Helping the Army to get a better sight picture on the future are some of the world’s greatest minds, from the academic and scientific communities, as well as the Army and Defense Department. Many of them met here at the Bolger Center for a week of participation in Unified Quest break-out study groups on future trends.
And, incidentally, science fiction writers, many of whom have advanced degrees in science and whose future visions are sometimes on target, were part of the collaboration process of Unified Quest.
The Army’s senior leaders think it is important for planning purposes to know where the service will be in 2030 and beyond, dates it terms the “deep future.”
The reason deep future is important is because plans often take decades to materialize into reality. First there are discussions and concepts leading to models and simulations; then to live experimentation, aka field exercises, to “battle-test” those plans with real Soldiers; and, finally to put it in doctrine, from which real-world decisions are made in manning, materiel, tactics and strategy. The process is dynamic, meaning these plans and concepts are continually revised based on new technologies and the ever-changing world.
Leading the future planning effort is the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, or TRADOC, the organization which heads the Campaign of Learning, of which Unified Quest 2013, the deep future study portion, is part.
To promote the candor necessary for open and meaningful dialog, names of the panelists and the some 100 participants could not be used for attribution, except during the media roundtable which followed, with Maj. Gen. Bill C. Hix, TRADOC’s director of the Concepts Development and Learning Directorate; and Col. Kevin M. Felix, TRADOC’s chief of the Future Warfare Division.
Hix emphasized that deep future thinking “is not about teleporting or trying to predict the future. Rather, it is about understanding trends and plausible scenarios so leaders today are better informed in their decision making and are not caught off guard by surprises.”
Hyper-empowered individuals are terrorists and criminals who are empowered by modern technologies, which they would be willing to use to cause harm and even threaten national security.
These non-state actors are expected to proliferate. As they do, nation states are expected to form regional alliances and to grow more agile in responding to these threats, as well as to build a level of political and psychological resilience. Terrorist groups will continue to use social media as a tool to network and spread.
Nation-states may become less relevant than they are now as people with common ideologies or grievances such as the haves and have-nots connect via social media. The Arab Spring was an example of how quickly word, followed by actions, can spread.
The Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region will still be important in 2030 and beyond, with China and India growing as strong, regional military powers.
“The global economy will likely still depends on Middle East oil and because of our interconnection with the global economy, that region will still be in our strategic interest, even though it will be unlikely that we get our oil from there,” Hix said.
Henry Hudson’s 17th-century dream of finding the Northwest Passage may become a reality as global warming accelerates the melting of the Polar icecap. This will open the sea lanes for navigation and exploitation of natural resources. Russia in particular is expected to benefit from these climate changes.
As many nations continue to age, third-world countries like those in Africa will have a “youth-bulge,” which could lead to displaced persons and civil unrest as poverty there increases, along with a climate less favorable for agriculture.
Water will become an increasingly strategic asset, as nations in the Middle East and South Asia build dams upstream, denying water to those downstream. Also, desalination plants could become targets for terrorists, as their importance becomes increasingly important.
As these scenarios play out, “we have to ask ourselves if it is in our vital interest to intervene,” Felix cautioned.
Overall, economies of the world will likely grow, resulting in a brain drain, as many scientists in the U.S. return to their native countries.
“We need to work harder at attracting the best minds into the fields of science and technology rather than letting them to disperse around the globe,” Hix suggested.
He said the possibility of an improved world economy “is not a problem for us as more boats are lifted by the rising tide of prosperity.”
Hix added that economic competition is good for everyone, but that America must maintain its military edge so that prosperity and freedom will continue.
The Army needs to put better corporate human factors into its design of future technology as funding for training and materiel tightens.
Human factors include such things as user-testing and matching the best functions of machines with human physiological and psychological capabilities. Humans have certain advantages over machines like creativity and judgment. Repetitive and monotonous tasks are best done by machines so manpower is not wasted, experts said.
Machines will continue to increase their advantage at processing information at a phenomenal rate of speed and robots will continue to proliferate on the future battlefield, putting Soldiers out of harm’s way, some experts said. This could mean Army recruits will be valued even more so for their technological abilities as they are for their physical prowess.
Biomechanics, nanotechnology and medicine will make it likely that super powerful and intelligent Soldiers could be developed. Discussions in society regarding the ethics and possible restrictions of this science need to take place, some warned as they raised an important question: If others have access to these advancements, will they be as concerned about the ethics?
The Army will need new partners, not just with the other services and treaty allies. These partners could include multinational and transnational business leaders. The partnership will be increasingly important as manufacturing becomes more global and decentralized and as machines become more intelligent.
Hix discussed the symbiotic relation the Army could have with industry, helping them with the development cost, and in turn, acquiring those products at lower cost due to the economies of scale that the Army brings with its large size.
Industry is already leading the way in new technologies that could conceivably be adapted for use by the Army. For instance, Google has already figured out how to make a self-driving car and manufacturers are producing 3-D printers. The convergence of those capabilities and trends could lead to a leaner sustainment footprint, eliminate a Soldier’s need to operate in convoys, and enable a more expeditionary Army, Felix said.
“It is likely we will have increased robotics capabilities to enhance Soldiers and operations, but technology and economic constraints may limit the full realization of the convergence of robots with artificial intelligence by 2030, Felix continued.
Hix concluded that “this is just the first step in looking at the future. But it’s an important step. We need to have some idea what’s over the horizon.”