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Alternate futures: Imagining the army of 2040

by Chris Thatcher from the April/May 2011 issue published on May 1, 2011

The year 2040 may seem a long way off, but for a military that buys its equipment with expectations of at least a 30-year shelf life, 2040 is just over the horizon. Decisions made in the next decade will affect Canadian Forces capability over the next 30 years.

As author Nassim Nicholas Taleb has observed, world-changing events are mostly unpredictable – what he calls black swans – and beyond the calculations of any analyst. So it might seem strange to find a small unit nestled within the army’s Land Staff contemplating the world of 2040 and what it might mean for army decision makers today.

Unlike weather forecasters, the team never mentions the word “prediction”; rather, they have built upon the accepted rigour of strategic foresight methodologies to push army thinking beyond its current force employment concept of adaptive dispersed operations, a concept tied to the 2021 timeframe.

“We’re providing a foundation for common understanding and getting people to think about the future because the pace of technology is changing so quickly,” says LCol Michael Rostek, who leads a team of military and civilian scientists within the Directorate of Land Concepts and Designs.

Though the team has a great deal of experience developing future security environment analyses, their report, Army 2040: First Look, goes beyond environmental scanning and future shocks to offer plausible alternate futures and provide an understanding of second and third order effects – and how those might inform decisions made today.

Alternate futures are not an end in themselves, the team stresses, but part of a cyclical process that provides some rigour to understanding the uncertainties of such critical issues as energy, the environment, the economy, law and science and technology. In fact, from companies such as Shell to the NATO’s Multiple Futures project, strategic foresight and futuring has found traction across multiple sectors.

The team developed a 10-step process that begins with identifying the focal issue and timeframe, conducting an environmental scan, identifying uncertainties and their polarities, assessing the possible impact of those uncertainties, developing alternate future scenarios and, ultimately, testing them. Once the analysis and implications are understood and communicated to senior leadership, along with possible options, the process begins anew.

Though simple in its design, it can be exhausting to execute. “[With] this type of work, you have got to pace it,” acknowledged Peter Gizewski, a defence scientist with Defence Research and Development Canada. “If you don’t, it can all become intellectual spaghetti.”

To challenge all assumptions about the future, they employed the concept of red teaming. It led to some heated discussions but ultimately strengthened the results. “We had some simple rules: no sacred cows – everything is challengeable – and no parochialism,” Rostek said.

The exercise left the team with 12 indicators or uncertainties – critical issues that could affect the army in 30 years such as demographics, technology growth, expansion of operating environments, resource security and weapons proliferation – that were then subjected to an impact and uncertainty analysis. Ultimately, environment and energy were the two with the highest degree of impact and uncertainty.

“We’ve since confirmed that we are on the right track with a number of high level academic research pieces that reinforce what we are saying,” Rostek said, though he acknowledged neither were “intuitive to army concept developers.”

After establishing the polarities for each, the team conducted a matrix exercise that incorporated the uncertainties, resulting in four future scenarios. On the one extreme is a global quagmire featuring a reactive approach to the environment and unsustainable energy supplies marked by increased global competition for scarce energy resources in which the Arctic is a critical region of contention; on the other is a high octane green world characterized by a proactive approach to the environment and sustainable energy where Canada is a world leader in developing alternative energy sources. The other two quadrants represent a mix of the two extremes.

Their results will next be assessed and tested, beginning with a seminar war game this fall in which Rostek hopes to draw out future capabilities in each alternative future and examine the gap between Adaptive Dispersed Operations 2021 and 2040. “In the big scheme of things, a new force employment concept for the army is the end state. It will incorporate the 2040 research and we hope to deliver that concept around 2015,” he said.

Though the thinking is long term, the 2040 premise cuts across numerous areas of research that affect current practice and consequently have been extracted for specific concept development. Among the notables are the recently approved Land Force Arctic Concept developed by Major John Sheahan and an army framework for unmanned systems/robotics, being developed by Major Jim Gash.

The emerging environments of space and cyber space are also high on the radar – DCLD is represented on the CF cyber task force – as is the evolving concept of a comprehensive approach to operations, which the team believes will be “a game changer in the next 10 years.”

At the heart of its work, however, is the broader question of the human dimension. “When we talk about capability development, we recognize that there are human dimension challenges that we must address alongside the more seductive technological (equipment) advancements. So underlying 2040 is the idea to raise the profile of the human dimension and make sure it does not get lost in the technological or equipment aspects,” said Rostek, who is currently working on a paper on human effects in the future security environment.

In fact, both the comprehensive approach and the human dimension play a prominent role in a soon to be published science fiction novella, Crisis in Urlia which is intended to stimulate thinking about 2040 and beyond. Urlia’s plot is built on the idea that governments may prosecute future security events quite differently incorporating things like rights to network access, nano-science and virtual reality.

In addition to circulation in military circles, Army 2040 and the futuring exercise has caught the attention of the Conference Board of Canada, the Policy Research Initiative and other countries, and has been shared with the likes of Oxford University, Yale University and the Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences.

That growing interest and success has Rostek concerned about the future of strategic foresight. Small dedicated teams that investigate second and third order effects of trends beyond the horizon are a valuable tool that can inform the force development process. While there are indeed sceptics concerning such research, in times of diminishing budgets and uncertainty, this form of creative thinking and foresight would seem to be paramount.

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