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Strategic Horizons: The Military Implications of Alternative Futures

Authored by Dr. Steven Metz. | March 1997

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It is important to analyze long-term changes in the global security environment in order to begin preparation for the post-Force XXI U.S. Army. Existing currents of change suggest a number of feasible yet very different future security environments as defined by the primary source and form of violence conflict. Each would require a different type of U.S. Army.

Part I: Currents of Change.

The most important overarching currents of change which will shape the future security environment include:

  • Interconnectedness" which is the increasing electronic and physical linking of individuals, groups, commercial entities, and organizations of all sorts;
  • The compression of time; and,
  • "Demassification" which is the replacement of very large commercial and political entities with smaller, more flexible ones.

In the realm of technology, the information revolution will continue and blend with ongoing changes in engineering to allow a range of "brilliant" machines and various types of nanotechnology. Eventually the information revolution will meld with a nascent biological revolution growing from genetic engineering.

For the future security environment, the most important economic currents of change are:

  • The continued transnationalization of corporations and markets;
  • The emergence and consolidation of post-industrial, knowledge-based economies;
  • The geographic shift of industry;
  • The transformation of corporations from hierarchies to networks; and,
  • The outright collapse of formal economies in parts of the world.

Important political currents of change include:

  • The devolution of power from sovereign nation-states;
  • Changes in the nature of security; and,
  • A decline in the legitimacy of states.
  • The most salient social and demographic currents of change are:

    • Continued population growth and urbanization;
    • Continue escalation of crime; and,
    • The emergence of economically superfluous segments of state populations.

    The ethical and psychological currents shaping the future security environment include:

    • An intensified search for new frameworks of personal identity; and,
    • Increased resistance to rapid and radical change.
    • The most important military currents of change are:

    • Increased heterogeneity among global armed forces; and,

    • A redefinition of civil-military relations.

    Part II: Alternative Futures.

    There are five forms that the security environment of the year 2030 and beyond might take. Each would require a radically different U.S. military.

    A state-based, balance-of-power system is one in which sovereign nation-states seek their national interests, sometimes using traditional forms of military force. State-on-state war remains the most significant form of armed conflict. In such a system, shifting coalitions maintain the balance and serve as counterweights to powerful states. As the most powerful state, the United States is likely to see coalitions designed to constrain it. For the U.S. military, warfighting would remain the primary mission. Both unilateral and coalition capabilities would be necessary. The United States could face a peer competitor, but this would more likely be a coalition rather than a single state. Many other opponents would use asymmetric counters to American military strength.

    A trisected global security system is the most likely one. In this, the world would be divided into three tiers. The First Tier would be composed of advanced, stable regions and stateswith information-based economies. There would be significant political, economic, cultural, and military integration within the First Tier. First Tier states would not wage traditional war against each other. The Second Tier would consist of a range of diverse and autonomous nation-states, most with industrial-based economies. These states would retain traditional military forces, and would occasionally wage war on each other. Most Second Tier states would acquire weapons of mass destruction. The Third Tier would be characterized by endemic violence, ungovernability, and a range of ecological problems. Armed forces would take the form of militias, warlord armies, and terrorist gangs. Third Tier states would not have the capability to wage sustained, large-scale warfare. The U.S. military would need very different capabilities in each tier, so the grand strategy framed by American policymakers would determine the shape of the armed forces. While the U.S. military would use traditional force against Second and Third Tier enemies, it would seldom if ever wage sustained campaigns.

    An ideology-based system is one in which conflict arises from the reemergence of transnational ideologies and mass belief systems. Most conflict would occur along the fault lines between ideological blocs, and the use of force would be only partially contained by normative restraints. This means that wars can easily escalate, even to the point of full-scale world war between hostile ideological blocs. The U.S. military would be larger and more robust in an ideology-based system than in the other feasible alternatives. Power projection and support to allies would remain key components.

    In a security system characterized by internal collapse, internal violence rather than state-on-state war poses the greatest problems. Many weak states will fragment or collapse, and even strong, developed states will face internal violence, often provoking draconian responses. The U.S. military will not be configured for conventional warfighting, but will focus on the sorts of functions handled today by Special Forces, such as raids and support to allies.

    Finally, a system dominated by economic warfare would see the intense, sometimes violent struggle for resources and markets cause armed conflict. Transnational entities would develop their own security interests separate from states. Intelligence gathering and security would undergo privatization, with powerful transnational security firms performing functions that state militaries cannot or will not. In the use of force, though, there would be pressure to minimize collateral damage and civilian casualties. In such a system, the U.S. military would need only a very limited capacity for traditional warfighting and would, instead, focus on information warfare. Nonlethal weapons of all kinds would be particularly significant.


    As a new millennium approaches, the world is poised at the confluence of two great forces. One is the revolutionary transformation of the global security environment as the Cold War system transmutates into something else. The second is a compression of time, a quickening of the pace of change so extreme that it, too, must be considered revolutionary. Of all the effects these two forces will have, one is particularly relevant for political leaders, national security professionals, and military planners: strategy, with its drive to synchronize diverse efforts and shape the long-term future, will be more significant than ever before in human history.

    Yet, however important it is for those shaping national security to peer into the future, this is never easy. Futurism is a complex endeavor demanding creativity, imagination, and a willingness to take intellectual risks. At the same time, it is vital. Because changing or adapting a military takes so long and because the price of failing to do so in the right way and at the right time is so high, security professionals and military planners absolutely must grapple with the long-term future. To do so demands a rigorous methodology built on heuristic devices. One useful approach, pioneered by Charles W. Taylor and others, stresses trends. The futurist selects relevant strategic trends, projects the consequences, outcomes, interactions, and probabilities of these trends and derives plausible alternatives from them.1 During this process, the strategic futurist must remain sensitive to subtle, indirect, and often unexpected relationships both outside and inside the realm of national security. This methodology can be used to generate an array of alternative future security systems, each distinguished primarily by the source and form of armed conflict.2

    For the U.S. Army, such analysis is well worth the effort. Since a land force configured to deal with one sort of future security system might be ineffective in another, construction of the Army that will take shape after Force XXI is fielded depends heavily on futurism. By exploring the implications of alternative future security environments now, the Army can offer the best possible advice to civilian decisionmakers plotting the nation's future, provide usable estimates of the military force structures and risks associated with a variety of alternative future security systems, and lay the foundation for rapid institutional adaptation as the contours of the future security system become clearer. Even though the precise form of the future security environment cannot be predicted with certainty, feasiblealternatives and guideposts can and should be developed now. This study is intended to lay a foundation for such thinking.


    All of the future systems described here are models or heuristic devices intended to aid analysis and long-term planning. The actual future security system will undoubtedly include all types of conflict, and thus be a blend of systems. This does not mean that all forms of conflict will be of equal importance. American political leaders and national security strategists must thus reach a consensus on the priority or importance of the plausible forms of future conflict. Only when this is done can the military effectively build a program for long-term force development.

    One significant fact emerges from any assessment of alternative future security systems: traditional, interstate warfighting is not an eternal function, but is system specific. It is conceivable that the global security system in place by 2030 will not be one where interstate war is a significant form of conflict. This would require an absolutely funda- mental reorientation of the U.S. military. Of course, it is impossible to predict exactly what direction such a reorientation will take. Given that, there are three things that the U.S. military can and should do now to prepare for whatever future comes to pass. First, it should continue to explore information warfare, casualty-minimizing techniques, and the impact that proliferation of weapons of mass destruction will have on military operations. These things will be significant in any future security environment. Second, the U.S. military should continue to reexamine fundamental concepts and stress flexibility of organizational structure and doctrine. Third, the U.S. military must continue to pursue futurism. Currently, several studies of the long-term future have been done, each using a different methodology. These include the Air Force's Alternative Futures for 2025, and the Project 2025 of the National Defense University.60 In any form of innovative thinking, the first step is to generate new methodologies, approaches and ideas, and then to reconcile them. Military futurism is in the first stage but should soon move toward consensus (while always allowing room for creative dissent). In any case, by pursuing these three intellectual endeavors, the military can generate the conceptual raw material to make necessary changes once the future security system finally crystallizes.


    1. Charles W. Taylor, A World 2010: A New Order of Nations, Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute, 1992, pp. 3-4.

    2. This methodology based on trends and forms of conflict is not the only one which can generate useful analysis for the American military. A very important study by the U.S. Air Force, for instance, identifies three "drivers" of the future: the American world view, "??e?" which is the ability to employ technology, and the "world power grid" which "describes the general, transmission, distribution, and control of political, military, economic, or informational power." See Joseph A. Engelbrecht, et. al., Alternative Futures for 2025: Security Planning to Avoid Surprise, a research paper presented to Air Force 2025, April 1996, pp. 10-11.

    60. Engelbrecht, et al., Alternative Futures for 2025; Alvin H. Bernstein, et al., Project 2025, Washington, DC: National Defense University, Institute for National Strategic Studies, 1991.