Global Demographic Trends and Security:
Implications for the U.S. Army (part 1)
Article published on: 14 December 2015
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Over the past few decades, the world has experienced several demographic trends that are altering the landscape of U.S. national security. These trends are creating a security environment unlike any that the U.S. Army has ever seen. The ratio of urban dwellers to rural dwellers continues to rise, with many urban areas having grown to populations of over 10-million inhabitants. These large urban areas are known as megacities. As of 2014, there were 28 megacities. By 2030 there will likely be 41 megacities.1 In 2014, the Chief of Staff of the Army’s strategic Studies Group reported that the Army is unprepared to operate in the megacity environment.2
In the ten years from 2004 to 2013, the world’s population grew at an average rate of about 1.2% per year. By 2050, there will likely be a global population of 9.6 billion with more than half of the world’s population living in the least developed countries.3 Urbanization is also increasing around the world. By 2050, the United Nations estimates an increase of 2.5 billion people in the world’s cities, with nearly 90 percent of this increase occurring in Africa and Asia.4 A third demographic trend likely to impact future security is the growing youth bulge, an increase in the proportion of people in the 15 to 29 years age group compared to other age groups.5 Roughly, one-sixth of the global population is between the ages of 15 and 24, with the largest rate of growth of this demographic in Africa. A youth bulge, coupled with higher than average unemployment in developing countries, can become a factor driving instability.
In the past, conventional warfare often occurred in sparsely populated landscapes, where industrialized militaries could employ weapons at maximum ranges. The World Wars, the Arab-Israeli Wars, and Operation Desert Storm are such examples. However, warfare is increasingly occurring in more populated areas, as seen throughout much of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Rupert Smith refers to this change as a paradigm shift, whereby warfare is less likely to occur between industrialized militaries on an open battlefield, but, rather, amongst populations.6 The three trends identified above make it more likely that future conflict will take place in large urban areas, including megacities; against a wide array of threats; including both military and criminal elements; and with local security forces that may be unable to cope with such threats. The US Department of Defense, especially the Army, should take action, reviewing and improving the way it trains and develops leaders for operations in heavily populated, urban environments.
The effects of the three identified demographic trends are likely to affect global security over the coming decades, especially within already fragile regions. An understanding of the mechanisms that link the demographic trends to instability and conflict is necessary to design a strategy for mitigating the potential threats.
Demography and Mechanisms that Drive Conflict
A larger population leads to increased population density, with more social and ethnic groups living in close proximity than in the past, raising the likelihood of social and ethnic conflicts. Much of this population growth will occur in urban settings. In less developed regions, local governments may be unable to cope with the increasing rate of urbanization, potentially leading to disruptions in the provision of essential services and resources, such as electricity, water, food, and adequate healthcare.
This could lead to conflict over remaining resources. Criminal elements could take advantage of the opportunity to profit by controlling access to resources. This could create instability or worsen the situation in areas with already weakened local governance, increasing the likelihood for conflict.
Lastly, an increase in the number of people between the ages of 15 and 29 will stress the ability of local economies to provide enough employment opportunities to meet the demand. A large number of unemployed people in this age group could become fertile recruiting ground for militant groups. These people may turn to violence as a means to provide money for themselves and their families.
These demographic trends, taken together, create an environment that will shape the future operating environment for Army forces. Tomorrow’s battlefield will likely be large heavily populated urban areas, with many unemployed people who could likely become combatants. The U.S. Army will likely find itself operating in these areas and should prepare accordingly.
Urban Growth: A Problem for the Army
The Chief of Staff of the Army’s Strategic Study Group published a report in 2014 indicating that the U.S. Army is not ready to deal with conflict in this future environment.7 Some critics say that the Army should avoid this environment altogether. Their reasoning is that these conflicts will be excessively bloody and costly. The United States would likely be unwilling to accept such a violent conflict. However, war is most likely to take place in and amongst populations.
Recent conflicts demonstrate the shifting of warfare from rural to urban environments. The Russian-Chechen conflict in the 1990s and 2000s saw much urban conflict, in which the modern Russian Army engaged in unconventional warfare with Chechen rebels. The war in Iraq in the 2000s also saw much urban combat from Baghdad to Fallujah to Ramadi. More recent operations by the Islamic State have focused on capturing key urban areas in both Syria and Iraq.
These three examples illustrate the growing trend of combat in heavily populated areas. In all three, the combatants recognized the importance of controlling population centers, especially larger ones. This will likely remain the trend in the future, with conventional and unconventional forces competing for control over urban areas. The demographic trends identified earlier will lead to ever larger urban populations. Currently, the Army is unprepared for this environment.
See Part 2
- Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, The World Population Situation in 2014: A Concise Report (New York: The United Nations, 2014), 1.
- Chief of Staff of the Army, Strategic Studies Group. Megacities and the United States Army: Preparing for a Complex and Uncertain Future (Washington: Department of the Army, 2014), 21.
- Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, 2014, 2.
- Ibid., 1.
- Justin Yifu Lin, “Youth Bulge: A Demographic Dividend or a Demographic Bomb in Developing Countries,” 26 April 2015,
- Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), Location 199, Kindle.
- Chief of Staff of the Army, Strategic Studies Group, 2014, 3.
Lieutenant Colonel Bill Shavce is the Deputy G3 at the 32d Army Air and Missile Defense Command at Fort Bliss, Texas. He holds a BS from the United States Military Academy, an MS from American Military University, and an MMAS from the School of Advanced Military Studies. He deployed for Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom and served in various positions with the 2d Infantry Division, 82d Airborne Division, 4th Infantry Division, 25th Infantry Division, and the Mission Command Training Program
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