It’s Not Only Generals Who Fight The Last War

Should the government of Canada spend $16 billion on 65 of those supercool F-35 stealth fighter jets? I don’t know. But I do know one of the arguments often made in the debate, explicitly or implicitly, is dangerously misguided. Worse, it’s common. Extremely common. Planners of all sorts routinely fall for it — and get themselves into serious trouble as a result.

We shouldn’t buy the F-35s, it’s often said, because the conflicts of the future will be low-tech insurgencies, like Afghanistan, and pilotless drones could do what needs to be done at a fraction of the cost. Indeed, in decades of service, the CF-18s have hardly been used in combat at all. It is almost impossible to imagine circumstances in which the full capabilities of the F-35 would ever be needed.

In response, the government points to the lumbering old bombers the Russians occasionally fly close to Canada’s Arctic airspace as proof that we need $16 billion worth of super-high-tech military hardware. Which is silly. The bombers in question belong in museums. They don’t enter Canadian airspace. And, if they did, it would take them a very long time to get to a target more valuable than a caribou herd. As for the government’s claim that the F-35s are essential because a CF-18 played a superfluous role in foiling the Great Printer Cartridge Plot, it’s nothing less than embarrassing. If this is the government’s best case, the security of Canadians would be better served by the purchase of $16 billion worth of snow tires.

But this is not the government’s best case.

Underlying the claim that the wars of the future will be low-tech insurgencies like Afghanistan is a very big assumption: that we can predict the future. Is that assumption correct? No. At least not when it comes to this sort of grand-scale prediction.
Consider Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. Enormously influential when it was published in 1988, Kennedy’s book made two very specific and confident predictions about global power in the early 21st century. First, the economic superpower would be Japan. Second, the “spiralling costs of the arms race” would continue to soar for “the next few decades.”

Just three years later, the Soviet Union collapsed and military spending began a massive, decade-long contraction. At the same time, Japan’s fortunes dramatically worsened and, just this year, it lost its spot as the world’s second-biggest economy to China.

There are countless stories like this. A survey of 800 foreign policy expert predictions in 1978, for example, asked them how many Communist countries there would be in 2002. Almost 70 per cent said there would be the same or more.

And if you think I’m cherry-picking, I’d invite you to consider the work of the psychologist Philip Tetlock, who conducted the most comprehensive analysis of expert predictions ever. As I discuss at length in Future Babble, my new book, Tetlock found the average expert’s predictions were about as accurate as random guessing.

So why would we assume that we know what the wars of the future will look like?

Go back to Paul Kennedy’s two predictions and notice that they have something in common: They both take trends that were strong and clear at the time and extend them into the future. The same is true in that survey of foreign policy experts. And in the claim that future wars will look like Afghanistan.

What will the future look like? Like today. Only more so. This universal tendency is rooted in psychology. And it is tenacious. Everyone knows “generals always fight the last war.” Everyone knows that’s a mistake. Everyone knows trends change and surprises explode every now and then. Everyone knows we can’t just extend the line into the future and assume that’s how things will pan out.

And yet we keep doing it.

In 2005, Deutsche Bank issued a forecast of economic growth to 2020 that began with a warning. “Simply extrapolating the past cannot provide reliable forecasts,” it said. “Who could have imagined in 1991 that a decade of stagnation would beset Japan?” Indeed. So which developed countries did Deutsche Bank conclude would do best between 2005 and 2020? In order: Ireland, the United States, and Spain. Which was excellent as a straight-line projection of trends in 2005. And a sick joke in light of what actually happened.

And still we keep doing it. Countless experts have looked at current trends and concluded China will overtake the United States to become the biggest economy in the world.

It will happen by 2025, they say. Or 2035. Or whenever. But few of these confident forecasts acknowledge they are constructed on a cloud of uncertainties. Fewer note that 25 years ago, countless experts — even the same people in some cases — said exactly the same thing about Japan. And fewer still admit that 25 years before that lots of experts — including the renowned economist Paul Samuelson — were saying the same thing about the Soviet Union. All that matters is the trend right now. What will the future look like? Like today. Only more so.

Let me repeat that I am not saying the F-35 is a wise investment. Or that it isn’t. I don’t know. The military issues are complex, the political issues are worse, and all of it has to be weighed against alternatives and other priorities. That’s for another day.

But I do know it is foolish to think we know with any precision what the military will have to do in the coming decades, and so operational flexibility is essential. As the people in uniform say, “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” Or the future.

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