatedly challenged the joint force to adapt to a dangerous and unpredictable security environment.4 However, we have not collectively developed a mechanism that provides the necessary level of understanding to bridge the yawning intellectual gap that exists between observing and projecting individual trends within the international environment and developing a set of sharp, focused military challenges that will lead to a successful joint force. If we are to build a force that can be, in the Chairman’s words, built and presented and molded effectively to context, we must understand what context truly means.5
What follows is a brief description of the inadequacy of trend observation and analysis (our most common tool) for defense “futuring”—that is, trend observation and projection. This approach to futures too often results in a gap between individual trends analysis—defined as the examination of a trend to identify its nature, causes, speed of development, and potential impacts—and the necessary degree of synthesis and combination required to understand how the world is actually changing. Next, to bridge this gap between trends and more focused, actionable military challenges, I propose a set of contexts of future conflict and war that brings together a number of trends and illuminates where and how the future joint force could likely be employed. By focusing on combinations of trends in this way, the joint force would be primed to develop capabilities responsive to a broad but closely related range of likely threats and challenges. A common set of contexts of future conflict and war could leverage extensive trends studies conducted across the National Intelligence Council and defense research institutions, while future joint force development activities could focus more precisely on describing the essential adversary combinations that could confuse and confound future military operations.
We will always be surprised by specific world events. Crafting focused future military challenges derived from a thorough understanding of context, however, would more likely result in a truly prepared joint force.
In the defense futures business, trends are everywhere. Moore’s Law, the proliferation of autonomous systems, the “rise” of China, and the emergence of cyberspace and the social media are examples of our innate desire to pattern the emerging future on historical memory and (recent) lessons learned. Trends analysis—properly applied—is useful because the technique takes advantage of history, which is the only actual set of data about the world available to us. However, this leads to perhaps a degree of overconfidence as we then project these discrete elements of the future environment months, years, and even decades forward.
All too often, military futures studies spend too much time and space on descriptions of individual trends, leaving combinations of trends and military implications—the meaning, character, and consequences—derived from trends as (at best) an afterthought. As a recent Center for Strategic and International Studies report noted, a trends-focused approach to projecting future military demands on current conditions frequently ends “in mirror imaging, where an adversary’s desired methods and U.S. military priorities are perfectly aligned, providing fertile ground for surprise, shock, and miscalculation.”6 To compound the situation, approaching possible futures in this way suits Service core competencies and comports with traditional, familiar warfighting concepts because trends are easily categorized, modeled, and wargamed. Moreover, because of selection bias, these trends more readily conform to complex Department of Defense acquisition processes.
Frequently, the result of an overreliance on trends means that projected future military demands are overly determined by current conditions, capabilities, and concepts. The ultimate result, however, is that this type of approach tends to privilege the capabilities we desire over the capabilities that we might need in the future. Without a mechanism to bring together multiple trends, we become “target fixated” on those related to missions and environments in which we prefer to fight.
Because a number of organizations (both inside and outside the U.S. Government) publish documents focused on examining large-scale strategic trends, future joint force developers should focus a greater portion of their intellectual energy on developing a more focused perspective on how trends intersect and implications of those intersections. For example, the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030 series, as well as numerous international and think tank–derived futures documents, provide this type of extensive and comprehensive examination of relevant strategic trends and should be leveraged by the future joint force development community.7
But trends analysis is only a partial tool. An overreliance on patterning the future on historical experience and the singular focus on individual issue areas inherent in trends analysis blind us to the larger context in which national security and defense futures play out. Trends analysis is the more difficult and less-traveled path.8 A successful picture of the anticipated future security environment depends on moving beyond a simple recapitulation of trends and building a thorough discussion of the implications of combinations of trends and the context within which future war might be fought. We must, in the words of General Mattis, apply “the imagination and ability to ask the right questions.”9
Joint concepts examine military problems and propose solutions describing how the joint force, using military art and science, might operate to achieve strategic goals.10Trends are not in and of themselves “military problems,” though they do provide the raw materials out of which focused future military problems can be built. Again, to derive these challenges in a more plausible way, we must move beyond trends and focus on combinations in conflict and war.
The world does not present military challenges in tidy packages, as suggested by a focus on individual trends and their extensions into the future. In reality, security challenges result from the collision of a range of factors. For example, while globalization serves to raise hundreds of millions of people around the world out of poverty and misery and into longer and more comfortable lives, greater wealth around the world also translates into the potential emergence of competitor states with new and powerful military capabilities. Greater wealth and comfort for some could also translate into greater demand for scarce resources, including food, water, and energy, raising prices and causing instability, civil conflict, and government failure in areas already living on the edge of subsistence.
The adversaries who are evolving in this environment are increasingly cunning, brutal, entrepreneurial, opportunistic, and adapted to the globalized and connected world. They study our actions and can be counted on to avoid our strengths. A world of greater freedom, free exchange of ideas, and rising living standards are key goals of U.S. strategy and a generally positive development in the world. But such a world unbalanced by the lack of mutual recognition, just international norms, and common legal and moral norms might contribute to new failed states, more ungoverned spaces, uncontrolled refugee flows, and the emergence of transnational ideologies that seek to disrupt the international order and domestic U.S. tranquility.
In this environment, adversaries will operate in places where we may not expect or prefer. They will often seek to base themselves in locations that are not strongly governed or claimed by states and will connect with one another across the global commons. They will operate in vast urban settings where dense population, built-up terrain, and transportation and communications networks intersect, and they will make it difficult to discriminate between civilian and military personnel and assets. They will place some assets in places with legal frameworks that hinder the ability of the joint force to operate and engage, including within the United States itself.
High intensity conflict in this environment will feature powerful state adversaries with the capacity to combine conventional, unconventional, and irregular warfare while bringing to bear the full panoply of national capabilities ranging from lawfare, cyber attacks, and considerable economic and diplomatic powers to achieve victory. High intensity conflict will feature militaries capable of complex combined arms operations, as well as lethal offensive threats. These conflicts will engage U.S. allies and disrupt the ability of the future joint force to move within operational reach of the adversary.
The United States has been conditioned to operate against threats that are content with waiting us out, hiding, and resisting long enough for us to lose interest. Future adversaries engaged in high intensity conflict might not content themselves with simple deterrence and survival, but rather may seek to compel the United States and its allies to surrender territory, resources, or other global positions of advantage. This high-end asymmetric threat could take the initiative, be far more active, and seek victory on its own terms rather than simply surviving.
Within this environment, unexpected coordination could exist among many potential adversaries, complicating the crisis response and decisionmaking capability of the U.S. military. Financial links among states, terrorists, and transnational and cyber criminals all create loose networks of common interest that encourage lawless or undergoverned areas from which global terrorist threats emanate. Adversaries share military technology and capabilities and have access to an “arsenal of autocracy,” including cheap and effective military capabilities developed by Russian, Chinese, and North Korean arms manufacturers. Perhaps more important, adversaries share with one another their understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of U.S. military power and may coordinate activities globally to complicate the global response activities of the joint force. Taken together, connections mean that threats will frequently transcend tidy categories, cutting across land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace, while being distributed across military domains and/or reaching across broader geographic range and scope.
When viewed through this lens, the insufficiency of trends analysis becomes clear. The unexpected nature of these intersecting threats, challenges, and opportunities allows our adversaries to hit and exploit the mental seams and gaps we have (bureaucratically) constructed for ourselves. We will never be able to precisely define each potential combination of threats in advance. History should make us very humble about our ability to predict the future.
How should we synthesize trends and make sense of the potential array of novel combinations that could make up the future operating environment? I propose five contexts of future conflict and war as a starting point. Together, these closely linked future mission sets embody evolving forms of military competition and are implied by a connected and interrelated set of military challenges. In the future operating environment, the joint force must be prepared to apply or threaten the use of military force across each of these contexts successfully.
The contexts of future conflict and war—those groups of “like” missions—that future joint force development efforts should consider include:
Although the specific threats are uncertain, each of these represents a set of conditions and evolving adversary capabilities and approaches the future joint force can expect to face. The importance of each context varies depending on circumstances, but all will be present in future operations to a greater or lesser degree. These contexts are designed to assist in developing these expectations about where and how future war will be fought.
Contesting Ideological Conflict over Global Networks. National borders that are highly permeable to trade, human migration, information technologies, people, and money mean more avenues for ideas, images, and concepts to propagate. Simply put, the joint force will be tasked to engage adversaries working to build networks around sets of ideas—ideologies—that are forged and disseminated within cyberspace with the goal of the systemic disruption of states and their supporting systems. These adversaries seek to carve out their own autonomous zones—not only in specific territorial areas but also across the Internet.11
These networks, though reliant on the Internet, do live in the physical world and can be reached. Globally networked adversaries often engage in “state-like” behavior including governing territories, regulating trade, taxing, and conducting military operations within and across state boundaries, much as Hizballah does in Syria today. Some emergent protest networks have displaced (or nearly displaced) existing governments including in Egypt, Libya, and the failed “Green Revolution” in Iran. Others, such as al Qaeda, are busily constructing affiliations and structures and disseminating their myths to ready audiences.
Today we see strong hints as to the disruptive nature of networks opposed to hierarchies in economics and media, but this dynamic will be increasingly prevalent in military operations as well. For example, the worldwide availability of cell phones to billions around the world will have profound consequences for the joint force. Armed with cheap and widely available devices capable of photography, geolocation, and global connectivity, adversaries may affordably employ quite capable tracking, mapping, and command and control capabilities and use flash mob and crowdsourcing techniques to identify, locate, and swarm U.S. formations. Furthermore, the near-worldwide deployment of cell towers means that a single device carried and left can unmask U.S. forces.
Defending the Homeland and Providing Support to Civil Authorities. A nation’s first priority is self-protection. The U.S. homeland will be an important part of the future operating environment as the joint force must be prepared to defend its sovereign territory, population, and interests at and within its own borders as well as conducting humanitarian assistance and disaster response at home and abroad. Oceanic distances and international borders do not insulate the homeland from the global trend of increasingly permeable trade, travel, and money movement—illicit or otherwise. Free and open access to the Internet means adversaries can communicate directly with agents and sympathizers within the United States. Legal frameworks differ inside and outside the Nation, and between citizens and noncitizens. This means the defense of the homeland is fraught with complex legal and ethical issues.
In the past, Americans have assumed that being great distances from world problems would protect them. They have assumed that deterrence associated with fear of the consequences of actions would protect them as well. Traditional retaliation-based deterrence, however, may have limited use against nonstate transnational networks and hybrid or irregular forces. As the proliferation of weapons persists and technology increases the mobility of such weapons, the homeland may be constantly strained to deter attacks by nuclear weapons or biological attacks.
The joint force, especially in the context of ongoing wars abroad, tends to spend most of its intellectual and physical energy thinking about and preparing for the “away game.” What characterizes joint force engagement in homeland defense activities is the complexity of looking inward and navigating relationships, standing agreements, and connections among the many state, local, tribal, and Federal actors that will be key partners in response efforts. Narcocriminal organizations in the Western Hemisphere, for instance, are beginning to resemble an insurgency in its infancy, and the joint force’s prolific experience in counterinsurgency may be called on to more fully respond to mounting threats. Instability wrought by years of battles between these narcocriminal organizations and governments—most demonstrably in Mexico—may alter the relationship between homeland security and homeland defense mission sets.
Although the risk of direct assault on the homeland by traditionally organized, equipped, and commanded military forces operating at the direction of central national political authorities is very low, it has not disappeared. As a wider array of states develop longer-range and more powerful ballistic missiles, unpiloted aircraft, and submarine and naval capabilities, the potential for raids by these systems on targets within the homeland remains a consideration. Furthermore, state adversaries may encourage transnational networks to facilitate the entrance of money, goods, and even weapons into the United States and may build networks of agents able to attack and disrupt key military, economic, and industrial nodes within the Nation itself in times of crisis or war.
Ensuring Access to and Protection of the Global Commons. The United States will be increasingly challenged over its free use of the commons. The ability to dominate the seas, air, and space is central to our ability to assure our allies around the world. Furthermore, the global commons allow us to connect our economy to the wider global network of trade and finance on which our prosperity depends. The joint force will find itself in increasingly sharp competition with other state actors as adversaries develop their own advanced naval capabilities, long-range and stealthy aircraft, antisatellite weapons, and electronic warfare techniques.
Loss of access to and security of these commons increases the likelihood that adversaries will be able to reach into the United States itself and to isolate it from friends and allies. The great theorist of seapower, Alfred Thayer Mahan, noted that seapower is “chief among the merely material elements in the power and prosperity of nations.”12 In the future, cyberspace and outer space will increasingly claim similar importance and status as central elements of U.S. national power, wealth, and security, requiring the joint force and the Nation to protect and assure access to them.
Nearly uncontested freedom to operate on the seas, in the air, in orbit, and in the emerging domain of cyberspace meant that the United States historically exercised a high level of strategic freedom of maneuver as it focused on the prosecution of land and air wars on other continents. U.S. access to and use of these commons for political, economic, and military purposes has been unchallenged until recently. Paraphrasing another great naval theorist, Julian Corbett, protection of and military access through the commons make the application of decisive power possible.
The large number of entry points, ability to hide and remain anonymous, and massive and decentralized nature of cyberspace mean that “code will always get through” today and for the foreseeable future.13 Dependence on a broad and growing range of governments, commercial and military capabilities on the Internet, and vulnerability of these systems to foreign exploitation mean that cyberspace may present a new “assailable flank” through which adversaries could attack the Nation.
Like terra incognita, nations are defining where the cyber commons end and sovereign cyber-territories begin. This portends conflict at the frontiers, with nation-states asserting greater control, and digital natives (such as denizens of social networks, or members of groups such as the loosely associated international network of activists and hacktivists known as Anonymous) being co-opted by states, corralled into reservations, disaggregated, disrupted, or destroyed altogether. Within this context of future conflict and war, the joint force must increasingly understand that this dominance of access and use of the commons by joint force commanders cannot be assumed and, indeed, will be challenged in a growing number of ways.
Protecting Forward Bases and Partners or Controling Key Terrain. Historic U.S. domination of land, sea, and air through use of military, economic, and political power has guaranteed access to key terrain close to strategic objectives around the globe. In recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the enemy made few efforts to deny U.S. forces entry into the theater. Future opponents may not prove so accommodating. The Nation has maintained a robust military presence overseas at many major bases, but the future joint force will reside within the continental United States, with expensive forward infrastructure replaced by a global network of smaller forward bases in remote, dangerous corners of the world.
Adversaries could increasingly seek capabilities and associated strategies focused on disrupting the closure and effective aggregation of needed joint force capabilities within a given theater of operations. This context of future conflict is focused on denying the adversary the capacity to shrink or complicate the areas of the world in which the joint force can efficiently move—a capacity central for a geographically remote global power such as the United States.
Remaining footholds and access points for the force will be more lucrative targets for adversaries. Attacks, especially in an environment where the relative scarcity of capital U.S. warfighting assets has a quality all its own, would have a greater effect on operations and could make host nations even less apt to grant access, resulting in challenging military operations and making the protection of crucial terrain such as the Strait of Hormuz or bases in South Korea increasingly difficult.
As the availability of less expensive advanced weapons increases and improves adversary antiaccess capabilities, the United States may have more difficulty carrying out its expeditionary strategy of protecting key terrain. Finally, there are fewer and fewer sanctuaries from which the joint force can operate and that can be effectively shielded from attack or disruption by a determined adversary. For example, the future operating environment will feature adversaries working to conduct attacks within the United States, focusing on the disruption of strategic deployment assets and methods including military installations, lines of communication, and sea and aerial ports of embarkation.
Understanding the defense of foreign bases, key terrain, and partners abroad is not easy on its own, and it is complicated by the notion that terrain is increasingly inclusive of important “positions” and “locations” that would historically have defied such categorization. In spite of the death of distance, commonly understood as an implication of the information age, the Internet’s infrastructure—its servers and fiber-optic cables and the people who generate online content—must be located somewhere. In cyberspace, the topology of the network and location of network resources can be important terrain features. Understanding the nature and location of “chokepoints” on this terrain and how they might be controlled or protected will be an important consideration for the future joint force. Strategic terrain for transnational terrorist organizations may be the ungoverned spaces they use as sanctuary as well as the consent or at least acquiescence of the population and society within which they operate.
Stabilizing or Isolating Failed and Failing States and Undergoverned Spaces. Demographic change, uneven economic development, and clashing ideological worldviews could challenge many states and perhaps render them increasingly unable to exercise legitimate governance and maintain a monopoly on the use of violence within their borders. Many states may be unable to keep up with legitimate governance, resulting in ungoverned havens for transnational criminals and violent groups. Although we often equate state failure with small and poor countries, the historical record provides many examples of large states and even great powers failing or retreating, often with disastrous implications for the wider international arena. In many cases, the actual failure of a state or the governance of a particular area is viewed in history as a catalyst for something much larger.
Hizballah provides a prototypical example of a hybrid adversary embedded (and perhaps even outgrowing) its host state. Combining state-like warfighting capabilities with a “substate” political and social structure, its ability to compete strategically with the formidable state of Israel could increasingly be emulated by other groups around the world. Urban environments are an important subset of this context as well. Major urban environments are central to the global network of industry, trade, travel, migration, communications, finance, and infrastructure that underpins the world order. Moreover, these environments are growing at an explosive pace, both geographically and in terms of the fraction of humanity that lives there. Powerful national and regional political institutions are based in cities, and densely linked tribal, ethnic, social, and cultural identities are often forged in and exported from major urban environments. As always, the locus of power for many nations resides in the capital city as well.
Perhaps the most dangerous and consequential issue facing the future joint force goes far beyond providing or supporting governance for places without it. Failing states and undergoverned spaces are not only difficult for people within their borders, but they also threaten to catalyze more dangerous disruptions regionally and globally. The Syrian crisis is an example of a failing state with disastrous humanitarian consequences of the first order. More troubling, however, is its potential to draw each of its neighbors into the conflict to one degree or another, increasing the potential for conflict between and among them, and moving the Middle East into a difficult sectarian “Cold War” played out among states and proxies across the region. The future joint force will be tasked with mitigating, containing, or countering failed state challenges to discourage wider interstate war.
Dangerous international ripples that fan out across the state system from even a small failed state may cause significant longer-term consequences for U.S. security. For example, the ungoverned Somali coastland allowed an expansion in piracy that significantly disrupted trade passing through the area. The threat of denied access to part of the global commons was enough that China and other nations sought to secure this important trade route by improving and deploying their own naval capabilities. So while Somalia’s role as a front in al Qaeda’s operations against the United States is well established, what may be more enduring is Somalia’s role as a catalyst for China’s emergence as a global naval power for the first time since 1433. Thus, failing states and undergoverned spaces may not simply challenge our operations in counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, and other efforts—they may also challenge more fundamental concepts of the existing world order America supports.
For the joint force, connected challenges within these contexts of future conflict and war mean we must develop a broader systemic view of global conditions. They mean we must be mindful of the need to balance competing interests and maintain stability of the system as a whole or, alternatively, to be ready to adapt. Rapidly changing international conditions coupled with the successful and visible presence of the joint force around the world has punished adversary failure harshly. Together, these selective competitive pressures have encouraged adversaries and potential adversaries to evolve.
Contexts of future conflict and war can help us make sound decisions about the future force. The five specific contexts presented here are a starting point, and others may be added or subtracted as the strategic environment changes or new trend combinations emerge. However, these contexts may assist us in conducting a more fundamental discussion of future missions and the resulting capability sets the environment will require of the joint force.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff noted that forces must be versatile, responsive, and decisive while remaining affordable to the Nation.14 Contexts of future conflict and war help bring together disparate trends, clarify likely emerging military challenges, and encourage new combinations of capabilities that our current trends-based approaches and mindsets may overlook or discount. The essence of our innovative combinations of capabilities should serve to hold adversary sources of power and/or what they most deeply value at risk.
Our efforts to develop the future joint force must be based on a keen understanding of the character of conflict under changing international conditions and articulate how the exercise of military power relates to national security goals within fiscal and budgetary realities. The joint force will change one way or another. Using an approach based on contexts of future conflict and war, we can ensure that change is founded, guided, and executed by conscious design and by a keen appreciation for the military challenges we will likely face rather than by way of happenstance, the brute force of bureaucratic inertia, or wholesale reaction to outside events—or worse, more visionary adversary plans.JFQ