Technology diffusion, geostrategic changes, and a proliferation of well-armed adversaries are forcing Washington to deal with a mix of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism and at the same time provide against traditional challenges. Taken together, these factors are brewing a "perfect storm" that will not be adequately addressed by current attempts to balance investments between traditional combined arms warfare with complex operations. This toxic combination will take more than incremental changes to fix, and a few writers along with parts of the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review touch on the scope of this largely unappreciated danger. The authors call for necessity-driven experimentation—vigorous and competitive exploration of ideas to aid in making "once-in-a-century" decisions.
A period of discontinuity in defense planning looms because of a "perfect storm"—that is, the confluence of technology diffusion, geostrategic changes, and the range of increasingly well-armed adversaries (states and networked nonstate actors). These are leading to the United States having to deal with a demanding mix of counterinsurgency (COIN) and counterterrorism on the one hand, and traditional challenges on the other; the likelihood of major difficulties in projecting forces in some important circumstances; related block obsolescence of U.S. forces and concepts of operations; and the need for a new grand strategy in the Asia-Pacific region.1
To make things worse, obstacles exist to taking on these challenges—notably, the demands of current wars, military complacency due to decades of military overmatch, and severe national fiscal constraints. Incremental changes will not suffice, but no consensus is yet emerging about options for the way ahead. Taken together, the problems pose a once-in-a-century challenge. All of this is summarized in figure 1. Although each of the factors we mention is recognized individually, we do not believe that either the perfect storm situation or absence of consensus on good ideas about how to move forward is yet appreciated. Currently, much of the debate within and outside of the Pentagon is over finding a new balance between investments for traditional combined arms warfare and what are now called complex operations—whole-of-government actions that involve combinations of irregular warfare, COIN, stabilization, and perhaps humanitarian assistance, usually with other nations or groups involved. As important as this balancing effort is, we believe that the national security issues now challenging the Nation are even more profound for reasons touched on by a few authors and in portions of the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review.2 By intent, this article is about sharpening that appreciation. Finding solutions is another matter.
For decades, the U.S. military has enjoyed technological overmatch in domains from sophisticated communications through precision weapons and space systems. This is changing, as indicated in table 1, which lists classes of military technology that are now or can soon be available to some U.S. adversaries—even some lesser states and nonstate military organizations. Some of the related items are inexpensive, such as cell phones or other devices using the Global Positioning System (GPS). Precision weapons are available today to nonstate actors, as illustrated by Hizballah's use of guided missiles and other tactics in the 2006 Lebanon War.3 Precision mortars and other such weapons can seriously change what is feasible for ground forces.4 A larger country, such as Iran, can afford to buy significant numbers of advanced surface-to-air missiles. Many cyberwar capabilities are inexpensive and technically undemanding, such as denial-of-service attacks. Some antispace system capabilities are similarly inexpensive and straightforward (for example, GPS jammers).5 In some cases, U.S. responses are already under way and will have at least some success at affordable prices. However, more broadly, the trends are quite adverse. From the viewpoint of competitive strategies, the United States is now on the wrong side of the economics: It is much cheaper for adversaries to cause great difficulties for U.S. forces and operations than it is for the United States to respond effectively. This is true for both low-end and high-end adversaries and competitors.
Collision of Revolutions
To put matters into perspective, it is useful to conceptualize changes occurring in the 21st century in terms of four 20th-century revolutions in military affairs (RMAs). The strategy of industrial warfare emerged conspicuously from 1917 onward with mass production of self-propelled vehicles of all types. It matured in World War II, and its influence is central in all modern combined arms military establishments. It underlies what was long called the American way of war.6
RMA II, the strategy of the insurgent, had roots in early partisan or guerrilla warfare, such as by colonialists in the American Revolution and by Native Americans in the settling of the West. However, it is associated specifically with the innovations of Mao Zedong in the 1930s when it became a form of total political and cultural warfare. A central feature of this type of war is often the sophisticated and sustained use of terrorism for coercion. A resurgence of this type of warfare has come from al Qaeda and its affiliates. Iran supports this type of strategy and related terrorism through Hamas and Hizballah.
RMA III, the strategy of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and strategic bombardment, began in World War II with nuclear weapons and long-range means of bombarding the adversary's homeland (primarily with bombers, but also with Germany's first-generation long-range ballistic and cruise missiles). Since then, nuclear weapons have proliferated and might continue to do so, perhaps even to nonstate actors. Other forms of WMD, especially biological weapons, are also a concern.
RMA IV, the strategy of information technology, became increasingly visible in the late 1980s. It was marked by precision-guided weapons, information technology, and the use of space, as in network-centric warfare. It has been the central feature of military transformation since the 1990s.7 Some aspects, such as new forms of organization and operation (for example, swarming tactics) and exploitation of robotic or remotely controlled systems, have been only partially implemented.
A common impression is that a given RMA occurs within a nominal date range and is subsequently replaced by the next one. In contrast, we see RMAs as having started at nominal times but continuing thereafter in a measure-countermeasure dynamic with competition among all four of them (see figure 2).8 Industrial warfare, for example, evolved to include aircraft carriers, tank armies, and modern air forces. Warfare will again be undergoing major change, but we do not yet know whether the result will be a hybrid of all four RMAs or something new. Wealthy countries with traditional military forces will continue to invest in tanks, aircraft, and surface ships—the fruits of industrialization and combined arms (RMA I). Many state and nonstate actors, including terrorists and criminals, will continue to adopt the insurgent strategy (RMA II). They will benefit from selective acquisition of weapons and systems associated with RMA IV. Nonetheless, some states may conclude that their only reliable defense is through deterrence enabled by WMD (RMA III). A worrisome possibility is that some states, such as a future nuclear-armed Iran, might use their nuclear force (RMA III) as a shield while pursuing or supporting aggressive operations (probably indirectly) using the methods of RMA II and RMA IV. In summary, we see the future as involving a mingling, even a collision, of continuing RMAs, as well as new developments (the first genuine RMA of the 21st century).
The geostrategic changes in recent decades are many and varied. China is now a major power with impressive, high-momentum military developments9 in addition to its economic accomplishments. China's buildup has long been anticipated and can be regarded as both natural and historically normal. It is possible and perhaps even likely that China, its neighbors, and the United States will have mostly good relations for many years into the future—strongly consistent with the interests of all concerned. Nonetheless, there are reasons to worry. Two years ago, most China experts in the United States would have referred only to hypothetical concerns based on geography and historical experiences and would have ended with a recitation of why the nations have interests in continuing peace and prosperity, and how they had—so far—shown restraint and, by and large, statesmanship. Unfortunately, more signs of trouble have arisen. Some of these are economic, some military, and some political within China. In 2010, China has seemingly taken an increasingly hard line regarding sovereignty over a number of small islands and waters, especially in the South China Sea. Although the issues are longstanding, Beijing has recently become much more assertive about its territorial claims along its littoral in the Yellow Sea (on the west side of the Korean Peninsula) and the South China Sea (between Vietnam and the Philippines), which it now claims as a "core interest" of sovereignty.10
For obvious reasons, China's assertiveness has worried such regional states as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Economic tensions are now considerable as well, and will likely continue, with even the possibility of an expanding trade war emerging as importer states consider tariffs and other measures to protect jobs and improve balances of payments. Although the future should be one of cooperation and mostly good relations, and we are not among those who exaggerate China's current power, many potential flashpoints can be identified that justify caution—especially given China's behavior over the last year.11
China, of course, is not the only rising power. India is emerging as a powerhouse in South Asia, one with its own ambitions, particularly making the Indian Ocean a sphere of influence and having significant power at chokepoints such as between the Indian and Pacific Oceans (for example, the Strait of Malacca) and between the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean (Strait of Hormuz and Bab-el-Mandeb).12
It is possible and even likely that India and the various regional states of East and South Asia will, along with the United States, provide a kind of balancing of China through a combination of economic, political, and military activities over time. What might emerge is a dynamic cool war of competition, cooperation, containment, and possible conflict. This will be an era of strategic improvisation and not the rigid and nearly monochromatic strategic competition of the early phases of the Cold War.
Other geostrategic realities include, of course, the continuing struggle with violent radical extremists, notably al Qaeda and a network of loosely affiliated jihadist organizations worldwide. No end is in sight for that struggle—even if U.S. withdrawal from Iraq occurs on schedule without civil war, and even if progress continues slowly in Afghanistan, which is even more uncertain—especially given linkages to the troubles within Pakistan. Osama bin Laden's death has not changed this. Nor have the upheavals of the Arab Spring, the long-term implications of which are not yet clear.
Another new geostrategic reality is the advent of new wartime theaters of operation: space and cyberspace. The U.S. military is extremely dependent on both and experiences many serious vulnerabilities as other nations improve their own capabilities in both, and as some nations, such as China, do so zealously precisely because of the U.S. dependence.
Finally, nuclear proliferation continues, despite years of unsuccessful effort and dubious rhetoric about preventing it. In some instances (North Korea and Iran among them), a major purpose of developing nuclear capability is to deter attacks by the United States. At some point, countries such as South Korea and Taiwan may come to doubt the credibility of U.S. extended conventional deterrence—especially if conventional force projection itself becomes substantially more dicey for the United States.
Block Obsolescence of Forces and Concepts of Operations
Against this background, we see the obsolescing of U.S. force structure and concepts of operations with respect both to a peer competitor and to lesser adversaries that combine methods of insurgency with modern technology. Problems exist across the board, but table 2 illustrates them for force projection. To be sure, our assessments are subjective, and uncertainties have less to do with technology trends, which are observable, than with whether in fact potential adversaries exploit them as we project.
Some key points underlie these conclusions relating to traditional forces and traditional operational concepts:13
Perceiving the Way Ahead, Darkly
Against this background of sobering diagnosis, we have attempted to sketch the outlines of a way ahead. That outline involves new military capabilities, concepts of operation, and grand strategy.
We focused largely on issues of force projection. Since traditional concepts of operation are losing viability, we sketched three illustrative possibilities for new ones to sharpen discussion of capability needs. They stem from asking how force projection could proceed given a lethal environment (sometimes discussed as an antiaccess environment).
Make Deliberate, Phased Entry with Defense. This concept would be, in some respects, a modernized version of the classic concept. However, significant suppression of adversary capabilities would be accomplished with long-range strike platforms (and cyberwar), after which the ground and air forces deployed into the country (perhaps from seabasing) would have reliable defenses against missile and drone attacks from short, medium, and long ranges. The defenses would be accompanied by the ability to quickly detect and attack the launch sites of any attacks (by analogy with the Army's current counterbattery fire). Furthermore, there would be the need to support Army and Marine ground maneuver forces by long-range airlift flying from protected land- or seabases. Multibrigade ground forces could perhaps be supported by airlift with the new technology of precision airdrop, although that would be challenging for some classes of supply such as fuel and ammunition. Airlifters would overfly low-altitude air defenses and would not need to use forward airfields under threat from long-range precision fires. The concept of the defended seabase also appears attractive. Recently, the Navy has developed a new at-sea connector, the mobile land platform, that has conceptual promise to provide at-sea support to a multibrigade-size Marine and Army expeditionary force, although budget pressures might preclude related investments.
Surveil, Strike, Punish from Afar, and Insert Small, Networked Ground Forces. An alternative approach would be to eschew insertion of large ground forces and instead depend on sustainable strike capabilities guided by persistent surveillance from survivable platforms. Special forces and unconventional warfare operations pivoting around indigenous allied forces could also play a major role. Thus, the concept could include large numbers of small, dispersed, networked ground forces.14 Given sufficient local forces, this tack might suffice, but history continues to show the need for substantial "boots on the ground" to control territory.
Make Rapid Entry. A third example would emphasize prior surveillance by survivable and possibly covert means; first strikes or preemptions in the form of sudden, decisive strikes with long-range missiles and aircraft, cyberattacks, and specialized ground forces; and followup actions by larger numbers of ground forces, both those of the country being assisted and external projection forces. Such attacks might be especially relevant to dealing with terror networks that cannot be deterred in the ordinary sense.
These possibilities are neither mutually exclusive nor exhaustive (for example, they do not include space-based weapons that could be used both for offensive purposes and to suppress or destroy enemy defenses), but they illustrate a range of different thrusts—each with its own severe shortcomings.
At this stage, it is not clear which or which combination of these concepts will be viable. This suggests priorities on certain types of capabilities if they can in fact be achieved at tolerable cost. The following list is itself less remarkable than recognizing how challenging the related technical requirements are (and by noting differences from current de facto priorities, such as modernization of current platform types):
We see likely cross-cutting stratagems as involving dispersion, networking, and swarm tactics; major efforts to ensure network security while hedging in not-yet-identified ways against predictable network failures or penetration; and massive use of robotics and remote control systems. For each military Service, the crucial questions seem to be these:
Again, the generic questions are less remarkable than the specifics. Should ground force projection deemphasize large, traditional units in favor of small, networked unit (swarming) tactics? What kind of seabasing makes sense, and for what distances? What is the future role of short-range tactical air forces? How will long-distance strike capability be sustained in the event of a large and lengthy conflict? And, in the realm of complex operations, what capabilities are needed to accomplish the missions with much reduced numbers of U.S. ground forces?
Toward a New Grand Strategy
The other crucial element of the way ahead will be a new grand strategy. The most obvious need is to rethink grand strategy for the Asia-Pacific super region. We conclude:
Although arms control should also be an element of grand strategy, it is unlikely that it will substantially alleviate the major U.S. national security challenges identified.
Because the way ahead militarily is unclear, we see the need for vigorous and competitive exploration and competition of ideas. The past decade's experiences have not been encouraging: Visions have sometimes gotten far ahead of technology; reason, criticism, and competition have not been sufficiently valued; and joint experimentation has been neither sufficiently ambitious nor rigorous. Ironically, at a time when U.S. Joint Forces Command is arguably needed most, a decade's disappointments caused former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to call for the command's dissolution.15 A priority should be placed on rethinking how to do the explorations needed to inform once-in-a-century decisions.
Finally, in some respects (the primary difference being the unavoidable long struggle with international violent religious extremism that threatens the United States and its worldwide interests), the Nation is in a situation reminiscent of that of the Eisenhower administration as it considered grand strategy. It seems likely that, in broad terms, grand strategy will need to evolve with an emphasis on rejuvenating and sustaining the country's economic vitality while relying increasingly on credible forms of deterrence (rather than clear-cut superiority) in certain balance of power issues; and on alliances, improvement of allied capabilities, and use of international organizations. What is needed, arguably, is a national security strategy of comprehensive balancing rather than just a rebalancing of military capabilities. JFQ