5. Implications for U.S. Policy


In this report we have seen that population growth, distribution, and movement can have an impact upon security in areas important to the United States as the world's sole superpower. Demographic factors will not, by themselves, cause conflict. However, when population shifts take place in a region already experiencing tension as a result of economic, geopolitical, environmental, ideological, or territorial issues, they can push that region into conflict or even outright war. Demographic factors can also affect the nature of future warfare as well as the sources of national military power.

Specifically, it has been argued here that the major impact of demographic factors upon the future contours of warfare will be increasing urbanization. Urban fighting will become relatively more important to the outcomes of future conflicts, both low intensity and high intensity. Low- and high-population-growth nations will both experience some changes in their sources of military power. Low-growth states will need to increasingly substitute technology for manpower on the battlefield and forge multinational arrangements for military cooperation, while high-growth states will struggle to maintain bifurcated military structures featuring an upper tier of elite formations and a lower tier of less-capable units for internal security and the maintenance of static defensive lines in the event of war.

Demographic factors can also help cause conflicts that threaten American interests. The most likely mechanisms through which this could happen are mass migrations or refugee flows in politically tense regions (e.g., the forced outflow of large numbers of Kosovar refugees into Albania, Macedonia, and Montenegro in the spring of 1999), the creation of ideological revolutions in large states, or the outbreak of ethnic conflict in states with an intermixed pattern of ethnic settlements. Based on this analysis, there appear to be three types of response the United States could make to better handle demographically driven challenges to its security interests in the future: research/analytical, development assistance, and focused military preparedness.

Research/Analytical Responses

The United States could improve its long-run geopolitical position in the world by paying more attention to demographically oriented I&W (indicators and warning) measures. More emphasis could be placed upon understanding how demographic pressures might be constraining the actions of key allies, increasing frictions between key regional powers, and/or laying the foundations for ethnic conflict. This increased understanding could permit the U.S. State Department and National Security Council to formulate political intervention strategies that could head off conflicts that are brewing because of demographic factors.[1] One special area that definitely needs increased work is our understanding of what conditions are key to transforming demographic shifts into security issues. There is no question that this is a difficult task. The time horizons involved in demographic shifts are often very long, and busy policymakers and intelligence analysts always have a large number of more urgent problems to deal with. Nevertheless, despite the difficulties involved, working to find better demographic I&W measures is certainly a worthy task.

Some candidate I&W indicators that could be considered are the following:

  • Emergence of a youth bulge combined with low job-creation rates/government indifference.
  • Divergent fertility rates between neighboring states with land borders, no nuclear weapons, and comparable technological levels.
  • Chronic high fertility rate in a developing nation with narrowly based elites and weak institutions.
  • Divergent fertility rates between ethnic groups having mixed settlement patterns and historical enmity.
  • Steady regional declines in per-capita fresh water availability coupled with new development projects with cross-border implications (e.g., dams, irrigation systems).
These indicators are only illustrative in nature; they are not offered as recommendations but rather are intended to stimulate further discussions on this topic within the intelligence community.

Development Assistance

A better understanding of the potential impacts of demographic pressures could allow the United States to use foreign aid more precisely to help achieve its foreign policy objectives in certain regions. Carefully targeted foreign aid may help some key friends and allies to better manage the effects of rapid population growth, allowing them to better conserve resources and to have time to reform their political systems to take into account emerging demographic realities.

In certain circumstances, U.S. foreign aid could help governments that wish to take the direct approach of reducing their fertility rates outright in order to improve economic development to do so. This could be done either by funding family-planning efforts or by funding programs to improve educational levels among women (which usually results in lowered fertility rates). Recent RAND research indicates that a number of developing country governments and publics, such as those in Egypt, Malawi, Bolivia, and the Philippines, to name just a few, have an interest in reducing their fertility rates and would likely be receptive to more U.S. foreign aid in this area.[2]

Focused Military Preparedness

From the Pentagon's standpoint, the most important consequence of demographic trends is the increasing urbanization of conflict. This trend is already well recognized by senior military leaders, and much thought is currently being given to appropriate tactics, training, and technologies for urban warfare.

In the short term, training is the area where U.S. Army and Marine Corps forces can obtain the greatest improvements in their military operations on urbanized terrain (MOUT) capabilities. Detailed mockups of urban environments at the various infantry training centers maintained by the two services would serve the U.S. military well in this area. Perhaps the Pentagon could even go so far as to establish a fully instrumented "Urban National Training Center" similar to the Army's open-terrain National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California.

Over the longer term, new technologies offer opportunities for improving the ability of U.S. ground forces to operate in urban areas during both high- and low-intensity conflicts. Better intelligence-gathering platforms will be critical here. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with improved sensor suites and microsensors that are based on the emerging field of nanotechnology are two options for enhancing intelligence gathering in MOUT. Better protection for personnel, such as body armor, is another appropriate area for research. Finally, the likely presence of large numbers of civilians in contested urban areas, especially during "operations other than war," makes the pursuit of a new generation of nonlethal weaponry a worthy endeavor as well.

[1]Some earlier RAND research has already tackled the problem of learning how to better predict the likelihood of ethnic conflict. See Ashley J. Tellis, Thomas S. Szayna, and James A. Winnefeld, Anticipating Ethnic Conflict, MR-853-A, Santa Monica, CA, RAND, 1997, pp. 9-18.

[2]See Rodolfo A. Bulatao, "The Value of Family Planning Programs in Developing Countries," MR-978-WFHF/RF/UNFPA, Santa Monica, CA, RAND, 1998, ch. 2.

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