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.
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.
Additive manufacturing could fundamentally impact the defense-industrial base—and the manufacturing process writ large—by dramatically increasing the pace of moving from prototype to production; by allowing for in situ printing by deployed units; and by enhancing the ability to make midcourse design adjustments based on changes in the environment or unforeseen countermeasures. For nonstate actors, basic 3D printers are commercially available and are increasingly capable of allowing small groups to build sophisticated items.
Autonomous and semiautonomous systems have already revolutionized Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and counterterrorism. Further advances in supporting technologies, such as robotics and artificial intelligence, will offer additional opportunities to make autonomous systems that are smaller, cheaper and able to operate in swarms to overwhelm adversary defenses or execute other sophisticated maneuvers.
Similarly, directed-energy weapons like high-energy lasers could improve magazine depth as well as target-engagement rates and speeds. These weapons could also provide the ability to destroy electronic systems within a given area and significantly enhance force and infrastructure protection, especially against adversaries with precision-guided munitions or large numbers of autonomous systems.