Are we not facing a similar disruption today? If our adversaries can produce and deploy large quantities of increasingly capable cruise missiles, a $13 billion aircraft carrier freshly equipped with new, exquisite, state-of-the-art defensive capabilities and 5,000 crewmembers becomes an even more precious monolith – one that can’t be safely exposed to the risks of combat. The overriding need to safeguard the monolith will force the carrier to retreat to safe distances and end up nullifying its utility as a power-projection device – much as Musashi and Yamato were relegated to minor roles during World War II. Concentrating capability in monolithic, high-value assets is a clear liability in a contested environment and will simply cease to be a feasible approach to warfighting.
Across the warfighting domains, we see multiple examples of how continued investment in once-disruptive technology produces diminishing returns as adversaries begin to understand the limitations of the new capability. Stealth is illustrative of this dynamic. When introduced operationally at the end of the 1980s, it was undoubtedly disruptive. Iraq’s air defense systems, purchased from the Soviets, were simply incapable of detecting and tracking the F-117 and the result – an incredibly lopsided victory for the United States – was not lost on the rest of the world. Since 1991, numerous countries have developed, fielded, and sold ever more sophisticated air defense systems, designed to pierce our aircraft’s stealthiness, across the electromagnetic spectrum. As Dave Majumdar wrote in a January 2018 article for The National Interest, “While the Russians – and the Chinese – have not yet cracked the problem, it is clear that stealth is becoming much less of an advantage over time, though perhaps no less expensive an acquisition. Eventually, Moscow will find a solution to the stealth problem as the cyclical struggle between offense and defense continues ad infinitum – it’s just a matter of time.”
Our deliberate, methodical, work-until-you-meet-the-letter-of-the-specification approach to solutions fails to accommodate the real, fundamental challenges in each domain.
As adversary-sensing capabilities have improved, however, we’ve relied on those familiar evolutionary approaches to keep our stealth a step ahead. Unfortunately, developing that next iteration is expensive, and now yields only marginal results. If our adversaries’ sensors can detect (and shoot down) F-35s, we’ll either need an upgraded version of the F-35 or another fighter. The Air Force and Navy predict that it would take until 2030 for a traditional development and procurement approach to deliver their sixth-generation fighter jet. Meanwhile, the Air Force doesn’t expect to be flying the B-21 until 2025 – an optimistic assessment, given historical precedent.
In the face of tightening development timelines by adversaries, the tone of our response to emerging threats – incremental, deliberate, focused on exquisite outcomes – is unacceptable and self-defeating. Predictable countermoves offered up on glacial schedules won’t work. We have to surprise our adversary.
“If you challenge the conventional wisdom, you will find ways to do things much better than they are currently done.”
– Michael Lewis, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game
Questioning the status quo – whether in baseball or warfighting – carries with it significant risks. The community is heavily invested (monetarily and culturally) in the gear it buys, the heuristics it uses, and the activities or operations it conducts. Questions are inconvenient and carry an implication of disrespect – so the system rejects the heretic and begs off answering the question. This is tolerable when the nation faces no existential threat. Since 1991, the United States has enjoyed a singularly unipolar moment. Our platforms and systems, networks, and plans were built to overcome a massive Soviet invasion of Europe. Instead, they’ve been co-opted in the service of combat operations on a lesser scale – perhaps not perfect for counterinsurgency but more than adequate to the task when suitably modified.
The next war may not afford us this luxury. Our traditional approaches to developing, fielding, and using future warfighting capabilities are not up to the task. They don’t account for well-resourced and technologically superior adversaries, but they should. Let’s take a look at four assumptions that define how we prepare for and fight today, in each of the physical domains in which we operate: