Military trends and predictions: 2020

From great power competition to quantum computing, here are key trends that will shape US defence strategy

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Doug Livermore

Military trends in the near future

Doug Livermore is an Army National Guard Special Forces Soldier, Contracted Advisor in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and National Capital Region Ambassador for the Green Beret Foundation. 

Increased focus on great power competition 

The most prominent shift in US defence strategies in the last two decades is captured within the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS). The 2018 NDS directs a shift away from the counterterrorism focus of the “Global War on Terror” and back toward “great power competition”. Specifically, the new strategy focuses on China, Russia, and to a lesser extent, Iran and North Korea.

"The strategies of our adversaries will focus on methodologies and technologies with which most Americans are not closely familiar"

The prior focus on counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and operating in relatively permissible environments is being replaced by an emphasis on this state-on-state competition across the spectrum of conflict. In many of these cases, our adversaries rely on irregular warfare to overcome our inherent advantages: leveraging diplomatic outreach, propaganda messaging, economic coercion, and proxy militant forces to pursue their own interests at our expense.

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This is a recognition of our adversaries’ part of our clear conventional advantage. Whether it is the Chinese seeking political favour with African countries for access and resources, Russia bombarding social media to skew popular sentiment, the use of economic investment or sanctions to affect national policies, or Iran’s use of Houthi militants and Lebanese Hezbollah to indirectly attack its enemies, the national strategies of our adversaries will focus heavily on methodologies and technologies with which most Americans are not closely familiar. However, the US is hard at work revamping its own strategy to compete in this space and oppose these threats.

Modernisation of the armed forces

We will see a mix of new innovations and a return to more familiar trends in 2019 that largely align with the before-mentioned changes in our defence strategy. On the one hand, innovations in artificial intelligence will see a more rapid collection, analysis, and distribution of critical information down to the lowest levels to support our warfighters. Recent advances in quantum computing by our adversaries may threaten our comparative advantage in encryption/decryption of electronic information unless we increase investment and pair that capability with advanced artificial intelligence.

How will quantum computing and AI affect the military? Source: Shutterstock 

There is also a broad-ranging effort to modernize our conventional military forces across the spectrum of conflict, as much of the military technology we field today has its origin in the 1980s and 1990s. New nuclear weapons (both strategic and tactical) are a priority for the Trump Administration, while all the services are also pursuing new naval technology, land combat vehicles, and strategic strike aircraft.

"Advances in quantum computing by our adversaries may threaten our comparative advantage in encryption/decryption of electronic information"

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However, we are also seeing a “return to basics” from the last 18 years of the Global War on Terror, a conflict that saw a heavy reliance on SOF and a relegation of conventional forces to roles largely focused on holding terrain and conducting counterinsurgency. The recent strategic shift directed in the NDS will see a more appropriate reliance on conventional forces to deter adversaries and, when necessary, fight and win major theatre wars.

SOF will continue to play critical roles in the competitive space below the threshold of overt war, supporting conventional forces during the overt conflict, and keeping the pressure on violent extremist groups that seek opportunities to regroup while our attention is rightfully refocused on more serious threats posed by state competitors.

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From a technological standpoint, we see this trend supporting that re-prioritization, one in which SOF will refocus on innovative means of infiltrating denied territory, clandestine communications to enable them to operate in these hostile environments, and more organic fire support to deal with threats far from the kind of conventional support they’ve enjoyed during the GWOT. 

Increased government and industry collaboration 

There is absolutely a need for, and an awesome opportunity offered by, increased collaboration between the military and private industry, the realization of which will increase the rate of innovation, acquisition, and efficiency in the defence sector. 

C-17. Rapid deployment and maintaining logistics remains a core area of improvement. Source: Shutterstock

The military can particularly benefit from increased collaboration with the private sector in the areas of logistics, additive manufacturing and rapid prototyping, and talent management. Many of our greatest challenges in addressing potential “high end” conflict with other states revolve around the difficulties we would face not only in rapidly deploying our forces and their equipment but in keeping them supplied once they are forward in the conflict zone. Companies have revolutionized “just in time” resupply, and many of those lessons on supply management, shipping, and tracking could be directly applied (with modification) to meet wartime requirements. 

"The military can particularly benefit from increased collaboration with the private sector in the areas of logistics, additive manufacturing and rapid prototyping, and talent management"

Similarly, the private sector has fully embraced rapid prototyping and additive manufacturing (sometimes called “3D printing). These are capabilities in which the government has great interest given the advantages inherent in producing repair parts or even quickly adapting existing military equipment for improved battlefield effectiveness close to the front lines. Finally, the military would benefit from collaboration with industry on its personnel management systems – shifting from the industrial age, lockstep progression of all members through set gates of career progression. 

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The private sector has revolutionized talent management in spotting, developing, and placing high-talent individuals where they can have the greatest positive impact while also achieving maximum personal job satisfaction.

Cybersecurity will remain a major consideration 

Cyber security will absolutely prove to be a critical defence issue in 2019 and beyond as our adversaries seek asymmetric advantage and we continue to learn this new battlefield. Broadly, cyber security issues can be broken down into two areas: intelligence collection/industrial espionage and disruption of critical infrastructure. 

F-35 - How vulnerable are upcoming defence projects to cyber espionage? 
Source: Shutterstock 

Adversaries continue to pursue cyber penetration of our most sensitive IT systems and databases to mine information on service members (like the Chinese hack of OPM in 2015) or reveal operational plans and details. In order to close the gap in our technological advantage, we also see efforts by our adversaries to use cyber intrusion to steal defence-related and other industrial secrets, with a particular emphasis on cleared defence contractors (i.e. Chinese hacks of contractors working on portions of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter). 

"Adversaries continue to pursue cyber penetration of our most sensitive IT systems and databases to mine information on service members"

Cyber security will be a major consideration on future battlefields, as our main adversaries field dedicated and more sophisticated cyber-focused capabilities to attack our greatest perceived weakness, the all-important satellite and other electronic communications that have gone largely uncontested in the recent counterterrorism fight. 

Similarly, we see concerted efforts by our adversaries to hack into our critical national infrastructure (power grids, naval ports, airports, etc.) to provide an asymmetric avenue of pressuring the American people and policymakers during conflict. In the case of Russia, these cyber penetrations create opportunities to “escalate to de-escalate” in the event of hostilities, while the Chinese view these as means of impeding US force deployment and other reactions to future hostilities. While the US can certainly explore opportunities to respond in kind, the relatively closed nature of the internet in Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea creates many challenges to overcome.

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Rather, the US will need to focus on hardening its own defence and industrial cyber networks while developing and adopting innovative “hack proof” methods of commanding and controlling forces in the future contested electronic battlefield environment.

Closing thoughts

The challenge for the US defense community in 2019 will be undertaking the important shift in strategy from counterterrorism to state competition, developing and integrating the next generation of technology to maintain our comparative advantage, revitalizing government and private collaboration, and addressing cyber security threats at the same time that we harness the valuable lessons from the last 18 years of the GWOT.

In many ways, the GWOT gave us unprecedented opportunities to operate in a joint environment with international partners and allies, experiences that will absolutely be applicable in the current and future defence environment. The shift in emphasis back to “great power competition” was necessary to counter growing threats from near-peer adversaries, but that shift will only be successful if we build upon what we have already learned while seizing onto innovative and emerging technologies to ensure global security and stability.