WASHINGTON — The US military of 2035 will have to deal with the breakdown of global norms, the proliferation of dangerous technologies via the commercial sector, and hypersonic weaponry, according to a recent document issued by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Titled "Joint Operating Environment 2035," the document seeks to lay out what the Pentagon will be facing in 20 years time in order to help guide how the department is spending its resources today.
The document features a number of themes familiar to anyone who has heard Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joe Dunford, Defense Secretary Ash Carter or other top service officials speak in the last 18 months: Challenges will come both from great-power competitions and complex issues such as insurgencies or mass migration; the spread of technology means the US military dominance is not assured; and the need to develop capabilities that can match both the high and low end of future fights.
There is also an acknowledgement that defense technologies are going to be spun off from the commercial sector, and not vice versa – again, a theme Carter has brought up in almost every speech he has given as defense secretary.
Just what those issues look like in 2035 versus now, however, is where the document's authors begin to dig into the details. They identify six broad geopolitical challenges the Joint Force will have to deal with 20 years from now:
- Violent Ideological Competition: irreconcilable ideas communicated and promoted by identity networks through violence.
- Threatened US Territory and Sovereignty: encroachment, erosion, or disregard of US sovereignty and the freedom of its citizens from coercion.
- Antagonistic Geopolitical Balancing: increasingly ambitious adversaries maximizing their own influence while actively limiting US influence.
- Disrupted Global Commons: denial or compulsion in spaces and places available to all but owned by none.
- A Contest for Cyberspace: a struggle to define and credibly protect sovereignty in cyberspace.
- Shattered and Reordered Regions: states unable to cope with internal political fractures, environmental stressors, or deliberate external interference.
That, in turn, comes with a set of technological challenges. As Carter likes to remind audiences, the vast majority of technology now is developed in the private sector, but the Pentagon has often struggled to adapt it for military use. The authors of the report warn that the department will need to find an easier way of using that technology, because the commercial world will continue to lead development efforts.
The report also warns that the rise of non-state actors such as the Islamic State group – described in the report as "privatized violence" – will continue, as will the rapidity of those groups coming together. The spread of 3D-printing technologies and readily available commercial technology such as drones means those groups can be increasingly effective against a fully prepared military force.
"Transnational criminal organizations, terrorist groups, and other irregular threats are likely to exploit the rapid spread of advanced technologies to design, resource, and execute complex attacks and combine many complex attacks into larger, more sustained campaigns," the authors write – warnings that seem to already have come true given the rise of ISIS and multiple reports of the group's use of cheap, commercial drones for intelligence-gathering.
What US technologies should be in play by 2035? It's a litany of the types of programs that DARPA and others in the Pentagon are starting to invest in – robotics, adaptive manufacturing/3D-printing and alternative power sources.
In terms of scientific spending, the authors suggest that the Pentagon should invest in applied meta-materials, man-made composite materials that can manipulate electromagnetic radiation to reduce signature; nanotechnology that can lead to improved material sciences; bio-engineering that could lead to "construction of new biological parts, brain-computer interfaces, or the re-design of natural biological systems to manufacture drugs, chemicals, materials, or food"; and super dense batteries with greater energy output.
The latter is key to the focus on directed-energy weaponry, another technology the authors predict will be used in the field come 2035 – the deployment of a less-than 100 KW laser for precision attack.
"Electrical laser systems will become smaller, lighter, and cheaper, and the introduction of femto- and pico-second pulses will lead to novel sensors and effects. Ultra-precise, multiple-shot, weaponized lasers will easily achieve >100 KW, permitting stealthy engagements at longer ranges with less dwell time required to achieve effects," the authors write.
The authors also warn that it is "probable" that one or more state actors will have hypersonic weapons ready to use by 2035.
The report certainly strikes a concerned tone, one that largely reaches the conclusion that the US will no longer be able to dominate the globe the way it has for the past 20 years. And that realization, the authors write, should guide how the US is spending its funding today.
"It is unclear whether the Joint Force can be simultaneously proficient at addressing contested norms and persistent disorder with currently projected capabilities, operational approaches, and fiscal resources," the authors conclude. "Therefore, the United States must consider military investments that acknowledge there may be times when it is more appropriate to manage global security problems as opposed to undertaking expensive efforts to comprehensively solve them."