Predicting what wars to prepare for has always been a guessing game in the Pentagon--but one with high stakes.
Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's infamous--but often taken out of context--quote about a lack of armored vehicles at the beginning stages of the Iraq War, that "you go to war with the army you have" may have sounded brusque, but it remains essentially true.
In a perfect world, the military has exactly the right equipment, training and ingrained tactics, techniques and procedures in place when it is called to action. Often, that has not been the case.
That doesn't stop military leaders from trying to prognosticate. They call on a host of experts to determine the most likely scenarios in which they will be called to fight. Generals, admirals, historians, academics, futurists and think tank types all chime in with their opinions.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley at a recent conference said the service cannot say for certain what future battlefields will look like, but through rigorous analysis it can make some educated guesses.
"We can get the basics about right to develop the forces and the weapons and the equipment that we need to protect our great nation," he said.
The year most mentioned by senior military leaders of late is 2030.
Fourteen years is not so far in the future, Milley said. Looking back, 9/11 is more than 15 years ago.
Looking forward, the time to begin "placing big bets" on science and technology is now, he said.
For its 11th annual research-and-development issue, the staff of National Defense Magazine has identified four trends often mentioned by senior military leaders that will have an impact on the battlefields of tomorrow: fighting in anti-access, area denied scenarios; fighting in urban areas; operating in a world marked by climate change; and fighting in space.
While predicting the future can have many pitfalls, one safe bet might be that the military's painfully slow acquisition system will remain so. The process to field the technologies needed to survive and win in these environments needs to begin soon.
The novel "Ghost Fleet"--which has grabbed the attention of senior Pentagon officials--describes a fictional high-tech war between the United States and China. Set around the year 2030, the book by military technologist Peter W. Singer and Robert Cole depicts U.S. forces bombarded by enemy robots, guided missiles, air defense systems, electronic warfare and cyber capabilities.
While science fiction, the story includes technologies and operational concepts that are a real-world concern for defense officials. The Pentagon is already taking steps to prepare for such a conflict where adversaries could use sophisticated weapons to rapidly attack U.S. military systems and keep its forces at bay, a strategy known as anti-access/area denial, or A2/AD.
At a recent industry conference, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work envisioned an era of warfare where "operations, especially cyber, EW and guided munitions salvos, move really at high speeds."
The Pentagon sees autonomy, artificial intelligence and advanced missiles as key technologies that will enable the United States to counter these growing threats in the coming decades.