Here’s a fact that few in the United States want to acknowledge: Our military is becoming outdated.
True, America’s armed forces are currently without peer. But as an open letter released in April by a group of 38 scholars warns, there are growing imbalances in the defense budget. The letter highlights the need to reduce excess base structure, cut the bloated civilian workforce that has grown by 100% since 9/11 and reform an outdated military compensation system.
These recommendations are necessary, but they do not address the heart of the problem identified by the authors: “With rising threats around the globe, and a military force diminishing in size, readiness, technological supremacy and some key capabilities, now is the time to make the major changes necessary to renew America’s strength.” To meet our future security needs effectively, we must include future investment in the discussion.
Put simply, we have the best force for large, conventional theater operations, but not the best force for current and future conflicts. Precision weapons, nanotechnology, unmanned systems, autonomous systems, cyberweapons, the proliferation of night-vision devices, the prevalence of social media and small, flexible military and paramilitary formations have given political leaders an alternative to massing forces.
The use of cruise missiles during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 amazed the world, but today such strikes are common and the ability to put weapons on a target from a remote headquarters is prevalent and in high demand. Meanwhile, nanotechnology is shrinking precision munitions to the size of small arms, sensors are becoming more miniaturized, inexpensive and prolific, and unmanned systems are a weapon of choice because they minimize risk and enable an “unblinking eye” to remain overhead continuously.
Looking ahead, autonomous systems are on the near horizon, potentially freeing up human beings from persistent monitoring and hazardous missions. At the same time, cyberweapons are able to render neutral threats before they have an opportunity to arm.
But these aren’t the only developments that are leveling the playing field. The proliferation of night-vision devices is taking away U.S. dominance in fighting in the dark — the days of executing raids at “zero dark thirty” with impunity are fading, and the United States no longer owns the night. In addition, social media are making it nearly impossible to conduct operations without notice, and the presence of a helicopter where it should not be is enough to motivate someone to take a picture and announce it to the world.
Unfortunately, the Defense Department is not keeping up with this (far from exhaustive) list of changes.
To determine how the military should be shaped, armed, organized and trained, the department drafts what it calls Operating Concepts, which look at the edge of existing technology to help project what it should do to utilize and/or adapt to that technology. Unfortunately, the Defense Department does not do nearly enough to incentivize and sustain revolutionary thinking.
In the commercial sector, firms expend great effort and resources to change their way of doing business, to break current models of thinking and operating to develop the next “game changer.” Accordingly, commercial innovation moves at a blistering pace, and failure to keep up results in bankruptcy or takeover. Government bureaucracies, in contrast, do not face any such urgency — a bloated, slow and inefficient Defense Department can continue to operate, and no one will realize it is failing until it is put to the ultimate test and catastrophe ensues.
To be sure, there are pockets of revolutionary thinking and activity within the department. Yet they are divorced from the mainstream institution. Meanwhile, it is too often the case that when revolutionary concepts come to light, they are perceived as so radical that the established order impedes the intellectual debate.
The reality is that our Operating Concepts must drive defense investment through ambitious thinking that should make the establishment uncomfortable. If the Operating Concepts are unimaginative and fail to anticipate the rate of future change, then they will quickly become outdated, antiquated and anachronistic in the future.
We therefore require leadership that is willing to embrace change and select creative, junior officers that will reshape the military into a force unrecognizable to the old warriors. This will require divestiture of programs that many of the established leadership are emotionally connected to — they built their careers on those platforms. Horse cavalry officers resisted the loss of the saddle following World War I, the same way maritime leaders resisted the loss of the battleship. We must set aside emotional attachments, divest ourselves of what we will not need in the future and apply the savings to investments in new technology and operating concepts that give our military competitive advantage.
Ultimately, fundamental change will take leadership with vision and the moral courage to go against some of the most powerful institutions in the nation. There is a point in everyone’s life when they have to “cowboy up” and do the hard, right thing; they have to take risks and do what is not popular but necessary.
Change, of course, is rarely easy. But if we, as a nation, want to maintain our competitive advantage, then our defense leaders and congressional representatives must act now.