Is the U.S. military ready to embrace new technologies that will define future wars?

Walter Pincus
Reporter November 4, 2013

Is the Air Force’s determination to buy 2,000 F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighters for more than $850 billion comparable to the 1939 efforts by the last chief of the U.S. Cavalry, Maj. Gen. John Knowles Herr, to try to limit the Army’s use of armored units?

“Not one more horse will I give up for a tank,” he said.

The F-35 is “a plane conceived in the 1990s whose massive budget threatens to strangle a new generation of unmanned systems at birth,” wrote the Brookings Institution’s Peter W. Singer in an Oct. 22 Foreign Policy article that (in an editor’s subtitle) calls on the Pentagon “to think big and look to the past in order to prepare for the chaotic technowars of the future.”

The F-35 and the horse cavalry were one of the “eerie parallels” as Singer warned that “not merely tactics or operations, but fundamental organizational questions” are involved. That means the military services have traditionally had a hard time adapting to the emergence of new technologies and new threats to national security.

The Air Force, for example, is faced with redefining its most romantic role, from pilots flying a jet fighter or bomber through enemy fire to reach a target vs. someone safely operating a computer console far away from a war zone and directing an unmanned aircraft to a target.

A September study by Brookings, “Manning the Next Unmanned Air Force,” concluded that the Air Force is “not properly identifying and professionally developing” candidates for careers in the remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) field. Many in the past two years came from the bottom quarter of the Air Force Academy’s academic rolls, while others were taken from among the washouts of initial flight training. One result: Their attrition rate during flight screening “is three times higher than traditional pilots,” the study reported.

Also, “RPA pilots are unable to meet promotion education and training opportunities commensurate with other officers, resulting in a 13 percent lower promotion rate to the rank of major over the last five years,” said the study, which was authored by Col. Brad Hoagland, a command pilot with 23 years of service. He conducted the study as a Brookings military fellow.

Singer points out that the British not only invented the tank but after World War I “carried out a series of innovative tests . . . that showed just how game-changing tanks could be in the next conflict.”

Nonetheless, before World War II the British army retreated from fully adopting armored units “because of the consequences it would have had on the cherished regimental system that was at the center of British military culture.”

Singer should be heard. He has made a career of studying security and technology as director of Brookings’ Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence. He was appointed to the 2003 U.S. Joint Forces Command’s Transformation Advisory Group and led the Defense Department’s NeXTech project, which explored the implications of emerging technologies.

NeXTech, initiated by Defense’s Rapid Reaction Technology Office, sought to identify areas of science likely to affect the future strategic environment, as well as find technologies that might provide applications with useful effects. Singer wrote that many people were consulted, including more than 60 top futurists, lab directors, scientists, investors and venture capitalists.

Five focal points emerged: changing needs for human performance; new energy systems, such as lasers; new hardware, such as robots and unmanned systems; new manufacturing techniques, including 3-D printing; and new software dealing with cyberwarfare and cybersecurity.

Four war games were played with active and retired U.S. and foreign military and civilian experts to see how potentially game-changing technologies might be handled by today’s military culture and how they could be affected by ethical, moral and legal considerations.

One finding was that robotics could become “a dynamic force multiplier” and that “adaptive, autonomous and self-correcting [military] systems . . . would be a significant game-changer.” And “while present U.S. acquisition focuses on large, often expensive systems designed to directly reproduce how a human would do a task, a more robot-centric or autonomous approach may lead to a different set of design criteria.”

The “ethics war game” found that more legal and policy concerns were raised when new technologies were used for offensive or escalatory purposes than for defensive uses.

Some issues that emerged from NeXTech were described in “Game Changers,” a September 2013 report issued by the Center for New American Security. It sees the next decade as “likely to be the most disruptive since the early 1980s” with the “exponential growth of unmanned and increasingly autonomous robotic systems, the power of data-mining technologies . . . and the possibility that directed-energy weapons [like lasers] could dramatically alter the offense-defense balance in key military competitions.”

The study notes that in contrast to the Cold War — when the Pentagon led by investing in missiles, satellites, precision munitions and stealth technology — it will be the commercial sector that “will drive many of the innovations that will most define the next 20 years” in robotics, unmanned systems and cyberwarfare.

It warns that “sustaining investments in potentially game-changing military technologies is difficult enough during a time of plenty — and will be extremely difficult during the current period of austerity.”

But it is Singer who warns that we should not get carried away. He wrote in his Foreign Policy article that “The need for ‘boots on the ground’ lived on through the 20th century — just as it will live on into the 21st.”

The real question is whether the United States can maintain the military technological dominance it has held since World War II at a time of declining defense spending and growing isolationism.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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