A Memo for the President: The Path 2000 to 2060
The following essay is a fictional memo set in the year 2060 written by a future U.S. national security advisor to a future president that recounts the preceding four decades of U.S. military involvement.
This memo follows the post-mortem assessment used by LTC Matt Cavanaugh here, itself an homage to retired Major General Dunlap’s essay here. Unlike those pieces, however, this essay presents a more optimistic view based on a defense & intelligence community that made hard decisions and difficult investments in the 2020s which allowed the U.S. armed forces to prevail in contested conflicts throughout the rest of the century.
MEMO TO: POTUS
FROM: Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
DATE: 4 July 2060
SUBJECT: Reflection on Military Innovation
As you requested, my staff has assembled the retrospective analysis you ordered and this document will serve as my official response and recommendation for the future. We have labored against the natural pull of hindsight bias to understand, as you put it, “where we came from” and what led to the geopolitical and military situation facing us today in 2060.
In retrospect, we were foolish to believe we could anticipate fully the events that unfolded in the 2040s and should take caution today to avoid the hubris engendered by our modern technological means. A former secretary of defense earlier this century put it best, “When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right.”
However, a few key technological investments and organizational changes made at the right time in the 2020s and 30s did allow events to flow more smoothly than they otherwise might have. The important insight we made was that technology should enhance existing human capabilities, not replace it. The record seems clear that while several of our competitors made incremental advances in cyberspace, we were the first to understand how to best harness the predictive power of the information age. The Intelligence Community attempted to revitalize analytical capability in the wake of forecasting failures in the early 20th century. But it was not until the Intelligence Reform Act of 2025 that civilian and military organizations began to focus on improving predictive analysis in earnest. They saw that the key was to make all analysts accountable by scoring their assessments to establish a verifiable track record. Once the analysts who generated the most precise forecasts were identified, they were teamed with cutting edge quantum computing and advanced algorithms to better predict likely emerging conflict locations. Then, as now, they could make recommendations to proactively posture forces to forestall conflict, rather than reactively adjusting to the adversary’s moves and finding ways to win the conflict once they were already engaged. It is obvious, in retrospect, that the collapse of the former People’s Republic of China in 2042 would have been several orders of magnitude worse had our military and diplomatic efforts not been as ready as they were to deal with the human catastrophe.
From an organizational perspective, the sequential decision to (1) move US Cyber Command into its own warfighting command and ultimately (2) create the Vigilance Force as a separate uniformed Service was correct. This first act, to align functionally much as US Special Operations Command did in the late 20th century, was the necessary precursor toward a larger reorganization of all Defense Department forces. As we know, that type of large bureaucratic dislocation was not welcomed by the Services themselves. While it was necessary, it was not sufficient.
The turf wars of the 2020s were not settled until the anonymous bipartisan congressional commission proposed the National Defense Reorganization Act (NDRA) of 2027. That document and the sweeping changes it begat proved even more revolutionary than its predecessor 80 years prior. We are all now bearing the fruits of the decision to forego the deep historical ties that bound the military Services to their separate warfighting responsibilities. The NDRA, with its emphasis on a unified approach to policy and functional rather than Service-specific roles, allowed the Department of Defense to become the flexible force it is today.
The NDRA’s sweeping reforms and creative destruction are mostly remembered with disdain by thousands of our aging veterans who served honorably in a Service-specific culture. But few know the decision to realign by function was considered over 100 years ago during the Truman administration. Put simply, the NDRA created the agile forces at your disposal today. Further, it allowed us to maximize warfighting capability while minimizing bureaucratic infighting and wasteful cost redundancy that occurred when we fielded, for instance, ten different kinds of camouflage battle uniforms.
The Prompt Global Strike Force
The Prompt Global Strike Force (PGSF), the largest of the “New Services,” realigned the Air Force’s Air Combat and Global Strike commands, the Army’s Forces Command, and the Navy’s Fleet Forces Command under one, joint organization that was both a force provider and a war fighter. The Prompt Global Strike Force is what allowed us to decisively intervene in the 2045 Eastern Europe War so quickly after the dissolution of the People’s Republic of China in the Pacific theater.
Faced with an unalterable demographic cataclysm decades in the making, the former Russian Federation made one last offensive surge in 2045 before it collapsed for the second time under the weight of its insolvent economy. Scholars now note that Russia squandered its chance to diversify its economic portfolio during what would be the last oil boom in the mid-2000s. In failing to do so, Russia lived up to its description as a gas station pretending to be a country, as a former U.S. senator described it. In truth, geopolitical experts were shocked it had remained functioning to that point after the shale oil surge of the 2020s. Nevertheless, before its dissolution the former Russian Federation still maintained an impressive armada of land forces. However, Russia was, as ever, constrained by geography. While it was able to capitalize on the principle of mass, it was unable to adjust to the flexible onslaught provided by thousands of remotely-controlled land and air weapons.
For the PGSF, the key offensive asset in the Eastern Europe crisis was undoubtedly autonomous, swarming, remotely-commanded vehicles. The PGSF decentralized decision-making authority and, through the principles of mission command, flexibly responded to changes in battlefield conditions. The Russian forces fought according to Industrial Era warfare tactics and procedures and were simply overwhelmed by the speed of PGSF assets which dictated the tempo of operations. Counterintuitively, the PGSF was able to apply insurgency principles from the War on Terrorism in the early part of the century. When the former Russian forces gained any advantage, the PGSF would quickly execute a tactical retreat. When an advantage presented itself, battlefield captains attacked from land, sea, and air. The quick success of the PGSF resulted in a Europe whole, free, and at peace and ushered Russian bellicosity from the world stage.
A key technology enabler at the time was what the rudimentary communication device that ultimately became known as the Neural Transmit-Receive Link or the “NTL.” The US and Allied comparative advantage in battlefield-tested communications technology allowed operational-level decision making and tactical execution at unprecedented speeds. Networked commanders in the field employing a common, rather than Service-specific, cognitive operating picture were able to seize advantages quicker than the adversary. The main advantage of the NTL development was that it optically sensed which information was most important to the user, thus preventing information overload or spurious indications from decreasing the user’s situational awareness. The NTL allowed military operators to collapse the Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) loop. This was a decision-making concept popularized by a 20th century military theorist, which was adopted enthusiastically by the former US Marine Corps. The chief of the PGSF staff put it succinctly after the Battle of Vilnius, “Our OODA dot beat their OODA loop.”
The Rapid Mobility Force
The Rapid Mobility Force combined the war fighting techniques that each former Service refined in their own mobility units. The Navy’s Sealift Command, the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command, and elements of the Army’s Forces Command combined to provide unparalleled logistics advantages compared to the individual Services. As you will recall, Allied success at the Battle of Vilnius benefitted tremendously from the RMF’s ability to get our forces to the fight in greater numbers, faster than the adversary. However, these advantages manifested themselves most notably in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions that occurred with increasing frequency toward the middle of the 21st century. The most consequential instance of RMF success was in the response to the Indonesian Typhoon of 2053.
As we all know, destructive weather events and the resulting population displacement in and around the Indo-Pacific over the last twenty years shattered many parts of the region. In some cases, especially in the former PRC, they’ve contributed to full-scale regime change. Few foresaw the water-level would surmount not only the manmade islands that China used to build in the East China Sea, but eventually several miles of the mainland. Luckily, through the Vigilance Force’s remarkable prediction algorithms the RMF was able to quickly respond to subtle changes in weather patterns.
The response, however, was only the first step in the RMFs success. By leveraging what used to be quaintly known as “3D printing” the RMF was able to additively manufacture lifesaving supplies to scale. Nearly a century prior, the agricultural scientist Norman Borlaug was able to develop “dwarf wheat” which grew a thicker, shorter stem that would not buckle under its weight and could instead yield greater food supplies. In 2053 the ship that bore his name and others like it, saved millions of Indonesians from starvation. The Borlaug-Class vessels became acres of floating farmland on the ocean. Their sister vehicles, dedicated to medicine and shelter production, brought Coalition generosity to the world. The land, air, and sea-traversing RMF assets that provided humanitarian response and disaster relief are what my office assesses contributed to reducing anti-Western sentiment on the Asian subcontinent.
The Special Operations Force
Creating the Special Operations Force was a natural and easy evolution, relative to the conventional forces transition. The majority of these personnel had already existed in a semi-joint environment under the Special Operations Command for the better part of the early 21st century so a separate functional Service was the natural logical outcome. Their work, most notably in providing foreign internal defense, has paid tremendous dividends in both conflict prevention and, when political solutions failed, swift conflict resolution.
The cleavage separating the Muslim faith between Sunni and Shia adherents remains unresolved, as it has for centuries. Conflict rooted in religion masqueraded as civil wars throughout the early part of this century. These battles temporarily abated after the Saudi Crisis in the spring of 2031. The 2020s shale boom led to massive capital flight from Riyadh and the follow-on systemic economic crisis. In addition, the Saudis resented both the loss of the US as an ally and the regional influence of the Shiite-led Islamic Republic of Iran. Wary of a power transition in the Middle East, the Saudi’s first attacked Iranian proxies in Shia-dominated Bahrain. This preemptive strike, however, was different than its historical predecessors.
The Saudi Crisis represented the first widespread use of synthetic, non-lethal biological weapons. The Saudi’s goal was to forestall conventional confrontation, which they assumed they would lose. They attempted to employ a “stealth pathogen” which would not activate in its host until the proper time. Essentially, the Saudi’s tried to use Shia Bahrainis as bargaining chips until Iran provided economic concessions.
However, due to the rudimentary nature of the pathogen employed and the forward presence of US SOF members, the Saudis were unable to fully execute their plan. US technological advances in drone-based and wearable biological detection capability resulted in the standard issue of what was then known as smart “bio armor.” This defensive equipment included detectors woven into one’s uniform that monitored the user’s physical and cognitive well-being and communicated remotely with an assessment laboratory in the US.
Early bio-detection and subsequent attribution led to the fall of the House of Saud. From that crisis was born the fledgling, majority Sunni, democracy we now know as the Saudi Republic. Our bio-warfare technological advantage allowed the US to position the State Department to mediate the peaceful transition of power between the Saudi monarchy and its pseudo-democratic successor regime. It was an enduring example of how vigilance in the face of unknown threats is paramount in the information age.
The Vigilance Force
No change to the Service-specific structure was as disruptive, or met with as much resistance as, the creation of the Vigilance Force. The independent defense intelligence arms, which included the Army’s INSCOM, the Navy’s ONI, and the Air Force’s Intelligence Command (which itself was an outgrowth of the Air Force’s 25th Air Force), and the Defense Intelligence Agency merged into the national treasure we know today. They were able to combine the core competencies of intelligence analysis and ISR operations into one cohesive warfighting unit. This consolidation of the former defense intelligence agencies, however, only represented half of a much larger union. The advent of network-based attack, exploitation, and defense capabilities resulted in the need for these “cyber forces” to transfer from Cyber Command into the Vigilance Force. The resulting organization possessed the analytical backbone and the operational capabilities necessary for information age warfighting. Where intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance had for decades supported operations, it now became operations.
Massive private industry network attacks in 2022, as well as the worldwide recession that followed, made DoD support to commercial cyber defense palatable. Concurrently, Service-specific parochial interests in cyber capabilities too waned. The attacks on the civilian sector combined with the DoD’s awareness of its critical communication vulnerabilities spurred the reorganization and ultimately the development of quantum communication-based command and control.
The DoD’s solution to network disruption in the early to mid-2000s was to create garrison defenses and wall-off the problem. The protection proved inadequate against a slippery adversary. Network intrusions found every crack and crevice proving no bastion defense was secure enough. Illicit and black world organizations demonstrated that data encryption could only be realized once tamper-proof communications were possible. Quantum key encryption provided that possibility when it replaced public key infrastructure. Leveraging the properties of quantum entanglement allowed for trust in an inherently untrustworthy environment and ultimately permitted the data and communication security necessary for other technology like the NTL.
Once this communications architecture was in place to allow the seamless, secure passage of information, the IC next embarked on a program to enable strategic indications & warning. Here the 2020 quantum computing technology investments resulted in the true “offset” capability early century DoD leaders sought.
In the beginning of the 21st-century, intelligence professionals lamented they were “drowning in data” amidst the crushing volume of information they were unable to absorb. Forward-thinking analysts, however, understood that it was possible to make sense of this data by returning to first principles of intelligence analysis. Additionally, social scientists suggested that using a modicum of statistics and refined structured analytical techniques would result in more precise forecasts. By 2025, accurate quantitative probability estimates (50%, 60%, 75%) had replaced qualitative descriptors (“high / low confidence”). Quantum computing provided the means to harness the data environment and use it to precisely predict potential conflict scenarios. The resulting successes provided the justification to rebuke those who argued that mathematical probability would only engender a false sense of precision. And since quantitative, numerical descriptors had entered common parlance, decision makers were comfortable with and conversant in the statistical outputs this technology provided. Assisted by the quantum computer “Nittany,” (named after the mascot of the university where it was created) predictive intelligence analysts correctly predicted the collapse of the PRC. This foresight, above many other similar and important achievements, was the crowning achievement in the quest for accurate anticipatory intelligence analysis we had sought since Pearl Harbor. The warning Nittany provided paved the way for the reorganized, functionally-aligned US military to showcase its capability.
The Dissolution of the Middle Kingdom
Beginning around the middle of the 20th Century and extending until its collapse the former PRC sought to avenge what it termed its “Century of Humiliation.” The Chinese had always viewed themselves as the Middle Kingdom, a self-centered description that cast their empire as the center of civilization. By 2015 it appeared that the PRC was well on their way to becoming more than a regional superpower.
On paper their economy was strong and, based on outward appearance, their ambitions vast. Some geopolitical strategists hypothesized that waning American influence would give rise to greater Chinese territorial appetites in the Indo-Pacific region and elsewhere. But fissures were present.
By 2035 the Chinese economy was stagnant, hampered by bureaucratic ineptitude and encumbered by inefficient state-owned industries. Its military, owing to a warfighting doctrine untested in combat, was ill prepared for information age warfare despite state-of-the-art military assets. China found too late that acquiring military technology through espionage was easier than creating a joint, integrated warfighting force. Though they historically feared attack from their coast, and defended it with overlapping missile defenses, it was collapse from within that eventually proved fatal.
As with so many other revolutions, it was a peasant revolt that started the domino cascade. In 2040 the people of the Anhui province, who resented that their percentage of GDP wealth was so far below their richer neighboring provinces on the coast, began a popular uprising. Stagnant growth and income inequality mixed with demands for individual rights and political participation were a lethal combination. Compounding matters, repeated tsunamis that battered the coastline and forced large population movements inland increased tensions between the rural poor and coastal wealthy. The central government moved swiftly but the revolt spread faster than it could be contained.
Prior to the peasant rebellion, small elements of the PGSF were in place arrayed along the Chinese periphery. At the onset of the domestic turmoil, with quantum-driven algorithms indicating a high likelihood of eventual collapse, greater numbers of swarming air and naval PGSF assets augmented the existing force. The Chinese government sensed the likely catastrophic course of events and sought to shift blame to external foes in Tokyo and Seoul. In January 2041 it attempted a ballistic missile attack on forward basing locations to interdict the PGSF follow-on forces. Miniature overhead remotely controlled surveillance aircraft maintained a persistent eye and directed land and naval-based railguns who repelled the attack.
The Battle of the Pacific followed as the Vigilance Force directed where to posture PGSF assets in order to best defend allied nations. The “untethered operations” concept and allowed the adversary to wear itself out while our agile forces rapidly relocated. The US national command authority recognized that once the former PRC failed to secure an early decisive victory it would struggle to ever gain offensive leverage. In this fight, the US’s information dominance allowed coalition partners to outwait the conflict while sustaining manageable casualties.
Once the air and naval force-on-force fighting ended, democratic elements of what we now know as the Chinese Federation partnered with coalition to secure the country against remaining pockets of mainland loyalists. Here land components of the PGSF assisted by RMF mobility assets proved crucial in swiftly capitalizing on maneuver warfare gains. Assisted by Special Operations Force personnel, they rapidly defeated the loyalist forces that had been heavily weighted toward coastal air defense at the expense of ground warfare.
The Present Peace Dividend?
In summary, Mr. President, we are faced with opportunities and challenges in this fleeting era of tranquility. We must be vigilant in peace and invest in our people.
Shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of the last century international relations theorists and even President George H.W. Bush noted that we might begin to recoup a “peace dividend.” The declining likelihood of open conflict in Europe engendered a misplaced sense of security then. It is tempting to do so in 2060. We must not rest upon our successes.
Our forces are better postured now than they have ever been. Additionally, we possess precise predictive capabilities and information advantages today of which our predecessors would not have dreamt. Nevertheless, technology has not eliminated the possibility of surprise and there exists a gap between our optimal future and reality.
We have opportunities to build on the two major technological innovations that have transformed our society: cognitive science and quantum telecommunications. Our research indicates that in the near future these realms will merge. We must continue to pursue the path of science and seize the opportunities technology offers.
It is tempting to assume that the technological breakthroughs we make will ultimately render the human being irrelevant. The current hype regarding quantum technology reinforces this seductive possibility. At times it seems as though we indulge too much in our fascination for technology and the tools we conjure. The 20th century science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke said as much in his Third Law, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But since the first human brain devised the first wheel, the former has been the sine qua non of technological innovation. Machines will assist our endeavors, but developing innovative solutions will be a space the human mind always occupies. Therefore, we must continue to use technology to extend the reach of the human mind, not to preclude its use.
The opinions reflected here are those of the author and do not represent those of the United States Air Force or the Department of Defense.