Why America Could Lose a War with Russia or China

October 26, 2017 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: RussiaChinaMilitaryTechnologyWorldU.S.North Korea

Why America Could Lose a War with Russia or China

And how we fix it. 

The potential utility of these systems on contemporary battlefields and training environments is not yet fully realized. Unmanned systems are frequently less expensive, and importantly, more expendable than manned platforms. These systems also do not suffer from some of the more limiting emotional attributes of their human creators. Military unmanned systems are theoretically free to pursue the destruction of the enemy without regard for their well-being. If the unmanned system is damaged or destroyed their replacement places less strain on the logistics system and bears negligible political consequences. There will be no wall of remembrance for robots killed in the next war.

Naturally, there is uncertainty, and there are legitimate and practical concerns involved in the race to capture the high-ground with this technology. Ethical concerns and questions of control are integral to each stage of technological progress. There are also legitimate and necessary debates on force balance to address in the coming years. However, as the Americans contemplate the tradeoffs and the mix of manned and unmanned systems, its adversaries are advancing.

While they do not match the performance and flexibility of manned counterparts in many circumstances, further advances in technology will close that gap. The military requires sustained and reliable funding to advance the development of intelligent munitions and improve manned-unmanned teaming for all services.  Furthermore, these platforms provide the promise of extending the capability of proven manned systems on the ground, in the air, and the sea. But there is a political cost.

Expanding the production and fielding of advanced robotic systems may not offer the same political appeal as traditional big-budget projects that can provide lucrative programs and jobs to congressional districts. Consider the U.S. Navy’s development and launch of the Sea Hunter drone intended for anti-submarine warfare. Researchers are currently expanding the portfolio of missions for the small vessel. The Sea Hunter is only a fraction of the cost the highly criticized Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), but these vessels could augment or enhance the effectiveness of the LCS and other surface combatants. Also, expanded production of these and similar unmanned systems is unlikely to require the financial commitment associated with larger vessels. However, shifting emphasis to lower cost platforms will not initially support the interests of the private sector. That tension must be reconciled to move past the current force model.

The next frontier in force development is growth in the field of applied Artificial Intelligence (AI). These capabilities are already on display in experiments with semi-autonomous and fully autonomous systems. What autonomy will bring to the future fight is a low-cost, yet lethal, way to amplify the efforts of more traditional manned systems. The goal should be to apply sustained destructive and disruptive force against the enemy's military, infrastructure, and support base.  Expanding the application of advanced AI is inexpensive and sustainable when compared with the cost of regenerating many current war-fighting capabilities.

Reliable communications in the future will increasingly depend on progress in advanced computing technology. The U.S. government must lead this effort to harness the potential of quantum computing for future information sharing and modeling. If the United States loses this race and fails to protect the security and resilience of communications networks, then none of the advances in robotics and artificial intelligence will matter very much. The disruption of tactical and national level communications is likely early in any conflict. Therefore the development and fielding of advanced communications enabled by leadership in the field of evolving quantum technology must be a sustained priority.

Advances in quantum computing and cryptography promise to open new ways to revolutionize communications. Quantum computing may enhance the security of digital communications for military and civilian purposes. This technology may also secure critical links between unmanned platforms and their control stations improving the reliability of these systems in a hostile environment. It may also create new approaches to protecting the infrastructure and the logistics chain that the military relies upon.

Harnessing this technology can also reduce demand on the supply chain by expanding the potential of additive manufacturing, or 3D printing. The military is already eagerly probing the ways 3D printing can reduce reliance on the logistics system for the repair or replacement of some items. In the future, advances in computing will unlock new possibilities for reshaping and protecting the logistics chain, increasing the overall resilience of the nation.

The United States must reshape the military to incorporate low cost, high volume capabilities that enable greater endurance on a fluid twenty-first-century battlefield. Soon, the United States will face peer or near-peer competitors able to challenge the nation across all domains. The future is uncertain, and war is not inevitable, but at some point, the military may be called on to face a capable and determined peer adversary. When that time comes, the contest will test the nation's wherewithal in all areas. Prevailing will require a highly lethal, resilient, force using advances in robotics, artificial intelligence, and computing science to endure from the first shot to the last. The race for military endurance and dominance in these emerging fields is a race the United States must win.

LTC William Adler is a Military Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College. His previous duty position was as a Combined Arms Battalion Commander in the 1st Armored Division, at Fort Bliss Texas. The views and ideas expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. government.

This first appeared in RealClearDefense here.