The Buzz

How America Can Rebuild the Military and Win the Wars of the Future

As I wrote earlier this month, Donald Trump’s unpredicted electoral victory has brought the possibility for real change in the enterprise of national security. To borrow Paul Ryan’s phrase, thoroughly rethinking the business of defense could create a military that moves closer to the speed of broadband than the speed of bureaucracy. But if the Trump Administration will be rebuilding the military, it’s worth asking what it’s rebuilding it for. I argue that in the early 21st century, the means of warfare will be increasingly precise, autonomous, scalable, ubiquitous, and democratized. As the monies for responding to emerging threats are actually not limitless, the incoming administration will need to think through the implications of all five of these hallmarks, and consider how to get ahead of the problems. I further argue that the Trump Administration thus needs a little less Reagan, a little more Rumsfeld, and a strategy of payloads and productivity.

Precise. How did we get here? The early aspects of the “Precision Revolution” emerged in the 1960s during the Vietnam War, but their real potential did not become apparent until the 1991 Iraq War. Twenty-five years on, these capabilities are almost assumed: planners have come to expect that weapons don’t miss much. Over Afghanistan, the Royal Air Force hit 97 percent of its targets in its first 300 firings of MBDA’s Brimstone missile. Out of Norway, Kongsberg’s Naval Strike Missile doesn’t just hit ships, it hits the most valuable or vulnerable part: the combat information center, the bridge, the engine room—and the shooter gets to choose. These sorts of technological capabilities will eventually be available to the Russians, the Chinese, and their customers—if they’re not already. Either way, they bear lethal consequences for any friendly military units not actively hiding, robustly defended, or at least shooting first.

Autonomous. Indeed, entire battalions of the Ukrainian Army were blown away by Russian artillery barrages in 2014, simply because drones and radio direction-finders passed their locations to waiting cannon and rocket batteries. This process will be replicated in future battles, and without close human supervision. Machines are really good today at doing what they’re told; pilots-in-cockpits have become somewhat replaceable. Even should Moore’s Law come crashing to an end, improvements to these technologies will continue for years to come as today’s overcomplicated code is repeatedly rewritten for greater efficiency. Fairly, autonomy is no panacea. To quote the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, “software is eating the world,” and thus the war. And as the US Air Force in particular has learned, even unmanned systems have their manning problems. But contrary to Google’s non-evildoing intentions, DARPA will build its Cylons—or as Deputy Secretary Work would prefer, at least its Iron Men.

Scalable. One way or the other, adversaries will build theirs. Precise and autonomous technologies are out of the box, and will stay that way. As John Seely Brown has argued, much of the world today is already built on, and may soon be built by, “institutions that can leverage scalable efficiencies.” But forget the droids. On televised battlefields, humans with scalable technologies—whether Little Green Russians or just guerrillas with Russian weapons—are already causing consternation with rather small forces. Because of the vulnerabilities induced by precision weapons, combat effects are being accomplished with smaller and more dispersed units. The precision weapons are already available to come back at Blue, and from all corners.