Despite assertions to the contrary, war is not disappearing. If anything, it is
increasing in frequency and duration. Armed conflict will remain central to
relations among states and nonstate actors. It will remain a contest of human
wills and thus the domain of uncertainty, compounded by human passions,
friction, and fog. Technology will not bring clarity or brevity. Century after
century, political and military leaders have embarked on wars they “knew”
would be short and decisive—and subsequently paid the price for ignoring the
true nature of war.
War is unlikely to disappear from human relations.1 In contrast to
the unchanging nature of war, its character—how it is fought—will change continually. How people fight wars is based on the social,
economic, political, and technical aspects of their societies. Furthermore,
it is not based solely on those aspects of one society but on those aspects
of all societies in the conflict—and how they interact. One of the great
challenges is to anticipate the changing character of war well enough to
adapt rapidly when conflict reveals those changes. Perhaps the most important
change to the character of war today is the proliferation of smart,
small, and cheap weapons. These allow small states and even nonstate
actors to acquire capabilities that previously were the exclusive preserve
of major powers, such as space systems, long-range precision strike, and
massed short-range autonomous weapons.
Creating further friction for policymakers is the fact that military planners
are trained to ask for clear-cut objectives and a defined “endstate.”
Planners do so because it apparently simplifies the military planning for
the conflict. Too often the desire for a defined endstate is a false hope.2
A clear military endstate has been a rarity since World War II and will
remain so in the future. While the armed conflict may end, the political
entities involved in the conflict will remain, and the United States will have to maintain a relationship with them. A badly executed war may in
fact greatly complicate those continuing relationships. The real goal of a
military operation is not to reach a military endstate per se but rather to
set the conditions for an acceptable, continued political relationship—
the desired “better peace.” Such relationships have historically required
continuing military support as seen in the cases of Germany, Japan, Korea,
the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
What policymakers do owe military commanders is a description of
the desired continuing state and the policy parameters for a particular
effort. Policymakers must also understand that this guidance should be
just the beginning of an ongoing dialogue between civilian and military
leaders that will evolve into the plan for the conflict. Furthermore, the
past 50 years have clearly demonstrated that both political and military
objectives will change over the course of a conflict. Thus dialogue must
continue throughout the conflict and the subsequent peace. As always,
the most important task for policymakers is to understand both the nature
and character of the conflict they are engaged in—“neither mistaking
it for, nor trying to turn it into something that is alien to its nature.”3
Among state actors, China has taken the lead in developing methods to
neutralize U.S. strengths. It has either demonstrated or is developing a
wide range of capabilities that the Pentagon has characterized as being in
the antiaccess/area-denial (A2/AD) arena.4 Many of these A2/AD systems
are already proliferating among large and medium states. Moreover, as
these capabilities become cheaper, smarter, and more numerous, we can
be sure they will migrate to smaller states.
In addition, we will likely see an increase in the number of nuclear
powers since nuclear weapons provide a guarantee against externally
driven regime change. Once a regional power gets a nuclear weapon,
its neighbors will seek the same capability as a matter of self-preservation.
Thus proliferation is likely. While proliferation is not a desirable
outcome, it should be noted that the presence of nuclear weapons has
tamped down the level and intensity of conflicts and confrontations between
nuclear-armed states. However, these confrontations have taken
place between relatively stable states (the Soviet Union–China, India-Pakistan,
and the United States–Soviet Union). The prospect of politically
unstable states developing nuclear weapons remains a great concern. As
unstable states acquire nuclear weapons, we have to plan for not only the
potential collapse of a nuclear state but also the potential for a civil war
with nuclear weapons.
States will also employ surrogates to keep their own forces off the
battlefield. We have seen Iran use Hizballah and Pakistan use the Taliban
to pursue their strategic interests without committing their own forces to
the conflicts. More recently, the Russians made extensive use of so-called
little green men as surrogates in Ukraine. Contractors are another form
of surrogate that states have used in numerous conflicts for a variety of
reasons. Even criminal organizations have been employed to execute a
range of activities from cyber to propaganda to kinetic attacks. This trend
will continue. In summation, states will use a wide variety of methods
and resources to neutralize conventional U.S. military power to achieve
their strategic goals.
Nonstate actors fall into three major categories: insurgents, terrorists/
super-empowered small groups, and transnational criminal organizations.
The United States has extensive experience in conflict with each
type, yet each provides a unique challenge based on the political, economic,
and social conditions of the conflict. Each has also been steadily
evolving and has been greatly empowered by the information revolution.
The first category, insurgents, will be driven by different goals than
in the past. Such efforts will still be about self-governance but now will
add a desire to change borders. Since World War II, insurgencies have
been primarily driven by a desire to throw off an imperial power. Once
the colonial powers had withdrawn, the driving force became determining
which local group would control the new nation. The People’s
Movement for the Liberation of Angola’s long war against the National
Union for the Total Independence of Angola is a prime example. After a
multi-decade conflict, the People’s Movement won. It now rules over a
nation with essentially the same boundaries as existed when the country
was a Portuguese colony. More recently, insurgents are fighting to redraw
boundaries to align with social/cultural/religious boundaries that
preceded the colonial era. This has been accomplished in places such as
the former Yugoslavia and Sudan. Somalia, while not de jure separated,
is de facto three separate political entities today. In the Middle East, the
Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is fighting hard to redraw
boundaries and has plans to change boundaries far beyond. The Baluch
and Kurds fight to create new states without regard to existing borders.
The mismatch between the borders drawn by imperial powers and those
needed to create functioning states is most acute in the Middle East and
Africa and will increasingly be sources of conflict. It will reinforce other drivers of insurgency—corruption, government incapacity, failure to address
minority needs, and resource scarcity.
This desire to change borders will have a significant impact on U.S.
counterinsurgency efforts. Current U.S. doctrine calls for supporting the
host-nation government against the insurgents. If an insurgent movement
crosses international borders, such as the Pashtuns who straddle the Afghan-
Pakistan border, there is no single host nation. Thus the United
States will have to work with two or more nations in most counterinsurgency
efforts. The problem will come when the contending nations have
irreconcilable strategic objectives. The fundamental differences between
the strategic goals of Pakistan and Afghanistan have prevented effective
cooperation against the insurgents. A variety of insurgent and terrorist
groups based in the Pashtun regions have taken advantage of this fact.
We must expect this to be the norm in insurgencies that strive to redraw
We are seeing the same issue in our conflict with ISIL. Iraq, Syria,
and various insurgent groups have different strategic objectives, and
each draws external support from several actors. Today’s insurgencies
are often a mix of the angry, who seek redress of a perceived injustice,
and the opportunistic, who simply seek wealth. Thus U.S. doctrine for
and experience with both counterinsurgency and unconventional warfare
(support to an insurgent) are inadequate to these circumstances. Insurgencies
that focus on creating new states—either across international
boundaries or within an existing state—present a much more complex
challenge than insurgencies focused on maintaining current boundaries.
Historically, such efforts at state formation have taken from decades to
centuries. Achieving relative political stability in these cases will be a
much longer and more difficult process. An understanding of the long
timelines must inform any decision to become involved and then must
guide the subsequent commitment. Decisionmakers must understand
that they are getting involved in a decades-long struggle and only make
commitments that can be sustained for that extended period.
For their part, terrorists will continue to act in the name of various
causes. While high-profile attacks such as the September 11 and Paris
attacks will continue, it is essential to keep risk in perspective. With over
32,000 deaths per year in auto accidents, roughly as many Americans are
killed every month on our highways as died in the Twin Towers.5 Thus,
while the violent loss of life by terrorism is heinous, our response should
be appropriate. That said, we should be concerned about terrorists’ potential
to use society’s destructive power against itself. Accidents like the
one at the Bhopal, India, chemical plant that killed 15,000 people in
1984 and the 1947 ammonium nitrate explosion that leveled Texas City, Texas, show that a terrorist can create mass casualties and catastrophic
damage using material we keep in our cities. The easiest way for a terrorist
to create mass casualties is to “bring the detonator.” It is difficult, if
not impossible, to acquire and transport massive amounts of explosives
or chemicals. It is much easier to detonate or release materials already in
place. Terrorists will also benefit from new technology that will provide
easier, cheaper ways to deliver the detonator to a wide variety of targets.
Criminal organizations across the globe will continue to challenge
governments for control of territory. These organizations take various
forms—from street gangs to drug cartels to transnational criminal networks—
and will deal in a variety of commodities, from guns to drugs
to people to counterfeits. With the exception of first-generation street
gangs, these criminal organizations have a common motivation: profit.
While some commentators dismiss them as a law enforcement problem,
criminal organizations have demonstrated the ability to ally with both
insurgents (Colombia) and terrorists as well as to seize and rule territory
within a state (Mexico). Thus they can have an impact on the security
of the United States, and our response may well go beyond law enforcement.
As if these challenges were not enough, we will also see the merging
of state and nonstate actors in hybrid war. With Russia’s occupation of
Crimea and eastern Ukraine, the concept of hybrid warfare became a
major topic of discussion. Unfortunately, it also led to major confusion
on what hybrid warfare is. In 2007, Frank Hoffman provided a clear
Hybrid threats incorporate a full range of different modes
of warfare including conventional capabilities, irregular
tactics and formations, terrorist acts including indiscriminate
violence and coercion, and criminal disorder. Hybrid
Wars can be conducted by both states and a variety of nonstate
actors. These multi-modal activities can be conducted
by separate units, or even by the same unit, but are generally
operationally and tactically directed and coordinated
within the main battlespace to achieve synergistic effects in
the physical and psychological dimensions of conflict. The
effects can be gained at all levels of war.6
In short, the military cannot focus on a single aspect of war but must
be prepared to meet the full range of challenges at the same time in the
same battlespace. Recent events in the Middle East and Eastern Europe
have led to much discussion about hybrid war, gray zone conflict, and
ambiguous actions. The discussion has done little to clarify the challenges
the Department of Defense (DOD) faces. If one uses Hoffman’s
definition, the military aspects of each of these concepts are covered.
In fact, hybrid warfare is not new. The participants on all sides in the
Napoleonic and world wars used mixes of conventional operations, irregular
operations, terrorism, and crime to achieve their goals. But while
not new, the hybrid warfare concept as expressed by Hoffman is useful;
it highlights for policymakers the range of challenges that must be met
simultaneously in most conflicts.
Technology Converges, Power Diffuses
This does not mean technological changes are irrelevant to warfare. The
convergence of dramatic improvements in electronic miniaturization, additive
manufacturing, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, space-like
capabilities, and unmanned systems (drones) will significantly change
the character of conflict in all domains. Of particular concern, this convergence
is creating a massive increase in capabilities available to smaller
political entities, extending even to the individual. Power is diffusing as
capabilities that used to be the preserve of superpowers are becoming
widely distributed among states and even some nonstate actors.
We have watched electronic miniaturization transform almost every aspect
of our lives. The cell phone combines the functions of dozens of
stand-alone systems at a fraction of the weight and volume. Miniaturization
is revolutionizing command and control and intelligence, surveillance,
and reconnaissance systems as well as bringing smart technology
to smaller weapons systems. Today even cheap miniature drones are capable
of limited autonomous navigation and target selection.
Additive manufacturing (AM) is over 30 years old. It has been a useful
tool for rapid prototyping to allow designers to see their final product
in three dimensions. It also sparked a collection of hobbyists who were
making a range of plastic items. However, in the last few years, AM, also
known as three-dimensional (3D) printing, has exploded. It has gone
from an interesting hobby to an industry producing a range of products from a growing list of materials. AM is dramatically increasing the complexity
of objects that it can produce while simultaneously improving
speed and precision. It is progressing from a niche capability that produced
prototypes to a manufacturing industry. United Parcel Service has
created a factory of 100 printers with room to grow to 1,000.7 It accepts
orders, prices them, prints them, and ships them the same day from the
adjacent shipping facility. Recently Dr. Joseph Simone has demonstrated
the ability to make 3D printing 100 times faster and has set a goal
of making it 1,000 times faster, all while providing higher quality than
current methods.8 Only three decades old, AM is rapidly encroaching on
a wide range of traditional manufacturing. Soon it will allow small states
and insurgent groups to print thousands of cheap drones.
Nanotechnology is science, engineering, and technology conducted at
the nanoscale, which is about 1 to 100 nanometers. For comparison, a
sheet of newspaper is about 100,000 nanometers thick. It was only in
1981 that nanotechnology was established.9 At the nanoscale, materials
act very differently and thus provide opportunities in chemistry, biology,
physics, material science, and engineering.
For the purpose of this discussion, nanotechnology is advancing in
two areas of particular interest: energetics and materials. As early as
2002, nano-energetics (explosives) could generate twice the power of
conventional explosives.10 Since research in this field is now close hold,
it is difficult to say what progress has been made since then. Even if twice
the power is as good as it gets, a 100-percent increase in destructive
power of the same size weapon is a massive increase. Continued major
improvements in the power of explosives steadily reduce the delivery
system requirements—and thus favor the smaller state. If they come in
to commercial use, they will also be available to nonstate actors.
The second area of interest is that of nanomaterials. This field has
not advanced as far as nano-energetics, but numerous firms are applying
nanomaterials to batteries and increasing their storage capacity.11 In
fact, a recent accidental discovery may triple battery power storage and
increase battery life by a factor of four.12 At the University of California,
San Diego, researchers have found a cheap way to coat products
with a super-thin, nonmetal material that manipulates radar waves and
thus may lead to inexpensive stealth coatings for missiles and aircraft.13
Various experiments have demonstrated that the use of nanomaterials
can greatly improve the strength of a given weight of material. These
improvements in energy storage, materials, and explosives will lead to increases in range, payload, and stealth for a wide variety of vehicles to
include cheap drones.
Space and Space-Like Capabilities
Until recently cost and technology requirements limited the number of
nations that could venture into space. This provided a great advantage
to those few countries that could do so. The addition of cheap persistent
space-based and air-breathing surveillance will soon provide small states
and even nonstate actors access to a full suite of space and space-like
capabilities. They will be able to surveil, communicate, and perhaps even
attack in space. DOD has acknowledged the threat and is taking steps to
protect U.S. space infrastructure.14
While states, particularly China, are steadily improving their own
space capabilities, the democratization of space is being driven by private
companies. Several companies are deploying cube satellites today.
One, Skybox Imaging, has a goal of selling half-meter-resolution imagery
with a revisit rate of several times a day—to include interpretation of
what the buyer is seeing.15 The company’s recent purchase by Google
gives it the depth of resources necessary to bring this idea to fruition. Using
this service, a buyer could track port, airfield, road, and rail system
activity in near real time. Also, New Zealand’s Rocket Lab is proposing
to conduct weekly launches specifically for cube satellites to provide a
rapid, cheap launch capability.16
Other companies are duplicating space capabilities with systems that
remain in the atmosphere. Balloons like those of Google’s Project Loon17
and drones such as the Global Observer drone18 and solar-powered follow-
ons19 will provide space-like communications and surveillance capabilities
at much lower costs.
Two areas of artificial intelligence are of particular importance in the evolution
of small, smart, and cheap weapons: navigation and target identification.
In fact, widely available systems have attained limited autonomy
based on these capabilities. The U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS)
has proven satisfactory for basic autonomous drone applications such as
the Marine Corps KMAX logistics helo-drone in Afghanistan.20 However,
GPS will be insufficient for operations in narrow outdoor or indoor
environments, dense urban areas, and areas in which it is jammed. Academic21
and commercial22 institutions are working hard to overcome the
limitations of GPS to provide truly autonomous navigation for drones.
Inertial and visual navigation are advancing rapidly and are already
cheap enough to use in small agricultural drones.23 The commercial applications for navigating in agricultural areas and inspecting buildings
in urban areas clearly could be adapted for military uses. Such a system
would serve to get a drone to the target area but would not ensure that
it could hit a specific target. To select a specific target, there are already
commercially available optical and multispectral recognition technologies
in use that allow autonomous drones to attack specific classes of
targets and perhaps specific targets.24 And they are cheap.
Autonomy means drones will be highly resistant to jamming and will
be able to operate in very large numbers. They can also be programmed
to wait patiently prior to launch or even proceed to the area of the target
but hide until a specified time or a specified target is identified.
Drone usage has spread widely. Most discussions of drones have focused
on large, highly capable, and expensive drones such as the Predator or
the Navy’s X-47B. Too little discussion has considered the impact of
small drones in all combat domains. While small drones can carry only a
limited payload, this limitation can be overcome with three approaches.
First is to think in terms of “bringing the detonator.” The second is the
use of explosively formed penetrators (EFPs).25 The third is to employ
swarms of small drones to magnify impact.
In “bringing the detonator,” the objective is to simply detonate the
large supply of explosive material provided at the target site by aircraft,
vehicles, fuel, chemical facilities, and ammunition dumps. Against these
targets (such as a parked airliner’s wing root), even a few ounces of explosives
delivered directly could initiate a much larger secondary explosion.
EFPs, weighing as little as a few ounces to a few pounds, will allow
even small drones to damage or destroy armored and protected targets.
In Iraq, coalition forces found EFPs in a variety of sizes, some powerful
enough to destroy an Abrams tank. Others were small enough to fit in
the hand—or on a small drone.26 And of course nano-explosives can at
least double the destructive power of the weapons. The primary limitation
on EFP production was the requirement for the high-quality curved
copper disks that form the penetrator when the charge is detonated. It
required a skilled machinist with high-quality machine tools. Today, additive
manufacturing can print copper.27 Anyone with a 3D printer capable
of using copper will be able to print an EFP disk. Thus we can expect
small- and medium-sized drones to pack a significant punch against protected
targets. The improvised explosive device (IED) of the future will
be not merely “improvised” but also intelligent, inexpensive, long-range,
and active hunters.
One can argue that such long-range autonomous drones will be difficult
for nonstate actors to obtain for the next few years. That may be
true. But today Aerovel sells the Flexrotor drone that has a maximum
range of 3,400 kilometers (km).28 For shorter range missions, there is a
variety of commercially available cheap drones that are already capable
of hitting U.S. facilities such as Bagram, Afghanistan, or Taji, Iraq, when
launched from within 20 to 40 km of the target. Given the Taliban’s
demonstrated ability to move within a few kilometers of Bagram, could
we keep the airfield open against a threat like this? Would the benefits of
doing so outweigh the costs?
The U.S. military is actively exploring the use of swarms for both
naval and air applications.29 While these programs are vague about how
many drones they envision being able to employ, recent dramatic cost
reductions in each of the needed technologies will increase the number
by orders of magnitude. Researchers are using old 3D techniques to
print a complex drone in a single day, then adding an Android phone
to produce a $2,500 autonomous drone.30 Thus, a small factory with
only 100 3D printers using Joseph DiSimone’s process could potentially
produce 10,000 drones a day. The limitation is no longer the printing
but the assembly and shipment of products. How do we protect our air
bases, headquarters, maintenance facilities, and supply centers in theater
against potentially thousands of autonomous drones? Even if we could
protect such fixed sites, how would we protect our vehicles, in particular
soft-skinned vehicles such as fuel and ammunition trucks, when they
Nor will cheap drones be limited to the air. In 2010, Rutgers University
launched an underwater “glider” drone that crossed the Atlantic
Ocean unrefueled.31 Such drones are being used globally and cost about
$100,000.32 The U.S. Navy recently launched its own underwater glider
that harvests energy from the ocean thermocline. It can patrol for weeks,
surfacing only as needed to report and receive new instructions.33 In
short, small sea platforms have demonstrated the capability of achieving
intercontinental range while producing very little in the way of signatures.
Michigan Technological University plans to reduce the cost of
oceanic gliders to about $10,000.34 These could be employed as self-deploying
torpedoes or smart naval mines.35 Current versions are launched
by hand from small boats. They could be modified for launch from warships,
commercial ships, or even the shore.
The convergence of new technologies discussed above may allow
these small, smart, and cheap weapons based on land, sea, or air to dominate
combat in these domains. Over time, the technology has become
cheaper, more reliable, and more widely employed. We are seeing this with the explosive growth in commercial drones. The Economist predicted
2015 would see the sale of 1 million drones.36 Commercial demand is
driving costs down while dramatically increasing capabilities. Advanced
manufacturing techniques will soon make them cheap enough for small
companies or even individuals to own a large swarm of simple and autonomous
but powerful drones. For the first time since the Korean War,
American forces will be subject to air attack.
Technological convergence will evolve over the next decade or two. It
will have direct strategic impact on the United States in four principle
ways: the loss of immunity to attack, the tactical dominance of defense,
the return of mass, and a requirement to mobilize.
Loss of Immunity to Attack
The United States will cease to have a monopoly on long-range precision
strike. China and Russia have repeatedly demonstrated this capability.
However, long-range, relatively cheap, autonomous drones will provide
this capability to many states and even to insurgent or terrorist groups.
They will be able to project force at intercontinental range. These vehicles
will provide the capability to strike air and sea ports of debarkation—
and perhaps even embarkation. The United States will no longer
be able to project power with impunity. This could create major political
problems in sustaining a U.S. effort both domestically and internationally.
Domestically, will the American public support distant actions if
they result in a significant threat to the Nation’s security or its economy?
The “small, smart, and many” revolution will not only allow enemies to
attack the United States, but it will also allow them to undermine our
economy. Even a few self-deploying mines in key domestic or overseas
container ports would drive up maritime insurance rates—and, hence,
the cost of imported and exported goods.37
Internationally, opponents could threaten intermediate bases. For instance,
a great deal of our support for Iraq flows through Kuwait. Suppose
ISIL demonstrates that it can hit an airliner sitting at Kuwait International
Airport. Then ISIL states it will hold Kuwaiti airliners hostage
until Kuwait withdraws landing and port rights for those nations supporting
the Iraqi government. Is the West prepared to provide the level
of defense required to protect key targets across the nations providing
facilities in the Middle East and Europe? Will it expand the protection
to all key targets in those states? Will those states trust our ability to do so? If not, will those states accept risk to commercial assets to support
Immunity from air attack is also gone. The Services must develop
those defenses and then ensure they can cover the entire deployment
and employment chains. Technological convergence means there are
powerful, autonomous, stealthy sea and air drones in our immediate future.
Defending against this threat is possible, but it will be expensive.
Tactically Dominant Defense
While these systems create a genuine threat to all nation-states, they and
their descendants will provide a significant boost to anyone’s defense. In
state-versus-state war, this might create a situation similar to that existing
between 1863 and 1917, when any person in range moving above the
surface of the ground could be cheaply targeted and killed. The result
was static trench warfare. Drone swarms may again make defense the
tactically dominant form of warfare in ground, sea, and air domains and
be able to attack the physical elements of the cyber domain.
As noted earlier, state actors could produce these small, autonomous
drones in the tens of thousands. The Chinese have already demonstrated
how to launch large numbers of drones with minimum force structure.
They have mounted 18 Harpy drones in a launcher on a 20-foot trailer.
The Harpy is a large drone with a 9-foot wingspan, a 500-km range, and
a 32-kilogram payload.38 Using a switchblade-sized system,39 a 20-foot
trailer could be modified to launch 1,500 drones. Thus a single battery
of 6 trucks could launch 9,000 drones. New battery and fuel cell technology
is extending the range of the small drones to 40 km. U.S. forces
must be prepared to face thousands of autonomous short-range drones
and dozens to hundreds of long-range drones. Today’s U.S. forces could
not sustain a ground offensive in the face of such a threat.
For their part, nonstate actors could use these systems to dramatically
increase the cost of maintaining U.S. forces in a combat theater—what
the Pentagon calls the area-denial challenge. The small size of many of
these systems makes them ideal weapons for attacking U.S. airfields and
base camps. Easy to hide, transport, and operate, cheap drones with even
limited autonomy will require massive investment in the protection of
U.S. logistics facilities and lines of communication in a tactical environment.
Proponents of directed energy weapons—lasers and microwave
systems—suggest their systems will defeat such swarms and thus return
offense to the tactical battlefield. These systems will be expensive and
power hungry and subject to defeat by relatively inexpensive countermeasures.
While we must continue to develop these systems, we must
also be aware that they put us on the wrong side of cost competition with cheap drones. It is imperative that these systems be tested against a thinking,
reacting red team that employs countermeasures such as autonomy,
smoke, and electromagnetic shielding. Most important is the willingness
to adapt if the testing indicates swarms of small, smart systems can defeat
our current inventory of few but exquisite ones.
Even if such systems become capable of defeating thousands of
drones, they might also be able to defeat the much smaller number
of conventional aircraft, guided bombs, and missiles the United States
could deploy. This would reinforce the dominance of the defense.
At this point it is impossible to tell which will dominate. Thus it is
essential that DOD run rigorous experiments to understand the character
of such conflicts. If the experiments show the defense will become
tactically dominant, DOD will have to determine how U.S. forces could
exploit this situation to achieve its inherently offensive operational and
Return of Mass to the Battlefield
Since the 1980s, U.S. forces have bet on precision to defeat mass.40 Precision
helped numerically smaller allied forces defeat Iraq’s much larger
army (twice), as well as initially drive al Qaeda and the Taliban out of Afghanistan.
However, technological convergence is pointing to the revival
of mass (in terms of numbers) as a key combat multiplier. Current manufacturing
techniques mean states can manufacture thousands of drones.
Advances in additive manufacturing will make them cheaper and may
make tens of thousands available to states and thousands to nonstate actors.
How will our forces, which are dependent on a few, exquisite platforms—
particularly sea and air—deal with the small, smart, and many?
Return of Mobilization
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States abandoned the concept
of mobilization. A primary driver was the fact that the U.S. defense
industry simply lacked the surge capability to rapidly equip a mobilized
population. Mobilization in World War II was possible because industry
could rapidly convert from civilian to military production. By 1990, the
complexity of modern military weapons systems and limited capacity
to produce them made rapid mobilization difficult if not impossible. As
Richard Danzig has noted, modern manufacturing has been changing
this situation.41 Additive manufacturing may radically change it. AM is
inherently flexible since the product depends only on the materials the
machine can use, the design of the machine, and the software that is
loaded. Thus, as AM assumes a greater role in industry, the possibility of
industrial mobilization will re-emerge. However, successful mobilization is not only about producing the weapons. The Pentagon must also be
prepared to enlist and train new personnel, build them into coherent
units, and then move those units and the weapons to an overseas battlefield.
Eliot Cohen has noted that successful mobilization will require
significant peacetime planning, but the Pentagon is not even thinking
about the issue.42
This diffusion of military power has implications for U.S. strategy, force
structure, investment, and force posture. Scholars have proposed a range
of U.S. grand strategies from restraint to aggressive interventionism.43
Obviously, the strategy selected will drive our force design and our force
posture. However, that strategy will itself have to deal with myriad risks
posed by the diffusion of power and the kinds of threats we now face.
Fundamental assumptions about traditional military power, including
the viability of projecting force from the United States, become questionable
when almost any enemy can strike selectively from in theater to the
United States. While these attacks may not be militarily significant, they
will be part of the political debate.
We may be entering an era in which small states and even nonstate
actors will attempt to deter the United States through denial or punishment.
They could achieve denial by interrupting the deployment
chain, either by attacking intermediate staging bases or by tactical A2/
AD. While the United States is developing methods for defeating A2
systems, we have made little or no progress on area-denial systems such
as IEDs or even land and sea mines. Tomorrow’s IEDs and mines will be
mobile hunters with at least limited autonomy—and they will be available
to any opponent with access to the Internet and a receiving address.
In 2014, the mothers and friends of a battalion of Ukrainian soldiers
purchased drones to provide the battalion with an aerial observation and
Adversaries might also adopt punishment as a way to deter or terminate
U.S. involvement in a region. Would U.S. leaders risk even limited
attacks on U.S. aircraft, military or civilian, anywhere on the ground to
intervene in Syria? Would other nations provide flight transit or port
rights if it meant their homelands would be subject to attacks on civilian
aircraft or facilities? How much additional combat power would the
United States have to dedicate to protecting both our lines of communications
and allied infrastructure and population? Would our political
willingness to engage decrease due to increased human and fiscal costs? Would our traditional allies stay aligned with us if our ability to sustain
our access to key regions were imperiled or substantively reduced?
As a power projection nation, our deployment options may become
more limited. We have to think through the implications of forward basing
in theater versus basing in the United States and deploying only for
a crisis. Our enemies and allies see the increasing density of A2/AD systems
globally. It is essential we modify our planning accordingly. Wargaming
must examine the operational impacts of fighting a variety of enemies
with long-range sea and air precision strike. China will not be the
only power to own such systems. Just as importantly, wargaming must
explore the political implications when an enemy can threaten other nations
that support our deployment chain. (Japan, for example, is crucial
to any effort to help defend South Korea and could easily be targeted
by the North Korean regime in time of war.) Accordingly, we must seek
methods to attack an opponent’s strategy rather than simply destroying
We need wide-ranging research and supporting analysis as well as
wargames to address key questions. Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert
Work’s memorandum on wargaming is a very strong first step.45 Continuing
research is required to answer a wide range of questions:
- Most importantly, how can strategy neutralize potential opponents’
strategies? For instance, how do we counter the perception that China
may be able to exclude U.S. forces from the region? What steps
can we take to assure allies that in fact we can honor our treaty
- How do we protect those nations providing support as we do so—in
particular, the politically sensitive targets that can be attacked with
long-range, precise, but relatively low-explosive-weight weapons?
- If we forward deploy, how dispersed will forward forces have to be
to survive? How much would we have to invest in hardening forward
bases versus investing in protecting stateside bases and building
the lift necessary to deploy?
- What are the political/alliance costs if we choose to station fewer
- Are we willing to employ long-range strike from the United States if
we know the enemy can reply in kind? • Once forces are deployed, how do they operate in the presence of
swarms of smart weapons?
- Do we need to deploy more forces forward to ensure they are there
for the fight? Or should we just preposition the equipment and supplies?
Or are both supplies and forces safer out of the potential theater
Whether forward deployed or deployed in a crisis, the increased vulnerability
of U.S. forces to standoff attack and resultant requirement for
hardening and dispersion will dramatically impact our force structure.
Hardening, to include digging in whenever not moving, will require increased
engineering assets, while dispersion will require international
agreements as well as increased logistic, force protection, and command
and control assets.
As the United States develops its strategy and subsequent force posture,
it will also have to rethink its procurement focus. Is the current
plan of purchasing a few extremely capable platforms viable in a world
where cheap, smart weapons in large numbers will actively hunt those
exquisite platforms? Or should the Pentagon move to a concept of large
numbers of much cheaper but individually less-capable platforms? Or is
a mix a better solution?
This will not be an easy process with clear decision points. If the
development of this new generation of weapons mirrors our past experience,
it will take place over a decade or two. The new systems will first
support our legacy systems, then the legacy systems will support them,
and finally the new systems will completely supplant our legacy systems.
Compounding the difficulty of deciding when to shift investment is the
fact that we plan to use the weapons we are buying/developing today for
decades. Will a Ford-class carrier be like the battleships of 1920—dominant
at the time of purchase but nearly irrelevant two decades later? If
so, when do we stop investing in carriers? Given the political reality, is it
even possible to stop investing in new carriers? While extremely difficult,
this transition represents one of the critical investment decisions facing
Pentagon planners. Similar questions arise about manned aircraft systems,
along with the attendant political issues of cancelling or reducing
one of these programs.
Perhaps the biggest threat to success lies in our sclerotic development
and acquisition process. The convergence of technologies is leading to
extremely rapid increases in capabilities in all related fields. Clearly our
10-year development and initial fielding cycle cannot compete.
The convergence of technology and the resultant diffusion of power
should force thoughtful consideration of both policy and strategy. Perhaps
the fundamental policy question will be a reconsideration of how
and under what circumstances the United States can use military force
to influence international events. Increasingly, we will have to ask the
question: “Is the strategic benefit of an intervention worth the cost when
the enemy could strike back in and out of theater?”
The underlying nature of war will not change, but the number and variety
of conflicts will likely continue to increase. Certainly the convergence
of new technologies will alter the character of conflict over time, but no
matter what technology is employed to abet intelligence collection and
human decisionmaking, policymakers will not have a clear understanding
about what is happening or what to do about it. In fact, it is almost
certain that the best experts on the subject will disagree on both aspects.
Every administration has had to deal with these “wicked” problems. Fortunately,
there is a growing body of literature articulating various approaches
to do so.46
Technological convergence is already changing the character of war.
It is markedly altering the relative power among states and between state
and nonstate actors. The phenomenon of small states possessing the military
capabilities and perhaps capacities of large states is a new development
that will create new challenges. Some of these challenges undercut
key pillars and assumptions of our current defense strategy. However,
they will not change the fact that conflict is driven by the interaction of
the participants’ social, economic, and political structures.47 Policymakers
must drive the Pentagon to actively explore the implications of the
changing character of war. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s Strategic
Capabilities Office is a great start.48 Furthermore, it must honestly test
legacy systems against emerging capabilities in free-play exercises. But
understanding the impact of technology must be grounded in the reality
that conflict will remain a political competition driven by human ingenuity
tied to the societies in conflict. If anything is certain, it is that war
will continue to be dominated by this element above all others.
1 While academics sometimes see warfare disappearing, a chaotic international environment
gives little credence to this perspective. See Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of
Our Nature (New York: Viking Press, 2011); Frank G. Hoffman and Ryan Neuhard, “No Wake for Ares,” Proceedings 141, no. 12 (December 2015), available at <www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2015-12/no-wake-ares>.
2 Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,”
Policy Sciences 4 (1973), 162.
3 Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1976), 88.
4 Department of Defense (DOD), Annual Report to Congress Military and SecurityDevelopments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016 (Washington, DC: DOD, April
26, 2015), i–ii.
5 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Statistics, “Accidents
or Unintentional Injuries,” available at <www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/accidental-injury.htm>.
6 Frank G. Hoffman, Conflict in the 21st Century: The Rise of Hybrid Wars (Washington,
DC: Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, December 2007), 8.
7 Eddie Krassenstein, “CloudDDM—Factory with 100 (Eventually 1,000) 3D Printers
and Just 3 Employees Opens at UPS’s Worldwide Hub,” 3D Printer and 3D Printing
News, May 4, 2015, available at <http://3dprint.com/62642/cloudddm-ups/>.
8 Joseph DeSimone, “What If 3D printing Was 100x Faster?” TED Talks, May 19,
2015, available at <www.ted.com/talks/joe_desimone_what_if_3d_printing_was_25x_faster?language=en>.
9 “What Is Nanotechnology?” Nano.gov, available at <www.nano.gov/nanotech-101/what/definition>.
10 Andrzej W. Miziolek, “Nanoenergetics: An Emerging Technology Area of National
Importance,” AMPTIAC Quarterly 6, no. 1 (Spring 2002), 45, available at <http://ammtiac.alionscience.com/pdf/AMPQ6_1ART06.pdf>.
11 Wendy Koch, “Tiny Batteries Could Revolutionize Green Energy,” National Geographic,
November 2014, available at <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2014/11/141117-nanotechnology-for-better-batteries/>.
12 “Tiny Balls of Fire,” The Economist, August 15, 2015, available at <www.economist.com/news/science-and-technology/21660963-nanotechnological-accident-may-lengthen-battery-lives-tiny-balls-fire>.
13 Li Yi Hsu, Thomas Lepetit, and Boubacar Kante, “Extremely Thin Dielectric Metasurface
for Carpet Cloaking,” Progress in Electromagnetic Research 152 (2015), 33–40,
available at <www.jpier.org/PIER/pier152/03.15032005.pdf>.
14 Christian Davenport, “Fearing Hostilities in Space, Pentagon Fortifies Satellites,”
Washington Post, May 10, 2016, 1.
15 Tekla S. Perry, “Start-Up Profile: Skybox Imaging. The Satellite-imaging Company
Plans to Bring Remote Sensing to the Mass Market,” IEEE Spectrum, May 1, 2013, available
16 “Book a Spot Online to Put Your Satellite into Space,” Popular Mechanics, August 10,
2015, available at <www.popularmechanics.com/space/rockets/news/a16810/heres-theworlds-first-online-rocket-launch-scheduler>.
17 “Project Loon,” MIT Technology Review, available at <www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/534986/project-loon>.
18 “Global Observer High Altitude Long Endurance UAV, United States of America,”
AirForce-Technology.com, available at <www.airforce-technology.com/projects/globalobserverunmann>.
19 Jonathan Vanian, “Behind the Scenes with Facebook’s New Solar-Powered Internet
Drone and Laser Technology,” Fortune, July 30, 2015, available at <http://fortune.com/2015/07/30/facebooks-solar-power-drone-internet-earth>.
20 James K. Sanborn, “Beacon Improves UAV’s Cargo-Delivery Accuracy,” Marine Corps
Times, July 8, 2012.
21“Vision-Based Control and Navigation of Small, Lightweight UAVs,” Congress Center,
Hamburg, Germany, available at <www.seas.upenn.edu/~loiannog/workshopIROS2015uav>.
22 “Drones at CES 2015 Showcase UAV Technology’s Bright Future,” Dronelife.com,
January 14, 2015, available at <http://dronelife.com/2015/01/14/drones-ces-2015-showcase-uav-technologys-bright-future>.
23 “Crop Falcon—UAV for Autonomous Crop Monitoring and Operations,” February
24 “Surveillance and Tracking of People.”.
25 “Future Weapons: Explosively Formed Penetrator (EFP),” Future Weapons TV, June
26 Bill Roggio, “Troops Find IED Factory in Sadr City,” The Long War Journal, October
27 Eddie Krassenstein, “Plus-MFg’s +1000k Multi Material Metal 3D Printer Shows Its
Power,” 3D Printer and 3D Printing News, available at <http://3dprint.com/87236/plusmfg-3d-metal-printer>.
28 “Affordable, Reliable Long-Range Imaging,” Aerovelco.com, available at <http://aerovelco.com/production/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Aerovel_SingleSheet_1l_digital.pdf>.
29 See Kris Osborn, “Air Force Developing Swarms of Mini-Drones,” DefenseTech.org, May 27, 2015, available at <http://defensetech.org/2015/05/27/air-force-developingswarms-of-mini-drones/>; David Smalley, “LOCUST: Autonomous Swarming UAVs Fly
into the Future,” Office of Naval Research, available at <www.onr.navy.mil/Media-Center/Press-Releases/2015/LOCUST-low-cost-UAV-swarm-ONR.aspx>.
30 Jordan Golson, “A Military-Grade Drone That Can Be Printed Anywhere,” Wired.com, September 16, 2014, available at <www.wired.com/2014/09/military-grade-dronecan-printed-anywhere>.
31 Ari Daniel Shapiro, “Remotely Piloted Underwater Glider Crosses the Atlantic,”
IEEE Spectrum, available at <http://spectrum.ieee.org/robotics/industrial-robots/remotely-piloted-underwater-glider-crosses-the-atlantic>.
32 Alix Willimex, “Autonomous Submarine Drones: Cheap, Endless Patrolling,”
CIMSEC.org, June 5, 2014, available at <http://cimsec.org/autonomous-subarine-drones-cheap-endless-patrolling/>.
33 Mark Thompson, “The Navy’s Amazing Ocean-Powered Underwater Drone,” Time,
December 22, 2013, available at <http://swampland.time.com/2013/12/22/navy-underwater-drone/>.
34 Daniel Kelly, “Michigan Tech’s ROUGHIE Gliders Will Follow Their Own Path,” The
Environmental Monitor, June 17, 2014, available at <www.fondriest.com/news/michigantechs-roughie-gliders-will-follow-path.htm>.
35 Timothy McGeehan and Douglas Wahl, “Flash Mob in the Shipping Lane!” Proceedings
142, no. 1 (January 2016).
36 “Welcome to the World of Drones,” The Economist, September 25, 2015, available
37 Despite the fact there had been no attacks or even threat of attacks on Syrian ports,
London’s Maritime Insurance Market added Syria to a list of high-risk ports and raised
rates. To date, there have still been no attacks on Syrian ports, but traffic is down more
than 50 percent. It is impossible to tell what the impact of a ship hitting a mine would
be, but one can assume it would be more than the mere threat of potential action has had
38 See Chinese Military Aviation, “UAV/UCAV,” available at <http://chinese-military-aviation.blogspot.com/p/uav.html>.
39 See Aerovironment, “Proceed with Certainty,” video presentation, available at
40 Robert O. Work, “The Third U.S. Offset Strategy and its Implications for Partners
and Allies,” as delivered at the Willard Hotel, Washington, DC, January 28, 2015, available
41 Richard Danzig, Driving in the Dark: The Propositions About Prediction and NationalSecurity (Washington, DC: Center for New American Security, October 2011).
42 Eliot A. Cohen, “Global Challenges, U.S. National Security Strategy, and Defense
Organization,” testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, October 22,
2015, available at <www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Cohen_10-22-15.pdf>.
43 Frank G. Hoffman, “Forward Partnership: A Sustainable U.S. Strategy,” Orbis
57, no. 1 (Winter 2013), 20–40, available at <http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.orbis.2012.10.003>.
44 “Poor Man’s Drone Warfare in Eastern Ukraine,” Vocativ, August 28, 2104.
45 Robert O. Work, “Wargaming and Innovation,” memorandum, February 9, 2015,
available at <https://news.usni.org/2015/03/18/document-memo-to-pentagon-leadership-
46 This Google Scholar page lists some of the growing body of recent academic
literature on the subject.
47 Clausewitz, 6.
48 Ashton Carter, “Remarks Previewing the FY 2017 Defense Budget,” February 2,
2016, available at <www.defense.gov/News/Speeches/Speech-View/Article/648466/remarks-previewing-the-fy-2017-defense-budget>.