By: Bryan Clark, Dan Patt, and Harrison Schramm
Approximate Reading Time: 9 Minutes
U.S. military leaders expressed alarm during Congressional hearings last month about the erosion of American military superiority against great power rivals China and Russia. To arrest the slide, they proposed an expensive “kitchen sink” of potential solutions, including growing the force, buying new weapons, improving training for operators, increasing maintenance, and fielding more autonomous systems. But the United States cannot simply spend its way to sustained military advantage. The costs for equipment, sustainment, and personnel are rising much faster than inflation and growing deficits will constrain future budgets. Moreover, likely targets of China and Russia like Taiwan and the Baltic nations are so close that simply having a larger, more ready U.S. force won’t be enough to stop them. Instead, the U.S. military will need to pursue a fundamentally different approach to warfare, as it did during the Cold War with nuclear weapons and, later, networks and precision guided munitions.
Put Concepts Before Tech
U.S. defense leaders recognize the need for a new American way of war, but efforts like the Obama administration’s “Third Offset Strategy,” focused on technologies such as artificial intelligence and autonomous systems without considering how they could change how military forces fight. The much-touted Project Maven, for example, simply applied artificial intelligence to the existing process of interpreting images, improving speed and accuracy, but not creating a new approach to mission planning or targeting. As suggested by CSBA’s study of successful military competitions, technology alone is unlikely to establish an enduring military advantage; the new technology is constrained to the yesterday’s tactics and competitors are able to field similar innovations as the technology proliferates. This kind of move-countermove cycle played out several times during World War II and the Cold War.
Instead of improving current ways of fighting, new technologies should be combined with innovative operational concepts to establish a new warfighting competition in which the first mover can gain a prolonged advantage. For example, the U.S. Navy established a new competition in anti-submarine warfare by shifting from using active sonar and radar, the primary World War II sub-hunting sensors, to using passive sonar starting in the early Cold War. Similarly, the U.S. Air Force established a new competition in air defense during the late Cold War by adopting stealth to defeat radars instead of relying on jammers. Studies of commercial innovation have also found a new technology’s use case often makes the difference between a modest improvement and a revolutionary new product.
A way of envisioning the relationship between technology and operational concept is depicted below. A disruptive technology can be paired with a revolutionary concept, as when the German military combined radio and tank technology with the concept of maneuver warfare in its Blitzkrieg tactics. A disruptive technology can alternatively be employed as part of an existing concept, such as using the F-22 as a strike-fighter like its predecessor, the F-15. Later, the new technology could enable a dramatically different way of operating, such as employing the F-22 as a command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) platform.
The most impactful combinations of technology and operational concept are often characterized as revolutions in military affairs. During World War II and the Cold War, U.S. leaders leveraged the emergence of these revolutions to gain a prolonged advantage. The U.S. victory during World War II can largely be attributed to the advent of mass industrialization, which enabled the United States to out-produce its adversaries in a war of attrition. When the Cold War began, the U.S. military relied on nuclear weapons and new delivery concepts like ballistic missile submarines to offset the Soviet Union’s numerical advantages in troops and conventional weapons. And late in the Cold War, with fewer nuclear and conventional weapons, tanks, soldiers, and aircraft than the Warsaw Pact nations, the U.S. military used the concept of Air-Land Battle and technologies for precise surveillance and targeting, stealth, and guided weapons to compete.
The Next Revolution: Decision Maneuver
Today, the sources of advantage the U.S. military relied upon during World War II and the Cold War are eroding. Industrial capacity is distributed into global supply chains, nuclear weapons are proliferated, information technology is increasingly commercialized, and precision sensors and weapons are widely available. A new source of advantage is needed that, like previous revolutions, exploits emerging trends in technology and warfare.
An overarching theme of international security today is the centrality of information in competition and conflict, as reflected in the military strategies of China and Russia. These great power competitors are relying less on attrition to achieve their objectives and more on undermining the opponent’s decision-making. In their ongoing “gray zone” operations, for example, China and Russia leverage political warfare, propaganda campaigns, and threats of escalation to coerce their opponents, rather than killing enemy soldiers or destroying adversary infrastructure and weapons.
Degrading enemy decision-making has always been an objective in combat and is the heart of classical maneuver warfare, which seeks to “shatter the enemy’s cohesion through a variety of rapid, focused, and unexpected actions.” What is different today, however, is the ability of automated planning tools to rapidly compose, adapt, and recompose force packages and kill chains to pursue military objectives, coupled with the use of electronic warfare and cyber operations to obscure their intended tactics and disposition. This improvement on traditional maneuver warfare could be described as “Decision Maneuver.” In terms of the innovation model described above, Decision Maneuver would combine disruptive new technologies in autonomy and artificial intelligence with new operational concepts for command and control.
Gaining an advantage in this new approach to warfare would require significant changes to the organization and mix of military forces and the processes and systems used to direct their actions. Today’s U.S. military is constructed much as it has been for decades: self-contained multi-mission aircraft, ships, and troop formations that execute kill chains of sensors, weapons, and command elements. These units and kill chains operate in predictable ways that are understood by enemies and relatively easy to recognize during a confrontation. In contrast, Decision Maneuver would depend on disaggregating or decomposing the capabilities of monolithic multi-mission units to form a kill web of smaller elements in which many different combinations of manned and unmanned sensors, countermeasures, weapons, and command and control nodes could be employed to accomplish the same tasks.
For example, a disaggregated force might replace a surface action group of three destroyers with a frigate and several unmanned surface vessels, or use an F-35 and a group of armed unmanned air vehicles instead of a section of manned strike-fighters. In a ground force, 20-person platoons may be broken down to 4-person fire teams equipped with small and medium-size unmanned ground and air vehicles to provide sensing, protection, and logistics support.
Managing decomposed forces and imposing multiple dilemmas on an adversary will require new command and control concepts and systems. Today’s staff processes take too long to manually build force packages from the larger number of discrete elements in a more decomposed force, and are unable to rapidly plan logistics, deconflict movement, and develop tactics. Instead of a staff-driven planning process, rapidly imposing multiple dilemmas on an adversary will require implementation of a revolutionary operational concept in which automated or artificially intelligent controllers complete these tasks.
Concepts implementing Decision Maneuver would likely combine human command with machine control. While command must remain centralized with human leaders, control would be increasingly decentralized in order to generate tempo and adaptability. The control function could be incorporated into the operating system of the force’s individual elements, much as functions like collaboration, target search and recognition, obstacle and threat avoidance, or engagement tactics are programmed into today’s autonomous weapons and unmanned vehicles.
In a similar process to today’s ride-sharing applications like Uber or Lyft, the control function could identify through an auction and bid process which elements of the available kill web are best suited to complete an effects chain that meets the commander’s tasking, including efforts to deceive or obscure the opponent’s sensors. In addition to identifying the appropriate effector, the controller would consider communications availability, movement, timing, and logistics.
Implementing Decision Maneuver
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) concept for Mosaic Warfare is one approach to implement Decision Maneuver. In an analogy to mosaic artwork, in this concept, a machine controller, directed by a human commander, would rapidly compose kill chains from constituent elements that may not be designed to work together a priori. Several DARPA programs, such as Adapting Cross-Domain Kill Chains, are pursuing the autonomy and artificially-intelligent control capabilities needed for this new concept.
Mosaic Warfare is similar to preceding concepts of net-centric warfare and systems-of-systems architectures. There are, however, critical distinctions. Conceptually, the focus of Mosaic warfighting is not simply achieving better situational awareness and connectivity between sensors and shooters, but on the quantity and speed of dilemmas imposed on the adversary. Moreover, Mosaic Warfare rejects the notion of a secure and globally available common network that has proven to be impractical. Instead, a Mosaic force would rely to a greater degree on autonomous systems and human operators employing mission command, supported by resilient line-of-sight communications, and only leveraging reach-back communications when available.
The U.S. military clearly needs to adopt a new approach to deter aggression and succeed in future conflicts. The sources of advantage it drew upon in previous competitions are now readily available to America’s competitors, and trends in warfare are reducing the value of the U.S. military’s capability and experience in large-scale precision strike warfare. The next major arena of military competition will likely be information and decision-making, and the U.S. military could establish a prolonged advantage in it by harnessing the disruptive technologies of autonomy and artificial intelligence.
A revolutionary new operational concept like Mosaic Warfare, however, will be essential for the U.S. military to fully exploit the potential of artificially intelligent and autonomous systems. If the DoD continues to view these technologies only as ways to improve its current operational approaches, the U.S. military could find itself the victim of disruption, instead of imposing it on America’s competitors.
About the Authors:
Bryan Clark is a Senior Fellow at CSBA.
Dan Patt Dr. Dan Patt joined the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments as a Non-resident Senior Fellow after serving at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as the Deputy Director for the Strategic Technologies Office. He supported the Deputy Secretary of Defense in leading an effort to define a new modernization initiative for the Department of Defense. In this role, he advised the 2017 National Defense Strategy drafting group. He is also the Chief Executive Officer at a commercial robotics and artificial intelligence technology company.
Harrison Schramm, CAP, PStat, is an Operations Research Professional working at the intersection of Data, Models and Policy. In addition to his role as a Senior Fellow at CSBA, he is an active member of INFORMS and is General Chair of the 2020 INFORMS Conference on Security.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the United States Government.