In this new, digital age we live in, it is no longer the ability to do work that matters but, rather, how fast we do it. And the same logic will shape how we think about defense.
In just a couple of decades, the world has changed. There are entirely different dynamics, different rules, and different challenges. And what is most different is the reduction of the many barriers to new entrants that so uniquely characterized the industrial era. Those barriers stem largely from the very factors that define the industrial economy, especially from economies of scale and regulations designed, above all, to ensure capital stability. With those barriers now falling, the world is changing rapidly, even though the transition from an industrial economy to a digital one has just begun.
The United States, as is well known, is leading this transformation. There is no finer example of America’s post World War II preeminence than IBM, but the speed with which Microsoft, Oracle, and Intel left IBM in the dust, in the very first years of the digital economy, offers a glimpse of just how fast-moving and rapidly renewing this new economy is. And the Internet, which is, in fact, but the first step in the conversion of the analog infrastructure of the Industrial Age to the digital infrastructure needed in the Digital Age, is increasing the pace. Consider, for example, how rapidly Cisco, a communications company but one born digital, surpassed each and every one of the great telephone equipment companies. And look at how the tiny nation of Finland has, by embracing everything digital, been reborn as one of the world’s most sophisticated and successful economies.
In nature, nothing is more important for survival than a species’ ability to adapt. And that is what, time and time again, is defining the survivors in the digital economy. The trio of companies that overtook IBM—Microsoft, Oracle, and Intel—learned how to adapt, and that was a major factor in their success. Each has been threatened, time and time again, and each has responded in a manner that made it stronger. For an even more dramatic example, consider Yahoo. The firm started with a search engine but realized quickly that business on the Web did not validate traditional value propositions. Yahoo’s managers found themselves redefining their basic business so often that they finally decided to configure Yahoo as a learning machine, endeavoring to try something, look at the market’s response, get smarter, and try again. In short, Yahoo is a model for an adaptive enterprise.
Industrial Age military forces were structured in much the same way as the economy—
and were similarly resistant to change. That shouldn’t be surprising. Inevitably, both a nation’s defense and its economy are driven by largely the same factors and the same technologies. What, then, is before us in defense as the economy changes? It took a decade or more before Americans accepted the fact that the U.S. economy was in a condition of discontinuous, irreversible change. We now generally understand that it is not simply the end of the Cold War or the rise of the global economy that has caused the change, although those factors do contribute. Instead it is technology—digital technology—that is driving that change.
Therefore, if we know enough about the digital economy to recognize its basic features and its general direction, we can begin to envision what a digital national defense system might look like. I suggest that we break the response into two parts: the evolutionary part, the component that has clear roots in the past; and the discontinuous part, which is much more difficult to define and which, at least judging by history, is probably more important.
Electronics will play a big part in the evolutionary component, just as it has in shaping what we already mean when we speak of the modern military. One particular dividend that electronics will yield is in precision targeting, that elusive partner to precision delivery. This improvement is possible now, on a full-time, global-coverage scale, using distributed satellites and multi-spectral sensors. Space-based surveillance systems have comprised the backbone of America’s military intelligence for decades. Like mainframe computers, though, their application was limited. Now, with distributed surveillance—highly redundant, mutually supporting sensing platforms—space-based surveillance will inevitably expand to provide tactical support and, most important of all, the means for better decision-making at all levels of operation.
There is enormous technological potential here to exploit. In sensors, for example, combining computing with transducers continues to yield performance breakthroughs, like the high-resolution Synthetic Aperture Radar that General Atomics flew recently on its Predator unmanned aircraft. And there is tremendous potential in using the massive computing power of a distributed surveillance network to process complex algorithms for image enhancement, recognition, or data synthesis for decision support and simulation.
Another area of electronics that will be important is electronic countermeasures (ECM). In thwarting enemy radar, stealth technology changed the name of the game, reducing the reflected signals to a level where canceling them actively became feasible. Such computing-intensive approaches can be extended beyond radar even to passive sensing systems such as infrared. And active cancellation is but one example of a rich area of technological opportunity in ECM.
Displacing Nuclear Weapons
What I have been describing so far is extrapolation. The trend toward increasing precision will continue; the trend toward more and better real-time information will continue; delivery systems will become faster and more difficult to detect; and, in missions, rapid strikes will continue to displace fixed engagements. None of these observations is new, nor in any way visionary. The last real discontinuity in defense was the nuclear weapon. And the truly discontinuous change about to affect defense measures will result from the displacement of the nuclear weapon. This statement is not meant to imply that nuclear weapons can or will go away. What I do mean is that the overarching role that nuclear weapons played in the Cold War is diminishing. That role has, in fact, been changing for a long time.
One way it began to change was with the introduction of independently guided warheads on a trendline of increasing precision. These led to a fundamental change in nuclear deterrence, and especially in the way we viewed stability. Stability, a fundamental aspect of nuclear deterrence, depends on the likelihood of a nuclear attack being initiated. The less the incentive to initiate a first strike, the more stable the deterrence. At the outset of the Cold War, and for three decades thereafter, the condition known as Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) ensured a rather stable form of deterrence referred to as counter-value deterrence. But with the introduction of precision-guided, multiple warhead missiles in the mid-1970s, another form emerged, known as counter-force deterrence.
In the former, high-value targets such as cities were expected to bear the brunt of a nuclear attack; in the latter version, missiles targeted missiles. Superficially, one might view this as progress. But, this new form, counter-force deterrence, was less stable in that it created, conceivably, a greater rationale for preemption. By the late 1970s, in fact, it became obvious that the Soviet Union was exploiting this potential instability with a nuclear force structure designed for preemption. Hence, in 1981, the United States responded to the massive Soviet buildup of offensive-capable nuclear weaponry with the Reagan administration’s strategic modernization program. In parallel, America undertook a dramatic new approach to arms control, one that focused on reducing the most destabilizing missiles, the Soviet SS-18s.
As the president’s Science Advisor, I became aware, early on, of two of President Reagan’s priorities, one well understood and the other less so. One was, of course, his commitment to strengthening America’s military relative to that of the Soviet Union, to bolster the U.S. bargaining position and reduce the Soviets’ global influence. The second priority, which to this day is still not well understood, was President Reagan’s commitment to reduce, in the longer term, America’s reliance upon nuclear weapons. With strategic modernization well underway, halfway through his first term, President Reagan made a truly startling pronouncement. In his now-famous speech of March 23, 1983, Reagan took a bold step to challenge the Soviets further and launch the United States on a path toward eventually reducing our reliance upon nuclear weapons. He began what became the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI—Star Wars, according to its critics. He called on the scientific community, which had given us nuclear weapons, to give us the technology to make them obsolete.
Nuclear Weapons Immoral
In many discussions both before and after that speech, the president made clear to me his reasons for taking this potentially high-payoff but also high-risk step. He viewed America’s continued reliance on nuclear weapons as flawed in two ways. First, he had concluded, even before assuming the presidency, that this approach was simply morally wrong. He viewed a strategy of deterrence that placed civilians at risk, indistinguishably from soldiers, as morally flawed, founded on principles inconsistent with our national heritage. Second, after he assumed the presidency, America’s efforts toward strategic modernization showed him that deterrence had become too fragile to endure. He repeatedly queried me on how long the submarine fleet could be expected to retain its survivability. He wanted to know just how long our investment in Stealth technology would work for us. And he began to ask whether the steps we were taking in strategic modernization had much likelihood of ensuring stability for as long as those taken by Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. The only answer I could give was that it was not likely.
SDI, however, accomplished what Reagan wanted it to, helping to bring about the end of the Soviet empire and making us rethink our reliance on nuclear weapons. This very success, however, has made ballistic missile defense (BMD) itself decreasingly relevant. In fact, the continuing debate over BMD is unlikely to have much effect in reshaping our national security. Although the SDI was effective in restoring counter-force deterrence to its more stable alternative, counter-value deterrence, the basic problem remains: nuclear deterrence is a morally wrong basis for security, and as a practical matter, it fails to draw upon the natural strengths of a democracy.
Paul Nitze, special adviser to President Reagan on arms control (1984-1989), stated recently that the very successful role that nuclear deterrence played for half a century is simply finished. He argues that he cannot conceive of any circumstance in which the use of nuclear weapons could serve our national interests. And he is right. Other realities confirm the waning value of nuclear weapons. One is that deterrence relies on a technology more than a half-century old, upon which we have made only marginal improvements in the last thirty years. Third World countries, such as Pakistan, India and, especially, China, are catching up. As a result, the adjuncts of deterrence—arms modernization on the Right and arms control on the Left—can no longer be effective in preventing the use of nuclear weapons. In fact, the recent nuclear saber-rattling by India and Pakistan, in spite of various nonproliferation efforts, suggests that the use of nuclear weapons is more probable now than at any time since World War II.
U.S. defense policy seems to assume that twenty to fifty years from now China will have a nuclear deterrent that will, inevitably, challenge our own. Thus one can only wonder why the defense establishment has not taken steps to avoid such a predictable—and dangerous—circumstance. Similarly, many American defense strategists assume that a defeated Soviet Union, no longer even in existence and with the residue of its military machine in chaos, should serve as the validating basis for arms control treaties that predate the rise of China, the end of the Cold War, and even the personal computer.
The challenge for U.S. defense strategy today is to meet the objective Ronald Reagan had in adopting SDI: to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons, decrease the likelihood that such weapons may be used in Kashmir or by terrorists against the United States and its allies, and, ultimately, to replace nuclear weapons in the force structure with defenses that will ensure national security in the Digital Age.
The answer, I believe, is simultaneously radical, arcane and, in the end, obvious. Our next-generation defense will depend on two primary technologies. One, which can be extrapolated from our current experience, is the kind of continuous, global surveillance that can be achieved through a distributed satellite network. This we know how to do, and have in fact begun. The other, more embryonic, is the technology of short-pulse, high-power lasers that can replace today's speed-of-sound armaments with speed-of-light equivalents. Global threats require global surveillance, and global interdiction requires speed-of-light weapons that can exert force over global spans. Moreover, high-power lasers, very bright and very fast, are now feasible. The destructive mechanism here is impulse, rather than thermal, and the effect is both extraordinarily effective and difficult to counteract.
Actual implementation of such systems might be as much as a generation away—about what it takes to develop a new fighter or submarine. But a deterrent effect is achieved as soon as we commit. President Reagan understood that when he undertook SDI, and the Soviet Union responded almost as if the proposed program’s goals had already been realized. The Soviets understood that defensive technologies were practical, and were themselves in fact actively engaged in developing them. The Soviets understood that, to be effective, a defense need only complicate an attack enough to reduce the certainty of its success, thereby making such an offensive unlikely. Distributed surveillance and high-power lasers are the best way to accomplish this kind of stable deterrent in the coming years.
Moreover, these are technologies where the United States has a huge lead, especially over our potential adversaries but even over our European and Asian industrial competitors. While research in short-pulse laser research has generally languished, discouraged for defense applications by the AMB treaty, the underlying technologies of computing and networking have, of course, exploded, with U.S. industry very much in the lead.
Combining impulse weapons with the precision targeting and overall intelligence capabilities of a distributed surveillance system will create a radically new and extraordinarily effective military capability. Such a defense system would have the ability to respond and adapt to a wide variety of threats and would provide a realistic defense that goes beyond nuclear weapons.
Nearly twenty years ago, these same two technologies—distributed surveillance and high-power lasers—created the need for a new way of looking at ballistic missile defense. Despite the passage of time and much progress in other areas, the United States has paid only marginal attention to these two key aspects of defense technology, especially impulse lasers. Just as President Reagan did two decades ago, it is time once again for America to take an inventive approach in rebuilding America’s military.