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General: Army Needs More Futurists to Better Predict Conflict

(U.S. Defense Department photo)
(U.S. Defense Department photo)

Army officials, analysts and authors met Wednesday to try to improve the U.S. military's poor track record of predicting future conflict.

Maj. Gen. William Hix, director of strategy, plans and policy for the office of the U.S. Army's Deputy Chief of Staff G-3/5/7, said, "Prediction is fraught with danger," at the Atlantic Council's U.S. Army Futures Forum.

Throughout history, there have been many "sad examples" of the tendency of people to optimistically embrace the idea of decisive opening strikes and quick finishes for war, Hix said.

"Most often, those predictions have been hugely wrong and, in some cases, resulted in catastrophe," he said.

A large part of the problem is the failure to anticipate social and political change, as well as technology revolutions, Hix said, citing America's experience in the Civil War.

"Most of our officers were trained in Napoleonic methods, and we missed the fact that the industrial age was maturing," he said. "And the casualty rates that we suffered on both sides of our Civil War are indicative of the fact that we missed the importance of relatively small things like rifled muskets, artillery that fired indirectly, repeating arms, the railroad and the telegraph and what that meant to the speed of war at that time.

"Today, our failure to watch for those types of signals has led to strategic surprise in the Russian actions of Crimea," Hix said. "The Ukraine, in many respects, is a harbinger of future war ... and the long-term rise of China and the autonomy -- I think the world economic forum calls it the fourth industrial age -- suggests a potential shift in the character of war that is as profound and fundamental as the transition from the 19th to the 20th century."

Urbanization, speed, lethality, autonomy -- many things that used to be science fiction are rapidly becoming reality, and some of America's adversaries are moving quicker in these spaces than the United States, he said.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Army has a bad habit of failing to anticipate how advanced its adversaries are and then coming up short in the opening days of conflict, Hix said.

"Our record in the opening stage of most major conflicts we have been in has been poor," he said.

The U.S.' success in Operation Desert Storm is not the norm, Hix said, adding the normal experience is Kasserine Pass in North Africa -- a major defeat for the U.S. Army in 1944 during World War II.

"We have to learn what parts of war are going to come with us in the future, and what pieces we are going to have to discard, and what pieces we are going to have to embrace," he said.

But Ken Liu, author of "The Paper Menagerie, The Grace of Kings," cautioned against the tendency to rely on history to predict the future.

Mankind's addiction to stories and storytelling is often the reason why it fails to predict the future correctly, Liu said, describing this as a cognitive bias for the species.

"We literally cannot understand the world as it is; we understand the world [by] making a story out of it," he said. "The universe is irreducibly random, but we cannot seem to accept that, so we have to construct a narrative about why things are happening."

Liu, a science-fiction author, has made a study of this with a particular focus on why most sci-fi authors "have been terrible at predicting the future."

"We have a tendency to do the following: When you are in the moment, when you are looking toward the future, the reality is -- for any problem that you are trying to solve -- there are multiple teams round the world trying to tackle that from multiple directions, and the possibilities for the future are endlessly open," he said, citing the history of touch screen interfaces, a technology the world has been trying to perfect since the 1960s.

"In the moment, when you are looking forward, it is very hard to know which of these approaches will succeed and dominate the future," Liu said. "The problem is, once you are past that point and you are looking backward -- the iPhone came out, it is very tempting, almost inevitable for everybody who lived in this situation to construct a narrative for why that particular breakthrough was inevitable. This is the way history is written.

"We like to tell history as a series of stories of plots, of causes and effects, of inevitable lines of evolution," he said.

When humans look backward, it is very easy to construct a narrative saying, "Why did everyone else miss that this was the only path that could have succeeded?" he added.

"That is not true," Liu argued. "Actually, history is all of these random reasons why one particular approach succeeded over others, and it's very, very tempting to say, 'We should be able to predict the future because if you look at the past there is a clear narrative about why we ended up here.' "

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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