Special Report

Get Ready for the Democratization of Destruction

The way the world's militaries wage war is going to change -- drastically.

As Niels Bohr famously observed, "Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future." But we need not be caught entirely unaware by future events. The rapid pace of technological progression, as well as its ongoing diffusion, offer clues as to some of the likely next big things in warfare. Indeed, important military shifts have already been set in motion that will be difficult if not impossible to reverse. Sadly, these developments, combined with others in the economic, geopolitical, and demographic realms, seem likely to make the world a less stable and more dangerous place.

Consider, to start, the U.S. military's loss of its near monopoly in precision-guided munitions warfare, which it has enjoyed since the Gulf War two decades ago. Today China is fielding precision-guided ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as other "smart" munitions, in ever greater numbers. They can be used to threaten the few major U.S. bases remaining in the Western Pacific and, increasingly, to target American warships. Like Beijing, Iran is buying into the precision-guided weapons revolution, but at the low end, producing a poor man's version of China's capabilities, to include anti-ship cruise missiles and smart anti-ship mines. As these trends play out we could find that by the beginning of the next decade, major parts of the Western Pacific, as well as the Persian Gulf, become no-go zones for the U.S. military: areas where the risks of operating are prohibitively high.

Even nonstate groups are getting into the game. During its war with Israel in 2006, Hezbollah fired more than 4,000 relatively inaccurate RAMM projectiles -- rockets, artillery, mortars, and missiles -- into Israel, leading to the evacuation of at least 300,000 Israelis from their homes and causing significant disruption to that country's economy. Out of these thousands of munitions, only a few drones and anti-ship cruise missiles were guided. But as the proliferation of guided munitions -- G-RAMM weapons -- continues, irregular warfare will be transformed to the point that the roadside bomb threats that the United States has spent tens of billions of dollars defending against in Iraq and Afghanistan may seem trivial by comparison.

The spread of nuclear weapons to the developing world is equally alarming. If Iran becomes a nuclear power, the pressure on the leading Arab states as well as Turkey to follow suit is likely to prove irresistible. With ballistic-missile flight times between states in the region measured in single-digit minutes, the stability of the global economy's energy core would be exceedingly fragile.

But the greatest danger of a catastrophic attack on the U.S. homeland will likely come not from nuclear-armed missiles, but from cyberattacks conducted at the speed of light. The United States, which has an advanced civilian cyberinfrastructure but prohibits its military from defending it, will prove a highly attractive target, particularly given that the processes for attributing attacks to their perpetrators are neither swift nor foolproof. Foreign powers may already have prepositioned "logic bombs" -- computer code inserted surreptitiously to trigger a future malicious effect -- in the U.S. power grid, potentially enabling them to trigger a prolonged and massive future blackout.

As in the cyber realm, the very advances in biotechnology that appear to offer such promise for improving the human condition have the potential to inflict incalculable suffering. For example, "designer" pathogens targeting specific human subgroups or designed to overcome conventional antibiotics and antiviral countermeasures now appear increasingly plausible, giving scientists a power once thought to be the province of science fiction. As in the cyber realm, such advances will rapidly increase the potential destructive power of small groups, a phenomenon that might be characterized as the "democratization of destruction."

International stability is also increasingly at risk owing to structural weaknesses in the global economic system. Commercial man-made satellites, for instance, offer little, if any, protection against the growing threat of anti-satellite systems, whether ground-based lasers or direct-ascent kinetic-kill vehicles. The Internet was similarly constructed with a benign environment in mind, and the progression toward potential sources of single-point system failure, in the forms of both common software and data repositories like the "cloud," cannot be discounted.

Then there is the undersea economic infrastructure, primarily located on the world's continental shelves. It provides a substantial portion of the world's oil and natural gas, while also hosting a web of cables connecting the global fiber-optic grid. The value of the capital assets on the U.S. continental shelves alone runs into the trillions of dollars. These assets -- wellheads, pumping stations, cables, floating platforms -- are effectively undefended.

As challenges to the global order increase in scale and shift in form, the means for addressing them are actually declining. The age of austerity is upon us, and it seems likely if not certain that the U.S. military will confront these growing challenges with relatively diminished resources. The Pentagon's budget is scheduled for $400 billion or more in cuts over the next decade. Europe certainly cannot be counted on to pick up the slack. Nor is it clear whether rising great powers such as Brazil and India will try to fill the void.

With technology advancing so rapidly, might the United States attempt to preserve its military dominance, and international stability, by developing new sources of military advantage? Recently, there have been dramatic innovations in directed energy -- lasers and particle beams -- that could enable major advances in key mission areas. But there are indications that competitors, China in particular, are keeping pace and may even enjoy an advantage.

The United States has the lead in robotics -- for now. While many are aware of the Predator drones used in the war against radical Islamist groups, robots are also appearing in the form of undersea craft and terrestrial mechanical "mules" used to move equipment. But the Pentagon will need to prove better than its rivals at exploiting advances in artificial intelligence to enhance the performance of its unmanned systems. The U.S. military will also need to make its robot crafts stealthier, reduce their vulnerability to more sophisticated rivals than the Taliban, and make their data links more robust in order to fend off efforts to disable them.

The bottom line is that the United States and its allies risk losing their military edge, and new threats to global security are arising faster than they can counter them. Think the current world order is fragile? In the words of the great Al Jolson, "You ain't seen nothin' yet."

Illustration by Oliver Munday for FP

Special Report

The Shape of the Global Economy Will Fundamentally Change

It's not a crash, it's the new normal.

Who would have thought just 18 months ago that a member of the eurozone, the most elite club of economies in Europe, could have a worse credit rating than Pakistan? And yet this is the case for Greece today, perched on the verge of a debt restructuring; two other eurozone countries (Ireland and Portugal), meanwhile, are already in Europe's intensive care unit, receiving large bailouts.

And who would have thought that a rating agency would dare question the sacred AAA credit rating of the United States, the sole supplier of global public goods such as the international reserve currency (the dollar) and a financial system that serves as the nexus of international capital flow? Still, that's exactly what Standard & Poor's has done: In August the agency downgraded the United States’ AAA status to AA+, citing policymaking uncertainty in Washington and the country’s lack of a long-term plan to deal with its fiscal problems.

And who would have thought that the same country, which is renowned for its flexible labor markets and dynamic entrepreneurship, would experience a persistently high unemployment rate? Well, this is the case for the United States, where unemployment is stuck at around 9 percent, unemployment among 20-to-24-year-olds is a staggering 14.5 percent, and the related joblessness problems are becoming increasingly structural in nature.

There are, of course, several bespoke reasons for these developments. But together, they speak to major realignments that are fundamentally changing the character of the global economy and how it functions. Three things in particular have had a significant influence, and they will continue to shape the world we live in for years to come.

First, too many advanced economies face problems rooted far below the surface, in their balance sheets and in the structure of their economies. This is not just about the unemployment crisis and the rapidly deteriorating public finances that, in cases such as Greece's, have reached alarming levels. It is also about malfunctioning housing markets, a continued breakdown in bank credit intermediation, and weak political leadership in the midst of messy party politics.

Second, rather than deal with these structural problems, policymakers have preferred to kick the can down the road. As a result, the problems have festered and become more entrenched, and the risk of adverse contagion has risen.

This is most obvious in Europe, where a liquidity approach -- involving piling new debt on top of already crushing obligations -- has repeatedly been applied to Greece's debt solvency crisis. This has also transferred massive liabilities from the private sector to Greek and European taxpayers and contaminated previously healthy institutions such as the European Central Bank. It is also the case in the United States, where unprecedented stimulus spending has failed to sufficiently reignite growth and job creation.

Third, several emerging economies have hit their developmental breakout phase, largely undeterred until now by the misfortunes of the developed world. You see this in Brazil, China, Indonesia, and several other countries. In the process, they have gone from strength to strength, so much so that their economies have started overheating at a time when more established countries are languishing. This is new territory for the global marketplace, one in which the less mature countries are more robust and resilient than their advanced peers and are able to grow sustainably at high levels while also strengthening their balance sheets.

Absent a major policy mistake -- a lurch toward protectionism, disorderly defaults, or disruptions to the international payment and settlement system, for instance -- we should expect these global realignments to continue.

It will take several years for the advanced economies to fully rehabilitate their balance sheets and restore the conditions for high growth and employment creation. In the meantime, income and wealth distribution will become even more skewed, morphing from an economic issue into a sociopolitical one.

The combination of stretched balance sheets and disappointingly slow growth also means that the advanced countries will opt for a mix of approaches to deal with recurrent debt concerns as they continue to de-lever from the age of credit and debt-entitlement. Some, such as Britain, will rely primarily on years of budgetary austerity. Others, like Greece, will succumb to debt restructuring.

Then there is the United States, the economy that anchors the core of the global economic and financial systems. It will initially opt for financial repression -- essentially a hidden taxation of creditors and depositors -- and attempt higher inflation to address its balance sheet issues. With time, however, it will likely be forced into greater austerity amid noisy political posturing and bickering.

The messier this transition, the greater the risk of undermining the international standing of America's global public goods. This in turn will challenge a global monetary system built on the assumption that its core -- the United States -- remains economically strong.

This is an important qualifier for what otherwise would be a far more encouraging outlook for much, though not all, of the emerging world. Look for these countries to continue to close the income and wealth gaps vis-à-vis the advanced countries. In the process, they will pull millions more out of poverty, providing them with greater economic opportunities and better access to education, health care, and nutrition.

As they continue to grow, emerging countries will push for greater accommodation on the part of a global economy that is still overdominated by the advanced economies. Global governance issues will come to the fore. International institutions will be pressured to reform more seriously. And multilateral negotiations will need to be more respectful of the growing strength of the emerging countries.

All this translates into an unusually fluid global economy -- and a world in which many established parameters will instead become variables. The sooner we prepare for it, the greater the chance that we are beneficiaries of the transformations taking place, not their victims. 

Biddiboo/Getty Images