The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The next world war won’t be anything like the last. Here’s how the U.S. must prepare.

The U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS John Finn transits the Taiwan Strait on March 10. (Jason Waite/U.S. Navy/Reuters)

James Stavridis, a retired admiral, is the former NATO supreme allied commander and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Elliot Ackerman is an award-winning novelist and former Marine. They are the co-authors of “2034: A Novel of the Next World War.”

Imagine a crisis with China that escalates into a world war 10 years or so from now. Would the United States stand a chance in such a conflict?

If you believe that future wars will be conducted like those in the past, in which the sophistication and numbers of our ships, planes and tanks are the essential metric of dominance, then the United States remains in an enviable position.

But the world is evolving quickly and dangerously. And in war, what is past is rarely prologue.

Today, our fleet of aircraft carriers remains unmatched. But carrier warfare, particularly of the kind that began nearly a century ago, is becoming antiquated and challenged by undersea threats. Autonomous technologies, such as low-cost swarms of air- and sea-based drones coupled with hypersonic missiles, could shift the balance of power on the oceans. Imagine a sky filled with aircraft, or an ocean filled with ships, on a scale we have not witnessed since World War II. Now, imagine that those platforms are entirely unmanned.

This is what the future of warfare may look like; that is, if we can see it at all. Rapid developments in stealth technology may allow whole fleets to hide on the open seas.

Such a scenario does not consider the impact of cyberwarfare. The recent SolarWinds attack sponsored by Russia hacked our government and more than 400 of the United States’ Fortune 500 companies. It’s a penetration so vast that we’re still struggling to comprehend its scope. Specialists have been sounding the vulnerability alarm on cyber for more a decade; too many policymakers assume that so long as their bank accounts and home Internet are password-protected, our national security infrastructure remains well guarded and uncompromised. Yet we are moving toward a cyberwar “Pearl Harbor” with insufficient military and civilian resources devoted to the problem.

Catching up means investing in offensive cyber capabilities, smaller platforms, drone and stealth technology and artificial intelligence.

Our personnel needs will change in multiple ways: We will need to select, train and employ people with a Special Forces-like mentality — finding far smaller numbers of elite men and women who can integrate with the advanced technology using biotechnological breakthroughs. And we must recognize that the major weapons systems of the future will largely be unmanned and often autonomous. We continue to buy and build weapons system designed for conflicts we are not likely to face again.

If we get it right, a new strategic triad of offensive cyber, elite forces and unmanned vehicles will span combat zones from well below the ocean’s surface to satellite constellations high above the Earth. But while the Pentagon and other agencies are taking steps in the right direction, they do not go remotely far enough. This new triad is not yet central to the future that the military services are imagining today.

What we need most is an active imagination; we should enlist insights not only from security professionals, but also historians, writers, foreign policy experts and representatives from the arts. If any hesitation existed before, the pandemic should demonstrate to our leaders the importance of unconventional thinking when it comes to anticipating future threats to our country and taking steps to avert a crisis before it arrives on our doorstep.

Thinking imaginatively means suggesting ideas and possibilities that some people might find absurd. But no idea should be off the table. Questioning the status quo must be the norm. We have to imagine our way toward the next war and then try to reverse-engineer its causes to avoid it. And if we fail to do so, we must be prepared to fight and win.

Sun Tzu said, “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.” It follows that the greatest reason to do the hard, awkward work of imagining the future is so that you and your adversary — via a thousand virtual simulations, drills and field exercises — will have already played out the horrors and imagined the costs of the next war. And you will have thus immunized yourself against future catastrophe by, hopefully, reaching an enlightened mutual conclusion: In modern global war, no one wins.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Unless America acts now, China could trounce it in artificial intelligence

David Ignatius: Biden’s ambitious plan to push back against techno-autocracies

Fareed Zakaria; Russia hasn’t just hacked our computer systems. It’s hacked our minds.

The Post’s View: Russia’s massive hack demands a reckoning for U.S. cyber defenses

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