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Marines use science fiction to envision, prepare for the battlefield of the future

Water bots, holographic radio displays, electromagnetic pulse rifles, and futuristic gear for Marines operating in dystopian landscapes may not be too far in the distant future — at least as envisioned by the Atlantic Council's panelists discussing Marines, science fiction and the future of warfare.

Eighteen military writers out of 74 applicants were selected to participate in a one-day writing seminar held in February last year. Their work was discussed Wednesday during a panel discussion at the Washington, D.C., think tank.

The three short stories they produced, with help from professional science fiction authors, question the current utility of force in a futuristic world. The goal is to challenge institutional knowledge and encourage Marines to think outside the box in order to adapt to a rapidly changing world. 

"If we are thinking and writing about the future, we are more likely to get it right," said Steven Grundman, the George Lund Fellow for emerging defense challenges at the Atlantic Council.

The one-day writing seminar was coordinated in 2015 by the Marine Corps' Futures Assessment Division (MCFAD) and the Atlantic Council, with the goal of bringing to life the potential three future worlds described in the Marine Corps Security Assessment Environment Forecast (MCSEF): 2030-2045.

The exercise in creative science fiction writing or "immersive futurism," as described by Charles Gannon, a member of the SIGMA intelligence and defense consultancy group, was intended to highlight bridged gaps in institutional thinking.

"Some folks in defense and the intelligence community don't think about the future. The intelligence community is driven by requirements," Erin Simpson, chief executive officer of Caerus Associates, a research and analysis firm, said. "Science fiction is good for problems of discovery."


As the military works to prepare for an uncertain, ever-changing operating environment, the services have turned to science fiction as a way to envision the future.

Last fall, the Army launched its inaugural Mad Scientist Science Fiction Writing Contest, calling on soldiers to write about "Warfare in 2030 to 2050." Soldiers who wanted to participate were asked to consider trends in science, technology, society, the global economy, and other aspects, and how these trends will affect how the Army operates in future conflicts.

Writers can explore how future capabilities may be used during warfare, and the Army may use those ideas to research the future of technology and warfare.

The three science fiction stories produced through the joint effort of the Marine Corps and the Atlantic Council describe dystopian landscapes that seek to capture the strategic global community and the potential futuristic tactical operating environment for the Marine Corps, said Lt. Col. Patrick Kirchner, deputy director of MCFAD.

The intent is that a lance corporal or second lieutenant reading or writing these stories will have described an operating environment that will no longer be new to them when they advance in rank later in their careers.

"It won’t be the first time the Marine has thought about the experience or world he is operating in," Kirchner said.

The uniformed personnel selected to write the science fiction stories had two rules they had to follow in their stories: the future world had to be laid out in the MCSEF publication and be bounded by the rules of physics, Kirchner said.

The MCSEF document, described as "printed Ambien" by Kirchner, was published in 2015, and is the culmination of research, future trends and estimates from the National Intelligence Council.

It describes three potential future global environments. In the first, water scarcity exacerbates conflict between the developed and developing world. The U.S. plays a significant role in this world but is checked by a challenging China and budgetary restrictions. The second world envisions humanitarian disasters, food scarcity and massive demographic migrations to mega cities. The third world foresees an America that is no longer a global leader, a multipolar landscape brought out by the rise of China and India and the diffusion of technology.

"The lesson of history is that change is constant, and it is happening faster and faster," Gannon said. "Meaningfully thinking about the future is difficult and needs people that think outside the institution."

This is especially true if the U.S. wants to steer clear of the futures detailed in the Marine Corps publication, Simpson added.

The three short stories produced by the uniformed service members alongside professional science fiction authors are titled, "Water is a Fightin’ World," "Double Ten Day," and "The Montgomery Crisis."

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