Cover: Geopolitical Trends and the Future of Warfare

Geopolitical Trends and the Future of Warfare

The Changing Global Environment and Its Implications for the U.S. Air Force

Published May 11, 2020

by Raphael S. Cohen, Eugeniu Han, Ashley L. Rhoades


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Research Questions

  1. What are the major geopolitical drivers of future conflict?
  2. How will geopolitics shape who the United States fights in the future?
  3. How will geopolitics shape where, how, when, and why might the United States' next war occur?
  4. What are the implications for the U.S. Air Force and the future of warfare?

Carl von Clausewitz famously argued that "war is the continuation of politics by other means," and that aphorism remains as true in the 21st century as it was in the 19th: The future of warfare will depend on geopolitics. In this volume of the Future of Warfare series, RAND researchers examined six trends—U.S. polarization and retrenchment, China's rise, Asia's reassessment, the emergence of a revanchist Russia, upheaval in Europe, and turmoil in the Islamic world—to determine the drivers of conflict between now and 2030. Drawing on official strategy statements, secondary sources, and an extensive set of interviews across eight countries, this report explains how each of these trends has shaped conflict in the past and will likely continue to do so over the next decade. Together, these six trends point to three overarching findings. First, many of the underlying geopolitical assumptions in the U.S. National Defense Strategy for 2018—about the centrality of great-power competition and likelihood of aggression in the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East—are correct. Second, although U.S. adversaries will likely remain relatively stable over the next decade, U.S. allies will likely change, especially as Europe becomes increasingly preoccupied with its own problems and as Asia reacts to the rise of China. Finally, and most importantly, U.S. strategists will face a deepening series of strategic dilemmas as the possibility of conflict in the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East pull limited U.S. resources in different directions.

Key Findings

U.S. polarization and retrenchment will have global repercussions

  • If partisan gridlock and disillusionment prevent the United States from acting as a global superpower, other powers (particularly China and Russia) could try to fill the resulting power vacuum.
  • U.S. political dynamics could make the Air Force an increasingly attractive policy tool. However, popular opinion could affect military recruiting, and congressional gridlock might affect what tools are available to the Air Force to fight future wars.

China's rise must be regarded cautiously

  • China's rising ambitions and increasing domestic pressures could make it increasingly likely to use force abroad.
  • As the risks of a large-scale, high-end conflict with China increase, so does the value of strategic deterrence.

In the wake of China's rise, Asian nations will reassess their positions

  • Several Asian nations could end up in a conflict with China; these conflicts could end up involving the United States.
  • Changes in U.S. alliances will affect the joint force in a variety of ways, such as basing and servicing agreements.

A revanchist Russia will pose a long-term challenge to U.S. security interests

  • Russia is dissatisfied with the current U.S.-led international order and alert to perceived Western encroachment on its core interests.
  • Russia likely will continue to rely on measures short of war against the United States and its allies and limited uses of force, especially in its near abroad.

European nations will face continued domestic upheaval that will constrain their ability to respond to Russia and limit their appetite for expeditionary operations beyond their borders

  • A host of challenges—including terrorism, migration, populism, the Eurozone crisis, and responding to a revanchist Russia—will likely continue to divide the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
  • Europe likely will become more selective about participating in future expeditionary missions, instead allocating its limited defense resources to more-immediate problems, such as combating terrorism within its borders or defending against Russia.

Turmoil in the Islamic world will likely continue

  • Radical Islamic terrorism and state weakness will continue to drive regional turmoil and demand an ongoing U.S. military presence.
  • The chances of a larger regional conflict fueled by Saudi-Iranian, Saudi-Israeli and Russian-U.S. tensions will likely increase and could drive a larger demand for U.S. forces.

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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