Describing potential adversaries towards 2045

Pär Gustafsson,
DPhil (Oxon), Senior Analyst,
Swedish Defence Research Agency – FOI

To ask a question about the title is reasonable: Is it even possible to “describe” the future? My answer is a carefully worded “Yes”. As a starting point, I take a recent report by the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI). In the report, I describe a framework for thinking about the future in a 25-year perspective. The aim is to help us think systematically about the great unknown, the future. While using the method does not promise a clear picture of a potential adversary’s military capability towards 2045, it does aim to help us see the forest instead of only the trees. This is where the method’s promise lies, in its ability to help us think in a systematic way. It can be used as a starting point for a discussion about a potential adversary’s future military capabilities.

In a famous remark, John Maynard Keynes aptly describes a key problem in strategic forecasting: We must try to overcome our tendency to prefer the familiar in order to have a chance to imagine what may come. Put differently, when we try to imagine the future, we are often hindered by our own aversion to deviation from our perception of the trajectory we are on. For a long time in post-Cold War Sweden, the perception was that we had entered a never-ending era of peace. This perception hindered some political actors from seeing what was taking place in the world. After the Russo-Georgian war of 2008 and, in particular, after the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and the war in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, this perception changed. Today, Swedish defence policy assumes that war between states is not, unfortunately, a thing of the past. As a form of preparedness, although a systematic method cannot guarantee that we avoid all the traps of forecasting, it increases the probability that we will.

The simple framework I describe here consists of the following parts:

  • Background factor: Societal development
  • Background factor: Economic development
  • Background factor: Technological development
  • Trendbreakers
  • Scenario Recapitulation

In order to say something about the future, we should start with the best available evidence of trends in the factors regarding society, economy, and technology. While data always concerns time that has passed, such historical data can help us carefully extrapolate trends into the future; the aim is to create a scenario about the opportunities and obstacles for producing military capability in the future, for instance around 2045. At FOI, we have used this simple framework in our research about the technological factor, in the case of Russia. The results will provide a building block in our ongoing research project about Russian military capability. While the method is not aimed at a specific state actor, it makes sense for Swedish defence analysts to focus on Russia, due to the proximity and activities of the Russian state.

The background factors should be researched using the best available evidence, with the results then used to carefully extrapolate the trends towards 2045. The trends in society, economics, and technology help us create a scenario about the opportunities and obstacles in producing military capability in the future. And the next step is what can be called Scenario Recapitulation, in which one uses the scenario about the production limits in 2045 in order to create scenarios about several possible alternatives in military capability. While this method is not foolproof in any way, one of its main advantages is that it offers a framework for collaborative research.

Last, but not least, is the role of the concept of trendbreakers. A trendbreaker can be defined as a process or event that changes the playing field dramatically. It can be either foreseeable, but with unforeseeable consequences, or entirely unforeseeable. It is epistemologically important to spend time generating trendbreakers that may change, for better or worse, the trends in society, economy, and technology. This is increasingly important the further into the future one tries to see.

In order to test the value of the framework proposed, I applied the method to the case of Russian military capability in 2045. Here, I jump straight to the key scenarios about what Russia’s military trajectory might look like. Since I am focusing on the main scenarios, I of course omit a great deal. The scenarios are (1) “more of the same” and (2) “new military thinking, new equipment”.

The careful trajectory in the first scenario stresses that there will be few dramatically new military-technological inventions towards 2045, and that Russia’s armed forces will continue to rely on the military thinking on tank warfare that emerged during the Second World War. There are signs today, such as extensive up-grading of Soviet-era equipment, which indicate that this might indeed be the case. The trajectory in the second scenario stresses that new military thinking about new technologies, such as autonomous weapons systems, will create a rift with the past, and dramatically increase Russia’s military effectiveness.

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