Air Force Forecasts 2040 Operating Environments in Global Futures Report

In December, Northrop Grumman and the U.S. Air Force unveiled the sixth generation B-21 Raider. (Image: Northrop Grumman)

The Air Force published its Global Futures Report April 12, assessing four potential operating environments Airmen may have to navigate in before the turn of the century.

The report incorporates findings using Foresight Methodology to identify key forces and factors that will drive or constrain how the service will fight in 2040.

“This report defines success in challenging singular visions of the future while understanding disruptions will be the norm,” said Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, Air Force Futures Director. “The strategies we adopt and the forces we design must address the possibility of surprise, especially surprises that could transform how we fight.”

The Air Force Global Futures Report: Joint Functions in 2040 explores four scenarios, or future operating environments, through the lens of the seven joint functions found in U.S. doctrine – Fires, Protection, Movement and Maneuver, Information, Intelligence, Command and Control (C2) and Sustainment.

The report develops four alternative future operating environments (FOEs) through the lenses of continued growth, transformational, constrained, and collapse representations of the future in 2040. These global scenarios drew from environmental scanning and issue analysis that uncovered emerging weak signals, current trends, and long-standing structural forces that together will shape the future.

There is no way to accurately predict the future given long time horizons and intervening events; this report instead provides an analytical assessment of potential FOEs, and through comparative analysis, raises key issues for further research. Using the four lenses, Air Force Futures examined the Joint Functions to demonstrate how emerging signals, trends, and forces may impact core operations across the USAF and DOD.

Here is a brief overview of the four lenses the Air Force used to define future operating environments, technologies and scenarios outlined in the report:

  • Continued Growth: Great Power competitors continue attempts to increase leverage over the United States and diminish its advantages. Globalization remains the dominant economic factor, driving even more interconnectedness and interdependencies. Competitors make prudent economic choices to undermine U.S. alliances and partnerships and limit U.S. access to key resources and markets. Some competitors exploit ethical asymmetries to hollow out key treaties and international norms. Potential adversaries use proxy wars to test the abilities of genetically modified soldiers, advanced chemical and biological weapons, and nuclear weapons. Modern technology eliminates sanctuary, particularly when ubiquitous sensors incorporate artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML).
  • Transformational: Unprecedented technological advances and their widespread dissemination reshape global power dynamics on a scale not previously considered plausible. Revolutionary breakthroughs in gene editing and space capabilities—further enabled by advances in autonomy, AI/ML, point-of-origin manufacturing, quantum computing, and directed energy—disrupt the global security environment and lead to the development of weapons capable of instantaneous, world altering effects.
  • Constrained: Sino-Russian coordination continues to benefit both countries in everything from new technologies, strategic and critical minerals, to the mass production and distribution of resources. This cooperation bolsters their economies while blunting or destroying the economies of perceived rivals. New power blocs use gray-zone tactics and novel strategies to obviate great power risks and find opportunities to increase their own power. The United States and its Allies and partners struggle in this fractured world order.
  • Collapse: Natural and man-made crises drive isolationist and nationalist tendencies globally. Relatively stronger countries protect their own interests at the direct expense of others. Weaker countries struggle to maintain order and provide essential service. Technological diffusion together with advances in quantum, autonomy, AI/ML, and directed energy has transformed warfighting while simultaneously collapsing the world order established in the mid-20th century. Increases in natural and humanitarian catastrophes add to tensions, as does the reemergence of powerful violent extremist organizations (VEOs) that step into the power vacuums. Reduced U.S. defense budgets lead to diminished military size and operational scope. Opportunistic competitors take actions to achieve nationalistic priorities and undermine the rules-based world order. Fragmentation and protectionism drive states to shore up resources and enact Orwellian controls on society.