MoD Strategic Trends Programme Global Strategic Trends – Out to 2045

Background and Intent

The Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre’s Strategic Trends Programme is a continuous programme of research that seeks to provide policy-makers with a context for long-term decision-making. Ultimately, Global Strategic Trends is designed to inform policy-makers as they grapple with the opportunities and threats that the future could bring. And the choices that they make could have as great an impact on the future as the trends themselves.

The 5th edition of Global Strategic Trends, published by the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC), describes a future context for defence and security out to 2045 for those in the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and wider Government who are involved in developing long-term plans, policies and capabilities. Document Researchers from the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC) consulted widely with experts, academics, other government departments, and with countries and institutions from around the world to develop a comprehensive analysis of the future.

As well as providing a strategic context, the 5th edition of Global Strategic Trends (GST 5) identifies long term threats and opportunities, out to 2045. GST describes those phenomena that could have a significant impact on the future and combines these differing perspectives to produce a multifaceted picture of possible outcomes.

 

Methodology

GST 5 aims to describe possible futures to provide a strategic context for policy- and decision-makers across Government. Thirteen broad thematic areas have been, with eight geographic regions and a section on space. Some trends (most notably those relating to economics, religion, technology and globalisation) are so important that they run through all of the subject areas.

The starting point for GST is identifying trends (discernable patterns of change) – an example is the growth in world population. The next step is projecting those trends forward 30 years, analysing their potential consequences and using this to build a series of pictures of what the future could look like in 2045. Finally, these components are combined to produce a strategic context, including defence and security implications, against which policies, capabilities and plans can be tested and refined. Key scenarios illustrate how these trends could interact and shocks provide the reader with examples of how the strategic context could be radically altered by unexpected events. In addition, alternative outcomes emphasise that there are several possible ways trends could impact on the future.

 

Part 1

Following a complex mapping GST 5 identified 13 clusters of trends and drivers with particularly strong linkages. This provides the overall structure for the document. Some trends (most notably those relating to economics, religion, technology and globalisation), run through all of the following groups, and are discussed as they arise rather than in their own sections. The 13 overarching themes are:

Demography:

  • Areas with larger youth populations and poor governance are likely to suffer from instability, which could lead to unrest or conflict within the 2045 timeframe.
  • Lack of integration of migrant groups could exacerbate social tensions.
  • Technological developments will probably allow diasporas to remain more closely connected to their native countries. Consequently, issues from homelands are likely to be brought into host countries, and vice versa. Diasporas may also provide an impetus for governments to intervene – or refrain from interfering – in their citizens’ countries of origin.

Gender:

  • Many of the world’s defence and security organisations are likely to incorporate specific gender equality targets.
  • Increasing numbers of women are likely to have front-line combat roles in armed forces worldwide, mirrored by growing number of females participating in armed resistance movements and terrorist groups.
  • Sexual violence will almost certainly continue to be a feature of conflict and state violence. Used as a weapon of war, sexual violence can be a significant factor in instability. However, countries and their armed forces are likely to face greater international scrutiny and legislation against such activities.

Urbanisation:

  • Rapid urbanisation and inadequate socio-economic infrastructure are likely to increase the number and scale of densely populated slums. Such areas are likely to be more prone to social unrest.
  • Failed and failing cities, in both developed and developing countries, could pose major security challenges (such as social unrest and even insurgencies) with the potential for country-wide repercussions. If more people live in urban areas, security and armed forces will almost certainly need to operate in this environment to a greater extent. Adversaries could range from government-controlled militaries to armed non-state groups with criminal or malign ideological intent.
  • Urbanisation concentrates populations, potentially making them more vulnerable to the effects of natural disasters, disease and deliberate acts of violence. With most urban areas in coastal regions, cities are likely to be particularly vulnerable to the effects of rising sea levels.
  • People living in slums could be more susceptible to communicable diseases, which could then spread globally as a result of increased connectivity between cities.

Resources:

  • Competition over some resources is likely to intensify and exacerbate existing political and security tensions, potentially acting as a catalyst for intra- and inter-state conflict.
  • Demand for food may outstrip supply, leading to a rise in costs. Food shortages could lead to sharp price spikes, which could result in instability in those areas unable to absorb the increase.
  • Climate change could contribute to increasing incidences of crop failure, potentially causing disruption to global food supplies.
  • Growing use of nuclear energy raises the possibility of fissile material being obtained by non-state actors as well as countries operating outside international laws, potentially causing security threats.
  • A reduced requirement for Middle Eastern oil by the US, coupled with a shift in the Middle Eastern markets toward Asia, could bring the US commitment to defence of Middle East export routes into question. However, US involvement in the Arabian Gulf is unlikely to alter significantly. But the US may look to other countries, including China and the EU, to play a greater role in security provision in the Middle East.

The Environment:

  • Extreme weather events, such as flooding and droughts, are likely to increase in both frequency and intensity in a number of regions. Extreme events will almost certainly continue to cause widespread damage and loss of life, although our warning mechanisms, defences and ability to respond may also improve in the same timeframe.
  • Reductions in the extent of summer Arctic sea-ice could open up new shipping routes during the summer months and boost economic growth in the region – increasing its strategic significance for many countries.
  • Degraded and threatened environments are likely to lead to affected communities migrating – with potentially destabilising consequences.
  • Armed and security forces, both at home and abroad, are likely to be more frequently tasked with providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, perhaps supporting indigenous responders.
  • Without mitigation measures such as carbon capture and storage, continued reliance on coal and hydrocarbons for the majority of energy demand may exacerbate climate change and its knock-on effects.

Health:

  • Antimicrobial-resistant infection could significantly increase medical risk on military operations.
  • Novel medical and surgical interventions will almost certainly improve casualties’ survival, and recovery rates.
  • Advances that allow patients to interact with their prosthetics and other aids are likely to lead to new ways to connect the able-bodied to machines and computers.
  • Some countries (and individuals) are likely to use advanced medical techniques, such as genetic modification, to gain a competitive advantage. Others will probably constrain their development for ethical reasons.

Transport:

  • The development of driverless vehicles could provide benefits such as safer and more reliable transport, reducing the need to put drivers and pilots, particularly of transport vehicles, into harm’s way.
  • Greater reliance on automated technologies could provide scope for terrorists and criminals to disrupt the transport system through cyber attacks.
  • Advances in propulsion and design are likely to provide faster and more efficient transport.
  • Developments such as additive manufacturing, automated inventory management and remotely piloted and unmanned transport systems are likely to bring significant efficiencies to logistics but also increase its technical complexity.

Information:

  • Quantum computing could make all codes ‘crackable’ and genuine encryption impossible, as a quantum computer could theoretically try every possible combination of codes simultaneously to unlock a system. If this is the case, armed and security forces may have to physically separate their computer systems from the Internet, posing huge problems for networking and efficiency. Alternatively quantum cryptography could guarantee security of a message.
  • Better gathering and analysis of data could vastly improve our understanding of physical and virtual environments. Predicting crime hotspots could enable more targeted deployment of police officers. Greater awareness of deficits and surpluses may make logistics more efficient. Similarly, detailed and rapid analysis of social networks could provide a deeper understanding of the local population, its culture and the environment.
  • As more of our work and social activities depend on interconnected information and communications networks – which may, in places, be extremely vulnerable to attack – there could be more opportunities for criminals and terrorists to have a greater impact on our day-to-day lives. Similarly the ability to keep secrets is likely to become increasingly difficult.
  • Connectivity of assets with strategic importance (such as those relating to national infrastructure) is likely to increase. Although this is likely to lead to gains in efficiency, it may also make such assets more vulnerable.
  • An increasing number of devices capable of collecting sensor data could intensify levels of surveillance. Stealth vehicles may find it more difficult to remain hidden and the ability to prosecute covert operations, especially in urban environments, is likely to become more technically challenging. This is particularly significant given the probable increase in the size of urban areas, along with the growing use of surveillance to prevent crime.
  • As the number of connected ‘public’ sensors increases, the information advantage currently enjoyed by countries’ defence and security forces could be eroded or even reversed as adversaries, including non-state actors, attain similar levels of situational awareness.

Education:

  • Global education levels are likely to increase, but educational inequalities will probably persist, entrenching social discontentment and allowing youth disaffection to continue.
  • In the new education and training mix facilitated by employers, online and virtual blended learning are likely to predominate, though formal face-to-face learning is unlikely to die out completely.
  • Some countries may begin to educate and train children assessed as having the potential to succeed in specific careers (including in the armed forces) from a very young age.

Automation & Work:

  • Automated manufacturing techniques and practices may lead to economic destabilisation, as there is less need to use cheap labour. This may disproportionately affect emerging economies that would otherwise have benefited from out-sourced production arising from inexpensive labour.
  • There may be public mistrust of, and resistance to, using unmanned systems (and robots in particular).
  • Unmanned systems are likely to have an increasing role in combat, potentially transforming the way that wars are fought. Military decision-making is likely to remain a human preserve, at least in western countries, but it is possible that the actual fighting will no longer be a solely human endeavour.
  • There is unlikely to be global legal and ethical agreement on the way in which military unmanned systems should be employed.
  • If combat is primarily conducted by machines, with much less human involvement, it may become more publicly and politically acceptable, and possibly more likely.
  • The cost of unmanned systems is likely to fall, while the ease of manufacturing complex items rises, making unmanned systems much more widespread and harder to regulate. Criminal and terrorist groups are likely to find it easier to gain, hold and use unmanned capabilities.

Corruption & Money:

  • In the majority of cases, corruption will almost certainly continue to be a destabilising factor. This will disproportionately affect the poor.
  • As corruption continues to prevent some aid money from reaching its intended recipients, donor countries may increasingly use direct investment as an alternative.
  • The expansion of alternative currencies may make it easier to transfer and retain funds anonymously and hence harder for governments to freeze criminals’ assets or sanction rogue regimes. Criminal and terrorist groups may also find it easier to transfer funds between jurisdictions.
  • Out to 2045, alternative (non-state backed) currencies are likely to grow, having some effect on governments’ ability to raise revenues.
  • The US dollar’s status as the pre-eminent reserve currency may be eroded making it more difficult for the US to fund its debt. This may lead to cuts in the US’s defence spending and limit its international role.

Identity & Role of the State:

  • The pressures of globalisation are likely to mean that individual countries will find it increasingly difficult to act unilaterally – most countries are likely to be less powerful. This could reduce conflict.
  • The state is still likely to have the most important voice in international affairs, but out to 2045 the private sector and non-state organisations are likely to grow more influential. There is likely to be an increase in the use of private security companies by governments – interdependencies may strengthen, despite their largely separate motivations.
  • Non-state actors, such as multinational corporations, are likely to grow in influence and some may develop highly capable security forces. The private sector and nongovernmental organisations are likely to increase their influence over government policy-making as developed states rely on them for providing services and as they gain greater control over markets, resources and infrastructure in fragile states.
  • Advances in communications technology may increasingly enable those who are discontent with local forms of governance to challenge it, in pursuit of perceived betterment.
  • Some augmentation of humans with embedded sensors and computing devices is likely to occur within the 2045 timeframe. This may provide advantages such as improved situational awareness, health monitoring and the ability to modify physiological and psychological states to increase performance and enhance resilience.
  • Mind-controlled machinery is likely to become much more sophisticated, with human brain-to-brain communication possible by 2045.

Defence Spending & Capabilities:

  • The US and China are likely to have similarly sized defence budgets by 2045, potentially out-spending the rest of the world.
  • India could have a defence budget equivalent to the EU’s total spending on defence. This would put India in a ‘second tier’ of global defence expenditure, with a ‘third tier’ (comprising countries such as France, Germany, Russia and the UK).
  • The link between expenditure and capability is not straightforward. Domestic political problems may undermine the effectiveness of some countries’ armed forces. Other countries may choose not to develop global military reach.
  • Increasing real-terms equipment costs indicate that platforms will become ever more expensive. Higher levels of defence spending may not lead to armed forces larger than today’s.

 

Part 2

Where a geographical relationship has been identified, the theme is cross-referenced to the appropriate geographical analysis. Drawing on region-specific research, and expanding on the observations made in Part 1, the next part considers regional and (where appropriate) country-specific effects of themes, trends and drivers. The second part of GST 5 focuses on what 2045 may look like in eight regional groups as well as Space:

Northern America:

  • While Northern America’s economic outlook is positive, US debt could grow, with significant ramifications for its future.
  • Although China is likely to surpass the US in terms of GDP, the US is still likely to remain, militarily, the most powerful country in the world.
  • A reduced need for Middle Eastern oil is unlikely to alter significantly the US commitment to the region, which will almost certainly continue to have a significant bearing on global stability and security.
  • NATO is likely to remain the key security alliance for Northern American countries, although US (and possibly Canadian) commitments elsewhere in the world may mean that European countries will have to take on more of the burden of maintaining security in their region.
  • There are a number of issues and treaties which may involve the US and China in armed conflict – with potentially dire consequences regionally and globally.
  • The Arctic is likely to be an increasingly important region for Northern America. The US and Canada (and possibly Greenland) are likely to grow military capabilities that can operate there.

Latin America & the Caribbean:

  • A mature military-industrial complex will probably be a feature of the wealthier Latin American countries by 2045.
  • While a Latin American arms race is unlikely, some countries are likely to have much more capable armed forces by 2045 than at present, with world-class capabilities in some areas.
  • A regional state-on-state conflict is unlikely to occur.
  • The emergence of a nuclear-armed country in Latin America by 2045 cannot be ruled out, despite existing treaties to the contrary. The resources and knowledge to create nuclear weapons will almost certainly be present in a number of countries in the region.
  • More Latin American countries and their militaries are likely to become increasingly active internationally.
  • It is not likely that a narco-state will emerge in Latin America or the Caribbean by 2045, but drug cartels are likely to continue to have significant influence in a number of countries for the foreseeable future.

Europe:

  • Countries in Europe are likely to agree on the broad nature of security challenges facing the continent, but will probably disagree over how to address them. However, on a sub-regional level, defence cooperation is likely to increase to maximise scarce resources. Operational responsibilities (such as air and sea surveillance) will almost certainly continue to be shared, and resources pooled. Military capabilities are likely to be jointly developed and procured.
  • European countries’ defence spending is unlikely to increase significantly without a major threat.
  • NATO is likely to remain the key organisation for military crisis management, although its cohesion may be challenged by diverse threat perceptions, a US focus on Asia and internal disagreement on its global role. The Alliance could be reinvigorated by the need to band together to address a deteriorating security situation in Europe’s near abroad.
  • Russia is likely to remain an influential regional power. Its assertiveness and power politics may cause future European security challenges.

Middle East & North Africa:

  • MENA is highly likely to remain a volatile region over the next 30 years and the possibility of major regional conflict cannot be ruled out. The possible thawing of relations between Iran and the US could have significant implications for regional security.
  • Socio-economic factors, including disparity in wealth, gender inequality and poor education, are likely to be the underlying causes of much of the unrest and sometimes violent conflict within MENA.
  • Identity politics in the region, particularly sectarianism, are likely to continue to be used as a mobilising factor in conflict.
  • Internal terrorist threats are likely to continue, as are attacks on other nations from groups based in the region. Although Al-Qaida has been damaged in recent years, Islamic fundamentalism will almost certainly continue to fuel terrorist networks out to 2045.

Sub-Saharan Africa:

  • The risk of state-on-state conflict is likely to reduce overall, although instability and violence will almost certainly continue out to 2045, possibly increasing in some areas.
  • Terrorist organisations are likely to continue to pose a threat to peace and security, driven by youth unemployment, dissatisfaction with governing regimes and the mis-management of natural resources.
  • The African Union’s ability to handle crises is likely to improve, although it will probably still require support from the international community to deal with more demanding situations.
  • The combined challenge of an increased population, demands on resources and the effects of climate change (particularly drought) on food and water supplies are likely to lead to tension, which could result in conflict.
  • The urban population is likely to increase significantly and many more cities are likely to be located on or near the coast. Rising sea-levels are likely to lead to humanitarian disasters that will probably need an international response.

Central Asia:

  • Although all the major regional actors have an interest in Central Asia, none appears to have a strategy of territorial expansion into the region or of becoming directly involved in security issues.
  • The primary triggers of instability in Central Asia remain rooted in the internal politics of each country. Countries in the region are likely to remain vulnerable to significant political and social threats that, in turn, pose risks to the region’s security.

South & East Asia & Oceania:

  • In large part because of its economy (likely to be the largest in the world by 2045), South & East Asia will probably be of increasing strategic significance.
  • A growing population, increasing demand and the effects of climate change are likely to lead to food and water shortages. While cooperation over water has often overcome national differences, the potential for confrontation over shared water resources may increase.
  • Rising sea levels are likely to lead to humanitarian disasters which may require international assistance.
  • China’s military is becoming more capable and has increasing global reach. By 2045, China’s military capability may be close to matching that of the US, perhaps exceeding it in some areas. India’s military capability is also likely to increase – but probably not to the point where it rivals China or the US by 2045.
  • The East and South China Seas may be flashpoints for confrontation between China and the US and allied countries. Similarly Kashmir, the Korean Peninsula and the border between China and India are likely to be areas of tension. The risk of a major state-on-state conflict in the region cannot be ruled out.
  • Terrorism will almost certainly continue to pose a threat in South & East Asia, less so in Oceania. High levels of inequality based upon class, ethnicity and religion are likely to endure as sources of tension across the region and may impact on the overall governance and stability of some countries.

Polar Regions:

  • Commercial activity expansion in the Arctic Ocean may require extensive monitoring to safeguard Arctic countries’ sovereignty.
  • Arctic Council members, in general, are likely to continue to operate in accordance with its rules – the Arctic is likely to remain a largely well-governed space.
  • Inter-country disputes within the Arctic, driven by access to, and control over, resources, are possible but are unlikely to result in military conflict.
  • Russia will almost certainly remain the dominant power in the Arctic but, although unpredictable, is unlikely to take unilateral, aggressive steps to provoke conflict in the region.
  • Resource demands are likely to increase pressure on the Antarctic Treaty System, butlarge-scale military conflict is unlikely.

Space:

  • Increasing reliance on space-based technologies, particularly in developed countries, means that any large-scale disruption to satellites (such as solar superstorms) could have significant consequences for electricity distribution, communications, navigation, logistics and weather forecasts.
  • There could be increasing competition between countries for access to valuable resources, such as water and minerals, located in space.
  • Criminal organisations and other actors with malign intent may take advantage of reduced costs to acquire their own satellites, increasing their awareness of security vulnerabilities and causing privacy and security concerns.
  • The military operations of developed countries are heavily dependent on spacebased technologies, the loss of which may be significantly disruptive.

 

Key defence and security implications

Each section in GST 5 ends with a number of defence-related deductions. The following are the most important of those defence and security implications.

  • Technological developments will probably allow diasporas to remain more closely connected to their native countries. Consequently, issues from homelands are likely to be brought into host countries, and vice versa. Diasporas may also provide an impetus for governments to intervene – or refrain from interfering – in their citizens’ countries of origin. Lack of integration of migrant groups could exacerbate social tensions.
  • Increasing numbers of women are likely to have front-line combat roles in armed forces worldwide, mirrored by growing female participation in armed resistance movements and terrorist groups.
  • Sexual violence will almost certainly continue to be a feature of conflict and state violence and, used as a weapon of war, has the potential to be a significant factor in instability. However, countries and their armed forces are likely to face greater international scrutiny and legislation against such activities.
  • Failed and failing cities, in both developed and developing countries, could pose major security challenges (such as social unrest and even insurgencies) with the potential for country-wide repercussions. If more people live in urban areas, security and armed forces will almost certainly need to operate in this environment to a greater extent. Adversaries could range from government-controlled militaries to armed non-state groups with criminal or malign intent.
  • Urbanisation concentrates populations, potentially making them more vulnerable to the effects of natural disasters, disease and deliberate acts of violence. With most urban areas in coastal regions, cities are likely to be particularly vulnerable to the effects of rising sea levels.
  • Growing use of nuclear energy raises the possibility of fissile material being obtained by non-state actors as well as countries operating outside international laws, potentially causing security threats.
  • Extreme weather events, such as flooding and droughts, are likely to increase in both frequency and intensity in a number of regions. Extreme events will almost certainly continue to cause widespread damage and loss of life, although our warning mechanisms, defences and ability to respond may also improve in the same timeframe.
  • Armed and security forces, both at home and abroad, are likely to be more frequently tasked with providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, perhaps supporting indigenous responders.
  • Greater reliance on automated technologies could provide scope for terrorists and criminals to disrupt the transport system through cyber attacks.
  • As more of our work and social activities depend on interconnected information and communications networks – which may, in places, be extremely vulnerable to attack –  there could be more opportunities for criminals and terrorists to have a greater impact on our day-to-day lives.
  • An increasing number of devices capable of collecting sensor data could intensify levels of surveillance. Stealth vehicles may find it more difficult to remain hidden and the ability to prosecute covert operations, especially in urban environments, is likely to become more technically challenging. This is particularly significant given the probable increase in the size of urban areas, along with the growing use of surveillance to prevent crime.
  • Unmanned systems are likely to have an increasing role in combat, potentially transforming the way that wars are fought. Military decision making is likely to remain a human preserve, at least in western countries, but it is possible that the actual fighting will no longer be a solely human endeavour.
  • The cost of unmanned systems is likely to fall, while the ease of manufacturing complex items rises, making unmanned systems much more widespread and harder to regulate. Criminal and terrorist groups are likely to find it easier to gain, hold and use unmanned capabilities.
  • The expansion of alternative currencies may make it easier to transfer and retain funds anonymously and hence harder for governments to freeze criminals’ assets or sanction rogue regimes. Criminal and terrorist groups may also find it easier to transfer funds between jurisdictions.
  • The pressures of globalisation are likely to mean that individual countries will find it increasingly difficult to act unilaterally – most countries are likely to be less powerful. This could lead to a reduction in conflict. The state is still likely to have the most important voice in international affairs, but out to 2045 the private sector and non-state organisations are likely to become more influential. There is likely to be an increase in the use of private security companies by governments – interdependencies may strengthen, despite their largely separate motivations.
  • Some augmentation of humans with embedded sensors and computing devices is likely to occur within the 2045 timeframe. This may provide advantages such as improved situational awareness, health monitoring, and the ability to modify physiological and psychological states to increase performance and enhance resilience. Mind-controlled machinery is likely to become much more sophisticated, with human brain-to-brain communication possible by 2045.
  • The US and China are likely to have similarly sized defence budgets, potentially out-spending the rest of the world by 2045. India could have a defence budget equivalent to the EU’s total spending on defence.
  • Increasing real-terms equipment costs may mean that platforms become more expensive. Consequently, higher levels of defence spending may not lead to armed forces larger than today’s.
  • Although China is likely to surpass the US in terms of GDP, the US is still likely to remain, militarily, the most powerful country in the world.
  • NATO is likely to remain the key security alliance for Northern American countries, although US (and possibly Canadian) commitments elsewhere in the world may mean that European countries will have to take on more of the burden of maintaining security in their region.
  • There are a number of issues and treaties which may involve the US and China in armed conflict – with potentially dire consequences regionally and globally.
  • NATO is likely to remain the key organisation for military crisis management, although its cohesion may be challenged by diverse threat perceptions, a US focus on Asia and internal disagreement on its global role. The Alliance could be reinvigorated by the need to band together to address a deteriorating security situation in Europe’s near abroad.
  • Internal terrorist threats are likely to continue in the Middle East and North Africa, as are attacks on other nations from groups based in the region. Although Al-Qaida has been damaged in recent years, Islamic fundamentalism will almost certainly continue to fuel terrorist networks out to 2045.
  • In sub-Saharan Africa, the combined challenge of an increased population, demands on resources and the effects of climate change (particularly drought) on food and water supplies are likely to lead to tension, which could result in conflict.
  • China’s military is becoming more capable and has increasing global reach. By 2045, China’s military capability may be close to matching that of the US, perhaps exceeding it in some areas. India’s military capability is also likely to increase – but probably not to the point where it rivals that of China or the US by 2045.
  • The East and South China Seas may be flashpoints for confrontation between China and the US and allied countries. Similarly Kashmir, the Korean Peninsula and the border between China and India are likely to be areas of tension. The risk of a major state-on-state conflict in the region cannot be ruled out.
  • Commercial activity expansion in the Arctic Ocean may require extensive monitoring to safeguard Arctic countries’ sovereignty.
  • Increasing reliance on space-based technologies, particularly in developed countries, means that any large-scale disruption to satellites (such as solar superstorms) could have significant consequences for electricity distribution, communications, navigation, logistics and weather forecasts.

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