CNAS Releases New Report “Building the Future Force: Guaranteeing American Leadership in a Contested Environment”
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.
Special operations remain an…
Special operations remain an afterthought in much of the Department of Defense and the services, and that shortfall is all too often reflected in papers like these. The utility of special operations doesn’t rhyme with America’s preferred way of war, which is seeking rapid victory through decisive battle. The military strategy this future force is designed to support is a strategy that emphasizes finding, fixing, and finishing faster than the adversary. These are capabilities we should desire and aspire towards, but it is hardly a holistic description of an ideal future force based on our current and projected threats.
Since Dave Maxwell already addressed the special operations gap, I’ll focus my comments mostly on other areas. To clarify my position, the technical challenges this study addresses are very real and must be addressed. We haven’t seen the end of war, so like Dave, I am a supporter of rebuilding the readiness and capabilities of our conventional forces to prevail in future wars. However, what this paper fails to do in my view is one of the paper’s stated aims, “imagine ways of fighting that may defy conventional wisdom.”
The focus on building a more resilient and faster find, fix, and finish (F3) capability and capacity, apparently at the expense of everything else, implies the underlying strategic assumption is that future wars will be fought according to U.S. morals, where every effort will be made by both sides to limit collateral damage to non-military targets. Yet, most of our adversaries throughout modern history (WII and beyond) have proven quite capable of deliberately committing atrocities to achieve their ends. Whether it was Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, or more recently Russia’s support of Assad in its deliberate targeting of medical facilities and conducting chemical attacks on civilians in Syria. The asymmetry is that we are focused on counter force targeting, while our adversaries are focused on counter force and counter value targeting as means to an end. Considering our adversaries have multiple means and ways, multidomain and multifunction if you will, to attack our homeland, then that must be a focus area. These means and ways range from cyber, space, conventional fires, special operations, to active measures in the human domain to undermine our political cohesion and national will. It would seem appropriate to address a substantial portion of any future force discussion on requirements to protect the homeland. It can no longer be considered a sanctuary when the boys march to fight a war on a foreign land.
As we have seen with Crimea, the ability to F3 faster doesn’t overcome the challenges of interior lines our strategic competitors and North Korea enjoy. Even with state of the art ISR capabilities, decision space for leaders to respond will be limited, and adversaries will likely establish facts on the ground before we can generate the political will to act. At that point, gaining the political will needed to project enough force to conduct a military operation to reverse this situation will prove challenging due to the expense involved and the risk poised advanced anti-access / area denial capabilities. Would be worthwhile if the future force had other options to offer our national leadership? Unconventional warfare could be one such option.
The feasibility of the 3rd Off-Set Strategy (3OS) is highly questionable. The assumption is our strategic competitors can keep pace with us, or in some areas even out match us in technical innovation, so the pursuit of the 3OS may prove more burdensome than our economy can bear over time. This begs the question, have we seriously imagined alternative ways of fighting future conflicts? The paper points out that technological innovation is happening quicker than anticipated. This shouldn’t be surprising, technology begets technology, each advanced technology is the son or daughter of previous technology, whether it is tying a stone to club, or interconnecting sensors with advanced weapon systems. It is the nature of technological evolution to increase in momentum.
Finally, a hat tip to Dave Maxwell for calling out gray zone competition, which by description means our competitors are achieving war like objectives short of traditional armed conflict using innovative strategy more so than innovative technology. The take away from this point is that even if we did achieve the aims of the 3OS strategy, we would still be missing a critical piece of our future force design if we didn’t address how we intend to confront this challenge.
Interestingly there is no…
Interestingly there is no discussion of Special Operations in the future force nor irregular, political, or unconventional warfare, influence or psychological operations or the gray zone despite a focus on the "militarization of interstate politics" (or perhaps more specifically in my view "politics as war by other means"). The focus on information operations is on cyber, AI, electronic warfare, C4ISR, et. al., and information dominance in the technical realm but not in the influence realm. Apologies for my bias but the bottom line is there is no focus on human domain or "the way of American irregular warfare."
This report is an exercise in long-term forecasting, an inherently difficult practice. Most attempts to peer into the future fail due to inadequate approximations of the relevant - and usually interacting - political, demographic, economic, ideational, and technological trends.
U.S. adversaries may seek to act offensively, striking political targets to deter attack. North Korea, for example, may seek to use its artillery to hold Seoul hostage.
Whether America is still a world leader - by any measure, inasmuch as political-economic strength is rooted in military factors - at the start of the 22nd century is in the balance.
While many aspects of this era in American military history are unique - take, for instance, the emergence of the space, cyber, and electronic domains as primary areas of competition - the dilemmas facing U.S. strategists today are not without precedent. Arleigh Burke, Andrew Marshall, and Michael Vickers each faced variations of the same dilemmas in their time. Confronted with profound technological uncertainties, cast against a shifting and tenuous geopolitical backdrop, they were charged with imagining a way to protect or reassert America's global military pre-eminence. In each case, they succeeded by looking past the emergencies of the day and grappling directly with the trends they knew to be reshaping the character of warfare beneath the surface.
The United States of America has earned its military edge these past many decades. Now that edge is under increased threat. Fortunately, the nation has the political, industrial, and military wherewithal required to reassert its military pre-eminence and, in so doing, ensure the safety and prosperity of its allies and partners around the world for decades to come.