In 1898, a Polish banker and self-taught military expert named Jan Bloch published The Future of War, the culmination of his long obsession with the impact of modern technology on warfare. Bloch foresaw with stunning prescience how smokeless gunpowder, improved rifles, and other emerging technologies would overturn contemporary thinking about the character and conduct of war. (Bloch also got one major thing wrong: he thought the sheer carnage of modern combat would be so horrific that war would “become impossible.”)
What Bloch anticipated has come to be known as a “revolution in military affairs”—the emergence of technologies so disruptive that they overtake existing military concepts and capabilities and necessitate a rethinking of how, with what, and by whom war is waged. Such a revolution is unfolding today. Artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, ubiquitous sensors, advanced manufacturing, and quantum science will transform warfare as radically as the technologies that consumed Bloch. And yet the U.S. government’s thinking about how to employ these new technologies is not keeping pace with their development.
The idea of a future military revolution became discredited amid nearly two decades of war after 2001 and has been further damaged by reductions in defense spending since 2011. But along the way, the United States has also squandered hundreds of billions of dollars trying to modernize in the wrong ways. Instead of thinking systematically about buying faster, more effective kill chains that could be built now, Washington poured money into newer versions of old military platforms and prayed for technological miracles to come (which often became acquisition debacles when those miracles did not materialize). The result is that U.S. battle networks are not nearly as fast or effective as they have appeared while the United States has been fighting lesser opponents for almost three decades.
Yet if ever there were a time to get serious about the coming revolution in military affairs, it is now. There is an emerging consensus that the United States’ top defense-planning priority should be contending with great powers with advanced militaries, primarily China, and that new technologies, once intriguing but speculative, are now both real and essential to future military advantage. Senior military leaders and defense experts are also starting to agree, albeit belatedly, that when it comes to these threats, the United States is falling dangerously behind.
It is still possible for the United States to adapt and succeed, but the scale of change required is enormous. The traditional model of U.S. military power is being disrupted, the way Blockbuster’s business model was amid the rise of Amazon and Netflix. 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. The United States has the money, human capital, and technology to assemble that kind of military. The question is whether it has the imagination and the resolve.
NEW TECHNOLOGIES, OLD PROBLEMS
Artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies will change the way war is fought, but they will not change its nature. Whether it involves longbows or source code, war will always be violent, politically motivated, and composed of the same three elemental functions that new recruits learn in basic training: move, shoot, and communicate.
Movement in warfare entails hiding and seeking (attackers try to evade detection; defenders try to detect them) and penetrating and repelling (attackers try to enter opponents’ space; defenders try to deny them access). But in a world that is becoming one giant sensor, hiding and penetrating—never easy in warfare—will be far more difficult, if not impossible. The amount of data generated by networked devices, the so-called Internet of Things, is on pace to triple between 2016 and 2021. More significant, the proliferation of low-cost, commercial sensors that can detect more things more clearly over greater distances is already providing more real-time global surveillance than has existed at any time in history. This is especially true in space. In the past, the high costs of launching satellites required them to be large, expensive, and designed to orbit for decades. But as access to space gets cheaper, satellites are becoming more like mobile phones—mass-produced devices that are used for a few years and then replaced. Commercial space companies are already fielding hundreds of small, cheap satellites. Soon, there will be thousands of such satellites, providing an unblinking eye over the entire world. Stealth technology is living on borrowed time.
On top of all of that, quantum sensors—which use the bizarre properties of subatomic particles, such as their ability to be in two different places at once—will eventually be able detect disruptions in the environment, such as the displacement of air around aircraft or water around submarines. Quantum sensors will likely be the first usable application of quantum science, and this technology is still many years off. But once quantum sensors are fielded, there will be nowhere to hide.
The future of movement will also be characterized by a return of mass to the battlefield, after many decades in which the trend was moving in the opposite direction—toward an emphasis on quality over quantity—as technology is enabling more systems to get in motion and stay in motion in more places. Ubiquitous sensors will generate exponentially greater quantities of data, which in turn will drive both the development and the deployment of artificial intelligence. As machines become more autonomous, militaries will be able to field more of them in smaller sizes and at lower costs. New developments in power generation and storage and in hypersonic propulsion will allow these smaller systems to travel farther and faster than ever. Where once there was one destroyer, for example, the near future could see dozens of autonomous vessels that are similar to missile barges, ready to strike as targets emerge.
In this handout released by the U.S. Navy, Sailors move an X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator onto an aircraft elevator aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (Getty)
Technology will also transform how those systems remain in motion. Logistics—the ability to supply forces with food, fuel, and replacements—has traditionally been the limiting factor in war. But autonomous militaries will need less fuel and no food. Advanced manufacturing methods, such as 3-D printing, will reduce the need for vast, risky, and expensive military logistics networks by enabling the production of complicated goods at the point of demand quickly, cheaply, and easily.
In an even more profound change, space will emerge as its own domain of maneuver warfare. So far, the near impossibility of refueling spacecraft has largely limited them to orbiting the earth. But as it becomes feasible to not just refuel spacecraft midflight but also build and service satellites in space, process data in orbit, and capture resources and energy in space for use in space (for example, by using vast solar arrays or mining asteroids), space operations will become less dependent on earth. Spacecraft will be able to maneuver and fight, and the first orbital weapons could enter the battlefield. The technology to do much of this exists already.
THE MILITARIES OF TOMORROW
Technology will also radically alter how militaries shoot, both literally and figuratively. Cyberattacks, communication jamming, electronic warfare, and other attacks on a system’s software will become as important as those that target a system’s hardware, if not more so. The rate of fire, or how fast weapons can shoot, will accelerate rapidly thanks to new technologies such as lasers, high-powered microwaves, and other directed-energy weapons. But what will really increase the rate of fire are intelligent systems that will radically reduce the time between when targets can be identified and when they can be attacked. A harbinger of this much nastier future battlefield has played out in Ukraine since 2014, where Russia has shortened to mere minutes the time between when their spotter drones first detect Ukrainian forces and when their precision rocket artillery wipes those forces off the map.
The militaries of the future will also be able to shoot farther than those of today. Eventually, hypersonic munitions (weapons that travel at more than five times the speed of sound) and space-based weapons will be able to strike targets anywhere in the world nearly instantly. Militaries will be able to attack domains once assumed to be sanctuaries, such as space and logistics networks. There will be no rear areas or safe havens anymore. Swarms of autonomous systems will not only be able to find targets everywhere; they will also be able to shoot them accurately. The ability to have both quantity and quality in military systems will have devastating effects, especially as technology makes lethal payloads smaller.
Finally, the way militaries communicate will change drastically. Traditional communications networks—hub-and-spoke structures with vulnerable single points of failure—will not survive. Instead, technology will push vital communications functions to the edge of the network. Every autonomous system will be able to process and make sense of the information it gathers on its own, without relying on a command hub. This will enable the creation of radically distributed networks that are resilient and reconfigurable.
Put together, all these technologies will displace decades-old, even centuries-old, assumptions about how militaries operate. The militaries that embrace and adapt to these technologies will dominate those that do not. In that regard, the U.S. military is in big trouble.
THE FUTURE IS HERE
The United States is still betting that by incrementally upgrading its traditional military systems, it can remain dominant for decades to come. This approach might buy time, but it will not allow the U.S. military to regain superiority over its rivals. Doubling down on the status quo is exactly what Washington’s competitors want it to do: if the U.S. government spends more money in the same ways and on the same things, it will simply build more targets for its competitors while bankrupting itself.
It’s time to think differently, and U.S. defense planners should start by adopting more realistic assumptions. They should assume that U.S. forces will fight in highly contested environments against technologically advanced opponents, that they will be unlikely to avoid detection in any domain, and that they will lose large numbers of military systems in combat. Washington must also banish the idea that the goal of military modernization is simply to replace the military platforms it has relied on for decades, such as fighter jets and aircraft carriers, with better versions of the same things. It must focus instead on how to buy systems that can be combined into networks or kill chains to achieve particular military outcomes, such as air superiority or control of the seas. Finally, the old belief that software merely supports hardware must be inverted: future militaries will be distinguished by the quality of their software, especially their artificial intelligence.
What would a military built on those assumptions look like? First, it would have large quantities of smaller systems: swarms of intelligent machines that distribute sensing, movement, shooting, and communications away from vulnerable single points of failure and out to the edges of vast, dispersed networks. Such an approach would impose costs on competitors, as they would no longer be able to concentrate on a few big targets and would instead need to target many things over larger spaces.
Second, those systems would be cheap and expendable, which would make it easier to endure large-scale losses in combat. If it takes the United States’ competitors more time and money to destroy U.S. systems than it does for the United States to replace those systems, the United Stateswill win over time.
Finally, these systems would be unmanned and autonomous to the extent that is ethically acceptable. Keeping humans alive, safe, and comfortable inside machines is expensive—and no one wants to pay the ultimate price of lost human life. Autonomous systems are cheaper to field and cheaper to lose. They can also free humans from doing work that machines can do better, such as processing raw sensor data or allocating tasks among military systems. Liberating people from such work will prove crucial for managing the volume and velocity of the modern battlefield, but also for enabling people to focus more energy on making moral decisions about the intended outcomes of warfare. In this way, greater autonomy can not only enhance military effectiveness; it can also allow more humans to pay more attention to the ethics of war than ever before
A FAILURE OF IMAGINATION
Military modernization of this kind will not happen all at once. Autonomous systems may rely on legacy systems, including aircraft carriers, for some time to come. But even this will require significant changes to how traditional systems are configured and operated. Some leaders in Congress and the executive branch want to embrace these changes, which is encouraging. But if this transition fails—and the odds of that are unsettlingly high—it will likely fail for reasons other than the ethical opposition that is the focus of current debates, which seeks to “ban killer robots” or ensure that commercial technology companies do nothing to benefit the U.S. military.
There are serious ethical concerns. The military use of advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence requires sober debate, but that debate should not be reduced to a binary decision between human and machine control. If framed clearly, many of the technological and moral questions facing policymakers can be answered within the confines of existing law and practice. For example, the legal concept of “areas of active hostilities,” in which the threshold for using violence is reduced in limited geographic areas, could provide useful answers to the moral dilemmas posed by lethal autonomous weapons.
The real challenge facing policymakers is how to imbue intelligent machines with human intent, and that is not a new problem. And although this new technology will present ethical dilemmas, it will also help resolve them. Autonomous systems will enable humans to spend less time on menial problems and more time on moral ones. Intelligent machines will likely become more capable of differentiating between, say, tanks and other vehicles, than a scared 19-year-old is. Americans will naturally be apprehensive about trusting machines to perform what have traditionally been human tasks. But the greater danger right now is that Americans will move too slowly and not be trusting enough, especially as China and Russia are proceeding with fewer ethical concerns than the United States. Unless Washington is willing to unilaterally cede that advantage to its rivals, it cannot allow itself to become paralyzed by the wrong questions.
Bureaucrats who derive power from their mastery of the current system are loath to alter it. Military pilots and ship drivers are no more eager to lose their jobs to intelligent machines than factory workers are. Defense companies that make billions selling traditional systems are as welcoming of disruptions to their business model as the taxi cab industry has been of Uber and Lyft. And as all this resistance inevitably translates into disgruntled constituents, members of Congress will have enormous incentives to stymie change.
Overcoming these obstacles will require leadership at the highest levels of government to set clear priorities, drive change in resistant institutions, remake their incentive structures, and recast their cultures. That may be too much to expect, especially amid Washington’s current political turmoil. There are many capable, well-intentioned leaders in the Pentagon, Congress, and the private sector who know that the U.S. defense program needs to change. But too often, the leaders who understand the problem the best lack the power to address it at the scale required, while those with the most power either don’t understand the problem or don’t know what to do about it.
This points to a broader problem: a fundamental lack of imagination. U.S. leaders simply do not believe that the United States could be displaced as the world’s preeminent military power, not in the distant future but very soon. They do not have the vision or the sense of urgency needed to alter the status quo. If that attitude prevails, change could come not from a concerted plan but as a result of a catastrophic failure, such as an American defeat in a major war. By then, however, it will probably be too late to alter course. The revolution in military affairs will have been not a trend that the United States used to deter war and buttress peace but a cause of the United States’ destruction.
CHRISTIAN BROSE is Head of Strategy at Anduril Industries, a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the author of a forthcoming book on the future of warfare. He was formerly Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee. This article is adapted from a paper presented to the Aspen Strategy Group in August 2018.
This article was originally published in Foreign Affairs