News | Dec. 29, 2021

The Kill Chain

By Daniel Sukman Joint Force Quarterly 104

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The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare
The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare
The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare
Photo By: Hachette Books
VIRIN: 211228-D-BD104-1015

The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare
By Christian Brose
Hachette Books, 2020
320 pp. $28.00
ISBN: 978-0316533539

Reviewed by Daniel Sukman

Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Sukman is an Army Strategist (FA59) serving on the faculty at the Joint Forces Staff College, in Norfolk, Virginia.

In March, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command commander warned in testimony to Congress that China could attempt to take control of Taiwan in the next decade. In The Kill Chain, by Christian Brose, the former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee under the former chairman, the late Senator John McCain, posits that the United States is rapidly falling behind China and, to an extent, Russia, in the development of combat capabilities, platforms, and systems designed for the future of war. If this trend continues, the ability to defend Taiwan in an armed conflict against China will be increasingly in doubt.

Brose introduces the idea of the “kill chain” to demonstrate America’s misguided thinking about war and capabilities development and to illustrate how the United States is losing pace to Russia, but more significantly, to China. Brose sums up the kill chain in three parts: first, understanding the situation; second, decisionmaking; and third, executing an action to achieve an objective. Brose posits that the outcomes of a conflict with China or Russia will be dependent on the ability to retain one’s kill chain while breaking the opponent’s. Within the kill chain paradigm, Brose advocates for new ways of thinking about how to counter and defeat an adversary’s kill chain rather than improving existing combat platforms and traditional ways of warfighting.

Brose argues that the Department of Defense (DOD) is simply updating systems and capabilities to fight in old ways against lesser opponents. He warns that, as China rises to peer status, at the current rate of modernization and technology acquisition, the United States is on pace to have a weaker force. A war with China will not be a tactical or operational rollover like the United States experienced in recent major combat operations. Specifically, he suggests that maritime and air superiority is unlikely, and the homeland will no longer serve as a sanctuary.

Brose singles out the defense innovation ecosystem and acquisitions process for critique, and there is ample blame to go around. According to Brose, the uniformed Services are just as culpable as the slow acquisitions process. For example, true innovation is often stifled by a preference for engaging with a small pool of companies willing to do defense work, creating less incentive for true innovation. A thicket of procedural and bureaucratic hurdles does not help. Brose points out that the creation and acquisition of new technology is not only slower and less creative than ever before but also requires more people and processes to approve them.

However, the limited pool of defense firms is only one dimension of the problem. Those firms that remain spend more money complying with regulations and navigating the bureaucracy than they do on research and development even though there are plenty of private corporations and technology firms that outspend DOD on research and development. The book also serves as a warning that basing acquisition decisions purely on congressional districts and state economic interests can cause long-term damage to the security of the Nation.

The second central thesis of The Kill Chain is the call to move from a culture and doctrine of offense to a culture and doctrine of defense. A defensive mindset offers a new way of thinking about war and challenges policymakers and strategy-makers to consider how the United States could best deter China from challenging it in lieu of seeking to impose its will. Brose views defensive thinking as the solution to China’s military and technological rise. Leaders throughout the joint force may find the shift offensive. The joint and Service doctrines present offensive tactics, seizing the initiative, as gospel and crucial to victory. But is victory the same today as it was decades ago? Regardless, Brose’s advocacy of a defensive mindset is certain to stimulate much debate.

Readers may find the author’s pessimism discomforting, if not counterproductive. Indeed, Brose’s alarmist writing fails to address some of the purposes of U.S. acquisition processes. There is risk in implementing new capabilities too fast and without proper testing and evaluation. The fate of effects-based operations and the Army’s Future Combat Systems should serve as profound warnings about the dangers of moving too fast in doctrine and materiel changes. Also, tactical considerations should not lead the operational or strategic level of war. The author’s focus and pursuit of advanced technology-based solutions is a flawed method for military adaptation. Brose does propose the use of smaller systems in large numbers (quantity as a quality) as a method of employment. Furthermore, he continually advocates for more drones and more artificial intelligence–based platforms without considering an operational concept that employs them. The idea that the military could shift to a defensive mindset is a start, but not enough to warrant significant changes to force structure and force design. Indeed, without an operational concept that has been tested and evaluated, acquiring new platforms and implementing new doctrine are fool’s errands.

The Kill Chain will certainly appeal to senior uniformed and civilian national security leaders. For the joint force, The Kill Chain provides a way of thinking about future force development and design with an emphasis on new technologies that can fundamentally change the character of war. As America’s civilian and military leaders continue to press Great Power competition, the nature and speed of technological adaptation will play a decisive factor in the outcome. The Kill Chain should generate much debate and is an essential contribution to the way civilian and uniformed leaders throughout DOD should be thinking about preparing for war. JFQ