The Success of Past Foresight Analyses of the United States Air Force

A History of the Future

The Success of Past Foresight Analyses of the United States Air Force

November 22, 2018, Annika Sipilä

Dr. John Geis is the Director of Airpower Research Task Force for Air University. He came to the Strategic Foresight Summit to talk about the alternate futures work he has done for the U.S. Air Force since the 1990s. “My goal is to show that these alternate futures analyses have a way of doing pretty well,” said Geis.


This article is based on content presented at the Strategic Foresight Summit 2018, organized earlier this year by Futures Platform.

The Success of Past Foresight Analyses of the United States Air Force

Geis got a challenging task in the mid-1990s: they were to figure out what would the world be like in 2025 for the Air Force of the United States. “The main goal was to have as few surprises in 2025 as possible. The Air Force also wanted to know what they should invest in,” Geis said. Over forty projects, such as unmanned aerial vehicles, were funded as a direct result of the alternate futures work done in 1996.


An alternate future is a logical, coherent, detailed and internally consistent description of a plausible future operating environment. It describes a world that could exist, and a plausible history connects the alternate future back to the present by presenting sign posts and major events along the way, as Geis explained. “None of the alternate futures will happen as we described them, but we have seen developments that fit all the alternate futures imagined in the 1990s. That’s why if you are prepared for all the alternate futures, it doesn’t matter which one presents itself.”


The Alternate Futures of Air Force – Success or Failure?

The project of the alternate futures of Air Force 2025 was concluded in 1996. The researchers brainstormed over a hundred candidate drivers, and selected three to form the strategic planning space for the study. These three drivers were plotted on orthogonal axes by placing three drivers on continua from positive to negative.


“Drivers are something the customer has no control over. If we had drivers we could control, we would control them,” Geis declared.


The first driver was called the American World View which determined the willingness to interact with the rest of the world between a domestic and global world view. The second driver was the rate of growth and development of technology, namely referring to constrained or exponential growth. The third driver was named the World Power Grid which referred to the distribution and control of power throughout the world and how dispersed or concentrated it was.


These three drivers put on continuums produced a box from which eight alternate futures were described, one at each corner of the strategic planning space. The researchers discarded a few of the most uninteresting predictions – a few were too peaceful to be of interest from a military point of view. So, 23 years ago four alternate future worlds were developed further.


For example, the alternate future named Digital Cacophony features a world of technology and focuses on interconnectivity. “It’s a world where technology would explode so rapidly that people would be overwhelmed by the amount of information they constantly received.” The researchers predicted that in this alternate future everyone is wired, netocracy gives power to the individuals and that it’s a world characterized by anxiety if a person has to unplug. “Sounds eerily familiar, right?” asked Geis.


The alternate future called Gulliver’s Travails predicted that nationalism would spur conflict and that armed forces would be lighter and more agile because the warfare would be different.


In the alternate future named Zaibatsu, multinational corporations would dominate over states and conflicts would be mainly driven by big business interests. This included the prediction that billionaires would enter the realm of politics and perhaps even become heads of state.


In the King Khan future China would dominate which for example, would lead to multinational companies relocating their headquarters to China, with Russia, India and Japan forming a counterbalancing alliance.


Then, another alternate futures project as brought to life.


Called Blue Horizon II and completed in 2008, the project resulted in four alternate futures focusing on 2035 being created.


One of them predicted the Jihadist state-based insurgency in the Middle East, approximately five years before it actually happened. Another alternate world focused on ‘Resurgent Russia’ which according to the predictions made in 2008 meant that Russia’s need to be on the world stage would result in it lashing out in some form. “One of the futures focused on failed states with Nigeria as a case study. We predicted that Nigeria would become a failed state as it exists on a bifurcation line between two of the world’s great religions, but the country has proven to be more resilient than assessed,” Geis said.


“Both studies got the large pieces right, but the more you zoom in the more errors can be seen in the details,” Geis explained.


However, many of the predictions came true, even if not one hundred percent accurate. The scenarios created in 2008 regarding Russia and the Islamic State are on track. In Gulliver’s Travails, the team predicted a big terrorist attack would kill thousands of Americans in the first two years of the new millennium. The study got the venue wrong, as the team had predicted it would happen during the Salt Lake City Olympics. Nonetheless, the ensuing consequences of the attack were largely and correctly foreseen.


Sometimes it is not hard to predict a future event. “There is a 97% probability that a major earthquake will happen in Southern California before 2035. We know it’s coming, but are we prepared? Parts of our government have not even asked the question, let alone holistically looked at the problem,” Geis explained.


“Apart from having sufficient resources and commitment to do detailed future studies, the real challenge is getting the leadership to believe what we’ve come up with,” Geis said. The challenge sometimes is that the futures look so different from the world of today, leaders have a hard time grasping or believing them. For these studies to be a their most valuable, “it needs commitment from the leadership to listen to the results.”


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