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Future Forces, State Change Models, and Red Teaming

At the heart of the future forces debate are three basic questions: (1) what kind of training and force structure should we employ to fight future conflicts? (2) What kind of wars should we fight? (3) Are today’s conflicts the wars of the future or aberrations? However, these are derived from only one vision of the future–“failing states” hypothesis of weak and/or collapsing states plagued by resource wars. While this vision of the future may be correct, the inability to think about other state change variables is demonstrative of a failure of imagination. Strategic discourse also largely fails to contextualize current forces debates within greater American grand strategy.
      Because of this underdetermination, the parameters of the future forces debate are limited to questions of cause and effect. Does training for counterinsurgency cause politicians to view overseas operations as more favorable? Or does the nature of the fragmented state system and irregular threats cause American engagement with non-state forces, regardless of our desires? The deeper questions that need to be asked lie in the “collapsing states” thesis and its relationship to strategic planning, something few analysts have done so far. While it is indisputable that the global state structures are in a period of extreme transition, analysts should consider a multitude of state change futures and models. Philip Bobbitt for example, talks of a “market-state” that exists to maximize individual opportunity for its constituents, and there is also the sci-fi vision of David Ronfeldt’s “nexus-state” and its “cyberocrat” elite. In these futures, the changing nature of technology and political economy shape radically different worlds. This is to say nothing of the influence that biotechnology, nanotechnology, and increasingly advanced computing will likely have on politics, business, and war. Yet alternate futures are largely missing from neo-Malthusian strategic planning documents like Global Trends 2025 that warn of collapsing states and resource wars.
      The precise role American forces will play in nontraditional security matters is also somewhat underdetermined. Current American strategy focuses on denying uncontrolled spaces to terrorists, criminals, and insurgents. But insurgents, criminals, and terrorists dispersing themselves within virtual spaces and hideouts within First World states pose a much different challenge than a band of Taliban hiding out in the mountains of Pakistan. As Army War College professor Steven Metz asks, can the Army root out terrorists in Hamburg or London? Metz also questions the wisdom of trying to control any uncontrolled space that a terrorist may seek refuge in—a strategic orientation that could lead to misguided occupations of urban spaces in the Global South’s emerging slum megapolises.
      Nowhere in the mostly operational future forces debate is the question of American grand strategic objectives addressed. How do ungoverned spaces, terrorists, force structures, and current and future missions relate to the US’ overall grand designs? The future forces debate is purely operational with some touches of the strategic, but both should derive from some concept of grand strategy. Although the question of grand strategy has been a constant concern in international relations circles, military and defense policy figures rarely relate their specific force structure and training ideas to the volumes of literature being pumped out of DC think tanks on grand strategy. Defining American interests and objectives purely from a threats-oriented frame is not just acknowledging that “the enemy gets vote”—it allows his vote to decide the election. The only variable within our control is our positive aims, and the longer they remain undefined the worse off we will be.
      The most basic way policymakers can improve the future forces debate is to red team current futures projections utilizing alternative state change models. Current official predictions of collapsing states, irregular threats, resource wars, and East Asian dominance are present conditions (or at least perceptions of them) extrapolated to the future. Alternative futures should be principally considered in terms of their respective implications for future operating environments and national security planning. The most important objective in such an exercise is to “think big” about long-term futures and critically examine the way that current futures influence policy planning. This may require substantial outreach to academics and analysts outside the intelligence and defense policy communities or a “Team B” approach with competitive analytic red teaming. Present assumptions about state change and current threats should also be critically interrogated.
      Solving the grand strategy gap will be substantially more difficult. Grand strategies are rarely defined outright, and function more as deeply shared visions among policymakers and the public. The grand strategy America utilized during the Cold War, for example, is only noticeable in retrospect. While identifying systemic grand strategies is difficult, consciously planning a truly holistic foreign policy vision that can last for generations is nearly impossible. The foreign policy community will continue to churn out dueling visions of grand strategy, and government policymakers are likely to pick and choose with an eye towards a host of supervening factors. The very least we can do, however, is to bring discussions of grand strategy into the future forces debate. Policymakers proposing strategic concepts need to articulate at least a basic rationale for how their concepts are intended to further greater designs, instead of merely accepting the operational level as a virtue in it’s own right.