Threatcasting and the Lessons it Offers

May 9, 2019

Believe it or not, daily threats faced by Western populations in the 21st century are at some of the lowest in all history. In developed countries in particular, external threats are something that we rarely consider in everyday life. Threats here are usually considered to be things such as crime, illness, or accidents; and when external threats are brought to the public’s attention it’s usually in the form of terror attacks, political change, or economic forces that may disrupt our day to day life.

Of the general public, few would consider, or even believe, that globally disruptive events such as major conflict or pandemics are likely to affect them at a foreseeable point in the future. It is even rarer to think of future problems – most people encounter these ideas in the form of science fiction, and these are easily dismissed because it is set decades in the future or around fantastical advances of technology. Being able to forecast the damage that emerging technologies can inflict in the coming years is the domain of threatcasting, a discipline focused on incorporating futurology, political science, and strategic thinking to attempt to predict where future threats will emerge.

Global Perspective

The UK’s Ministry of Defence’s (MOD) Global Strategic Trends (GST) publication, part of a wider strategic analysis programme led by its Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, is a long-standing attempt to forecast future threats, military requirements, and trends. The executive summary, by Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Nick Carter and MOD Permanent Secretary Stephen Lovegrove, attempts to address the overall conclusions behind the GST. “We are at an inflection point. Many future trends are familiar; environmental stress and changing demography, accelerating technological change, the increasing importance of information, greater human empowerment and national and international transitions in both economic, political and military power. Much less familiar is the unprecedented acceleration in the speed of change, driving ever more complex interactions between these trends.”

The summary identifies six key drivers that require adaptation, exploitation/mitigation, or action.

Trends that require adaptation
– Increasing human empowerment.
– Power transition and diffusion.

Trends that require mitigation/exploitation
– Centrality of information.
– Accelerating tech advancement.

Trends that require action
– Increasing environmental stress.
– Changing populations and evolving habitats.

The GST document is based on a review of 42 different topics, and involved commissioning 70 pieces of academic research – so the key drivers are broad in scope but there are specifics to be examined. “The cumulative effect represents a strategic challenge that requires a strategic response. We must learn to think differently and develop the agility to enable continuous adaptation,” explained the GST executive summary.

Threatcasting over the long term inevitably leads to either large categories across a wide range, or a narrow view in one particular specialized domain. To better understand these categories, we looked at three major threatcasting publications, which all outline similar categories and frequently overlap in conclusions.

In the UK, the MOD published “Global Strategic Trends” in 2018. In the U.S., CSIS published “Defense 2045” in 2015. In Canada, DND published “The Future Security Environment 2013-2040” in 2013. Grouping categories from these three major documents gives us a better sense of where analysts point towards for threats.

All three feature technology, environment, conflict, politics, and social trends in some form or another, but these documents are aimed at high level threatcasting, offering only broad suggestions. It bears noting that DND’s report is more than five years old.


Threatcasting owes much to the field of science fiction and some agencies even employ science fiction authors to offer perspectives on future scenarios. Tech­nology forecasting in particular can sound most like a science fiction story as threat scenarios can involve artificial intelligence (AI), cyber warfare, and 3D printing.

From the Canadian perspective, the Future Security Environment report points out that incorporating technological change can be a challenge. “Scientific and technological advances illustrate the huge potential of S&T to generate opportunities and risks. Organiza­tions that are agile enough to seize technological opportunities when they arise will be able to develop new means to increase and maintain capability advantage and to deter and defeat adversaries”, it stated.

Specific future threats have already presented themselves in some cases, particularly in information technology, and threatcasting can offer a sense of how these threats are likely to develop. The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a U.S.-based think tank, lists “a highly disruptive cyber attack on U.S. critical infrastructure and networks” as one of its top tier risks.

In 2017, the US Army Cyber Institute released the report entitled ‘A Widening Attack Plain’ in 2017, which outlined a potential combined cyber and terrorist attack in the year 2026. The report aimed to highlight how the force multiplier effects of technology can be used against states.


Climate change is listed by all three major threatcasting documents as a significant ongoing factor that will act as a catalyst for other political or societal challenges. A 2018 report by the U.S. Department of Defense points to climate change as a major risk to military infrastructure, both in the U.S. and around the globe. “DoD looks at climate through the lens of its mission. From that perspective, changes in climate affect national security in several ways. Changes in climate can potentially shape the environment in which we operate and the missions we are required to do.”
A report from the World Bank also outlines the major impacts on the planet that climate change will have, such as “accelerated sea level rise, increase in sea surface temperatures, intensification of tropical and extra tropical cyclones, extreme waves and storm surges, altered precipitation and runoff, and ocean acidification.” For its part, CSIS is convinced these effects will increase the likelihood of conflict. “Exacerbated by the effects of climate change, the competition over these scarce resources may lead to increased conflict”. This conclusion was echoed by the World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim, in 2014 when he said “Fights over water and food are going to be the most significant direct impacts of climate change in the next five to 10 years”. These effects will be seen closer to home, as climate change will bring more severe weather effects and diseases to Canada.


Security and armed conflict is an obvious inclusion for any threatcast, particularly those from military organizations, but even with an increase in global political tensions over the last couple of years, few project a major conflict as imminent.

The MOD report suggests that conflict is most likely with global changes. “Violent conflict mainly occurs where unaddressed regional pressures (for example, sharp population growth, resource scarcity and weak states) overlap with global challenges (such as, climate change, pollution and inequality).” The report adds an optimistic note that such events are likely to be limited in scope. “Where conflicts do arise, the framework of multinational institutions is able to successfully resolve them and mitigate many of the underlying factors. The number of deaths due to conflict continues to decrease.”

The conclusions made by the MOD in 2015 validate DND’s 2013 report, which saw a low chance of state conflict but increased instability in some regions. “Instability will likely occur in regions where national interests and spheres of influence overlap and in areas where governance is fragile or ineffective. In this challenging environment, Canada may be required to employ its armed forces to protect both its sovereignty and to promote its national interests.”

A recent forecast from The Economist’s Intelligence Unit sees regional conflict in the Middle East or the South China Sea as two of the top 10 likeliest possible global risks. Most see regional instability and non-state actors as more probable risks, and it is likely that terrorist groups will be more sophisticated in the future, and will be utilizing technology to greater effect than in the past. Dr. Matthew Burrows, principal author of the last three Global Trends lamented this likely outcome. “Sadly for the future, the kind of destruction witnessed on 9/11 is the tip of the iceberg of what terrorists, insurgents, and states can do.”

Political & Social Trends

Many see the current political climate in a number of countries as a return to a period of more polarized ideologies and a rise in nationalist sentiments, something which has been unseen for a generation.

Between Brexit, Donald Trump, the Eurozone’s troubles, and a number of other reactionary movements across the world, the risk that political differences will lead to a conflict or global disruption appears high. Threatcasting such political instability is difficult, risk analysts at CFR see a significant risk in escalation between the U.S. and North Korea or Iran, while The Economist sees a US-China trade war as a key threat.

Longer term threats include shifts in demographics, evolving health threats, and economic shifts rather than the immediate effects of protests or elections.

The MOD’s GST sees automation as a force that will impact the global economy. “Jobs where human input (rather than technical competence) is considered the most valuable component (for example, sport, arts and entertainment, and arguably, politics) could see significant growth,” and adds that capitalism itself will be reshaped. “Alternatives of offering a universal wage, payable whether a person works or not (as in Finland), nationalisation of industries, or a tax on capital, may all be features of the future economy.”

A report from the World Bank highlights the threat that drug-related diseases could have in a connected, global, economy. “Loss of drug-effectiveness because of antimicrobial resistance is increasing in both developing and developed countries. If this trend continues unchecked, the world will confront a reality where many infectious diseases have ‘no cure and no vaccine.’”

Whether through a geopolitical shift, economic shock, natural disaster or health crisis, there will be unavoidable catastrophes that must be responded to appropriately. Failure to correctly address an emergency will lead to further instability and increase the likelihood of further threats.


Threatcasting is far from an exact science, there are no guarantees to any sort, but it can be a powerful tool to inoculate institutions and populations against the worst possible outcomes of future trends. By developing and understanding likely scenarios, it can be possible to digest and prepare for changes that would otherwise be unexpected.

The executive summary of the MOD’s Global Strategic Trends, tries to address the uncertainty of the future by calling for an adaptable and open-minded attitude. “We need to explore new ways of finding answers for future, unforeseeable threats, to be ready to harness fleeting opportunities, and seek new ways to keep on finding answers and opportunities. It means changing the way we think, act, and acquire equipment, exercise command, lead. We are at a paradigm shift in the character of conflict: we need to change the way we do things fundamentally. The future starts today.”

Short of a major collapse, the increasing importance of ‘Eastern’ powers over ‘Western’ powers, which began from the end of the Cold War, will continue throughout the 21st century.

Canada’s DND concludes its 2013 report by acknowledging this trend and noting that militaries will be faced with new peers in the future. “As developing states gain economic strength, there is likely to be greater investment in military capabilities as one measure to further, and safeguard, national interests. Moreover, the diffusion of technology will likely reduce some of the advantages currently enjoyed by Western military forces.”

Innovation is a form of capital, failure to incorporate lessons or foresee potential futures will lead to missed opportunities and a loss of national influence. It is possible to mitigate or even exploit a changing world by embracing and preparing for the changes identified in threatcasts.
Former U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, stated his views for the future of the US military in 2014: “My greatest concern is that we will not innovate quickly enough or deeply enough to be prepared for the future, for the world we will face two decades from now. […] The true risk is that we will fail to achieve the far-reaching changes to our force, our plans, our posture, our objectives, and our concepts of warfare.”

– Ian Keddie is a defence and security writer currently living in the UK.