The End of the U.S. Military's Tech Edge?

Technological dominance has been a centerpiece of American strategy for decades. Yet the next decade could see that advantage fade fast.

Is the American military losing its vaunted technological edge? During the next decade, the rise of new powers and the accelerating diffusion of advanced technology throughout the international system will pose significant challenges to U.S. technological dominance in military affairs. Several developments are now poised to change the essential contours of the military-technology game, including the exponential growth of unmanned and increasingly autonomous robotic systems, the potential of additive manufacturing to usher in a new industrial revolution and the possibility that directed-energy weapons could dramatically alter the offense-defense balance in key military competitions. As a result, the next decade is likely to be the most disruptive since the early 1980s, when military planners in the Soviet Union began to worry openly about a “military-technical revolution” emerging in the United States.

Technological Dominance is a Choice

Technological dominance has been integral to American military strategy since the end of World War II. Although the battle for technological dominance was a feature of that war, it was really the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, whose conventional forces vastly outnumbered those of the United States, which elevated a qualitative technological edge to a position of primacy within U.S. military strategy and acquisition. The choice to prioritize investments in fewer, better platforms eventually generated game-changing capabilities—such as long-range cruise missiles, stealth technologies and precision munitions—that contributed to U.S. technological dominance and helped to accelerate the Soviet Union’s decline.

In part due to this legacy of dominance, generations of defense analysts and policymakers have come to believe that the United States will always enjoy a technological edge over its adversaries; thus, what was a matter of deliberate strategy during the Cold War has since become a matter of presumption. This dominance, however, is far more fragile than is commonly understood for three important reasons. First, unlike the era immediately after the Cold War, today there is a real prospect of near-peer competitors enabled by an international system that is making it easier to acquire the most sophisticated technology. Second, the military-industrial base now catalyzes far less technological innovation than the commercial sector, and unless there is a concerted effort to leverage commercial innovation to address tomorrow’s military challenges, the United States risks letting its technological advantages atrophy. And finally, defense funding to support research, development and modernization will probably continue to decline in the coming years for a host of reasons, including the impact of the 2011 Budget Control Act and an unwillingness to address unsustainable cost growth in the Department of Defense (DOD). Given the centrality of technological dominance in U.S. defense strategy, allowing this decline would be particularly unwise.

Potential Game-Changers

There are a number of emerging technologies that hold the potential to radically alter the balance of power between competitors, and thus to enhance the technological dominance of the United States; however, it is important to note that technologies do not become game-changing because of their technical capabilities alone. Instead, technologies become game-changing when their capabilities align with a relevant problem and concept of operations, and exist within a favorable values system and organizational culture. As an example of the failure to meet this latter requirement, the active-denial system, which has the technological ability to act as a nonlethal crowd-control weapon, has triggered human-rights concerns by those who see it as a “pain ray.” As a result, the technology was recalled from a brief deployment to Afghanistan without ever having been used in combat.

Indeed, given the necessary alignment of these nontechnological factors, it is immensely difficult to predict which technologies may ultimately prove to be game-changing. This difficulty is compounded by the increasing number of technology areas that could potentially cause a series of discontinuous shifts in military affairs, including for example additive manufacturing, directed-energy weapons and autonomy.