by Dan McCauley
The President sighed as he looked around the room at the strained faces of the Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, and the National Security Advisor. He had to make an announcement that would take the foreign policy of United States back to the 1930s—a time of inward focus and an aversion to becoming involved in the affairs of foreign nations; a time when the U.S. Army ranked 17th among armies of the world.
Despite the combined efforts of the Executive and Legislative branches of the Government to put the best “spin” on all available information, there were no other viable options remaining. In reality, the President’s decision was essentially made for him years ago by previous administrations and law makers who refused to look beyond the short-term nature of election cycles to address the convergence of forces straining the Federal budget.
As he slowly stood up and began his short walk down the hallway to the Oval Office to make his address to the American people, he thought back over the years to the events that led to his historic decision.
Few people in 2013 could have foreseen that in three short years the economic problems of southern Europe would lead to the break-up of Greece and Italy and their re-emergence along historic city-state lines. In 2018, continuing European economic problems, the increased costs of combating climate change along the East and West coasts, and ballooning budget deficits forced U.S. lawmakers to reach an interim compromise regarding the level of entitlements for a burgeoning aging population. The rancorous compromise forced an immediate 30% reduction in defense spending that severely limited military operations around the world. Unfortunately, in 2021 the continued European economic unrest led to the complete collapse of the European Union, which significantly undermined the U.S. economy just as it was beginning to show signs of a modest recovery.
The terrorist acts of 2021 and 2022 in London, Tokyo, and Beijing demonstrated the vulnerability of U.S. cities to chemical and biological terrorism. The ensuing National Security Act of 2024, which led to the reorganization of the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security enabled the combined Departments to shed unwanted legacy weapons systems and reformed an antiquated and politically-driven acquisition process. The result was a significantly smaller force that leveraged emerging advancements in nano and biotechnologies. By 2028, further technological developments in robotics, space, and communications were thought sufficient to offset the large reductions in Defense and Homeland Security manpower. However, in order to provide human operators the virtual presence needed to operate robots around the world, all local, regional, and national databases were consolidated into the “one.” The “one” was hailed as a technological marvel that would enable the U.S. to reassert itself as the underwriter of global security.
Unfortunately, that marvel lasted less than a year as anti-globalization extremists hit the Internet with a sophisticated virus that shut down the entire global communications networks 11 months ago. Some networks were able to come back online but were immediately retargeted through secondary sources that had limited defensive capabilities. As a result of the inability to protect its networks from external sources, the U.S. disconnected itself from the global grid less than a month later.
Economic insecurities in Canada and Mexico over the past 10 months led to a steady flow of immigrants entering the U.S. that pushed an already stressed social system to its breaking point. After in-depth discussions with Congressional and industry leaders, the President decided that there were no other choices remaining--the borders with Canada and Mexico must be closed and the U.S. military would be the primary means to enforce the decree.
The President’s visible demeanor showed few signs of the internal stress he was feeling as he took his position behind the lectern in the Oval Office. “My fellow Americans—we have reached a point in U.S. history that few would have thought imaginable just a decade or two ago….”
The preceding scenario represents one glimpse into what 2030 might look like based upon the trajectory of the trends and conditions we are experiencing today. Globalization, transnational networks, and competition for resources are among a host of environmental factors that have created a global dynamic that is increasingly complex, interdependent, and susceptible to local or regional influences. Given these factors and the speed at which digital technologies demand the Joint Force operate, senior leaders no longer have the luxury to plan for the one “best” option; rather they must prepare the organization for a range of possibilities.
Comprised of many tools, strategic foresight is designed to make better and more-informed decisions in the near-, mid- and long-term term, and leverages environmental scanning as a means of monitoring the macro environment for indications that point toward the development of one or more potential outcomes. Developing a range of relevant alternatives—and perhaps even extreme—possible futures is valuable to an organization because it encourages the challenging of existing assumptions, considers “what if” and strategic implications, and emboldens planning and acting in strategic ways. By developing potential alternatives, the organization is thus better equipped to assess their preparedness for each possibility and identify existing gaps that may weaken their strategic position for future events. To better prepare our forces in a constrained fiscal environment, 21st Century Joint Force leaders must transform their approach to strategy and plan development from the linear intelligence-based thinking resident in the industrial age to one that embraces strategic foresight, to identify the complexities and uncertainties that mark today’s information environment.
The Capstone Concept for Joint Operations identifies the need for senior leaders capable of conducting operations against a wide-range of security challenges. Likewise, the Officer Professional Military Education Policy calls for “leaders capable of succeeding in fluid and perhaps chaotic operating environments” and who understand the “strategic implications of tactical actions and the consequences that strategic actions have on the tactical environment.” Integrating strategic foresight tools such as scenario development into Joint Professional Military Education curricula for mid-level and senior officers will help develop an appreciation for the nonlinearity, complexity, and uncertainty resident in the global environment. Building and practicing this new set of strategic competencies in future senior military leaders will also become essential to effectively advise and assist U.S. national civilian leaders who will determine our national security priorities in increasingly complex and connected environments.