Dispatches from the War in 2030
It's not all quiet on the hypersonic missile front
LAST WEEK, I LAUNCHED THE RUCK under the banner of unpacking the future of national security, so it’s only fitting that the first thing I write about is a fascinating study called The Future of Warfare in 2030.
The crux of the research effort was this: Several years ago, the U.S. Air Force approached the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit think tank headquartered in Santa Monica, California, and said hey, we’ve got to develop our long-term strategy. Do us a favor: Figure out who we will fight a decade from now and what that war will look like. Oh, and can you tell us why?
Seems easy enough.
Researchers pulled various data sets, interviewed hundreds of government, military, academic, and policy experts, and tried writing a dispatch from the war in 2030. But even they acknowledged this inquiry was no picnic. In fact, the first few chapters of the report underscored how hard the war-prediction business is.
But here was their “bottom line up front”—with the last part emphasized (by me) since it’s a big worry of national security observers:
“…the United States will confront a series of deepening strategic dilemmas in 2030. U.S. adversaries—China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and terrorist groups—will likely remain constant, but U.S. allies are liable to change, and the location of where the United States is most likely to fight wars may not match the locations where conflicts could be most dangerous to U.S. interests. The joint force will likely face at least four types of conflict, each requiring a somewhat different suite of capabilities, but the U.S. ability to resource such a diverse force will likely decline. Above all, barring any radical attempt to alter the trajectory, the United States in 2030 could progressively lose the initiative to dictate strategic outcomes and to shape when and why the wars of the future occur.”
The 103-page report is worth reading, but today I’ll break down what’s driving that aforementioned trajectory with six geopolitical trends researchers say will “shape the future of conflict in profound ways.” And since it’s now a few years after this research was carried out—and two years into the decade studied—I think the future of war report is worth revisiting and taking stock of whether the academics were right.
I’ll unpack only a few of these, but now, drum roll… 🥁 here are the six trends:
U.S. polarization and retrenchment
A revanchist Russia
Upheaval in Europe
Turmoil in the Islamic world
The U.S. is getting more polarized
If you’re reading this in the United States, it’s probably no surprise to hear that America is “increasingly polarized,” producing political gridlock that limits “U.S. ability to do the tasks necessary to act effectively as a global superpower,” according to the report.
This trend is spot on, and it’s getting worse. Republicans and Democrats don’t like each other, but they have usually agreed to support the troops and the military, an organization that prides itself on being apolitical. In a polarized world, even that support is up in the air depending on who is in charge.
“Growing shares in each party now describe those in the other party as more closed-minded, dishonest, immoral and unintelligent than other Americans,” says a poll released this month by Pew Research Center. Historically, it’s been almost a national pastime for Americans to hate on Congress, but the decline of our trust in each other and in the military is a more recent development that follows an increase in partisanship.
Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has felt this firsthand, having sustained unprecedented attacks from both the left and right in recent years—but he’s a high-ranking figure advising the president, and criticism is to be expected.
But this trend has sadly evolved to feature lawmakers attacking junior-ranking U.S. military service members, like this 20-something Army corporal, as “woke,” and right-wing commentators calling for Americans to “stop feeding their children into the machine” of military recruiters aligned with the deep state.
“The American Right must be willing to starve the Pentagon of its lifeblood,” wrote one former Marine officer in September 2021. Polarization is not the only explanation, but it’s certainly a factor in the military’s recruiting crisis.
China is rising, and its military is getting stronger
Many analysts see a potential battle between the United States and China over the fate of Taiwan, a tiny island democracy fueling the global supply of semiconductors. (According to one recent war game, such a battle would exact “very high” costs on U.S. forces in the Pacific.)
There’s little doubt that Beijing has ambitions to become the dominant global superpower, and it’s on the path to overtaking the United States as the world’s largest economy. If all goes as Chinese President Xi Jinping hopes, its military will also be a “world-class” military power by 2049.
It could happen sooner. According to a recent U.S. Naval Institute News report, the Chinese Navy “possesses the resources to field up to five aircraft carriers and 10 nuclear ballistic missile submarines by 2030,” citing the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. (The U.S. Navy currently has 11 aircraft carriers and 14 ballistic missile submarines.)
That kind of hardware will come in handy as China continues to project military power beyond its shores and uses muscle to safeguard the economic investments it has made worldwide since 2013.
“What happens when the [People’s Liberation Army] embarks next time around on even more provocative activities?” asked Roderick Lee, research director at the U.S. Air Force China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI), during a discussion on Monday about recent PLA military exercises antagonizing Taiwan that analysts have coined the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis.
“What happens if China begins to orient some of these military deterrence activities towards the United States?”
The diplomatic war in Asia is ramping up
As all of this occurs, plenty of nations are trying to figure out whether to join Team USA or Team PLA. “Particularly in Asia,” states are “rethinking whether to get on the bandwagon with or to balance against China’s rise,” the report says.
As if on cue, the Solomon Islands signed a security pact with China earlier this year that worries U.S. diplomats and has Australia and New Zealand thinking it could be the site of the next Chinese naval base. Meanwhile, the Philippines—a U.S. treaty ally and “important security partner”—seems to be moving toward warmer relations with Beijing, including cooperation between militaries. So this trend is on point—and it’s one to keep an eye on.
Diplomats have their work cut out for them as many developing nations try to gauge who’s the strongest, most reliable partner.
“In 2030, the United States likely will not have a quantitative advantage, and its relative qualitative military edge might also decline, particularly in relation to China,” the report says. In other words: In less than a decade, the U.S. military will be smaller and may not be as good as China’s military in some areas.
Russia will keep vying for world’s worst neighbor
According to the Rand report, Russia is “arguably a declining power” but is “growing more aggressive” in Moldova, Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine.
Growing more aggressive seems cute in retrospect. Though Russian troops first invaded Ukraine in 2014, Moscow’s full-scale war on Kyiv began on Feb. 24, 2022, and has officially crossed the six-month mark, morphing into a war of attrition with no end in sight.
Russia has taken up to 80,000 casualties in the country, depending on whose estimate you believe. And yet, the war in Ukraine grinds on.
Still, we’ve learned much about Russia this year, especially its military—which was considered somewhat competent until its bungled invasion. “Ukraine has shown that good leadership and training—of which it has plenty, but Russia has very little—make all the difference,” says Marine Col. John “Buss” Barranco, a senior fellow at The Atlantic Council. Also making a difference: billions of dollars in weapons and training from the United States.
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SO WHERE WILL American troops be fighting in 2030? And why? I’ll save you some time: No one really knows.
Even top national security leaders with decades of experience often prepare for one conflict and fight another. “I have never fought anywhere I expected to in all my years,” then-Gen. James Mattis testified to the Senate in March 2011.
Predicting where U.S. troops may fight next is hard, but national security leaders can’t stop trying since a million decisions need to be made today on various issues—defense budgeting, research and development, personnel planning—with huge implications for success on the battlefield tomorrow. But, according to Rand:
“The mismatch between the most likely and the most-dangerous places that the United States might fight wars means that U.S. defense strategists will face an ongoing conundrum in allocating resources: Do they prepare for the wars that the United States almost assuredly will fight? Or do they prepare for the wars that the United States hopes to avoid at all costs?”
I can make one prediction about the future of war with conviction, regardless of the year: It will be awful, as it always is, for civilians, veterans, and soldiers living in a world of hypersonic missiles, drone swarms, and artificially-intelligent sensors. I’d be quite satisfied if politicians from warring states held public fist fights instead and saved us the trouble.
But I’m not in charge! And ultimately, if the United States wants to maintain its position as the world’s only global military superpower (it does), researchers concluded that Americans should expect to see a cast of characters in Beijing, Moscow, Tehran, and Pyongyang continue to challenge and frustrate Washington for quite a while. The problem is—the military at D.C.’s disposal won’t be the easy button it was in years past.
So what, ultimately, is the future of war? Not great:
“There will be multiple great powers vying for influence, as occurred in the run-up to World War I; an erosion of free trade and international institutions, as preceded World War II; the presence of nuclear weapons to limit the conflict, as happened in the Cold War; ongoing Islamic terrorism, as defined the early 2000s, and a host of other trends that the world has never seen before.”
I'll keep an eye on all of these things and keep you updated. But so far, academics seem to be mostly right about the future of war. Although frankly, these never-before-seen “host of other trends” do not appeal to me.
Thanks for reading,
I'd love to see a series focused on a deeper dive into each of these six factors followed by a fuller analysis of the tradeoffs and decisions policy makers are facing.
I can’t imagine the polarization getting better anytime soon. The post 9/11 days of deference to the DoD are (for better or worse) gone and unlikely to return.