Peering into the Crystal Ball: Holistically Assessing the Future of Warfare
(Source: Rand Corporation; issued May 27, 2020)
Where will the next war occur? Who will fight in it? Why will it occur? How will it be fought? This brief summarizes a series of reports that sought to answer these questions—looking out from now until 2030. The reports took the approach of examining these questions through the lenses of several trends—geopolitical, economic, environmental, legal, informational, and military—that will shape the contours of conflict.

Military history is littered with mistaken predictions about the future of warfare that have left forecasters militarily unprepared—sometimes disastrously so—for the conflicts ahead. The United States has suffered its own share of bad predictions.

Why do predictions about the future of warfare usually fall flat? More often than not, poor predictions stem from failing to think holistically about the factors that drive changes in the environment and the implications of those factors for warfare. Such considerations go well beyond understanding the operational implications of technology and include geopolitical, environmental, and economic changes. Furthermore, such factors as international laws, public opinion, and media coverage can constrain how states use force and, thus, how wars are fought.

Although successfully predicting the future of warfare is notoriously difficult, the U.S. military, for better or worse, is deeply invested in the forecasting business. All the armed services want to understand what the future of conflict holds for them because, given how long it takes to develop capabilities, they must gamble today on what kinds of technology and people they will need to win tomorrow's wars.

This brief summarizes a comprehensive examination of the factors that shape conflict and how these variables interact with one another. It starts by identifying the key three dozen or so geopolitical; military; space, nuclear, and cyber; restraint; economic; and environmental trends that will shape the future of warfare from now until 2030. This brief then aggregates these trends to paint a holistic picture of the future of warfare—the potential U.S. allies and enemies, where conflicts will occur, what they might look like, how the United States will wage them, and when and why the United States might go to war in the first place. The brief concludes by describing the implications of this work for the U.S. Air Force (USAF) and the joint force.

In determining trends, RAND researchers reviewed scholarly work, analyzed different data sets and topics of interest, conducted extensive field research, and relied on professional judgment. All told, the RAND team interviewed more than 120 different government, military, academic, and policy experts from more than 50 different institutions in Belgium, China, Germany, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Poland, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom (UK) for their perspectives on regional and global trends that might shape the future of conflict between now and 2030.


Click here for the full report (20 PDF pages), on the Rand Corp. website.

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