The fight of today will not be the same fight of the future. Technologies are shifting, adversaries are more sophisticated, and the battlespace is more connected. While many units in the defense community are focused on the resources required to win today, the Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability (AFWIC) Futures Branch is tasked with future-proofing the Air Force and preparing for the unique challenges that may impact the future fight.
AFWIC’s mission at hand is to develop a connected, joint force that can leverage data from multiple domains to support the National Defense Strategy in future battles. To this end, AFWIC Futures Branch must consider global scenarios that could impede the mission. COVID-19, an example that presented itself in 2020, has demanded seismic cultural shifts in operations in a defense environment, as reported in the “Global Futures Report: Alternative Futures of Geopolitical Competition in a Post-COVID-19 World.”
Lt. Col. Jacob S. Sotiriadis, USAF, Ph.D., Chief, Strategic Foresight and Futures Branch, AFWIC, and co-author of the report, wrote, “In today’s chaotic cycle of rapid change, growing complexity, and radical uncertainty, the national security establishment must develop the skills and flexibility to adapt to the unexpected. To be sure, the fallout from COVID-19 has revealed overlooked vulnerabilities for our supply chains, our society, our economy, and—most pertinent for this report—our national security strategy, which relies on all three.”
We learned more about this report, its methodology, and the compilation process in a recent conversation with Lt. Col. Sotiriadis. As one of the featured contributing thought leaders in the report, Lt. Col. Sotiriadis explained the goal of the report and the thought process it attempts to provoke among Air Force leadership. According to Lt. Col. Sotiriadis, the resource is meant to offer a comprehensive overview of several different scenarios to be considered by the Air Force resulting from the current pandemic and, in turn, prompt a more informed decision-making process.
The report offers insights from various thought leaders, both defense and academic-focused. The varied perspectives of these experts are key to the report’s effectiveness in offering a holistic view of potential scenarios presented to Air Force leadership. In order to illuminate how these perspectives were methodically applied to their research, Lt. Col. Sotiriadis explained the concept of identifying “weak signals” through horizon scanning and their indication of notable emerging trends around the world. With those insights, these experts were able to engineer various alternative futures to be considered as the Air Force, and really any defense branch, makes impactful decisions in a post-COVID world.
“Today’s weak signals end up becoming tomorrow’s reality,” stated Lt. Col. Sotiriadis, emphasizing the importance of the horizon scanning process and paying close attention to emerging trends. “That’s where the disruption of the pandemic actually changed everybody’s modicum of thought. Because now we are all programmed differently to understand the magnitude of this change.”
Lt. Col. Sotiriadis and his colleagues think it’s crucial for the defense community to pivot when it comes to the traditional defense mentality. In his opinion, strategic foresight and futurist thinking should come to the forefront of the decision-making process for defense leaders as opposed to a largely mission-oriented, operational approach.
With such rapid technological innovation in recent years, the prioritization of acquiring and implementing that innovation has climbed to the top of the list for many defense leaders, and it makes sense as we work towards maintaining the advantage over our adversaries. However, according to Lt. Col. Sotiriadis, that dynamic is changing and has led to a renaissance of sorts for futurist thinking and strategic foresight, and there is room for the role of that thinking to grow in modern defense strategy.
That said, Lt. Col. Sotiriadis is under no impression that defense leadership shouldn’t be prioritizing technological adoption and acquisition. Yet, he also believes that “rebooting our cognitive operating system” to supplement that mission is imperative. And the concept of interoperability exemplifies that importance.
Ultimately, the AFWIC Futures Branch is striving to be a cultural catalyst in the defense community, explained Lt. Col. Sotiriadis. “We are offering an entirely different way of thinking. We don’t want to just be a pocket of excellence in the Pentagon; we want our influence to be prolific and to spark a true shift in how defense leadership tackles existing and emerging challenges in-theater.”
You can learn more about the Global Futures Report from the AFWIC Futures Branch here.