In its “Deep Futures” war game this year at the US Army War College, the Army looked three decades into the future, bringing together top US military officials, counterterrorism experts, and even New York City police to look at the greatest threats that the Pentagon is likely to be facing.
By the best reckoning of Army war-gamers, here are the top three threats facing the US military in 2025 and beyond:
By 2030, 60 percent of the world’s population is expected to live in urban areas. “Many megacities feature slums and endemic homelessness, uncontrolled expansion/urban sprawl, and lack of basic support structures,” warns the Army’s “Future Study Plan,” which was produced in conjunction with the war game.
These are notoriously difficult environments in which to maneuver for US troops. “Military operations in a megacity are complex, dangerous, and intense. Urban terrain is the great equalizer when facing determined combatants,” the war-gamers note.
This is in large part because “the megacity magnifies the power of the defender and diminishes the attacker’s advantages in firepower and mobility.”
As a result, the US military “will face the possibilities of larger entrapments,” it adds. “Therefore, the actual city fight remains a close fight – street by street, subsurface to skyscraper level, and often face-to-face.”
Megacities offer insurgents, criminal networks, and terrorist groups both safe haven and the ability to hide in plain sight.
“It’s not about pouring brigade after brigade into a megacity: They will just swallow it up,” says Col. Kevin Felix, chief of the Future Warfare Division at the Army Capabilities Integration Center. “It’s about thinking of new operational concepts.”
Competition for resources
Exacerbated by the growth of megacities, the competition for resources grows, even as road maintenance and garbage pickup services break down and sewage system backups proliferate.
For this reason, Army planners predict an “increasingly desperate situation with cholera and disease and so forth,” says Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center.
In the war game, it was a humanitarian disaster that brought the US Army to a fictional megacity in the first place. And it was that humanitarian disaster, too, that “sets the conditions for violence and communal conflict,” Lieutenant General McMaster says.
This in turn “allows illegal armed groups to be able to operate within that chaotic environment and attack each other,” he says.
The rise of these armed groups, with their ambitions of securing power, “will form a world of multiple spheres of influence that are likely to create new security and resource competitions,” the Army war game’s "Strategic Trends Analysis" notes. “Historically, these shifts in power have been extremely violent eras.”
Physical and cognitive 'augmentation'
Given the way in which the Pentagon is investing in technology now, “the Army risks [being overmatched] by 2025” in several key areas, the Army future war-gamers note.
One of these areas, they argue, is biological technology. “Humans could be outfitted with physical and cognitive augmentation,” the "Strategic Trends Analysis" says. “Bio and nanotech revolutions could extend life through nanobot-assisted bodies.”
But how might the Pentagon, with a budget that is many times as large as many other nations combined, risk being surpassed in these areas, as the Army future planners warn?
The answer, McMaster says, is that “we are looking at adversaries who may not use human science in an ethically constrained manner.” This means, he adds, preparing to go up against enemies who are “less constrained by the application of human sciences.”
In response, “The Army must maximize its number one capital investment – the Soldier – by increasing cognitive and physical abilities to assimilate complex situations.”
This comes back to the importance of the “human dimension,” McMaster says. “How do we prepare to operate – and create adaptive soldiers, who must operate in ambiguity?”