5 April 2018


Washington, D.C., March 29, 2018 – A new study from the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) examines how the spread of advanced technologies and operational concepts has enabled state competitors to contest U.S. military primacy. It closes with recommendations for assuring an American military advantage to the year 2025 and beyond. In “Building the Future Force: Guaranteeing American Leadership in a Contested Environment ,” Shawn Brimley, Jerry Hendrix, Lauren Fish, Adam Routh, and Alexander Velez-Green assess competitors’ pursuit of information dominance; integrated naval, air, and missile defenses; and long-range strike capabilities. The authors evaluate next how these developments, both independently and in conjunction with one another, may complicate U.S. efforts to find, fix, and finish enemy targets in a future war. The report closes with recommendations for overcoming or sidestepping these complications.

The report’s authors are the late Shawn Brimley, former Executive Vice President and Director of Studies at CNAS; Jerry Hendrix, Senior Fellow and Director of CNAS’ Defense Strategies and Assessments Program; and Lauren Fish, Adam Routh, and Alexander Velez-Green, Research Associates in the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program.

The report’s key takeaways include: 

The rates of technological advancement and proliferation are hastening. To understand what this means for the future requires long-term inherently difficult task. Admiral Arleigh Burke’s Task Force 70 effort, Andrew W. Marshall’s work within the Office of Net Assessment, Michael Vickers’ 1993 work for the Office of Net Assessment, and Robert O. Work’s 2014 Center for a New American Security work on robotic warfare all represent accurate predictions of the future threat environment. Successful forecasting does not always produce the necessary policy changes, however. The challenge is thus less one of recognition than of translating this recognition into an appropriately designed defense program. 

The militarization of interstate politics should be expected to persist for the foreseeable future. This trend will be paralleled by the diffusion of advanced military technologies and new ideas for how to use them. The success of the future force will depend on its ability to find, fix, and finish targets more rapidly than its adversaries. Equally, the future force should expect adversaries that seek to conduct warfare at a pace unmatched by the United States or its allies. 

The range and lethality of modern weaponry mean that whichever state’s forces are consistently able to stay hidden long enough to find and strike enemy targets first will have a significant military-strategic advantage. The challenge for the U.S. Department of Defense, then, is to procure a resilient intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) architecture, enabled by artificial intelligence (AI) and advanced computing, that allows for the collection, analysis, and dissemination of actionable information in real-time. This will require greater investment in space-based, hypersonic, and stealth ISR assets in addition to AI-enabled analysis capabilities. 

Adversary access to a diverse array of defensive countermeasures means that sustained target acquisition cannot be assured. To ensure a kill, future forces will need to deliver one or more munitions on-target quickly, before an adversary is able to escape tracking. This is possible by either moving shooters as close to the target area as possible or by acquiring a suite of prompt strike weapons that can be fired from outside – or within, if feasible – an enemy’s A2/AD bubble. If the future force wishes to ensure a kill, smart small-diameter bombs, robotic swarms, hypersonics, and directed-energy weapons should be a critical procurement focus for the Department of Defense. 

The pace of technological improvement, coupled with intensifying challenges to U.S. national security interests worldwide, demands that the United States dare to imagine ways of fighting that may defy conventional wisdom but that harness America’s unique advantages. American strategists must also identify the doctrinal innovations that will make best use of new technologies, or best mitigate the vulnerabilities of older systems, inasmuch as it is not the technology that wins a war, but how that technology is employed. 

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