March 29, 2018

Building the Future Force

Guaranteeing American Leadership in a Contested Environment

By Shawn Brimley, Jerry Hendrix, Lauren Fish, Adam Routh and Alexander Velez-Green

Key Takeaways and Next Steps

  • The rates of technological advancement and proliferation are hastening. To understand what this means for the future requires long-term forecasting, an 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.

About the Project

This report supports the Evolving the Future Force effort. Evolving the Future Force is a multi-year project designed to examine how the joint force should adapt to adversary innovations across the spectrum of conflict. State and non-state actors are investing in novel capabilities and concepts of operation that challenge traditional U.S. modes of power projection. U.S. military forces must evolve and adapt to respond to these challenges. This project explores the necessary attributes and capabilities of the future joint force and how to evolve it in a cost-effective manner. This effort examines opportunities to build on existing programs, capitalize on emerging technologies, leverage a high-low mix of assets, and experiment with new operational paradigms.

The Evolving the Future Force project is assisted by a high-level advisory council composed of experts from industry, academia, and former government officials. The authors would like to thank the council members for their support through the multi-year effort.

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  • Shawn Brimley

    Former Executive Vice President and Director of Studies

    Shawn Brimley was the Executive Vice President and Director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) where he managed the center’s research agenda and staff...

  • Jerry Hendrix

    Senior Fellow and Director, Defense Program

    Jerry Hendrix is a Senior Fellow and the Director of the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security. A retired Captain in the United States Navy, his staff ass...

  • Lauren Fish

    Research Associate, Defense Program

    Lauren Fish is a Research Associate with the Defense Program and Future of Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Prior to joining CNAS, Ms. Fis...

  • Adam Routh

    Research Associate, Defense Program

    Adam Routh is a Research Associate with the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security. Prior to joining CNAS, Mr. Routh served as a Special Operation’s Joint ...

  • Alexander Velez-Green

    Research Associate, Defense Program

    Alexander Velez-Green is a Research Associate with the Defense Program. He specializes in defense, deterrence, and escalation management issues. His recent work focuses on the...

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