Thursday, April 27, 2017

Before we lose our edge

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The United States is facing growing cyber and electronic warfare threats, and the Department of Defense needs to develop a new optionality strategy in order to regain its technical advantage over military adversaries. The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) spent two years evaluating the decline in U.S. military technical superiority and released its findings and recommendations in "Future Foundry: A New Strategic Approach to Military-Technical Advantage. The report echoes concerns raised by senior officials in recent years that the U.S. has not kept pace with adversaries in adopting and adapting new technologies to empower warfighters in increasingly contested electronic domains.
The United States 2015 military budget was $601 billion. The vast majority of the $601 billion will be funneled towards the military's base budget, which includes funding for the procurement of military equipment and the daily operations costs of US bases. Of the $496 billion base budget, the vast majority of funding goes towards the cost of operating and maintaining the military and the cost of paying and caring for military personnel. A further $90.4 billion is set aside for the procurement of new weapons systems during the 2015 fiscal year.  
There are a number of reasons why the US may be losing its military-technical advantage edge. First, the same tech that made America and the West militarily dominant have proliferated to potential foes. In particular, precision-guided missiles are widely and cheaply available. Second, rather than investing in the next generation of high-tech weapons to stay far ahead of military competitors, the Pentagon has been focused more on the very different demands of counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Third, the US military has an extremely rigid culture. It is risk averse and set in its ways. Getting career airmen and sailors to give up their toys isn’t the only cultural challenge. America’s military establishment has shown little appetite for axing much cherished “legacy programmes” to pay for the game-changing new stuff, such as stealthy, long-range strike drones able to survive in the most contested airspace. For example, the Pentagon has committed to buy 2,500 semi-stealthy F-35 fighter jets even though their limited combat radius reduces their usefulness in many war-fighting scenarios. Meanwhile the navy persists with 11 fabulously expensive but increasingly vulnerable carriers when underwater vehicles both manned and unmanned may be better equipped to tackle enemies with advanced area denial capabilities.
Adversaries of the United States are spending significantly less on their military however they are somehow catching up. The reason; technology. China and Russia have focused a lot on the research and development of military tech that will put them at the forefront of military rankings. China has been busy developing asymmetric capabilities specifically designed to counter America’s power in the West Pacific. For over two decades it’s been investing double-digit defense budgets in an arsenal of highly accurate, submarines, sophisticated integrated air defense systems (IADS) and advanced cyber capabilities. All with the aim of making it too dangerous for American carriers to operate close enough to fly their tactical aircraft or cruise missiles. The Chinese call it “winning a local war in high-tech conditions”. The Russians also have an ability to think out of the box—for good and bad. For example, the Shkval rocket-torpedo forms a bubble around itself, reducing friction to travel at an amazing 230 mph under water – more than four times as fast as any Western torpedo. The same work produced a unique underwater assault rifle for Special Forces; US development in similar "supercavitating" projectiles lags behind.

These days the scientific and technological developments that will help sharpen America’s military edge, such as artificial intelligence for unmanned systems, are as likely to come from the consumer tech companies in Silicon Valley as the traditional defense industry. Just how these two very different cultures will mesh creatively remains to be seen, however, the relationship seems promising. "In addition to making sure we're defeating today's enemies and deterring today's attacks, I also need to make sure our department has the best tech in the future," said former U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter

Lastly, the DoD must view military-technical challenges as a strategic issue requiring fundamental change. The CNAS report states "Defining military-technical superiority in terms of acquisition reform, process, procedures, and organizational structure -- even though those are critical elements for success -- undersells the importance of the challenge and may fail to drive action at the highest decision-making levels."

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