US intelligence agency point to dangers of growing and changing conflict


The world is becoming more dangerous and difficult to govern with rising tensions between and within countries, growing nationalism and isolationism and slower global growth, says the US National Intelligence Council in its latest Global Trends report, released earlier this week.

Over the next twenty years the report sees the nature of conflict changing in key respects. Conflicts will become more complex and there will be an increasing blurring of peacetime and wartime – “a gray zone”, the report says.

The report warns that China and Russia will feel emboldened and regional aggressors and non-state actors will see openings. Africa will face a rising threat of terrorism and, over the next five years, global economic headwinds and continuing pressures from rapid urbanization and high population growth.

The latest “Global Trends, Paradox of Progress” report focuses on how the changing nature of power is causing increasing stress in countries and among countries. The era of American dominance is drawing to a close, and so might the rule based international order, making international co-operation a lot more difficult, the report argues. Yet global trends, says the report, “also bear within them opportunities for choice that yield more hopeful, secure futures” – hence the paradox.

The Global Trends reports, which are produced every four years for an incoming President, or an incumbent about to start a second term, are an overview of what the US intelligence community thinks will be the big global issues over the next twenty years.

The extent to which this document will influence the new Trump administration is uncertain. It might well take exceptions to warnings about isolationism and the dangers of lack of international co-operation, yet the report has widespread influence in framing thinking about the future.

Among the eight key global trends identified in the report is the change in “How people Fight”. The other big trends are “People”, “How People Live”, “How People Create and Innovate”, “How People Prosper”, “How People Think”, “How People Govern”, and “Terrorism”.

Tensions among major states, terrorist threats, instability in weak states, and the spread of lethal and disruptive technologies mean the last 20 years’ trend of fewer and less intense conflicts appears to be reversing. Technology advances, new strategies, and an evolving global context are “challenging previous concepts of warfare.” This points to conflicts that are “more diffuse, diverse, and disruptive.”

Greater access to weapons and technologies by states, non-state actors such as terrorist groups, criminal networks, and individuals mean many more organizations can engage in war, making conflict more diffuse. That will make for more complex conflicts and erode the distinction between combatants and non-combatants.

Conflicts will become more diverse as they will vary across a wide spectrum that ranges from the use of economic coercion to cyber attacks to information operations to advanced weapons. All this will make it more difficult for governments to effectively prepare for a range of contingencies.

Finally, conflict will become more disruptive as states and terrorists will aim to disrupt critical infrastructure, cohesion in society, and government functions rather than on defeat on the battlefield.

The change in the character of conflict is likely to be marked by the increasing blurring of peacetime and wartime. China views media, legal and psychological forms of warfare – the “three warfares” as important to weakening enemy resolve.

States use of “grey zone” approaches to avoid general war, could mean heightened risk of an inadvertent escalation of conflict or misinterpretation of adversary “red lines”.

Another trend behind the change in character of conflict is the increasing capability of non-state groups to create greater disruption. The ability of Anonymous, the activist hacking group to disrupt is clear, while groups such as Islamic State have demonstrated considerable firepower. Access to 3D printing, autonomous control systems, and computer processors and sensors could allow terrorists groups to create tailored and intelligent weapons.

Also behind the change in the nature of conflict is the increasingly widespread capability to launch stand off and remote attacks with precision guided munitions, cyber capabilities and unmanned air, land, sea, and submarine vehicles. Long-range attack abilities could allow states to control maritime choke points without naval vessels. Cyber will also provide an avenue for long range attacks on political and military command a control. Russian officials have noted that initial attacks in future wars might be made through information networks.

The US intelligence agencies also voice new concerns about the spread and possible use of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. One area of concern of direct relevance to African countries is that at-sea deployment of nuclear weapons by India, Pakistan, and China could in time nuclearize the Indian Ocean. Uncertain ways of managing at sea incidents between nuclear-armed vessels could increase the risk of miscalculation.

The report clearly wants to get the message across that much will depend on how global and regional players respond to the big security challenges. Mitigating and confidence building measures are needed to avert the greater risk of miscalculation, while cooperation is needed to resolve international conflicts.

The reports view of the African future is mixed. Democratic practices have expanded in Africa and public demand for better service is becoming more urgent across the continent. But many African states, “continue to struggle with “big man” rule, patronage politics, and ethnic favouritism.”

Even countries that have made democratic progress remain fragile and prone to violence around elections. Tensions between Christian and Muslim groups could escalate into conflict.

Over the next five years African populations will become more youthful, urban, mobile, and networked, and better educated – and more demanding of a voice. Rapid urbanization will create demands for improved infrastructure and severe water stress for many will be another factor helping push mass migration.