Today’s most expensive U.S. weapons platform, the F-35 strike fighter, of which the Defense Department currently plans to purchase almost 2,500 in the next half-century, was conceived, Reed says, in the 1990s. It has a projected 66-year service life. Really? Granted, the B-52, which came into service in 1955, is still flying, some with crews a third of the age of their aircraft. But is this a template for 21st-century defense planning, given the velocity of change? What Reed requires of his congressional colleagues, and of military and defense industry planners — particularly those who author projections encompassing more than half a century — is imagination. James Stavridis understands this.
A retired four-star admiral and former supreme allied commander at NATO, Stavridis says he chose to make his just-released warning as fiction — “2034: A Novel of the Next World War,” co-written with Elliot Ackerman — because today, as usual, the challenge for policymakers is to imagine how events can surprise and cascade. Europe’s leaders in 1914 could not imagine how a pistol fired in Sarajevo could ignite four years of civilization-wrecking bloodshed. Americans in 1941 could not imagine a stealthy attack on Pearl Harbor, or in 2001 how 19 terrorists could yank the nation into several wars. So, Stavridis’s novel imagines how a war begun and waged with cyberattacks could shove a defeated United States out of the western Pacific and of great-power status.
Reed must imagine configuring U.S. forces for this world that Stavridis describes: In 2011, there were 7 billion people and 7 billion devices connected to the Internet. Ten years later, he says, there are still about 7 billion people but 40 billion connected devices. Imagine the U.S. vulnerability, Stavridis says, to cyberattacks that “blind the elephant.”
Writing in Foreign Affairs, Michèle Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense for policy, says Pentagon war games “reportedly show that current force plans would leave the military unable to deter and defeat Chinese aggression in the future.” She says, “U.S. warfighting concepts can no longer rely on attrition-based warfare” because “U.S. forces are likely to be outnumbered and under persistent attack in any conflict.” This is so, she writes, because China and Russia have developed “cyber, electronic, and kinetic weapons designed to disrupt the ability of U.S. forces to deploy, navigate, communicate, and strike, as well as layer upon layer of defenses to shoot down U.S. aircraft and sink U.S. ships before they can get within range of their targets.”
In the 1950s and 1960s, Reed says, U.S. spending on defense research and development was a larger portion of GDP than today, when systems are more complex and more vulnerable to obsolescence. There are, he says, possibilities for electronically disguising the “signature” of aircraft carriers and using quantum computing to locate deeply submerged submarines. The first phase of any conflict will involve, he says, “cyber and space.” Hence, it will involve domains and weapons hardly imagined when Reed left West Point.
All this is expensive. Reed, who also has degrees from Harvard’s law school and John F. Kennedy School of Government, has one of the Senate’s most liberal voting records. His party is spending lavishly on almost everything (President Biden’s 2022 budget proposes increases for the Education Department and Health and Human Services of 41 percent and 23 percent, respectively) except the military (1.6 percent). Perhaps Reed’s role is as successor to Democratic Sen. Henry M. Jackson, a liberal Cold Warrior.
Reed is noncommittal about Ukraine joining NATO, and he is, if not sanguine about, at least measured in his assessment of, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s menacing behavior toward Ukraine. Reed interprets this as Putin sending to the world the message that he must be reckoned with, and to his restive nation the message that it matters because he does. Reed notes that there are U.S. “tripwire” forces in the Baltics.
Reed will, however, not be startled if he is surprised. “The unexpected,” he says, almost laconically, “occurs with great regularity.” Imagine that.