Cover: Military Trends and the Future of Warfare

Military Trends and the Future of Warfare

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

Published May 11, 2020

by Forrest E. Morgan, Raphael S. Cohen


Download eBook for Free

FormatFile SizeNotes
PDF file 1.3 MB

Use Adobe Acrobat Reader version 10 or higher for the best experience.


Purchase Print Copy

 Format Price
Add to Cart Paperback102 pages $19.50

Research Questions

  1. What are the major drivers of future conflict?
  2. What changes are expected in the size, quality, and character of military forces available to the United States and its potential adversaries?
  3. What are the implications for the U.S. Air Force and the future of warfare?

This volume of the Future of Warfare series examines some of the most significant factors shaping military trends over the next ten to 15 years: changes in the size, quality, and character of military forces available to the United States and its potential adversaries. The report identifies six trends that will shape who and where the United States is most likely to fight in the future, how those wars will be conducted, and why they will occur. These trends are: decreasing U.S. conventional force size, increasing near-peer conventional modernization and professionalization, continuing development of asymmetric capabilities by second-tier powers, increasing adversary use of gray-zone tactics, continuing democratization of violence, and emerging artificial intelligence as a class of disruptive technologies.

Key Findings

The risks of war over the next ten to 15 years will largely derive from perceptions of shifts in regional correlations of force.

  • With U.S. conventional forces reduced in size, China—and, to a lesser extent, Russia—will narrow the qualitative gap.
  • These great-power states might calculate that the United States lacks sufficient capacity—in some cases, the capability—to respond effectively. If wars result, they will be multidomain conflicts fought under an ever-present risk of nuclear escalation.

Gray-zone tactics are likely to ramp up

  • Despite the leveling playing field, China and Russia likely will prefer to achieve their objectives with the least cost in international reproach and the lowest risk of provoking military conflict with the United States.
  • Iran and North Korea are also likely to employ gray-zone tactics in pursuit of their regional objectives.

Asymmetric warfare is also a possibility

  • Iran and North Korea do not have—and are unlikely to develop—capabilities to match those of the United States and its regional allies.
  • They will have selected asymmetric capabilities to deter U.S. intervention, and U.S. forces will need to contend with those adversaries' large but less-sophisticated forces.

States' monopoly on violence could weaken

  • The use of substate actors as proxy fighters in gray-zone strategies will continue weakening the state's monopoly on violence in many areas of the world.
  • As aggressive states arm individuals and groups in regions they seek to destabilize or annex, the weaker states will have difficulty containing the violence that results and likely will turn to the United States for support.

Developments in military applications of artificial intelligence might help the U.S. maintain superiority if it can leverage these technologies effectively.

  • Advanced systems could restore U.S. qualitative advantages in conventional warfare and provide capabilities to process data in ways that enable U.S. forces to identify and target substate adversaries more effectively.
  • However, these capabilities also come with serious risks that will need to be managed, and the United States will not have a monopoly on access to them.


  • Countering these strategies will require the United States to persistently confront different tactics and to be prepared to fight at multiple levels of conflict, from subconventional through high-end wars.
  • U.S. forces will need to find ways to neutralize asymmetric capabilities and destroy substantial portions of adversaries' forces.
  • Given U.S. interests in maintaining stability and the territorial status quo in various unstable regions, the United States will need to devote resources to such missions even as it is trying to restore its conventional capabilities for great-power competition.
  • The United States cannot afford to not develop artificial intelligence and other new technologies while China and Russia are pursuing them so aggressively. U.S. leaders will need to find ways to maximize benefits while mitigating inevitable risks.

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.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

This document and trademark(s) contained herein are protected by law. This representation of RAND intellectual property is provided for noncommercial use only. Unauthorized posting of this publication online is prohibited; linking directly to this product page is encouraged. Permission is required from RAND to reproduce, or reuse in another form, any of its research documents for commercial purposes. For information on reprint and reuse permissions, please visit

RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.