Small Wars Journal

The National Intelligence Council: The Upcoming Global Trends 2035 Report

Mon, 05/30/2016 - 7:33pm

The National Intelligence Council: The Upcoming Global Trends 2035 Report

David T. Miller

In the run up to this summer’s nominating conventions, both parties’ front-runners have intensified their campaign rhetoric about a range of issues, especially foreign policy. Behind the scenes, foreign policy advisors work tirelessly to provide the candidates with robust talking points on a range of geopolitical challenges. And in a few short months, the victor’s transition team will receive advice and assistance from the Obama administration as they shift from campaigning to governing.

The incoming president’s administration will also receive another important source of analysis in shaping the foreign policy agenda—the quadrennial Global Trends report produced by the National Intelligence Council (NIC). This report, compiled by the NIC in conjunction with experts across academia, civil society, industry, and government, is provided to the new administration “to aid policymakers in their long term planning on key issues of worldwide importance.”[i]

The new Global Trends 2035 report will be read by a range of policymakers throughout the government, but perhaps none as eagerly as within the Department of Defense (DoD). Over the past few years, the DoD and military services have responded to a more austere fiscal environment by emphasizing the importance of preparing to counter future threats to the Joint Force. For example, in defending the department’s proposed fiscal year 2017 budget in February, Defense Secretary Ash Carter highlighted a number of investments in advanced technology. He emphasized that, along with readiness, such modernization “is important because our military has to have the agility and ability to win not only the wars that could happen today, but also the wars that could happen in the future.”[ii]

When security analysts consider future threats and capabilities, technological innovation often dominates the discussion. New technologies will cause the future battlefield, in many respects, to look vastly different from recent conflicts. Automated manufacturing will disrupt traditional logistics chains and may enable more rapid forward basing and resupply. Advanced robotics, including semi- or fully-autonomous machines, may take the lead from manned systems in the air, on land and sea, and sub-sea. Nanotechnology will lead to new composite materials, enhancing survivability and camouflage. And in the promising field of synthetic biology, future forward-deployed medical teams may be able to 3D print replacement organs or deploy teams of nanomachines into a patient’s bloodstream to save countless lives. But while technological predictions capture the imagination, five additional factors will prove equally important in both causing and shaping future conflict: demographics, economics, geopolitics, power diffusion, and connectedness.

First, consider demographics. How will the world deal with a growing population, with the largest increases occurring in areas most susceptible to resource shortages? While growing, the global population is also aging at an unprecedented rate. The U.S. and its allies will clearly face continued defense budget pressures given cash-strapped social programs. 3D printing and automation threaten to displace millions of jobs over the coming decades, exacerbating growing structural unemployment in many advanced economies. And all net population growth over the coming thirty years will occur in urban areas, especially in “megacities” of 10 million or more people—many of which are located along the coasts in areas most vulnerable to climate change.

While the global population is growing, it is also becoming more interconnected. Currently 25 billion devices are connected to the Internet of Things, and some project that number may grow to an incredible 50 trillion by the year 2045.[iii] As connected devices proliferate, the amount of data generated globally is growing exponentially—representing significant concerns for both security and privacy. And as people continue to form like-minded groups online across physical borders, existing governance structures (at all levels) will face mounting challenges. While states will likely remain the preeminent political block, they will likely face growing difficulties in exerting their will. And as the rapid rise of the Islamic State highlights, non-state groups will only increase in sophistication, reach, and capability. Non-state threats such as Hezbollah have already employed weaponized drones offensively.[iv] As advanced weapon systems proliferate over the coming decades, these groups will pose a much more difficult challenge to conventional militaries.

Geopolitical and economic changes will also prove important in the evolution of future conflict. Will the emergence of a hegemonic China increase conflict in the Pacific, or will the U.S. and China be able to escape the Thucydides trap? Most projections suggest China will surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest economy in real GDP sometime in the 2020s, yet the country faces both significant debt and aging headwinds and its growth is already beginning to slow beyond many economists’ estimates. Alternatively, regional ally India may play an even more important role in defining the security environment in the Asia-Pacific over the coming decades. The effectiveness of traditional international regimes may erode, while new ones may emerge. And the cyber domain may fundamentally alter the balance of security regimes—or even concepts of offense, defense, and deterrence.

While some of the aforementioned ideas may seem far-fetched, analysts and policymakers alike must continually challenge their assumptions when considering the types of threats the U.S. military will likely face in the future. While much attention has been paid to the technology side of future conflict, perhaps equally (if not more) important are the social, cultural, political, and economic factors that underpin both modern and likely future warfare. We shall soon see if the forthcoming Global Trends 2035 appropriately tackles such a range of future threats—and what the incoming administration plans to do about them.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

End Notes

[i] U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence. “National Intelligence Council – Global Trends.” Accessed May 13, 2016.

[ii] Carter, Ash. “Remarks by Secretary Carter on the Budget at the Economic Club of Washington, D.C.” Transcript of speech. U.S. Department of Defense, February, 2, 2016.

[iii] UK MoD Development, Concepts, and Doctrine Center, Global Strategic Trends—Out to 2045, 5th ed. (London: MOD, 2014), 80,

[iv] Chris Abbott, Matthew Clarke, Steve Hathorn, and Scott Hickie. Hostile Drones: The Hostile Use of Drones by Non-State Actors Against British Targets. (London: The Remote Control Project, Open Briefing, Oxford Research Group, January 2016).


About the Author(s)

Major David T. Miller is a U.S. Army military intelligence officer and instructor of American Politics at the United States Military Academy, where he teaches a course on the U.S. Congress and is developing a course on the future of national security. His recent report, Defense 2045: Assessing the Future Security Environment and Implications for Defense Policymakers, is available through the Center for Strategic and International Studies.