Strategy, Scenarios, and the Global Shift in Defense Power

As the strategic landscape shifts, an economic-scenario approach can help defense organizations grapple with uncertainty

October 2015 | by David Delaney

The art of strategy, in defense as elsewhere, involves understanding possible futures to inform present decisions. Change, volatility, and uncertainty are perennial challenges to the defense strategist and are likely to increase in the coming years. Formulating strategy in these conditions will test planners in the public and private sectors alike.

To succeed, decision makers should look behind the headlines of the day to ask the right questions about what will affect their organization in the future. This requires considering the deeper underlying trends that will reshape the strategic landscape in the years ahead. Foremost among them is the shift in global economic power. Although often commented upon by economists and pundits, many strategists focused on defense issues have not fully internalized this historic shift and its implications.

Here we offer a perspective on how strategists in defense organizations and aerospace and defense companies should approach this challenge. First, we describe how the profound shift in economic power since the end of the Cold War has already reshaped the world’s strategic landscape, including the distribution of global defense spending. The potential evolution of these economic dynamics is fundamental to strategy. Predicting their future is, of course, impossible. Instead, we offer something more modest and practical: a new approach to scenario planning that is rooted in a deep understanding of global economics. Such an understanding reveals the potential for unexpected scale and pace in the shift of defense spending from the US and its treaty allies to emerging economies.

The strategic landscape reshaped, 1991-2012

The past 20 years saw dramatic changes on the battlefield, even as some features endured, and the beginnings of an equally dramatic shift in economic power. In combination, these movements have altered the strategic landscape, and provide a glimpse into the future.

Continuity and change in military operations

For the world’s defense and security organizations, history certainly did not end with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the cessation of the Cold War in 1991. We have since seen conflict on almost every continent, from the last major tank battle of the 20th century at 73 Easting in the Gulf War to numerous wars, clashes, and insurgencies in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, attention has focused on the greater Middle East—Afghanistan, Iraq, and, increasingly, the struggles for control and influence in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

The tempo of military operations has been relentless. Since 1991, for instance, the United States has embarked upon a new military intervention roughly every two years. North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces have been at war in Afghanistan for over a decade. South Korean and Japanese forces have deployed for the first time to the Middle East. Meanwhile, the United Nations has launched a new peacekeeping operation every six months. Moreover, the duration of most of these operations has increased to ten years.

Innovations in military technology and operations have marked these past two decades of conflict. Precision-guided munitions have evolved and demonstrated their effectiveness in conflicts beginning with the Gulf War and continuing in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and most recently NATO’s Operation Unified Protector in Libya in 2011. Advanced missiles now pose particular threats to capital ships and fixed bases. Unmanned aerial vehicles (or remotely piloted air systems) are now standard components in many militaries’ intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) tool kits, and they increasingly serve as weapons platforms as well. Harnessing big data and employing advanced analytic techniques are other features of 21st century ISR. Cyberwarfare has moved from theory to practice.

Militaries today confront adversaries who employ a full spectrum of tactics, from conventional to irregular and even criminal (“hybrid war”). Modern navies, for instance, cope with traditional and unconventional foes, including Somali pirates and asymmetrical threats such as terrorist suicide speedboats. Air forces are investing in fifth-generation fighters even as they continue to provide workhorse logistical support for operations in the field. And for foot soldiers, despite the numerous technical advances in communications and equipment, the past decade has been largely spent relearning the lessons of counterinsurgency: “Walk. Stop by, don’t drive by. . . .Situational awareness can only be gained by interacting face-to-face, not separated by ballistic glass or Oakleys.”