Future War and Science Fiction: helping today’s military leaders plan for tomorrow’s wars

Future War and Science Fiction: helping today’s military leaders plan for tomorrow’s wars

13 Feb 24
Posted by: Lt Cdr Helen Taylor RN
Message from the Editor

A perennial problem how does Defence encourage originality and innovation? Thinking outside of the box must be an essential prerequisite to success in the 21st century – to accommodate and exploit the explosion in computing capability and the advent of AI. The author explains how the UK predicts and prepares for future conflict, the flaws in this method, and proposes how studying Science Fiction literature could offer military leaders a beneficial fighting edge in a future conflict. A 15 minute read.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the military strategist was a historian. Well-thumbed copies of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Clausewitz’ On War litter Strategic Studies departments across the world and, often as not, are used to provoke discussion of historical conflict, draw themes and generate theories into how this should shape future strategy. Once the Industrial Revolution arrived, however, the speed of social, political, economic and technological influences on war and how it is fought[1] has meant that historical studies alone cannot inform strategic thought about future conflict.

H G Wells, often labelled the originator of science fiction, identified that the traditional methodology of strategic studies was flawed and called for study into exploring the future:

“It seems an odd thing that though we have thousands and thousands of professors… of history working upon the rewards of the past, there is not a single person anywhere who makes a whole-time job of estimating the future consequences of new inventions and new devices. There is not a single Professor of Foresight in the world… it is only after something has hit us hard that we set about dealing with it.”[2]

In plain English: hindsight is a beautiful thing but due to the speed at which technology advances and its impact on society, we may not be ready for the effect it could have unless we invest in Future Studies to better prepare for the future. This article will show how the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) currently assesses and prepares for future conflict and why this is no longer enough, while showing that studying more ‘exotic’ reading material, namely science fiction, can positively influence military leaders to consider the character of future conflict and how to prepare for the unexpected.

The UK’s use of Future Studies to inform strategic planning

At present, there are three methods of Future Studies that the UK uses:

Estimates – an assessment of current conditions to identify possible future events. The MoD currently teaches this Estimate Process to military leaders in order to develop tactics for mission planning, from the sub-tactical to the operational level.[3] However, this process, which details how to identify the situation, conduct assessment of the impact on the mission and publish intentions on how to achieve the aim, tends to be a short-term process and is designed to provide leaders with tactical and operational forecasting rather than strategic foresight.

Forecasts – longer-range assessments of future events primarily relying on trends-based analysis. This is the primary method most countries use for assessing future strategic threats and how to combat them, from the military to the environmental. In the UK, a team of military experts from the MoD and Allied nations, scientists and academics, the wider government, industry and the non-profit sector, conduct extensive research to identify trends in the global context and project these trends into the future. Now in its 6th edition, Global Strategic Trends: The Future Starts Today, identifies and projects trends to present evidence-based forecasts of the future, looking as far ahead as 2050, “To help those tasked with developing long-term policies, strategies and capabilities to think about the future, allowing them to make the necessary choices today to better prepare for tomorrow, seize opportunities and mitigate risks.”[4] Out of this document, government defence strategy decisions such as the Strategic Defence and Spending Review and the National Security Risk Assessment are created to decide how to meet the challenges of future conflict (ends) and assign budgets/resources (means) according to the greatest assessment of risk to the state.[5] Joint doctrine is then created to direct military power and develop tactics and training (ways) to meet future threats.[6]

Scenarios – a range of forecasts, but both their construct and intent are more complex. Scenario builders are quick to point out that their objective is not to forecast a certain future, but to present a possible future. This practice is used by military planners for war-gaming situations, either using current resources in a Joint exercise such as NATO’s STRIKE WARRIOR,[7] or as a predictive tool for Research and Development analysis at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), the MoD’s science division. At present, NATO’s scenario building team focuses on the former aspect and builds conflict scenarios within the next three years (in order to prepare to ‘fight tonight’), based on current events and known competitors’ strategies and plans. Due to the inherent nature of scenario building being less concrete in predicting a certain future, the MoD may use scenario building for R&D but does not invest in this methodology sufficiently to shape UK policy as it does not often lead to concrete investment in a certain technology or character of warfare.

The limitations of strategic planning models

While trend analysis has had some success in predicting scientific futures (such as the impact of climate change on the planet), it has rarely been able to accurately predict conflict. The UK (as well as the USA, Canada, Germany and France) has been criticised for relying so heavily on the National Security Risk Assessment in defining national strategy since it proved unable to predict strategic shocks such as Brexit or a resurgent Russia.[8] On top of this, the UK is not adhering to its own future planning model. Despite obvious changes in the international battlespace, particularly in developments like cyber and space, the UK military structure has not really changed since the end of the Cold War.[9] The ongoing policy of maintaining a status quo through a nuclear deterrent, elite Special Forces and a relatively small expeditionary force has been accused as not an evolution to meet predictions of the future but instead a model that rests firmly on past experience.[10]

There is a perfect historical example of how traditional methods of strategic planning could fail in future conflict: the development of the aeroplane. The Kitty Hawk flew for the first time in 1903; within 20 years, the British military were forced to consider a time when, “Aerial operations… may become the principal operations of war.”[11] There was no historical precedent for the rise of air power and the military were forced to adapt and invent tactics to meet an imminent strategic threat. Within 100 years, on 11 September 2001, civilian airplanes were used by Al-Qaeda to fly into buildings in the US, during an attack that had worldwide geostrategic consequences.[12] There was evidence in the intelligence community at that time to suggest that an attack of this scale was being planned by Al-Qaeda. However, the forecast model of using an aircraft as a realistic method of warfare was not considered serious enough in decisionmakers’ minds at the time to allocate resources and prevent the attack.[13] Both events in the evolution of the aeroplane were unprecedented and unanticipated but had significant strategic consequences across the globe. In planning for future conflict, how could decisionmakers better expect the unexpected?

Future Studies meets Science Fiction – what Science Fiction can offer: Scenario building

Fiction in general is a perfect example of using the Scenario method to support future planning:

“It provides the medium to guide, inspire, predict and warn about the future, leading to potential action in the present… contributing to reveal knowledge gaps (beyond those serving innovation, above) and research priorities.”[14]

For the strategist, using fiction to consider the ‘what if’ scenario is an opportunity to expand beyond historical events, look beyond trend analysis and think not just outside but light years beyond the box. Science Fiction is a perfect medium for this. It often involves conflict of some kind, transported across space-time, exploring technological advances and imagining possible future conflicts: The character of conflict has changed, but the enduring nature of war as described by Clausewitz is a continual trope.

American and Australian military colleges[15] actively use Science Fiction Studies in their academic training to engage with the younger military population and the wider public to provoke discussions of military conflict in a science fiction scenario and identify lessons in leadership and strategy that can be used in the real world. As early as 2013, military colleges used science fiction studies to, “Pan a continuum of issues ranging from the means by which new technologies might find their way into human conflict to how those methods might impact combatants at a human and psychological level.”[16]

A popular example of this can be found in the novel Ghost Fleet.[17] In a near-future scenario, China and Russia conduct wide-scale cyber and space domain attacks against the US prior to an invasion of Hawaii and complete anti-area access denial (A2AD) of the Pacific. In order to defeat the technologically superior enemy, the US and its allies are forced to rely on innovation of older technology and investment in domestically created, non-globalised technology. More importantly, there is no futuristic and as-yet undiscovered or alien technology that allows this event to occur; the premise of Ghost Fleet is that all the technology that the enemy uses to conduct such an attack already exists,[18] with references, academic discussion and research cited throughout the book in order to inform the wider public of the existence of such a possibility. This use of contemporary technology in a near-future science fiction novel allows the reader (regardless of whether they have a military background) to consider ‘what if’ with evidential support and, “Spur conversations about the future of conflict with people who might not otherwise be engaged.”[19]

Influence on public imagination

There is evidence that science fiction is shaping popular opinion and its subsequent impact on policymaking decisions. Carpenter found evidence that the tropes from films such as Terminator and Robocop were widely used in a 2003 “Stop Killer Robots” campaign to prevent the deployment of full autonomous weapons in the battlefield of the future.[20] The fear created by an entirely fictional scenario was enough to lead to a public desire to influence government policy in terms of military affairs.

Another example is the documented ‘Star Trek Effect’. In the 1960s when Star Trek first aired, a young population was introduced to new and unimaginable technology, such as a door opening automatically when someone approaches or carrying computer data around on a small storage stick, all of which were fantastical at the time. This generation then spent their adult life trying to bring these technologies into reality in a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’[21] that has had enormous worldwide strategic impact since their inventions. In this context, science fiction does not actually predict the future, it shapes it. With these examples in mind, it is important that military leaders invest time in studying the same literature that influences the taxpayer, both to help shape future strategic decisions or prevent dangerous assumptions being made on shaky (fictional) foundations.

Understanding other cultures

A lot of popular Western science fiction is centred on a post-apocalyptic (usually but not always nuclear) scenario, feeding off the public fears of the Cold War. However, popular contemporary science fiction set in Asia (The Windup Girl, 2009)[22] identifies the greatest future threat not as a nuclear war, but the impact of rising sea levels destroying vital resources, particularly food resources, that then leads to military conflict and civil war. Global Strategic Trends identifies this as a possible future but from the perspective of the West, it can be difficult to actually imagine the impact.[23] The Windup Girl gives the reader the opportunity to visualise how to face this future through the eyes of multiple Indo-Pacific characters, from governmental leadership, industry and civilians alike.[24] This novel’s understanding of the issues identified in the Indo-Pacific region as a source for future strategic tension are of value to the military strategist. By studying this work combined with the trend analysis of Global Strategic Trends, military leaders can visualise the future scenario of increasing sea levels, resource competition and civil unrest from the perspective of a non-Western culture and better understand possible trigger points for future conflict, using it as a platform for scenario-building and wargaming.

Sinofuturistic taikonaut poster

Song Mingwei argues that studying Chinese science fiction is invaluable in appreciating Chinese perceptions of possible futures and highlighting the apparent tensions between Western and Chinese culture that could become sources of conflict, stating, “Deeply entangled with the politics of a changing China, science fiction today both strengthens and complicates the utopian vision of a new and powerful China.”[25] Chinese science fiction provides intimate knowledge of Chinese culture, written by Chinese authors for a Chinese and international audience and combines creativity and expertise-based perspectives to give a unique snapshot of a culture very much at odds with Western society.[26] Identifying other cultures’ science fiction as a source of analysis, particularly when encountering a notoriously isolated and opaque nation such as China, could prevent knowledge gaps or inaccurate strategic decision making by military leaders.

Limitations of Science Fiction

Completely replacing traditional Strategic Studies with a discussion group around the latest episode of The Expanse on Netflix is obviously not a valid method of improving preparations for future conflict and is not the aim of this article. The first, and most limiting factor, is that, for all the evidence of science fiction shaping modern science, it remains a work of fiction. While trend analysis and the Forecast Model are based on current scientific data extrapolated to forecast a possible likely future, science fiction can create any future. H G Well’s death ray from War of the Worlds bears no relation to today’s laser technology, despite being argued as the inspiration for the weapon.[27]

Another limitation is that science fiction is often oversimplified and does need to comply with scientific laws or theories agreed on by modern science. Any references to Faster Than Light travel, warp drive, hyperspeed, or other such ‘technology’, simply does not recognise Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.[28]

First edition hardcover of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers published in 1959

The final issue is science fiction is often created for a commercial market, meaning that it may not always examine or discuss the same futures as Futures Studies addresses. While this may be useful to a strategist in appreciating the public’s desire for escapism when experiencing the threat of military conflict (for example, extreme fantasies and self-parodies in the 1980s, shying away from the then very real possibility of nuclear war),[29] science fiction cannot provide a steady input of data to analyse and forecast.

However, when trend analysis fails to meet the unexpected strategic shocks of our time and when the character of conflict continues to evolve far beyond what the MoD’s long-term post-Cold War model can support, perhaps science fiction can provide an option for military leaders to explore ‘what if?’ scenarios and expand their horizons a little further beyond the near future.

Conclusion

At a time when the character of conflict is changing so rapidly that historical analysis and trends-based predictions may not be available, the strategist should consider a wider awareness of all the tools available that can present possible futures and encourage discourse in how to combat future threats. Science Fiction Studies is not the single methodology of forecasting the future, in as much as any Future Studies project is. However, as evident in the interest shown by partner nation war colleges and with obvious potential to directly influence wider society, studying science fiction is an increasingly popular method of thinking about the future of conflict outside of the current paradigm and in terms of developing a more innovative generation of leaders. The MoD would do well to invest in similar methods to ensure our future leaders are equipped with a copy of Clausewitz in one hand and Max Brook’s World War Z, in the other.[30] Just in case.

References

[1] See Robert O’Connell, Of Arms and men: a history of war, weapons, and aggression, (NY: OUP, 1989)

[2] H G Wells, ‘Wanted-professors of foresight!‘, Futures Research Quarterly, 3(l), 1987 (original 1932), 89-91, 90

[3] MOD publicationThe Fighting Instructions BRd 4487 Vol 1.2, Planning and Execution, (Crown Copyright : Feb 2020)

[4] MOD publication, Global Strategic Trends: The Future Starts Today, 6th edition, (Crown Copyright: 2018), 11.

[5] Ibid.

[6] MOD publication, Joint Doctrine Publication (JDP) 0-01, UK Defence Doctrine (UKDD), 6th Edition (Crown Copyright, 2022)

[7] NATO, “360° scope scenario design and development in JWC,” https://www.jwc.nato.int/newsroom/warfare-development-focus/360-scope-scenario-design-and-development-jwc

[8] David Blagden, “The flawed promise of National Security Risk Assessment: nine lessons from the British approach,” Intelligence and National Security, 33:5, (2018), 716-736

[9] Andrew Dorman, ‘Crises and reviews in British defence policy’, in Croft et al., Britain and defence 1945–2000. (Routeledge, 2001). Also, David French, ‘Have the options really changed? British defence policy in 20th century’, Journal of Strategic Studies 15: 1, (1992), 50–72

[10] Uttley et al. argue that analysis suggests that UK cannot change as long as they believe: Protect (UK mainland, overseas territories); Shape (international environment; Respond (with military power to international crises) are relevant in the future. For analysis of the American military, see Jan Angstrom, ‘The US perspective on future war: why the US relied upon Ares rather than Athena’, Defence Studies 18: 3, (2018), 318

[11] General Jan Smuts, “Air Organisation and the Direction of Aerial Operations,” report submitted to the UK War Cabinet: 1917, 3

[12] Halliday, Two Hours that Shook the World : September 11, 2001: Causes and Consequences, (Saqi, 2002)

[13] Dahl, Intelligence and Surprise Attack: Failure and Success from Pearl Harbor to 9/11 and Beyond, (GUP, 2013), 178

[14] Bina, Mateus, Pereira, Caffa, “The future imagined: Exploring fiction as a means of reflecting on today’s Grand Societal Challenges and tomorrow’s options,” Futures 86 (2017), 166-184, 169.

[15] Institute for Future Warfare Studies, US Naval College ; Deakin’s Centre for Future Defence and National Security, Australian War College

[16] ed. Cole et al. The Atlantic Council Art of Future Warfare Project: War Stories from the Future, (Atlantic Council Project, 2015)

[17] Cole & Singer, Ghost Fleet, (USA: Mariner Books, 2015)

[18] Ibid.

[19] Edmonson, Brad, “Ghost Fleet and Airpower,” Leading Edge, Jul 31 2016

[20] Carpenter, “Rethinking the political/-science-/fiction nexus: Global policy making and the campaign to stop killer robots,” Perspectives on Politics, 14, (2016), 53-69

[21] Coker, Future War, (Oxford: Polity Press, 2015), 26

[22] Bacigalupi, Paolo, The Windup Girl, (Orbit Books, 2009)

[23] MOD publication, Global Strategic Trends, 6th edition, (Crown Copyright, 2018), 30

[24] Hageman, A, “The Challenge of Imagining Ecological Futures: Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl,” Science Fiction Studies, Vol 39, No 2 (July 2012), 299

[25] Mingwei Song. “Variations on Utopia in Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies 40, no. 1 (2013): 86–102, 87

[26] Popper, R. Mapping Foresight: revealing how Europe and other world regions navigate into the future. (Luxembourg: EFMN, Publications Office of the European Union, European Commission, 2009), 73

[27] Fanning, William J., Jr, Death Rays and the Popular Media, 1876-1939 : A Study of Directed Energy Weapons in Fact, Fiction and Film, (McFarland & Company, Incorporated Publishers, 2015), 32

[28] Iverson, Erica, “The Final Frontier: the Galactic Price of Space conflict,” in, To Boldy Go: Leadership, strategy and conflict in the 21st century and beyond, (Philadelphia & Oxford: Casemate Publishers, 2021), 168

[29] Miles, “Stranger than Fiction: How important is science fiction for futures studies?” Futures, (April 1993), 321

[30] Brooks, M, World War Z: an oral history of the Zombie war, (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2006)