Top Five Security Challenges for the Next Ten Years

They aren’t what you might think- or even what I might like to write about. North Korea, Iran- these are the least urgent problems in security and defence policy right now.

1. Population

The world’s population is set to increase to around 9 billion by 2050. This will occur in the nations least equipped to handle this growth, primarily in Africa and South Asia. The really dangerous thing about this trend is that it is occurring just as robotics is making demonstrable headway in replacing even relatively skilled human manufacturing jobs. If the manufacturing-based development of East Asia moves over to Africa in significant volume, it will provide far fewer wages than it did in China. Add to this a global financial system that is still far from stable, and we could be faced with the necessity of reinventing the global economy as an issue of human security.

On the other side of the coin, a number of nations- notably China- are in a very bad place demographically. They face an ageing population, a consequence of the continuing One-Child Policy. Thirty-five percent of the Chinese population will be senior citizens around 2050. The countries facing this problem are present-day powerhouses for the global economy. We had better hope they’re rich enough to become importers of goods and services.

The really interesting prediction is that the middle-case projection for world population shows growth slowing after 2050 and continuing to hover around the 9 billion mark- in which case, that is the number that we will have to learn to live with, and create a stable system for. This assumes, of course, that growth doesn’t simply continue until there’s a population crash.

In any case, the population growth differential between developing and developed nations will see this issue gradually take first place in the security agendas of developed nations. The more obvious issues, such as immigration policy, will give way to dealing with the rise of new super-populated countries (Nigeria will be one), and finally, the global potential for explosive unrest as the majority of the world’s population demands a greater share of the world’s resources from the minority.

2. Computers

Technological evolution has gotten away from us. Cyber-warfare and cyber-espionage are already constant facts of life. More importantly, we are watching as increasing shares of the global economy are computerised (creating human insecurity), and likewise critical infrastructure (creating strategic insecurity). China was perhaps the first nation on Earth to base an entire generation of military doctrine on using another nation’s dependence on computers, electronics and the electromagnetic spectrum against it. We know that individuals can pose significant threats to critical infrastructure, power grids, computer networks, urban infrastructure. Arguably, victory in a future conflict may no longer belong to the more technologically advanced power, but the one that can most effectively disrupt their opponent’s technology while minimising its own vulnerability.

The only way to effectively respond to this kind of threat is to become much more conscious in our decisions about the use of computers, the complexity of computers, the design of critical systems, to be much more coordinated and aware of what exactly we are gaining and what we are losing as we upgrade in all of these areas. In other words, computer advancement must become a matter both of security policy and of public debate.

3. Drones

They’re coming. They are now relatively cheaply available from countries like China. The United States has set the precedent that they can be used against threats to national security in peacetime- and now, for surveillance against American citizens on American soil. And the monopoly of developed nations and major military powers on drone technology is about to evaporate. The time to foresee how drones might be used when they become available to nations of all stripes, political systems and allegiances was seven years ago. Now, the precedents are set, and if other nations should follow the example of the United States, then we have a problem. We don’t know what drone warfare might look like when all parties, including private buyers, criminal and terrorist organisations gain access to this technology or if there is a way to contain it.

4. Climate/Water/Food Security

Sea levels- rising. Droughts- increasing. Extreme weather events- increasing. And, as all emergency management professionals are painfully aware, there are a large number of overdue natural disasters pending, ranging from major seismic events to solar storms. Security and defence policy makers would do well to think a little less about tinpot regimes that might someday be worth nuking back to the stone age and a little more about what could very well be a perfect storm of circumstances in the next thirty years that might render global security in terms of population movement, famine, infrastructure problems and conflicts over scarce resources totally unmanageable.

5. The Unknown Future War

With the threat of major conventional war relatively low, many countries nevertheless seem to be arming for one. No one knows what it might look like, and the doctrines under which it will be fought are at this point more theoretical than many military planners would like to admit. But chances are that it will involve at least the United States, if not other developed countries, in fairly short order. The likeliest geographical locations are troubling- both bestride sea lanes that are crucial to the global economy. I’ll leave you to guess.

What isn’t on this list and why:

North Korea

North Korea is dead and doesn’t know it. It has consistently refused the China’s consistent offers to help it develop on the Chinese model- its only hope for salvation. The only question is how it will die, and how many lives it will take with it. Unless the regime is utterly suicidal, its only threat to security on a global scale is the prospect of a nuclear Japan, which may just make the Chinese hit the roof.


Everyone knows what is likely to happen if Iran goes nuclear. Israel will certainly launch airstrikes. The United States may become involved. If Iran is allowed to remain nuclear, Saudi Arabia will follow. My bet is that China, which now has more riding on Gulf oil than the United States does, will buy Iran off.


A threat perception out of all proportion to the risk. Heart disease, auto accidents, AIDS- all are bigger threats to life and limb in the developed world, except in one respect. Small terrorist threats can elicit totally disproportionate responses, causing the developed world to spend lives, treasure and reputation in far greater amounts than the terrorists could have achieved themselves.


Still a live issue, but a critical one mainly for Europe (doomed to high energy prices), and China, which will effectively dominate the market for the foreseeable future.

Anyway, that’s the view so far. We’ll see what people have to say at the World Conference on Disaster Management next week. That’s always a place where you’re bound to hear some interesting perspectives on the future.


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