The future of global conflict: A synthesis of contextual and technological perspectives

October 2, 2023

Carlos Cantafio Apitz and Branka Marijan
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How will technological changes affect global security in the next 20 years? In what ways? Which developments and innovations are most likely to significantly impact how states approach conflict? The rapid technological advancements occurring today, across multiple fields, have the potential to transform global security dynamics.

State actors are already finding it challenging to align policy with the current pace of technological innovation. More and more, the dual-use nature of many of these technologies and their vulnerability to exploitation produce effects that are not limited to one state and can only be controlled through multilateral global efforts.

This brief aims to review perspectives from such organizations as governments, think tanks, and businesses on the technological readiness of emerging technologies and how they could change the future of battlespaces. It first highlights relevant economic, environmental, political, social/demographic, and technological trends and factors. Then, it introduces six emerging technology clusters that came out of a categorization exercise that mapped specific technologies identified in the literature review. Finally, their current state of technological readiness and the expected maturity of select military applications are explored.

This brief identifies and synthesizes three distinct insights from the literature:

Known military applications of artificial intelligence (AI) and big data analytics, as well as novel delivery technologies, are likely to be mature and leveraged within the battlespace by 2030, as government and commercial actors have years of continuous investment in their development.  

A combination of current state regulatory constraints, global normative ethical considerations, and technological constraints, including restrictions on accessing material and technologies, is likely to impact the launch of military applications of advanced materials and manufacturing, autonomy and robotics, biomedical sciences and human augmentation, and quantum technologies until 2035-2040 or later.

Transformative and disruptive effects are most likely to occur when militaries combine or interconnect two or more of these emerging technologies. Therefore, state and nonstate actors across the decision-making spectrum should not focus on siloed technologies.

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