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Research Questions

  1. Which countries will the United States fight with and against?
  2. Where will these conflicts occur?
  3. What might they look like?
  4. When and why might the United States go to war in the first place?

Who will the United States fight against and who will fight with it? Where will these future conflicts be fought? What will future conflicts look like? How will they be fought? And why will the United States go to war? This report is the overview in a series that draws on a wide variety of data sets, secondary sources, and an extensive set of interviews in eight countries around the globe to answer these questions. The authors conclude that the United States will confront a series of deepening strategic dilemmas in 2030. U.S. adversaries—China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and terrorist groups—will likely remain constant, but U.S. allies are liable to change, and the location of where the United States is most likely to fight wars may not match the locations where conflicts could be most dangerous to U.S. interests. The joint force will likely face at least four types of conflict, each requiring a somewhat different suite of capabilities, but the U.S. ability to resource such a diverse force will likely decline. Above all, barring any radical attempt to alter the trajectory, the United States in 2030 could progressively lose the initiative to dictate strategic outcomes and to shape when and why the wars of the future occur. To meet future demands, the joint force and the U.S. Air Force should invest in more precision, information, and automation; build additional capacity; maintain a robust forward posture; and reinforce agility at all levels of warfare.

Key Findings

The list of U.S. adversaries is likely to remain fixed, but the list of U.S. allies is likely to change

  • China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and terrorist groups will remain top U.S. adversaries.
  • China's growing influence likely will alter the list of U.S. allies in Asia as countries hedge against Chinese power.
  • In Europe, traditional U.S. allies' will and capacity to exert force, particularly overseas, will likely decline.

Location of U.S. conflicts can be parsed by likelihood or by risk

  • Three major regions—the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East—are all likely areas for the next war; the Middle East appears most likely, although the Indo-Pacific might pose the greatest danger.

Future conflicts will probably stem from four basic archetypes, namely counterterrorism, gray-zone conflicts, asymmetric fights, and high-end fights

Four overarching trends could shape when and why the United States might go to war

  • U.S. ability to use sanctions in lieu of violence will decline as U.S. and allied economic power declines in relative terms.
  • The rise of strongmen across Asia, Europe, and the Middle East could decrease checks and balances and create incentives for future conflict.
  • As American adversaries become more assertive and push up against U.S. allies' redlines, the United States could be faced with the difficult choice of entering into a war it does not want or abandoning an ally.
  • External forces could generate conflict, such as accidents and inadvertent escalation, a crisis resulting from climate change, or conflict over scarce resources.

Recommendations

  • Future conflicts will likely place a premium on being able to operate at range. Staying outside adversaries' missile ranges and basing from afar both could be important factors, and the U.S. military should invest in these capabilities.
  • The United States should invest in increasing military precision to avoid the legal and political backlash that comes with civilian casualties.
  • All branches of the military will need to enhance their information warfare capabilities, especially for gray-zone operations.
  • Because of the trend toward greater use of artificial intelligence, the military will need to invest in automation.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    The Future of Warfare

  • Chapter Two

    The Failures of Forecasting the Future

  • Chapter Three

    Studying the Future Today

  • Chapter Four

    Depicting the Key Trends

  • Chapter Five

    Predicting the Future of Warfare

  • Chapter Six

    Implications for the U.S. Air Force and the Joint Force

Research conducted by

This research was sponsored by the United States Air Force and conducted by the Strategy and Doctrine Program within RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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