Now add this fall’s Nagorno-Karabakh war to the list. In six weeks of fighting, the oil-rich nation of Azerbaijan defeated Russia’s ally Armenia to reclaim territory it had lost in the early 1990s. A key to Azerbaijan’s triumph was its use of killer drones such as Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2, which is armed with antitank missiles and is similar to the U.S. Reaper, and Israel’s “kamikaze drones,” which home in on radar emissions.
Armenia’s outdated, Russian-made air defenses could not stop the onslaught and, as a result, its ground forces suffered heavy losses. P.W. Singer of the New America think tank provided me with data, based on open-source reporting, that indicates that 47 percent of Armenia’s combat vehicles were damaged or destroyed, along with 93 percent of its artillery.
This one-sided outcome, which follows the success of Turkish drones in the past year in Syria and Libya, shows that the transformation of warfare by unmanned technology is accelerating and spreading around the world. The United States was a pioneer in this field — it first used an armed drone in Afghanistan in 2001 — but it is now struggling to transform its armed forces to incorporate advances in fields such as robotics, artificial intelligence, hypersonics, directed energy and quantum computing. We need a defense secretary who can drive innovation in ways that a recently retired general such as Lloyd Austin — President-elect Joe Biden’s reported choice — is unlikely to do.
The Defense Department, to be sure, has made a major commitment to unmanned platforms ranging from tiny surveillances drones to major combat systems such as the Air Force’s XQ-58A Valkyrie, an unmanned fighter, and the Navy’s Orca, an unmanned submarine. But the military services remain heavily invested in “legacy” systems such as tanks and aircraft carriers that are increasingly vulnerable. (China’s “carrier-killer” missiles reportedly hit a moving ship in a test in August.)
“We are not moving nearly fast enough to cheaper, more attritable aircraft,” former undersecretary of defense Eric Edelman told me, referring to unmanned aircraft whose “attrition” in combat would not be as catastrophic as the loss of manned aircraft. “We have an inertia towards manned platforms, whether at sea, land, air,” Singer agreed, adding that there is also a predisposition for a small number of costly weapons systems over a larger number of cheaper ones.
That inertia is reinforced by the “iron triangle” of defense contractors, members of Congress and the Pentagon bureaucracy. The new defense authorization bill set to be passed by the House on Tuesday authorizes 93 F-35 fighters — 14 more than the Pentagon requested — and an extra Virginia-class submarine that the Pentagon did not ask for. A Virginia-class submarine costs about $3 billion and an F-35 at least $80 million.
That’s a lot of money — but it’s chicken feed compared with the cost of building new aircraft carriers that could become target practice for Chinese missiles. The new Gerald R. Ford, still not complete, cost $13 billion, and the Navy is building two more in its class. In 2018, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis proposed that the Harry S. Truman be retired halfway through its service life. But President Trump overruled him. The Navy will need to spend $20 billion to keep this flat-top, already a quarter-century old, at sea for another 25 years.
The one military service that is taking real risks to retool is the Marine Corps. It has gotten rid of all of its tanks, and is reducing the number of cannons, infantry and helicopters, to focus on a new island-hopping strategy of using missiles and unmanned aircraft to fight China. The other services are trying to maintain their existing forces while adding unmanned systems as an adjunct. But there won’t be enough money in the future to do everything. In an era of urgent domestic priorities, the defense budget (currently $741 billion) is likely to shrink. Hard choices will need to be made.
And that brings me to the possible nomination of Austin as secretary of defense. He is an experienced soldier and a minority trailblazer, but there is nothing in his record to indicate that he is a bold or unconventional thinker. After 41 years in the Army, he is unlikely to shake things up at a time when technological advances are transforming the battlefield. We need a smart civilian running the Pentagon who is more likely to grapple with the paradox at the heart of di Lampedusa’s novel. If we want to maintain U.S. military dominance, the U.S. military must change in ways that will make a lot of entrenched interests very uncomfortable.