The new race for the game changers of future wars

Story highlights

  • Peter W. Singer: U.S. is in danger of losing the technological edge it has had in military technology
  • To master the new game-changers of war, U.S. must be willing to stop investing in old systems, he says

Peter Warren Singer is Strategist and Senior Fellow at New America, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington DC. Singer is also the author of multiple bestselling and award-winning books, including most recently "Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War." This article is adapted from testimony Singer is giving to the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)In the waning years of World War II, Nazi Germany rolled out a series of "wonder weapons" designed to turn around the war. Jets and rockets zoomed past American propeller planes, while a new generation of super tanks were almost impervious to the U.S. Shermans. The new German automatic rifles were so good that American soldiers took to lifting them from dead Germans. Fortunately, the new generation of weapons Adolf Hitler banked on came too little, too late to turn the tide, but it was a smarting experience for the U.S. military.

Peter Singer
For the last 70 years, U.S. defense planning has focused on making sure that never happened again. Having a qualitative edge to "overmatch" our adversaries, seeking to be a generation ahead, became baked into everything from our overall defense strategy all the way down to small-unit tactics.
It is how the U.S. deterred the Soviets despite having a much smaller military, how the U.S. military was able to invade Iraq with a force one-third the size of Saddam Hussein's, inverting the historic lesson that the attacker's force should be three times the size of the defender's.
    Even in painful insurgencies from Vietnam to the post-9-11 wars, this approach didn't deliver easy victories, but it became part of a changed worldview. A Marine officer once told me that if his unit of 30 men was attacked by 100 Taliban, he would have no fear his unit would lose; indeed, it'd almost be a relief to face them in a stand-up fight as opposed to fruitless hunts, hidden ambushes and roadside bombs. You might think it bravado, but that kind of thinking never would have been expressed 70 years back about his unit being attacked by three times its number of German Panzer Grenadiers or Japanese Naval Infantry.
    Yet U.S. forces can't count on that overmatch in the future. Mass campaigns of state-linked intellectual property theft have meant we are paying much of the research and development costs of our challengers (note the F-35 and J-31 fighter jets' similarity, for example). These challengers are also growing their own technology.
    A new report by the global management consulting firm McKinsey, for example, found that China has the potential to become a "global leader in innovation," as well as the center of innovation for global companies in the next 10 years. It already spends more than $200 billion on research and development--more than the European Union Its new projects range from the world's fastest supercomputers in the civilian space to three different long-range drone strike programs on the military side.
    Also, the relationship between the U.S. military and Silicon Valley has flipped. Tech companies used to draw upon the military both for funding and whatever new breakthrough product would change their markets, the most notable example being the Internet itself. Today, the military is the one playing catch-up, even being forced to open a new office in Silicon Valley to try to track all the amazing developments that are happening utside its orbit.
    This is a crucial shift, in that our most long-trusted platforms are vulnerable to new classes of weapons in a wider array of conflict actors' hands; and an array of potentially game-changing weapons lie just ahead:
    • A new generation of unmanned systems, more diverse in size, shape and form but also more autonomous and more capable. They could take on roles such as intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance -- even strike roles, launched from aircraft carriers or even soldiers' hands.
    • Weapons that operate not by the kinetics of a fist or gunpowder driving a bullet, but by energy itself -- electromagnetic railguns that will fire a projectile 100 miles, and new directed-energy systems that could reverse the cost equations of offense and defense.
    • Super-long-range and hyper-fast air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles and strike systems.
    • Artificial intelligence, ubiquitous sensors, "big data" and battle management systems that will redefine the "observe, orient, decide and act (OODA) loop" that is at the center of much U.S. military thinking.
    3-D printing technologies that threaten do to the current defense marketplace what the iPod did to the music industry.
    • Human performance modification technologies that will reshape what is possible in the human side of war.
    None of these science-fiction-sounding technologies are fictional.
    The challenge is in drawing the comparison between what is now possible, or soon to be, and what we are actually buying today or planning to buy tomorrow.
    America's weapons modernization programs are too often not that modern. The "new" F-35 fighter jet program, for example, was begun in 1997, meaning it is old enough to vote in any of the 45 states that its production is spread out across. Indeed, if you start at their point of conception, almost all of the top 10 "Programs of Record" that the Pentagon is spending the most money on now, and planning to do so for the next decade, are several decades old.
    The reasons for this are complex but come down to a simple dynamic: The U.S. too often commits to mass buys before a system is truly tested, locking in on single major programs that are "too big to fail" and actually aren't all that new. And, this dynamic shapes not just what we buy, but also extends development time, and ultimately our expectations of how much of a system we will buy decades into the future, limiting our present and future flexibility. To abuse a metaphor, the growing per-unit cost of the cart drives where we steer the horse.
    At the heart of this failing dynamic is that while "disruption" is a new buzzword in defense thinking today, part of the Pentagon's new outreach to Silicon Valley, we struggle with the dual meaning in the concept: We claim to aspire for the new but, to be disrupted, the outdated must also be discarded.
    Mechanization didn't supplement horse-drawn forces, it replaced them. Amazon didn't just pioneer online book sales, it put most brick-and-mortar bookstores out of business.
    The roadblocks to disruption exist at multiple levels, from specific weapons programs to organizational change and operating concepts. For instance, there is a long record of the government funding exciting new projects that wither away in that space between lab and Program of Record because they can't supplant whatever old gear or program, factory, or internal tribe that is in the way. Indeed, there is even a term for it: "Valley of Death." If promising new programs are to be launched, something will have to be supplanted.
    As Congress now begins to debate how it will shape the U.S. military for the future, it will determine what happens next in this race. What it chooses to support in terms not just of programs, but also thinking, structures and organizations, whether it eliminates any of the old, and what it protects and nurtures, will matter more than any single additional plane or tank squeezed into a budget line item. It may be the difference between victory or defeat in a major war tomorrow.