24 December 2015

Preparing Today’s Military for Tomorrow’s Wars

Whether or not we are officially at war with ISIS is a reoccurring debate in today’s mass media. Part of what makes this question so compelling is that the concept of war, and how it’s fought, has dramatically changed since the end of the Cold War.
Take, for example, the evolving nature of “the enemy.” During the Cold War, the clear black-and-white, democracy-versus-communism world order enabled the U.S. to have one primary enemy—the Soviet Union. No matter the theater of operation or the uncertainty propping up the world order, a nuclear missile directed toward Moscow would deter any major attack on the homeland.

Not to be too nostalgic for the days of duck-and-cover drills, but today’s strategic landscape is arguably more challenging because adversaries appear in different forms and on different continents. The traditional image of one or several state enemies still remains, but it is now accompanied by an increasing number of non-state actor threats with undefined borders and overt displays of violence—all of which demonstrates that we are not playing by the same rules, or even the same game.
The emergence of new warfare domains, such as cyber, and hybrid warfare also pose new challenges for the Armed Forces, requiring specialized skill sets and equipment. Due to the slow pace of the U.S. government’s acquisition process, it is extremely difficult for federal agencies to stay ahead of malicious hackers. Cyber and hybrid warfare capabilities can change far more quickly than the military can adapt. At the same time, these new domains represent new areas of vulnerability for adversaries and potential avenues for the U.S. to pursue its policy goals internationally.

These new domains of warfare have arisen due to the opportunities and challenges presented by the rapid pace of recent technological innovation. The capabilities allowed by modern technologies– global precision strike, unmanned weapons platforms, encrypted communications systems, and more – are becoming cheaper and more widely available than ever before. As a result, the technological edge that the U.S. has enjoyed over virtually all adversaries since the end of the Cold War has been eroding, as rising powers develop systems to match or counter U.S. capabilities. This has created a wide array of new strategic competitions, and the outcomes of those competitions are far from certain. Already new warfare domains are emerging, as Pentagon officials draft a new policy that would recognize the electromagnetic spectrum as a domain of warfare, along with air, space, land, sea, and cyber.
Public-private partnerships have been a large part of maintaining a competitive-edge for the United States. Public-private partnerships work by allowing a two-way conversation through which the Department of Defense can communicate what capabilities are lacking and industry can share technological advancements. While there have certainly been areas of friction and points of failure in this system, it has been an invaluable tool for keeping the U.S. ahead of its adversaries, both militarily and commercially.

The result of all of this is that U.S. military is being spread thin among various regions and domains, as it tries to keep ahead of the next technological innovation. This is happening alongside an increasingly tightening defense budget, further restraining the military’s reach. Now the question is, do we prioritize certain adversaries or domains, thereby risking that those we ignore may strengthen, or do we continue to allow ourselves to spread thin across various theaters?

Looking forward, we may not know how threats will change, but it is never too early to start asking, “What’s next?” After all, proactively identifying our weaknesses and incorporating the newest technology into our arsenal is the best way to prepare the U.S. military forces for the next big threat.

Alana Garellek and Luke Penn-Hall are Producers at The Cipher Brief.

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