The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Pentagon must prepare for a much bigger theater of war

The Pentagon building in Arlington on April 14, 2017.
The Pentagon building in Arlington on April 14, 2017. (NIck Kirkpatrick/The Washington Post)

Lloyd J. Austin III is the secretary of defense. This essay is adapted from his April 30 speech at the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii.

The cornerstone of America’s defense is deterrence, ensuring that our adversaries understand the folly of outright conflict. “Only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt,” said President John F. Kennedy in 1961, “can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.”

Sixty years later, we are still the best in this business. But being the best today isn’t a guarantee of being the best tomorrow — not in an age when technology is changing the character of warfare itself, and not at a time when our potential adversaries are very deliberately working to blunt our edge.

Galloping advances in technology mean important changes in the work we do to keep the United States secure not just through air, land and sea but also space and cyberspace.

To ensure that the costs and risks of aggression remain out of line with any conceivable benefit, we’ll use existing capabilities, build new ones, and use all of them in new and networked ways — hand in hand with our allies and partners.

We cannot predict the future. What we need is the right mix of technology, operational concepts and capabilities — all woven together in a networked way that is so credible, flexible and formidable that it will give any adversary pause. We need to create advantages for ourselves and dilemmas for them.

Under what I call “integrated deterrence,” the U.S. military isn’t meant to stand apart, but to buttress U.S. diplomacy and advance a foreign policy that employs all instruments of our national power. As President Biden has made clear, diplomacy must come first, and the use of force must be a very last resort.

Integrated deterrence means using some of our current capabilities differently. It means developing new operational concepts for things we already have. And it means investing in quantum computing and artificial intelligence, which will help us make decisions with more speed and rigor.

We are already investing in the huge opportunities of edge computing, the framework that lets us process data as it is being collected, absorb it and share it instantaneously — enabling us to find not just one needle in one haystack but 10 needles in 10 haystacks, and share those locations with various forces and partners. This gives us real-world, real-time advantages — and can let us fully grasp situations moving at the speed of war.

Yet deterrence today doesn’t rely on any particular platform or service or skill set. It relies on the networks we build across the whole of our military.

In space, for example, integrated deterrence would mean ensuring that capabilities such as our satellite-based Global Positioning System can continue even if adversaries attack it with missiles, cyber tools or space-based weapons. It might also mean employing cyber effects in one location to respond to a maritime security incident hundreds of miles away.

Any adversary thinking about pressing for advantage in one domain must know that we can respond not just in that arena but in many others as well. The power to deter rests on our ability to respond to aggression in the time and manner of our choosing.

This won’t be easy. The nature of warfare is changing; it spans an unprecedented theater that stretches from the heavens to cyberspace and far into the oceans’ depths. That demands new thinking and new action inside the Defense Department. We must redouble our efforts to work together — with allies and partners, across commands, across services and across our fiefdoms and stovepipes.

It is always easier to stamp out a small ember than to put out a raging fire. We must think harder and more creatively about preventing the future fight. And if we can’t prevent it, we need to be ready to win it, and to win it decisively.

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