Jeff Becker is a consultant in the U.S. Joint Staff J-7, Joint Concepts Division and writes extensively on military futures and joint force development, including the 2016 edition of the Joint Operating Environment:  The Joint Force in a Contested and Disordered World. He can be found at LinkedIn at or at  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  Divergent trajectories for U.S. military power.

Date Originally Written:  May 30, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  July 23, 2018.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is a military futurist supporting the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff J7 which is responsible for the six functions of joint force development: Doctrine, Education, Concept Development & Experimentation, Training, Exercises and Lessons Learned.  The author is a classical realist and believes strongly in the importance of husbanding U.S. strategic power and avoiding wasting conflicts around the world, while simultaneously believing in the judicious use of the U.S. military to protect its interests and support and defend a favorable world order. 

Background:  Today U.S. understanding of the long-term trajectory of its power is at a crossroads, with two divergent and highly consequential potential futures as options[1].  Each future is plausible.  Each future has widely different implications for the kind of Joint Force that the U.S. will need.

Significance:  New national security and national defense strategies direct a recapitalization of the Joint Force after nearly two decades of war.  Clarifying which future is more probable and the force modernization implications that flow from each can help to illuminate what the U.S. and its military can reasonably aspire to and achieve in the future[2].  Basing force design on sound assumptions about the relative trajectory of U.S. power – particularly economic power, but also other intangibles such as scientific innovation or social cohesion – is central to well-defined Joint Force roles and missions and the requisite concepts and capabilities it will need in the future

Articulating two distinct visions for the possible trajectory of American power, and then consistently anchoring force design choices on the expected one, will ensure the future armed forces can be an effective part of future national strategy. 

Option #1:  The consensus future understands the U.S. to remain as the single most powerful state on the world stage.  In this view, the economic and military potential of the U.S. remains relatively constant – or at the very worst – only sees a slight decline relative to other countries over the next two decades.  In such a world, the U.S. and its Joint Force, though generally superior, will be increasingly challenged and the Joint Force is forced to adapt as its power relative to others undergoes a slow erosion.  Such a world emphasizes the need to address great powers, in a period of “long term strategic competition between nations[3].”  Competition is multi-faceted, but nations generally avoid the overt use military force and pursue regional opportunities to challenge U.S. interests and objectives – particularly within their regions – in indirect and subversive ways.    

Risk:  In a world in which U.S. power is perceived as too formidable to confront directly, state rivals may prioritize indirect, proxy, and hybrid approaches as well as new forms of cyber and information confrontation that avoid open clashes with the Joint Force.  This places the Joint Force in a dilemma, as the large nuclear and conventional forces required to keep conflict contained are likely unsuitable to these indirect coercive challenges.  Option #1 would leave the U.S. more vulnerable to threats arising from persistent disorder, substate violent conflict, political subversion, influence operations, and novel and unexpected asymmetric military developments that avoid confronting the U.S. military directly.   

Gain:  Joint Force development activities in this world will be able to take advantage of greater freedom of action – including a large and capable alliance system and ability to operate through and from global commons – to deter and impose costs on competitors and adversaries.  The U.S. may have the strategic and military margins to direct more resources and effort as a “systems administrator” for the global commons.  In this role the U.S. would use military power to secure maritime global trade, open and uninhibited use of space, and thus, continue to support and defend an open world order largely favorable to U.S. against even great power competitors.

Option #2:  In this alternative future, relative U.S. economic and technological decline translate into significant strategic and military challenges more rapidly than many expect.  This world is plausible.  A particularly striking assessment in the U.K.’s Global Strategic Trends describes a 2045 People’s Republic of China (PRC) with an economy more than double that of the United States ($62.9 trillion versus $30.7 trillion) and noting that even today, the PRC military may already be “close to matching that of the U.S., perhaps exceeding it in some areas.”  A CSBA study notes that the trajectory of PRC growth means that it “poses a far greater economic challenge to the United States than did Soviet Russia, Imperial Japan, or Nazi Germany[4].”  In this world, great powers are able to translate this growing relative power into more expansive and often hostile national objectives.  

Risk:  The military consequences of a world in which the U.S. possesses one-fourth the population and one half the economy of the PRC would be profound.  Here, the U.S. is the “smaller superpower” and the PRC translates demographic potential and economic and technological prowess into more expansive strategic goals and potentially overmatches the Joint Force in a number of important capability areas.   In such a world, other competitive and openly aggressive adversaries may also pursue military spheres of influence and make regional and local arrangements incompatible with a free and open international order.  Adversaries may be able to project power globally with advanced expeditionary forces, but also through new space, information, cyber weapons, and long-range precision strike systems.  Combined, these may force the U.S. to invest more in homeland defense at the expense of our own global power projection capabilities.

Gain:  Joint force development efforts in this world are forced to be agile enough to confront aggressive and powerful adversaries in asymmetric, unexpected, and flexible ways.  Counterintuitively, in such a world it may be easier for the U.S. military to counter aggressive adversary moves.  In a world of powerful defensive capabilities in which projecting power through dense and connected defensive complexes is extremely difficult, the U.S. could optimize the Joint Force to construct defensive systems and perimeters around Allies and Partners.  The U.S. can also invest in strategic mobile defenses in-depth to raise the risk and cost of adversary initiatives around the world. 

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


[1]  These alternative futures are derived from “challenged assumption #1 in a Joint Staff J7 study, Challenged Assumptions and Potential Groupthink (April 2018), p. 9.

[2]  See, Joint Operating Environment 2035 (July 2016), p. 50-51

[3]   Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy (January 2018), p. 2.

[4]   Andrew Krepinevich, Preserving the Balance: A U.S. Eurasia Defense Strategy, CSIS (2017), p. 40