How the US military uses sci-fi to imagine the future of war

How the military is growing a cottage industry of sci-fi writer consultants to help it predict the nature of tomorrow’s conflicts

How the US military uses sci-fi to imagine the future of war
Photo: U.S. Army / Andrew Liptak

In 2030, a severe drought triggers a refugee crisis, which in turn sparks a war between two African nations. The UN steps in, deploying U.S. and French soldiers to keep the borders secure. An information warfare specialist is sent in when a disinformation campaign depicts U.S. forces destroying religious sites and infecting refugees with tainted vaccines and moves to help mitigate attacks from state actors looking to destabilize the region. Just as support for intervention in the conflict erodes in the United States, violence begins to rise, and the team is forced to work quickly to prevent the crisis from growing into a larger conflict.

It may sound like it could be the plot of a new Netflix series, but it’s actually one of the U.S. Army’s “science fiction prototypes,” a teaching tool designed to imagine what the near future of warfare might look like and to prompt military personnel to think creatively about conflicts they might end up fighting. This one takes the form of a 71-page graphic novel called Invisible Force: Information Warfare and the Future of Conflict, produced by the Army Cyber Institute at West Point and Arizona State University’s Threatcasting Lab.

As digital technologies and robotics have opened up the kinds of futures once imagined by pulp science fiction writers, a loose network of national security professionals, military officers, and training organizations are working to try to predict the future of war — by generating science fiction stories of their own.

These stories aim to address some of the biggest questions about the fast-changing nature of modern warfare: How will artificial intelligence change how decisions are made on the battlefield? What does the introduction of UAVs and autonomous robotic systems mean for the rules of engagement? These problems are difficult to test in the real world. So, in the past decade, various groups within or adjacent to the military have increasingly turned to science fiction, using anthologies, graphic novels, and books to visualize the battlefields we might someday find ourselves fighting in.

Science fiction has leaned into the future of warfare throughout its history, frequently depicting futuristic soldiers and the weapons they wield — and the conditions that beget conflict. Classics like H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds envision alien invaders attacking civilians with advanced ray guns and poison gas canisters. And the prospect of nuclear war in the 1950s prompted Robert Heinlein to write Starship Troopers, a novel that featured soldiers in power armor killing alien “bugs” for a militaristic regime that looks a lot like future fascism.

In turn, the military too has used science fiction off and on for more than 100 years. One very early example dates back to 1871, when British Army Colonel Sir George Tomkyns Chesney published a novella called The Battle of Dorking in Blackwood’s Magazine. Chesney was alarmed at Germany’s aptitude for mechanization and movement on the battlefield during the Franco-Prussian War and wrote his story as a warning against complacency. Others followed: Ernest Dunlop Swinton’s 1904 book, The Defence of Duffer’s Drift, is about a soldier named Lieutenant Backsight Forethought, who is ordered to defend a river crossing during the Boer War. He has a series of six dreams in which he fails in different ways but learns from his mistakes each time. Designed as an instructive read for junior officers learning about small-unit tactics, the story was originally published in the British United Service Magazine, and later in the Journal of the United States Infantry Association.

The Cold War proved to be fertile ground for strategists looking to write about the future of warfare. British General Sir John Hackett imagined how a Soviet invasion of West Germany might snowball into a global conflict in his 1979 novel, The Third World War: August 1985, while an insurance agent named Tom Clancy published his obsessively detailed and technically oriented novel about a rogue Soviet submarine, The Hunt for Red October, with the Naval Institute Press in 1984. Hawkish mainstream science fiction authors also contributed, setting up an institute called SIGMA — the self-described “science fiction think tank” — which has aimed to provide insights and technical expertise for the U.S. government since 1992.

The nature of the defense industry around the world is complicated: It can take years or decades to conceive of, develop, manufacture, and train personnel on a new system. If you’re going to commission a new aircraft carrier, you want to ensure that it’s not already obsolete when it sails out of port. Faced with this complexity, strategists have begun trying to anticipate some of the bigger changes coming down the pipeline and minimize uncertainties.

Science fiction is an ideal framing device for military strategists — not only as a way to envision potential futures, but also as a method of information delivery. In the late 1990s, the Canadian Defense Force (CDF) launched a foresight project called Future Force, designed to help leadership of the country’s army envision what the security environment in the year 2025 might look like. To accompany the report, which was published in 2005, the CDF tried something new — it commissioned science fiction author Karl Schroeder to write up a fictional take on its findings in the form of a short novella, Crisis in Zefra, which would distill the report’s findings into something that people might actually read. “The problem was that these scenarios existed in the form of massive, complex reports, and they weren’t very useful in that form,” Schroeder says. “So the task that they set themselves was to find a way to make it easily digestible for the rank and file and also for people who might become the officers of tomorrow.”

In Crisis in Zefra, a squad of Canadian peacekeepers gets caught in a violent street battle and utilizes swarms of drones, next-generation body armor, threat detection systems, and advanced weapons. Schroeder’s story anticipated some of the problems that things like cellphones pose on a battlefield, years before they entered widespread use. Since Schroeder wrote Zefra, numerous other organizations have also begun to tap into science fiction.

In 2013, Atlantic Council fellow Steven Grundman helped start the Art of Future Warfare project after he watched his son playing Call of Duty: Black Ops II. (Fun side note: Wired for War / Ghost Fleet author Peter W. Singer was a consultant on the game.) He convened a panel about how art could impact the larger defense industry, featuring fellow Atlantic Council resident August Cole, science fiction author David Brin, and Call of Duty: Black Ops II writer and director Dave Anthony. The project, spearheaded by Cole, would go on to commission a number of short stories for a stand-alone military science fiction anthology called War Stories From the Future, reprinted a handful that had been published elsewhere (mine was one of them — a pro bono reprint), original artwork, and commentary.

The Art of Future Warfare project dovetailed with another that Cole was involved with. In 2015, he and then-Brookings Institute fellow Peter W. Singer released their debut novel, Ghost Fleet, which extrapolated the future of hardware, technology, and geopolitics and what that might look like during a new world war. In particular, a conflict waged by the United States, China, and Russia, which sees autonomous drones and warships engaged in the Pacific Ocean all the way up into low earth orbit with the help of private space firms.

Singer explained that the two began writing the book because of what they were observing in their roles at think tanks and because they wanted to raise these issues within defense circles. While many in the military were focused on the conflicts in the Middle East, they were seeing signs of conflict between China, Russia, and the United States.

Combining both the geopolitical topics and the use of emerging technologies in a story allowed them to convey that information in an effective way.

“Fiction is accessible in ways that nonfiction is not,” Cole says. “The desire to finish a novel is strong the deeper you get into it, and that’s not always true with a white paper.” Furthermore, “fiction is exceptional at allowing people to understand complicated issues from a character-driven point of view that informs the kinds of insights that you need when you’re considering a question of conflict.” Earlier this year, Cole and Singer released a second novel using the same approach, Burn-In, about the very near future of robotics and national security.

Other similar projects would soon follow. NATO’s Allied Command Transformation (ACT) set up its own short fiction anthology in 2016, Visions of Warfare 2036, which featured stories that included hijacked satellites, cyberattacks, drone strikes, robots, and more. In February 2016, the U.S. Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory held the Science Fiction Futures Workshop, a one-day, in-person event that generated its own anthology of future scenarios, Marine Corps Security Environment Forecast Futures: 2030–2045. The Center for International Maritime Security partnered with the Atlantic Council for a short fiction contest later that year, soliciting stories that “explore the nuances of unmanned naval systems employed in combat or crisis.”

This type of fiction has branched out of military circles and into the broader reading public as well. In 2017, science fiction author Linda Nagata — who has worked with the military and the Atlantic Council over the years — published a near-future military thriller, The Last Good Man, about the world of private military corporations, drone swarms, 3D-printed weapons, and experimental combat lasers, showing how a variety of in-development technologies might find use on the battlefield. In 2018, Jeffrey Lewis, PhD, of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, turned a think piece he wrote for the Washington Post into a novel about a chillingly realistic scenario of what a nuclear conflict might look like between the United States and North Korea, The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States. Published at the height of tensions between the two countries, Lewis’ book explores the fragility of the peace between North Korea and its neighbors and how personalities like Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump might tip the situation into violence with their words and actions.

In the forward of Visions of Warfare 2036, Air Force General Jeffrey Lofgren, the deputy chief of staff capability development, highlighted numerous instances of technologies being depicted in fiction before they were a reality—airplanes, submarines, cellphones, and more—something he hoped this anthology would emulate. Many of these types of stories feature extrapolations, imagining how a cyberattack might play out against U.S. forces or how an attack against a spacecraft might unfold, and imagining the role that haptic vests, solar energy, or reams of data collected by supercomputers might figure into the future of warfare. In other instances, they might envision how the collapse of NATO and rising tensions between Beijing and Moscow might spill over into conflict. In many instances, the stories do what all good science fiction does: expose the nature of the world as it is today in order to drive people to think about how we got here and how we’ll get to tomorrow.

Melissa Flagg, PhD, the lead for the Army Research Laboratory in the Northeast, notes that this bubble of scenario fiction coincides with a shift in priorities on the part of U.S. policymakers and strategists — other countries around the world are spending more money on science and technology than ever before. After World War II, she explains, the United States invested heavily in fields that could contribute to the defense industry, yielding a number of advances and innovations — think GPS, nuclear weapons, and computer systems. “In 2003, the global R&D investment was $860 billion,” she says. “Now, we’re at over $1.776 trillion. In that 17 years, the global R&D investment more than doubled, and continues to go up.” The result is a world in which the tools of war are changing quickly.

In recent years, we’ve seen a number of leaps forward from countries like China and Russia as they begin testing out new hardware, such as autonomous landing vehicles or armed robots, or as militants use off-the-shelf drones in attacks in places like Yemen. With the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq scaled down, Flagg notes, military officials have once again begun to look at the bigger picture in decades, rather than days, weeks, or months.

Fiction is one tool among many for strategists and military officials to determine what those futures might look like. It’s far from a silver bullet — for every prediction of a geosynchronous satellite or cellphone, science fiction generates innumerable duds — but what it does achieve is provide those strategists with a framework for figuring out the next questions that need to be asked and keeps them comfortable with the idea that the future will bring some drastic changes. In the afterword for Invisible Force, Major Jessica I. Dawson of the Army Cyber Institute explains that while that particular story is fictional, elements of it were drawn from recognizable elements of the world around us today, and that she hopes that “this book helps leaders visualize the complexity of that fight — and starts to generate a conversation around planning to overcome the next ‘Invisible Force.’”

It’s unlikely that a short story created for a contest from any of the organizations or individuals will provide some key element that one day unlocks a game-changing technology or accurately predicts some distant battle, allowing a leader in the future to win. But fiction does provide a unique perspective on the present state of the world and allows the reader to engage with the future from a new perspective. Science fiction excels at extrapolating the possibilities that technologies hold and, as warfare becomes ever more technologically advanced, imagining all the ways in which it might break down. What was once a pulpy genre, in other words, can now spur strategists and soldiers to think about the conflicts they’ll be engaged in during the years and decades to come.

This post was originally published on OneZero in July 2020.

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