Back in 2016, I unveiled myself as a science fiction devotee in a short article at the Grounded Curiosity site, which examined why military officers should read science fiction. Subsequently, in 2017 and 2018, Nate Finney and I published articles about why reading science fiction should be part of the professional reading program of military and national security professionals. In both, we provided reading lists for those who sought to add science fiction into their professional development.
Last year, we used the concept of science fiction as part of a broader approach to Joint Professional Military Education as the foundation for an elective at the Australian Defence College. It was named The Perry Group (fans of John Scalzi will understand the background of the name), and focussed on thinking about the future of the Australian military. It sought to use military history, and an understanding of our contemporary institutions, as a foundation for leaping forward and considering where we might be in 2040 using science fiction as a framework.
Conceptually, the use of military history, contemporary issues and science fiction to inform future force designs makes great sense. But what does this really mean in practice? I though I examine aspects of how reading science fiction might support thinking about evolved future military organisations. Two key areas I examine are future force design, and future leader development.
Reading science fiction shifts our paradigm for thinking about military issues. We should aspire to apply the creativity of our people to produce imaginative force designs for the future, which we can then test in experiments. It should prevent ‘like for like’ replacement (or at least test the premise for doing so), and it should open up new ways of thinking about operational approaches. It should also assist institutions to think through the implications on future force structure of advanced technologies, and how organisations can ‘absorb’ these technologies. For future leader development, reading science fiction – and encouraging others to read it – should be honing in our leaders the capacity to appreciate diverse views and nurture innovation in their subordinates. It might also assist in building the technological literacy of our leaders in an age where technological change is accelerating.
Science fiction allows us to consider a variety of negative potential futures. In designing relevant and effective forces for the future, we must wargame best and worst case events. Science fiction can assist us in thinking through these – especially worst case – and help organisations to avoid strategic surprise (to the degree that is possible with thinking adversaries). For future leader development, reading science fiction might also build the imagination to help minimise strategic and operational surprise, and provide a means to help leaders fight through tactical, operational and strategic shock with the organisations they lead.
Reading science fiction reinforces the enduring nature of war. Finally, science fiction permits us to test the principles of war in force design. Based on two millennia (or more) of human conflict, science fiction can provide another framework to assess the continuing value of these principles, and the enduring nature of war as described by Clausewitz. There are also important future leader development implications. Notwithstanding new technologies, war is likely retain its human nature. Future leaders will still need to accept, manage and exploit uncertainty, while leading their people who will experience fear, surprise, shock and sometimes a lack of confidence in their ability to win.
So, what next?
First, the Australian Defence College will run the Perry Group again in 2019. Along with my great friend and collaborator Dr Mike Evans, we will again look at future military and other national security challenges through the lens of science fiction with selected students and staff from the Command and Staff course. Next, we will establish something similar for our senior course at the Australian War College, the Defence Strategic Studies course. This will allow our senior military and civilian students to think through strategic problems using a different framework. Tentatively I have called this the Sagan Group (once again, if you have read John Scalzi’s books, you understand the source of the name).
Of course, we need to keep this love of science fiction in perspective. It needs to one part of a balanced and broad approach to developing the intellectual edge of our people, and the institution more broadly. However, it must and will be part of how we nurture our people into developing the range of skills needed to think about the future of our institution and our profession.
I would love to hear what you think. Let me know on my Twitter feed at @WarInTheFuture
Have a great day.
Image credit - ArtStation, 2018