Envisioning Future Weapons of Mass Destruction

By LTC Natalie Vanatta, PhD

April 28, 2022

“It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.”  - Asimov

Imagine where the U.S. Army will be in 2035. Perhaps with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in the Artic. With our allies and partners, stabilizing the Pacific basin. Spread across the homeland with the Corps of Engineers. Managing global power projection operations in a major U.S. seaport. Wherever Soldiers serve in 2035, one thing is clear: technology will continue to enhance our capabilities. Yet adversaries will undoubtedly seek to exploit vulnerabilities within this same technology. Perhaps manipulating social media to extort an officer, using an unknown vulnerability to disable friendly fighting vehicles, or manipulating supply chain automation to attack a U.S. city. 

On the 1st and 2nd of March, 2022, a group of 60+ individuals gathered on Joint Expeditionary Base Ft Story-Little Creek to explore a hard question: “How might future Emerging Disruptive/Destructive Technologies increase the effectiveness and lethality of Weapons of Mass Destruction in kinetic warfare?” Not swayed by the gorgeous scenery of Virginia Beach, they closeted themselves in a conference center for two days to explore a future operating environment.  The goal was to envision potential strategic surprises as a result of emerging technologies.  History has shown us that the strategic and military applications of technology is not generally apparent until after the conflict begins. These individuals wanted to imagine a wide range of possible and potential threats so that NATO [i]  could prepare for them today. 

The workshop participants were an eclectic mixture of individuals from academia, government, military, industry, non-profits and think tanks. It included undergraduate students from all six senior military colleges (Norwich University, Texas A&M University, The Citadel, Virginia Military Institute, Virginia Tech, and the University of North Georgia) and two service academies (United States Military Academy and United States Air Force Academy) as well as professors from colleges within the U.S. and Europe. It included company grade officers from the U.S. Army and field grade officers from NATO countries. It included amazing researchers from the National Labs as well as strategic thinkers from across Industry.   This broad range of people was intentional -  the organizers of the event know from experience that the more diverse the assembled team (e.g.; race, gender, domain expertise, age, etc.) the better the materials that will be generated.

“What I enjoyed the most about the experience is the diverse mix of people that attended! As a college student, on a regular day, I would never find myself working in a group with people who are experts in their field or with nearly as much experience. I learned so much from not only the event itself, but from holding conversations with all the attendees.”  

- Hadder Hussein, Army ROTC, Texas A&M

Using the Threatcasting [ii]  methodology, the participants spent two days collaborating on a picture of the future ten years hence. The group watched several short presentations from leading domain experts to set the stage.  First, they explored how we might define ourselves as people, what relationships we value, and the communities that we feel a part of in the next decade. The workshop then added technology to the discussion – exploring what will emerge in the next ten years and how our future selves might use it. This is coupled with an exploration of economic trends (at the macro and micro level) that will influence their view of the world and how they can afford to live their lives. 

This is where the science fiction comes in: within these future environments, the workshop participants imagined a person living their life – where, potentially, the evolution of our technology and society and economies have created vulnerabilities in the fabric of our lives that we never anticipated a decade before.  Like Marie Curie’s developmental work on radioactivity in which she developed a mobile X-ray unit for us in field hospitals during WWI that would be the same technology that would lead to the atomic bomb in WWII.  So, the participants envision these threats and the actors that might want to take advantage of these vulnerabilities to create attack vectors in order to cause mayhem.  

”A Threatcasting session is future research on steroids. A session keeps you both engaged and thinking at the same time, and grouped with people outside your usual circles makes it easier to innovate and leave normal thought patterns at the door”. 

– Dr. Vilma Luoma-aho, Vice Dean of Education, Jyväskylä University School of Business and Economics (JSBE)

The result: 52 stories of possible and potential threats. But the workshop did not end with doom and gloom. Dismal prognostications may grab headlines, but Threatcasting is about researching and preparing for future threats. Having some of the top thinkers from across society, from different sectors, with different experiences and different viewpoints enables the workshop to brainstorm a whole-of-society approach to detect, mitigate, and recover from these threat vectors in our visions of the future.  

While the power of Threatcasting arises from the detailed narrative, like the most powerful fiction, the end result is not solely a product of the imagination. Threatcasting is as much a framework as a detailed process and results in specific actions organizations and governments can employ to mitigate future risks.  Post-workshop, analysts are working through all the raw data generated in order to develop some high-level findings and actions that NATO and the U.S. can take in order to protect our societies from the ingenious ways that emerging technologies can influence the effectiveness of future weapons of mass destruction.  

In order to better illustrate these future threats facing NATO and the U.S. Army, publishing technical reports and speaking with senior leaders is not enough. The Army has a history of using graphic novels and fiction to help the workforce understand somewhat intangible concepts and make them real.  The Army Cyber Institute (ACI) has commissioned a creative team of writers and illustrators to combine these Threatcasting findings with military expertise to create two graphic novels. The ACI website [iii] has previously created graphic novels from Threatcasting workshops and the new ones will be available later this year.  These visual representations of the research are great conversation pieces to get the world talking about cyber and emerging technologies as it relates to the military.

The output from those two days in Virginia Beach will produce multiple work products including a technical report in the summer of 2022.  No one can predict the future.  But gatherings like this of passionate people who care about the future of global security is one step that can be taken to prepare for all the possible tomorrows for weapons of mass destruction.  

[i] NATO Allied Command Transformation (n.d.). https://www.act.nato.int/  

[ii] Johnson, B., Vanatta, N., & Coon, C. (2021). Threatcasting. Synthesis Lectures on Threatcasting, 1(1), i-285.

[iii] Army Cyber Institute (n.d.). Threatcasting. https://cyber.army.mil/Work-Areas/Threatcasting/ 

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