Book Review: The Next 100 Years

You would think that since I’m working at Johnson Space Center right now, I would have exciting tales from inside NASA to share with you, but I’m afraid it has been pretty uneventful. I have however managed to read a couple of books, one of which was The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century, by George Friedman.

This was a really fascinating book about using history and geopolitical patterns to predict the near, and somewhat more distant future. It was refreshing to hear someone discuss world events on a longer timescale than the 24-hour news cycle which dominates most of our knowledge of the world. An apt analogy comes to mind: this book is to daily world news what climate is to weather.

Friedman does a good job of laying the groundwork for the book by demonstrating what the major geopolitical forces of the 20th century were and how they led to events in our recent history. He then forges ahead with a similar analysis, predicting the future in decade-long chunks. Some of the predictions were pretty surprising to me, but Friedman makes a pretty good case, particularly for the nearer future ones. I won’t go into a lot of detail, but since these are printed on the book jacket I don’t think I’m giving too much away:

  • 2020: China fragments.
  • 2050: Global war between the US, Turkey, Poland and Japan – the new great powers.
  • 2080: Space-based energy powers the Earth.
  • 2100: Mexico challenges the US.

Provocative eh? Rather than pick at each of these, most of which I have no expertise with which to base my comments, I’d like to focus on Friedman’s discussion of space. If you don’t want some later parts of the book “spoiled” then stop reading here.

In the description of the global war that he predicts circa 2050, Friedman departs from the pattern set earlier in the book and gets into the details of one possible scenario. He gives many caveats making it clear that it’s impossible to predict events so accurately, but then he goes ahead and tries.

One of the major factors in the war, Friedman says, is going to be space-based surveillance and weapons. He foresees larger and more complex spy satellites developed by the US. Of course, our rivals will want to be able to disable these assets, so Friedman describes a strange sort of arms race in satellites that culminates in huge, crewed space stations that act as the hub for the US command and control network. Sort of like orbiting combinations of air traffic control towers and spy satellites. He cites the vulnerability of a ground-based control center, and the seconds of delay time between the acquisition of an image in space and its receipt at a ground-based control center on the surface of the other side of the earth. These “battle stars” would be armed and armored so that they are nearly impervious to attack by enemies. He also describes a fleet of smaller satellites controlled by the battlestars which can “stop and loiter for extended periods of time” over targets of interest.

If that sounds like science fiction, just wait until you hear about his description of how the Japanese will eventually take the Battle Stars out in a 21st century Pearl Harbor style attack. Friedman describes a covert Japanese base on the far side of the moon, which uses rocket-propelled moon rocks, sent into unusual orbits so that they look like ordinary asteroids. Then, when they are within striking distance of the Battle Stars, their rockets fire at the last minute, destroy the Battle Stars and blind the US for the start of the war.

Ok. Let’s think about this. I find it extremely unlikely that the benefits of having command and control located in space will outweigh the significant cost of constructing the “battle stars”. For the same price, the US could build a whole network of smaller satellites and numerous redundant receiving stations and control centers on the surface. And  as for satellites that can stop in their orbit over a target of interest: don’t hold your breath. Barring some revolutionary discovery in physics and propulsion, I can’t see how a spacecraft would accomplish that sort of task.  Satellites orbit fast, and that means it would take a lot of force to stop one in its orbit, and to get it back up to speed afterward.

The whole “moon rock weapons” idea might work, I guess, but if you take away the idea of hugely centralized assets in orbit, then that sort of strike doesn’t make much sense.

This space-based solar power concept uses mirrors to concentrate sunlight on photovoltaic cells, which convert the light to electricity, which powers a microwave transmitter. The microwaves a received on the surface and converted back to electricity.

Ok, but what about this space-based solar power idea? I think that is actually significantly more likely. Friedman is correct when he says that research is already being done into using huge orbiting solar arrays that would beam power down to earth in the form of microwaves. And I think he’s probably right that the military will pioneer large scale use of the technology. The ability to provide power to forces on the ground no matter where they are would be a huge asset to the military. Don’t believe me? Check out this 2007 report from the National Security Space Office.

It’s possible that space-based solar power will become feasible on its own merits, but having the military pioneer it would be an effective way to deal with the up-front costs of the first large-scale versions. I think if space solar power ever does become a major source of our energy, it will have a huge influence on the world. It would be a nearly limitless source of energy, and as Friedman mentions, it would change the balance of power in energy economics. Countries that have historically relied on profits from oil would no longer be able to do so if the biggest consumers in the world could launch their own power satellites and harvest their own energy.

Despite some weirdness in the predictions of space-based military assets, most of The Next 100 Years is a really interesting read. It is also a very easy and quick read. In fact, my last criticism is that Friedman tries a little too hard to explain things. Many themes and statements are repeated throughout the book, and there were even times when I was reading a paragraph and stopped to be sure I had read it correctly because it was repeating something that was mentioned earlier on the page.

As a side effect of reading about the future, I feel like I have a much better understanding of current geopolitics. It will be interesting in the coming years and decades to see how the predictions in the book stand up to the test of time, but if nothing else it’s a fascinating look at one possible version of the future.

Explore posts in the same categories: Humans in Space, Not Mars, Science Fiction, space policy

9 Comments on “Book Review: The Next 100 Years”

  1. Joseph Says:

    With a charged satellite in the Earth’s magnetic field, it would actually be possible to have an orbit that precesses at the Earth’s spin rate, so imaging covers the same ground point once every orbit. That’s close to what Friedman is asking for! I agree with you on the armored space stations.

    The prospect of this 2050 global war is really disturbing to me. That’s right around where climate change will probably be hitting us hard, and right where I’d prefer our resources be concentrated on expanding our Mars colony. Did Friedman comment on whether this would become a nuclear conflict? Only one of the countries he lists is *currently* a nuclear power, which might actually mean that such weapons could make an appearance sooner rather than later in the war. I’d like to think that we’ve moved beyond the scales of conflict we saw in the mid-20th century…

    • Ryan Says:

      Hmm, charged satellites… very cool!

      Friedman predicts that the war in the middle of the century will be far less devastating than the world wars of the 20th century. He seemed to think that it would not go nuclear, and that with all the countries involved having relatively advanced weapons systems capable of precision strikes, the number of casualties would be surprisingly low. I think he said something along the lines of 50,000 but I don’t know if that included civilians or not… I also don’t remember exactly how long he said it would last but it struck me as relatively short.

      Of course, the scenario for the war that he gives is very speculative and he makes that clear. It relies on all of his prior predictions for the century being correct, and he notes that after the initial attack, wars tend to take on a life of their own and the details become very important. So, basically in his predictions it isn’t as horrible as the first two world wars, but who knows whether his predictions are right?

  2. This seems like wishful thinking for a 20th century strategist. At what point does a global war make sense? how do you see a global war not escalating ?

    With the advent of nuclear weapons, the cold war protagonists stopped escalation by implicit lines they would not cross, a war of attrition. The US and USSR fought by proxy in Asia and Africa, and pretended that they were not involved; when Soviet and American airmen got into dogfights over Korea, etc. both sides pretended it didn’t happen: the Russians pretended to be Koreans, and the Americans pretended not to hear them speak Russian.

    How can you fight a space-weapon-based war and not escalate ? More likely is that you would fight a cyberwar against each others economies, and pretend the botnets were not controlled by the military.

    • Ryan Says:

      Friedman predicts a similar pattern of fighting by proxy in the 21st century cold war. In particular, Poland becomes powerful because of massive US support, and the US continually creates small conflicts in eurasia by supporting the underdog to destabilize any large power that threatens to control eurasia.

      The global war starts in the aftermath of the cold war, when Turkey begins to control the border territories of a fractured Russia and at the same time Japan tries to extend its presence to the east coast of Russia and China. The alliance of Turkey and Japan creates the possibility of a eurasia-spanning power anchored by two strong economies that could threaten the US, and things escalate to there.

      You’re may be right about escalation to a nuclear conflict. Friedman discusses the possibility a little bit but concludes that things wouldn’t go that far. He says that he thinks the concept of “total war” is no longer relevant: with the precision of future weapons, whole cities do not need to be destroyed to cripple the military forces of the enemy. Maybe he’s being overly optimistic, but I hope not.

  3. Byron Smith Says:

    Your analogy of Friedman’s predictions to 24 news as weather is to climate makes me ask: does Friedman say anything about climate change in the book? If not, isn’t this tiny oversight a fatal flaw rendering pretty much everything else he says very questionable, given the possible/likely/plausible scale of effects that climate change could have in coming decades?

    • Byron Smith Says:

      PS Thanks for the review – someone mentioned this book to me and I’ve been searching for reviews to get an idea of where F is coming from.

    • edvard Says:

      He actually gives a fairly limited explanation in the epilogue as to why he omitted discussing the environmental crisis in detail. Personally I think he is a bit too optimistic in his views on how the problem will be dealt with but I honestly think he just put those pages at the end to make sure he covered all mayor topics however minimally. If he had spent as much time analyzing global warming as he had the other main topics in the book I think he would have a much more comprehensive section.

      • Byron Smith Says:

        Thanks for the reply. That’s helpful to know. Since I’m currently working on a PhD on our various converging ecological crises and their implications for our ethical thought, I strongly suspect that they are not going be the kind of threat that gets relegated to an epilogue when the history of the 21stC is written.

  4. Mujeeb Says:

    the george friedman is certainly right in his predictions but what he is suerly missing is the moral level of the us society. Is it possiable that with broken family bond, and weak social system can a country rule over the globe. Certainly not.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: