Government, energy & environment

Future Threats and Trouble Spots

A couple of interesting summaries of potential future threats caught my eye recently. The first was contained in the UK’s National Security Council’s National Security Strategy and highlights some of the dangers arising from new technologies and extremist groups. Al-Qaeda remains ‘the principal current national security threat’, but the rising flow of people and goods into and out of Britain also creates security issues. For example, there are presently 400,000 foreign students in the UK and 47,000 of these are Chinese. Northern Irish terrorist groups remain a serious threat, but they are now joined by cyber attacks as a ‘high impact’ threat. The London 2012 Olympics obviously represents a specific opportunity for terrorist groups and it is interesting to note that at the time of the Beijing Games the host city was targeted by hackers and cyber terrorists 12 million times per day. Overall, future threats are more varied and less predictable than during the Cold War era and a key feature of the changed world is the rise of China and India, along with Latin American and Middle Eastern states. Other threats mentioned in the report include disruption to energy supplies, and disruption of the Internet, which is increasingly crucial to the UK economy.

The second report comes from Monocle magazine and is a summary of global danger spots. The list isn’t especially new, but it does provide a reminder of how and where things could get nasty in the future. Included in Monocle’s list are: Mexico (a drug war being tipped into a proper war with the US being sucked in); Venezuela (watch out for trouble along the border with Columbia); Gibraltar (hard to imagine a conflict between Spain and the UK, but never say never); the Democratic Republic of Congo (a higher risk than Somalia according to some observers), Lebanon (not inside its borders but outside them); Somalia (part safe haven and part think tank for anti-Western interests); Yemen (terrorist hang-out); Iran (what’s worse, Iran with WMD or an Israeli strike to prevent it?); Pakistan (the world’s #1 tinderbox); Tajikistan (another Taliban friendly state); North Korea (when it collapses it won’t be peaceful, but it will be fast); Fiji (trouble in paradise), the Internet (it’s used to run almost everything these days, so if it’s attacked the trouble would spread just about everywhere) and the South China Sea (look out for territorial disputes between China and Japan).
Ref: Daily Telegraph (UK), 19 October 2010, ‘Britain faces future under threat’ by D. Gardham and J Kirkup Monocle (UK), issue 39, volume 04, December 2010–January 2011, ‘Danger Zones – Global’ by A. Mueller
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Search words: Threats, risk, security, intelligence
Trend tags: Global risks

The Rise of the Right

It would be reasonable to think that the financial crisis in Britain, the US and Europe might have heralded a shift towards socialism – or at least towards parties of the centre left, but the exact opposite seems to be the case. In the US, the Tea Party has emerged out of almost nowhere and is likely to prompt the Republican Party to move further right (or merge with the Tea Party, which would be much the same thing). Across Europe – in Belgium, The Netherlands and in Sweden – the new political right gained enough votes in recent elections to prevent any of the traditional centrist parties gaining overall majorities. In France, Sarkozy has moved rightwards and has cracked down on immigrants, while in Britain there is an increasing amount of rhetoric about how ethnic minorities are using Human Rights laws to gain freedoms at the expense of the Christian majority. So are these shifts part of a long-term trend or merely a short-term fad? With the US one suspects that it could the latter. But in Europe (and Russia) things could be moving in a different direction and xenophobia could harden.

Why is this happening? I would suggest that the answer is threefold. First, worsening economic conditions historically mean that hatred is focused on ‘outsiders’ that are not considered part of the group. The rise of the KKK in the US during the 1930s would be one example. Second, globalisation means open borders and this means greater numbers of migrants and this has reached a tipping point in some areas. Immigration and multi-culturalism are fine, some people argue, as long as they happen somewhere else. Interestingly, in the UK the Labour Party lost the recent election partly because of a woman that confronted the then Prime Minister on the impact of immigration, which she felt the government had largely ignored.

Third, the left has imploded across much of Europe and elsewhere. Why has the left declined? Because they have failed to adapt to new realities. They have, critically, ignored the issue of immigration and the ethnic factor in politics generally. Moreover, within Western societies the values of the New Right appear to fit more naturally with trends such as consumerism, individualism, passivism, hedonism and new media. The New Right also seems to have understood the importance of emerging nations and the fact that rapidly ageing populations are worried about their future and are especially anxious about the rapidity of technological and economic change.
Ref: The Wall Street Journal (US), 24-26 September 2010, ‘The Decline of the Left’ by E-K. Symons The New York Times (US), 11 October 2010, ‘Europe’s New Right’ by E. Stackl. For more on the Russian shift rightwards and the future of Russia generally, see the FT Magazine (UK), 4-5 December 2010, ‘The Skinhead Terrorists’ by C. Clover. Prospect (UK), November 2010, ‘What does Russia think? by M. Leonard and The Economist (UK), 11 December 2010, ‘Be critical, not hypocritical’
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Search words: Politics, new-right, far-right, extremism, anger, rage, US, Europe
Trend tags: Rightwards shift

Nations versus Networks

The world, in case you haven’t noticed, is suffering from two simultaneous shocks. The first is technological. The development of the Internet is reshaping the world in a manner similar to the industrial revolution two centuries ago. The second is global instability. The end of the Cold War is a prime cause of this, but globalisation, deregulation and resources are also playing their part. Nevertheless, the thinking within the US military is largely unchanged. For example, the US has spent around $1 trillion ($3 trillion according to one estimate) on the war in Iraq and is now ‘close to punching itself out’ according to John Arquilla, a professor of defence analysis at the US Naval Postgraduate School. The fundamental issue is scale. The dominant doctrine within the Pentagon is still ‘shock and awe’ and, to achieve overwhelming force, the US spends billions on big ships, big guns and big battalions. This might work if you are fighting a conventional war, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that it doesn’t work very well against networked adversaries. In the UK there has been both shock and awe that their defence budget is being cut. The thinking is that one can only perform worse with less. Similarly, in the US, there are calls for more and more soldiers to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But perhaps bigger isn’t always better. Small units of soldiers can be highly effective, especially when they are connected to other small units or small numbers of aircraft. This is Rule 1 of John Arquilla’s new rules for war – that many and small beats few and large. After all, what exactly is the point of giant aircraft carriers in an age of supersonic anti-ship missiles? Hundreds of small craft equipped with smart weapons are likely to be more effective. Similarly, being in love with expensive and sophisticated weapons is all very well but many smart systems are almost unworkable in many of the situations that Western armies now find themselves. Rule 2 is that finding matters more than flanking. Flanking has worked historically, but the game has now moved on. Think, for example, of the 400,000 Iraqi troops that just ‘melted away’ when confronted by US forces in 2003 only to reappear as hit and run insurgents in the months and years afterwards.

The idea here is that rather than being organised as a ‘shooting organization’ the military needs to be redesigned around a ‘hider-finder dynamic’ and act as a ‘sensing organization’ too. After all, before you fight an enemy you have to find them and this is becoming increasing difficult when enemies use networking technologies to rapidly communicate and organise themselves. Rule 3 is that swarming is the new surging. Swarming is the type of attack used by terrorists coming at a target from several different directions at once or attacking several targets simultaneously. The November 2008 Mumbai attack conducted by just two five-man teams is an example, as is the Hezbollah conflict with Israel during the summer of 2006. Despite this, US Grand Strategy is still configured to deal with a single large threat rather than multiple, smaller or simultaneous threats. In a networked age, even very small teams armed with the most basic weapons can cause huge amounts of damage, but most military planners seem to be unaware of this or, if they are aware of it, are failing to act on this knowledge. There is a saying that generals are always fighting the last war. Seems some of them are still planning it too.
Ref: Foreign Policy (US), March-April 2010, ‘Killer Apps?/ The New Rules of War’ by J. Arquilla.
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Search words: Military strategy, grand strategy, networks, war, conflict
Trend tags: -

Battlefield Robots

According to Ron Arkin, a robot researcher working at the Georgia Institute of Technology (US), 56 governments across the globe are now actively seeking to develop robotic killing machines. Opponents argue that such automation means that wars will cost less to wage and become more frequent in the future. There is also the serious issue of mistaken identity – teaching machines to distinguish between military and civilian targets, especially when final decisions about whether to open fire become automated, is especially difficult. On the opposing side, proponents of robotic weapons argue that intelligent fighting machines will pay more attention to battlefield rules and are less likely to engage in acts of anger or malice. They don’t panic either.

This might all sound a bit futuristic, but, as is often the case, the future is already present – it’s just weakly distributed. For example, robotic weapons that already exist or are under development include; the Throwbot (a two-wheeled vehicle that can been thrown by hand into a room to search for enemy soldiers using video), LS3 (a four-legged robot that can carry a soldier or up to 180 kilograms of equipment for up to 32 kilometres), the Packbot (a remote control vehicle used for bomb disposal), Aries (a small remotely controlled submarine), SMSS (an unmanned ground vehicle), Maars (an unmanned, fully-armed ground vehicle about the size of a lawn mower), Global Hawk (an unmanned survey drone) and MQ-9 Reaper (another small unmanned aircraft). So are battlefield ‘bots the future of war? It looks like they will be part of it. In 2001, the US Congress gave the Pentagon the goal of making around 30% of all ground vehicles driverless so the race is on for semi-autonomous and autonomous machines. However, the most likely scenario is that over the shorter term the future will belong to armies that can blend human and machine intelligence.
Ref: The New York Times (US), 28 November 2010, ‘War Machines: Recruiting Robots for Combat’ by J. Markoff
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Search words: Robots, war
Trend tags: GRIN technologies

Something’s Got to Give

It is an historical fact that great power shifts in the global economy coincide with currency turbulence and trade friction. Hence, it’s a relatively safe bet that the ascendency of China economically will generate protectionist sentiments in the US and elsewhere. This is a concern but it’s not the only worry. A far bigger issue is the fact that China’s export-led economic model, fuelled partly by an undervalued currency, is only possible because the US and other major economies have been willing to rack up huge debts in order to finance domestic consumption. In short, Chinese over-saving is helping to prop up US debt and vice versa. Make sense? Possibly not, but don’t worry because an even greater issue is the fact that the imbalances between the two systems are reaching breaking point. Put simply, the current situation is not sustainable over the longer-term because several Western nations are reaching a point of debt exhaustion. What’s required, of course, is for debtor and creditor nations to agree to rebalance things. China, in particular, needs to become more consumption orientated domestically and let their currency float. If it doesn’t, inflation and asset price bubbles could destroy much of what has been built in over the last few decades. At least that’s one theory.
Ref: Financial Times (UK), 21-22 August 2010, ‘Great Dangers Attend the Rise and Fall of Great Powers’, by J. Plender For more on what the world might look like if and when the US goes into retreat, see ‘The Frugal Superpower: America’s Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Era’ by Michael Mandelbaum.
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Search words: China
Trend tags: Power shift Eastwards