Cover: Sources of Future Conflict

Sources of Future Conflict

Long-Range Security Implications of Key Regional and Global Trends

Published 1998

by Zalmay Khalilzad

Research Brief

The end of the Cold War has called for new approaches to global, long-range defense planning. Potential sources and types of conflict, even if less dangerous, have become more diverse and less predictable. Meanwhile, the range of missions for military forces has placed increasing emphasis on low-intensity and nonconflict capabilities that were considered marginal in the Cold War. Most important, the nature of global security itself has been redefined: Formerly peripheral challenges such as migration and economic competition, together with the more obvious risks associated with the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), now compete with conventional military rivalries for the attention of policymakers and military leaders attempting to formulate plans for upcoming decades.

Alternative Future Worlds

Long-range planning in this environment poses considerable challenges for the imagination. Traditional allies and adversaries may realign their positions, whereas transformations in the global economy, communications, and military technology are likely to change strategic stakes and capabilities. Consequently, planning that looks beyond the next five or ten years must consider alternative strategic "worlds," each of which would present the United States with different national security objectives and pose a different set of demands on the U.S. military.

A recent RAND study examines several alternative strategic worlds and what they might mean for the United States and for U.S. Air Force planners. The study starts with an overview of the developing strategic environment, describing nine key factors that will shape global trends, and then presents three possible future worlds: one that projects today's conditions to the year 2025, another that is more benign, and a third that is more chaotic and threatening. The authors then consider the planning concerns suggested by these scenarios and by a number of "wild cards"—unforeseen events that could cause major shifts in U.S. national security objectives. Having established this global overview, they go on to focus on probable sources of conflict and long-term planning implications for three regions critical to U.S. interests: Asia, the greater Middle East, and Europe and the former Soviet Union.

The Asia-Pacific Region

Despite recent financial turmoil, the Asia-Pacific region's history of high growth rates continues to suggest it will emerge as the world's largest and perhaps most important concentration of economic power in the next century. But the area will remain relatively turbulent, beset by internal conflicts, political transitions, and persistent instability flowing from territorial disputes and the introduction of new military technologies.

The continuing potential for full-scale war in parts of this region means that U.S. air and space power will need to play a critical role in deterrence, whereas other possible contingencies will require the U.S. Air Force to function as a rapid reaction force. Additionally, because most air forces of U.S. allies and of neutral states are not truly effective users of air power, U.S. Air Force assets will be needed to counter both the growing capabilities of potential adversaries such as China and a number of new, nontraditional threats. In all of these contexts, U.S. operations will be complicated by political constraints on en-route and in-theater access. Meanwhile, the spread of WMD throughout Asia will present daunting challenges, requiring the U.S. Air Force to develop new capabilities and new concepts of operations if it is to function successfully in environments shadowed by WMD.

The Greater Middle East

For the purposes of this study, the "greater Middle East" includes the states of North Africa, the Levant (including Turkey), and the Persian Gulf. While the Arab-Israeli struggle—and its possible resolution—and developments in the Gulf will remain important determinants of the future shape of this region, sources of conflict will become more diverse, requiring Air Force planners to consider a wider set of geographic and functional scenarios. The United States must anticipate the potential loss of major defense partners; the erosion of traditional distinctions among the Middle East, Europe, and Eurasia in security terms; and the emergence of niche competitors wielding WMD and employing terrorism.

Persistent regional frictions and high resource stakes—oil and water—together with the limited capacity for self-defense of key allies in the region suggest that the defense of borders will continue to be a central task of U.S. air and space power. Most probably, the Air Force will face high demands for surveillance, will be called upon to attack and defend economic targets, and will at times have to operate in urban centers. Operations will be complicated by increasingly constrained relationships with host countries: Planners will need to make new arrangements for over-the-horizon deterrence and to develop new strategies for in-theater access.

Europe and the Former Soviet Union

Europe and Eurasia will most likely develop around two poles, one formed by the European Union in the western and central parts of the continent, the other consisting of Russia and possibly other countries reintegrated into a Russian sphere of influence. Although Western Europe will become a more cohesive political and economic force, its emergence as a superpower is unlikely. With Russia's military in drastic decline, the United States and its allies will enjoy decisive technological superiority over potential adversaries in Europe, especially in air power.

U.S. military assets will be needed for conventional deterrence at the margins of NATO, primarily in the unstable gray area between an expanded Western Europe and Russia. As threats from the south emerge, the United States may be called upon by its allies and its own defense requirements to devise effective counterproliferation capabilities and options. All future operations and planning in Europe will require close cooperation with allies, some of whom may press for enhanced influence in NATO—although their military capabilities will remain modest.


Future scenarios, both global and regional, indicate that the U.S. Air Force of the 21st century will be asked to make quick, decisive responses to a broad range of challenges. These will likely include traditional contingencies and humanitarian operations as well as the protection of the U.S. homeland against a variety of threats such as terrorism, missile attack, and information operations. To perform effectively in such an environment, the Air Force will have to exhibit four critical qualities: global awareness, global reach, rapid reaction, and appropriate force. It will have to function as an increasingly sophisticated information service, to project power around the globe even as forward basing diminishes, and to configure force elements that are capable of quick response. Above all, it will have to build the type of force that is most appropriate for future requirements, most likely one that emphasizes quality and agility over quantity and mass. Careful and informed decisions and difficult tradeoffs on such issues today will determine whether the United States can have an Air Force on the ramp in 2025 that will be truly effective in addressing future sources of conflict.

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