U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, delivered the following opening statement at a hearing on the future of warfare: “Today, we focus on the future – what features will define the battlefields of tomorrow, what technologies and methods of employing them our future warfighters will require, and what we must do to reform our defense institutions to function and adapt closer to the speed of innovation than the speed of bureaucracy.”
Disruptive Change in Warfare
Paul Scharre, Senior Fellow and Director, 20YY Future of Warfare Initiative, Center for a New American Security said “Warfare – the way in which militaries fight – is constantly evolving. Militaries compete in a cycle of innovations, countermeasures, and counter-countermeasures in an attempt to gain an advantage over their enemies.”
War is a punishing environment, and even a small edge in capability can lead to dramatically different outcomes. A slightly longer-range sensor, missile, or longer spear can mean the difference between life and death.
Occasionally, some innovations lead to a major disruption in warfare that changes the rules of the game entirely. Better horse cavalry no longer matter when the enemy has tanks. Better battleships are irrelevant in an age of aircraft carriers.
“New technologies are often catalysts for these changes, but it is their combination with doctrinal and organizational innovations in war that leads to paradigm shifts on the battlefield. Tanks or aircraft alone might be beneficial, but they require new training, organizations, and concepts for use to create the blitzkrieg,” said Paul.
Threats facing the Nation
The staggering rate of change and the unacceptable time it takes the Pentagon to introduce weapon systems is leading to “a steady erosion of U.S. technological superiority” over peer competitors and non-state actors such as the Islamic State. Those were consensus views at a Tuesday hearing on the future of warfare before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“Many of the changes to come in warfare will come not from new technologies, but from the diffusion of existing ones throughout the international system,” said Paul Scharre. The resulting difference in scale of a technology’s use can often lead to dramatically different effects. A single car can help a person get from point A to point B faster. A world full of cars is one with superhighways, gridlock, smog, suburbia, road rage, and climate change. In war, the battlefield environment can look dramatically different when one technology proliferates to many actors.
GEN (Ret) Keith B. Alexander said, “Two of the most pressing threats facing our Nation are:
(1) The threat from terrorist groups with global reach and ambitions; There has been a massive increase in global terrorist acts and deaths from terrorism in recent years and
(2) The threat from criminal syndicates and nation-states in cyberspace, both the scope and nature of this threat is growing, as is the probability of increasing disruptive and destructive attacks.
Peter Warren Singer, Strategist and Senior Fellow at New America, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington DC said,”21st century fight would also see battles for control of two new domains. The lifeblood of military communications and control now runs through space, meaning we would see humankind’s first battles for the heavens, indeed, both China and Russia have anti-satellite weapons programs.”
“Similarly, we’d learn that “cyber war” is far more than stealing social security numbers or email from gossipy Hollywood executives, but the takedown of the modern military nervous system and Stuxnet-style digital weapons causing physical damage.”
“Worrisome for the US is that last year the Pentagon’s weapons tester found every single major weapons program had “significant vulnerabilities” to cyber attack, while many of our newest weapons are powered by microchips increasingly designed and built by those they might face off against, opening up the risks of hardware hacks.”
“This vulnerability of major U.S. power projection platforms – our ships, air bases, and aircraft – to precision-guided weapons is particularly unfortunate because it coincides with a long-term trend in decreasing numbers of U.S. major combat systems,” said Paul Scharre.
This is crucial as not just are many of our most long trusted platforms vulnerable to new classes of weapons, now in a wider array of conflict actors’ hands, but an array of potentially game-changing weapons lie just ahead:
• A new generation of unmanned systems, both more diverse in size, shape, and form, but also more autonomous and more capable, meaning they can take on roles from ISR to strike, flying from anything from aircraft carriers to soldier’s hands.
• Weapons that operate using not the kinetics of a fist or gunpowder driving a bullet but energy itself, ranging from electromagnetic railgun, able to fire a projectile 100 miles, to new directed energy systems that potentially reverse the cost equations of offense and defense.
• Super long-range, and hyper fast air to air and air to ground missiles and strike systems.
• Artificial Intelligence, ubiquitous sensors, Big Data, and Battle Management systems that will redefine the “observe, orient, decide and act (OODA)” loop.
• 3-D printing technologies that threaten do to the current defense marketplace what the iPod did to the music industry.
• Human performance modification technologies that will reshape what is possible in the human side of war.
Six Contests That Will Shape the Future of Warfare
Paul Scharre, Senior Fellow and Director, 20YY Future of Warfare Initiative, Center for a New American Security said, “A more fundamental shift in American military thinking is needed. To operate against adversaries with precision-guided weapons, the U.S. needs to disperse its forces, disaggregate its capabilities, confuse enemy sensors through decoys and deception, and swarm enemy defenses with large numbers of expendable assets.”
“The Army’s new operating concept includes dispersed operations for anti-access environments. The Marine Corps is experimenting with distributed operations across the littorals. The Naval Postgraduate School is researching aerial swarm combat. And DARPA’s System of Systems Integration Technology and Experimentation program aims to disaggregate aircraft capabilities into a swarm of cooperative, low cost expendable air vehicles,” said paul.
“As the information revolution continues to mature, six key operational concepts will shape the future of warfare: Hiding vs. Finding; Understanding vs. Confusion; Network Resilience vs. Network Degradation; Hitting vs. Intercepting; Speed of Action vs. Speed of Decision-Making and Shaping the Perceptions of Key Populations,” Says paul.
These contests are a product of both the proliferation of existing guided weapons, sensors, and networks as well as future advancements in information technology. Militaries will seek to both exploit these technologies for their own gain, finding enemies on the battlefield and striking them with great precision, as well as develop countermeasures to conceal their forces, sow confusion among the enemy, degrade enemy networks, and intercept incoming projectiles.
Hiding vs. Finding
Because precision-guided weapons can deliver a high volume of lethal firepower directly on a target, whoever gets the first salvo may decide victory. Getting that first shot may also depend increasingly on one’s ability to effectively hide, while deploying sufficient sensors to find the enemy first. The maxim “look first, shoot first, kill first” may apply not only in beyond visual range air-to-air combat, but in all domains of warfare. Technology areas that could enhance hiding or finding include :
Hiding : Adaptive and responsive jamming; Precision electronic attack; Counter-space capabilities (kinetic and non-kinetic); Metamaterials for electromagnetic and auditory cloaking; Cyber defenses; Low-cost autonomous decoys; Undersea capabilities – submarines, autonomous uninhabited undersea vehicles, andundersea payload modules and Quantum encryption techniques (which can sense if the communications link is being intercepted)
Finding: Sensor fusion / data fusion; Distributed sensing; Foliage-penetrating radar; Resilient space-based surveillance; Low-signature uninhabited vehicles for surveillance; Low-cost robotic systems, including leveraging commercial components for clandestine surveillance; Long-endurance power solutions (such as radioisotope power) to enable persistent robotic surveillance systems; Networked, undersea sensors; Cyber espionage; Quantum computing (to break encryption)
Understanding vs. Confusion
As the volume and pace of information on the battlefield increases (including misinformation), turning information into understanding will be key. A key contest in war will be between adversary cognitive systems, both artificial and human, to process information, understand the battlespace, and decide and execute faster than the enemy. Deception has been a key component of military operations for millennia and will remain so in the future, and these technologies will offer new opportunities for increasing confusion. Technology areas that could affect understanding or confusion include :
Understanding: Artificial cognitive systems: Advanced microprocessor design; Data processing and “big data” analytics; Artificial intelligence, neural networks, and “deep learning”; Human cognitive performance enhancement: Pharmaceutical enhancements, such as Adderall or Modafinil; Training methods, such as transcranial direct current stimulation and Synthetic biology;Human-machine synthesis: Human factors engineering and human-machine interfaces, Brain-computer interfaces and Synthetic telepathy
Confusion: Cyber espionage and sabotage; Misinformation, deception, and spoofing attacks; Human performance degradation;Tailored biological weapons
Network Resilience vs. Network Degradation
Networking allows military forces to fight as a coherent whole, rather than as individual, non-cohesive units. However, military networks will be increasingly contested by jamming, cyber attacks, and physical attacks on communications nodes. Resilient networks that are flexible and adaptable in the face of attacks, as well as doctrine that can adapt to degraded network operations, will be key to maintaining a force that can fight through network attacks. Technology areas affecting network resilience and degradation include :
Network resilience: Protected communications, such as low probability of intercept and detection communications; High-altitude long-endurance aircraft or airships to function as pseudo-satellites (“pseudo-lites”); Software-defined radios (to allow adaptable communications); Open-architecture communications systems, to allow rapid adaptability of hardware and software to respond to enemy jamming; Cyber defenses; Autonomous undersea vehicles (to protect undersea communications infrastructure); Lower-cost space launch options;Faster-responsive space launch options to replenish degraded space architectures; GPS-independent position, navigation, and timing
Network degradation: Improved jamming techniques;Offensive cyber weapons; Anti-satellite weapons (kinetic and non-kinetic); High-powered microwave weapons to disrupt or destroy electronic systems
Hitting vs. Intercepting
If “knowing is half the battle,” the other half is violence. Because guided weapons can put lethal effects directly on a target, intercepting inbound threats or diverting them with decoys is generally a more effective response than attempting to mitigate direct hits via improved armor. However, missile defense is a challenging task. Missiles are difficult to strike mid-flight, requiring multiple interceptors, resulting in cost-exchange ratios that currently favor the offense. A number of possible technology breakthroughs could tilt this balance in either direction:
Hitting: Networked, cooperative munitions, including cooperative decoys and jammers; Hypersonic weapons; Advanced stealth, both for missiles and aircraft; o Large numbers of low-cost swarming missiles or uninhabited systems to saturate enemy defenses; Airborne, undersea, or sea surface arsenal ships or “missile trucks” to more cost effectively transport missiles to the fight; o High-fidelity decoys to increase the costs to defenders; Long-endurance uninhabited aircraft to enable long-range persistence and strike;
Intercepting: Low cost-per-shot electric weapons, such as high-energy lasers and electromagnetic rail guns; High quality radars for tracking incoming rounds and guiding interceptors; Long-endurance uninhabited aircraft for forward ballistic missile defense, both for launch detection and boost phase intercept; Persistent clandestine surveillance, from space assets, stealthy uninhabited aircraft, or unattended ground sensors for early detection of ballistic missile launch and pre-launch preparation
Speed of Action vs. Speed of Decision-Making
Sun Tzu wrote, “Speed is the essence of war.” Balancing the tension between the speed of action on the battlefield and the speed of decision-making by commanders is less about specific technologies than how those technologies are used and the training, rules of engagement, doctrine, and organizations that militaries employ. Realistic training under conditions of imperfect information and degraded networks can help prepare commanders for real-world situations that demand decisive, decentralized action.
Shaping the Perceptions of Key Populations
“Technologies can aid in the conduct of war, but war is fought by people. Maintaining the support of key populations has always been critical in war. In guerrilla wars and insurgencies, influencing the civilian population is a direct aim of both sides, but even in nation-state conflicts domestic support is crucial to sustaining the campaign ,” says Paul Scharre
Strategic Agility: A Strategy for Managing Disruptive Change
“To sustain American military dominance, the Department of Defense should pursue a strategy of strategic agility, with a focus on increasing the DoD’s ability to rapidly respond to disruptive changes in warfare. Rapid reaction capabilities, modular design, and experimentation are critical components of achieving strategic agility,” says Paul Scharre
Bryan Clark Senior Fellow, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments said, “DoD needs a coherent and disciplined technology strategy instead of “watering all the flowers” with its current approach.
“The two most significant challenges this strategy should address are threats to America’s ability to project power and paramilitary or insurgent threats to the sovereignty of its allies in Europe and Asia. And it needs to address these challenges by establishing enduring advantages for U.S. forces, rather than just gaining the upper hand temporarily,” said Clark
The U.S. military’s ability to project power against high-end adversaries hinges on the ability of its undersea forces to circumvent enemy air and surface defenses. As quiet submarines become the norm and passive sonars reach their range and size limits, active sonar and non-acoustic submarine detection will come to dominate undersea warfare. This could also increase the risk to U.S. submarines near adversary shores and compel them to shift from being tactical platforms, like fighter aircraft, to being host and coordination platforms, like aircraft carriers. To maintain its undersea dominance in light of these two shifts, DoD should focus on concepts and technologies for:
• Low frequency active sonar: They have longer ranges than today’s shipboard sonars, but with lower resolution. Improved processing power will continue improving the accuracy of these systems.
• Active sonar countermeasures: As with radar above the water, jammers and decoys will become essential to spoof, confuse, and defeat enemy active sonars.
• Unmanned undersea vehicles (UUV): Particularly small ones that are hard to detect and can be bought and deployed in large numbers and large ones that can act as “trucks” to deploy seabed payloads and UUVs in coastal waters.
• Seabed payloads: Long-endurance sensors, communication relays, and power supplies for UUVs will be a key component of future undersea networks that enable submarines and other forces to support and control UUVs while finding and engaging enemy undersea forces.
Strike Warfare: U.S. forces must be able to threaten targets an enemy values or may use to coerce U.S. allies. Passive and active measures including underground facilities and surface-to-air missiles are changing today’s precision strike advantage into a strike vs. missile defense competition. DoD should pursue the following concepts and technologies to sustain its strike capability:
• Overwhelming defenses: Smaller, cheaper networked weapons are emerging that can be launched in large numbers. They will be able to find and classify targets in flight and collaborate to ensure intended targets are destroyed—even if some strike weapons are lost to enemy defenses on the way.
• Disrupting defenses: High-powered microwave (HPM) transmitters are becoming small enough to go on missiles and bombs, while becoming powerful and selectable enough to damage or disrupt enemy sensors, weapons, and control systems at standoff range.
• Reaching hardened and buried targets: New burrowing and electromagnetic pulse weapons offer the ability to reach locations enemies attempt to place out of reach without having to resort to unsustainably large salvos.
U.S. forces have been able to establish air superiority at will since the end of the Cold War. But improving low-probability of detection (LPD) sensors and sophisticated long-range missiles are reducing the value of aircraft speed and maneuverability and favoring larger aircraft able to carry larger sensors and weapons payloads. To sustain its current air superiority, DoD should prioritize concepts and technologies for:
• Longer-range LPD classification sensors: Historically, air engagements are won by the first pilot to classify a contact as enemy and shoot. Emerging long and medium wave passive infrared sensors and laser detection and ranging systems will enable U.S. fighters and air defenses to detect and classify enemy aircraft farther away without themselves being classified.
• Smaller, less expensive missiles: New energetic materials are making motors and warheads smaller, while new materials and processors are shrinking guidance systems. The resulting weapons can be bought and carried in larger numbers.
• Directed energy: Solid state laser and HPM weapons are reaching maturity. They offer greater capacity for air defense than traditional interceptor systems such as Patriot and can be small enough to be carried on larger aircraft as an offensive or defensive system
Electromagnetic (EM) Spectrum Operations: The continued sophistication of radar and radar detectors will drive EM operations toward stealth and passive or LPD sensors and communications. DoD should advance the following concepts and technologies to achieve an enduring advantage in its battle networks:
• Multi-spectral stealth: New aircraft and ships incorporate features to reduce their radar signature. Stealth must now reduce the detectability of platforms to IR, UV, or acoustic detection as well.
• Networked, agile multi-function EM operations: Active Electronically Scanned Arrays (AESA) in the RF spectrum and focal plane arrays in the IR spectrum are becoming cheaper and smaller and can simultaneously transmit and receive over a wide range of frequencies. They can be incorporated on almost every platform and vehicle to conduct sensing, communication, and counter-sensing operations, enabling new multiplatform passive and LPD sensing and communication concepts.
• “Intelligent” EM operations: DoD must go beyond automating radio, jammer, or radar operations and instead get inside the enemy’s decision loop. Emerging technologies can sense the EM environment, identify both known and unfamiliar threats, and manage EM operations to conduct friendly operations while denying those of the enemy. Intelligent EM systems being developed today will enable U.S. forces to get inside the enemy’s decision loop and dominate the EM spectrum.
There are two quotes that can serve as guide posts in this effort, one looking back and one forward, said Peter Warren Singer. The first is from the last interwar period, where Churchill may have said it best: “Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong — these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.”
The second is from a professor at China’s National Defense University, arguing in a regime newspaper how his own nation should contemplate the future of war: “We must bear a third world war in mind when developing military forces.”
“As you program for the future, ultimately what you support in the new gamechangers of not just programs, but also thinking, structures and organizations, what you eliminate in the old, and what you protect and nurture across that “Valley” will matter more than any single additional plane or tank squeezed into a budget line item or OCO funding, It may be the difference between the win or loss of a major war tomorrow, said Peter.
“To be best prepared for the changes to come, the U.S. military should pursue strategic agility, supported by rapid reaction capabilities, modular design, and experimentation to rapidly respond to disruptive change. While the specific shape of the future is uncertain, the need to adapt to the challenges to come is universal,” said Paul.