Escalating cyber threats, a struggling economy, the rise of China, and the unpredictable impact of the Arab Spring will dominate the next decade. At least, that’s the best collective guess of a conclave of academic experts, government officials, and military officers from the U.S. and abroad, convened by the United States Army. Their objective: This March the service plans to revise its Capstone Concept, issued in 2009, to outline the Army’s missions for the post-Afghanistan, post-budget-cut era. The road to that rethinking is a series of conferences and wargames called Unified Quest 2012, which kicked off at the end of October with a symposium to predict the future.

Instead of seeking – or simply imposing – a consensus around a single, supposedly authoritative vision of the world to come, the Army deliberately solicited a range of plausible “alternative futures.” “We’re not going to get 2020 right,” said Lt. Gen. Keith Walker, deputy commander for “futures” at the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), which convened the conference. But, Walker went on, “if we don’t consider all the possibilities of what we might have to do for the nation and try as hard as we can to get as many diverse views as we can, then we’re guaranteeing we’ll get it wrong.”

There were certainly some sharp differences about what the Army should prioritize. At the final session of the “futures” conference, as excitement about cyber-war rose among the assembled experts, counterinsurgency crusader John Nagl spoke up sharply. “I want to push back pretty hard against this cyber [emphasis], not because I don’t think it’s an emerging field of conflict – it is – but I don’t think it’s the Army’s primary responsibility,” said Nagl, an Iraq veteran and retired officer who now co-chairs the Center for a New American Security. “The Army’s going to be judged [by] how well Afghanistan turns out, and in the near future I think we should be thinking about… building partner capacity” – military jargon for advise-and-assist missions like those planned for Afghanistan after U.S. combat forces withdraw. Another attendee countered that given the spread of hacking technology, even counterinsurgency conflicts will have a cyber aspect in the future. “I don’t disagree with that,” replied Nagl, “but the Taliban isn’t going to beat us with cyber.”

At a roundtable with reporters afterwards, however, Lt. Gen. Walker and his fellow officers seemed more focused on cyber than COIN. “The priority for the Army’s modernization effort right now is the network,” he said. “So while the Taliban may not be doing a significant cyber attack on our network,” Walker said, defense against such attacks “becomes a huge deal” in future conflicts. That said, Walker did emphasize that the future force will need to retain its hard-won skills in counterinsurgency and other “wide area security” missions, even as it relearns the lost arts of blitzkrieg (aka “combined arms maneuver”) and rapid deployment.

Deployability in particular seems to be coming back in vogue. Getting forces to overseas crises quickly became the Army’s obsession after the Kosovo war in 1999, only to be dumped after the service got bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq. With those missions winding down after 2014, a big part of the conference was about suggesting new potential crises in which the Army might have to intervene. Getting to those crises is half the fun – especially if the Army wants to justify a role in the sprawling reaches of the Pacific, which the conferees agreed was the emerging center of global power.

“The Pacific Ocean’s kind of big,” Walker said dryly, “and it’s a different ballgame than where we’ve been operating in the last 10 years.” But isn’t the Pacific primarily a Navy and Air Force responsibility? one reporter asked. “We’ve absolutely got the finest Navy and Air Force in the world,” Walker began diplomatically, “[but] the Army provides sustained landpower…. When you look at the major Pacific players, they are large land masses with large populations.”

No one around the table brought up the old aphorism about the importance of avoiding a land war in Asia. But certainly China loomed large at the conference, less as a direct military threat to the United States than as a competitor for influence and for ever-scarcer natural resources, above all oil. While some attendees feared China’s own economic bubbles could burst, more predicted its continued rise at the expense of the U.S., whose economy, most said would not recover fully from the recession until 2020 or beyond. Some specific guesses included a burst of inflation after 2015, the end of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, and, of course, steep cuts to the Army budget, which one working group predicted would drop forty percent.

The assembled experts didn’t just prophesy, however: They provided early warning signs to go with each of their future scenarios. China’s currently stratospheric GDP growth falling below 5 percent a year, for example, would be an indicator of dire economic times ahead for the whole world, while U.S. GDP growth breaking the 2.5 percent threshold would be good news indeed. 36 U.S. states experiencing significant water shortages would be an early warning of wider, global shortages; Chinese investment in desalinization plants, conversely, would be a positive sign the world could avoid a water crisis.

The biggest wild card at the conference was the Arab Spring: No one knows which way the region will go. Specific scenarios range from a Mad Max Mideast of countries clashing over scarce water supplies to a democratic domino effect leading to a moderate Shia republic in Iran after the death of current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. This year’s wave of pro-democratic revolutions was “one of the most breathtaking events that’s occurred in the Middle East in my lifetime,” said Douglas Menarchik, a former USAID official. The question is what comes next. “Some [new] governments will be successful; many may fail…and revert back to a more autocratic form,” Menarchik went on. His personal guess? “A mixed bag in the Middle East – including some powers who have weapons of mass destruction.” And that’s coming from one of the relative optimists at the conference.

It sounds like, no matter which “alternative future” ends up coming true, there’ll be plenty of work for the U.S. Army. Now the service just has to translate the experts’ guesses into arguments for its looming budget battles.

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