The military landscape in a rapidly changing world

The Future Operations Research Group seeks to understand and analyse the operational environment, and the threats, risks and opportunities that military forces will face, in the 2030-2050 timeframe. Urbanisation, climate change, rapid advances in technology, emerging flashpoints, unconventional and hybrid forms of warfare, and changes in the economic and geo-strategic  setting for military operations all form part of the analysis. The group aggregates available information from the widest possible variety of sources, develops a series of testable, integrated projections using recognised futures methodologies and datasets, and then updates and validates projections through continuous monitoring of the environment. The group draws on the multi-disciplinary expertise of a core research team at the school of Humanities and Social Sciences, as well as the broader research capabilities of the University of New South Wales, and external partners.

The Future Operations Research Group is led by Professor David Kilcullen and Dr Deane-Peter Baker.

Research themes

Future Urban Warfare
On a rapidly urbanising planet conflict increasingly takes place in and around cities. Smart-city systems, enhanced connectivity and new military and non-military technologies are already rendering traditional approaches to urban conflict obsolete. This research theme examines the urban warfare of 2030 to 2050, with a focus on future joint combat operations (across the domains of land, sea, air, space, the electro-magnetic spectrum and cyberspace) in a crowded, cluttered, highly connected and extremely complex urban battlespace.  

The Autonomous Urban Futures Project is a key project within this theme. Deane-Peter Baker, David Kilcullen, Charles Knight, John Spencer and Katja Theodorakis combine historical analysis, modelling, simulation, live/virtual/constructive (LVC) experimentation and ethico-legal analysis to develop recommendations for future ADF urban operations. These recommendations take advantage of autonomous weapons systems and autonomous logistics systems, while considering heir significant operational, legal and ethical challenges. 

Future Unconventional Warfare
After decades of United States and allied dominance of ‘conventional’ conflict, adversaries are seeking means to side-step western dominance. This research theme explores patterns in the evolution of special operations, hybrid and proxy war, economic and political warfare and other non-conventional means and methods of conflict, with a focus on the unconventional warfare of 2030–2050.  

Emerging Flashpoints
Rapid warming in polar regions has already triggered a dramatic increase in military competition in the Arctic. Other emerging flashpoints—including those driven by climate-induced migration, conflicts over water, energy and other scarce resources, great-power realignments and a shifting global economic balance—mean conflict in 2030–2050 may occur in new places, over new issues, among new actors. This research theme seeks to develop a set of testable indicators and warnings for emerging flashpoints and to continuously monitor and update these to build a picture of where and how such conflicts may occur. 

Future Information Warfare
In the form of political warfare, manipulation of media (including social media) and the use of deception, disinformation and “fake news” has become an increasingly important aspect of great-power military competition. It affects operations below the threshold of war, driving the pre-conflict shaping operations in which military actors engage. This research theme seeks to map the disinformation and political warfare activities of great powers in key contested regions of the world, understand the impact of emerging information warfare capabilities on future conflict and develop research of relevance to the ADF and allied militaries.  

Emerging Technologies
Dominance of a handful of conventional military technologies played a key role in western primacy since the end of the Cold War. But emerging technologies are changing the face of war, including hypersonic missiles, nuclear power, renewable energy, human performance enhancement, bio-engineering, nanotechnologies, advanced materials and manufacturing methods and novel chemical and biological weapons technologies. This research theme attempts to explore, evaluate and model the impact of emerging technologies on future conflict in the 2030 to 2050 timeframe. 

The Technology Cold War is a key project within this research theme, in which Clinton Fernandes explores the domestic and international aspects of the emerging technology contest between China and the US—with Australia caught in the middle. Described as Cold War 2.0, he examines how the contest plays out across the global semiconductor industry, 5G networks, artificial intelligence, robotics, gene editing, data flows, autonomous vehicles and rare earth minerals. He previously published a book relating to the issue, What Uncle Sam Wants: U.S. Foreign Policy Objectives in Australia and Beyond

UNSW Canberra Autonomous Weapons in Urban Warfare Research Project

Prof David Kilcullen and A/Prof Deane-Peter Baker discuss this Defence-funded project

Our researchers