Large multinational corporations could develop their own highly capable security forces. Criminals and terrorists will have access to increasingly cheap unmanned drones and space satellites.
Sophisticated environmental warfare will spread plant and human diseases by insects.
These are among an array of dire warnings spelt out in a study by a Ministry of Defence thinktank exploring potential threats to security that might emerge by the middle of the century.
The study, Global Strategic Trends – Out to 2045, contains fresh warnings about the effects of climate change, the growth of sprawling urban centres, and pressure on natural resources, notably water. It paints a picture of a world in which the authority of states diminishes in the face of powerful private multinational companies, and national loyalties are weakened by increasing migration.
Rear Admiral John Kingwell, director of the MoD's Concepts and Doctrine Centre, which carried out the study, said it did not seek to predict the future and did not reflect official government policy. However, he said it described plausible outcomes on the basis of rigorous analysis of existing trends.
“The pace and breadth of technological advancements will change our perception of our role in the workplace, reveal new opportunities for health advances, and facilitate the deepening of global communications,” he said.
“But as access to technology increases, we will face new risks to our security both at home and abroad. In the west in particular, a rise of individualism and … a growing sense of disconnection from long-established governing structures will challenge traditional systems.”
The study says that by 2045:
• The world population could reach 10.4 billion, compared with about 7.2 billion at present.
• More than 70% of the population is likely to live in urban areas.
• 3.9 billion people are likely to suffer water shortages.
• Driverless transport is likely to be widespread.
• Unmanned systems are increasingly likely to replace people in the workplace, leading to mass unemployment and social unrest.
• Robots are likely to change the face of warfare, but “military decision-making is likely to remain the remit of humans for ethical reasons, at least in western countries”.
• Individuals may define themselves less by their nationality, with growing migration and stronger links to virtual communities.
• Chinese defence expenditure it likely to rival that of the US, but Russia's will not match that of China, the US or India.
The study says the influence of non-state actors such as multinational corporations is likely to increase at the expense of nation states, and private companies may develop “highly capable security forces”.
Cheaper and more sophisticated drones will mean criminal and terrorist groups are likely to find it easier to “gain, hold and use unmanned capabilities”.
Internal terrorist threats are likely to continue in the Middle East and north Africa, while the expansion of alternative currencies may make it easier for criminals and terrorist groups to transfer funds between national jurisdictions, the study says.
However, it says the pressure of globalisation will make it more difficult for individual countries to act unilaterally. That could reduce conflicts between states.
Future weapons are likely to include long-range lasers capable of producing a beam of electromagnetic energy or atomic radiation that can destroy equipment and infrastructure or cause non-lethal damage to human targets, the report says.
“As the cost of sequencing an individual's DNA continues to fall, targeting an individual using their DNA may be possible by 2045,” the study adds. “We could also see sophisticated environmental warfare capable of spreading plant and human disease by insects or insect-machine hybrids. Crops and cattle could be destroyed, as well as people being incapacitated or killed.”
By 2020, more than 500 small satellites, sometimes called cubesats, will join the 1,000 already operating in orbit around the planet, according to the report. They will be increasingly vulnerable to attack – and collision.
By 2045 or earlier, it says, “criminal organisations could secure payload space on rockets operated by private companies – this would allow them to launch their own surveillance satellites, potentially threatening individual and corporate privacy”.