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The strategic environment is defined, in the context of this estimate, as the set of global conditions, circumstances, and influences that affect the employment of all elements of U.S. national power. The SE contains multiple potential operational environments (OEs), which are defined as any areas in which U.S forces may operate, from a locale as small as a village to entire regions of the globe.
The strategic environment remains as it has always been: complex. The interaction of the many variables within the environment, including human behavior, assures both fog and friction. The current strategic environment seems more ambiguous, presenting multiple layers of complexity and challenging the Army with requirements beyond traditional warfighting skills and training. Capturing the key strategic conditions is fundamental to understanding current and future military operations. Strategic conditions will be analyzed through the lens of 12 OE Trends, listed below:
These trends operate across and impact three broad areas:
The current and future strategic environment will be—as the above conditions reflect—characterized by multiple actors, adaptive threats, chaotic conditions, and advanced-technology-enabled actors seeking to dominate the information environment. The Army must be operationally adaptive to defeat these complex challenges and adversaries operating within this environment.
Through 2028, the Army will face many unique OEs and simultaneous decisive action operations will be the norm within these environments. Training for sequential operations with clearly defined phases will not suffice. Conflict, post-conflict/failed state, humanitarian, disaster relief, and support and reconstruction operations will occur simultaneously. Such operations will require increase coordination/integration with a range of civilian organizations, both domestic and international. U.S. forces will be required to interact with and to protect nongovernment organizations (NGOs), private voluntary organizations (PVOs), and humanitarian organizations more than ever before.
A wide-range of actors across the current and projected SE – friendly and neutrals, malicious actors, and threats – will interact, often in an uncoordinated manner, to produce a complex environment.
Shifts in governance
Over the forecast period, global governance—the collective management of common problems at the international level—will likely decrease due to increasing numbers and influence of non-state actors. Both states and non-state actors will continue to be empowered by the proliferation of ICT and will use such capabilities for purposes of governance at the international level. The Army must prepare to deal with a wide range of actors operating in the current and future strategic environment. Over the course of the next sixteen years the number of actors will continue to increase.
State challenges to provide good governance—basic services and governmental legitimacy—to their populations will remain a constant over the forecast period. Many governments in Africa, the Middle East, Southern Asia, and Latin America face perennial challenges in maintaining political legitimacy in the eyes of their citizens. They lack the institutional, infrastructural, human, and material resources to provide physical security, deliver basic public services, administer justice, and promote economic development. Non-state actors are stepping in to fill this void (e.g. Hezbollah in Lebanon). This trend will likely continue well into the future as other non-state actors step into political roles across various OEs.
With the instantaneous nature of global communications via ICT, the importance of rapid and credible perception management is growing at an exponential rate. In the past, if an event could not be hidden from sight, the actors involved could reveal information slowly and in the manner of their choosing. With mounting transparency and actor empowerment, it is no longer the party that explains his case best that wins the argument, but the one who explains it first. The ability to decide on a narrative and get it out into public view in a timely fashion is paramount: the first narrative presented is seen as authoritative, and those holding other views are automatically put in defensive mode—they must hope to persuade their intended audience of the correctness of their view and the wrongness of the other, whereas the holders of the first narrative have no such difficulties. This has strong implications for both the political and military variables, as modern governments and militaries are usually constrained by some form of approval chain that limits their ability to rapidly respond to events, whereas their opponents have no such constraints.
Income inequality will remain a key economic consideration in the SE. According to the World Bank, over the next several decades the number of people considered to be in the global middle class is projected to increase from 7.6% to 16.1% of the world’s population, with most of the new entrants coming from China and India. By 2025-2030, the portion of the world considered poor will shrink by about 23%, but will still constitute 63% of the global population and will be worse off than it is now. Research on trends in armed conflict demonstrates that a disproportionate share of internal conflicts occurs in poor countries with low economic growth rates.
Across the strategic environment, states are going through what is referred to as demographic transition—the tendency for families to have increasingly fewer children per household. Developed countries’ populations have transitioned to a demographic pattern of low birthrates and slow population decline, presaging an end to the exponential growth of world population during the late 20th century. China, Japan, Russia, Korea, and most of Europe will experience aging populations and gradual population decline that will test their governments’ abilities to maintain economic growth, provide health care and pensions to growing senior populations, and provide for national defense. The number of elderly people will likely double in the developed world by 2028.
Aging and even declining populations for many of America’s traditional allies in Europe and Asia is already affecting their ability to contribute to collective defense. Even China, which is often posited as a security challenge to the U.S., faces problems associated with a rapidly aging and declining population, especially after 2030. Unlike the already-industrialized countries, these demographic challenges will appear in China before its economy has fully developed and will likely affect the direction and pace of its economic growth. Aging populations might also trigger higher migration levels as states seek to find adequate sources of labor.
The urbanization of countries around the globe will continue during the forecast period. According to the National Intelligence Council, “by 2025 about 57% of the world’s population will live in urban areas, up from 50% today .”51 As these areas continue to grow and expand, problems inherent to urban communities will be intensified. Those seeking political change can easily reach and mobilize large numbers of people with effects up to and including the overturning of governments, as occurred during the Arab Spring of 2011. Urban populations are also difficult to control from a security perspective, as both criminals and insurgents can easily blend into the environment. News and opinions are quickly passed from person to person—either by word-of-mouth or electronically—allowing for freedom of expression and simultaneously making government control of information more difficult. Rising demands on infrastructure will result in larger and more frequent breakdowns of utility and transportation systems. The sheer number of people within a fixed area will make any humanitarian crisis—whether earthquake, famine, or epidemic—more severe in both size and scope. Prolific urbanization has the potential to exacerbate issues faced by a government, military, or organization.
Despite the ongoing transition to fewer children per household, the world is adding the largest numbers to its population in history, with an increase of 83 million annually. The global population reached an estimated seven billion in 2011. Both the six and seven billion marks were reached in a period of 12 years from the previous billion. If birth rates decline as projected, a population of eight billion will be reached in 2023. By mid-2025, more than a billion will be added to the population of the less developed world while the more developed world will see growth of only 48 million.
Over the past half-century, fertility rates fell dramatically in Europe, particularly in Eastern Europe. Simultaneously, fertility appears to be on the rise in a few countries, such as Burundi and Zimbabwe in Africa, and Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia.39 Russia, Ukraine, Italy, Japan, and almost all countries in Eastern Europe are expected to see their populations decline by several percentage points by 2025. In Russia, Ukraine, and a few other Eastern European countries, these declines could approach or even exceed 10% of the current populations. The U.S. population is projected to grow by more than 40 million, Canada by 4.5 million, and Australia by more than 3 million. India will be the nation with the largest population increase, representing about one-fifth of world growth. India is projected to add about 240 million people by 2025, reaching a population of approximately 1.45 billion. At the same time, China’s current population of over 1.3 billion is expected to increase by more than 100 million.
Nearly all of this growth will be in the developing world. The increased world population will fuel greater demand for resources such as energy, minerals, clean water, and food. The competition for resources— aggravated by a larger world population—also heightens the possibility of armed conflict, with populations desperate for essential resources being more likely to resort to extreme measures. The mistreatment of a weaker group by a stronger group could lead to mass atrocities and even genocide, requiring a response from the global community.
Persistent Youth Bulge
Many countries around the world are now dealing with a youth bulge, which is defined as a disproportionately large percentage of a population between the ages of 15 and 29. The current youth bulges in Turkey, Lebanon, and Iran will decrease, but those in the West Bank, Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Sub-Saharan Africa will continue throughout the forecast period. Such a bulge can have either positive or negative effects for a country: it can supply needed workers in a robust economy and a large pool of applicants for military recruitment, or it can create a large population of discontented youths with no prospects for employment or self-improvement. A youth bulge is often accompanied by high unemployment among young men that in turn increases the potential for instability. Nigeria, for example, has thus far been unsuccessful in finding work for its massive youth bulge—almost half the population is under the age of 15, with a staggering 45 million between 10 and 24 years old. The result has been some youth turning toward radicalized elements, particularly the terrorist group Boko Haram in the country’s north, as a means of livelihood and an outlet for their frustration. The Arab Spring occurred in countries with the same conditions—large youth bulge and high unemployment. Similar conditions prevail across much of Africa, Asia, and parts of Latin America.
The hybrid threat components of adaptive strategy include two or more of the following:
• Military forces
• Nation-state paramilitary forces (such as internal security forces, police, or border guards)
• Insurgent organizations (movements that primarily rely on subversion and violence to change the status quo)
• Guerrilla units (irregular indigenous forces operating in occupied territory)
• Criminal organizations (such as gangs, drug cartels, or hackers)
Hybrid threats will use a strategic capability that forces any intervening power to adjust operations (WMD, special-purpose forces [SPF], etc). This capability may not be fully developed or developed at all.
This will not affect the transition between regular and irregular operations, and the threat of the capability still provides a tool for manipulating the intervening force (e.g. Iraq’s WMD capability circa2001). All components of a hybrid threat will use cyber operations to either degrade U.S. mission command capabilities, or to conduct global perception management campaigns.
Hybrid threats have the ability to combine and transition between regular, irregular, and criminal forces and operations and to conduct simultaneous combinations of various types of activities that will change and adapt over time. Such varied forces and capabilities enable hybrid threats to capitalize on perceived U.S. vulnerabilities. Perhaps even more confusing will be when those combinations of threats are uncoordinated and simply seek to maximize their own organizational goals rather than any overarching objective.
Conflict is a constant condition across the strategic environment, with intrastate conflict increasing while state-on-state conventional fights are decreasing. During the forecast period, governments worldwide will face networks of adversaries with a wide range of sophistication, capabilities, and goals. The range of threats across the strategic environment over the forecast period, include criminal organizations, terrorists, states and non-state actors, insurgents, transnational groups, proxies, technologically-empowered individuals, and paramilitaries. These actors are increasing in number and capabilities, and may operate as regular, irregular, or hybrid threats that can and will challenge conventional military forces.
In addition, traditional armies are investing in more effective, conventional capabilities including armor, air defense, and robotics. China, Russia, and India are examples of traditionally-configured militaries that will grow more capable in the future. Their extensive international military training and sales programs are enabling other states and/or proxies to field highly-capable conventional militaries.
Allegiances and alignments within the complex network of actors, state and non-state, will often change. Adversarial forces will constantly study the military operations of their foes and seek to exploit perceived weaknesses. Transitions in operations of adversarial military forces and changes within the patterns of networks must be constantly monitored and anticipated to avoid surprise and maintain the ability to conduct operations within a designated OE. The Army must be capable of decisive action against a wide array of adaptive threats, and be operationally prepared for a wide range of missions.
Rise of Private Security Organizations
Beginning in the 1990s, international conditions created an environment ripe for the creation of private security organizations.
The proliferation of WMD and related technologies will continue during the forecast period despite nonproliferation being a global priority. WMD capabilities provide actors with a strategic lever to deter their enemies from pursuing certain military strategies. An operational capability may give hostile states and non-state actors a bargaining chip to sue for a negotiated settlement short of complete defeat and regime change. Several extremist organizations are known to be seeking WMD capabilities as well— especially nuclear and biological weapons. The Director of National Intelligence (DNI) predicts that “terrorist or insurgent organizations acting alone or through middlemen may acquire nuclear, chemical, and/or biological weapons and may seek opportunistic networks as service providers.” Recent Joint Staff analysis concluded that “considering the efforts by radical, non-State actors to obtain and employ WMD, the likelihood that WMD will be used somewhere in the next 25 years is high."
Competition over limited natural resources—such as water, hydrocarbons, metals, and rare earths—will continue to intensify during the upcoming decades, fueled by regional economic and population growth; unequal resource distribution and limited supply; unstable political, military, and/or physical environments in source regions; and a distinct lack of suitable alternatives for the resources sought. Of particular note is that hydrocarbons will continue to experience mounting demand— and prices—as both developed and developing countries increase their energy consumption. Reactions to this struggle over natural resources will mainly occur in the political, military, and economic arenas, and may manifest in such ways as the arms-for-oil agreement between Venezuela and Belarus; the mining of conflict diamonds in camps run by Zimbabwean security forces; and the current lawsuit brought by the U.S., E.U., and Japan against China regarding Chinese production and use of rare earths.
Global weather patterns have diverged significantly from the norm in recent years. While a discussion on the prospect of global climate change is not within the purview of this paper, a consideration of possible implications is both appropriate and relevant. Potential effects of lasting weather shifts generally fall into two broad categories: short-term and long-term. Short-term effects include catastrophic events that are inherently one-time in nature—e.g. hurricanes, typhoons, tornados, and mudslides—and may or may not be severe enough to require a U.S. humanitarian response. Long-term changes in regional climate are characteristically slower and more lasting, and include expanding or shifting deserts, changes in average annual temperature or rainfall, and increases in seasonal flooding. The effects of such changes play out through the economic, social, political, and military variables.
The spread of ICT on a global basis and developed nations’ dependence on technology will place them at an amplified risk over the forecast period. Cyber attacks, previously the domain of hostile governments, are now easily within the realm of individuals and loosely-knit organizations, such as the hacker group Anonymous. These effects can be felt by both individuals and organizations alike, from the person who discovers his e-mail account has been hacked to the gaming company whose customer names and credit card information are stolen. U.S. cyber strategy has acknowledged that it is possible that certain systems within DOD’s network have been compromised and are as yet undetected.
One other risk of dependence is the growing existence and ready availability of technological countermeasures, two examples being cell phone jammers and global positioning system (GPS) jamming/spoofing. Both have been used successfully in military situations: the first by U.S. and affiliated forces as counter-IED measures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the second by Iran to capture a U.S. drone in 2011. As such devices continue to grow in availability, the technological advantage held by one party over another is reduced or even eliminated. With their heavy dependence on ICT, U.S. forces and other modern militaries may find their opponents equal or even superior to them in some ways.
Military technologies will continue to proliferate to all types of adversarial actors. If actors have the financial resources, the capabilities are there for the taking. Nanotechnologies will likely provide the impetus for most key emerging military technological breakthroughs over the forecast period. These breakthroughs will probably occur in the areas of ICT, sensor or network technology, biotechnology, and energy storage and transfer. Military leaders will leverage emerging ICT that connects intelligence to enhance their mission command to better visualize, describe, direct, and lead forces against a hostile, thinking, and adaptive enemy. Sensor or network technology will focus on unmanned systems as a means to gain information and intelligence over enemy terrain while reducing physical risk to military personnel.
Biotechnology breakthroughs will have important civilian applications in the areas of medicine, food science, and industrial manufacturing; but they could also lead to new WMD threats to military personnel. It is also probable that biotechnology improvements will provide human strength augmentation through breakthroughs such as lightweight exoskeleton systems that give the wearer greater protection while increasing physical power. New energy storage technology will range from smaller, lighter, and more powerful batteries that operate military equipment to renewable energy systems that use wind and solar power instead of hydrocarbon fuels. The military may turn to vehicles powered by more accessible biofuels and reduce reliance on gasoline, diesel, and aviation fuel produced from overseas sources. At the extreme end, directed energy weapons may reach the stage where they possess the ability to incapacitate or kill the enemy without collateral damage to either people or infrastructure. Training and education, and leader, concepts, and capabilities development will need to embrace and adapt to key emerging technologies. Adversaries with financial resources will certainly be ready to adapt.
Items such as cell phones, smart phones, and tablets will continue to become smaller, more powerful, more versatile, and less expensive. As a direct result, the possession of advanced technology is no longer limited to nation-states or wealthy individuals, but is available to even the poorest persons living in the most poverty-stricken countries in the world. For example, a recent survey in India revealed that over half the population—53.2%—owns a mobile phone, and that more households possess televisions than toilets. Many developing nations are taking advantage of technological advances such as “skipping” landlines and building communications infrastructure based on cell phone technology. The implications of technology proliferation are multiple and varied, but four stand out in particular: transparency, actor empowerment, strategic narrative, and technological vulnerability. The Army must be prepared to operate within all types of information environments. Adversaries will attempt to control the narrative and deprive U.S. forces of ICT capabilities across all potential OEs.
Individuals and states can no longer expect to keep the world ignorant of their actions. All military actions and activities have the potential to be digitally captured (perhaps even digitally manipulated) and distributed to a global audience. Information could previously be suppressed through lack of evidence and/or lack of access to broadcast methods, but this is no longer the case. From the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991 to the treatment of the “blue bra woman” by Egyptian security forces in 2011, such actions that could formerly be kept hidden are now open for all to see. Regardless of where an event happens, someone will be there with a cell phone, recording it and uploading it to the Internet within minutes. It will become increasingly difficult for actors to conduct diplomacy and military operations with the continuous threat that all their actions and comments are recorded and distributed to a global audience.