The U.S. Military Is Turning to Science Fiction to Shape the Future of War

The U.S. Military Is Turning to Science Fiction to Shape the Future of War

How the military is growing a cottage industry of sci-fi writer consultants to help it predict the nature of tomorrow’s conflicts.

In 2030, a severe drought triggers a refugee crisis, which in turn sparks a war between two African nations. The UN steps in, deploying U.S. and French soldiers to keep the borders secure. An information warfare specialist is sent in when a disinformation campaign depicts U.S. forces destroying religious sites and infecting refugees with tainted vaccines and moves to help mitigate attacks from state actors looking to destabilize the region. Just as support for intervention in the conflict erodes in the United States, violence begins to rise, and the team is forced to work quickly to prevent the crisis from growing into a larger conflict.

It may sound like it could be the plot of a new Netflix series, but it’s actually one of the U.S. Army’s “science fiction prototypes,” a teaching tool designed to imagine what the near future of warfare might look like and to prompt military personnel to think creatively about conflicts they might end up fighting. This one takes the form of a 71-page graphic novel called Invisible Force: Information Warfare and the Future of Conflict, produced by the Army Cyber Institute at West Point and Arizona State University’s Threatcasting Lab.

As digital technologies and robotics have opened up the kinds of futures once imagined by pulp science fiction writers, a loose network of national security professionals, military officers, and training organizations are working to try to predict the future of war — by generating science fiction stories of their own.

These stories aim to address some of the biggest questions about the fast-changing nature of modern warfare: How will artificial intelligence change how decisions are made on the battlefield? What does the introduction of UAVs and autonomous robotic systems mean for the rules of engagement? These problems are difficult to test in the real world. So, in the past decade, various groups within or adjacent to the military have increasingly turned to science fiction, using anthologies, graphic novels, and books to visualize the battlefields we might someday find ourselves fighting in.

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Science fiction has leaned into the future of warfare throughout its history, frequently depicting futuristic soldiers and the weapons they wield — and the conditions that beget conflict. Classics like H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds envision alien invaders attacking civilians with advanced ray guns and poison gas canisters. And the prospect of nuclear war in the 1950s prompted Robert Heinlein to write Starship Troopers, a novel that featured soldiers in power armor killing alien “bugs” for a militaristic regime that looks a lot like future fascism.

In turn, the military too has used science fiction off and on for more than 100 years. One very early example dates back to 1871, when British Army Colonel Sir George Tomkyns Chesney published a novella called The Battle of Dorking in Blackwood’s Magazine. Chesney was alarmed at Germany’s aptitude for mechanization and movement on the battlefield during the Franco-Prussian War and wrote his story as a warning against complacency. Others followed: Ernest Dunlop Swinton’s 1904 book, The Defence of Duffer’s Drift, is about a soldier named Lieutenant Backsight Forethought, who is ordered to defend a river crossing during the Boer War. He has a series of six dreams in which he fails in different ways but learns from his mistakes each time. Designed as an instructive read for junior officers learning about small-unit tactics, the story was originally published in the British United Service Magazine, and later in the Journal of the United States Infantry Association.

The Cold War proved to be fertile ground for strategists looking to write about the future of warfare. British General Sir John Hackett imagined how a Soviet invasion of West Germany might snowball into a global conflict in his 1979 novel, The Third World War: August 1985, while an insurance agent named Tom Clancy published his obsessively detailed and technically oriented novel about a rogue Soviet submarine, The Hunt for Red October, with the Naval Institute Press in 1984_. _Hawkish mainstream science fiction authors also contributed, setting up an institute called SIGMA — the self-described “science fiction think tank” — which has aimed to provide insights and technical expertise for the U.S. government since 1992.

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