High-Tech: The Future Face of War?-A Debate
Alvin H. Bernstein & Martin Libicki
Few Americans will have forgotten the remarkable video footage released by the Pentagon in the opening days of the Persian Gulf war in January 1991. Precision-guided munitions (PGM’s) performed their tasks with seemingly perfect accuracy, descending chimneys, threading their way through the air shafts of bunkers, and striking the center spans of the narrowest of bridges. In the technology of warfare, it seemed, our military had leapt dramatically ahead of enemies and allies alike.
Of course, there was also something very old-fashioned about Operation Desert Storm. With fighter planes sweeping the skies of enemy aircraft and tanks advancing across a broad front, the scene in many ways bore the familiar look of a campaign from World War II. If a similar confrontation were to occur today, not to mention a decade from now, it would take on a very different cast. For the information-processing and communications technologies that made the American armed forces seem so invincible in the Persian Gulf are part of a profound, and much-publicized, revolution in military affairs (RMA) that is affecting every aspect of our warfighting posture. That revolution is continuing apace, and not just in the United States.
That, indeed, is the problem. Though the U.S. has driven the revolution from the start, we now run the risk of being overtaken by it, as other nations develop the know-how that may one day render American tanks, planes, and troops as vulnerable as were the hapless Iraqis seven years ago.
The promise of high-tech warfare has been with us for some time. In 1978, then-Under Secretary of Defense William Perry predicted that the United States would soon be able to “see all high-value targets on the battlefield,” “make a direct hit on any target we can see,” and “destroy any target we can hit.” Twenty years later, much of the technology for these capabilities has moved off the drawing board.
Sensors are one important element in this new arsenal. They can be deployed as needed in air or in space, on the ocean or on the ground. The signals they detect can then be integrated into the military’s increasingly dense communications grid, allowing enemy targets to be located more rapidly and accurately in every sort of terrain. In deserts, plains, fields, and at sea, the ability to see everything worth seeing is already here. Even in more difficult terrain, such as mountains, jungles, and cities, U.S. forces can see faster and finer than ever before. In future wars, the battlefield will, in effect, be illuminated.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) offer an example of how sensors might be carried to the enemy. On the expensive end of the shelf, the U.S. military already has several UAV’s that can fly thousands of miles to the battlefield and roam above it at a height of twenty kilometers. These UAV’s can be equipped with still cameras, detectors that can “see” targets in the infrared and high ultraviolet range, or synthetic aperture radars that can peer through clouds. At the cheap end, Department of Defense laboratories have developed UAV’s that can fly beneath the clouds with simpler payloads like video cameras. At a cost of $5,000 each, they are far cheaper than the least expensive missile capable of shooting them down. Even smaller short-range UAV’s are in the works.
Precision-guided munitions, which can convert the visibility provided by sensors into assured destruction, comprise the second element in the ongoing revolution. These include tactical missiles, torpedoes, laser-guided bombs and shells, and, at short range, armored rounds. Although, as we saw in the Persian Gulf, PGM’s are already an important component of the U.S. arsenal, the technology is racing ahead.
Early-model PGM’s required a human operator to sight the target and keep the munition aimed at it, a dangerous job that exposed the targeteer to the battlefield. PGM’s then grew sophisticated enough to find targets on their own, but the weapons tended to be very costly and performed poorly in bad weather. Today, faster, lighter, less detectable, more maneuverable, and more discriminating PGM’s are coming on line. They “know” their own position, and know where they are meant to strike. Most crucially, they are cheap, which means they can be used against many targets or can overcome defenses by being launched in swarms.
In yet another key development, the earth is now being mapped with astonishing accuracy. Global-positioning systems can already locate any point on the ground or in the air within a five-meter radius. As three-dimensional imagery of the earth continues to be collected in vast quantities by satellites and other means, cartographers will soon be able to pin down the location of virtually any natural or man-made object, thus enhancing the lethal potential of precision-guided weapons.
Each of these various technological advances is a breakthrough in itself. Together, and once they have become fully integrated, they will lead to a new kind of military organization, for the simple reason that expertise in operating the new weapons will not be the sole preserve of any one branch of the armed forces. They will also lead to a wholly new kind of military logic, whose basic thrust can be summed up in the term “distance warfare.” Instead of the set-piece battles of yesteryear, warfare will likely consist of four processes, performed in lightning-quick succession. A battlefield will be scanned; its potential targets will be identified; those identified will be ranked in order of importance; and, finally, they will be destroyed.
The advent of distance warfare is fraught with implications not only for the battlefield but, in the largest sense, for America’s position in the world and its global strategy. Most saliently, it will change the very foundation of our alliances. American forces stationed in, say, Germany or South Korea will come to have more of a symbolic than an operational value, while the willingness of our allies to allow us to pre-position sensors and precision weapons will become crucial. Coming to the aid of beleaguered friends will mean, in the first instance, supplying military intelligence comprehensive and detailed enough to allow them to see all important enemy targets. In effect, the United States will be able to cast a spotlight for its friends and reduce the advantages an aggressor enjoys from surprise. The U.S. need not formally show up at all or even leave obvious evidence of its presence.
Should more direct intervention be needed, distance warfare holds out the possibility of deterrence with minimal loss of life. If a future adversary begins to mass its forces in order to threaten an American ally, we can respond by deploying sensors in the likely combat area. This, while not as provocative as dropping mines or sending in troops, will nonetheless be a highly menacing step. The heavy weapons of the would-be invader will become vulnerable instantaneously, threatening the destruction of his forces within hours or even minutes.
We have already had a taste of how this works in NATO’s success thus far in halting the bloodshed in Yugoslavia. In the opening days of involvement there, NATO forces used electronic warfare to home in on and destroy Serbia’s intricate system of radar and anti-aircraft missiles. Then, with the skies safe for its own aircraft, NATO destroyed other Serbian targets with a degree of precision that exceeded what had been on display during the Persian Gulf war. Next, at the 1995 peace talks in Dayton, Ohio, U.S. negotiators took their Serbian counterparts on a “virtual flight” over Bosnia. The ostensible purpose of this computerized tour was to determine the width of the corridor between Sarajevo and Goradze, but the effect of seeing their country modeled in exquisite detail convinced the Serbians that they were, in effect, fighting in the nude.
What all this suggests is that crucial to the outcome of war in the future will be the capacity to see an enemy’s military assets, plus the capacity to hide one’s own. For the moment, the U.S. is unrivaled at both tasks. A vital and growing portion of our arsenal, most notably our collection of stealth aircraft, is already designed to do its work undetected. As for the ability to watch others, we view the world with Argus eyes: space-based sensors, wide-body surveillance aircraft like the AWACS, ground-searching JSTARS aircraft that carry radar capable of taking three-dimensional pictures at night or through clouds of moving targets, devices that detect heat and collect electronic emissions, and miniature drones that can carry video cameras and cloud-penetrating radar.
Yet these and all the other weapons of distance warfare are not foolproof: every electronic measure invariably calls into existence countermeasures, and the cycle is accelerated by the ready availability on today’s open market of many of the technologies that have made our armed forces so formidable. The international trade in precision weapons is fueled by equipment of European manufacture and by leftovers from Russian and American stockpiles. For countries that wish to see the battlefield as well as we can, the essential components—personal computers, video cameras, high-gain microphones, cellular phones, receivers for global-positioning systems and direct-broadcast satellites, CD-ROM disks with enough memory to contain a map of the entire United States detailed to a five-meter scale—are not hard to come by. More than twenty countries manufacture UAV’s. Iraq would have needed only one medium-grade model to learn that coalition forces were preparing the “left-hook” attack that took it by surprise in the Persian Gulf war.
Even the exploitation of outer space, an arena where the United States enjoys a substantial lead, can be used against us by an adversary far less sophisticated than we. Russia still possesses its own global-positioning system, Glonass, and has demonstrated a willingness to sell its satellite imagery, which can show objects down to the size of an automobile. France, Japan, and India have comparable space-based surveillance technology, and American corporations are preparing to launch satellites that will make live intelligence and secure communications available to anyone willing to pay for it.
Nor does the United States enjoy a monopoly of skilled personnel capable of integrating and operating such equipment. South Korea is educating more engineering Ph.D.’s per capita than the U.S. Indonesia and Brazil already manufacture aircraft and operate satellites, and tens of thousands of Chinese and Indians have received advanced technical training.
In short, though the benefits of the new technology are great, so too is the peril if we ignore what technology may do to us in the hands of an adversary. In light of that potential peril, indeed, the U.S. military’s ability to project power into distant theaters could emerge as our Achilles’ heel, leaving us vulnerable far from home. The United States has few alternatives but to maintain its leading edge by increasing the range, speed, and accuracy of our precision weapons and the systems that support them.
Doing so can be fairly inexpensive (as such things go), especially if we act quickly. For an investment of several billion dollars a year over the coming decades, we could steadily upgrade our information-gathering hardware and software and train the personnel to use them. As for precision weapons, the price in many cases has been falling for some years. A cruise missile that cost $2 million a decade ago, for instance, now goes for just over $0.5 million. Kits to guide bombs by information from global-positioning-system satellites cost $14,000 each—less than a quarter of what they were projected to cost a few years ago.
True, falling prices may be offset as potential adversaries grow more sophisticated. Enough sensors will have to be deployed to foil attempts to evade them. Military communications will have to be made more secure and jam-resistant. And the range of precision weapons will have to be extended. Nonetheless, such investments need not amount to more than a fraction of our defense spending.
How much, exactly? A few months ago the Pentagon published its congressionally-mandated Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). In this blueprint for how to spend the taxpayers’ next trillion defense dollars, the Defense Department, in the person of Secretary William S. Cohen, has recommended that the U.S. keep abreast of developing military technologies by taking $20 billion more each year from existing budgets. Though Cohen insists these additional funds can come from base closings and greater efficiency, they are more likely to be squeezed instead from more conventional forces, further reducing their size and readiness.
This seeming sacrifice of short-term capability has set off alarms in some quarters. In the view of a number of defense experts and military historians, the traditional components of American military might—namely, troop strength and conventional armaments—must remain central to our defense planning. Yet if Cohen can be faulted, it is for not going far enough in rethinking the future of our forces. In an annual defense budget of $250 billion, $20 billion (if even that is approved) is a token amount to devote to what is surely our most pressing defense need: maintaining our superiority in information technology in the face of what is already an unprecedented proliferation of the most sophisticated military hardware.
It is true, as the critics charge, that under such a program, tanks, ships, and aircraft—the purchase, maintenance, and manning of which constitute the most expensive segment of the current budget—will necessarily suffer cutbacks. But that is as it should be in an age in which information and precision will take precedence over force-on-force confrontation. Under the circumstances of the future, the more conventional elements of our current arsenal will not disappear, but they will take on different primary functions, becoming “stand-off platforms” for the rapid deployment of sensors and precision weapons or being used to secure territory after the smart weapons have done their job. The sheer number of our tanks, ships, and aircraft will be less important than how well-integrated they are with the new technology—a matter that the Defense Department, for all its interest in a high-tech military, has yet to address sufficiently.
None of this is to say that it will never again be necessary to put American troops in harm’s way. But distance warfare, because of its relative safety, may offer an antidote to our persistent post-Vietnam aversion to the use of force in international affairs and to growing sensitivity about casualties among our own and even enemy soldiers. Indeed, in an era of rising isolationist sentiment, the tactics of distance warfare are likely to become the most muscular and credible tools available to the architects of American foreign policy. The sooner we grasp both the strategic necessities and the opportunities of the new military reality in which we find ourselves, the better off we shall be.
Frederick W. Kagan
In the history of warfare, it seems clear in hindsight that advocates of new technologies, and of the radical reorganizations of armed force they require, have always been proved right. In the long run, technology has repeatedly transformed the practice of war. Those who adapt have conquered, while those who remain stagnant have been vanquished. Unfortunately, history also makes it clear that, for every technological visionary who gets the future right, there are at least ten who get it wrong. Sometimes it is better to be a skeptic.
The current moment is one of those times. On all sides we hear of a technology-driven revolution in military affairs (RMA) that is a prelude to a military millennium. Warfare, we are told, will never be as it has been before. Information technology will make it cheap, bloodless, and fast. With a modest amount of capital investment, very small “information-age” forces will give us guaranteed predominance forever.
This millenarian view is not merely wrong, it is highly dangerous. If put into practice along the lines conceived of by its proponents, it is likely to lead to embarrassments, defeats, high casualties, and the loss, at least temporarily, of America’s position in the world.
The millenarian view can be summed up as follows. In future wars, information technology and smart weapons will allow us to see everything, hit everything, and kill everything the enemy has, while keeping our own casualties to low levels, possibly zero. We are not likely to need ground forces, or to have to engage the enemy with tactical aircraft or warships, except in the final phases of a campaign that will have been won by precision-guided munitions (PGM’s) fired from “stand-off platforms” hundreds of miles away. The destruction by this means of the enemy’s key communications nodes will lead to the complete debilitation of his forces, while the destruction of his long-range weapons systems will ensure that he cannot inflict casualties on any landing force required for mopping-up operations. Fundamentally, war is likely to be decided by the first fast salvo, after which the enemy, seeing that he is doomed, will surrender—assuming that he can still find a working transmitter.
Objections to this vision may be raised on several grounds.
Will we, in fact, be able to see, hit, and kill everything the enemy has? Information-age weapons systems, at least as they are currently conceived, are highly vulnerable. The sensors that can “see everything,” for instance, will be almost completely dependent on satellites to communicate their information. But satellites, if they are to serve their purpose, must move along predictable orbits, and the theoretical problem of devising a weapon to kill such communications satellites is easily solved. The United States, which (unwisely) has eschewed any system of ballistic-missile defense for its own territory, does not think in terms of anti-satellite measures; others do, and will.
Even assuming that our satellites remain unmolested, there are a number of ways of “seeing” military targets, and each has its special problems. Sensors can indeed detect electromagnetic emissions in given locations. Emissions from transmitters, for example, may enable us to destroy portions of an enemy’s communications system, while emissions from radars will help us attack early-warning and targeting systems. But if the enemy holds transmitters and radars in reserve, activating them only when absolutely necessary, then our initial strike is unlikely to catch them all. In addition, a cunning or ruthless enemy may place “dummy” emitters near, for instance, children’s hospitals, tricking us into causing civilian damage that can redound catastrophically to our disadvantage.
A problem with all electromagnetic sensors (including infrared ones) is that they are vulnerable to confusion. This is so whether or not one can literally “eyeball” each target while the strike is being launched. Optical reconnaissance depends on the ability to look at an object and either know or guess its function. Camouflage against optical reconnaissance entails designing objects in such a way that they do not appear to be what they are.
Some items—tanks, for instance—are hard to camouflage, but many dangerous weapons systems probably will not be, and we will not always be able to tell what a thing is by looking at it. If, for instance, a truck that has been parked inside a closed and windowless building loads up, leaves the building, drives across country, enters another closed, windowless building, and unloads, what is its cargo? Is it carrying diapers, or a mobile intermediate-range ballistic missile?
Even if we can “see” everything, and know what it is in time to do something about it, will we be able to kill everything we see? Perhaps—if the targets remain stationary or, in the event they move, we retain the full and undisrupted use of our sensors and satellites; and if the targets are killable by the relatively small warheads on most smart weapons; and if the enemy takes no measures to prevent our weapons from landing. But if any of these conditions is wanting, then the situation will hardly be so promising.
Smart weapons necessarily have the following characteristics: (a) they are guided by electronics; (b) they rely on electromagnetic communications; and (c) being lightweight, they are not heavily armored. As a result, they are open to attack in a number of ways. Any device that can generate a powerful enough directed-energy beam can be used to scramble the “brain” of a smart missile, causing it to become merely a flying chunk of metal packed with TNT. Powerful lasers, locked on to a rocket-fuel container, can heat it to the point of explosion. It may be possible to garble or prevent communication between a missile and its satellite or other link.
If communication is broken between a smart weapon and the sensors guiding it, then the weapon will have to locate the target on its own—hard enough in normal circumstances, many times harder if the target is moving. Imagine, for example, that one of our arsenal ships, lying 600 kilometers off an enemy’s coast, fires a smart missile at a tank, and then contact is lost between the missile and the sensors that designated the target. Assuming that the missile is traveling at about 2,250 miles per hour (about Mach-3), it will take roughly ten minutes to arrive at its target. In those ten minutes, the tank, traveling at about 60 miles per hour, will have been able to move ten miles in any direction. The incoming missile, then, will have to search an area of some 300 square miles to locate its original target—assuming that the tank remains visible.
Keep in mind, next, that the higher the missile flies, the better the target it will offer to enemy anti-missile defenses. For the easiest way to kill a smart missile is with another missile. Such an antimissile missile would not even have to hit its target; a near-miss would do the trick.
Under all these circumstances, will the missile find the tank? The outcome is far from clear. When “bombing machines” first came into prominence in the 1920’s and 1930’s, military millenarians declared that war was obsolete: “the bomber,” in the words of Stanley Baldwin, British Prime Minister in the 1930’s, “will always get through.” Unfortunately, the bomber did not always get through, and neither will the missile.
The belief that our systems will always work and the enemy’s will not is inconsistent. Either there are countermeasures to smart weapons, or there are not. If there are, then our enemies will have them, too. If not, then we will be as vulnerable to their smart systems as we imagine they are to ours. Millenarians take comfort in the assurance that, for the foreseeable future, we will remain in possession of “information overmatch.” That may be true as far as it goes; but an enemy does not have to match our systems, he only has to defeat selected portions of them. When one considers the effect of the loss of satellite communications, or the damage that can be done to us by even moderately effective antimissile devices, it becomes clear that we, too, have “centers of gravity,” the destruction of which can unhinge an entire operation.
Democracies do not like to spend money on defense in peacetime, for the excellent reason that such expenditures detract from other areas of higher political, social, and economic importance. In a period in which we have no “peer competitors” on the horizon, it will be harder, not easier, to convince Congress to allocate resources to defense—including technology. The practical result of this is that on the future battlefield, there will probably be many more enemy targets than smart bombs to take them out. We may be able to destroy critical communications nodes, radar stations, and troop concentrations (if the enemy is accommodating enough to concentrate his troops), but we will have to leave some portion of his military might untouched, and that portion is likely to be substantial.
But, millenarians might rejoin, this residual military power will have been knocked out of communication, confused, and uncoordinated—in other words, ripe for an attack by more conventional forces that can finish it off, à la Iraq in 1991. Unfortunately, finishing it off will not be the relative picnic it was then. Since we will never have enough PGM’s to destroy the enemy forces completely, we will still have a very dangerous conventional conflict on our hands. And if we have spent the intervening years scrambling for every dime to equip ourselves with PGM’s, we will not have enough troops well-enough trained to do the job.
Nor can we count upon an enemy’s surrendering readily. Millenarians routinely mistake the means of war—killing people, destroying property, “servicing” targets—for the end, which is imposing one’s will on the enemy and making him do one’s bidding. An enemy whose commitment to war is weak to begin with may surrender upon being “disarmed.” But history provides many examples of states fighting on after suffering crippling blows, including blows delivered by “stand-off” weapons systems. Britain under Nazi bombardment in 1940 offers one example, Iraq under American and allied bombardment in 1991 another.
If the enemy does fight on, we will still have to project ground forces from very distant bases, either by sea or by air. Here is one of the biggest problems with relying on stand-off weapons: we can never know what we have failed to destroy. An enemy who has retained any long-range weapons systems (for instance, by hiding them in concrete bunkers under hospitals), will be able to interfere with our deployments, and kill thousands of American soldiers at one stroke. Enemy systems, even if temporarily cut off from communications, will be able to maintain intermittent contact with key headquarters, some of which will probably have survived. Among weapons, even one surviving multiple-launch rocket system will be able to exact a price measured in thousands of American casualties.
In short, an enemy can make the “pacification” of his country a very arduous undertaking. Having destroyed most of his systems, we are unlikely to fail at this enterprise; but we will almost certainly suffer far higher casualties and have a much tougher time than the American people will have been led to expect—an outcome that could have been avoided had we treated the ground attack as decisive from the outset.
A final consideration is relevant here. The millenarian view assumes that we will always have the advantage of the first shot. But the U.S. has not fired the first shot in any of the major wars of this century, and future conflicts are unlikely to differ in this regard. America is a status-quo power, and it is in our nature to respond only when some other power has upset the international order. That being the case, a future opponent will have ample opportunity to strike first at whatever vulnerabilities he perceives, while our own counterstrike is likely to be much less calm and orderly than the millenarians imagine. This, too, will inevitably heighten the difficulty of any ensuing “moppingup” operation.
Railroads and rapid-fire artillery, which turned World War I into a bloody stalemate, signaled a revolution in warfare—yet in many respects the art of war thereafter remained unchanged. Likewise when the tank and the airplane, developed in the 1930’s, restored maneuver to the battlefield: warfare was again revolutionized, and again its fundamental nature remained unchanged. Twenty years from now, warfare is likely to be as different from warfare today as 1939 was from 1918—and as similar.
America’s first goal in any conflict is to deter war. We are not likely to be any more successful at this with stand-off weapons systems than the Gulf war coalition was in 1991. Some enemies, even sophisticated ones, lack the imagination to be deterred by long-range strikes; it will take ground, air, and naval forces in situ to persuade them otherwise. In future crises as in past, an American President’s first line of deterrence will be to deploy something into the theater in question.
The role of emerging technologies in these circumstances is a deep and complicated subject. That role certainly will be critical, and in some cases decisive. But to expect the god of technology to save us from the drudgery of war is folly. In thinking about the future, we would do better to dream less about the marvels of technology and consider instead the sorts of tasks the United States armed forces may actually be called upon to perform.
Even in a world without obvious threats, the basis of a successful American defense remains what it has been for almost a century: the ability to project highly-trained and well-equipped forces in decisive numbers anywhere in the world. In the near or even the distant future, that underlying reality is unlikely to change.