TRADOC’s Maxie McFarland speaks on future ops environment

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Turret Associate Editor
Maxie McFarland is the Training and Doctrine’s Command G-2, or deputy chief of staff for intelligence. He spoke to Fort Knox Soldiers Tuesday on the topic of the future operational environment for officer professional development.
Fort Knox and Accessions Commander Lt. Gen. Benjamin Freakley introduced Mr. McFarland with a short explanation of his responsibilities: Mr. McFarland is the Army’s lead for analyzing and defining the current and future threats and environments, leader development, capability design, training readiness, and experimentation as well as Red Teaming, culture and language strategy, the Human Terrain System, foreign military and cultural studies and the Army’s Counter-Improvised Explosive Device Integration Center. He oversees a staff of 500 government employees and a budget in excess of $250 million.
“Having the lead on something is not the same thing as being an expert,” Mr. McFarland said in his opening remarks. “Data is not the same thing as knowledge either; knowledge is a cognitive function, not a digital process.”
To illustrate the definition of “futurist,” Mr. McFarland asked the audience how many would call themselves futurists? Very few hands were raised. However, when he asked how many were planning to retire from active duty, how many had plans for their lives after the Army, or how many contributed to their Thrift Savings Plans—the military’s version of a 401k—far more hands were seen.
“By thinking about the future, making plans for the future indicates you expect to live long enough to retire and you’re making arrangements for that retirement when you save,” he said. “All those things make you a futurist.”
While Mr. McFarland explained that defining a futurist is relatively simple, projecting events or circumstances of the future is anything but simple. To illustrate errors experts have made in the past, McFarland quoted a source who said he could only envision the need for perhaps five computers in the entire world; that man was the president of IBM at the time. Another subject matter expert said he doubted anyone would ever need more than 640 KB of memory in a computer; that man was Bill Gates.
Mr. McFarland said that the Army needs to try to project possible events and circumstances of the future in order to prepare the means to survive, combat, or perhaps even prevent those events.
Obviously not an exact science, futuristic planning uses many different techniques—or “drivers” as Mr. McFarland called them—to try to make future projections. Trend analysis, models and simulations, visioning, gaming, brainstorming, Delphi methods, and alternate futures are just a few of the ways to think about life in 2030. Other factors like globalization, demographics, communication, science, technology, natural resources, cultures and conflicts, and even possible weapons of mass destruction are considered.
Mr. McFarland spends most of his time thinking about future developments and how they might affect the way the world develops and the Army fights, but he said many military leaders have not agreed with him. He recalled that more than one leader has essentially told him to shut up and sit down, not considering futuristic planning to be a priority.
While most of the factors Mr. McFarland discussed are not inherently positive or negative, he said armed conflict very often develops when there is a confluence of many factors that might drive one country or culture to violence against another. He said his team watches competition for natural resources, the development of extreme ideologies, and rising influences of multinational corporations. All of those things can contribute to conflict.
Mr. McFarland’s team has also developed some projected events by considering some that are probable, possible, and then—worst case scenarios—unthinkable. In the probable category were more terrorist attacks in the U.S., more humanitarian crises, persistent cyber conflicts, and further terrorism throughout the world. Conflict around the straits of Hormus, a Kurdish nation, an Arab-Israeli war, a hostile Pakistan regimen, genocide, a China-Taiwan conflict, and Korean conflict fell into the possible category. The unthinkable occurrences included pandemics, nuclear incidents in the continental U.S., a Russian NATO conflict, a Mexican narcotic state, a hostile Turkish regime, an Iran-Iraq conflict, and the fall of the House of Saud.
In summary, Mr. McFarland reminded the Soldiers that future conflicts will no doubt be increasingly complex with hybrid threats, and that future actions will necessitate a combination of military and civilian institutions to resolve. He closed with a quote from the American philosopher Eric Hoffer.
“In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”