Lance Cpl. Steven West steps into a remote enemy hideout clad in a 350-pound exoskeleton, sensors piercing the darkness and displaying digital info on his helmet visor, until a shock of static feedback knocks him to the dirty floor. A band of locals surround him with pipes and rebar. “The feedback stopped, leaving his ears ringing, and grainy video feed warped back into view as he was struck again. And again.”
This scene isn’t pulled from the latest Clancy-esque techno-thriller, but a short story written as part of a new Marine Corps exercise using science fiction to think about possible threats 15 to 30 years in the future.
“Water’s a Fightin’ Word” recounts what happens when a squad of Marines on a humanitarian mission in Africa gets surrounded during a global freshwater shortage. The author slips in glimpses of military technology in its infancy today, such as the exoskeleton, electromagnetic pulse weapons, and combat-ready robots, and combines it with likely geopolitical scenarios, such as conflict over water and other environmental resources.
Officers at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory/Futures Directorate in Quantico, Va., came up with the idea last year to host a sci-fi contest to spur creativity, as well as get uniformed Marines to conceive of threats in a different way. A total of 84 entries were narrowed down to 18 finalists, who were paired with professional sci-fi writers—including “World War Z’s” Max Brooks—during a workshop co-hosted by the Atlantic Council. After months of editing, the top three stories were collected in “Science Fiction Futures: Marine Corps Security Environment Forecast 2030-2045″ and published online [PDF].
The stories share common themes of political chaos, a rising China, a less-powerful and more inward-looking United States, conflicts over environmental resources, and the growth of megacities in the developing world. For Marines, who are the first US boots on the ground in the toughest situations, the toughest challenges may stem from the latter.
“It will not be like Fallujah or Hue City,” said Marine Lt. Col. Patrick Kirchner, citing intense block-by-block conflicts in Iraq 2004 and Vietnam 1968. “But more like Manhattan, and not on a weekend.” Kirchner’s comments came at a panel on the sci-fi Marine warfighting project at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “You can’t pick out the enemy and you can’t just shoot him. You’ve got to figure out how to clear a skyscraper. You can’t just hang green t-shirts or chem-lites in the window and say it’s clear. We have to find out how to figure out this kind of situations.”
Fighting the Future
The “Science Fiction Futures” project includes “Double Ten Day,” set in Taiwan after a major earthquake leads to a civil war between pro-Chinese and pro-Taiwanese forces in Taipei, and “The Montgomery Crisis,” about a genetically modified bioweapon let loose in the US homeland.
Kirchner says Marines magazine is now featuring a monthly sci-fi column, and that the writing exercise has two audiences.
“If you target senior (Marine) leadership, you want them to think about what the future looks like and investments,” he said. “When you are targeting second lieutenants and lance corporals, you want them to consider possibilities for the future that they are going to experience when they are senior enlisted or mid-grade officers of a different world that hopefully won’t surprise them because they have considered it before.”
The Marines aren’t the first big organization to use science fiction as a tool for creative planning. Corporations like Lowe’s, Hershey, and Del Monte have embraced sci-fi consultants, as have the US Navy and NATO.
“We study history, but we’re starting to talk about studying science fiction more,” said Brig. Gen. Julian Dale Alford, commander of the USMC Warfighting Lab/Futures Directorate.
Alford says science-fiction scenarios are meshed with closer-in decadal predictions by US intelligence agencies, and then turned into real-life wargaming episodes in places like the California desert.
“It kind of dribbles down,” Alford said. “We inject all kinds of future technologies using surrogates, we reorganize our forces and draw lessons learned. We do multiple experiments throughout the year.”
Science fiction helps break military strategists and thinkers out of their quarterly or yearly planning cycles, according to Erin Simpson, a consultant to the military and former CEO of Caerus Associates. “Most folks in the intelligence community don’t think about the future. Most of the intelligence production is driven by known threats,” Simpson said. “Known threat versus problems of discovery. Fiction is a really good place for thinking about problems of discovery.”
And, for the Marines, a great way to prepare for the threats of 2030 and beyond.