Saturday, February 14, 2009

Planning For the Battlegrounds of the Future

Canadian army using sci-fi to prepare for future missions

As the Canadian Armed Forces look toward the future there's a clear premium on preparing professional soldiers for the operations of the future.

In an intriguing initiative, the Canadian Forces contracted science fiction author Karl Schroeder to produce Crisis in Zefra, a book about a peacekeeping mission set in an African city state 20 years in the future.

That was in 2005. Now, the army is set to have Schroeder pen a sequel.

The first Zefra book attempted to predict battlefield conditions in the year 2030. Zefra II will be set another ten years after that.

Of course, there are issues with trying to plan future military engagements around what one expects today.

For one thing, predictions about the future have been notoriously unreliable.

Even the most gifted individuals have had difficulty predicting future developments based on current realities. Countless children's books predicting the world of the future can attest to this.

20 years ago few people had predicted how central the internet would become to global civilization. 20 years before that many individuals doubted the commercial value of the personal computer.

Schroeder himself seems to recognize this as he admits that 2040 "is just far enough in the future that nearly everything we say is likely to be wrong."

"On the other hand, there are things that we know are coming down the pipe in the next 20 years or so and we can extrapolate from those what might be possible afterward," Schroeder explains. "So although what we end up doing will have a hugely speculative element to it, the foundations of the speculation are likely to be pretty solid."

Even if the predictions he's making are almost certainly bound to be incorrect, Schroeder asserts that there's still value in the attempt.

"That’s like painting your windshield black and driving out on the highway, as far as I’m concerned. You need to be able to look as far ahead as you can, even if it’s foggy and you can’t quite make things out," he insists.

Even if such predictions often seem to be cloudy, they often still have great merit. For example, in the December 1999 issue of Playboy magazine, Scott Ritter predicted the United States would suffer a minimum of 100,000 casualties during the act of defeating Saddam Hussein alone.

In reality, the United States suffered a comparatively negligible number of casualties during the fight against Saddam and has suffered the overwhelming majority of its casualties during the counter-insurgency effort since.

Yet Ritter's article could have persuaded many more Americans against the Iraq war, even if his specific projections proved to be inaccurate.

In particular, there seem to be some significan issues with some of the hardware-related predictions that Schroeder has made, including a "smart dust" that provides wi-fi connectivity to soldier's communication kits and weapons featuring IFF (Identify Friend/Foe) modules that won't allow them to fire in situations in which civilians may be endangered.

"A lot of guys in the military will raise their eyebrows over that and go, ‘Uh-oh, I see all kinds of pitfalls with that one.’ But it’s an interesting idea," mused Lieutenant Colonel Mike Rostek.

IFF technology is far from a new concept in military development. As Freeman Dyson notes in Weapons and Hope the need for such technology became evident as far off in history as the 1940s when British bomber commands started deploying anti-aircraft weaponry that could fire beyond visual range.

Interestingly, as a Mennonite, Karl Schroeder doesn't consider himself predisposed toward military-themed writing. "I was raised as a pacifist," he explains. "But the way I reconcile that is I’m a strong believer in a foreign policy philosophy called human security, which is championed by Lloyd Axworthy, which basically states that the state doesn’t deal just with other states. When there’s a crisis, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s a military crisis or a natural disaster or whatever, you intervene to save people. And, actually, Canada has acted on that philosophy for a number of years, and as a way of employing the army, I’m entirely in favour if it."

Attempting to predict the battlefields of the future may not be entirely reliable, but it very much is a worthwhile enterprise.

Whether or not Schroeder's work pays dividends in terms of preparedness for future conflicts is something that Canadians will have to wait 20 years to see, but it will be well worth the wait.


  1. You know... I can't help but smile a little when I read this. Not in a bad way, but in a "I am slightly amused" sort of way.

    People have written about future conflicts forever, most of them written to be totally inaccurate and work of fiction. But I think it would be interesting to see a book where the current scientific advancements have been studied, weighed and understood, If this author can extrapolate something that is even slightly plausible I think it can be of great worth for out military.

    Although I think we'd have better luck if Hergé or Jules Verne was around.

  2. As sad as I am to say this, I don't think the troubles in Africa is a problem that will be solved within 20 or 30 years.

    I think Schroeder's work will be fairly applicable, even if some of the more fantastic elements will clearly be a bit of a problem.


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