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.
Implications for Warfare
These technologies could alter the strategic nature of military competition—and even the conduct of war itself—in a number of ways. Game-changing technologies could alter the relationship between the offensive and defensive dimensions of conflict. In particular, directed-energy weapons could make it much easier to defend against today’s precision-guided munitions by allowing defensive systems to accurately “fire” numerous times at an incoming target—helping to obviate any quantitative advantage an attacker might have. This could potentially negate a missile-saturation strategy and thus greatly alter the perceived balance of military power in several competitive theaters including the Asia-Pacific region.
Several of these potential game-changing technologies hint at a future in which mass could reemerge as a prominent feature of high-end conventional conflict. Since the dawning of the precision-strike regime, the quantity of platforms and payloads has become less important than their qualitative characteristics such as range, precision and stealth. This dynamic may change, however, if the United States faces an adversary that has roughly similar types of long-range, precise and stealthy capabilities. Under such circumstances, new concepts of mass (e.g. autonomous systems swarming) may become a very significant element of conflict.
Emerging technologies may also alter the decision-making process before or during a crisis. New technologies often provoke a discontinuous shift in the nature of military competition and in the way new systems are employed to shape a geopolitical environment. Several of these technologies, including robotics and autonomy, are changing the way deterrence and escalation operate between the United States and other actors.
In addition, several emerging technologies, including cyber capabilities and autonomous systems, raise questions about the role humans will play in determining why, when and how to employ these technologies. While the need to decide whether and how to use these technologies in near real time is compressing the amount of time available to decision makers, humans should remain the ultimate arbiters of using force. This is not a foregone conclusion shared across the national-security enterprise, but civilian policymakers must ensure that the president alone retains the right to authorize the initial use of force in a crisis—particularly in situations that pose substantial risks of miscalculation and escalation.
Invest in America’s Technological Edge
Today’s emerging technologies have tremendous potential to coalesce in ways that would spark another military-technical revolution. Unfortunately, neither DOD nor the broader national-security establishment has devoted adequate attention to understanding the strategic implications of emerging technologies and ensuring that the right investments are being made and sustained during a deep decline in defense spending. For decades, American defense strategy has focused on maintaining a clear technological lead—in the capabilities used to defend U.S. interests; the concepts of operation that can maximize effectiveness on the battlefield; and the human capital that can create, design and innovate ahead of other countries. If not managed properly, reduced defense spending—and especially the extremely shortsighted sequestration mechanism—may erode both the investment capital and human capital needed to realize the full potential of the game-changing technologies described above. America’s privileged position in military technology is not an inherent right. Regardless of the years of constrained defense spending to come, policymakers must ensure that they build on the legacy of technological dominance left by previous generations.
Shawn Brimley is Vice President, Ben FitzGerald is Director of the Technology and National Security Program, and Kelley Sayler is a Research Associate at the Center for a New American Security.