Everything released by the Mad Scientist Laboratory of the US Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) comes camouflaged in the most cursed of aesthetic choices (with no offender greater than their annual science fiction writing contest). Nonetheless, the content tends towards the extremely provocative. Even if we treat their anticipations of the immediate-to-near future with measured skepticism, the insight into how these fairly under-the-radar groups—think-tanks, study centers, R&D institutions, military wonk outfits of all stripes—think is instructive, and not simply because it tells us about how they think our time. When considered in light of the tendency of game theoritic and decision theory-incubated scenarios to tend towards the status of self-fulfilling prophecy, it becomes of utmost importance.
The Operational Environment and the Changing Character of War is the Mad Scientist Laboratory’s recent product, the end result of an intensive, five year study carried out by numerous individuals across dozens of publications, conferences and debate on the nature of warfare between the years of 2035 and 2050. As it grounds the question of military imperative in the context of rapidly accelerating technological advancements, the document’s scope overlaps significantly with the interests of this blog (for other scribblings on the topic of war, see here, here, and here). Of particular note is that the model of the near-future that is assembled over the course of the report features the notions of the intensive threshold and the convergent wave—though it, of course, fails to make this recognition. What is given instead is a schematism of two eras: the Era of Accelerated Human Progress and the Era of Contested Equality. The first is well underway, having been kicked off in 2017 (though perhaps a more appropriate anchor would have been 2016?), and culminating in an Era of Transition—that is, passes through an intensive threshold—around 2035.
The era that follows this transition moment, that of ‘contested equality’, builds to a crescendo slated to occur around 2050. The timing puts it in proximity to various singularitarian hypotheses that find around this time the ground zero for the Great Change. This is surely by no mistake; while the report doesn’t opt to speculate on what happens beyond 2050, it does make passing reference to the singularity by taking note of not only the ‘optimistic’ perspective offered by the likes of Ray Kurzweil, but also the dangers posed “to the very existence of humanity” by an “unboxed general artificial superintelligence [that] improves and evolves at… an exponential rate”. A third option is also offered, which sees the capacity of unlimited human adaptation via bioengineering and technological neuro-upgrades to allow the human to “keep pace” with superintelligence.
On the side of the transcendental wall closer to us, things still appear as exceedingly strange. The transition moment of 2035 is defined by the convergence of a series of scientific breakthroughs and technological systems: biotechnology, neurological enhancements, nanotechnology, advanced material sciences, quantum computing, AI, ubiquitous robotics, and additive manufacturing. Prior to the transition, conflict will be characterized more and more by the increasing role of robotics, cyberwar, and space-based surveillance and conflict. The principles of C3D2 will reign in this world: Camouflage, Cover, Concealment, Denial and Deception. These games will be played out against the backdrop of intensified hyper-urbanism, as the total magnitudes of humanity living in cities climbs ever-higher. This growth is warped and altered by immense changes in productive relations. Additive manufacturing will shatter the geopolitical order instituted by modern-day supply chain networks and trade flows, and the massified industrial working class will find its future looking dim.
Robotics and autonomous systems will underpin the smooth functioning of advanced societies. Additive manufacturing, computer-aided design and millions of industrial robots will dislocate significant portions of the global supply chain. Virtually anyone in the world with access to a computer system and 3D printer will be able to “print” anything from drones to weapons. Encrypted blockchains will be massively disruptive to commerce functions. Together with robotics, autonomy, and AI they comprise a perfect storm for “blue collar” and “white collars” alike, causing vast economic displacement as formerly high-quality information technology and management jobs follow the previous path of agricultural and manufacturing labor. Militaries, paramilitaries, mercenary groups, criminal elements, and even extremists groups all will be able to take advantage of this potential pool of manpower.
In this run-up to 2035, this all spells trouble for the dominant hegemons—that is, the United States and Western Europe. The battlespace, in keeping with Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui’s anticipated future of unrestricted warfare, cuts across all lines and scales, with the control of information flows and presentation taking a particularly high precedence. Going past 2035, however, everything changes. Where conflict had still been dominated by superpowers (the fading US and Europe, rising Russia and China), now any sort of long-term tactical superiority and political hegemony is undermined by the rapid oscillation of events and actors, displacements and shocks.
Limitations of Military Force. While mid-Century militaries will have more capability than at any time in history, their ability to wage high-intensity conflict will become more limited. Force-on-force conflict will be so destructive, will be waged at the new speed of human and AI-enhanced interaction, and will occur at such extended long-ranges that exquisitely trained and equipped forces facing a peer or near-peer rival will rapidly suffer significant losses in manpower and equipment that will be difficult to replace. Robotics, unmanned vehicles, and man-machine teaming activities offer partial solutions, but warfare will still revolve around increasingly vulnerable human beings. Military forces may only be able to wage short duration campaigns before having to replace expensive equipment, and even more priceless personnel. Militaries under these conditions will need to balance exquisite, expensive capabilities against less-capable cheaper alternatives, and also carefully balance the ratio of human soldiers to robotic or unmanned systems. As the skills and experiences that humans need to learn or acquire to be effective on these battlefields take long-times to develop, but will be expended quickly on the destructive mid-Century battlefield, militaries will need to consider how advances in AI, bio-engineering, man-machine interface, neuro-implanted knowledge, and other areas of enhanced human performance and learning can quickly help reduce this long lead time in training and developing personnel.
The Primacy of Information. In the timeless struggle between offense and defense, information will become the most important and most useful tool at all levels of warfare. The ability of an actor to use information to target the enemy’s will, without necessarily having to address its means will increasingly be possible. In the past, nations have tried to target an enemy’s will through kinetic attacks on its means – the enemy military – or through the direct targeting of the will by attacking the national infrastructure or a national populace itself. Sophisticated, nuanced information operations, taking advantage of an ability to directly target an affected audience through cyber operations or other forms of influence operations, and reinforced by a credible capable armed force can bend an adversary’s will before battle is joined. This will allow a nation to demonstrate to an adversary, or more specifically, to the adversary’s political leadership or national populace, that the “value of the object” in Sir Julian Corbett’s words, is too high to risk national treasure or lives. The most effective campaigns are ones that wield all elements of national power to compel an adversary to take or to acquiesce to a specific action, and it will be much easier, cheaper, and effective to use information, backed by credible military force, to achieve these goals. It also means that nations will increasingly look to use military force as a means of setting conditions for success in the political, economic, or even information spheres.
Expansion of the Battle Area. Nations, non-state actors, and even individuals will be able to target military forces and civilian infrastructure at increasing – often over intercontinental – ranges using a host of conventional and unconventional means. A force deploying to a combat zone will be vulnerable from the individual soldier’s personal residence, to his or her installation, and during his or her entire deployment. Adversaries also will have the ability to target or hold at risk non-military infrastructure and even populations with increasingly sophisticated, nuanced and destructive capabilities, including weapons of mass destruction, hypersonic conventional weapons, and perhaps most critically, cyber weapons and information warfare. WMD will not be the only threat capable of directly targeting and even destroying a society, as cyber and information can directly target infrastructure, banking, food supplies, power, and general ways of life. Limited wars focusing on a limited area of operations waged between peers or near-peer adversaries will become more dangerous, as adversaries will have an unprecedented capability to broaden their attacks to their enemy’s homeland. The U.S. Homeland likely will not avoid the effects of warfare and will be vulnerable in at least eight areas…