2016 Predictions: A Look Ahead at the Future of War

New America polled former Navy SEALs, Pentagon officials, technologists, historians — and here’s what they expect.

Imagine you had a time machine that could take you back to compare what people thought would happen in 2015 with what actually did occur.

Some of the events of the last year, like the Syrian rebel training programs falling apart, were utterly predictable. Others were deeply surprising; the scale of the OPM breach left U.S. cybersecurity experts, and also likely the attackers themselves, agape at the massive harvest of data. Still other events, such as Russia’s doubling down in Syria, were in fact predictable, yet surprising to too many. And, finally, other events, like the formal admission of women into combat roles, were not merely predictable, but belated.

If we had that time machine, though, we’d want to jump ahead, to see what lies in the future. The problem is that while we do have hoverboards that work in labs and as Christmas presents that catch on fire, the time machine that Hollywood promised us on Oct. 15 hasn’t yet arrived.

So instead, we turned to a group that ranges from former Navy SEALs and Pentagon officials to technologists and historians, and asked them: “Give one prediction for 2016 in the realm of national security and warfare.”

Let’s hope the good-news predictions are the ones that come true, and the bad-news ones merely prove the experts wrong.

A Thin Veneer of Great-Power Cooperation

The combination of American presidential campaign politics; increased terror attacks in the EU, U.S., Russia, and China; and forced coexistence in battle spaces such as Syria will generate an increased appearance of collaboration among the European Union, United States, Russia, and China. Such collaboration will, however, be exceedingly fragile and difficult to maintain. Especially between the United States, and both Russia and China, it will represent more of a change in tone: the structural conflict between a rising China and the U.S., and the fundamental differences in worldview and interests between the U.S. and Russia, are too deep for anything else. Moreover, it will not last past the exigencies that require it. Nonetheless, the veneer of civility and collaboration will create an opportunity to encourage and institutionalize deeper communication among the world’s major militaries, which will be seized, and will prove to be one of the few bright spots in an increasingly complex environment of global conflict. But such increased collaboration might also generate significant costs: consider what such a collaboration among nation-states might well look like from an Islamic perspective, especially given the rhetoric of the American presidential campaign to date and the inherent tendency of militant Islam to reject secular authorities (cue Clash of Civilizations).

Braden R. Allenby is Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics and President’s Professor of Civil, Environmental, and Sustainable Engineering, and of Law at Arizona State University.

Happy Days Are Here Again

It’s always tempting to predict death and destruction, because you’ll be at least a little bit right and no one will fault you if you’re wrong. So I’m going to take a big risk and choose to be optimistic about 2016. First, both the United States and Taiwan will get their first female presidents, and China will look to welcome both to power with some kind of public slap on the wrist, mostly symbolic. But no one will be complacent about it. Putin will use the Syria crisis to broker a face-saving detente with the U.S. and Europe, though the allies will not take their eye off the bear. Iraq and Afghanistan will be plagued by violence, but will wobble toward stability, with the help of U.S. “advisors” on the ground. Kim Jong-Un will get annoyed that no one’s paying enough attention to him and do something to remind us that he’s still crazy after all these years. No one will really care, beyond public condemnations and constructive private conversations about how to handle a problem like Korea. The Iran deal will go forward as Iran agrees to all the terms, and the U.S. will begin to cautiously roll back sanctions. A wave of tragic, small-scale killings will roll around the world, inspired or instigated by vaguely Islamic anarchists. Underneath the resulting demagoguery, the affected nations will deepen collaboration, from Nigera, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger to France to Lebanon to the United States, in favor of rule of law and against violent extremist organizations. There will be an attack or extreme weather event that causes a power outage in the U.S. Electricity will be restored, and while the affected people will be a little irritated, they’ll get over it quickly. Finally, the global economy will show signs of recovery, with a slow but sustainable growth rate.

Sharon Burke is a senior fellow at New America and a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense for operational energy.

NATO’s ‘Success’ Masks Disarray

I predict that the NATO Summit in Warsaw in July 2016 will be hailed as a “great success” — they always are. But behind the scenes it will highlight the growing challenges faced by world’s most powerful Alliance. Three challenges stand out: first, tension between “eastern” and “southern” allies on whether the Alliance’s main priority should be Russia or North Africa/Middle Eastern instability and the refugees that that generates (hint: both are unavoidable); second, the uncomfortable fact that NATO’s military capabilities are actually ill-suited to responding to both the hybrid tactics and strategy of Russia or the underlying political causes of the refugee crisis; and third, effective cooperation with the European Union, which could do the things that NATO cannot/should not, remains far less effective that it needs to be. These challenges will be compounded by the fact that by July, at least two of NATO’s traditional leaders will be highly distracted: the United States by the Presidential election and the United Kingdom by a domestic battle over European Union membership. The best hope: that from this, aides to the Presidential campaign will recognize that European security is once again an issue on which active engagement by the new U.S. President will not only be desirable, but a priority for 2017.

Ian Wallace is a Senior Fellow in the International Security Program, and also Co-Director of New America’s Cybersecurity Initiative. He was previously a senior official at the British Ministry of Defence.

The Kurds Say No

“The Kurds will scuttle any attempt at Middle East peace that does not grant them at least a proto-state. Given that they are now closer to attaining a state, or at least a federation of autonomous areas of their own, than at any time in the last century, they are not going to accept going back to the status quo ante of the Syrian civil war.”

Anne-Marie Slaughter is the president and CEO of New America.

The Post-Post-Snowden World

In the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, we are likely to see a rollback of the post-Snowden reforms of surveillance powers. In particular, Congress could very well provide governmental backdoors to encryption and expand (or at least not shrink) FISA Section 702’s broad programmatic and non-particularized foreign targeting authority, while calls to curb “incidental” collection of U.S. citizens’ information will likely be muted. Abroad, the need to strike terrorist groups loosely affiliated with ISIS around the world will test the limits of the existing Congressional Authorization to Use Military Force, already stretched thin to cover airstrikes in Syria.

Laura A. Dickinson is a professor at George Washington University Law School and a Future of War fellow at New America.

It’s All In The Story

Some of the most dangerous moments in 2016 will be delivered by the oldest smart weapon of all: the story. As global conflicts grow increasingly messy, narratives spun by propagandists and troll factories will wreak havoc via social media, state news organs and even the global free press. Russia’s doing it. Bashar al-Assad is doing it. Donald Trump exudes weaponized fiction from his very pores. It’s going to be a big year for carefully engineered narrative viruses created by state actors, terrorist groups and other players on the geopolitical stage.

Ed Finn is the director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, where he is also an assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media & Engineering and the Department of English.

The First Female Navy SEAL Gets Set for BUD/S

After a year of rigorous review, the U.S. Navy will announce the name of the first female sailor who will start Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (aka BUD/S) training sometime in 2017. She’ll be as fit and tough as any other sailor that earned the opportunity, and soon be as cold, tired and miserable as her classmates. If she has the grit, she’ll graduate into the SEAL Teams…I wish her luck!

Christopher L. Fussell is a senior fellow with the International Security Program at New America. He has spent the past 15 years as an officer in the Navy SEALs.

Drone Regulation and Cyber Testing

The growing, unregulated fleet of recreational drones in the U.S. (now exceeding a million), will be recognized as a potential Trojan Horse that couldthreaten the physical security of the national grid and national airspace. The unregulated importation of recreational drones will be recognized as the de facto importation of potential millions of bad actors, that can be used for attack vectors against busy urban airports, criminal activity against vulnerable power grids, the surveillance of vulnerable populations, and more. Lastly, the million-plus recreational drones now in U.S. cities will be recognized as prone to cyber insecurity, and could even be subject to the control of other nation states, especially China, where a large share of the drones are manufactured. Recreational drones of the future will face increasingly strict import controls and users will be liable if anti-virus protection is not kept up to date.

Mark Hagerott is a nonresident fellow at New America and chancellor for the North Dakota University System. He is a retired Navy captain and distinguished professor of cyber security at the U.S. Naval Academy.

2016? It Is the Year of I and T.

No, this isn’t another prediction about technology. It’s about implementation — in the short term. Does implementation of the Iran deal keep tensions moving downward in at least one corner of Southwest Asia? And for the long term, do countries take seriously their climate commitments, both on curbing emissions and on assisting the most vulnerable? And ISIS will keep the headlines, so yes, T for terrorism, but also T for three countries whose democracies we depend on to navigate tough internal and regional challenges in 2016: Taiwan, Tunisia, and Turkey.

Heather Hurlburt directs the New Models of Policy Change project at New America. She has held senior positions in the White House and State Department and worked on Capitol Hill and for the International Crisis Group.

Putin Beats Obama (Again)

Even as the Crimea crisis turned into a Russian annexation, President Obama continued to believe that “the Russian people will recognize that they cannot achieve the security, prosperity and the status that they seek through brute force.” Obama imposed new sanctions on Russia in 2014, hoping to curb aggressive behavior in the Ukraine. But even after a Russian-made surface-to-air missile brought down Malaysia Flight 17 in July 2014, President Obama and the international community did very little to hold President Putin to account. In 2015, President Putin moved an amphibious force, fighter jets, and bombersto Syria, in complete rejection of the 60-plus-member U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS and aiding groups that are opposing the terrorist group but who mostly hate the Assad regime, which is supported by Russia. Once more, somehow President Obama thinks that international pressure, combined with a Russian-people realization that President Putin is not acting in their best interests, will eventually change Russia’s behavior. Obama was wrong in 2014 and in 2015. Will 2016 be different? Is three times a charm? My prediction is that Putin will continue to take Obama to strategic geopolitical school. As Obama’s second term comes to a close, Putin will remove Obama’s foreign policy “crown jewel” accomplishment. Putin will somehow help scuttle the U.S.-Iranian nuclear deal.

Ioannis Koskinas, a senior fellow at New America and CEO of the Hoplite Group,  retired from the U.S. Air Force in 2011 after a 20-year career in special operations.

Europe’s Borders Return

The backlash in Europe triggered by jihadist terrorism and mass immigration from Syria and elsewhere will deepen in 2016. National populist movements like France’s National Front and Sweden’s Sweden Democrats will gain in strength. Center-right parties will try to coopt populist voters by moving to the right on immigration and to the left on economics, while center-left parties continue to lose voters. Border controls will be widely and permanently reinstituted, ending the dream of a post-national Europe with free movement of people, labor and goods.

Michael Lind, a co-founder of New America, is a former editor or staff writer for the New Yorker, Harper’s, and The National Interest and the author of multiple books, including The American Way of Strategy.

Civilians’ Harm Ignored; Seeds Laid for Future Conflicts

As systematic violence by state and non-state actors continues in multiple locations around the world, the majority of politicians and thought leaders will continue to view the extraordinary suffering of millions of civilians as a secondary issue, an afterthought alongside what are viewed as pressing challenges to international security. Even in the extraordinary case of Syria – 250,000 killed and half the country’s population forcibly displaced in the past 4 ½ years – civilian harm is widely understood as an inevitable outcome of war, rather than an urgent humanitarian crisis with profound short- and long-term security consequences. In 2016, we will see continued civilian suffering, increased restrictions on refugees and limited policy engagement with the meaning and impact of what millions are experiencing. In the not so distant future, the implications of these failures will be linked to major global security threats and U.S. officials and other political leaders will explain that more should have been done, back then in 2016.

Daniel Rothenberg is a law professor at Arizona State University.

A Year of Monkeying Around, at Sea and in Cyber

In 2014, we saw the use of “little green men” by Russia to undermine a neighbor’s sovereignty, but without the official overt military action. In 2015, we saw the expansion of Chinese claims over disputed territories and, in turn, an increased military response by neighbors and the US, with everything from freedom of navigation maneuvers to new security and basing agreements with the Philippines, Singapore, Japan, and soon Malaysia. In 2016, the “Year of the Monkey” in the Chinese zodiac, we might see the combination of these two trends in the Pacific. China’s maritime claims have not gone away, but may be asserted more by its own “Little Blue Men.” Its various maritime militia, coast guards, and even fishermen provide a means to keep presence and harass, but puts the onus of escalation on the other side. This will also be paralleled in cyberspace, where the new U.S.-China agreement prohibits state-linked theft of intellectual property, but has given a new out. When caught, state proxies offer deniability. For instance, the OPM hack has, in the Chinese government claim, actually “turned out to be a criminal case rather than a state-sponsored cyberattack as the U.S. side has previously suspected.” I expect 2016 to be The Year of Monkeying Around.

Peter W. Singer is Strategist at New America and Author of Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War.

ISIS Holds On; U.S., Russia Align

Net instability in the Middle East remains constant. Expect some good military news from Iraq to be balanced out by continuing turmoil in Yemen, Libya, and—barring some unexpected diplomatic breakthrough—Syria, while Afghanistan maintains its slow decline into chaos. It will be a bad year for ISIL core in Iraq and Syria as they both lose territory (primarily in Iraq) and run low on assets to confiscate and sell in what remains, greatly diminishing their financial resources. That said, ISIL still holds Raqqa in January 2017. The West will continue to experience Islamist-inspired attacks (small-scale in the U.S., possibly larger in Europe), but find that these are uncorrelated with waxing or waning ISIL fortunes, causing eyes to eventually turn to other root causes. Events and aligned interests will drive the U.S. and Russia closer together in the region, to the discomfort of all involved.

Doug Ollivant, a senior fellow at New America, is a retired Army officer who has served as a director on the National Security Council, counterinsurgency advisor in Afghanistan, and leader of the team that wrote the 2006-7 Baghdad “surge” plan.

China’s Hold on South China Sea Deepens

South China Sea diplomacy is centered on bi- and multi-lateral efforts to resolve competing claims to features in that body of water. The diplomacy is essentially stalemated while the UN Arbitral Tribunal deliberates and ASEAN and China dither over a code of conduct for all who use SCS waters. While all of this transpires, China has been constructing new facts in the water by building artificial islands from shoals and reefs. These may be delegitimized in international maritime law, but power politics suggests that the only way China’s presence in these locations can be reversed is by the use of force. No country, including the United States, is prepared to do so. Thus, China’s “salami tactics” seem to be working and suggest that Beijing’s future actions in the region will follow this model. Tension in one of the world’s busiest waterways will continue, and while, outright warfare is unlikely, the probability of skirmishes among the claimants is high.

Sheldon Simon is a professor in the School of Politics & Global Studies at Arizona State University.

The Legal Fate of The War on Terror is Decided

Unless President Obama takes decisive action, 2016 will be the year that the effort to muddle through the past decade of fighting terrorism is left to birth the outrages of the next. Guantanamo Bay will either be closed or it will be left to a new administration that may not want to close it. Even if the next administration does want to close the prison, it may not be interested in making it a top priority among the many political fights that will occur in its first term. Rules regarding the use of drone strikes for targeted killing and the record of how they were used over the past decade will be publicly released or the strikes will continue with little to no public oversight. The war against ISIS will be authorized or it will continue to exist in a legal netherworld of claims of imminent threat insufficient for a real campaign and false claims that ISIS is the same as al Qaeda even as the two groups engage in their own internecine war. 2016 is the year of decision: will the war on terror have a legal framework when the next president takes office, or will it be another four years of political wrangling and whim rather than law and regulation.

David Sterman is senior program associate at New America.

Rummy Proves Right?

To paraphrase a former defense secretary, we’ll be surprised by how surprised we are of the challenges we face.  We will continue to encounter developments that we did not anticipate and that we are insufficiently prepared to respond to.  The pace of threat evolution will continue to outmatch the pace of U.S. discourse and planning to adapt to such change in the global landscape.

Jeff Eggers, a senior fellow at New America, has served in the special operations community as a Navy SEAL and as a strategic advisor to Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

Stormy Weather Ahead, Literally

I expect the weather to become so odd turbulent, with weird storms in new places, that it will sweep away the last skepticism about global warming. If I could figure out how to short Florida real estate, I would.

Thomas Ricks is Senior Advisor on National Security at New America's International Security Program and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writer.