Event Report: The Future of U.S. Defense Strategy

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Cindy Wagner

Cindy Wagner

From a conversation with General Paul J. Selva at the Brookings Institution, June 28, 2019.

“Progress is simply not fast enough” when it comes to applying new technologies to national defense, said Gen. Paul Selva, outgoing vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a discussion with the Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow and director of research for foreign policy. “That’s not a judgment on the allocation of the budget or the effort. It’s a judgment on the cultural changes required to take advantage of the speed of change that’s happening in the technology sector.”

Selva noted that private-sector investment in technology has surpassed that of the public sector by 10 to 1, the opposite of what had been the case from the 1970s through the 1990s. But because of the acceleration of technological development in China and Russia, for example, the United States is going to “have to incorporate new technologies faster because that pace of change is not going to slow down,” he said.

Key technologies Selva addressed were:

Satellites and space launch technologies. With satellites, the most significant advances have been in miniaturization and integration, creating smaller satellites (about the size of a beer keg) that will do multiple things. With launch technologies, researchers have developed a 3D-printed rocket with no moving parts. It’s cheap, but a “throwaway” rocket, Selva said. Meanwhile, companies like SpaceX are developing reusable boosters with “autonomous landing technology to return boosters and fly them again.” These developments will lower costs and eventually enable “broadly distributed low-earth-orbit constellations that can provide broadband internet on a global scale.”

Missile defense versus directed energy. The use of directed-energy weapons has not yet scaled to “an end-game solution,” leaving missile defense to be largely about “hit to kill”—that is, deploying one missile interceptor against one incoming, Selva said. “In the hit-to-kill solution, the offense always has the advantage because it’s a numbers game. If you don’t have as many defenders as they have shooters, you’re doomed to eventually running out of ammo.” That’s why U.S. defense is instead “pushing so hard on developing hypersonics, on developing the capacity to close kill chains quickly.”

Cyber offense and defense. “We have a menu of cyber vulnerabilities,” Selva admitted, and a cultural objection to the military using commercially developed security systems. “We have to get over this cultural sort of proclivity to say if we didn’t build it we won’t trust it. Commercial industry has done this in the banking sector, in the IT sector, in many industrial sectors. They are protecting their information at levels much more significant than the way we protect our information, and we just have to get on board.”

Stealth and counter-stealth. Though the Chinese and others are developing “quieter” military technologies, “stealth is not a cloak of invisibility,” Selva reminded the audience. The advantages of any type of technology depend on our ability to use it—on well-trained personnel and well-crafted tactics. “The mystique of stealth and the mystique of quietness, it actually hides the fact of the training and the experience of the crews that are exploiting that quietness and that stealth.” It is this training and experience, along with tactics and procedures, that provide stealth technologies’ strategic advantage, he said.

Artificial intelligence. Currently available simple AI, like the algorithms that allow the dating site Match.com to weed out unlike matches, are not suitable for the complexity of decision making required in fluid military contexts, with “multiple simultaneous variable that change as they are executing,” Selva said. But the technologies are advancing. “In the last several years we’ve had a handful of researchers build artificial intelligence algorithms and models that win at games that have rules, but the key to winning in those games is [that] you cheat.” Like in a card game, you win by bluffing, he said. “That’s the kind of evolutionary change that we’re looking for in AI.”

Robotics. Robots are very good for “dull, dirty, risky jobs” but are not yet ready to act autonomously, Selva warned. The field of biorobotics, on the other hand, is already showing potential. Prostheses worn by amputees today work through a combination of robotics and simple AI, exploiting the signals that muscles send to them. “There is a huge piece of research there that can help expand the boundaries of what we think about in terms of AI and robotics that is reasonably benign, but it has potential applications into the future.”

Ultimately, security depends on human elements such as the assumptions we—and our adversaries—make about one another, Selva suggested. “In the game of deterrence, your adversary has to believe that you not only have the capacity but you have the will to resist whatever it is they’re going to do and that they can’t win.”

View video or read transcript.

Recommended Reading

To keep up with developments in defense technology, check out technology editor Patrick Tucker’s reporting for Defense One. Tucker is former deputy editor of The Futurist and the author of The Naked Future: What Happens in a World That Anticipates Your Every Move? (Current, 2014).

Cindy Wagner is AAI Foresight’s consulting editor and editor of Foresight Signals.