Pentagon's top three threats in the 'deep future'

What sorts of threats will the US military face in the “deep future"?

That was the topic of a panel at the Association of the US Army (AUSA) conference this week, the heavily attended annual trade show that draws top Pentagon officials and defense contractors.

It's a tricky proposition for the Pentagon, since making the wrong predictions means squandering scarce funds in a time of intense budget pressure. The Pentagon was forced to cancel the Future Combat System in 2009, for example, when the military tried to predict where the future was headed "more than a few years out," said Gen. Robert Cone, head of the US training and doctrine command. As a result, he told the panel, "We're a little gun-shy."

Still, in a standing-room-only session, the discussion endeavored to come up with the most likely risks to the stability of the world – and most likely to challenge the US military – in 2030 and beyond. Here are their top three picks.

1.The growth of cities – and of slums

Police officers patrol the Lins slum complex during an operation to install a Pacifying Police Unit in Rio de Janeiro on Oct. 6. The action is part of a policing program aiming to drive violent and heavily armed drug gangs out of Rio's slums, where the traffickers have ruled for decades. (Silvia Izquierdo/AP)

By 2040, an estimated 65 percent of the world’s population will be in cities. That’s 6 billion people. While overall poverty will decline, an estimated one-third of those people – or 2 billion – will be living in a “slumlike situation,” says Kathleen Hicks, who was until August the Pentagon’s principal deputy undersecretary of Defense for policy.

This in turn will result in a “very high potential for lack of governance.”

With cities growing quickly, “You just don’t have the governance structures to keep up with that,” she adds, noting that services like sanitation and local trash collection could fall by the wayside and create grievances.

Such a “hyper-pressurized, compact environment” could fuel criminal organizations, much like the narco-gangs of Central America.

It could also create alternative means of governance, such as Hamas-like organizations, to meet the daily needs of the people.

A 'significant and lengthy' period of Sunni-Shiite violence in the Middle East

Egyptians run from tear gas after clashes erupted between Al-Azhar students and police forces during a protest in the Nasr City district of Cairo on Oct. 20. The protests were the second in two days at Al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam’s most prominent center of learning. (Heba el-Kholy/El Shorouk Newspaper/AP)

The big question in the years after 2020 is what the Arab world will resemble “after a good 20 years of shakeout,” Dr. Hicks says.

In the next decade, the Arab Awakening “will have effects in every part of that region.”

Iraq continues to experience violence, and demonstrations are rampant in Bahrain. It remains to be seen how longstanding regimes like the Saudi royals will weather the violence going on around them, and how they will adapt to the demands of the populace, she adds.

“I think you’ll see the beginnings of what will hopefully not be an incredibly violent – but it will be a tumultuous –10 years.”

Many of these countries, including Egypt, will be “shaking out what it means to be a democracy,” Hicks says.

The end result will be “a reshuffled, new Middle East,” she predicts.

For the US military, that will mean developing language skills and cultural expertise.

It may also mean trying to interest Gulf nations in growing their maritime capabilities, Hicks says – not  traditionally a strength among countries of the region.

The revolution in personal communications, combined with cheap drones and robotics

This May 29 image, sent by an anonymous citizen to the Shaam News Network, appears to show a Free Syrian Army fighter firing a rocket-propelled grenade at a regime stronghold in Aleppo, Syria. The Pentagon worries that such amateur videographers could give an enemy an edge in combat. (Anonymous/Shaam News Network via AP video/AP/File)

There is an “incredible ability for people to network themselves,” enabled by an information revolution that “is so rapid that I think it’s even more frightening than we realize,” Hicks says.

The use of Twitter in the Middle East, for example, has illustrated “how powerful – often for the good – the technology is,” she adds. “What we don’t really know exactly yet is how it could be leveraged in ways that challenge us.”

Hicks recalls that she and her colleagues used to pass one another news stories about the different uses of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), from a proprietor delivering burritos to a man in San Francisco proposing to his fiancée.

While the uses were innocent, it got them thinking about the militarization of technology.

It’s possible to imagine urban environments where US troops are sent into battle against adversaries able to tweet the location of US soldiers they see, or use unmanned systems to broadcast movements. Another scenario: loading small, cheap drones with munitions to use against the troops.

“We’ve spent a tremendous amount of money developing [UAV] technology, and we’ve done it in a way to make sure it’s secure and that it can’t be easily corrupted,” Hicks says. But that could "put our forces at risk in a way we have assumed they wouldn’t be.”