Is the U.S. Military About To Be Left Behind Thanks to a Technology Revolution?

April 25, 2019 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: MilitaryTechnologyWorldU.S. Military

Is the U.S. Military About To Be Left Behind Thanks to a Technology Revolution?

Not to worry--for now. 


On the same day my articleFourth Industrial Age or Millionth Example of Technology Worship?, was published about another example of technology worship I read yet another articleThe New Revolution in Military Affairs, describing the need for a new revolution in warfare. I nodded my head as they explained, as I did last week, every supposed revolution in the last 30 years.

Then the author moved on to offer rhetoric about playing a losing game or being Blockbuster in the age of Netflix. The crux of the argument is that "A military made up of small numbers of large, expensive, heavily manned, and hard-to-replace systems will not survive on future battlefields, where swarms of intelligent machines will deliver violence at a greater volume and higher velocity than ever before. Success will require a different kind of military, one built around large numbers of small, inexpensive, expendable, and highly autonomous systems.”


There are numerous mistakes in this analysis, and I will cover two of them briefly, before taking a historical view that fatally undermines his case. The crucial first mistake is intelligence. Despite all the advances, technology can't replace the human mind. They can store lots of information, and this article describes that, and technology, such as the advanced sensors and heads up display of the F35 can help process information for human pilots and soldiers, but they cannot make the decisions on their own. We are still years or ages away from a self-aware Skynet dictating strategy. Moreover, this is assuming that countries like China, which still has millions of people living in caves and troubles fielding their jets, can suddenly master even more complicated technology in a battlefield environment.

More importantly, our age isn't the first to face new technology. Some scholars point out that the late 19th century was genuinely revolutionary as wind sails on wooden ships were replaced by coal and then oil based iron and steel warships. Thousands of years of traveling by road were replaced by rail. And in warfare, the rate of fire, range, and accuracy of gunpowder weapons increased dramatically. 

In his book Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace, Edward Luttwak discussed the difference between narrowly focused and highly specialized technologies and broadly focused expensive technologies. Luttwak described how torpedo boats were incredibly small and cost-effective attempts to negate the advantages of large battleships.  The latter had difficulty lowering their large caliber guns to attack torpedo boats, and their armor was mainly applied to the upper decks to fight other battleships.  By 1914 battleships had made basic but important changes to negate this threat.  They added small caliber guns, searchlights, and even had torpedo boat destroyers as escorts to fend off this threat.  

In the 1973 Egypt Israeli war, the anti-tank missile seemed to make the tank obsolete. Just like the battleship, it appeared that an inexpensive and easy to use technology would negate a broad and expensive one.  The Israeli tanks were caught by surprise, operating along and without infantry escort. As soon as these rarities no longer existed, the tanks resumed their role as king of a land-based army.

That is why I’m confident in the U.S. ability to identify and prepare for potential threats and with modest adjustments the carrier remains dominant on the battlefield. Chinese missiles, for example, are merely the newest versions of technology that has been around for 70 years.  London had to worry about Hitler's vengeance rockets, but the U.S. has sophisticated defenses against them developed over the last 70 years.  The first line of defense is the combat air patrol (CAP). The F35 has been networked with older planes, the first line of defense against missiles, to extend their range “beyond the horizon.”  The F35’s can also be networked with Aegis destroyers, the next line of defense, to extend their sensors as well. Arleigh Burke Class destroyers finished refitting their radar to be 30 times more powerful.  So the range at which the first two lines of defense against missiles have been extended and improved and they are increasingly able to destroy missiles before they get near the carrier.

The final layer of defense is the close in weapon systems of ships, and these are being upgraded as well. U.S. Navy plans to fire new high-speed rail guns at the same time the Chinese South Sea Fleet is adding a submarine squadron to its operations.  The latest developments show the response and counter-response of ratcheting tension between the U.S. and China in the South China Sea, but also show that the U.S. retains a commanding position in that contest.

The Hyper Velocity Projectile, or HVP, can travel at speeds up to 2,000 meters per second when fired from a rail gun, a speed which is about three times that of most existing weapons. According to the future Naval Capability Program “The rate of fire is 10-rounds per minute. Also, due to its ability to reach speeds of up to 5,600 miles per hour, the hypervelocity projectile is engineered as a kinetic energy warhead, meaning no explosives are necessary.”

The final result is a new smart projectile that can be fired faster, with more accuracy, and at longer ranges than current weapons. The missiles can be used for both offensive and defensive missions including countering drones and missiles and striking other ships and land-based targets such as radar stations, airfields, and missile batteries. This gives American commanders another option to counter such new dangers as missile or drone swarms. And it can also add firepower to any first strike option for a near nuclear North Korea.

This technology builds upon existing anti-missile weapons that naval ships have had since the 1970s.  The current technology has a shorter range of only 15 miles, and it can't specifically target, so the gunners have to use large amounts of ammunition to cover the general area in which the missile is approaching. The new rail gun technology, like the nets and searchlights added to battleships to counter new torpedo boats, shows that supposed game-changing technology is often little more than something that requires modest adaptation to existing technology.

Many wondered back then if the V rockets of Hitler, or now wonder if the supersonic missiles of China would negate dominant ships like the carrier, battleship, or as this author said, "a small number of large, expensive, and hard to replace systems" where "swarms" of low cost hard easy to replace smart missiles dominate the battlefield. But in the 70 years since the introduction of the missile the destroyers have been built with AEGIS radar systems. The army is seeking to use low-cost items like rail guns to destroy missiles, and repurposing old technology to counter the threat. Every one of these technologies and ever layer of defense against missiles, to cite just one example, has been upgraded to deal with new technology.

The list could go on and should include the military’s use of drones and anti-drone technology in the Battle of Mosul as well. (Not parking a bomber in Baghdad as the author facetiously claimed in his article.)  But in short, through adapting broad and widely used technologies to counter new ones, they are far better prepared to deal with threats that the revolution school says.

So, of course, the U.S. military should be concerned about advanced sensors and whizbang technology.  But the author should have realized in discussing the previous 30 years of so-called revolutions in military affairs, that the current technology doesn't change the game. It represents incremental challenges that are being identified and addressed.

Morgan Deane is a former U.S. Marine Corps infantry rifleman. Deane also served in the National Guard as an Intelligence Analyst.

This first appeared in RealClearDefense here