What to Watch in 2016

Keep an eye on these nine story lines in warfighting, industry, politics, and technology.

Here are some of the story lines we’ll be watching in the new year:

The Anti-ISIS Campaign

The U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State militants in Iraq, Syria, and Libya continues to grow. The bombing campaign has intensified, the number of boots on the ground are up and European coalition members have increased their contributions. (Not to mention the complicating wildcard of Russian forces in Syria.) Now the White House and NATO want Arab states to boost their participation, which experts say is critical to success.

Pentagon Reform Projects

With one year left in office, Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s to-do list remains chock-full of ambitious reform projects. At the top of the list is his “Force of the Future” initiative to update the Pentagon’s antiquated personnel system. Among the proposed changes are a new cyber-focused “defense digital service” and making it easier for troops to move easily between the military and private sector through corporate fellowships. Perhaps even more daunting is Sen. John McCain’s attempt to overhaul the Goldwater-Nichols Act, the foundation of the Pentagon’s modern structure. If that’s not enough, Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work has 12 months to sell the military and Congress on his “offset strategy”: the idea that future battlefield advantage lies in teaming up robots with troops.

Will Companies Continue to Merge?

Analysts and investors believe global defense spending has bottomed out and will now start to rebound. Still, there have been lots of companies merging and acquiring one another over the past year, Lockheed Martin purchased Blackhawk helicopter maker Sikorsky and radio-maker Harris bought rival Exelis, prompting concerns inside the Pentagon that it could be forced to pay more money for arms if the number of suppliers continues to shrink. And analysts say more activity could be on the horizon.

The 2016 Presidential Race

In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re heading into a presidential election year. Expect more time and attention lavished on the race while increasingly less gets done in the U.S. Capitol. The main story lines: As American voters’ anxiety over terrorism and national security reaches decade-highs while their confidence in the government to protect them dips to post-9/11 lows, will they ultimately cast their votes for the unfiltered, untested, and uninformed Donald Trump? If not, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz hopes angry voters will join his conservative and evangelical supporters and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s lost libertarians to win the nomination and establish a new Republican coalition. But establishment pick Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — perhaps the GOP’s best shot at solving their demographic problem and taking on Hillary Clinton — has been prodding Cruz’s vulnerabilities on defense. Rubio frames Cruz’s realist-isolationist leanings as out of touch with post-ISIS hawkishness. As for former Secretary of State Clinton: her biggest challenger remains herself, as she looks to shake early perceptions of untrustworthiness and smudge her fingerprints on the Obama administration’s foreign policy foibles.

No Strategy vs. Stay the Course

Don’t expect the Republicans to soften their relentless criticism of President Obama’s national security strategy in the wake of attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. Obama’s ethos of U.S. power built on dogged diplomacy, selective use of force and an open, multicultural vision of the America been so embattled. He will try to stay the course and urge the American people who elected him to end wars, not start them or extend them, to stick with him, even as the Islamic State piques the public’s appetite for force and pulls the U.S. in deeper into intractable conflicts not just in Syria and Iraq, but across the globe.

Left to Legacy

Perhaps the most important priority for President Obama remains undone: closing the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. That also means it’s the biggest target for opponents eager to deny him lasting influence, particularly on national security. As of this writing 48 of the remaining 107 detainees are cleared for transfer, and President Obama confirmed Friday a large batch of transfers is set for the next few weeks, dropping the total population to around 90 by early in the new year. Expect every move to be a battle. If that weren’t enough, U.S. forces’ mission in Iraq and Syria has been expanded to capture rather than kill, without anyone yet having answered the question: What happens beyond Guantanamo?

USAF F-35 IOC

Two milestones loom for weapons maker Lockheed Martin. The first is the Air Force’s expected declaration that their F-35s have reached initial operating capability, or IOC, less than a year since the Marines declared the same in July. That means 2016 could see the jet’s first deployment.

Asteroid Probe

In September, NASA will launch Lockheed’s OSIRIS-Rex asteroid explorer, sending it on a nine-year round-trip to the carbonaceous asteroid of Bennu. There it will collect soil samples, blast off, and return to Earth by 2025. “Our mission is turning a corner in planetary exploration,” said Ed Beshore, OSIRIS-REx deputy principal investigator, in this Lockheed explainer on the NASA mission. “We are bringing back samples of a primitive relic of the early solar system, which will have profound scientific impact. We will be able to study these samples for many years using techniques we haven’t even thought of yet.”

Ghost Ships and Rail Guns

The military’s 132-foot sub-hunting robot ghost ship, the Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV), is to begin builder trials out of San Diego’s Point Loma early next year.  

This summer, the Navy will test its electromagnetic railgun, slinging 44-pound shells at hypersonic speeds at targets on land and sea. Mounted on the USNS Trenton, the gun will take shots at a barge parked at the maritime testing range of Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Developed by weapons maker BAE Systems, the project has entered Phase II of development and the Navy will be looking for rep-rate and sustained firing.

Man vs. Machine Rumble in Las Vegas

The annual DEFCON capture-the-flag game brings players from around the world to sunny Las Vegas to face off in an enormous cyber war. Next year, the event will add a new contest: seven teams supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, will pit their robot hackers against one another in the Cyber Grand Challenge. The goal, ultimately, is the automation of defense cyber operations.

After the official challenge is over, some of the robot teams are expected to stick around to play capture-the-flag against humans in a person versus machine face off. (Just remember, the real winners are the robot slot machines on the casino floor.)

Other stories to watch: DARPA will continue its research thrusts into human and machine teaming for ground and dismounted troops, collaborative autonomy, and biotechnology.

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