To The Future And Beyond – Blue Horizons

You know the phrase “The future is now”?

I’m not a fan.

Aside from being a contradiction, it’s dangerous thinking.  Assuming that what’s happening now is also what’s to come means that you’re not really looking forward, are you?  Sort of like looking in a mirror and assuming you won’t age.  Or something.

Let me just stop myself before I go too far down this philosophical road by saying that I’m glad a certain group of Air Force personnel don’t follow this mantra.

Quite the contrary, actually.

Plus check out this logo! It just *looks* like something you want to join, doesn’t it?

I’m talking about the Blue Horizons, an Air Force program designed to help better understand scientific and technological progress.  It’s very much a “the future isn’t here yet so let’s explore the possibilities” concept (take that future = present thinkers).

So what does the future hold for our fine fighting force?

Are we going to be dealing with robot alien armies that fly around in jetpacks and shoot laser rockets?

Ehh…Probably not I’m told.  That’s like a one in a billion chance, anyway.  (So you’re saying there’s a chance…)

He also looks like he moonlights as “the nice military officer” in a TV drama somewhere.

Colonel Tom McCarthy is the director for the Air Force’s Center for Strategy and Technology at Air University in Maxwell AFB, Alabama.  This is where the future-focused program takes place.

So how does Blue Horizons work, exactly?

“What we do is we take the students we have at Air War College,” explains Col. McCarthy.  “We pick some of those students out and ask them if they would like to be involved in looking at science and technology in the twenty to thirty year time frame, and how that technology is going to impact strategy in the future.”

I hesitate to call this progressive thinking, but I think it ironically applies.

There’s a lot of theory and speculation involved in this program, but not the normal kind usually associated with predicting the future.  By that I mean that Blue Horizons is a little more fact analyzing and a little less crystal ball gazing.  Funny though that would be…

Col. McCarthy says that looking toward the horizon (see what I did there?) of technology can help better prepare the future of the force.

“The reality is the mission of looking beyond the immediate,” explains Col. Tom McCarthy.  “Looking beyond what we have to do in order to be prepared for – and to think about – what we will need to do is critically important.  And functions like this within the Air Force are invaluable because you never know where the payoff will be, but you are certain that change will happen.  The more time you spend thinking about and preparing for the future, the less immediate problems you’ll have when the future arrives.”

Scenarios vary depending on the topic, but Col. McCarthy says the Blue Horizons participants explore many different situations, including how nations may fight and engage in military conflict, how they participate in international relations, and what the strategic environment might be like in a few decades.  While they can’t predict exactly what the future will be like (here’s where perfecting a time machine might be a bad idea come in handy), he says they can make some guesses about some things that would change in twenty to thirty years.

So what happens when all the questions have been asked and all the theories have been supposed in this round?

“We work and shape the ideas from those papers into an overall view of a specific area in the future.”

This sounds like a what-if scenario speculation simulator to me at first, but Col. McCarthy says it’s less the what if, and more along the lines of the what will be.

Ooh.  Ominous.

“Let me give you an example,” he says.  Oh good.  I like a good example.  “One of [the scenarios] might be what will the impact of miniaturization be on how we do collection of data in the future.  Or what will the proliferation of computers and computer surveyors mean for the distribution of data.  And how might that impact – for instance – advantages in the different domains that, say, the United States has if information becomes worldwide to people and they’re able to process similar levels of information.”

The advantage of having a group of people do this, he says, is that it helps bring in the senior leaders that are rightfully involved in the day-to-day operations of our military, and gives them the means to look at possible futures.  I don’t think I need to explain the benefit in better understanding what the service members of today could be up against tomorrow.

Col. McCarthy says that the Blue Horizons group isn’t bold enough to say that the scenarios they work with are exactly what will happen.  There’s a lot of hypotheticals in this line of work.  However, these are very real possibilities that very well could happen.

I guess surprises aren’t ideal, then.

“Well actually surprises are what we look at,” Col. McCarthy says.  “[We explore] what might be the big surprise out there.”

My first (arguably ridiculous) thought when he said that was the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

In my defense, he is big and would be a surprise threat. (From Ghostbusters, Copyright 1984 Columbia Pictures)

See, this is why I’m not allowed to be on think tank teams.

Col. McCarthy says knowing what will be important in the future affects more than just the military.  “How has the proliferation of the cell phone for instance – and smart phones actually – changed how we access data?  [For example] how we communicate and talk to each other, and what’s important?”

He has a point.

Remember in movies when they would show us a glimpse of the semi-near future and things always seemed a little…magical?

Maybe it’s just Hill Valley that ends up with the Tomorrowland look. (Back to the Future II, Copyright Universal Pictures, 1989)

Fictitious flying cars aside (I am not ready to deal with the disappointment of that non-reality), you don’t see the fake-future people carrying around their lives on these small multi-media devices because I don’t think a lot of people then understood how important things like smart phones would become in our society.

Or even what they were, honestly.

You see, THAT is the kind of thing that Blue Horizons is trying to understand, and it could make all the difference.

Speaking of surprises, CSAT put out a video on this very topic called “Welcome To The Age Of Surprise” that is really pretty cool.  I mean really, REALLY COOL.

Like “let’s watch it again what happened just now” cool:

If you have noticed the emphasis on technology and cyber systems then you’re pretty good at recognizing the obvious.  A lot of the things the Blue Horizons focuses on are technology and cyber-driven because that’s where a lot of the growth and development is happening.

“The ability to access cyber, and the vulnerability of our cyber systems, is something that we’re just beginning to understand the implications of,” Col. McCarthy says.  “Increasingly, as we go forward, cyber may be the number one enabler – and number one most important thing to secure – before and during national security events.”

Knowing that there are brilliant minds in the Air Force dedicated to telling me what crazy technological advancements are lurking around those twenty to thirty year corners is actually pretty reassuring.  Blue Horizons is designed to not only ask the fantastic future questions, but also to find possible answers to them.  Because the future isn’t now.  It’s still out there.  Waiting.  Filled with unknowns, and Blue Horizons aims to better understand it.

And if you think about it, we’ve only just begun.

To infinity…


AWS would like to thank USAF Col. Ed L. Vaughan, ANG Advisor to the Commander and President at the Air University (AETC), for his assistance in the production of this article.


Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.

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