[Editor’s Note: Too often we are lured by the sirens of science seductive call — promising the next technological breakthrough yielding (albeit fleetingly!) battlefield dominance — and neglect other key aspects of the Operational Environment (OE). Today, Mad Scientist Laboratory remedies one such oversight with a particularly insightful post by returning guest blogger and proclaimed Mad Scientist Caroline Duckworth, exploring the inexorable role demographics play in the OE. History is replete with once great powers that realized (too late) the influence demographics has on geopolitics. Read on to learn what demographic trends augur for the future of the U.S. Army, our allies, and our adversaries — Enjoy!]
Demographic changes have become increasingly concerning for governments and militaries around the world. In most developed countries, populations are aging and fertility rates are declining. In key developing countries, however, destabilizing population booms loom on the horizon. While the United States, our allies, and our pacing threats face the former challenge, the United States maintains a vested interest in the stability of regions facing population booms and will need to understand and monitor these trends carefully.
More narrowly, demographic trends will affect how the U.S. Army executes its missions, both at home and abroad. Recruiting, interoperability with allies, and the composition of potential adversaries’ forces will all be impacted by demographic trends. Educating the Force on the challenges associated with these trends will enable our Leaders to begin generating proactive and creative solutions, ensuring continued Army readiness and success — in competition and conflict. Thus, it is necessary to consider each key actor in turn.
The United States: Aging Population, Increased Diversity
The U.S. Census Bureau released the first stage of data for the 2020 census in April, capturing the demographic makeup of the United States. The results are concerning both for the U.S. economy and future Army operations. The U.S. population growth of 7.4% in the 2010s was the second slowest rate of increase in the history of the census, only barely faster than the growth of 7.3% following the Great Depression. Most individual states reflected this country-wide slow-down, and three even lost population from 2010 to 2020. Preliminary results for cities such as Washington, D.C., however, show substantial population growth. Further results for cities, which have yet to be released, are expected to reflect this growth, though somewhat unevenly. Thus, while the country is growing less rapidly, it is becoming increasingly urban.
The 2020 Census also showed that the U.S. population is aging while simultaneously becoming more diverse. The “baby boomer bulge” has created a swell of U.S. citizens aged 65+, outpacing the growth in working age populations. When combined with a decrease in total fertility rate, concerns over the future of U.S. welfare and the economy escalate. Concurrently, the U.S. population is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, particularly within younger generations. This trend could be accelerated by government policies to increase immigration, which has been considered to combat economic challenges wrought by an aging population.
What does a slow-growing, aging, and increasingly diverse U.S. population mean for the U.S. Army?
- Army recruitment will need to adapt in order to attract members of the more ethnically and racially diverse Generations Z and Alpha. Already, the Army is working to adjust its recruiting techniques, becoming more digital and interactive in its efforts. Future recruitment will need to focus on Army efforts to promote equality, mobility, and inclusion to incentivize participation from these increasingly diverse generations.
- The aging U.S. population will strain the military healthcare system. Veterans are increasingly dependent on the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for long-term care, and the Government Accountability Office predicts the VA will struggle to meet their demands. Future Department of Defense (DoD) policy will need to carefully assess future needs of veterans and allocate resources to protect them.
U.S. Allies: Feeling the Pressure
Strategic allies are facing similar demographic challenges, but to a more extreme degree. Japan and the European Union (EU) have had sub-replacement fertility rates for far longer than the United States, and their populations are older than the U.S. population today. This trend has resulted in a shift to smaller, volunteer military forces in NATO members. Concerns over military recruitment have also escalated in Japan, where the population is rapidly aging and the number of 18-26 year-olds will fall below 8 million by 2050. Not only will these trends make recruitment challenging, but traditional U.S. allies’ straining welfare systems will require more resources, constraining government choices and subsequent military budgets.
These trends will force NATO countries and Japan to turn to autonomous systems more rapidly than the United States. As the United States will seek to maintain our ability to coordinate Joint operations with these allies, system compatibilities will have to be addressed. Our allies’ autonomous systems will need to operate within a Mission Partner Environment (MPE). This will enable interoperability with the U.S. Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) and facilitate information sharing across the full range of military operations. The U.S. Army should begin discussing these requirements with our allies now to ensure a continuous level of cohesion and interoperability as autonomous systems are adopted.
Peer Competitors: Fighting for the Demographic Advantage
The United States’ pacing threats, China and Russia, face demographic challenges of their own. Both countries face declining and aging populations, combined with regionally specific challenges due to cultural practices. Thus, the United States may maintain a demographic advantage well into the future.
China is facing a decline in their working age population, which is set to peak by 2025. The country is aging at a faster rate than almost all other countries, creating challenges for their economy, welfare system, and military. The shortage of working age individuals is often attributed to a decline in birth rate following China’s former “One Child Policy.” This policy, combined with cultural preferences, also led to a gender imbalance in the country favoring male children. Now, fewer women exist in the country, and the bulk of the women are reaching or are past their peak fertility age. This disparity has led to abundant concern over the declining birth rate, and has prompted the Chinese government to increase the number of permitted children per couple to three. However, critics are skeptical that this policy will yield the desired increase in birth rate, given that the 2016 adjustment to a “two-child-policy” generated little success.
These trends are troubling for China’s economy, which relied on demographic advantages of a large working-age, male population and future Chinese military recruitment. In order to maintain its current military size, it will need to fill hundreds of thousands of positions with new recruits each year. Along with recruitment challenges, the Chinese military is likely to face a constrained budget as a result of aging and the subsequent need for more extensive social and health programs.
While China faces an impending population decline, Russia has dealt with population decline since 2018. In fact, Russia could lose 1.2 million people by 2024, a trend that “haunts” President Putin. Although fertility rates in the country vary regionally, the country still maintains the 7th highest death rate in the world as a result of poor medical care, improper nutrition, and high incidences of alcoholism. Although Russia has attempted to address its waning population by establishing programs for families, creating anti-tobacco campaigns, and attempting to attract migrants, the Russian military is likely to struggle to maintain its current size. Already, Russia’s militarization rate in 2020 was 6.31%, comparatively high to other countries. To maintain its military size of 900,000, Russia would need to increase its militarization rate to 7.79% in 2025 and 8.01% in 2030, a significant challenge. In order to meet these benchmarks, the Russian government is attempting to recruit more women, and even offering a path to citizenship for foreign men who join the Russian military. It is also likely that Russia will turn to autonomous systems to address its shortage of recruits.
U.S. Army Implications
Although the U.S. military is likely to face similar recruitment problems to its near-peer competitors, the U.S. Army maintains that “our people are our greatest strength and our most important weapon system.” In an Operational Environment (OE) where the every Soldier is an essential component the Joint Force team, the United States will need to rely on the superior education and training of its Soldiers to maintain its military advantage. The goal will be to design Professional Military Education (PME) programs that enable Soldiers to “achieve intellectual overmatch against adversaries.”
The Rest of the Story
Although demographic changes among current world powers involve population decline and aging populaces, this trend is not the case for the developing world. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) notes, “Relatively poor countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia will account for almost all global population growth during the next two decades…” The World Economic Forum supports this statement, projecting that Africa’s population is likely to triple by 2100. Specifically, Nigeria is set to become the second most populous country in the world by 2100, trailing only India. As these countries adjust to significantly larger and increasingly urban populations, their infrastructure systems, from healthcare to education, will be tested. Already, many of these countries are struggling to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. Nigeria is facing its worst recession in four decades, and the World Bank warns that its economy is at the risk of ‘unraveling.’
Economic hardship, combined with additional push factors like climate change and conflict, will increase migration out of the developing world and into the developed world. An influx of migrants, while beneficial to maintain workforces and economies in countries facing demographic decline, can present social challenges in destination countries. Research shows that aging societies often become more averse to open immigration policies, and a 2020 Gallup Poll showed that generally, the world is becoming less accepting of migrants. These trends may cause border security as a policy concern to persist both in the United States and our European allies. Already, the U.S. military’s mission at the U.S. southern border has been extended through 2022. The military may be increasingly called upon to help manage migration, supporting humanitarian missions for migrants both at home and abroad.
The U.S. Army already recognizes the importance of understanding demographic trends for its future operations. Recruitment, cooperation, and competition will all be affected by demographic changes. Development of autonomous systems, effective recruitment strategies engaging increasingly diverse generations, and innovative PME will be central to U.S. policy.
If you enjoyed this post, check out the following related content:
On Hype and Hyperwar, by proclaimed Mad Scientist Collin Meisel and Dr. Jonathan D. Moyer
Caroline Duckworth is a proclaimed Mad Scientist, Army Mad Scientist Consultant, and Gaither Junior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She graduated summa cum laude from The College of William and Mary in Virginia, with a BA in International Relations and Data Science. Ms. Duckworth previously interned with the Mad Scientist Initiative through the Army Futures and Concepts Center, and is a frequent contributor to the Mad Scientist Laboratory.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Army, Army Futures Command (AFC), or Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC).