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UK MOD’s vision of Future Operating Environment in 2035, future force and Capability development

Britain’s Ministry of Defense has released a new forecast of future world in 2035, in report, titled “Future Operating Environment 2035”. It describes the key institutional, cultural and physical characteristics, actors and their motivations, that are likely to shape the future operating environment. It identifies key implications to assess future military utility and opportunities for UK’s Defence in 2035 that can contribute to future force development process.

“The centre of gravity of global economic power is continuing to shift, away from North America and Europe, towards Asia, resulting in a change in the balance of power and an increasingly multipolar world.” “In 2035, the key global economic powers will be the US, China and the EU – with India rising rapidly – but only the US and China are likely to have the capability to dictate global events and potentially challenge world order.”

“There are likely to be significant challenges resulting from population growth, migration, greater demand for energy, climate change, continuing globalization, rapid urbanization and the exponential rate of change in some readily-available technologies.” By 2035, disruptive events will have increasingly global consequences – requiring action from the international community.

In developing states, rapid population increases and urbanisation may lead to instability, Failed or failing cities could become the source of major security issues and Poor governance and inadequate institutions could allow violent and criminal non-state actors to flourish.

“As a result of climate change, sea levels will rise and extreme climatic events are likely to increase in intensity, frequency and duration out to 2035, resulting in loss of life, physical destruction, disease and famine. Demand for a range of natural resources is likely to increase over the next 20 years. There may also be a scarcity of fossil fuels, rare earth elements and new ‘high tech’ materials.”

Technology will be a key driver of change due to the rate of advance and growing accessibility in some fields. Actors may employ existing dual use or commercial technologies in highly innovative ways, which may be disruptive.

A combination of these factors may lead to challenges at home, as well as fragility and instability within the wider international system. Faster and more agile military responses may be called for, posing a challenge for policy- and decision-makers


UK Context

UK Defence is likely to have a broader role in supporting the Government’s wider interests and contributing to the nation’s prosperity and stability by applying both hard and soft power. “The military instrument must be capable of fulfilling three overarching and interrelated functions, to protect the UK mainland, our Overseas Territories and citizens abroad; actively shape the international environment to promote UK interests overseas and to enhance the UK’s reputation and contribute to international security and stability; and respond to crises by projecting power to protect UK interests overseas and maintain international security and stability.”

The study admits that Britain’s influence could “decline out to 2035 as we compete within a larger peer group.” On the other hand, British influence “will continue to be bolstered by our system of government and our diplomatic, cultural and commercial weight, as well as the professional reputation of our Armed Forces.”

The UK will remain heavily reliant on imported energy, food and industrial resources. The security of trade routes along with the stability of the environments these resources originate from will remain vital. Our Armed Forces may be required to guarantee the security and supply of the UK’s vital resources through deterrence, engagement or the application of force to defend against armed attacks.
Critical UK infrastructure may become increasingly vulnerable to remote attack, particularly from cyberspace

In 2035, the UK is likely to have one of the largest populations in Europe, mainly due to immigration. Our Armed Forces will need to embody the diversity of the society they protect – a more diverse Armed Forces may be better able to operate in a globalised world where cultural awareness will be even more crucial than it is today.

Characteristics of Future Operating Environment

“While the state will continue to be the dominant actor in international affairs, large multinational corporations, non-governmental organisations and international organisations may be more prominent and influential.” Given trends towards greater and more complex urbanisation, engagement with city authorities will be particularly relevant for urban operations

The links between extremist nonstate actors and more powerful criminal organisations are likely to be maintained. Distinguishing between criminals and terrorists may become more difficult over the next 20 years.

By 2035, extremists will almost certainly be more able to exploit information technologies, with the potential to significantly disrupt communication and economic links. Extremists may also be able to employ a wider array of military capabilities (albeit on a limited scale), using innovative tactics that exploit our inherent vulnerabilities, including any institutional inertia.

To achieve continued impact, extremist non-state actors may seek to deliver progressively more ‘spectacular’ and violent acts that ultimately lead them to be alienated and isolated. However, where successful, these may cause mass casualties on a scale not yet seen, with significant economic, social and institutional impact.

Alliances and partnerships

“Working within international organisations, or with allies and partners, is likely to remain the preferred method of international engagement for the UK in 2035.” The importance of such partnerships will grow, but they are likely to change in construct and character, resulting in a more complex and ambiguous international environment where there is greater alliance variability.

For the UK, NATO will remain the defence alliance of choice – providing the continued commitment to Article 5 (collective self-defence of member states) but also the means of interoperability with a wide range of nations that could form coalitions of the willing.
Interoperability and adaptability will be key as bespoke alliances and partnerships are formed, both between nations and with non-state actors (such as governments working with non-governmental organisations to deliver humanitarian relief).

Culture and identity „„

The growth and proliferation of social media is likely to create new forms of identity-based ‘turbulence’ or volatility, which gain strength by their associations. This is likely to intensify and complicate battlespaces by broadening audiences and energising ’causes’ for which people fight, making pragmatic compromise harder to accept. „„

Social media’s readily-available open-source intelligence-gathering advantages are likely to be used for control, manipulation and targeting. „„ Faith-based ideologies will continue to shape many conflicts around the world in 2035. „„ Tensions arising from differences of nationality and culture and a rise in ‘identity politics’ will carry a high risk of sectarian or communal violence. „„ Analysis and predictive modelling of social behaviour will increasingly support operations.

Technology landscape

Technology developments will offer our Armed Forces opportunities as well as posing challenges. ” By 2035, the UK and other Western militaries, probably with the exception of the US, will almost certainly have been overtaken in some technologies, and may need to become accustomed to being overmatched by derived capabilities.”

Simply procuring superior capability will not be enough – the speed at which Defence can adapt and integrate technologies will be more important

Key Technological capabilities

By 2035, proliferation of anti-access and area denial capabilities will enable a wider range of potential adversaries to deploy weapons to deny our access to, and freedom of movement within, operational areas. The aim of our adversaries is likely to be to deter Western powers by raising the potential cost of action. Some methods include : „„ more readily available and advanced cruise and ballistic missiles; „„ weapons of mass effect; „„ target-specific mines; „„ guided and kinetic munitions; „„ directed energy weapons; „„ increasingly effective and longer-range man-portable air defence and anti-armour systems; „„ automated weapon systems; and „„ swarm tactics.

By 2035, it seems likely that automated systems will be advanced and highly adaptable. By 2035, the majority of missiles (including anti-ship cruise missiles) will operate at supersonic or even hypersonic speeds (five times the speed of sound or greater), with new technologies designed to defeat advanced electronic countermeasures. Gun systems are likely to incorporate electromagnetic rail gun and hybrid explosive technologies.

Further, growing intolerance towards civilian casualties and demand for increased levels of accountability will drive the need for greater distinction, precision and proportionality. As a consequence, our Armed Forces will need to exploit directed energy weapons such as high-powered lasers. Limited tactical nuclear exchanges in conventional conflicts by 2035 also cannot be ruled out, and some non-Western states may even use such strikes as a way of limiting or de-escalating conflict.

Of note, illicit nuclear trade is likely to continue out to 2035 and preventing nuclear proliferation is likely to require greater international consensus and political will.

For more advanced actors, offensive space- or ground-based anti-satellite systems will be able to disrupt the UK’s own space assets. Offensive and defensive cyber capability will offer specific advantages – disrupting our networks and systems, while countering our offensive cyber operations.

Additive manufacturing will make our logistics chain lighter. This will be key to operating in non-permissive environments, especially when the support chain is long, expensive or threatened.

By 2035, physical and cognitive performance will be artificially enhanced via biomechanical systems such as exo-skeletons or prosthetics, wearable devices and sensors, and memory-enhancing drugs. Synthetic biological components will enable new substances to be developed. By 2035, it may even be possible to create genetic weapons.

Quantum technologies promise a vast increase in processing capabilities and secure communication, particularly for encoding and deciphering sensitive messages, improvements in precision sensing, and precision-timing devices that will enhance communications and global positioning.

Big Data analytics (the ability to collect and analyse a vast amount of information quickly) will become increasingly important and sophisticated over the next 20 years. By 2035, sensors will be integrated with weapon delivery systems that track multiple targets.

In effect, cyber operations are part of the all-arms battlespace. Any use of cyberspace that impacts critical national and international infrastructures could result in military responses. Local dominance may be achieved temporarily, but dominance of global cyberspace will be impossible.

“The electromagnetic environment permeates the physical environment and overlaps with cyberspace as information passes through it. It is an integral part of the joint operating environment and its importance will increase further out to 2035. By 2035, advanced electronic warfare capabilities will have become ubiquitous.”

“The global commons will remain a critical enabler of international security, trade and communication, and will act increasingly as a conduit of military power. In 2035, the most important maritime security challenge is likely to centre around exclusive economic zones In 2035, shipping routes are likely to be increasingly contested amidst a range of rising sovereignty claims. By 2035, technological advances will allow flight at ever-higher altitudes, blurring further the distinction between air and space.”

Operating beyond the urban environment is likely to remain essential in 2035 and it will present armed forces with a range of diverse and challenging conditions: for example, arctic, desert, jungle, forest, riverine, coastal and mountainous.

‘Lawfare’ – the strategy of using law, rather than traditional means, to achieve an operational objective – is likely to be used more prominently by 2035. The UK may employ lawfare itself, and we will also need to understand how an adversary may use the law against us. For example, adversaries may sponsor legal actions as a way of challenging our Armed Forces using the legal process.

Implications for Defence

“The report identifies some of the key implications drawn from our analysis. This will enable us to assess future military utility and opportunities for Defence in 2035. Elements of both can contribute to Defence’s future force development process.”

Generating understanding

“Achieving a nuanced understanding of the operating environment will be more challenging – and more important – out to 2035. Defence’s capacity to collect and process useful intelligence lawfully from amongst a vast and growing volume of information will be a key technical challenge over the next 20 years. It may be able to meet at least part of that challenge by using the sophisticated techniques of Big Data analytics.”

“We will need to possess greater awareness of local and regional politics, law, human persuasion, behaviour and culture, supplemented by a broad range of experiences. Better understanding and intelligence, if exploited, will allow us to operate with greater precision at the operational and strategic level. It will also allow our senior decision-makers to offer better military advice and more informed options.”

Automated systems offer almost unlimited potential, yet using them is likely to be more constrained by legal and ethical concerns than by the limits of the technology itself. However, some actors may not be bound by such concerns, potentially developing combat systems that may target people indiscriminately Investment in niche capabilities that exploit weakness in anti-access and area denial systems will be required.

The continuing drive to perform a ‘spectacular’ attack, enabled by increased proliferation, may mean the threat from weaponised chemical, biological, radiological or possibly nuclear agents will endure and could increase.

Consequently, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations may become more common in 2035 than they are today. Regeneration of capability by using Reserve forces will be important, but we also need to be able to grow additional forces to create sustained resilience.

Key to future success is agility, which comprises adaptability and flexibility in both capability and approach, and specifically in terms of our thinking. To adapt is to adjust to new conditions and the ability to do this quicker than our adversaries has always been important. Defence will need to become a more effective learning organisation: adjusting, responding and exploiting quickly in the face of a wider range of threats in an increasingly volatile environment.

“In 2035, we will be presented with a more diverse and blurred mosaic of state and non-state actors, including non-governmental organisations, large multinational corporations and private security contractors”. In these circumstances, our ability to integrate and be interoperable with ad hoc coalitions and partnerships, spanning a range of technological capabilities and actors, will be a key factor in success.”

“Future systems must be able to operate and survive, at range, against more sophisticated anti-access and area denial capabilities. This will call for the innovative use of cyber, precision and stand-off weapons, as well as stealth, layered defence and automated systems – across land, sea, air and cyberspace.”

To enhance the potential of joint action, we must train together, exchange personnel more often and exploit collective efficiencies. Our ability to integrate and be interoperable with ad hoc coalitions and partnerships, spanning a range of technological capabilities and actors, will be a key factor in success.

In 2035, long-term equipment plans – with 10 to 20 year development programmes for 30 to 50 year life cycles – may no longer be viable given the rate at which future threats will evolve. Defence must be prepared to tailor and adapt its forces for each campaign, using new acquisition models where required.

‘Plug and play’ architectures that enable rapid modular upgrades will allow an improved response to new threats and mitigate the risk of obsolescence with long-term equipment plans.

Ensuring system and infrastructure resilience against disruption, and retaining sufficient reversionary modes, will be critical out to 2035. „„ Increasingly, military strength will be expressed in terms of human capability across the Whole Force, and establishing the right mix of regulars, reserves, civilians and contractors will be critical.

Commander’s perspective

So, for the operational commander, the future operating environment will be more complex and ambiguous, from physical to electronic to human aspects. The jointery of today will still be needed; but we will habitually be working in an even more combined, joint, inter-agency, intra-governmental and multinational context to contend with the challenges. Operations conducted thus far will look relatively simple compared to some of those required in the future operating environment of 2035.


The whole report can be read here

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