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The Conflict Environment of 2016: A Scenario-Based Approach

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I. Introduction: Crafting Tomorrow’s Military

Needed: A Very Different U.S. Military

What kind of military will the United States require in 2016? Given the uncertainties involved, it is impossible to say with a high degree of confidence. However, it will not be a close descendant of its Desert Storm military. Military-related  technologies are progressing and diffusing too rapidly to assume that the future competitive environment will merely be a linear extrapolation of the recent past. Potential competitors have the incentive and will increasingly also have the means to present the United States with very different and more formidable challenges in 2016 than did Iraqi forces a quarter of a century earlier.

Despite the great uncertainties involved, the United States cannot wait 20 years to begin thinking about the U.S. military of 2016. That military is already being shaped by decisions being made today. It is possible, however, to narrow the range of uncertainty, craft a vision of the military’s future operating environments, and build in “hedges,” or “strategic options,” that will facilitate comparatively rapid course adjustments should the U.S. military find itself moving into a substantially different competitive environment than the one currently envisioned.

Exploring a representative range of future conflict scenarios can assist in this process by providing informed challenges to the “conventional wisdom.” This process also can help the Defense Department to derive its “core competencies” and make appropriate investment decisions.

Predicting is Difficult, Especially About the Future

All military organizations, implicitly or explicitly, for better or worse, have a vision of the conflict environment in which their forces will have to operate. In the absence of a conscious attempt to develop a vision, the “default” vision seems to assume that the future conflict environment will be a linear extrapolation of the present circumstances. Change is seen as incremental, or evolutionary. Military systems are viewed as improving at the margins.

Consequently, military organizations tend to refine existing operational concepts, rather than substantially altering or even displacing them. In brief, military organizations often prepare to fight the next war as an “improved” version of the last war. This approach is not necessarily a bad one, although it seems particularly ill-suited for today’s U.S. military, which faces substantial, if not radical, changes in its geopolitical and military-technical operating environments from what existed only a few years ago.

Alternatively, the U.S. military might attempt to address the dramatic changes under way by developing a new, and very different vision of the future conflict environment. To be sure, the new vision can be no more than a “best guess.” Given this, and the enormous risks involved if the vision proves to be off the mark, it is important to hedge against uncertainty, and the possibility that the vision may prove incorrect.

Since the U.S. military must look 20 years or so into the future, there is a significant likelihood that it will have to adjust its vision as it progresses toward 2016. Periodic mid-course corrections will be needed, as the future comes into better focus. Time will eventually erode much (but not all) of the uncertainty concerning the 2016 competitive environment.

Realistically, the Pentagon’s goal should not be “predicting” the future, so much as to understand it better than its potential adversaries — to be “more right” or “less wrong” about the competitive environment than its enemies, and to be able to adapt to it more quickly.

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