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It is in some ways remarkable that there is still no commonly agreed method on quantifying and ranking national military power.

There is one such for economics, for instance. It is called the GDP. You can make somewhat different arguments on relative economic size or living standards based on various ways of measuring GDP – e.g., the eternal debates over whether nominal or PPP is best – but it does make these discussions factually “grounded” in a way that military discussions (at least as they are carried out in the popular press and comments sections) are not. This may even extend to some extent to the US military itself. For instance, here is a short quote from an article by Adrian Bonenberger, who spent 7 years as an infantry officer in the US Army:

This is the greatest risk we face for World War III. Not that Russia defeats Ukraine and moves toward Poland and Estonia, but that Ukraine wipes out the Russians currently in Ukraine, and Putin is forced to take some drastic action to prevent further losses. After all, why should Ukraine not feel entitled to take some of Russia’s territory in return for their lost Crimea? And who will be there to stop them, save demoralized and confused Russian conscripts?

russia-vs-ukraine-military-power The chances of that happening in the foreseeable future are precisely zero, so awesome is the current size of the military gap between Russia and Ukraine (it approximately doubled from a factor of 4.5 in 1992 at the time of the Soviet collapse, to a peak of 9 by 2013). Even cursory examinations of force structure would confirm it; just the Russian Southern Military District by itself is considerably more powerful than the entire Ukrainian military. Tall tales of Donetsk airport “cyborgs” mowing down thousands of elite Pskov paratroopers to the contrary, on the one occasion in the Donbass War that the Ukrainian military engaged directly with the Russian military resulted in a resounding defeat for the Ukraiians at Ilovaysk – and that despite the Russian military having to maintain plausible deniability and thus forego the use of its fancier toys.

Nor will this situation change cardinally in the future, as the graph to the right shows (which incidentally is based on some very “optimistic” assumptions about Ukraine’s ability to remain solvent and maintain military spending at 5% of GDP). The idea that Ukraine will be able to militarily reconquer the LDNR so long as Russia provides it with support, to say nothing of actually seizing chunks of territory from Russia itself, is too absurd for further commentary.

This is just one limited example of flawed military commentary in the popular press. Literally hundreds of other examples can be thought of, from ‘Murica patriots who literally believe it is 1,000 times stronger than any other “military or combination of militaries,” to the Russia stronk! types and neocons who are in strange agreement that Russia is currently establishing a “hegemony” over the Middle East with its small-scale Syrian air intervention (which if Washington really wanted to could put to a forcible end within 24 hours).

Anyhow, I don’t claim to be any sort of military expert. If you asked me to compare the EW capabilities of the F/A-18A versus the Su-30MKI, I would draw up a total blank. That said, I have read a fair bit about military history and military theory, so I think I can contribute in a small way to uplifting the level of the popular discourse by introducing some rigor to it by way of the Comprehensive Military Power concept, a sort of military analogue of GDP that is both additive (so that alliances can be compared) and consistent across time (so that historical comparisons can be made and even what-if scenarios of the Modern Poland vs. Nazi Germany type).

But first, I would like to criticize or introduce caveats to some other popularly accepted ways of making sweeping large-scale military comparisons.

Existing Attempts to Quantify Military Power

military-budget-2014-sipri Military Budgets

This is by far the most common and intuitive method of making comparisons. It is objective and commonsensical: All other things equal, the more you spend on your military, the better it will be.

As historians like Paul Kennedy in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers pointed out, in the longterm, it is almost invariably the countries with the biggest economic potential who end coming out ahead in superpower struggles. With a bigger economy, you can have a bigger military budget with less overall strain (since once you go much about 5% of GDP military spending, your overall economy tends to start becoming distorted).

But military effectiveness depends a lot more than just the amount of dollars that are pumped into it. It also depends on domestic price levels (e.g., salaries for equivalent-quality Chinese soldiers will be much less than for American soldiers); the presence or absence of a domestic military-industrial complex (e.g., compare Saudi Arabia buying US equipment at international prices versus the ability of a country like Russia with its own MIC to produce its own advanced equipment at much lower costs); the aggregate of former spending, accounting for things such as what percentage of it “stayed on” in the form of military capital (which itself is continually adjusted for depreciation); and what US military theorist Trevor Dupuy called “combat effectiveness value,” that is, the relative effectiveness with which a military can use its existing manpower and capital stocks to win engagements and wrack up good K/D ratios, and which itself depends on a myriad of factors beyond just money such as generalship, esprit de corps, etc.

As we shall soon see, while consideration of the above factors does not (for now) change the fundamental fact of US military dominance, but it does move the focus away from overly simplistic rhetoric of the type that “the US spends as much on its military as the next 10 countries/20 countries/rest of the world combined” with the unspoken assumption being that actual military power is a mere extension of dollar spending on it.

global-firepower-2015 Global Firepower and other Popular Indices

This is the best known popular online index of military power available. Unfortunately, its methodology is secret so far as I’m aware, and its scaling is strange and obviously non-additive. Nor is it very intuitive. For instance, the gap between the US and Russia seems to be similar to that between the UK and France. This is almost flat out impossible. French and British military power, much like economies and demography, are remarkably similar. There is no way that even the proportional gap between them is as big as that between the US and Russia, which does have a very formidable military but is currently in the midst of rebuilding it from the post-Soviet stagnation.

Likewise for this recent ranking from Credit Suisse.

There is the Composite Index of National Capability, which uses military expenditure, military personnel, energy consumption, iron and steel production, urban population, and total population as inputs to develop an index of “national capability.” This was developed in the US during the 1960s, a time when the use of such inputs would have been logical due to memories of the World Wars, which were won by mass conscript armies and steel foundries that produced the means to churn out thousands of guns, tanks, and artillery pieces.


But is it still relevant to today’s world? Suffice to say that it is a pretty sure thing that iron and steel production will not be a limiting factor in any plausible Great Power war either now, nor would it have been even by the 1970s. The fact that China now produces almost ten times as much steel as the US will have vastly less significance than Germany producing 17.6 million tons of steel in 1913 to 4.8 million tons by Russia in 1913. Indeed, the very fact that China overtook the US on the CINC around 2000 discredits it as a viable index of modern military power or even national capability.

The blogger and political scientist Phil Arena has a better version of the CINC which he calls “M” that is a much better proxy of military power. It is still flawed but has the major advantage of being very simple and possessing face validity.

comprehensive-national-power-2015 Chinese geopolitical think tanks have developed the concept of Comprehensive National Power, which attempts to measure all facets of national power (2015 rankings to the right).

The Chinese are obsessed with not repeating what they see as the mistakes of the Soviet Union – e.g., distorting its economy through massive military overspending – so they actually tend to deemphasize the military aspect from such comparisons in favor of financial and soft power influence.

This is, of course, perfectly valid – so long as an American CVBG doesn’t show up on your coast, at any rate – but this is going beyond the scope of what this post is about, i.e. strictly military comparisons.

Technical Discussions

On the Internet, most of the more informed military discussions tend to be about the superiority of one or another weaponsd platform over another. Who would win in a Leopard 2A7 vs. M1A2 Abrams vs. T-14 Armata slugfest? (I have no idea) Does the fact that Indian fighter pilots in Su-30MKI’s beat British Typhoons in a recent exercise mean that Russia is stronk and the RAF sucks? (No, because dogfighting isn’t the same thing as BVR combat) Will the F-35 program reinforce US air dominance or does it constitute the most spectacular military boondoggle thus far? (Somewhere in between most likely)

I don’t put much stock in these discussions. First off, a lot of the real details are classified, so real life performance can often differ from theory (and war games). Argentinian Mirages were supposed to outperform British Harriers in 1982, whereas the final “score” ended up about 10:0. These discussions frequently discount cost considerations. This is the classic Tiger vs. T-34 phenonenon: Crudely speaking, the former might be a match for 5 of the latter, but that isn’t so useful when you can have ten T-34s for the price of one Tiger (which will in any case break down due to its overengineering and have to be abandoned for lack of spare parts). But the crucial question of cost rarely enters these fanboyish arguments. Third, good militaries are supposed to act as tightly coordinated wholes, so the impact of any one platform – be it substantially above or below performance expectations – isn’t that relevant in the overall scheme of things. The French had substantially more and BETTER tanks in 1940, but that didn’t end up doing them much good, because their tanks had far less coordination due to a paucity of radios (which all Panzers were equipped with) and they were spread out all over the place, making it impossible to use them as the armored spearheads they were supposed to be. If you don’t have the appropriate doctrine for them, your fancy toys aren’t very useful.

This can apply even to really old, well-established tech. For instance, Liveleak and YouTube are full of videos in which Syrian Arab Army tanks in dense urban areas trundle about in the open without infantry support, making them easy targets for jihadist RPGs. You would think they’d have learned to stop doing it after four years and counting of defeats, but apparently not. They are lucky in the sense that while their jihadist opponents might be much more enthusiastic, they are also at least just as incompetent. Those videos are likewise full of Allah Akbaring in the middle of firefights and firing without aiming.

Professional Military Ratings

They are hard to dig up, but I have found a few examples of these.

For instance, from Ian Morris’ The Measure of Civilization – companion book to his more famous Why the West Rules – he cites war games designer James Dunnigan, who gave the following scores for land and sea power:


While the naval scores look feasible enough, the land scores are clearly incredible. Suffice to say that if that was true then Russian land power would not only be significantly lower than India’s (which sources a lot of its tech from Russia) and Israel’s (which is a respectable Power but nowhere near the very top leagues), it would also be less as a percentage of US land power than its naval power is as a percentage of US naval power. Considering the US relative focus on sea power, which Russia as a primarily land power does not share, this is just logically impossible.

In 2010, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences released the following estimates of military power for 2010. Especially considering that Chinese analysts are not particularly given to nationalistic bombast, this looks to be about credible.


It shows that China and Russia are each at about a third of US military power, while France and the UK in return are a third of that of China and Russia. This tallies well with my CMP estimates.

Finally, it is also worth pointing out that according to one discussion I’ve had with a professional British military analyst – who must for obvious reasons remain anonymous – these figures all substantially understate Russian military power. In particular, he argues that “Russian ground capabilities would be a very close second to US ones,” which if so implies that Russia’s aggregate score – that is, including the naval component – on any such comparison would be closer to half that of the US than a third (although he strongly questions the utility of such quantification in general). He also has a very dim opinion of Chinese military power. I find it difficult to agree with many of his points, especially since even just the US Army is substantially bigger than Russia’s Ground Forces, and surely has a significantly higher combat effectiveness value on average. This would make it hard to square with his (80%-90%?) evaluation of Russia’s ground capabilities relative to the US. But as a professional, this opinion is worth mentioning at least as a FWIW.

A lot of great work has been done on detailed, startlingly accurate modeling of military engagements – starting all the way back from the war games of the Prussian General Staff in the mid-19th century, and culminating in complex computer models that query huge databases of past military engagements to find optimal strategies that are used by modern militaries today.

However, apart from the small detail that they tend to be classified, they are all focused on the tactical or operational level, not the strategic one. I.e., they don’t measure comprehensive military power.

Comprehensive Military Power

To compile my rating, it has to satisfy several prerequisites:

  • It has to make sense at a fundamental level (face validity)
  • It has to be both additive and historically consistent, so that cross-country comparisons across time and space can be made
  • It has to be fairly simple conceptually and use openly available data

Nuclear war power is a totally different kettle of fish and is entirely excluded. This is an index exclusively of conventional military power.

The solution I settled down is a “translation” of the GDP concept from economics into the military sphere.



  • CMP is comprehensive (national) military power;
  • L is “labor” aka military manpower, or Army personnel numbers;
  • K is “capital” aka military capital, aka the stock of equipment a military possesses i.e. tanks, guns, bulletproof vests, fortifications, etc.
  • CE is the “total factor productivity,” or how effectively L and K are used, and is a proxy for combat effectiveness value. This is a multiple of the technology level (T); of Troop Quality (Q); and of a cultural factor (C). Explanations below.
  • alpha is set = 0.5. This implies that a force with twice as many troops should be about equivalent to a force with twice as much military capital, everything else being equal. Is this a good assumption? Perhaps I underestimate labor slightly in terms of ground forces. But it would also massively overestimate labor in terms of its contributions to naval power. Clearly, having twice as many warships is preferable to having twice as many sailors (all else equal). I think 0.5 is a good compromise, but if you have good arguments for other figures, I would be happy to hear them.


armed-forces-personnel-1989-2013 The only comprehensive data I could find that goes back to 1989 is the World Bank’s figures for total armed forces personnel. This includes paramilitary forces, which rarely match up to the quality of the conventional forces, but in the absence of figures just for active duty personnel I had to go with those figures.

I made adjustments only for two countries, India and North Korea. India because it has a huge paramilitary component that virtually trebled the size of its military, so I specifically used the figures for its active duty personnel. North Korea because its paramilitary component is likewise unreasonably huge, plus actual academic demographic estimates of its military size indicate that it is at 700,000 troops and has long ceased to be a million man army.

As we can see on the graph to the right, the number of military personnel in all the Great Powers has been steadily going down since the end of the Cold War. Partly this has been to a general trend of military downsizing – most pronounced in Russia/USSR – but also due to the continuing devaluation of raw manpower in favor of more automated systems.

Military Capital

rand-military-capital-1950-1990 Military capital is the tools – tanks, artillery, airframes, etc. – that militaries use to deal out damage.

I found some historical figures for the 1950-1990 period (the 2000 and 2010 numbers are future projections, and as such useless) from a 1989 RAND report, Long-Term Economic and Military Trends, 1950-2010.

I got additional rough figures for East Germany and the Koreas from other sources. In addition, I recall reading that Israel’s total military capital in the 1980s was approximately equal to that of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, which enabled me to make a rough estimate of its military capital stock (unfortunately I can no longer locate this report).

I proxied other countries’ military capital stocks by reference to the averages of the respective groups they belonged to (e.g. Cold War NATO, Eastern European Socialist Bloc, Developing Nations, Asian Boomers, etc). This might seem like a very rough and imprecise way of going about things, but that is not actually the case – at least so far as estimates of military potential by, say, the 2010s, are concerned – because a big chunk of that initial military capital stock in 1990 would have depreciated by then.

This takes us to the precise way in which military capital stock figures were generated for the post-1990s period.

First off, I made the blanket assumption that 25% of military spending everywhere is devoted to procurement. This is pretty weak, but considering that there are major uncertainties over the size of military budgets in countries as big as China – to say nothing of individual components of that budget – trying to individually estimate the share of procurement spending across many countries would have been an extremely time-consuming and utterly pointless endevour. In any case, swings of 5% or even 10% points up or down would not have had absolutely cardinal effects, since the main factor here is total military spending, for which we have relatively reliable figures for the 1988-2014 period from SIPRI. This military spending data was adjusted to take into account yearly international price level differences.

anatoly-karlin-uss-midway Second, military capital depreciates. A tank built in 2005 will be worth considerably less today. Moreover, this depreciation rate varies across both historical time and particular militaries due to their different force structures, maintenance standards, etc. Over the course of twenty years, the majority of the then existing military capital would have depreciated. But some military capital can linger on for a very long time. The Tupolev Tu-95s were first built in the 1950s and continue to serve to this day. Is this because impoverished Russians can’t design or build anything newer and are forced to continue flying obsolete rustbuckets? Field this question to the USAF, which likewise built the first Boeing B-52 Stratofortresses in the 1950s and plans to keep them in service until 2045. The avionics get updated, of course, but an airframe can last a long time.

The picture to the right is of the author at the USS Midway (CV-41) aircraft carrier, commissioned in 1945 and serving the entire length of the Cold War to be decommissioned in 1992 and transformed into a museum.

How fast does military capital depreciate? There is a huge range of estimates, and for the above reasons, no exactitude can be hoped for in any case. Some estimates of yearly military capital depreciation I’ve encountered include: 6.3%; 3.5%-5%; 10%; 8%-10%; 3.5%-6%. I ended up using a simple 5% throughout.

Using 1990 as an anchor, the military capital calculations consisted of an addition of 25% of current military spending (inflation adjusted) and the subtraction of 5% of the existing accumulated military capital stock.

Combat Effectiveness

This crucial factor consists of a multiple of three components: Technology; Troop Quality; and Cultural Modifier.


Military technology is advancing at a continuous pace. Ian Morris in The Measure of Civilization cites an estimate that the weapons systems of 2000 have 50-100x as much mobility, resilience, and destructive potential as those of 1900, whereas those of 1900 are 5x as capable as those of 1800. This is an ongoing process that finds expression today in things such as drones, swarms, cyberwar, and even more exotic possibilities like railguns and DEWs. It will also accelerate or decelerate depending on the underlying rate of overall technological growth and the percentage of R&D that will be devoted to military competition in the years ahead. Furthermore, depending on their nation’s developmental level and international relations, some militaries will be systemically more technologically advanced than others.

annual-military-technological-growth To proxy this, I first compiled an estimate of the rate of technological military progress over the past century (see right). I didn’t try to be particularly detailed, since that is probably a futile endevour. Four broad historical periods can be made out, though:

  1. The 1900-1935 period saw a modest degree of both technological and doctrinal progress. In the former sphere, you had of course the appearance of the first rudimentary armor and air forces. You also had major matching doctrinal developments, such as the Hutier tactics that eventually broke the stalemate on the Western Front in World War 1, and would later wield great influence over the proper employment of armor. Outside Germany, however, these innovations were not readily accepted. Overall, yearly growth of perhaps 3%.
  2. The 1935-1975 period saw blisteringly fast progress. To get a sense of the scale of the change, consider that the mid-1930s began with aircraft like the Spitfire and Messerschmitt Bf 109 replacing old wood and fabric models, culminating in the F-15 and Su-27 by the 1970s – both planes that in their modernized versions continue to form the backbones of the US and Russian Air Forces. The later part of this period also saw the development of the Revolution in Military Affairs, spearheaded by Marshall Nikolay Ogarkov in the USSR in the 1970s and most intensively adapted by the US after the 1980s. Overall, yearly growth of perhaps 7%.
  3. The 1985-2015 saw a slowing down of military technological growth. To be sure, it still continues, predominantly in the fields of networking and IT, but you no longer have the major leaps every decade that you had in the previous period. Overall, yearly growth of perhaps 5% in 1975-1985, and 3% thereafter.
  4. The 2015-2050 period lies in the future, so any propositions are largely guesswork. But assuming no fundamentally new paradigms are developed, no computer superintelligences, no technological singularities, the yearly rate of growth might continue to be around 3%.

Using the year 2000 as an anchor, military technology of previous and future years is adjusted based on the above schema. It is further adjusted based on each individual military’s closeness to the military technology frontier, as represented by leading industrial countries such as the US.

  1. Technological frontier – The US, its closest allies (e.g. Israel and the Five Eyes), and NATO/allied countries that are economically well developed and possess substantial military-industrial complexes of their own (e.g. France, Germany, Japan). This does not necessarily mean that all their weapons systems are top notch. It just means that mere money is the only major obstacle in attaining such a state. If Germany right this moment decided to become stronk! and build itself a fifth generation fighter, and financed that project properly, there’s no real doubt over its theoretical capacity to do so. The extent to which countries do or do not do this is proxied by their accumulation of military capital.
  2. Lag of 5 years – Small NATO countries, close NATO clients, and the USSR and modern Russia as well as Russia’s closest allies and small rich countries like Singapore that devote a lot of attention to their militaries. Assigning a lag of a mere 5 years to Russia might be controversial, considering the poor reputation of Russian technology – largely a result of it being used by incompetent countries like Syria and Iraq against competent countries like Israel and the US – but all in all I do not think it unrealistic. There might indeed be a lag of 5 or even 10 years in individual spheres such as drones or fighter aircraft, but for every one of those there is a sphere where Russia is on the leading edge, such as tanks, anti-aircraft, and diesel subs.
  3. Lag of 10 years – China, India, most middle income countries and buyers of Western and Russian “monkey model” equipment – China is fast closing the gap and will soon reduce its lag to 5 years, but for now this is probably accurate. In particular, it continues to fail at building reliable high performance fighter jet engines that have long been mastered in the West and Russia.
  4. Lag of 15 years – So-called “rogue” regimes that have been heavily sanctioned by the West and are not in a position to innovate most of their own hi-tech equipment, such as Iran, as well as the more impoverished Third World tinpot countries.

Troop Quality

Spending more money per soldier will almost inevitably improve overall quality. Brighter, more motivated people will be incentivized to show up in the first place. More time can be devoted to training, using more bullets and flying time. Full time cooks and cleaners can be hired so that soldiers don’t have to waste time doing things irrelevant to their profession.

I made Troop Quality equal to per soldier spending times 4 in the last year, plus per soldier spending times 2 in the year before that, plus per soldier spending times 1 three years back. This loosely reflects the idea that it is the most recent spending that will have the most effect.

I then took the cube root of this figure to account for diminishing returns. After all, doubling spending on a soldier can hardly be expected to double his combat effectiveness. But a 25% increase is quite reasonable.

Cultural Factors

In both the World Wars, as Trevor Dupuy recounts in his books such as A Genius for War, the Germans consistently had a 25% combat effectiveness advantage over the Allies – the French, the British, and the Americans – and in individual engagements, they inflicted 50% more casualties adjusted for personnel numbers, equipment, local geography, and offensive/defensive status. Over the Russians, their combat effectiveness advantage was more along the lines of 100%+. (Incidentally, this, and not the Hollywood myth of “two soldiers per rifle,” is what accounted for the high Soviet:German casualty ratios. Even a cursory perusal of WW2 war production statistics, in which the USSR outproduced Germany in virtually all weapons categories, would confirm this. The Germans were just a lot better at fighting, while the Soviets were a lot worse – possibly because the 1940s USSR was still in many respects a Third World country).

As such, I gave Germany a 25% across the board advantage in combat effectiveness. (Is this still valid? Dupuy, after all, argues that the key factor that explained German overperformance was the quality of their General Staff, which they no longer really have. However, I don’t fully buy that argument. Many countries as early as the aftermath of the Prussian victories in the 1860s-70s adopted the General Staff structure, but failed to recreate German-style military efficiency. So I suspect this is more of a permanent cultural or even sociobiological factor).

I also gave a 25% across the board advantage to a few other countries that have displayed unusually impressive military “feats” in their history, such as Finland (Winter War), Israel (the Arab Wars), Mongolia (that Ghengis guy), Switzerland (Swiss pikemen), etc.

I took 25% off countries that I deemed to be “Southern” (the Latin, African, Arab, and Indian subcontinent peoples) to account for the traditional stereotype of them being generally inferior soldiers to “northerners.” However, I did not extend this to Turks, Greeks, and Armenians/Israelis, who have somewhat better military reputations. I also took another 25% off from countries that I perceived to have excessive levels of clannishness in their societies, since clannishness is – as I discussed at length previously – antithetical to being a good soldier as part of the army of a nation-state. The net effect of this is to reduce the default combat effectiveness of Arabs to 50%, which is in fact somewhat similar to the ratios they displayed in their wars with Israel. There is no such clannishness “hit” as concerns Arabs who fight for clan (e.g. the Syrian National Defense Forces) or for God (e.g. Al Nusra, Islamic State) but these types of military structures are not any good at conventionally fighting actually competent militaries who know how to wage combined arms warfare.

Putting it All Together

The result is the Comprehensive Military Power index. It is of course a largely theoretical figure, so further specific adjustments will be necessary to take into account aspects like geography, the land/sea division, etc. Nonetheless, at least in the sense that militaries aim to expend their resources in a way that maximizes their power – a sort of military version of the efficient markets hypothesis – Comprehensive Military Power should be at least a useful proxy of their results.

Here are the top 15 militaries of 2015 according to the Comprehensive Military Power index (you may find the full list at the bottom of this post).

In the default CMP, i.e. the second column, the US score in 2000 = 100. In the third column, the US score in 2015 has been normed to 100.

Rank Country CMP 2015 CMP 2015 (US=100)
1 United States 197.35 100.00
2 China, P. R. 83.45 42.28
3 Russia 65.96 33.42
4 India 30.71 15.56
5 Germany 23.87 12.09
6 France 23.31 11.81
7 United Kingdom 19.38 9.82
8 Japan 18.65 9.45
9 Korea, South 16.50 8.36
10 Saudi Arabia 13.68 6.93
11 Turkey 12.44 6.30
12 Italy 11.95 6.06
13 Brazil 11.91 6.04
14 Iran 10.40 5.27
15 Israel 9.65 4.89

A Few Comments on How CMP Will Translate into Real Battle Results

lanchesters-laws Conventional modern combat follows the classic Lanchester model, in which the damage your army inflicts over time is a function of the size of your army (see graphic illustration right, via Wiki). Likewise for the enemy.

As such, assuming equal damage rates (as proxied by combat effectiveness), even a small initial advantage can soon translate into crushing victories and defeats – see the first diagram on the right. It is these considerations that underlie Clausewitzian concepts such as the principles of The Offensive, Maneuver, Mass, and Economy of Forces. These principles were intuited by the Great Captains of yore (Alexander, Napoleon, etc) and have been formalized in Military Theory 101 in modern days.

The method for quick but generally reliable predictions of failure or success in prospective military operations, which can be performed by the layman, is a consideration of the share of the national CMP and the gross size of that CMP that the respective combatants can realistically allocate to the sphere of combat operations.

Let us consider a few examples:

The Gulf War

According to my database, the US had a CMP of 92.2 versus 2.1 for the Iraq of Saddam Hussein in 1990. This includes the standard -50% adjustment for Muslim Arabs, which as per usual was justified for this war.

The US concentrated something like 25% of its global military power to this campaign. In tandem with its coalition allies, that made for a regional CMP concentration of up to 30, that is – for all his tanks – a multiple of almost 15:1 relative to Saddam’s forces.

Saddam wouldn’t have stood a chance, even had he been a talented military leader, which he was not. He failed to do anything to disrupt the US buildup, and exercised a rigid, paranoid style of control that quelled lower-level military initiative.

The Syrian Conflict

The Syrian state and the Islamic State both have around 1.7 points on the CMP. I suspect FSA/Al Nusra is a bit lower, maybe around 1. No wonder it’s been a long stalemate… until, perhaps, the Russian airstrikes.

Timely reminder of what I wrote about them:

This is where the Russian Air Force can hopefully make a big difference. Even the fighters already in place will allow the Syrians to effectively double their number of sorties, and Russian fighter pilots are much more skilled and have more modern armaments than their Syrian counterparts. Effectively, this translates to a tripling or quadrupling of Syrian air power that can be concentrated in support of SAA ground operations. Air power can seriously degrade the combat power of enemy formations that do not have adequate AA counters to it (that describes both the FSA/Al Nusra and ISIS). Whereas a front might have once been in equilibrium, due to roughly matching combat power on either side, a sustained air campaign could begin to systemically swing the advantage over to the SAA and eventually enable the reconquista of Syrian territorities currently under renegade Islamist control.

The War in Donbass

In 2014, the fledgling Novorossiyan state as of the August fighting had a CMP of about 0.9, relative to Ukraine’s 6.9. This is a difference of almost 8:1. Thus, when the Ukrainian Army began to fight seriously – for all its manifold problems logistics, morale, and generalship problems – it made progress and would have almost certainly ended up strangling Novorossiya in its cradle. But thanks to the “Northern Wind” and the limited Russian intervention at Ilovaysk, this was not to be.

Both sides have continued to build up their forces, and as of mid-2015, the CMP of Novorossiya was approximately 2.1 to Ukraine’s 8.1 – now a ratio of less than 4:1. Considering that Ukraine cannot realistically commit a huge percentage of its forces to attacking Novorossiya, a military solution to the conflict is for the time being out of the question, as even Poroshenko has been forced to belatedly acknowledge. While Ukraine might be able to make gains, Russia would be able to bolster Novorossiya just as fast. That said, under current spending plans, Ukraine’s CMP should almost double by 2020 – assuming it doesnt’t go bankrupt and is able to maintain military spending at 5% of GDP – which would give it an almost tenfold advantage if Novorossiya stands still in the meantime. (Which, with Russia apparently losing attention, might well happen).

Finally, it also gives the lie to Ukrainian claims which are uncritically repeated in the Western press that they faced down and defeated the Russian Army inflicting thousands of casualties on the Muscovite aggressor. There was in fact just a single intervention at Ilovaysk; Russian military KIA is almost certainly below a hundred for the entire conflict; and unlike the Ukrainians, they were forced to engage while using only a fraction of their capabilities so as to maintain plausible deniability. In effect, they had to forego their vast military capital advantage, and instead rely on superior combat effectiveness. The fact that that they easily trounced Kiev’s forces regardless is incidental testament to Russia’s complete military superiority over Ukraine.

A Confrontation with NATO in the Baltics

Assume the crazier neocons take over the reins and smash Russia’s Latakia airbase to pieces (there’s nothing Russia will be able to do to stop that).

Now Brzezinski might not formally be a neocon, but frankly neocon ideas so dominate US interventionist discourse that we might as well call them all neocons. Here is what the neocon Brzezinsky had to say on this:

“In these rapidly unfolding circumstances the U.S. has only one real option if it is to protect its wider stakes in the region: to convey to Moscow the demand that it cease and desist from military actions that directly affect American assets,” he said.

“The Russian naval and air presences in Syria are vulnerable, isolated geographically from their homeland,” Brzezinski noted. “They could be ‘disarmed’ if they persist in provoking the US.”

Here is another, bona fide neocon, Noah Rothman, pretending to be in anguish over the threat of World War 3 while rationalizing and implicitly calling for the US to attack Russian forces in Syria who are there at the request of its legitimate government:

Washington is faced with a terrible choice: Withdraw unceremoniously and invite further Russian aggression or deter Moscow’s military activities abroad through the credible threat of force. The Pentagon is preparing for the latter course.

On Friday, the Associated Press reported that the Pentagon was readying a set of options for the president should he choose to protect Washington-supported rebel groups on the ground in Syria from air attack by Russian forces. The details of such a plan remain a secret, but they would necessarily include putting U.S. air assets in close proximity to Russian forces, triggering an international incident with the expectation – or perhaps the hope – that Russia would climb down from the crisis it has ignited. “At worst, if Russia bombs rebels trained by the U.S. and American fighter jets intercede to protect the Syrians, the exchange could trigger an all-out confrontation with Russia — a potential disaster the administration would like to avoid,” Fox News reported.

Both suggestions if carried through would actually be straightforward acts of war.

Assume that Putin doesn’t back down and try to make amends with his “partners,” which is not entirely impossible, but instead decides to up the ante by confronting NATO in the Baltics. What happens?

I would imagine the conventional answer is that Putin gets smashed and the Russian hordes get sent back fleeing to Eurasia.

The CMP concept, however – not to mention Pentagon war games – suggest NATO wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. Russia’s CMP is a third of that of the US, and a fifth of NATO’s. However, a great percentage of it is already concentrated at its western borders. The Balts themselves collectively have less than 1 in CMP, compared to Russia’s 66. There is no way that NATO will be able to mass in sufficient force to have any short at defending the Baltics. Should they attempt to do so anyway, they will merely be destroyed piecemeal with minimal damage on Russian forces. The only hope of reversal would be either fullscale mobilization across NATO (not going to happen no matter how shrill the neocons get), or draconian economic sanctions (which is what will happen).

However, I don’t expect any of the neocons to pay any particular attention to such matters, because they have an idee fixe – e.g., American triumphalism, Israel firstism, Russophobia – and have no interest, desire, or incentive to deviate an iota away from it.

The Future Global Military Balance

In tandem with various assumptions about future economic growth and the share of spending that will be devoted to the military, we can make rough projections of future military power.

But first…

Cold War History


In short, a CMP analysis shows:

  • US superiority in the 1950-1975 period, Soviet superiority thereafter until its collapse. (Yes, the US was roughly twice as powerful as the USSR in 1945. However, it went below the Soviet lower following postwar demobilization. During the Korean War it sprang back up again and the permanent military-industrial complex was there to stay).
  • NATO vs. Warsaw Pact approximate parity on land, and continuous NATO dominance on the high seas. Of course the Warsaw Pact did have a preponderate in forces stationed in Europe proper. This was why Cold War military strategy was mainly about keeping the Warsaw Pact at bay long enough for American reinforcements to make their way to West Germany.
  • A clear period of US military supremacy from 1992 until today. But China is gaining fast.

All this has face validity.

Future Superpower CMP

As concerns the Chinese-US military balance, the purely naval component is more important than the aggregate one, since the likeliest clash will be over some Pacific island or other.

Calculating separate CMPS for land and sea is unrealistic. However, one can make reasonable estimates of the share of national CMP that is land based vs naval based. In the US, for instance, I would estimate that the Navy and Marines (sea), and the Army and Air Force (land), each account for about half of its CMP. In the USSR, this split was more like 25%:75%. China during the Cold War was even more exclusively land-based, not possessing a blue water fleet at all. However, this is now changing fast. The Army is getting downsized, while as early as 2020 the PLAN will begin to resemble a smaller version of the USN.

Naval Power

Assuming that:

  • The Chinese naval share of CMP grows steadily from about 30% in 2010 to 50% by 2050.
  • The US naval share of CMP grows from 55% in 2010 and 2020, to 60% by 2020 and thereafter.
  • Chinese military spending increases by 10% during the rest of the 2010s (as before), by 7% in the 2020s, by 5% in the 2030s, and by 3% in the 2040s.
  • US military spending remains constant until 2020, then resumes growing at 3% a year.
  • China will move from a 10 year technological lag in 2010 to a 5 year technological lag by 2020, and remain there until 2050 (i.e. will not become technologically leading edge).

Here is what the US/China naval comparison will look like in the years ahead under these non too demanding assumptions, which involve China continuing to converge rapidly with developed world living standards (like South Korea with a lag period of 20 years) and maintaining military spending at about ~2-2.5% of GDP, while the US grows at around 3% and keeps military spending at around 3% of GDP.


Under these conditions, China will overtake the US in overall military terms in land military power during the early 2020s, in overall military power in the early 2030s, and in naval military power by the early 2040s.

I view that as being historically plausible. Germany committed to major naval buildup at 1888, when its total GDP was still considerably smaller than Britain’s. Twenty five years later, the Imperial German Navy had emerged from obscurity to become half the strength of the Royal Navy. But Germany also had to maintain an Army capable of fighting a two front war, and its GDP never far outpaced Britain’s because their total populations were so close (65 million to 47 million in 1913). In contrast, China has a relatively secure rear with Russia, which it is slowly overshadowing in land military power anyway; its GDP is already bigger than the US in purchasing power parity adjusted terms; and its population is more than four times as large as America’s. Should it merely converge to Korea’s level of GDP per capita relative to the US, its aggregate economic size will be three time greater than America’s.

As such, China’s naval ascendancy by the mid-21st century is entirely plausible.

George Friedman of Stratfor claims that carrier operations are so complex that only Americans can really understand them (I am not even simplying his arguments all that much), but he also claims that China will break apart in the 2020s and Poland and Mexico will be superpowers this century, so take his forecasts with a grain of salt.

Comprehensive Military Power

In global terms, there will be four military powers, with Russia and a rising India coming in behind the American and Chinese behemoths.


The article is becoming too long for stating the assumptions behind Russia’s and India’s trajectory in any great detail; perhaps I will leave that for a later post (more on that below).

There will also continue to be a number of middling powers, such as France, the UK, Germany, Japan, and South Korea, but none of them are likely to go far beyond 10% of the US CMP. This is, of course, all assuming no major wars, mobilizations, unexpectedly sharp increases in military spending, superintelligence takeoffs, etc.

Further Applications of CMP

I spent quite a bit of time developing the CMP and intend to milk it for all it’s worth in future blog posts. So please feel free to suggest:

  • Further “grand strategic” future scenarios with differing assumptions about military spending as share of GDP and GDP growth for different countries and potential alliances.
  • Individual conflict analysis based on the CMP (e.g. India vs. Pakistan, the two Koreas, Azerbaijan vs. Armenia), as well as CMP based analyses of regional military balances e.g. Europe, Middle East, etc.
  • Historical what-if and sci-fi scenarios, such as, Could the Warsaw Pact have conquered Western Europe? Could 1940 Nazi Germany take on 2015 Poland? Would a global UN military of 2015 be able to defeat the Wolfenstein: New World Order of 1960, or would Wilhem Strasse’s Panzerhunds rip us all apart with Teutonic ease??? Feel free to make them as wacky as you like!

Make these suggestions here and/or at my account.

Comprehensive Military Power 2015

In the default CMP, i.e. the second column, the US score in 2000 = 100. In the third column, the US score in 2015 has been normed to 100.

Rank Country CMP 2015 CMP 2015 (US=100)
1 United States 197.35 100.00
2 China, P. R. 83.45 42.28
3 Russia 65.96 33.42
4 India 30.71 15.56
5 Germany 23.87 12.09
6 France 23.31 11.81
7 United Kingdom 19.38 9.82
8 Japan 18.65 9.45
9 Korea, South 16.50 8.36
10 Saudi Arabia 13.68 6.93
11 Turkey 12.44 6.30
12 Italy 11.95 6.06
13 Brazil 11.91 6.04
14 Iran 10.40 5.27
15 Israel 9.65 4.89
16 Ukraine 8.10 4.10
17 Taiwan 7.36 3.73
18 Pakistan 6.76 3.43
19 Australia 6.74 3.42
20 Canada 6.68 3.38
21 Poland 6.37 3.23
22 Colombia 4.86 2.46
23 Spain 4.81 2.44
24 Indonesia 4.69 2.38
25 Singapore 4.41 2.23
26 Vietnam 4.28 2.17
27 Korea, North 4.18 2.12
28 Thailand 3.75 1.90
29 Egypt 3.73 1.89
30 Greece 3.69 1.87
31 Netherlands 3.51 1.78
32 Myanmar 3.16 1.60
33 United Arab Emirates 3.11 1.58
34 Algeria 2.98 1.51
35 Mexico 2.72 1.38
36 Romania 2.45 1.24
37 Azerbaijan 2.42 1.23
38 Malaysia 2.36 1.20
39 Iraq 2.27 1.15
40 South Africa 2.26 1.15
41 Kazakhstan 2.25 1.14
42 Novorossiya 2.08 1.06
43 Belarus 2.05 1.04
44 Oman 2.02 1.02
45 Belgium 2.02 1.02
46 Argentina 1.98 1.00
47 Philippines 1.88 0.95
48 Czech Rep. 1.83 0.93
49 Switzerland 1.78 0.90
50 Portugal 1.74 0.88
51 Sweden 1.72 0.87
52 Chile 1.72 0.87
53 Syria 1.69 0.86
54 Islamic State 1.67 0.84
55 Norway 1.62 0.82
56 Venezuela 1.57 0.79
57 Angola 1.56 0.79
58 Kuwait 1.54 0.78
59 Sri Lanka 1.48 0.75
60 Austria 1.42 0.72
61 Lebanon 1.32 0.67
62 Uzbekistan 1.32 0.67
63 Hungary 1.31 0.66
64 Finland 1.28 0.65
65 Nigeria 1.25 0.64
66 Denmark 1.17 0.59
67 Morocco 1.17 0.59
68 Bulgaria 1.16 0.59
69 Serbia 1.08 0.55
70 Peru 1.03 0.52
71 Bangladesh 1.03 0.52
72 Croatia 0.89 0.45
73 Ecuador 0.86 0.43
74 Armenia 0.81 0.41
75 New Zealand 0.80 0.40
76 Sudan 0.80 0.40
77 Yemen 0.79 0.40
78 Eritrea 0.78 0.39
79 Slovak Rep. 0.71 0.36
80 Georgia 0.64 0.32
81 Jordan 0.56 0.29
82 Afghanistan 0.53 0.27
83 Qatar 0.48 0.24
84 Libya 0.42 0.21
85 Ireland 0.41 0.21
86 Kenya 0.39 0.20
87 Lithuania 0.38 0.19
88 Kyrgyzstan 0.38 0.19
89 Ethiopia 0.36 0.18
90 Turkmenistan 0.36 0.18
91 Nepal 0.35 0.18
92 Bosnia-Herzegovina 0.33 0.16
93 Slovenia 0.31 0.16
94 Tunisia 0.29 0.15
95 Uruguay 0.29 0.14
96 Chad 0.28 0.14
97 Bahrain 0.27 0.14
98 Cyprus 0.27 0.14
99 Bolivia 0.26 0.13
100 Estonia 0.22 0.11
101 Latvia 0.21 0.11
102 Dominican Rep. 0.20 0.10
103 Uganda 0.19 0.10
104 Tanzania 0.19 0.10
105 Cambodia 0.19 0.10
106 Zambia 0.19 0.10
107 Côte d’Ivoire 0.19 0.09
108 Zimbabwe 0.18 0.09
109 Botswana 0.18 0.09
110 Namibia 0.17 0.09
111 Cameroon 0.17 0.09
112 Guatemala 0.17 0.09
113 Paraguay 0.17 0.09
114 El Salvador 0.17 0.09
115 Albania 0.17 0.08
116 Mongolia 0.16 0.08
117 Macedonia, FYR 0.16 0.08
118 Congo, Dem. Rep. 0.16 0.08
119 Congo 0.15 0.08
120 Brunei 0.15 0.08
121 Tajikistan 0.14 0.07
122 Cuba 0.13 0.07
123 Ghana 0.11 0.06
124 Senegal 0.11 0.05
125 Laos 0.10 0.05
126 Honduras 0.10 0.05
127 Moldova 0.09 0.05
128 Gabon 0.09 0.04
129 Rwanda 0.09 0.04
130 Luxembourg 0.08 0.04
131 Montenegro 0.08 0.04
132 Mali 0.08 0.04
133 Guinea 0.08 0.04
134 Somalia 0.08 0.04
135 Madagascar 0.08 0.04
136 Burkina Faso 0.07 0.04
137 Panama 0.07 0.04
138 Burundi 0.07 0.03
139 Mozambique 0.06 0.03
140 Equatorial Guinea 0.06 0.03
141 Nicaragua 0.06 0.03
142 Jamaica 0.05 0.03
143 Trinidad & Tobago 0.05 0.02
144 Benin 0.04 0.02
145 Togo 0.04 0.02
146 Niger 0.04 0.02
147 Swaziland 0.04 0.02
148 Malawi 0.04 0.02
149 Djibouti 0.03 0.01
150 Lesotho 0.03 0.01
151 Malta 0.03 0.01
152 Papua New Guinea 0.03 0.01
153 Fiji 0.02 0.01
154 Sierra Leone 0.02 0.01
155 Central African Rep. 0.02 0.01
156 Guyana 0.01 0.01
157 Guinea-Bissau 0.01 0.01
158 Mauritius 0.01 0.01
159 Liberia 0.01 0.00
160 Gambia 0.01 0.00
161 Iceland 0.01 0.00
162 Belize 0.01 0.00
163 Seychelles 0.01 0.00
164 Cape Verde 0.00 0.00
165 Haiti 0.00 0.00
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In this installment of my series on future war, I’ll be taking a holistic view of ground combat. Unlike the case for naval warfare, which is going to be revolutionized by new weapons platforms – railguns, battle lasers, and submersible arsenal ships – developments on the ground are slated to be more low-key, albeit no less transformative in their cumulative impact… future wars will be fought in augmented reality.

The effectiveness of armies will come to be defined by the quality and resilience of their networks. Individual platforms will acquire exceptional “battlespace awareness”; coupled with the continued miniaturization and affordability of smart munitions (Moore’s Law), this will empower the common soldier to a degree unprecedented in history. Most importantly, new technologies – the modern IADS, battle lasers, even the humble RPG – will favor the defense over the offense, bringing our Cold War dreams of epic armored thrusts and battles for the heavens to a long stalemate.

The Soldier will be a First-Person Shooter

Let’s start from the most basic Army unit, the individual soldier. He, or quite possibly she, will experience the battlespace as a “live direct or indirect view of a physical real-world environment whose elements are augmented by virtual computer-generated imagery”. This isn’t just a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) or network-centric warfare – it is Augmented Reality Warfare (ARW). To imagine what this is going to be like, imagine the typical first-person shooter game, like Doom or Far Cry.


[Screenshot from the game Ghost Recon 2].

Now video games are, of course, virtual; but augmenting reality can yield similar effects, making the common soldier into a cyborg. Let’s consider:

1. The cyborg will have a head up display (HUD) or even bionic lenses featuring crucial battlespace information such as the firearms status, range-finder, target identification, and a map showing friends, foes, flora, and fauna. Unless an EMP or cyberwar (“assassin’s mace“) attack disables the electronics, this will provide an invaluable advantage to the soldier. No more rummaging in the rucksack or peering at a piece of paper for vital information! It’s all in front of you…

2. One of the biggest advantages in video game shooting is that you can aim from the hip with pin-point accuracy and fire away to your heart’s content, that is, until the enemy is dead (at least if you have a sure hand with the mouse or use an aiming bot). In real life, you’ll just be wasting ammo and revealing your position. But the cyborg will be able to integrate the firearm with the HUD by intercepting a wireless video feed from a camera attached to the muzzle of a gun. (Perhaps this can be changed to a optical wired feed should the electronics become disabled). This will enable the cyborg to shoot around corners or over a ditch without exposing his head.

3. Bot aiming, high jumps, power lifts… enter the exoskeleton. Advanced nanoscale armor will protect soldiers from projectiles fired from today’s rifles. The result is that there may be an increasing emphasis on bombardment – or paradoxically, close quarters combat.

4. Seamless networking with other soldiers, weapons platforms, and specialized sensors will add up to a battlespace awareness that is much, much greater than the sum of its parts. This will enable near flawless coordination with other members of the fire team and the rapid calling of precise artillery strikes on observed enemy positions. Furthermore, an AI observing the entire system can optimize troop movements and firepower – giving orders, or even taking over a soldier’s exoskeleton or body if we want to get really dystopian.

5. There is intensive medical research on instant blood clotting, tissue regeneration, and prosthetics. This would be the equivalent of health packs that give the player HP in video games. Soldiers that would have once been written off as disabled would be able to rejoin the battle. The WIA/KIA ratio will soar.

6. The cyborg soldier will have access to the world’s information at his fingertips, on his HUD, or even transferred directly into his mind. Advanced pattern recognition software will enable him to recognize IED’s or enemy threats faster and better than any ordinary human. When he needs to do something unfamiliar, such as disarm an explosive or operate a forklift, a specialized AI will tell or even show him how to do it.

All that said, the essence of the infantry rifleman will remain the same. (To an extent, even more so, because the rising accuracy and lethality of anti-armor munitions are due to eliminate the main battle tank as we know it from future war). Propagated from the 1950′s, the modern assault rifle should remain the standard infantry weapon. There will be marginal improvements, such as the use of caseless ammunition and a universalization of the “bullpup” configuration. But the prospects of developing effective hand-held laser or “beam” weapons remain unrealistic for the foreseeable future. The true revolution will be in the firearm’s intimate integration with its (networked) platforms, as mentioned above, and the development of smarter and deadlier munitions.

Though smart munitions are expensive today, they are getting cheaper and miniaturized, in line with the progress of Moore’s Law. JDAM’s attached to previously “dumb” bombs have multiplied the effectiveness of American airpower since their introduction in the 1980′s. Now in the late 2000′s, we have the 155mm Excalibur, a small guided artillery round that can land within 10m of a target from 50km away (the Taliban have nicknamed it “The Finger of Death”) and the XM-25 weapons system, which can drop a grenade from up to 700m away with pin-point accuracy. After this, it would seem that “smart bullets” are the next logical step. By the 2030′s, smart munitions will be ubiquitous and even the smallest projectiles will become guided.

The other major dimension of improvement is in the power and versatility of ordnance. Progress in nanotechnology will increase the explosiveness of conventional munitions, while two other types of ordnance will assume a critical role: EMP bombs and fuel-air bombs. Though military C&C nodes can be and are hardened against EMP strikes (though the effectiveness of this hardening hasn’t yet been tested under fire), doing the same for the civilian infrastructure is prohibitively expensive. All it takes is one nuclear explosion high up in the atmosphere, and an entire continent can go black. (Needless to say, this will severely affect the enemy’s military-industrial potential). Smaller e-bombs can be constructed cheaply and dropped by hypersonic drones, or lobbed over by railguns, to disable enemy electronics over a wide geographic area, perhaps prior to an assault.

Fuel-air bombs, or thermobaric weapons, are very effective against enclosed spaces like bunkers or tunnels. The Russians recently used nanotechnology to create the “Father of All Bombs“, which had the power of a small nuclear bomb. Over time it may be possible to miniaturize these creatures into smaller artillery munitions and grenades, giving even the lowest-level platforms – individual soldiers – immense destructive power.

All these high-powered precision weapons will make slow or stupid military units very vulnerable, and they will have to be countered by an increased emphasis on continuous movement, networking, and dispersion. In future wars, soldiers and industry will be digging themselves in as never before to survive in this brave new world of “cybernetic reprimitivation“.

Defense is King & the Iron-Light Phalanx

The great campaigns of World War Two (and the imaginary Cold War battles on the Central European Plain) were characterized by deep armored penetrations, combined arms tactics, and encirclements. Current technological developments will return us to the future – a stalemate like the First World War, but not along a single front but across a vast, 2-d space in which dispersed troop formations will wage a war of attrition.

Let’s start with the basics, the already existing reality. Guerrilla armies have embraced the RPG, a cheap and remarkably effective weapon against the most modern armor. Despite its high morale and clear strategic thinking, the fact remains that Hezbollah’s forces in 2006 were small and third-tier. But nonetheless, dug-in Hezbollah fighters managed to blunt the advance of a modern Israeli mechanized force. Despite the Israeli Air Force’s best efforts, missile fire from Hezbollah was higher at the end of the war than at the beginning. It was a remarkable success by any standard. And back in 1994-96, Chechen separatists operating in three-man squads – two with an RPG, one with a Kalashnikov to protect them – made modern art out of the Russian tanks idiotically sent into central Grozny. The dynamics are clear. Though MBT’s like the M1 Abrams can sweep an open battlefield of enemy armor with its awesome mobile targeting system, these conditions rarely if ever hold today. We learned some lessons from Saddam. Dig a few tunnels or bunkers, or hide guys with RPG’s in an urban warren (be it Middle East mudbricks or post-Soviet concrete tower mazes), or send over a few heavily-armed drones, and the enemy tank brigade is in deep trouble…

Now what about fighter aircraft? I’ll have more on the future of air and space war in a later post, but speaking of just its ground support role, that too is increasingly threatened by technological developments. At the lower end, we have MANPADS, or Man Portable Air Defense Systems, which any soldier can use. Newer models have very sensitive and sophisticated seekers, allowing them to be fired from further away and making them far less vulnerable to decoys. At the other end of the scale is the impressive artifice known as the modern Integrated Air Defense System (IADS), characterized by high mobility, resistance to jamming, longer ranges, and far better tracking systems. Though stealth aircraft like the (very expensive) F-22 Raptor are believed to be capable of nullifying today’s advanced Russian IADS, almost all experts agree that radar, intertwined as it is with Moore’s Law, will win over stealth in the long term. With their low agility and speeds, even current 5th generation fighters like the F-22 Raptor or Sukhoi PAK FA are doomed to obsolescence within a few decades (or in a general war).

That’s just the beginning. By the 2020′s, developments in battle lasers, railguns, and automation will enable an exceedingly powerful point defense consisting of battle lasers and railguns that I call the “Iron-Light Phalanx”, ready to deliver a “kiss of death” on any projectile passing beneath Mach 3 or so within the horizon. It will have to be mobile (so as to be able to avoid attacks from enemy railgun projectiles) and have some conventional guns, in case the battery power fails or if it is attacked by a particularly big swarm of projectiles. And if a “plasma shield” becomes feasible, this air defense will have almost complete control of the heavens above it… So in sum, the utility of ground support aircraft will greatly diminish, as with tanks.

Airborne Laser (ABL)

[Source. Future battle lasers will be able to provide a robust within-horizon screen when mounted on ships or mobile launchers].

[Soviet Mobile Lasers Defending an Airfield by Edward L. Cooper, 1987. "The Soviets built high-energy laser devices in the 1980s and generally placed more emphasis on the weapons applications of lasers than did the West. The tactical laser program had progressed to the point that by the mid-1980s, U.S. analysts anticipated that laser weapons would be deployed with future Soviet forces."]

Paradoxically, any future total war will be one of both concentration and dispersion. To take a territory, one would have to occupy it with boots, as has been the case since times immemorial. But at the tactical level, the sheer lethality and accuracy of future firepower will preclude any effective concentration in both time and place (which is the defining factor of the 20th century wars of maneuver). It will therefore be a war run not by human generals but by optimizing algorithms, a war of attrition with no brilliant maneuvers that the human mind can comprehend. Neither great armored thrusts, nor inspirational dogfights in the skies… across a vast, 2-d space, small and dispersed squads will engage in a ruthless, intensive, and deadly struggle, with extensive use of NBC weaponry, until the exhaustion and neo-Malthusian collapse of one or both of the warring blocs.

Finally, I’ll quote myself from the core article On Future War.

… in the case of absolute war between two technologically advanced blocs, the outcome will be determined by the outcomes between these two elements, the hi-tech NCW / “networked” element and the low-tech 4GW / “guerilla” element. However, these elements will inevitable lose their distinctions. The “guerillas” will themselves become networked, while the “networked” will adopt “guerilla” tactics in search of a new, optimal equilibrium. Those who are slow to find this equilibrium, relying either a) too much on small sized networked forces, which although very robust are vulnerable to attacks on critical nodes which will render them helpless [e.g. cyberwar, anti-satellite, EMP's], or b) on very low-tech [non-networked] forces that can be annihilated easily by hi-tech forces, will lose. …

Another way of imaging future war. Linear, infantry wars fought with rifle armies resembled checkers – relatively simple, one-dimensional, almost intuitive. The “combined arms” / 3rd-generation warfare that saw its apogee in WW2 and Cold War planning for WW3 on the plains of Germany resembled chess – one had to know how to use exploit time and space effectively with a variety of different units (infantry, mechanized, armored, air) to effect critical breakthroughts, encircle enemy units to enable for defeat in detail, and to know how to defend in depth. All of these are of course major elements in chess.

Future iWar is going to be like the Chinese game go (碁) – which despite the relative uniformity of platforms / pieces, is in practice far, far more complex than chess (computers aren’t advanced enough to “brute force” win in the game of go, unlike in chess, due to the sheer number of possibilities; skill is based on pattern recognition). It is characterized by extreme dispersion and inter-meshing of allied and enemy forces; strong point defences (see “[Light Iron Phalanx]”) with tenuous lines holding them together that are vulnerable to concerted assault; extreme mobility; and catastrophic bouts of attrition when large groups are surrounded and captured (equivalent to asymmetric attacks that disable large networks). No “King” that you have to defend at all costs because of the networked aspects; each unit is its own platform.

For a deeper exploration of how a war so intensive in technology and counter-technology, and in industrial and manpower mobilization, will be fought, consult the “Cybernetic Reprimitivization” chapter of On Future War.

… future wars will not necessarily be, as imagined by most commentators, affairs involving small, high-tech elite warriors, as was the case in medieval Europe’s focus on knights. To the contrary, they may more resemble a cybernetic “people’s war“, characterized by the networking of hi-tech and guerrilla forces and tactics, strict political control, and cybernetic planning to optimize the resource flows and output of a mobilized war economy.

A Vision of Reality Augmented Warfare

See the other timelines from On Future War (the main one) and Revolution in Naval Warfare.

1990′s-2000′s: The RMA emerges, and it is recognized that big, clumsy “linear” armies such as Iraq’s are near useless against a modern, networked foe. The US accelerates the implementation of the RMA under Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, which is a very expensive and largely unsuccessful endevour because most technologies are not mature.

2010′s: America’s development of next-generation weaponry is stalled due to budget constraints (already evident – see the cost-cutting pragmatism of Robert Gates), and eventually by the catabolic collapse of Pax Americana. As a result, the Future Force Warrior project remains largely unrealized. Other powers, most prominently China and Russia, will use this “window of opportunity” to close the technological gap. The technological aspects of RMA mature during this period, allowing for its intensified pursuit by the end of the decade.

2020′s: The world’s major political blocs and Great Powers, including the US, China, Russia, Brazil, India, Turkey, Japan, Korea, and the major European Powers, begin to fully implement the RMA in their ground forces, emphasizing networking and battlespace awareness. Due to the progress in Moore’s Law and the proliferation of the requisite technologies, such a project is now much more affordable than during the 2000′s. Even guerrilla armies and low-income national armies become significantly networked.

2030′s: Having been installed on larger ship platforms in the 2020′s, the railgun and battle lasers begin to make the transition onto land. This is a time during which energy shortages and environmental stress are beginning to veer out of control, while technological developments (databases, pattern recognition, surveillance, etc) enable an unprecedented state capability to monitor and mobilize its populations. Needless to say, this capability can be used to organize war and maintain morale, no matter the hardships, until a critical point of total collapse.

2040′s: RAFO. (See my upcoming book).

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A few days ago, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates fired a warning shot across the bow of the US Navy, questioning its “need” to maintain 11 carrier strike groups. He justified this on the basis of 1) “the massive over-match the U.S. already enjoys”, 2) “the growing anti-ship capabilities of adversaries”, and 3) the huge costs involved, e.g. a Ford-class carrier with full air wing “would represent potentially $15 to $20 billion worth of hardware at risk”. Though his statements had to take political sensitivities into account, Gates is eminently correct. Not only is such a large force a questionable asset for a fiscally overstretched superpower, but the aircraft carrier is fast becoming to the 21st century what the battleship was to the 20th. This is part and parcel of the biggest paradigm shift in naval warfare since the coming of fossil-fueled ironclads, a paradigm shift that I intend to popularize as the Revolution in Naval Warfare (RNW).

Much has already been written about the dangers to the West’s big surface fleets emanating from the global proliferation of supercavitating torpedoe and hypersonic anti-ship cruise missile technology. I’m not going to recap the debate – see these “classic” articles by David Crane and the War Nerd. Instead, what I’m going to do here is to look “over the horizon” at the impact of three major, ongoing developments on the future of naval warfare: railguns, battle lasers, and naval platforms.

Two weeks ago, a Russian company announced a Club-K cruise missile packet that could be hidden within a 40ft shipping container and rolled out in the Western press as a “carrier killer”*. At least according to its marketing pitch, any railroad wagon, any truck, any container ship could now be constituted into “effective counter measures [against] state terrorism”. This is a good example of the mating of advanced military technology with asymmetric tactics that is a major point of concern for Pentagon planners, who not only have to content with technologically mediocre nations like Iran acquiring a credible deterrent against US aeronaval intervention within the next decade, but also face many other problems such as checking the defense “death spiral”, the prospect of stagnant or shrinking military budgets, and the rising Chinese naval challenge.


Enter the railgun! In a recent demonstration, General Atomics unveiled the “Blitzer” intended “for ship defense against anti-ship cruise missiles and small boat swarms”. Although twice faster than conventional naval gun systems the current Phalanx close-in weapons system, I’m not sure that it will be all that game-changing for ship defense. After all, the new cruise missiles proliferating around the world don’t travel in straight lines, e.g. see the specs for the Sizzler cruise missile:

The 3M54E reaches its target in a most challenging manner. At 20 km from the target, the 3M54E’s supersonic solid rocket-powered third-stage terminal ‘dart’ separates from the missile, descends to 3 to 5 metres above sea level and accelerates to a supersonic speed of Mach 2.9 in a zigzagging terminal run to hit its target.

As a defensive system, the railgun might be able to take out one or two of these. But if you have half a dozen or more such missiles coming at a CSG, from different directions, it is almost certainly going to get hit. And of course the means for delivering them are also proliferating – quiet diesel subs, drones, fast attack boats, etc. However, their real potential is as a long-range gun platform. From Stratfor:

First, the projectile travels much faster than a conventional round. The muzzle velocity of an EMRG is around Mach 7, compared to just above Mach 2 for the current U.S. naval guns. (EMRGs are likely to appear first on U.S. Navy warships because of their size and power requirements.) This increase in speed also dramatically increases range and lethality. Current naval guns are limited to a range of about 20 nautical miles (though near-term improvements might double that), whereas current projections place the range of EMRGs at around 250 nautical miles. And a projectile that hits its target at speeds around Mach 5 can be extremely destructive just from kinetic energy alone — dramatically reducing the size of the explosive warhead (or perhaps even making it unnecessary in some cases).

Second, the ammunition required is much smaller and much safer to handle and store. In a conventional gun, the shell casing and the propellant account for the bulk of the round’s size and weight. Because an EMRG round does not need to contain a propellant, and because it does not necessarily need an explosive warhead to detonate when it reaches its target, ammunition could be on the order of one-tenth the size of comparable conventional ammunition.

In short, EMRGs offer order-of-magnitude improvements in range and lethality while reducing the size, weight and hazardous nature of ammunition to a similar degree.

Railgun-fired projectiles will be almost as destructive as a cruise missile (remember that kinetic energy is mass times velocity squared), and far, far more difficult to intercept (because of their smaller size and sheer speed). With some tweaking, it will be possible to make the projectiles guided or “smart”. Finally, you can pack an ammunition load aboard that is practically unlimited (for comparison, the Sovremenny class destroyer only packs eight Moskit anti-ship missiles). Future ships armed with two long-range railguns can fire off a barrage of very fast, lethal projectiles once every few seconds once they receive the coordinates of a hostile target. The USN’s next-generation destroyer, the Zumwalt-class, is being designed with a view to hosting railguns and free-electron lasers (FEL).


[Railgun awesomeness].

This technology is expected to mature by 2015-2020, and become widely fielded a decade later as is the typical pattern. However, as with all advances in military technology, this will also spur changes in other platforms and doctrine. Here are three immediate consequences that come to mind:

1) Imagine a railgun on a submarine. Prowling silently underwater, it gets information on the coordinates of a target up to 300km away, e.g. by satellite comms or sub-launched reconaissance drones. It then erects its railgun above the waterline, fires off a barrage of guided projectiles for several minutes, and then submerge again. If it operates in a “wolfpack” with other subs, these things will be able to rapidly decimate even the most formidable enemy surface warship formations, not to mention utterly shut down commercial shipping routes. Navies will be forced to go underwater, become stealthier, or just faster (e.g. ekranoplans).

2) Needless to say, this will also force navies to become more dispersed, so that many vessels can’t be detected and targeted at the same time. In other words, naval warfare will follow the same trends as those observed on land.

3) A big problem will be power supply and management. One possible solution is to use space-based solar power, which can be beamed down whenever said vessel is on the water surface. The major challenge will be in protecting this source of power. See my article on Future War for more.

Battle Lasers

The second game changing technology I want to talk about are developments in free-electron laser (FEL) weapons. Back in 2009, American experimentalists hit the “100kW threshold [that] has been viewed traditionally as a proof of principle for ‘weapons grade’ power levels for high-energy lasers”. And in March 2010, Boeing unveiled a preliminary design for a FEL, “which will operate by forcing a stream of high-energy electrons through a series of magnetic fields, creating a weapons-grade blast of laser light”. Their prospective development timetable is similar to that for railguns and they require the same, all-electric ship platform. So by the 2020′s, it is not inconceivable that there could be several US Navy warships armed with these potent beasts**.


[Source: Battle laser awesomeness].

The function of these “battle lasers” will be to zap incoming cruise missiles and ballistic missiles. This will provide a very potent “point defense” around the FEL-equipped warship, within the limits of horizon visibility. However, these ships will still be vulnerable to railgun projectiles, which are far smaller, faster, and more numerous than a missile attack on a similar scale.

As I noted above, the proliferation of hypersonic cruise missiles, and platforms like quiet diesel-electric subs, speedboats, and UAV’s, is going to provide medium-level nations like Iran with a potent deterrent against American aeronaval intervention. A dozen modern cruise missiles with their platforms cost about 10mn $, a single oil super-tanker costs 100-200mn $. One hundred advanced cruise missiles and their platforms cost about 100mn $, a carrier strike group costs around 20bn $. Today’s economics overwhemingly favor the asymmetrical side, provided it can gets its hands on the goodies.

Perhaps the most important impact of battle lasers is that they are going to turn this economic logic on its head. Because they operate at the speed of light, a battle laser can be trained on incoming missiles almost constantly. Therefore, an array of weaponized FEL’s with a good target optimization algorithm can theoretically defend from all but the most intense missile barrages. These capabilities will no doubt be employed to great effect by the gunboat racketeers of the future, the Great Powers engaged in a last scramble for energy and mineral resources in the coming age of scarcity industrialism. The defense advantages acquired by middle Powers like Iran or Venezuela in the 2000′s-2010′s will begin to rapidly erode in the 2030′s.

Deeper, Quieter, Faster

The Revolution in Naval Warfare will occur in tandem with the wider Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), with its emphasis on interconnections, informatization, and Intelligence, Surveillance, & Reconaissance (ISR). Not only will navies acquire potent new physical capabilities (railguns, battle lasers), but they will also be enmeshed far deeper into the military environment that also encompasses air, land, and space.

In particular, today’s navies will become far more “visible” (to enemy satellites, drones, and other sensors), even while the danger of being spotted will become much more immediately dangerous (due to the danger of a concentrated railgun barrage from up to 400km away). The natural response is that naval platforms will have to become deeper, quieter, faster, nimbler. Below I outline six possible future trends, ranging from the certain (1, 2), to the somewhat probable (3-5), to the entirely speculative (6).

1) The obvious solution is to implement stealth technology on ships to reduce RCS, visibility, and noise. This is already widely implemented in modern navies and will only develop further, as shown in the angular planes of the prospective Zumwalt-class below.


[Source: Zumwalt-class destroyers have an advanced stealth design].

2) Another obvious feature is to make your naval assets quiet. This is especially important for subs. The US remains the leader in this field, though Russia and China are making up ground.

… China has mastered quiet air-independent propulsion (AIP) power plants for its new Type 041 Yuan-class boats. AIP extends underwater endurance from a few days to one month, and enables submarines to sprint underwater—greatly increasing their attack radius. Reportedly quieter than the US fast attack Los Angeles-class boats, the elusive AIP diesel electrics are equipped with wake-honing torpedoes and anti-ship cruise missiles. In one incident in October 2006, an ultra-quiet Song–class AIP submarine surfaced inside the protective screen of the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk.

3) Let’s get more speculative. Usually, projectiles stop dead in the water mere moments after impact (unless they have some kind of supercavitation mechanism). So what’s the best way for future warships to protect themselves in an exposed and dangerous environment? Go under the sea.

[Source: "The Russians have been pondering a "dive boat" that would be essentially a surface warship but with a simple and inexpensive ability to sail under the water at a shallow depth"].

Now while full-fledged submarines is pretty expensive, constructing shallow-submersible boats is much easier. Even the narcos do it to smuggle drugs into the US. By the 2030′s, there will appear submersible warships armed with a railgun for long-range engagement, battle lasers for point defense and internal pods with room for a dozen drones to serve as its “eyes and eyes” around a wide radius. I propose we call these prospective ships “Dragons”, just because the name sounds so cool.

4) Deeper and faster, but a lot noisier? Supercavitation, in which a bubble of gas is created around a moving underwater object to reduce drag and enable high speeds. The most famous current example is Russia’s Shkval torpedo, whose speed of 200 knots per hour was until recently unequaled by anything in NATO’s arsenal (the Germans developed a similar torpedo in 2004). One issue of current concern is that the Iranians have reverse engineered the Russian technology to create their Hoot torpedo, which could potentially wreck havoc on Gulf shipping if there is a war. One proposed defense against supercavitating torpedos is to create sonic pulses to disrupt the air bubbles and destabilize the approaching torpedo.

[B ehold the supercavitating submarine].

But supercavitation does not necessarily have to be limited to small things like underwater firearms and torpedos. DARPA, the Pentagon’s mad science division, has been toying with using the principle to build a 100-foot sub capable of traveling up to 100 knots per hour, around four times faster than normal subs. They are unlikely to be of much direct military use because they are too small and very noisy, but they might prove useful for providing logistical support.

5) How about just much, much faster? Enter the ekranoplan (less inspiringly known as a “ground effect vehicle”). This beast is a Soviet chimera with the sea-hovering effects of a hovercraft and the speed of a conventional plane, with compressed air under the winds providing the lift.

[Soviet ekranoplan flying above the Caspian Sea in the 1960's].

It can (and was) armed with six Moskit cruise missiles. Though it has many promising military applications, interest in developing them waned with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, its time may come again. It is very fast, an excellent transportation vehicle, and can carry large amounts of missiles and other ordnance. Flying low, just above the water, it is largely invulnerable to radar detection. With its speed and armaments, it could interdict supply routes and launch cruise missiles off the coast of a hostile Power. It is possible to imagine the ekranoplan being profitably used in surprise amphibious operations such as a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

ichthyosaur 6) Warning: while the suggestions above are somewhat speculative, this is going to be downright wacky. But maybe, just maybe, within the realm of possibility. Bear me out.

Innovative militaries are already inspired by biological life forms and translate them into military applications. This isn’t surprising. Nature has had billions of years to evolve designs very well adapted to specific purposes, such as avoiding detection, navigating, minimizing energy loss, etc. Already we are seeing robotic snakes, tiny robotic “insects”, even “smart dust“. Now project forwards by a few decades, a time during which we’ll see tremendous progress in biotechnology and bio/machine interfaces.

I am suggesting nothing less than that biomechanical constructs, combining robotic endurance and controllability with biological flexibility and resilience, will enter the realm of possibility. By the 2040′s or 2050′s, we could see revolutionary naval platforms, as today’s wildest techno-fantasies may come to be realized. Once navies begin to graft biological substrates onto the metallic/composite hulks, the “Dragons” will come alive.

A Vision of RNW

This post is an expansion on the timeline from On Future War. In constructing this, I draw on many elements and assumptions from that “core article”.

2010′s: America’s development of next-generation weaponry is stalled due to budget constraints (already evident – see the cost-cutting pragmatism of Robert Gates), and eventually by the catabolic collapse of Pax Americana. Military R&D is usually the first thing to be cut when the military’s belts are tightened, especially in democracies. Other powers, most prominently China and Russia, will use this “window of opportunity” to close the technological gap. In particular, the Chinese Navy will become the world’s most powerful by 2020. Many middle-rank Powers will acquire assymetric, “area denial” weaponry (anti-ship missiles, supercavitating torpedoes, silent diesel submarines, UAV’s), which will check the major naval Powers from going on gunboat sprees to acquire resources.

2020′s: The world outside the Eurasian “Heartland” comes to be split into two major emporiums: China in East Asia, South-East Asia, and East Africa, and the US/Britain/France down the Atlantic and western Pacific. Though there is a rough technological parity, by and large, China has both the biggest and newer navy. The Eurasian region, dominated by a revamped Russia, will only be able to compete if it succeeds in reforming its MIC and modernizing its industrial base. The main thrust of its naval power projection will shift towards the (now melted or near-melted) Arctic Ocean, with its rich hydrocarbon deposits. Electromagnetic railguns and battle lasers maturate and installation begins on the newer, smarter all-electric ships now coming online.

2030′s: Unless there is a big war between the Great Powers, it is actually unlikely that ships will be made submersible or ekranoplans introduced. Too much foresight required for state institutions to muster. Yet there is at least one major sea change. With all these advanced, network-centric navies prowling the world’s oceans, the strength of the middle Powers – countries like Iran, Venezuela, (South Africa, etc), will begin to rapidly dissipate, as they lose the advantages they derived from the global proliferation of cheap anti-ship weapons during the 2000′s-10′s. As mentioned above, cruise missiles are no longer game changers when faced with laser point defenses. Effective use of railguns requires an array of advanced technologies, including superb ISR, and there capabilities are going to be limited to the largest and most technologically advanced blocs. If there is no major energy breakthrough by this period, and that coal and gas output is close to a terminal peak, there will unfold a series of resource wars in which Great Powers like China, the US, France, Brazil, Turkey, etc, will seek to takeover the last remaining high-EROEI energy sources in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and Australia.

2040′s: Use your imagination. ;)

* In my opinion, this particular weapons system is more of a publicity stunt than anything serious. In particular, this is supposed to be a weapon whose main advantage is its covertness – why then advertise it on YouTube. Furthermore, it’s very expensive. The typical modern cruise missile costs costs 500,000$. The Russian containerized system has four cruise missiles inside what are essentially tubes and a corrugated metal box, but costs 15mn $. In other words, should they actually succeed in selling this to anyone, the Russian company will make something like 80% profits. Nations like Iran would be much better off just getting the cruise missiles separately and modding / concealing them on their own.

** I am making the assumption that American military R&D continues to be funded at similar levels as today. Because of the manifold challenges facing Pax Americana that have been discussed at length on this site, this assumption is actually very questionable. In my opinion, it is more likely that the US will “lose” the equivalent of a decade readjusting to its new non-superpower status, allowing Russia and China – who lag technologically by a decade or so – to catch up. The major powers actualize the railgun / laser Revolution in Naval Warfare simultaneously by the late 2020′s or early 2030′s.

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This post is about the future of military technology and war strategy in a world of informatization, resource scarcity, and renewed ideological turbulence. Be forewarned: while some of what I write here corresponds to the conventional wisdom, some is well off the beaten tracks, and some will sound like it’s straight out of a sci-fi dystopia.

The post-Cold War era was, for many, a lovely time. As the Soviet Union imploded, so did the risks of mutual destruction in a global thermonuclear war. At the end of history, the conventional wisdom now regarded rogue states, loose nukes, and transnational terrorists as the main challenges to the brave new world created by globalization. As Thomas P.M. Barnett argued in The Pentagon’s New Map, the primary challenge faced by the US military would no longer consist of planning for a traditional Great Power war with its erstwhile socialist foes, Russia and China. Instead, it would be wiser to focus on policing and “civilizing” the equatorial belt of instability known as the “Gap” – the impoverished, conflicted region stretching roughly from Central America through Africa and the Eurasian Dar al-Islam – in cooperation with fellow stakeholders in stability like Europe, China, India, Russia, and Japan.

However, one of the main assumptions of this blog is that this state of global affairs will not last, if it was ever really valid in the first place. First, many people in the pre-1914 era – an older golden age of globalization and shared international values – also believed that technical progress and increasing interconnectedness had made war obsolete, or at least unbearably damaging if it were to continue for any longer than a few months. They would be disillusioned by the First World War, the genesis of modern total war. Second, the international system today is unstable amidst the shifting winds of change, characterized as it is by a faltering US hegemon beset by challengers such as an expansionist Iran, a resurging Russia, and a robust China intent on returning to its age-old status as the Celestial Empire. Third, peak oil production, probably reached in 2008, is but one of the first harbingers of our Limits to Growth predicament – in the decades to come, the world’s grain belts will begin to dessicate, high-quality energy sources will become depleted, and ever more human effort under the knout of state coercion will have to be requisitioned to sustain industrial civilization against the mounting toll of energetic shortages, climatic disruption, and system instability.

The weak states will fail, while the strong – the US, China, Russia, France, Turkey, Japan, Germany, etc – will bunker down within their new fortress-empires, both physically and psychologically. Facing social pressures, economic decline, and mounting waves of eco-refugees, their philosophers will invent new totalitarian ideologies, defined by a reaction against rationalism. It is not unreasonable to posit that their adherents will take over at least one of the major poles in the future international system, thus creating the specter of the Last War of industrialism. I will look at future war based on these fundamental assumptions: the return of history, the harsh realities of the geopolitics of scarcity industrialism, and the system strains and rising chaos that will form the prelude to global collapse.

Before we start, a few disclaimers. I have no professional or academic knowledge of military affairs, just a sense of curiosity and propensity to look ahead. Hence don’t be surprised if some ideas are totally off the ball to those in the know (though I would like to point out that the two best forecasters of what the next war would be like prior to 1914 happened to be amateurs – Ivan Bloch, a Warsaw financier, and Friedrich Engels, the social theorist). Second, I won’t be making any specific predictions – just a general overlook. Third , I won’t only be considering the low intensity conflicts typical of today, such as the unending war against terrorism or “gunboat” / policing actions like the invasion of Iraq. The prospect of a total war, fought between the leading military-industrial Powers (e.g. the US, China, Russia, etc), is treated as a serious scenario.

Finally, perhaps the most necessary disclaimer is that I do not personally wish for World War Three – although I enjoy perusing weapon system specs and reading historical narratives on the subject as much as the next person, I’m a much bigger fan of All Quiet on the Western Front (Erich Maria Remarque) than of Germany and the Next War (Friedrich Von Bernhardi). And now that that’s gotten out of the way, let’s return to the future…

I have no professional or academic knowledge of military
affairs, just a sense of curiosity and propensity to look ahead. Hence don’t be surprised if
some ideas are totally off the ball to those in the know. Secondly, I won’t be making any
specific predictions – just a general overlook.

The Military Balance, Today and Tomorrow

The primary reality of the current military situation is US military dominance – it is the world’s leading superpower possessing a full panoply of military capabilities unmatched by any other Great Power. In particular, it has 75% of the world’s military naval tonnage (including almost all the aircraft carrier groups and amphibious ready groups) backed up by the most advanced space surveillance system and C4ISR capabilities. As such, US power projection capabilities are second to none. The US Navy is one of the three pillars of the the system of “neoliberal internationalism” supported by Pax Americana (the others are cheap oil and the $), whose strategic value was demonstrated by the takeover of Iraq and its relatively little-exploited oil reserves in a likely futile bid to postpone peak oil.

The US is also at the forefront of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) – a theory of future war placing stress on concepts such as robust networking; deep systems integration; precision strikes; high-bandwidth p2p information sharing; shared battlespace awareness; self-synchronization; space-based surveillance; decentralized C&C; swarming, etc (see Power to the Edge by Alberts and Hayes, 2003). The surveillance, precision, and optimization capabilities unlocked by its interconnectedness and dominance of space give the US military a power multiplier unparalleled by that of any other nation, allowing it to defeat non-networked forces fighting on linear principles with ease.

However, US military power is afflicted by a number of problems and adverse trends – a defense death spiral, an uncertain fiscal future, the development of asymmetric and “assassin’s mace” counters, and challenges from the Chinese industrial powerhouse and a resurgent, energy-rich Russia. Thus I am very skeptical as to the US ability to keep its decisive military lead far beyond 2020.

By that time, the US would have very likely been overtaken by China in terms of real GDP, which would by then possess an extremely potent technical-industrial base. China’s mercantile ambitions in a world of “scarcity industrialism” (characterized by aggressive competition for resources), in tandem with the precipitous decline of American power, will give China the impetus to effect a rapid military “breakout” in an attempt to catch up to and surpass US capabilities. China used the 2000′s to build up a “string of pearls” network of naval bases on its offshore islands and friendly nations like Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan so as to be able to protect its long, vulnerable coast and energy supply routes. It is now in the midst of a massive naval expansion that could see the PLA Navy surpass the USN by number of military vessels within the decade. Furthermore, the conventional wisdom of Chinese technological inferiority is gradually becoming outdated thanks to its efforts in military R&D and industrial espionage. A recent RAND study indicated that China is already be able to establish air superiority over Taiwan in the event of a hot war over the straits, and elements of the PLA believe they will be able to pose a direct military challenge to the US by 2020.

While Russia’s GDP cannot conceivably approach that of the US on any meaningful timescale, Kremlin dreams of economic modernization may yet be realized, and in any case Russia is fully capable of leveraging its energy wealth to reconstitute and modernize its dormant military-industrial potential. As of today, it is implementing a major military reorganization and modernization, most recently displayed by its demonstration of the PAK-FA “Firefox” prototype, the first 5th-generation fighter produced outside the US. Russia’s fundamental energy and food security, as well as its comparative immunity to the malign effects of climate change (it will actually benefit from AGW, at least for moderate rises in temperature) will enable it to achieve the high per capita surpluses necessary to compete effectively with otherwise larger and wealthier blocs.

India’s socio-economic and human capital lags China’s by several decades. However, it does enjoy better ties with both Russia and the West, which can be and are translated into military-technical cooperation. Assuming it can stave off stagnation and Malthusian crisis, it may evolve into a potent check on Chinese expansion into the Indian Ocean, especially if allied with Japan and Korea in the east. Speaking of which, Japan is technologically advanced and is acquiring potent naval, space and ABM capabilities under US patronage. However, the aging of its population and its almost total dependence on imported energy and raw materials severely curtail its ability to play an independent role, and its strategic vulnerability means that Japan will be eclipsed as soon as the PLA Navy equalizes with the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force.

The European Union can become a major military power, but only if it acquires a common foreign policy and streamlines military procurement and R&D. However, in the long-term meaningful European integration is unlikely to survive under the strain of economic stagnation, energy insecurity, rapid aging, and collapsing welfare states. Brazil will achieve military hegemony in South America and the South Atlantic, but will remain a regional power with few global ambitions.

Finally, the nuclear weapons sphere is dominated by the US and Russia, both of which maintain a robust nuclear triad with thousands of warheads. Although Russia’s capability degraded after the Soviet collapse, it is now being revamped at an accelerating rate (as is the rest of its military). Though it is decisively outmatched by the US and by now probably also China in conventional terms, as long as Russia retains its vast nuclear arsenal, it also retains full strategic immunity from encroachment by China or other resource-hungry Powers (at least as long as the latter do not have access to effective BMD). After the two nuclear superpowers come France, Britain, China, and Israel, each possessing hundreds of warheads and a more limited set of delivery systems. Finally, although formally against nuclear weapons, there exist “virtual nuclear weapons states” like Japan, Germany and Italy that could, if they embarked on crash programs, build up massive, robust nuclear arsenals within a decade.

The Promise and Peril of BMD

Since the 1950′s, nuclear weapons have been the ultimate guarantors against the resumption of Great Power wars. However, this may cease to be the case a decade or two down the line, when effective ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems are developed. When they become effective and universalized across the world’s Great Powers, the utility of MRBM and ICBM forces – and to a lesser extent, of submarine and strategic bomber nuclear forces – will be severely undermined. The deterrence system based on mutually assured destruction (MAD) that arose during the Cold War will come to its demise, and so will the realist checks on international aggression that emerged out of it.

Today, the US has a commanding lead in BMD technologies, with four mature technologies operational or nearly so (though around two dozen other countries are seriously pursuing BMD programs, with Russia, China, Israel, India, and Japan being particularly advanced). Below I summarize each one, before outlining the course of future developments.

Aegis/Standard Missile-3 (SM-3): Proven anti-satellite system, intercepts ballistic missiles during parts of ascent and descent phases, and is already deployed on 18 USN guided-missiles destroyers and cruisers and 2 Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force warships.

Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD): Mobile truck-based system capable of ballistic missile interception in the final midcourse descent and in its terminal phase, both endo and exo atmosphere; it has performed successfully in recent tests.

Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3): A terminal-phase intercept system (like the Russian SA-10 / S-300), it has been given the baptism of fire during the Gulf War. It performed poorly, but since then 20 years have passed and it is now far more capable. The system has recently been installed in Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar and Oman, along with BMD-capable USN warships in the Persian Gulf, in a message to Iran.

Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD): A fixed, silo-based system for the midcourse phase, as implied by the name. It is a mature technology and installations exist in Fort Greely, Alaska and Vanderburg, California – more than enough to contain any ballistic missile threat from North Korea, and by now perhaps even enough to neutralize China’s “minimal” nuclear arsenal. US attempts to expand it to Central Europe have caused major frictions with Russia – not because Russia actually fears it in a military sense, but because it hopes to use it as a bargaining chip with the US elsewhere.

This array of systems gives the US a multi-tiered, overlapping BMD capability. However, there is pressure for developing boost phase intercept capabilities, because midcourse and terminal interception may need to deal with decoys, MIRV, and other countermeasures. One interesting idea is the Airborne Laser (ABL), which is mounted on a modified Boeing-747 airliner. It can be used to shoot down ballistic missiles in boost phase and even satellites in low-earth orbit. It has recently had its first successful test.

Two common objections to BMD are that it is 1) technologically ineffective – along the lines of “you can’t hit a bullet with another bullet”, and 2) far too expensive to be fielded in quantities sufficient to deter anyone but backwards “rogue nations” like North Korea or Iran. Both are invalid.

Calculating an ICBM’s ballistic trajectory is easy, if you understand Newtonian mechanics, so in theory the interceptor missile doesn’t even need an autonomous guidance system to achieve a kill. In principle, a reliable BMD system was possible even from the 1950′s, albeit it was only under Reagan that the US acquired the strategic focus to begin seriously working on it. (The USSR did have a working BMD system from the 1970′s defending Moscow, though the interceptor missile relied on a nuclear blast to ensure reliability). However, following the end of the Cold War the US dropped its “Star Wars” program, and has since focused on ostensibly easier objectives such as guaranteeing itself from attacks by “rogue states” with emerging long-range missile capabilities. In this it has been successful, with each layer of its global BMD system now predicted to have a kill rate of 90%+.

Now about cost. By far the biggest expense, around 90%, is incurred in the construction of the Missile Defense Ground Environment (MDGE) – the sensors, C&C networks, launchers, maintenance depots, supply chains, etc. The missiles themselves are rather cheap, coming in at 10% or less. Therefore, once the MDGE is ready, “thickening” the missile screen is relatively easy and inexpensive. So once the US has established a firm shield against nations like North Korea, it would then, in principle, be able to effect rapid “breakout”, in which it massively increased the numbers of missile interceptors to make itself invulnerable to China or even Russia before they can respond by increasing by increasing their offensive missile forces. (This calculus also applies in reverse: building the Offensive Missile Ground Environment (OMGE), such as airfields for bombers, SSBN’s for SLBM’s, and silos for ICBM’s, is much more expensive than the actual missiles).

This implies that even with today’s BMD technologies, creating a massive, multi-layered missile shield that could render a Russia-sized nuclear arsenal is neither infeasible nor prodigiously expensive for the US. And again, I should emphasize that this is not limited to the US. More than two dozen countries are seriously pursuing missile defense, either directly or as partners. Many of them should start coming online by 2015, and will have proliferated to the extent of making traditional ICBM’s largely obsolete by 2025.

The other two legs of the nuclear tripod, SSBN’s and strategic bombers, will then have to shoulder more of the burden. No wonder that Russia is so desperate to get the advanced Bulava SLBM working, as well as resuming production of the Tu-160 strategic bomber and developing the next-generation PAK DA. The US has much more ambitious goals in mind with the concepts of a “Blackswift” hypersonic global strike bomber… which although repeatedly canceled, refuses to really die. Needless to say, China too is working along similar lines, albeit they yet have major technological hurdles to overcome.

But BMD will continue to evolve too. There’s the rapid developments in laser technology, which are already becoming militarily usable and might become the primary defense system used by warships. Railguns may become operationally deployable by 2020 in the USN. Finally, there are even more exotic concepts such as the Russian “plasma shield“:

[The plasma shield] action is based on focusing beams of electromagnetic energy produced by laser or microwave radiation into the upper layers of the atmosphere… A cloud of highly ionized air arises at the focus of the laser or microwave rays, at an altitude of up to 50 kilometers. Upon entering it, any object – a missile, an airplane, is deflected from its trajectory and disintegrates in response to the fantastic overloads arising due to the abrupt pressure difference… What is fundamental in this case is that the energy aimed by the terrestrial components of the plasma weapon – lasers and antennas – is concentrated not at the target itself but a little ahead of it. Rather than “incinerating” the missile or airplane, it “bumps” it out of trajectory.

This system would have a longer range than the ABL, be much easier to aim, and cost much less per shot. So the following defensive system can be envisioned as 2040 approaches. Pulse lasers mounted on mobile bio-mechanical constructs providing near-perfect point defense powered by space-based solar power and optimally coordinated by an automated ground environment, and further reinforced by an “iron phalanx” of railguns and older GBI missiles to add redundancy.

Now at this point you may be forgiven for thinking that I’m beginning to go crazy, or have read too much sci-fi. But that is inevitable when projecting as much as 30-40 years ahead. I am fairly confident in the earlier predictions that the maturation of BMD technologies will make the ICBM increasingly irrelevant within the next two decades. Obviously, there is no certainty whatsoever over DEW-based missile defense, the plasma shield, or especially the military biomechanical constructs. But neither are they totally out of the pale based on historical experience and the research and technology trends in place today.

The Third RMA

Here is a non-technical, almost philosophical definition of the ongoing Revolution in Military Affairs (Strategy and the RMA From Theory to Policy by Metz & Kievit).

During the “First Wave” of human development, production was primarily agricultural, so war sought to seize and hold territory. During the “Second Wave,” industrial production dominated, so war was often a struggle of attrition where belligerents wore down their enemy’s capacity to feed, clothe, and equip armies. Following this logic, “Third Wave” warfare will seek to erode or destroy the enemy’s means of collecting, processing, storing, and disseminating information. Since the more dependent an enemy is on information the more vulnerable it would be to information warfare, this would seem to have potential as a counter to an advanced, peer threat.

As with most spheres of the human existence – the economic base, the class structure, the status of women, etc – the nature of warfare is intrinsically tied to the environment it is fought in. Back when humanity was one with the biosphere, primitive wars were fought within territorially small spaces for a particular ecological niche and were characterized by incredible levels of per capita violence. In the Malthusian, pre-industrial phase of human civilization, war sought to gain territory because in the absence of long-term industrial growth, controlling land and the taxable peasants it supported were the only means of extracting the wealth to support a ruler’s megalothymia (lavich courts, powerful armies, etc). Industrial warfare was sustained by industrial production, so undercutting its material base while expanding your own lay at the heart of any war-winning grand strategy: blockading Imperial Germany’s access to phosphates, bombing Nazi factories to curb the (late and belated) growth of its total war economy, the US containment strategy of economic pressure on the USSR during the Cold War. However, the principles of the First Wave remained valid – actually conquering territory by putting boots on the ground remained indispensable, whereas industrialism provided the means.

From the 1970′s, the world has been on an exponential runway into the noosphere, embodied in the cyberspace that is overspreading the biosphere, just as the biosphere once overspread the geosphere, the bare rock bones of the Earth. This environment is based on information and its creation, manipulation, and destruction, and it will form the defining environment in which future wars are fought. Below is a summary of the defining features of network-centric warfare.

Contrary to most theoretical writings on the subject, the growing significance of information does not mean that the industrial or territorial phase is diminishing into insignificance. The main reason for the surgical cleanliness with which the US won its wars with Iraq was because of the sheer mismatch between a power at the forefront of RMA exploitation and one still firmly rooted in the older industrial age of centrally-coordinated movement and mass (during the Gulf War, the Iraqi military was cripplied early on by the neutralization of its few C&C nodes) – and US network-centric capabilities continue advancing at a blistering pace. As Lt Gen Harry Raduege of the Defense Information Systems Agency noted:

Net-centric warfare’s effectiveness has greatly improved in 12 years. Desert Storm forces, involving more than 500,000 troops, were supported with 100 Mbit/s of bandwidth. Today, OIF forces, with about 350,000 warfighters, had more than 3,000 Mbit/s of satellite bandwidth, which is 30 times more bandwidth for a force 45 percent smaller. US troops essentially used the same weapon platforms used in Operation Desert Storm with significantly increased effectiveness.

However, a total war between two powers exploiting the RMA will prove to be as much a test of systems resilience as previous total wars – not only of their information systems, but of their industrial systems (their resilience, hardening, dispersion, level of optimization of physical throughput, etc) and their agricultural(-industrial) systems. Furthermore, the coercive means for mobilizing the home front opened up by the emerging possibilities of “cybernetic totalitarianism” (electronic surveillance, universal databases, pattern recognition software, ubiquitous propaganda, sousveillance, ultra high-bandwidth wireless networks, etc) are historically unprecedented in their totality. The total wars fought in the cybernetic age have the potential to be far more total than anything seen before. But more on the social aspects of future war later…

The RMA will continue and possibly accelerate, in particular the network-centric warfare component. To repeat the points made above, this basically involves connecting all components of a modern army so as to improve every component’s situational awareness, optimize decision-making and multiply the effective strength even of small units. This goes in tandem with continuing improvements in precision technology, as striking particularly vulnerable enemy nodes is much more damaging than striking with a bigger tonnage but not aimed at anything in particular. All in all, military forces will become much more robust, resilient and intelligent (thanks to the innate crowd wisdom of a more democratic / dispersed decision-making process). Obviously, as Iraq as early as 1991 showed, traditional conventional “linear” armies that are poorly networked will stand as little chance against a well-supplied networked force as the clumsy feudal armies against the Mongols or the Poles against the Nazis in 1939.

However, there are two counters to a networked force – another good networked force, or rather paradoxically, a technologically retrogade dug-in fighters with just AK’s and RPG’s – as the Chechens showed in 1994-96 and Hezbollah demonstrated in 2006, even relatively small numbers of dedicated fighters armed with old-school weapons can blunt the advance of a modern mechanized force. Indeed, their power can become terminal if they have access to EMP’s or the means of taking out or corrupting networked satellites, drones and other surveillance/information systems. A networked force whose computers no longer work is just another ordinary rifle army, presumably also quite a demoralized one.

As Charles Perrow of the National Defense University noted in May 2003:

Our incipient NCW [network-centric warfare] plans may suffer defeat by [adversaries] using primitive but cagey techniques, inspired by an ideology we can neither match nor understand; or by an enemy who can knock out our vulnerable Global Positioning System or use electromagnetic pulse weapons on a limited scale, removing intelligence as we have construed it and have come to depend upon. Fighting forces accustomed to relying upon downlinks for information and commands would have little to fall back upon.

As such, in the case of absolute war between two technologically advanced blocs, the outcome will be determined by the outcomes between these two elements, the hi-tech NCW / “networked” element and the low-tech 4GW / “guerilla” element. However, these elements will inevitable lose their distinctions. The “guerillas” will themselves become networked, while the “networked” will adopt “guerilla” tactics in search of a new, optimal equilibrium. Those who are slow to find this equilibrium, relying either a) too much on small sized networked forces, which although very robust are vulnerable to attacks on critical nodes which will render them helpless, or b) on very low-tech forces that can be annihilated easily by hi-tech forces, will lose.

Weapons of Network-Centric Warfare

Munitions. Three types of ordinance will increase in importance: EMP’s, precision weapons, and fuel-air bombs. Though military C&C nodes can be (and are) hardened against EMP strikes (though the effectiveness of this hardening hasn’t yet been tested under fire), doing the same for the civilian infrastructure is prohibitively expensive. All it takes is one nuclear explosion high up in the atmosphere, and an entire continent can go black. (Needless to say, this will severely affect the enemy’s military-industrial potential). Precision weapons can be used to destroy key enemy C&C nodes without excessive expenditures of energy and firepower, albeit they are no panacea because of the concurrent trends towards dispersion.

In future wars, soldiers and industry will be digging in to conceal themselves from ever better surveillance and much of the fighting will take place in urban areas; fuel-air bombs, or thermobaric weapons, are near optimal when used against tunnels, bunkers, and enclosed spaces. Using nanotechnology, they will be miniaturized into lighter artillery munitions and grenades, giving even low-level platforms like individual soldiers immense destructive power.

Naval. As of today, the aircraft carrier appears to be going the way of the battleship of the 20th century. It appears to be a huge liability – it’s size and profile are so big that it is simply going to get saturated by enemy firepower (supercavitating torpedoes, hypersonic anti-ship cruise missiles), no matter it’s defences – the priority will be to avoid being seen. However, the development of all-electric destroyers and cruisers hosting FEL weapons and railguns – especially if they were to be mated with a source of space-based solar power (and assuming said source can be defended) – may mean that the aircraft carrier will remain viable on some level as long as it is protected by its retooled carrier battle group (CVBG). At the very least, it will remain very useful for the kind of gunboat racketeering we are likely to see the Great Powers employ towards militarily-weak, resource-rich nations in the coming age of scarcity industrialism.

Nonetheless, the dominant trend at sea will be towards smaller, lighter, stealthier craft, – increasingly equipped with advanced weapons, optimized for swarm tactics, and preferably submersible. They will be the bane of maritime supply routes, if not the the retooled aircraft carrier battle groups that will be providing fixed point defense (the “iron phalanx”) and power projection capabilities (via VSTOL scramjet drones).

The ekranoplan, a Soviet chimera combining the sea-hovering effects of a hovercraft and the speed of a conventional plane, is likely to make its debut as a new major component in naval warfare. It is very fast, very suitable for transport and can carry a large amount of missiles and other ordnance. Flying low, just about the water, it is largely invulnerable to radar. It will be able to interdict supply routes and launch nuclear-tipped cruise missiles from off the coast of a hostile Power.

Space. Due to the spread of satellite-dependent network-centric warfare, control of space will become ever more important: for communications, surveillance, and electronic spying in low-earth orbit (LEO); comms and navigation constellations like GPS, Glonass, and Galileo in medium-earth orbit (MEO); and Beidou and systems like the US global infrared launch-detection capability in geostationary orbit (GEO).

[Source: Space Security 2007].

Furthermore, it is possible that in the coming decades of resource depletion, space will acquire a new strategic significance because of its potential for space-based solar power (SBSP). The specs indicate that though initial investments will have to be very substantial (though even they can be substantially reduced by constructing a space elevator), the payoffs will be tremendous. Since the Sun shines all the time, space-based solar has both much higher flux and can provide base load power, unlike solar photovoltaics on Earth, the system’s ultimate EROEI will be much higher and may constitute the new energy source to which industrial civilization will try to transition to from its current, unsustainable hydrocarbon dependence. From the National Space Society:

The magnitude of the looming energy and environmental problems is significant enough to warrant consideration of all options, to include revisiting a concept called Space Based Solar Power (SBSP) first invented in the United States almost 40 years ago. The basic idea is very straightforward: place very large solar arrays into continuously and intensely sunlit Earth orbit (1,366 watts/m2), collect gigawatts of electrical energy, electromagnetically beam it to Earth, and receive it on the surface for use either as baseload power via direct connection to the existing electrical grid, conversion into manufactured synthetic hydrocarbon fuels, or as low-intensity broadcast power beamed directly to consumers. A single kilometer-wide band of geosynchronous earth orbit experiences enough solar flux in one year to nearly equal the amount of energy contained within all known recoverable conventional oil reserves on Earth today.

Obviously, this will have great military implications, because armies and navies will be transitioning from fossil fuels to electrical sustenance, because of hydrocarbon depletion, better electric battery technology, and the new emphasis on DEW weapon systems. The energy received by the SBSP installations can be converted to microwave radiation and transmitted down to any military antennas within range.

However, the concurrent proliferation of Earth-based anti-satellite capabilities (blinding by lasers, DEW weapons, etc) will make space denial, in most cases, much easier than space control. The BMD technologies I talked about are essential elements of space denial, since Powers possessing them are capable of blasting satellites out of LEO (the US, Russia, and China have demonstrated the capability) – and with them go the best reconaissance, MASINT, and SIGINT. Furthermore, once you destroy a few satellites, there could be a runaway effect called an ablation cascade which could rapidly clog up the lower-Earth orbits and close it off to human exploitation for a few centuries. Reconaissance would shift towards UAV’s and perhaps more exotic inventions like tiny robotic insects and “nanodust” (not making this up, take a look at DARPA’s plans, the Pentagon’s mad science division that gave us the Internet).

(For now, higher orbits remain safe, such as where GPS resides, though they remain vulnerable to jamming. If successful, the satellite becomes useless. One idea suggested by George Friedman is to construct heavily-defended “Battle Stars” in geosynchronous orbit and move C&C into deep space so that during a war they can continue to direct military forces down below even if (especially if) other satellites and communication networks are incapacitated or destroyed by kinetic kill vehicles, pulsed lasers, EMP’s, particle beam weapons, and whatever other forms of anti-satellite weapons are developed).

There are other exotic avenues of exploration such as wars for the lunar surface, Lagrange points, and over geoengineering projects in space such as a solar sunshade. I do not foresee these becoming overly relevant to military strategy until 2050.

Air Force. The fighter will be displaced by UAV’s, as it limits the range of manoeuvres it can do, and besides, a computer with the appropriate software will execute any operation much better than a human (g forces aren’t an issue with unmanned vehicles). By the 2020′s, we will see the first serious hypersonic scramjet drone prototypes, which will be far more capable of penetrating the thickening air defense shields which will by then be proliferating around the world. Though they will have direct control links, they will also contain autonomous AI programs in case their connection with the human controlled is destroyed or interrupted.

AWACS aircraft will remain essential, providing massively boosted radar coverage and stealth to the friendly aircraft around it. In the case of a big war by the 2040′s, air forces are likely to be made up of: 1) a core of hypersonic strategic bomber drones with advanced armaments including nuclear weapons, 2) a few legacy 5th generation fighters, 3) many cheap, lightly-armed reconaissance UAV’s, and 4) commercial airliners converted to serve as ABL’s, AWACS, and military transports.

Army. Tanks will probably survive in a similar form to today, but they will become smaller, lighter, stealthier, more modular and will lose their human presence. Their overall utility is going to decline in the face of advances in RPG’s; see Chechnya-Russia or Hezbollah-Israel, where small units operating from urban or entrenched positions were surprising successful at checking armored forces.

The biggest changes will occur at the level of the individual soldier. Below is an illustration of US plans for a Future Force Warrior.

They are going to feature: advanced sensors to keep the body comfortable and at homeostasis; helmets showing real-time maps with positions of goodies and baddies (battlespace awareness), excellent networking capabilities, and firearms integration (so you can shoot around corners or over a ditch without exposing your head); an exoskeleton that increases speed and multiplies your strength; advanced body armor and camouflage. In sum, future warriors will experience what is call “augmented reality” and become cyborgs, making them very effective individual weapons platforms. Their “vision” of the battlefield will converge to that of today’s shoot-em-up video gamer, with the major exception that losing HP will have bad, real-life consequences.

The assault rifle will likely remain the standard infantry weapon, because the prospects of developing effective infantry-level laser or “beam” weapons are unrealistic for the foreseeable future. I recommend something along the lines of the innovative Heckler & Koch G11, which uses caseless ammunition, or the FN 2000, which is a pleasure to handle. The lethality of munitions will increase thanks to the likely development of “smart bullets” and munitions of enhanced explosive power (see above).

Medical technology will become much more advanced, including even the regeneration of spinal tissue, which would heal otherwise disabling wounds. This will cause the casualty : KIA ratio to increase further, since so many wounded would be able to rejoin the action.

Finally, one more interesting military development that we may see within twenty years, once 1) bioengineering advances, 2) the costs of DNA sequencing slip further down the Carlson Curve, and 3) artificial womb-like environments are developed (slated to become realizable within the next five years), it may become possible to build bio-mechanical constructs that combine robot endurance and controllability, with biological flexibility and resilience. Cutting edge research is already incorporating the biological features of many lifeforms, which have been optimized for whatever their tasks by evolutionary eons, for commercial exploitation. The military will surely follow suit.

Cybernetic Reprimitivization

What will the numbers be like? Historically, the number of troops in armies has generally increased. This has usually been accompanied by a) increases in state resources and control and b) newer technologies that give a premium effect when diluted amongst the many rather than concentrated amongst a few (e.g. having lots of gunpowder-using units is better than a few elite, cold-steel cavalry units).

For instance, medieval armies were smaller than classical armies, because knights became key actors during the medieval period and as is well known equipping them cost a fortune. On the other hand, improvements in tactics and gunpowder weapons made heavy cavalry no longer economical and it became a better use of resources to equip more with arquebuses than less with warhorses and heavy armor. For all the talk of the death of the nation-state, the flat world, rise of the multinational corporation, etc, the fact remains that historically the state has never been stronger. Some of the European welfare states take more than 50% of GDP in taxes. This is a level that was before only reached during wartime, e.g. the US in WW2. And before the twentieth century even during warfare this percentage fell well short. So, if even today in peacetime and a liberal world order, some states can milk half of a country’s GDP, what can they achieve in conditions of total war?

Some commentators talk about the huge spiral in weapons costs, which will supposedly make total war far too expensive and lead to economic collapse very soon. Firstly, the exact same arguments were made even in the prelude to WW1. Then, few people realized the sheer productive power of a modern industrial complex turned over completely to military purposes. Secondly, with standardization; mass production levels and economies of scale; and optimization between hi-tech and numbers (see above), weapons and networking costs are going to come down a lot, by an order of magnitude.

Other commentators have voiced the opinion that since the US and other advanced industrial nations have in fact become deindustrialized or “hallowed” out, they will not be able to support big production volumes. However, the extent of this deindustrialization should not be exaggerated. US industrial output by physical volume today is no smaller than it was in 1970, the apogee of its industrial phase; it’s just that since then, the main focus of its development has shifted towards services and technological improvements. Much fewer people now work in manufacturing in the developed nations, but this is primarily because labor has been substituted by capital, not because they are producing less. That is actually a positive development from the point of view of waging total war. Less people in the factories equals more people available for service of a more directly military nature, not necessarily in the frontline but also in logistics, transport, construction, etc. In this respect the US is actually in a better position than, say, China. Even better of in this respect are the most capital-intensive nations, like Japan and Germany (though in practice they are weak because they are unable to guarantee their energy supplies).

Now about how the Armed Forces themselves will change. Basically, everything will be about the optimization between quantity and quality. Today, in the US and many other countries, the premium is on quality, since they only expect quick wars against technologically inferior forces like Iraqis or Chechens or Palestinians, and where big losses are politically unacceptable. However, in a total war, even the best networked forces will suffer attritition and rapid annihilation if the systems they rely on are disabled; after that, how do you continue to fight?

This means that future wars will not necessarily be, as imagined by most commentators, affairs involving small, high-tech elite warriors, as was the case in medieval Europe’s focus on knights. To the contrary, they may more resemble a cybernetic “people’s war“, characterized by the networking of hi-tech and guerrilla forces and tactics, strict political control, and cybernetic planning to optimize the resource flows and output of a mobilized war economy.

Women will play much bigger roles. They are physically, on average, perhaps 40-50% weaker than men, so in the age of cold steel they would have been of limited use on a battlefield (plus traditional social mores stood against their active involvement). Today, however, they account for around 10% of the personnel of many of the most advanced armies (albeit mostly in support roles). In WW2, there were around 2 support personnel for every fighter in the US Army in the European theatre. Obviously, there is no reason women cannot be of use in that sphere. They can also participate in the new realm of information war – intelligence analysis, planning, cyberwar, etc.

Another thing is that the premium of physical strength itself is in decline. Equipment is continuously getting lighter. Exoskeletons will make the issue immaterial. Although physically weaker, women are probably no worse and perhaps better than men at aiming and shooting, if Soviet female snipers in WW2 are anything to go by. As such, the next total war will probably see the mass mobilization of women, including for front-line duty. Of course, there remain entrenched social attitudes and men’s proclivity to protecting women. Hence, battalions and lower are unlikely to go mixed. Involving women in such a way will not, of course, guarantee victory; but states which effectively exploit womanpower as well as manpower will somewhat increase their chances of winning.

As noted above, production in a future total war is going to be massive and on a scale dwarfing that seen in the WW2 (when industrial output by volume was about three to four times lower than even today). However, the industrial base is going to become much more vulnerable to hostile disruption and destruction. Massed attacks of hypersonic global nuclear bombers may be able to evade missile defences and drop their deadly nuclear payloads on major industrial concentrations. Ekranoplans can fly close to the enemy coastline and launch cruise missiles at harbors. Likewise, missile defence may not be fully effective against SLBMs.

It is a myth that nuclear war will lead to the extinction of the human race or even the collapse of civilization.

A good civil defense system (blast shelters underneath municipal buildings, grain stockpiles, urban metro systems, widespread EMP hardening, widespread distribution of Geiger counters & potassium iodide pills, prewar planning, dispersed machine tool stockpiles, air raid / missile strike warning sirens, etc) will vastly improve the survivability of a population and enhance the speed and scope of its postwar recovery. A good example of a prepared society is modern Switzerland, which has a nuclear shelter in almost every building, and to a lesser extent the late Soviet Union. In conjunction with an advanced ABM and SAM system, a society with a good civil defense system is probably capable of surviving, and fighting, a prolonged nuclear total war.

In WW2, bombing significantly disrupted Germany’s war production, both by outright destruction and by forcing production to move to underground, dispersed factories. In modern total war, both sides will thus force the other to curtail their war production. Tragically, the distinction between civilians and military will become even more blurred than in WW2. Perhaps it will vanish altogether.

In the prelude to war, special ops will be carried out on enemy territory. WMD may be smuggled into the nation’s major cities and political centers, so as to execute decapitating strikes at the outset of hostilities. Terrorism will whip up an atmosphere of panic and divert attention from real intentions. In general espionage activities and “maskirovka” will play a more important role than in previous conflicts. War will be waged on many fronts – not only conventional and strategic, but informational, psychotronic, assymetric (involving use of WMD), etc.

One of the most intriguing prospects is climate war. By the 2020′s, the nations of the world will realize that there is no way they can prevent runaway climate change through global emissions reductions, and so geoengineering research will be massively stepped up. Many insights as to how the change the weather and climate will be gained, and it will doubtlessly be adaptable to military purposes. Artificial droughts; regional dimming; triggering of submarine slides (causing tsunamis) and catastrophic release of ocean methane hydrates; geo-techtonic disasters; … all these and more may be exploited. From the book Unrestricted Warfare (see here for html excerpts) by PLA colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui:

Ecological war refers to a new type of non-military warfare in which modern technology is employed to influence the natural state of rivers, oceans, the crust of the earth, the polar ice sheets, the air circulating in the atmosphere, and the ozone layer. By methods such as causing earthquakes and altering precipitation patterns, the atmospheric temperature, the composition of the atmosphere, sea level height, and sunshine patterns, the earth’s physical environment is damaged or an alternate local ecology is created. Perhaps before very long, a man-made El Nino or La Nina effect will become yet another kind of superweapon in the hands of certain nations and/or non-state organizations. It is more likely that a non-state organization will become the prime initiator of ecological war, because of its terrorist nature, because it feels it has no responsibility to the people or to the society at large, and because non-state organizations have consistently demonstrated that they unwilling to play by the rules of the game. Moreover, since the global ecological environment will frequently be on the borderline of catastrophe as nations strive for the most rapid development possible, there is a real danger that the slightest increase or decrease in any variable would be enough to touch off an ecological holocaust.

Finally, there’s also chemical and biological warfare. Their effectiveness is very uncertain, since they have not been widely used in anger (especially in recent decades). Chemical munitions have historically been mostly ineffective, mostly just a psychological weapon, though the most recent generations, novichok nerve agents delived by “binary munitions”, are an unknown quantity.

Potentially far more devastating than chemical weapons, maybe even nuclear weapons, are biological weapons. And you no longer even need a large state-funded efforts like Biopreparat to create lethal biological agents; according to Paul Boutin, just a DNA synthesizer and a few spare millions $ will do. Since bioweapons have the annoying quality that they can eventually “blow back” onto your populations and armies, it is thought that the main threat would come from millennarian terrorist movements. At the moment the world is every bit as vulnerable to biowar / bioterror / bioerror, as it is to a new flu pandemic. Not surprisingly, the main state-backed biowar efforts no longer relate to weaponization, but to biodefense.

Visioning Future War

Another way of imaging future war. Linear, infantry wars fought with rifle armies resembled checkers – relatively simple, one-dimensional, almost intuitive. The “combined arms” / 3rd-generation warfare that saw its apogee in WW2 and Cold War planning for WW3 on the plains of Germany resembled chess – one had to know how to use exploit time and space effectively with a variety of different units (infantry, mechanized, armored, air) to effect critical breakthroughts, encircle enemy units to enable for defeat in detail, and to know how to defend in depth. All of these are of course major elements in chess.

Future iWar is going to be like the Chinese game go – which despite the relative uniformity of platforms / pieces, is in practice far, far more complex than chess (computers aren’t advanced enough to “brute force” win in the game of go, unlike in chess, due to the sheer number of possibilities; skill is based on pattern recognition). It is characterized by extreme dispersion and inter-meshing of allied and enemy forces; strong point defences (see “iron phalanx”) with tenuous lines holding them together that are vulnerable to concerted assault; extreme mobility; and catastrophic bouts of attrition when large groups are surrounded and captured (equivalent to asymmetric attacks that disable large networks). No “King” that you have to defend at all costs because of the networked aspects; each unit is its own platform.

Responses to Criticisms

1. But we are in the era of globalization, spreading democracy, and world peace!

This won’t last due to the coming collapse of Pax Americana (the current global order founded on cheap oil, globalization, international rule of law, etc, and guaranteed by the US military / NATO), which will usher in the age of scarcity industrialism / the world without the West (characterized by economic statism, Realpolitik, resource nationalism, mercantile trade relations, etc).

Though on paper Russia’s military spending is only 4% of US GDP, in reality hidden subsidies, “structural militarization”, black budgets, etc, indicate that more like 15-20% of its techno-industrial potential is geared towards defense (20% of manufacturing output are armaments, 75% of Russian R&D has defense applications). In the US, real military spending is closer to 10% rather than the headline 5%. The figure is probably similar for China.

2. Given how much you talk about peak oil and collapse, what makes you think all these cool military technologies will ever be developed?

However, there are still plenty of unconventional gas reserves (coal seam gas, shale gas) and coal that will be able to sustain industrial civilization for another generation. (Of course by the 2030-50 period there will appear incredible stresses on the system if 1) climate change is bad and geoengineering is not attempted or is unsuccessful, and / or 2) if global industrial civilization had not managed to transition to a non-hydrocarbons dependent development regime). So whereas the US global empire will soon go, the global industrial system still has a substantial life ahead of it.

This time period, c.2010-2030/2050, will be characterized by an apolar, anarchic international system based on Realpolitik and resource nationalism. The three most powerful blocs are going to be the China-East Asia bloc, the America-Atlanticist bloc, and the Russia-Eurasian bloc. In times of stress and international competition, resources are diverted to the military sector and the military-industrial complex, including R&D. Since armed forces are the coercive foundations upon which any state is kept together and preserved, they are going to get preferential resources from the state they serve up until the very end of said state. This will be occuring in tandem with the continuation of the explosion in computer power, electronic networks, AI, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and robotics.

BTW, the process of ramping up the share of productive resources dedicated to the military sector has been rising at the global level since around 2000, bringing to an end the post-Cold War “peace dividend”. Despite commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US has accelerated the development of BMD under Bush; after 20 years of declining military spending as a percentage of GDP to free up resources for economic development, Chinese military spending began to grow faster than GDP; and Russia has revamped military spending from its post-Soviet nadir, is reforming its army and beginning fifth-generation rearmament, and plans to resurrect high-volume military production from 2011.

3. The range of technological, doctrinal, and social changes you describe as regards a total war is so radical that I cannot imagine it happening.

The citizen, soldier, and general of 1914 could have no way of knowing that in another half-century, the world of frontal infantry advances and quick, clean campaigns would be transformed into battles of industrial production, mass mobilization, “total war”, combined arms tactics, Blitzkrieg (infiltration-envelopment-annihilation), defense in depth, strategic bombers, ICBM and SSBN forces, etc.

Likewise, the early Cold War era strategist would have had to be very imaginative to envision nuclear planning losing its primacy, with the focus shifting from planning for massive tank battles on the Central European Plain, to today’s world of precision-guided munitions, stealth aircraft, the RMA, 4GW, and cyberwar or iWar.

The appearance of limits to growth, together with continuing developments in informatics and military technology, will lead to equally drastic changes in the nature of future war in the next few decades.

4. I’m a bit confused on the chronology, this essay is rather rambling. Can you please clarify?

Yes, I agree it’s rambling. Sorry, lots of ideas, not enough time or discipline. I’ll try to clarify and summarize in chronological order.

2010′s: Just as the US is in the midst of developing next-generation weaponry (scramjets, laser BMD) and finalizing the foundations for its global BMD system, the collapse of Pax Americana, economic crisis, and political instability will bring much of its military-industrial activities into dormancy (as happened in 1990′s Russia). Russia and China continue their military modernizations uninterrupted, reaching the US fifth-generation level of 2005-2010 by 2020. In particular, China will have then acquired a real blue water navy, which will by then be larger and newer than the US Navy. Many middle-rank Great Powers acquire advanced, assymetric, “area denial” weaponry (anti-ship missiles, supercavitating torpedoes, silent diesel submarines, UAV’s, drones). With the global US empire now a shell of its former self, nuclear proliferation will increase.

2020′s: The US will have more or less stabilized from its fall by now, and will resume where it left off in the early 2010′s. Drawing on R&D work it did not have the opportunity to previously actualize for lack of funds, it will resume upgrading its now downsized military forces (Future Force Warrior, all-electric ships, scramjets, laser ABM shields, railguns). However, by now China will be a real peer competitor and increasingly ascendant, even in qualitative terms. The spread of neo-colonialism and resource wars will intensify, the globalized world of yesteryear having dissolved into apolar anarchy and regional blocs centered around Great Powers (e.g. China, the US, Russia, France, Turkey, Brazil, Germany, India). Due to the stagnation of its military-industrial complex, Russia gets “locked in” to the fifth-generation paradigm and does not advance much farther than perfections of what were essentially late-Soviet systems, like the S-500, PAK FA, Borei, and T-90; adequate for dominating the Near Abroad, but no longer enough to go toe-to-toe with China or the US. By this time, both China and the US will have fully brought online mature ABM technologies based on kinetic interception. There are moves to move some C&C functions into deep space, black projects are launched in geowar and psychotronic warfare, and serious research begins on biomechanical, nanotechnological, and autonomous AI applications to military affairs.

2030′s: The increasing power and prevalence of cybernetic technology will enable unprecedented levels of wartime mobilization. The efforts initiated in the 2020′s are beginning to pay off, with the development of very powerful laser ABM systems that drastically reduce the value of nuclear arsenals (by now, only massed swarm attacks of hypersonic bombers have a chance), as well as the perfection of the Future Force Warrior, etc. Perhaps by this time military forces will be transitioning from reliance on hydrocarbons to space-based solar power and electric batteries: certainly China will be capable of an industrial-scale buildup in space, and the US-Atlanticist bloc too if it has the political will. Developments in biodefense will massively decrease the time needed to prepare vaccines against biological agents. The results of the exotic research projects of the 2020′s will begin to be implemented, for instance, biomechanical constructs to serve as resilient, versatile and autonomous platforms for energy and kinetic weapons; “nanodust” sensors; new technologies for waging ecological warfare; enhanced “smart”, EMP, and fuel-air munitions. These may shift the advantage back to the offensive.

2040′s: Probably the make or break decade. By now either humanity has managed to avert collapse (through technological singularity or some kind of “ecotechnic transition“), or it will be approaching collapse with no salvation in sight. Perhaps collapse will be preceded or accompanied by a last war of industrial civilization. One in which the weapons, doctrines, and social constructs of future war will be exploited for the first and last time.

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I have always been fascinated by nuclear war. Mountain bunkers, missile gaps, MAD, – what is there not to like? So this post will be devoted to the doomsday weapons which continue tantalizing us with visions of post-nuclear nirvana. Because yes, despite the post-Cold War reduction in the Russian and US arsenals (consisting mostly of warheads being removed from missiles and stored in bunkers), the cessation of live testing, and overall better relations untinged by ideological confrontation, nuclear weapons and their associated delivery systems and C&C systems haven’t gone anywhere. That isn’t going to change any time soon. If anything, in an overpopulated world under increasing pressure from limits to growth, NBC weapons may re-assume their old primacy in strategic thinking.

This post will be divided into the following sections: 1) a partial list of nuclear war scenarios, 2) a description of nuclear weapons basics and the current nuclear balance of power, and 3) myths about nuclear war – the most prominent being that a large-scale nuclear war is an extinction-level event, or even unwinnable (Herman Kahn and the other sons of Strangelove really do make valid points).

1. Things you might want to read for fun

First, here is a collection of nuclear war scenarios that are available online. I would also highly recommend watching the film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb – it is a true classic of American comedy / satire.

The Effects of a Global Thermonuclear War – a reasonably realistic late-1980′s nuclear war scenario stemming from a NATO-Warsaw Pact conflict in central Europe, but consequences are probably too apocalyptic than would be the case in a real nuclear war.

The Consequences of Nuclear Conflict between India and Pakistan – given their small arsenals, even a total nuclear war involving ground bursts over populated cities will leave 99% of Indians and 93% of Pakistanis alive. Their military forces remain intact and the demographic losses are made good in just a few years.

Australia Nuclear War Scenario – rather unrealistic scenario involving Australia getting nuked in an unfolding world war between the US and China / Russia.

What A Russian Nuclear Attack on the US Could Look Like (1999) – another rather unrealistic scenario in which Russia disrupts US communications networks by exploding EMP-emitting nuclear-armed satellites, decapitates the US leadership, and invades it.

Threads – a good British movie from the late 1980′s about the aftermath of a nuclear war (see plot), of which it takes a bleak picture – though around 80% of the population survives the initial blasts, it is quickly whittled down to medieval levels (4-11mn) by the mid-1990′s due to the nuclear winter (famine), disease, and destruction of the ozone layer.

2. Things you should know

A. History

Nuclear weapons revolutionized the theory of war. Before, states tended to fight (relatively) long wars and could only begin to exercise unrestrained coercion – or the credible threat of it – once they had destroyed the hostile armies and conquered the enemy territory. Now, the two superpowers, the US and the USSR, had the ability to unleash unprecedented violence against each other’s society within hours, well before their armies clashed on the battlefields of central Europe.

The US was the first to test a nuclear bomb (and to use it), in 1945, though the USSR followed up in 1949, in large part thanks to its successful military-industrial espionage. Though the US enjoyed a brief period of nuclear primacy in the 1950′s thanks to its massive bomber forces, factors such as the development of the ICBM, the SLBM, and growing Soviet warhead numbers made a disarming US first strike increasingly unrealistic. Both powers having acquired survivable deterrents, a “balance of terror” set in (MAD).

The introduction of MIRVed warheads in the 1970′s placed more incentives on making a first counterforce strike and tilted the cost-exchange ratio away from ABM, thus destabilizing the situation even as the two nuclear arsenals equalized in their overall destructive potential (the Soviets reached rough parity with the US during the 1970′s). Furthermore, apart from adding redundancy to the nuclear force, the SLBM was also destabilizing by increasing the chances of a decapitating strike against the leadership. As such, there were more efforts aimed at managing the nuclear standoff, such as the Moscow-Washington hotline, the construction of hardened complexes (Cheyenne, Yamantau), and a panoply of mobile C&C hubs to decrease nuclear commanders’ vulnerability.

Despite the development of a substantial nuclear capability during the Cold War by the UK, France, and China – and their consequent proliferation to Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea – to this day the US and Russian arsenals remain the world’s largest by at least an order of magnitude. Russia is also believed to keep 16,000 tactical nukes in storage, which it plans to use as its conventional forces retreat before a NATO or Chinese ground invasion. (Here are some aggregates estimates of warhead numbers from the Guardian).

Though there have been arguments by Lieber and Press that the 2000′s saw a return of US nuclear primacy, their conclusions have been hotly disputed. It is probably true that today the US has the ability to completely neutralize China’s means of nuclear retaliation in a first strike, because any surviving Chinese retaliation can be mopped up by sea-based Aegis/SM-3 assets in the Pacific and the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) installations at Vandenberg, California, and Fort Greely, Alaska. However, the same cannot be said of Russia, which has a much bigger and comprehensive nuclear arsenal and early warning system.

B. Nuclear Weapon Development

Contrary to popular opinion, building a workable nuclear weapon mated to a robust delivery system is extremely hard. It is a highly complex synthesis of some of the most advanced technologies known to man, not a terrorist DIY job.

A nuclear weapon… is a robust, reliable and miniaturized nuclear device (a warhead) that has been combined with a similarly robust and reliable delivery system. The importance of this synthesis should not be underestimated. Deliverability is a key feature of a nuclear weapon — and it must be a practical, militarily efficient means of delivery with a high probability of success. The challenges of achieving this synthesis are extensive. For a nuclear device to be deployed as a ballistic missile warhead, as a cruise missile warhead or as a gravity bomb, a series of very significant technical hurdles must be surmounted, including nuclear physics, materials science, rocketry, missile guidance and the like.

The nuclear bit.

The fabrication of fissile material alone — the one true limiting factor in the development of a nuclear device — presents significant challenges. The concept of separating a heavier isotope of uranium from a lighter isotope of uranium in order to enrich the stock to higher than 80 percent U235 — sufficient for use in weapons — is well understood. Separating something heavier from something lighter in a gaseous state is not all that hard. But doing it on a sufficiently refined level to separate two isotopes differentiated by only a few subatomic particles is extremely difficult. The alternative, reprocessing plutonium, is a chemical process not nearly as challenging as enrichment but it is extremely nasty, producing deadly levels of radioactivity, and it can only be done after plutonium has been created inside a nuclear reactor. … [see here for more on uranium enrichment].

Compared to the challenges of enrichment, the fabrication of a simple gun-type device like Little Boy is comparatively simple, though precise and extensive calculations are still required. But only uranium can be used in a gun-type device; plutonium requires the far more complex method of implosion, which presents numerous challenges, including the precise “lensing” of high-grade explosives. The purity of the lenses, their arrangement and the timing of the detonation must all be carefully crafted and coordinated to create a perfectly symmetrical explosion that compresses the plutonium core to a supercritical mass. Again, theoretically, it is a fairly understandable concept. In practice, however, it requires a great deal of knowledge and expertise. The creation of even the most primitive implosion device during the Manhattan Project challenged the best scientific minds and technology available at the time.

The fabrication of fissile material and the development of either a gun-type device or an implosion device is a process that only nine or 10 countries in the world have accomplished. …

The delivery system bit.

First, delivery systems must be devised and both the bomb design and the payload capacity for the delivery system appropriately tailored. The delivery system itself — whether air-drop, cruise missile or ballistic missile — involves significant technological challenges, including aircraft design, subsystems integration and the development of complex guidance and propulsion systems. Indeed, these remain developmental challenges for many established nuclear powers. Ballistic missile design is an especially complex undertaking — to say nothing of mating such missiles with a submarine for undersea launch.

In each case, the physics package (the components of the bomb that actually initiate a nuclear explosion) must be significantly miniaturized to one degree or another. A modern re-entry vehicle is a steep conical shape shorter than a human being that contains an even smaller physics package weighing only a few hundred pounds. Getting a warhead down to this size is no easy task. It requires, among other things, precision manufacturing, exceptional quality control and a keen understanding of nuclear physics. Then there are the decades of testing and practice necessary to ensure detonation upon delivery, national command authority controls and the like. Indeed, U.S. national laboratories still use some of the world’s most powerful supercomputers to model the effects of age on the current U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Developing a nuclear weapon is not simply a matter of money, resources and brains. It also is the product of decades of testing (now frowned upon by the world community), design experience, numerous fielded weapons and a sustained annual investment of billions of dollars.

As such, the only countries that have large, varied, nuclear forces – or have the technical capability to build up one – can be counted on the fingers of one’s hand: The US, Russia, France, Japan, Germany, the UK, China, S. Korea, Italy, and *perhaps* Taiwan, India, Israel, Brazil, and a handful of others. But for the latter the costs will be prohibitive in the extreme. For instance, in Iran’s case:

Uranium nuclear fuel enrichment consists of four main steps. The first involves extracting uranium ore and processing (also known as milling) it into uranium oxide, commonly known as yellowcake. Second, most enrichment efforts — including Iran’s — then subject the yellowcake to a series of chemical reactions to create toxic uranium hexafluoride (UF6), which is useful for a variety of enrichment techniques. Third, in many cases — again including Iran’s — the UF6 then is run through “cascades” of centrifuges, or long chains of individual centrifuges connected together in a vacuum in gaseous form. Through this process, the percentage of the fissile isotope uranium 235 is increased to the point where the uranium can be used for power production. (Iran reportedly has aimed for an enrichment level of 3.5%, which is considered low-enriched uranium.) Fourth and last, once the uranium has been enriched to the desired level, it is then converted into fuel rods or pellets for use in a reactor.

It is important to note that low-enriched uranium is not the same thing as highly enriched uranium (which is considered to be greater than 20%) — or uranium enriched to levels of 80-90% uranium 235 — which is considered sufficient for use in a crude nuclear device. Producing highly enriched uranium is not simply a matter of running the cascade cycle describe above over and over again. As the uranium becomes more enriched, the technology becomes increasingly delicate. Fine separation of the UF6 molecules and the minute calibration of the centrifuges necessary to carry this out, is required for this, and it is not clear that Iran’s centrifuges are of sufficient quality to attain these high levels of enrichment.

See Nuclear Weapon Nations and Arsenals for a detailed discussion of national nuclear capabilities.

C. Future Prospects: ABM, Scramjets, and Hypersonic Bombers

Although building a few dozen simple nuclear weapons is relatively easy and has even been mastered by the likes of Pakistan, acquiring the panoply of hundreds or more thermonuclear devices mounted on a triad of delivery systems (bombers, ICBM’s, SLBM’s) is highly complex and open to a few states. However, doing so imparts near-strategic invulnerability. In a ever more unstable world of limits to growth, it is likely that nations like Germany and Japan will nuclearize, or at least intentionally build up the foundations for effecting a rapid, massive buildup of nuclear arms.

There is one major development that is going to seriously undermine the effectiveness of nuclear weapons, necessitating the development of much more advanced and complex delivery systems. That is anti-ballistic missile defense (ABM).

The country with the most advanced ABM program as of today is the United States:

There are four mature BMD systems that are operational or in the process of being made operational: Aegis/Standard Missile-3 (SM-3), Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) and Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD).

The Aegis/SM-3 system is capable of intercepting ballistic missiles during parts of the ascent and descent phases. This system has already been deployed on 18 American guided-missile cruisers and destroyers, and two Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces warships and is operationally proven (though as an anti-satellite weapon rather than a BMD interceptor). The Aegis/SM-3 has been one of the most successful BMD programs in the U.S. inventory, and Gates’ proposal would increase funding for the SM-3 program and upgrade an additional six warships with the system (double the three announced earlier this year for the Atlantic fleet).

The THAAD system is mobile (designed to be deployed anywhere in the world) and is capable of intercepting a ballistic missile in its final midcourse descent and in its terminal phase, both inside and outside the atmosphere. The first THAAD battery — Alpha Battery of the 4th Air Defense Artillery Regiment at Fort Bliss in Texas — was activated last year and is in the process of being fully equipped. Meanwhile, testing continues at the Pacific Missile Range in Hawaii (a test there in March marked the system’s latest success). After poor test performance in the 1990s, the program restarted testing in 2005 and has shown marked improvement. It is now considered technologically mature.

The Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) system is a terminal-phase intercept system that was operationally deployed and successfully used in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system is also currently operational at Fort Greely in Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and is slated for deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic, although deployment of the system is encumbered by the requirement for fixed facilities, including concrete silos. …

The Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) system is a terminal-phase intercept system that was operationally deployed and successfully used in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system is also currently operational at Fort Greely in Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and is slated for deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic, although deployment of the system is encumbered by the requirement for fixed facilities, including concrete silos.

Although as of today its scope is still limited to the rather modest task of defending against missile attacks from “rogue states” like Iran and North Korea, in the future it is not unfeasible to upgrade the American BMD to provide a substantial blanket even against Russia’s arsenal. Furthermore, as these technologies mature the BMD system will move into space – rhetoric to the contrary, the presence of military surveillance satellites, anti-satellite weapons testing, and GPS (which the US uses for everything from squad level maneuvers to JDAM’s), means that space is already for all practical purposes weaponized except for the fact that the actual projectiles are not yet located there.

… And for strategic, intercontinental BMD, space is inherently superior to terrestrial basing for interceptors in terms of coverage, flexibility and response time. Put another way, while near-term funding for such projects remains questionable, those projects are the logical ultimate trajectory of the deliberate pursuit of BMD now underway.

But BMD aside, the Pentagon intends to dominate space the same way it dominates the world’s oceans: largely passively, allowing the free flow of international traffic, but with overwhelming and unchallenged military superiority. That will include not only defending assets in space, but holding those of a potential adversary at risk. Currently, Washington can do much of this from the ground; it is not only able to destroy a satellite with a BMD interceptor, it is also honing the technology to deny and disrupt access to space systems.

Thus, as long as the American military-industrial complex remains lavishly funded – which is open to question – it will continue to develop a multi-tiered ABM shield, introduce new technologies like the Airborne Laser (ABL), Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI), and Network Centric Airborne Defense Element (NCADE), and reinforce its MASINT dominance.

One particular interesting concept in the works is a so-called plasma shield:

In the 90’s the Russian physicist Rimily Avramenko proposed this method for taking out ballistic missiles:

Their action is based on focusing beams of electromagnetic energy produced by laser or microwave radiation into the upper layers of the atmosphere….A
cloud of highly ionized air arises at the focus of the laser or microwave rays, at an altitude of up to 50 kilometers. Upon entering it, any object–a missile, an airplane, is deflected from its trajectory and disintegrates in response to the fantastic overloads arising due to the abrupt pressure difference …What is fundamental in this case is that the energy aimed by the terrestrial components of the plasma weapon–lasers and antennas–is concentrated not at the target itself but a little ahead of it. Rather than “incinerating” the missile or airplane, it “bumps” it out of trajectory

The Russians refer to such balls of plasma as plasmoids. Although there is some speculation that their high-power radar could produce plasmoids in the upper atmosphere for defensive use, this has not been proven. (Just, please, don’t mention HAARP.) But the laser system used in PASS has been proven.

Alex Long, CEO of Stellar Photonics, which makes the PASS laser, tells me that future systems will have much greater range than the current laser. The focusing requirements are much simpler than for high-power energy weapons like the Airborne Laser (or ABL, a ray gun-equipped 747 jet), making longer ranges more feasible.

The technology which produces small plasma detonations in PASS could put larger plasmoids in the path of missiles and aircraft high in the atmosphere. Rather than using massive amounts of energy to burn through the missile’s casing, just a small amount of laser-created plasma could turn the missile’s own speed against it, tripping it up in a piece of cosmic judo. A small, low-energy pulse laser may turn out to be more effective for missile defense than the giant chemical laser in the $7.3 billion ABL.

Other nations will counter by developing their own ABM systems, on current trends lagging the US by a decade or two, while acquiring new capabilities like ICBM‘s and SLBM‘s with advanced evasive measures and decoys, as well as next-generation strategic bombers and eventually, scramjet-based hypersonic weapons. If the latter are actualized and retain a high degree of survivability in an era of improving SAM technology, bombers may yet again come to dominate nuclear delivery systems, as they first did in the 1950′s.

3. Nuclear War – Myth and Reality

Major sources:

One of the basic popular misconceptions of nuclear warfare is that it is a true Doomsday event leading to human extinction, or at the very least the collapse of global civilization. However, this is not backed even by primitive calculations that assume all the world’s urban areas (home to 50% of the world population) get blanket bombed, neglecting that a sizable portion of nuclear weapons will get eaten up by counter-force strikes (e.g. the missile silos of North Dakota), or will fail to launch / get taken out by enemy ABM / etc.

° Myth: Because some modern H-bombs are over 1000 times as powerful as the A-bomb that destroyed most of Hiroshima, these H-bombs are 1000 times as deadly and destructive.

° Facts: A nuclear weapon 1000 times as powerful as the one that blasted Hiroshima, if exploded under comparable conditions, produces equally serious blast damage to wood-frame houses over an area up to about 130 times as large, not 1000 times as large.

For example, air bursting a 20-kiloton weapon at the optimum height to destroy most buildings will destroy or severely damage houses out to about 1.42 miles from ground zero.6 The circular area of at least severe blast damage will be about 6.33 square miles. (The explosion of a 20 kiloton weapon releases the same amount of energy as 20 thousand tons of TNT.) One thousand 20-kiloton weapons thus air burst, well separated to avoid overlap of their blast areas, would destroy or severely damage houses over areas totalling approximately 6,330 square miles. In contrast, similar air bursting of one 20- megaton weapon (equivalent in explosive power to 20 million tons of TNT) would destroy or severely damage the great majority of houses out to a distance of 16 miles from ground zero.6 The area of destruction would be about 800 square miles – not 6,330 square miles.

° Myth: Overkill would result if all the U.S. and U.S.S.R, nuclear weapons were used meaning not only that the two superpowers have more than enough weapons to kill all of each other’s people, but also that they have enough weapons to exterminate the human race.

° Facts: Statements that the U.S. and the Soviet Union have the power to kill the world’s population several times over are based on misleading calculations. One such calculation is to multiply the deaths produced per kiloton exploded over Hiroshima or Nagasaki by an estimate of the number of kilotons in either side’s arsenal. (A kiloton explosion is one that produces the same amount of energy as does 1000 tons of TNT.) The unstated assumption is that somehow the world’s population could be gathered into circular crowds, each a few miles in diameter with a population density equal to downtown Hiroshima or Nagasaki, and then a small (Hiroshima-sized) weapon would be exploded over the center of each crowd. Other misleading calculations are based on exaggerations of the dangers from long-lasting radiation and other harmful effects of a nuclear war.

Nor will everyone die by lingering radiation – the critically-affected areas will be limited to areas downwind of ground bursts.

° Myth: Fallout radiation from a nuclear war would poison the air and all parts of the environment. It would kill everyone. (This is the demoralizing message of On the Beach and many similar pseudoscientific books and articles.)

° Facts: When a nuclear weapon explodes near enough to the ground for its fireball to touch the ground, it forms a crater. (See Fig. 1.1.)

Fig. 1.1. A surface burst. In a surface or near-surface burst, the fireball touches the ground and blasts a crater. ORNL-DWG 786264

Many thousands of tons of earth from the crater of a large explosion are pulverized into trillions of particles. These particles are contaminated by radioactive atoms produced by the nuclear explosion. Thousands of tons of the particles are carried up into a mushroom-shaped cloud, miles above the earth. These radioactive particles then fall out of the mushroom cloud, or out of the dispersing cloud of particles blown by the winds thus becoming fallout.

Each contaminated particle continuously gives off invisible radiation, much like a tiny X-ray machine while in the mushroom cloud, while descending, and after having fallen to earth. The descending radioactive particles are carried by the winds like the sand and dust particles of a miles-thick sandstorm cloud except that they usually are blown at lower speeds and in many areas the particles are so far apart that no cloud is seen. The largest, heaviest fallout particles reach the ground first, in locations close to the explosion. Many smaller particles are carried by the winds for tens to thousands of miles before falling to earth. At any one place where fallout from a single explosion is being deposited on the ground in concentrations high enough to require the use of shelters, deposition will be completed within a few hours.

The smallest fallout particles those tiny enough to be inhaled into a person’s lungs are invisible to the naked eye. These tiny particles would fall so slowly from the four-mile or greater heights to which they would be injected by currently deployed Soviet warheads that most would remain airborne for weeks to years before reaching the ground. By that time their extremely wide dispersal and radioactive decay would make them much less dangerous. Only where such tiny particles are promptly brought to earth by rain- outs or snow-outs in scattered “hot spots,” and later dried and blown about by the winds, would these invisible particles constitute a long-term and relatively minor post-attack danger.

The air in properly designed fallout shelters, even those without air filters, is free of radioactive particles and safe to breathe except in a few’ rare environments as will be explained later.

Fortunately for all living things, the danger from fallout radiation lessens with time. The radioactive decay, as this lessening is called, is rapid at first, then gets slower and slower. The dose rate (the amount of radiation received per hour) decreases accordingly. Figure 1.2 illustrates the rapidity of the decay of radiation from fallout during the first two days after the nuclear explosion that produced it. R stands for roentgen, a measurement unit often used to measure exposure to gamma rays and X rays. Fallout meters called dosimeters measure the dose received by recording the number of R. Fallout meters called survey meters, or dose-rate meters, measure the dose rate by recording the number of R being received per hour at the time of measurement. Notice that it takes about seven times as long for the dose rate to decay from 1000 roentgens per hour (1000 R/hr) to 10 R/hr (48 hours) as to decay from 1000 R/hr to 100 R/hr (7 hours). (Only in high-fallout areas would the dose rate 1 hour after the explosion be as high as 1000 roentgens per hour.)

Fig. 1.2. Decay of the dose rate of radiation from fallout, from the time of the explosion, not from the time of fallout deposition. ORNL.DWG 78-265

If the dose rate 1 hour after an explosion is 1000 R/hr, it would take about 2 weeks for the dose rate to be reduced to 1 R/hr solely as a result of radioactive decay. Weathering effects will reduce the dose rate further,’ for example, rain can wash fallout particles from plants and houses to lower positions on or closer to the ground. Surrounding objects would reduce the radiation dose from these low-lying particles.

Figure 1.2 also illustrates the fact that at a typical location where a given amount of fallout from an explosion is deposited later than 1 hour after the explosion, the highest dose rate and the total dose received at that location are less than at a location where the same amount of fallout is deposited 1 hour after the explosion. The longer fallout particles have been airborne before reaching the ground, the less dangerous is their radiation.

Within two weeks after an attack the occupants of most shelters could safely stop using them, or could work outside the shelters for an increasing number of hours each day. Exceptions would be in areas of extremely heavy fallout such as might occur downwind from important targets attacked with many weapons, especially missile sites and very large cities. To know when to come out safely, occupants either would need a reliable fallout meter to measure the changing radiation dangers, or must receive information based on measurements made nearby with a reliable instrument.

The radiation dose that will kill a person varies considerably with different people. A dose of 450 R resulting from exposure of the whole body to fallout radiation is often said to be the dose that will kill about half the persons receiving it, although most studies indicate that it would take somewhat less.1 (Note: A number written after a statement refers the reader to a source listed in the Selected References that follow Appendix D.) Almost all persons confined to expedient shelters after a nuclear attack would be under stress and without clean surroundings or antibiotics to fight infections. Many also would lack adequate water and food. Under these unprecedented conditions, perhaps half the persons who received a whole-body dose of 350 R within a few days would die.2

Fortunately, the human body can repair most radiation damage if the daily radiation doses are not too large. As will be explained in Appendix B, a person who is healthy and has not been exposed in the past two weeks to a total radiation dose of more than 100 R can receive a dose of 6 R each day for at least two months without being incapacitated.

Only a very small fraction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki citizens who survived radiation doses some of which were nearly fatal have suffered serious delayed effects. The reader should realize that to do essential work after a massive nuclear attack, many survivors must be willing to receive much larger radiation doses than are normally permissible. Otherwise, too many workers would stay inside shelter too much of the time, and work that would be vital to national recovery could not be done. For example, if the great majority of truckers were so fearful of receiving even non-incapacitating radiation doses that they would refuse to transport food, additional millions would die from starvation alone.

° Myth: Fallout radiation penetrates everything; there is no escaping its deadly effects.

° Facts: Some gamma radiation from fallout will penetrate the shielding materials of even an excellent shelter and reach its occupants. However, the radiation dose that the occupants of an excellent shelter would receive while inside this shelter can be reduced to a dose smaller than the average American receives during his lifetime from X rays and other radiation exposures normal in America today. The design features of such a shelter include the use of a sufficient thickness of earth or other heavy shielding material. Gamma rays are like X rays, but more penetrating. Figure 1.3 shows how rapidly gamma rays are reduced in number (but not in their ability to penetrate) by layers of packed earth. Each of the layers shown is one halving-thickness of packed earth- about 3.6 inches (9 centimeters).3 A halving- thickness is the thickness of a material which reduces by half the dose of radiation that passes through it.

The actual paths of gamma rays passing through shielding materials are much more complicated, due to scattering, etc., than are the straight-line paths shown in Fig. 1.3. But when averaged out, the effectiveness of a halving-thickness of any material is approximately as shown. The denser a substance, the better it serves for shielding material. Thus, a halving-thickness of concrete is only about 2.4 inches (6.1 cm).

Fig. 1.3. Illustration of shielding against fallout radiation. Note the increasingly large improvements in the attenuation (reduction) factors that are attained as each additional halving-thickness of packed earth is added. ORNL-DWG 78-18834

If additional halving-thicknesses of packed earth shielding are successively added to the five thicknesses shown in Fig. 1.3, the protection factor (PF) is successively increased from 32 to 64, to 128, to 256, to 512, to 1024, and so on.

Finally, sorry to disappoint our armchair nihilists, but “nuclear winter” or the destruction of the ozone layer certainly won’t do in civilization, let alone the human species.

° Myth: Blindness and a disastrous increase of cancers would be the fate of survivors of a nuclear war, because the nuclear explosions would destroy so much of the protective ozone in the stratosphere that far too much ultraviolet light would reach the earth’s surface. Even birds and insects would be blinded. People could not work outdoors in daytime for years without dark glasses, and would have to wear protective clothing to prevent incapacitating sunburn. Plants would be badly injured and food production greatly reduced.

° Facts: Large nuclear explosions do inject huge amounts of nitrogen oxides (gasses that destroy ozone) into the stratosphere. However, the percent of the stratospheric ozone destroyed by a given amount of nitrogen oxides has been greatly overestimated in almost all theoretical calculations and models. For example, the Soviet and U.S. atmospheric nuclear test explosions of large weapons in 1952-1962 were calculated by Foley and Ruderman to result in a reduction of more than 10 percent in total ozone. (See M. H. Foley and M. A. Ruderman, ‘Stratospheric NO from Past Nuclear Explosions”, Journal of Geophysics, Res. 78, 4441-4450.) Yet observations that they cited showed no reductions in ozone. Nor did ultraviolet increase. Other theoreticians calculated sizeable reductions in total ozone, but interpreted the observational data to indicate either no reduction, or much smaller reductions than their calculated ones.

A realistic simplified estimate of the increased ultraviolet light dangers to American survivors of a large nuclear war equates these hazards to moving from San Francisco to sea level at the equator, where the sea level incidence of skin cancers (seldom fatal) is highest- about 10 times higher than the incidence at San Francisco. Many additional thousands of American survivors might get skin cancer, but little or no increase in skin cancers might result if in the post-attack world deliberate sun tanning and going around hatless went out of fashion. Furthermore, almost all of today’s warheads are smaller than those exploded in the large- weapons tests mentioned above; most would inject much smaller amounts of ozone-destroying gasses, or no gasses, into the stratosphere, where ozone deficiencies may persist for years. And nuclear weapons smaller than 500 kilotons result in increases (due to smog reactions) in upper tropospheric ozone. In a nuclear war, these increases would partially compensate for the upper-level tropospheric decreases-as explained by Julius S. Chang and Donald J. Wuebbles of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

° Myth: Unsurvivable “nuclear winter” surely will follow a nuclear war. The world will be frozen if only 100 megatons (less than one percent of all nuclear weapons) are used to ignite cities. World-enveloping smoke from fires and the dust from surface bursts will prevent almost all sunlight and solar heat from reaching the earth’s surface. Universal darkness for weeks! Sub-zero temperatures, even in summertime! Frozen crops, even in the jungles of South America! Worldwide famine! Whole species of animals and plants exterminated! The survival of mankind in doubt!

° Facts: Unsurvivable “nuclear winter” is a discredited theory that, since its conception in 1982, has been used to frighten additional millions into believing that trying to survive a nuclear war is a waste of effort and resources, and that only by ridding the world of almost all nuclear weapons do we have a chance of surviving.

Non-propagandizing scientists recently have calculated that the climatic and other environmental effects of even an all-out nuclear war would be much less severe than the catastrophic effects repeatedly publicized by popular astronomer Carl Sagan and his fellow activist scientists, and by all the involved Soviet scientists. Conclusions reached from these recent, realistic calculations are summarized in an article, “Nuclear Winter Reappraised”, featured in the 1986 summer issue of Foreign Affairs, the prestigious quarterly of the Council on Foreign Relations. The authors, Starley L. Thompson and Stephen H. Schneider, are atmospheric scientists with the National Center for Atmospheric Research. They showed ” that on scientific grounds the global apocalyptic conclusions of the initial nuclear winter hypothesis can now be relegated to a vanishing low level of probability.”

Their models indicate that in July (when the greatest temperature reductions would result) the average temperature in the United States would be reduced for a few days from about 70 degrees Fahrenheit to approximately 50 degrees. (In contrast, under the same conditions Carl Sagan, his associates, and the Russian scientists predicted a resulting average temperature of about 10 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, lasting for many weeks!)

Persons who want to learn more about possible post-attack climatic effects also should read the Fall 1986 issue of Foreign Affairs. This issue contains a long letter from Thompson and Schneider which further demolishes the theory of catastrophic “nuclear winter.” Continuing studies indicate there will be even smaller reductions in temperature than those calculated by Thompson and Schneider.

Soviet propagandists promptly exploited belief in unsurvivable “nuclear winter” to increase fear of nuclear weapons and war, and to demoralize their enemies. Because raging city firestorms are needed to inject huge amounts of smoke into the stratosphere and thus, according to one discredited theory, prevent almost all solar heat from reaching the ground, the Soviets changed their descriptions of how a modern city will burn if blasted by a nuclear explosion.

Figure 1.6 pictures how Russian scientists and civil defense officials realistically described – before the invention of “nuclear winter” – the burning of a city hit by a nuclear weapon. Buildings in the blasted area for miles around ground zero will be reduced to scattered rubble – mostly of concrete, steel, and other nonflammable materials – that will not burn in blazing fires. Thus in the Oak Ridge National Laboratory translation (ORNL-TR-2793) of Civil Defense. Second Edition (500,000 copies), Moscow, 1970, by Egorov, Shlyakhov, and Alabin, we read: “Fires do not occur in zones of complete destruction . . . that are characterized by an overpressure exceeding 0.5 kg/cm2 [- 7 psi]., because rubble is scattered and covers the burning structures. As a result the rubble only smolders, and fires as such do not occur.”

Fig. 1.6. Drawing with Caption in a Russian Civil Defense Training Film Strip. The blazing fires ignited by a surface burst are shown in standing buildings outside the miles-wide “zone of complete destruction,” where the blast-hurled “rubble only smolders.”

Translation: [Radioactive] contamination occurs in the area of the explosion and also along the trajectory of the cloud which forms a radioactive track.

Firestorms destroyed the centers of Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo. The old-fashioned buildings of those cities contained large amounts of flammable materials, were ignited by many thousands of small incendiaries, and burned quickly as standing structures well supplied with air. No firestorm has ever injected smoke into the stratosphere, or caused appreciable cooling below its smoke cloud.

The theory that smoke from burning cities and forests and dust from nuclear explosions would cause worldwide freezing temperatures was conceived in 1982 by the German atmospheric chemist and environmentalist Paul Crutzen, and continues to be promoted by a worldwide propaganda campaign. This well funded campaign began in 1983 with televised scientific-political meetings in Cambridge and Washington featuring American and Russian scientists. A barrage of newspaper and magazine articles followed, including a scaremongering article by Carl Sagan in the October 30, 1983 issue of Parade, the Sunday tabloid read by millions. The most influential article was featured in the December 23,1983 issue of Science (the weekly magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science): “Nuclear winter, global consequences of multiple nuclear explosions,” by five scientists, R. P. Turco, O. B. Toon, T. P. Ackerman, J. B. Pollack, and C. Sagan. Significantly, these activists listed their names to spell TTAPS, pronounced “taps,” the bugle call proclaiming “lights out” or the end of a military funeral.

Until 1985, non-propagandizing scientists did not begin to effectively refute the numerous errors, unrealistic assumptions, and computer modelling weakness’ of the TTAPS and related “nuclear winter” hypotheses. A principal reason is that government organizations, private corporations, and most scientists generally avoid getting involved in political controversies, or making statements likely to enable antinuclear activists to accuse them of minimizing nuclear war dangers, thus undermining hopes for peace. Stephen Schneider has been called a fascist by some disarmament supporters for having written “Nuclear Winter Reappraised,” according to the Rocky Mountain News of July 6, 1986. Three days later, this paper, that until recently featured accounts of unsurvivable “nuclear winter,” criticized Carl Sagan and defended Thompson and Schneider in its lead editorial, “In Study of Nuclear Winter, Let Scientists Be Scientists.” In a free country, truth will out – although sometimes too late to effectively counter fast-hitting propaganda.

Effective refutation of “nuclear winter” also was delayed by the prestige of politicians and of politically motivated scientists and scientific organizations endorsing the TTAPS forecast of worldwide doom. Furthermore, the weakness’ in the TTAPS hypothesis could not be effectively explored until adequate Government funding was made available to cover costs of lengthy, expensive studies, including improved computer modelling of interrelated, poorly understood meteorological phenomena.

Serious climatic effects from a Soviet-U.S. nuclear war cannot be completely ruled out. However, possible deaths from uncertain climatic effects are a small danger compared to the incalculable millions in many countries likely to die from starvation caused by disastrous shortages of essentials of modern agriculture sure to result from a Soviet-American nuclear war, and by the cessation of most international food shipments.

Finally, two more things of importance in nuclear warfare.

What of the economy?

In his (in)famous book On Thermonuclear War, Herman Kahn calculated that the complete destruction of the US top 53 metropolitan areas would result in serious economic damage, but would not terminate its industrial base. Substantial capacities would survive and will be able to be rebuilt quickly, especially if there are prewar preparations and the postwar government enforces savings on the population.

Below is an edited table I’m reproducing from the book, which shows the 1954 output capacity of different sectors of the US economy, and the percentage of that capacity and the existing capital stock located outside the top 53 metropolitan areas and (kind of) expected to survive a large-scale nuclear war.

Industrial Base 1954 Output Capacity (1956 billion $) % Surviving Capacity % Surviving Capital Stock
Instruments 4 20 20
Transportation eqp. 73 23 23
Electrical eqp. 32 23 23
Primary Metal ind. 36 23 28
Fabricated metal prods. 35 28 28
Rubber prods. 6 29 29
Machinery (except electrical) 50 34 34
Petroleum & coal prods. 18 36 36
Chemicals prods. 25 42 42
Pulp & paper prods. 14 54 54
Food prods. 68 57 57
Construction 91 60 60
Textile prods. 20 69 69
Lumber 9 86 86
Mining 20 89 89
Agriculture 92 95 95
Electric public utilities ~ 54

Today, the spread of suburbia means that more of the strategic industries will have migrated outside the inner-city cores. This is bad for the US environment and the current account, but an advantage in surviving and rebuilding after a nuclear war. There is also a huge and strategically significant IT industry, soon to be supplemented by biotech and nanomanufacturing – however, most of the key facilities would again be located on the peripheries of the big cities.

EMP bursts

Exploding a nuclear weapon high over an adversary’s territory can produce an EMP effect disabling most of the non-hardened electronics over vast continental swathes, crippling the economy at a single stroke. In the US, almost all civilian and even some tactical-military systems are unhardened. The threat has grown since the early days of the Cold War, when electronics used vacuum tubes that were far more resistant to EMP effects than today’s integrated circuits.

Civil Defense

A good civil defense system (blast shelters underneath municipal buildings, grain stockpiles, urban metro systems, widespread EMP hardening, widespread distribution of Geiger counters & potassium iodide pills, prewar planning, dispersed machine tool stockpiles, air raid / missile strike warning sirens, etc) will vastly improve the survivability of a population and enhance the speed and scope of its postwar recovery. A good example of a prepared society is modern Switzerland, which has a nuclear shelter in almost every building, and to a lesser extent the late Soviet Union.

In conjunction with an advanced ABM and SAM system, a society with a good civil defense system is probably capable of surviving, and fighting, a prolonged nuclear total war.

What will a big nuclear war in the future look like?

Since a (non-accidental) nuclear warfare is very unlikely today, fast forward to 2030-50, a time of incessant resource wars, climatic chaos, and new totalitarian ideologies – a world in which the weak states fail and wither away, while the strong erect barriers round their new empires (the US, China, Russia, France, etc).

In this case, it might be instructive to look at what people though would happen if the Cold War had turned hot, especially if the superpowers introduced the nuclear element.

Had everything managed to remain conventional to this point, it is here we see the point at which the survival of civilization as we know it hangs in the balance. The temptation on the American president would be enormous to start wiping out these gargantuan Soviet armies with the equally vast American nuclear arsenal. Equally, the temptation on the Soviet leadership would be substantial to trade queens with her great adversary, through counterforce first strike on American nuclear forces. Were the US to strike tactically against the Soviet invasion force, escalation to countervalue strikes (against economic and population centers), was Soviet retaliatory doctrine itself, and the entire war would enter a new phase of global mass murder, as the Americans inevitably retaliate when their cities are vaporized by Russian rocketry.

In the post-nuclear novel and movie, this is the point at which World War III ends and we are all reduced to wearing bearskins and roaming around stateless post-technological deserts. But the reality was probably a substantially worse world. If anything, disaster and mass murder tends to increase the authority of the state over populations, not collapse it. Was the power of the Nazi state more or less complete when her cities were smoldering ruins? In such situations people are rendered completely dependent on even a damaged state, when all other sources of power have been disrupted or destroyed…and in our scenario here, these are states which would not be inclined to give up the war having already lost so much. As the pre-war nuclear stockpiles are expended (mostly canceling each other out, rather than falling on cities), much of the population of both the United States and the Soviet Union would survive. Particularly if the build-up was a conventional escalation, allowing for the inevitable panic evacuation of dense urban areas.

Therefore if you want a true retrofuturist nightmare-scape, imagine a nuclear World War III, but one in which after the horrendous nuclear exchange is largely over, you haven’t the saving grace of a desolate but free world and the end of the war. Imagine suffering a nuclear attack and yet the war going on…in a newly mass mobilized and utterly militarized and depopulating society….potentially for years, even decades. That was probably the real nightmare we escaped, now that these maps have thankfully become lost visions in a vanished dream of global war.

In particular, the Soviet Union planned to fight a WMD war, especially using tactical nukes and chemical weapons to achieve a breakout in West Germany – while also developing an extensive biological weapons capability, presumably for strategic use against the farther-off US population.

With its collapse, the specter of Armageddon has receded, but not completely; and as pointed out, it may yet return.

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The Next 100 Years by George Friedman, published in 2010. Rating: 3/5

George Friedman at Stratfor is one of my favorite analysts on world geopolitics. This is because he tries to look at the world as it is, without the pointless moralizing, neoliberal ideologizing and end-of-history triumphalism that clouds too much American geopolitical thinking. Hence whenever I come across new and substantial material from him, although I might not agree with some (or most) of what he says, I nonetheless adjust my beliefs (in a good Bayesian fashion).

And lo and behold!, he comes out with a new book – The Next 100 Years. Funnily enough, it is about the next 100 years, or more specifically, the interplay between technological and demographic trends and geopolitical dynamics that will shape the twenty-first century.

I was originally going to copy out its entire first chapter, Overture (which is available online) and just comment on it. Unfortunately this makes it far too long and I had problems publishing it. So I’ll headline and summarize Friedman’s main points instead and leave my original commentary largely unchanged.

1. The future is unpredictable: “Be practical, expect the impossible”.

Friedman starts off by summarizing the history of the last century in twenty year chunks. Thus we got from the globalized idyll of 1900, through the chaos of 1940, the gathering storm clouds of 1940, the American dominance in 1960, the rising Soviet challenge in 1980 and culminating in the renewed globalized idyll of 2000 – only to be again disrupted by 9/11.

Completely agreed – most commentary is about the short-term, or at best linear extrapolations of short-term things. Good futurists think in terms of differentials, exponents and tipping points.

2. However, some trends are dominant and can be foreseen.

It was possible to forecast European wars on the basis that a newly united and powerful Germany was in an insecure position in between France and Russia; it would have been harder to predict how devastating these wars would have and that they’d have led to the dissolution of the European empires.

Interestingly, one of the best seers in this respect was Friedrich Engels. As early as 1887, he envisaged “a world war of never before seen extension and intensity…eight to ten million soldiers will slaughter each other…the devastations of the Thirty Years War condensed into three or four years and spread all over the continent; famines, epidemics, general barbarization of armies and masses…collapse of the old states and their traditional wisdom in such a way that the crowns roll in the gutter by the dozens and there will be nobody to pick them up…general exhaustion and the creation of circumstances for the final victory of the working class”. He even got the casualties and timeline correct! Other great prophets were the Warsaw banker Ivan Bloch, Moltke the Elder and Colmar von der Goltz.

Friedman sees the United States as the dominant pivot of the twenty-first century due to its unrivaled economic, military and political power. This was due to its overwhelming naval power and strategic position that allow it to control both Atlantic and Pacific trade. Because of its wealth and the vast resources needed to build a comparable blue-water fleet, it’s continued dominance is assured.

Although ostensibly overwhelming, American naval dominance is going to be challenged by new developments in military technology such as supercavitating torpedoes, UAV’s and advanced cruise missiles. As its own war games from 2002 demonstrated, the age of the aircraft carrier battle-group is drawing to an end even against relatively unsophisticated foes.

The inherent power of the United States coupled with its geographic position makes the United States the pivotal actor of the twenty- first century. That certainly doesn’t make it loved. On the contrary, its power makes it feared. The history of the twenty- first century, therefore, particularly the first half, will revolve around two opposing struggles. One will be secondary powers forming coalitions to try to contain and control the United States. The second will be the United States acting preemptively to prevent an effective coalition from forming.

As Friedman points out in the book, “declinism” has been a recurrent feature of American history, mostly recently in the 1970′s and 1980′s when stagflation, oil shocks, the growing power of the Soviet Union, deindustrialization and soaring crime rates and perceived social and moral collapse led to feelings of despair over the future of the American empire.

On the other hand this does not mean that there won’t be potential setbacks. After abating somewhat in the 1990′s, the above trends returned in force during the 2000′s. Meanwhile, the national power of China and Russia have soared and are projected to continue doing so, at least in the medium-term. Nowadays the US can only afford plentiful butter and guns because of the flood of cheap credit it gets from abroad (due to the now disappearing “American alpha” and the status of the $ as the global currency reserve). It’s industry has been hallowed out and now faces the real risk of a debt-and-currency crisis within the next few years. Should that come to pass the strain of maintaining a superlative global military presence will become economically and politically unbearable.

3. The US will do its best to prevent the emergence of a Eurasian hegemon or hostile coalition is spot on.

If we view the beginning of the twenty- first century as the dawn of the American Age (superseding the European Age), we see that it began with a group of Muslims seeking to re- create the Caliphate—the great Islamic empire that once ran from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Inevitably, they had to strike at the United States in an attempt to draw the world’s primary power into war, trying to demonstrate its weakness in order to trigger an Islamic uprising. The United States responded by invading the Islamic world. But its goal wasn’t victory. It wasn’t even clear what victory would mean. Its goal was simply to disrupt the Islamic world and set it against itself, so that an Islamic empire could not emerge.

The United States doesn’t need to win wars. It needs to simply disrupt things so the other side can’t build up sufficient strength to challenge it. On one level, the twenty- first century will see a series of confrontations involving lesser powers trying to build coalitions to control American behavior and the United States’ mounting military operations to disrupt them. The twenty- first century will see even more war than the twentieth century, but the wars will be much less catastrophic, because of both technological changes and the nature of the geopolitical challenge.

True. It has a superb geographical location that is practically invulnerable, economically optimal and is still underpopulated (in comparison with Asia or Europe, though not from an ecological perspective). Therefore it will certainly remain one of the leading Great Powers, unlike Britain during the last century.

4. Russia will reconstruct its empire in the 2010′s, but will collapse irrevocably in the 2020′s.

As we’ve seen, the changes that lead to the next era are always shockingly unexpected, and the first twenty years of this new century will be no exception. The U.S.–Islamist war is already ending and the next conflict is in sight. Russia is re- creating its old sphere of influence, and that sphere of influence will inevitably challenge the United States. The Russians will be moving westward on the great northern European plain. As Russia reconstructs its power, it will encounter the U.S.- dominated NATO in the three Baltic countries—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—as well as in Poland. There will be other points of friction in the early twenty- first century, but this new cold war will supply the flash points after the U.S.–Islamist war dies down.

The Russians can’t avoid trying to reassert power, and the United States can’t avoid trying to resist. But in the end Russia can’t win. Its deep internal problems, massively declining population, and poor infrastructure ultimately make Russia’s long- term survival prospects bleak. And the second cold war, less frightening and much less global than the first, will end as the first did, with the collapse of Russia.

Friedman has a lot of (fairly convincing) theories on how Russia’s geostrategic position influences it to “anchor” its position in Central Asia, the Caucasus and Ukraine, and expand as far west as possible on the North European Plain (see The Geopolitics of Russia: Permanent Struggle). However, this “imperial overstretch” alarms the European and oceanic powers, who interpret these moves as aggressive and threatening to their own national interests. They seek to contain Russia, which must bear occupation costs and devote more resources to maintaining a military balance. Eventually a breaking point is reached and centrifugal forces tear the country apart in periodic “times of troubles”, in which Russia in encircled and preyed upon by predatory Powers.

Viewing things from this perspective, a lot of things start to make sense, from the conflict in Georgia to its distracting the US by complicating its position in the Middle East and Latin America with arms sales, pursing friendly relations with regimes unfriendly to Washington, pushing for the creation of a common Eurasian (read: non American) security space, etc. He terms this the Medvedev Doctrine.

According to Friedman, Russia faces long-term collapse due to “deep internal problems, massively declining population, and poor infrastructure”. I would dispute both the severity and validity of this. “Deep internal problems” is simply too ambiguous. Population decline is unlikely to be massive; at worst, it will fall at a slow pace. As for infrastructure, even the Economist collates projections that Russia will invest heavily in infrastructure, accounting for some 10% of infrastructure spending among emerging markets from 2008 to 2017 (this is especially impressive when considering that unlike other heavyweights like China or India, Russia already has most of the physical infrastructure of a developed economy in place albeit it is dilapidated; and that it is a leader in per capita spending).

But even if demographic and development trends do not work out as I expect above, this would not necessarily lead to its collapse. For that to happen, a whole lot of other things must come into play simultaneously and for a prolonged period – ethnic discontent, violent insurrections, loss of national faith, economic sclerosis, unbearable social and military burdens, collapse in energy prices, etc.

No real trends indicate that this will be the case, however. The reality of peak oil will mean energy superpowers like Russia will be courted by all major industrial powers, at least until (and if) they wean themselves off it – the plausibility of which I very much doubt given the fluidity and “net energy” of oil and gas. It also has strong positions in nuclear technology and space technologies, and is devoting huge resources and effort into developing hi-tech clusters in areas like nanotechnology and microelectronics. What I expect to see is countries like China and Germany getting guaranteed energy supplies in return for transfers of machinery and know-how, which will lead to Russia’s rapid convergence to developed country income levels around about 2020. Meanwhile, global warming will be opening up new hydrocarbons deposits, shipping routes and fertile land in Siberia and the Arctic. I’ve been writing about this since quite a while back.

Re-ethnic discontent, firstly, it is unlikely, though not impossible, that the resurrected Russian empire will be of the old school variety (i.e. completely integrated politically). What both Friedman and I think more likely is that institutional ties like Eurasec (economic) and the CSTO (military) will become much more visible and all-encompassing, perhaps culminating in some kind of structure, let’s call it the Eurasian Union, that will lie somewhere in between the EU and the US in political integration. The member states will have a great deal of latitude in dealing with domestic issues, but their military-industrial, defense and foreign policy will be tightly linked and co-ordinated.

Secondly, even as Russia’s softer neo-imperial intentions become clearer this does not seem to have any effects on the popularity of its leaders in the countries that matter (i.e. the Near Abroad). Far more Ukrainians approve of Putin than of their own President (who languishes in the single digits) or any other Ukrainian leader. Same goes for Belarus, and the Central Asians too.

Some kind of confederation between Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine enjoys the support of silent majorities in all four countries. If that were to happen, the population of the dominant Eurasian power will increase from 142mn to about 215mn and the combined industrial product will increase by at least 50%, due to both greater quantity, greater economies of scale and the restoration of severed supply chains from the Soviet era. The military-industrial complex will especially benefit.

Central Asia is an important geostrategic focus (part of the Heartland, in Mackinder’s geopolitics), a promising energy source and demographic reservoir. Although their immigration north and west will exacerbate tensions with Slavic peoples, this should not be critical since they are generally appreciative of Russian culture and are not prone to the radical Islamism prevalent further south or even in Caucasian Russian republics like Chechnya. Their inclusion would complete the basis for a superpower.

The major obstacle would be the Balts, Georgians and Poles. Extending the Russian empire to them would be costly, unproductive and undemocratic (since unlike the central Asians and Orthodox Slavic states, they do not want to partake of this enterprise). Thus the appropriate policy regarding them would be to insist on mutual cooperation and neutrality. Russia has levers against them – ethnic Russians in the Baltics, the pragmatism of ordinary Georgians towards Russia and gas and oil supplies to Poland. They are all of ultimately marginal economic significance, and are acceptable as neutral buffers against Western encroachment.

Thirdly, violent revolt is also becoming ever more unlikely. The economy will probably be expanding rapidly and populations throughout this empire will certainly be aging – hardly recipes for bloody wars of national independence. In the cases of the Slavic states or even Central Asia, it is next to inconceivable. Even the Caucasus will quieten down. One of the unremarked things about the 1990′s and the 2000′s is the region’s demographic transition to sub-replacement fertility levels (2.1 children per woman), including by this time even such places like Ingushetia and Daghestan. The only major exception is Chechnya, which today has a fertility rate of 3.1 children per woman. I think the fact that it was also the only region to flare up into open revolt was not coincidental. As the eXile‘s War Nerd points out, the only countries willing to fight bloody guerilla battles today are poor and have lots of children.

I could go on and on, but in summary I think Friedman’s vision of a new Russian empire is grounded in reality – he predicts that Russia will regain most of its old Soviet frontiers within the next decade, and will by the mid-2010′s be extending its influence back into the Baltics, the Balkans and Visegrad. However, I’m not so certain of his prognostications of its end – which is based on far less evidence.

Which is not to say its not going to happen. One possible scenario: growth of internal corruption and institutional dysfunction; slowdown or cessation of growth due to economic convergence being achieved, and an eruption of spillovers from bad loans as happened in Japan in the 1990′s which paralyze the economy; unchecked growth in entitlements; social and political strains; reduced European reliance on Russian natural gas due to new supplies from North Africa and the Middle East and effective energy conservation; and renewed pursuit of Prometheism on the part of the US, Polish proxies and perhaps some West European allies; and perhaps a temporary commodity crash.

Friedman predicts in his book that Russia and the US will be in a full-fledged New Cold War by the mid-2010′s; perhaps the onset of so many difficulties, simultaneously, will open up a “window of opportunity” for the US to break up the Russian empire to eliminate a strategic competitor and open up access to its natural resources. Far-fetched? Yes. But possible. After all, every great Atlantic / sea power tries to form alliances and undermine powerful Eurasian / land empires. Possible, because history hasn’t ended and won’t end for a long time if ever.

5. China will fragment in the 2010′s due to internal pressures and foreigners will recreate spheres of influence in it.

There are many who predict that China is the next challenger to the United States, not Russia. I don’t agree with that view for three reasons. First, when you look at a map of China closely, you see that it is really a very isolated country physically. With Siberia in the north, the Himalayas and jungles to the south, and most of China’s population in the eastern part of the country, the Chinese aren’t going to easily expand. Second, China has not been a major naval power for centuries, and building a navy requires a long time not only to build ships but to create well-trained and experienced sailors.

I find the emphasis on physical land barriers to be quaint in an era of railways, air transport and massive merchant marines. China already has the industrial capacity and (through economic acquisitions and espionage) the technological capability to rapidly create a powerful blue-water fleet. Although the German Empire had no naval tradition to speak of, the Kaiserliche Marine went from being a small coastal defense to the world’s second largest fleet with better ships and better training than the Royal Navy, all just in the twenty years prior to the First World War.

Third, there is a deeper reason for not worrying about China. China is inherently unstable. Whenever it opens its borders to the outside world, the coastal region becomes prosperous, but the vast majority of Chinese in the interior remain impoverished. This leads to tension, conflict, and instability. It also leads to economic decisions made for political reasons, resulting in inefficiency and corruption. This is not the first time that China has opened itself to foreign trade, and it will not be the last time that it becomes unstable as a result. Nor will it be the last time that a figure like Mao emerges to close the country off from the outside, equalize the wealth—or poverty— and begin the cycle anew. There are some who believe that the trends of the last thirty years will continue indefinitely. I believe the Chinese cycle will move to its next and inevitable phase in the coming decade. Far from being a challenger, China is a country the United States will be trying to bolster and hold together as a counterweight to the Russians. Current Chinese economic dynamism does not translate into long- term success.

He expands on this in the book. Still, I disagree. China’s industrial production is real enough and it is moving rapidly up the technology ladder (its export basket is far more advanced than its still low per capita income would normally indicate). China is now going to focus on creating its “harmonious society”, improving social services in rural areas and expanding domestic consumption. The period of maximum danger has already passed. What happened in the psychologically demoralized and mentally backward China of the nineteenth century is not really relevant to what will happen to it in the twenty-first.

That said, China does face some very real challenges – above all, resource depletion, environmental destruction and climate change. It has the resources to lock in energy supplies from abroad and has plentiful (but dirty) coal reserves. There’s also plenty of “coal gas”, an unfairly neglected but I suspect soon to become very important energy source (“There are also reports of Asian reserves of around 2,100 tcf – including 1,000 tcf in China, where the government is looking to rapidly increase production.” – Oil Drum). However, it faces severe environmental pressure as desertification and urbanization eat up agricultural land and water tables fall precipitously. Chinese grain production peaked in the mid-1990′s and has slowly fallen since. It possesses a fifth of the world’s population with just 7% of its arable land. Agricultural production is going to decline in traditional exporting breadbaskets like the US, Australia and Latin America with global warming, and competition for food will increase. Rising seas will threaten to inundate superdense settlements on its south-eastern seaboard and deserts will encroach from the northwest. This is going to be the crux of China’s challenge this century.

6. After 2030, three Great Powers will emerge to challenge the US: Japan, Turkey and Poland.

In the middle of the century, other powers will emerge, countries that aren’t thought of as great powers today, but that I expect will become more powerful and assertive over the next few decades. Three stand out in particular. The first is Japan. It’s the second- largest economy in the world and the most vulnerable, being highly dependent on the importation of raw materials, since it has almost none of its own. With a history of militarism, Japan will not remain the marginal pacifistic power it has been. It cannot. Its own deep population problems and abhorrence of large- scale immigration will force it to look for new workers in other countries. Japan’s vulnerabilities, which I’ve written about in the past and which the Japanese have managed better than I’ve expected up until this point, in the end will force a shift in policy.

I agree it will become more militarized and I suspect it will tackle its population troubles with increasing robotization. However it cannot match the military power of true superpowers like the US, China or a new Russian empire, largely for the reasons Friedman himself cited, and I believe it will bandwagon with the dominant Power in the region, China.

Then there is Turkey, currently the seventeenth-largest economy in the world. Historically, when a major Islamic empire has emerged, it has been dominated by the Turks. The Ottomans collapsed at the end of World War I, leaving modern Turkey in its wake. But Turkey is a stable platform in the midst of chaos. The Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Arab world to the south are all unstable. As Turkey’s power grows—and its economy and military are already the most powerful in the region—so will Turkish influence.

Considering that education is the elixir of growth, and that Turks (unlike Europeans, Americans and East Asians) aren’t the sharpest tools in the box according to international standardized tests of math / science literacy, I do not see them as a true Great Power any time soon. On the other hand I grant that Friedman’s scenario in the book in which Turkey melds the Arab nations into a new Caliphate and expands north into the Caucasus and the Balkans (the vacuum left over by the collapse of the Russian empire) is a distant possibility.

Finally there is Poland. Poland hasn’t been a great power since the sixteenth century. But it once was—and, I think, will be again. Two factors make this possible. First will be the decline of Germany. Its economy is large and still growing, but it has lost the dynamism it has had for two centuries. In addition, its population is going to fall dramatically in the next fifty years, further undermining its economic power. Second, as the Russians press on the Poles from the east, the Germans won’t have an appetite for a third war with Russia. The United States, however, will back Poland, providing it with massive economic and technical support. Wars—when your country isn’t destroyed—stimulate economic growth, and Poland will become the leading power in a coalition of states facing the Russians. Japan, Turkey, and Poland will each be facing a United States even more confident than it was after the second fall of the Soviet Union. That will be an explosive situation. As we will see during the course of this book, the relationships among these four countries will greatly affect the twenty- first century, leading, ultimately, to the next global war. This war will be fought differently from any in history—with weapons that are today in the realm of science fiction. But as I will try to outline, this mid-twenty-first century conflict will grow out of the dynamic forces born in the early part of the new century.

This is the “Promethean” scenario, in which the US helps in the collapse of the Russian empire using Polish proxies. Given his demographic emphasis, however, this is extremely unlikely since Polish demography is little better than German and worse than Russian (if measuring by total fertility rates); at just 40mn people, its population is simply too small to support a big arms burden and this will be true even if it were to recreate the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth by incorporating Western Ukraine (20mn), Belarus (10mn) and Lithuania (5mn) to make a total of 75mn – less than Germany, lots of old people, and poorer.

Frankly, the idea of Japan, Turkey and Poland challenging the US for global primacy around 2050 is ridiculous – even if we follow Friedman’s advice to “expect the impossible”.

7. Space-based solar technologies will substitute for hydrocarbons.

After a damaging, hi-tech but very low casualty war between the US and the above Powers, the “concepts developed prior to the war for space-based electrical generation, beamed to earth in the form of microwave radiation, will be rapidly translated from prototype to reality” and the world’s energy will start coming from space-based solar installations, kicking off a massive economic boom.

The trend towards ever fewer casualties in the last century was not because of any moral or technological reasons, but because there were simply no wars between Great Powers – a nuclear conflict between the US and the USSR would have killed far more people than World War Two. I think future Great Power wars will be very bloody and intense as soon as mobilization for total wars occurs, and will be quickly return to megadeath levels if some of the combatants are all out virulent totalitarianisms. Such a possibility should not be excluded.

I find Friedman’s focus on space-based solar technologies narrow (there are many other emerging technologies) and believe that the most transformatory changes will come from the GNR Revolution (genetics 2010-2030, nano 2020-2050 and robotics, including superintelligent AI by 2030-2050.

8. End of the population explosion and competition for immigrants.

After two centuries of rapid growth, the world population will level off by 2050 and advanced industrial nations will have rapidly falling populations. There will be incentives for immigrants to come and there’ll be more research into genetics and robotics so as to prolong productive lifespans and automate simpler tasks.

Agreed on the key role of robotics and genetics, though it would be nice if Friedman covered them in more detail. I also believe that due to the effects of global warming and resource depletion, which Friedman totally dismisses, it is more likely that rich northern countries will intensify attempts to keep immigrants out instead.

9. Mexico will emerge as a competitor to the US in North America by 2080.

Mexico will become economically developed and much of the US South-West will become de facto Mexican-ruled, thus threatening the territorial integrity of the US.

Disagree. Mexico will sooner become a failed state because of global warming, plummeting oil production and lack of advanced technologies and human capital. The prospect of tensions and unrest between Mexicans and Americans in the South-West are real, but will not pose a threat to US sovereignty because of Mexican weakness.

10. Philosophical ruminations on geopolitics – although details are hard to predict, the overall picture can be discerned based on history and current trends.

…Geopolitics applies the concept of the invisible hand to the behavior of nations and other international actors. The pursuit of short- term self- interest by nations and by their leaders leads, if not to the wealth of nations, then at least to predictable behavior and, therefore, the ability to forecast the shape of the future international system. Geopolitics and economics both assume that the players are rational, at least in the sense of knowing their own short- term self- interest. As rational actors, reality provides them with limited choices. It is assumed that, on the whole, people and nations will pursue their self- interest, if not flawlessly, then at least not randomly. Think of a chess game. On the surface, it appears that each player has twenty potential opening moves. In fact, there are many fewer because most of these moves are so bad that they quickly lead to defeat. The better you are at chess, the more clearly you see your options, and the fewer moves there actually are available. The better the player, the more predictable the moves. The grandmaster plays with absolute predictable precision—until that one brilliant, unexpected stroke.

Nations behave the same way. The millions or hundreds of millions of people who make up a nation are constrained by reality. They generate leaders who would not become leaders if they were irrational. Climbing to the top of millions of people is not something fools often do. Leaders understand their menu of next moves and execute them, if not flawlessly, then at least pretty well. An occasional master will come along with a stunningly unexpected and successful move, but for the most part, the act of governance is simply executing the necessary and logical next step. When politicians run a country’s foreign policy, they operate the same way. If a leader dies and is replaced, another emerges and more likely than not continues what the first one was doing.

…Geopolitical forecasting, therefore, doesn’t assume that everything is predetermined. It does mean that what people think they are doing, what they hope to achieve, and what the final outcome is are not the same things. Nations and politicians pursue their immediate ends, as constrained by reality as a grandmaster is constrained by the chessboard, the pieces, and the rules. Sometimes they increase the power of the nation. Sometimes they lead the nation to catastrophe. It is rare that the final outcome will be what they initially intended to achieve.

Geopolitics assumes two things. First, it assumes that humans organize themselves into units larger than families, and that by doing this, they must engage in politics. It also assumes that humans have a natural loyalty to the things they were born into, the people and the places. Loyalty to a tribe, a city, or a nation is natural to people. In our time, national identity matters a great deal. Geopolitics teaches that the relationship between these nations is a vital dimension of human life, and that means that war is ubiquitous. Second, geopolitics assumes that the character of a nation is determined to a great extent by geography, as is the relationship between nations. We use the term geography broadly. It includes the physical characteristics of a location, but it goes beyond that to look at the effects of a place on individuals and communities. In antiquity, the difference between Sparta and Athens was the difference between a landlocked city and a maritime empire. Athens was wealthy and cosmopolitan, while Sparta was poor, provincial, and very tough. A Spartan was very different from an Athenian in both culture and politics.

…The twenty- first century will be like all other centuries. There will be wars, there will be poverty, there will be triumphs and defeats. There will be tragedy and good luck. People will go to work, make money, have children, fall in love, and come to hate. That is the one thing that is not cyclical. It is the permanent human condition. But the twenty- first century will be extraordinary in two senses: it will be the beginning of a new age, and it will see a new global power astride the world. That doesn’t happen very often. We are now in an America- centric age. To understand this age, we must understand the United States, not only because it is so powerful but because its culture will permeate the world and define it. Just as French culture and British culture were definitive during their times of power, so American culture, as young and barbaric as it is, will define the way the world thinks and lives. So studying the twenty- first century means studying the United States.

This is perhaps the biggest point of disagreement. The twenty-first century will be unlike all previous centuries. As I’ve argued here, it’s a make or break century. Either we overcome limits to growth and survive long enough to usher in a technological singularity / Green Communism, or our industrial civilization tumbles into the dark depths of the Olduvai Gorge. The outcome will depend on three things – resource depletion and environmental degradation; technological development; and perhaps most importantly, our politics and values.

If there were only one argument I could make about the twenty-first century, it would be that the European Age has ended and that the North American Age has begun, and that North America will be dominated by the United States for the next hundred years. The events of the twenty-first century will pivot around the United States. That doesn’t guarantee that the United States is necessarily a just or moral regime. It certainly does not mean that America has yet developed a mature civilization. It does mean that in many ways the history of the United States will be the history of the twenty- first century.

The US will certainly dominate North America – its neighbors are geopolitical basketcases and even if catastrophic global warming occurs, it will conquer Canada and tranfer its population north. However, the pivot of the twenty-first century is as always before going to be on the Eurasian landmass, which has 70% of the world’s population and is the focal point of almost all new social ideas, wars and revolutions.

You might have gotten the impression that I criticize Friedman so much that my praise for him at the beginning was not genuine. That’s wrong. His short-term geopolitical analysis is superb. It is also a lot more nuanced when he gets more space to write down his views. I find the writings on Russian geopolitics, as well as things like his series of monographs on the geopolitics of Israel, Iran and China, to be of the highest caliber and essential for understanding geopolitical dynamics in Eurasia.

Nonetheless, he has four critical failings as a serious futurist. Firstly, he discounts the role of non-geopolitical factors (economics, ideologies, culture and religion, etc) in driving history – as such, just like the realist, clash of civilizations, or idealist / end of history theses in international relations, the analysis is revealed as one-dimensional when stretched far enough into the future. Secondly, there is a near total lack of attention to ecological issues, as well as unrealistic projections of energy usage and technological development. Thirdly, far too much stock is put into semi-mystical “cycles” of history for particular countries, such as America’s 50-year cycles of transformation and China’s cycles of expansion, isolation and collapse. Never precise to scientific to begin with, they are ever more irrelevant in the accelerating world of today. Fourthly, there is too much emphasis on territorial and geographical features from a conventional military perspective, especially in the case of nuclear armed Powers – with next to nothing on the potential use of WMD’s, be it by nation states or terrorists and malcontents. As such, I would treat his long term prognoses in The Next 100 Years with a pinch of salt.

Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.