I hope that now, after facing for the second time in a generation this great danger, we shall be wise enough and sensitive enough to our duties as citizens never, never to forget the causes of that danger and keep our defense preparations in motion.
— Dr. Isaiah Bowman, President the Johns Hopkins University, May 3, 1946
History informs and rhymes, and the admonition of Isaiah Bowman is as valid today as it was in 1946. A participant in the World War I peace conference in Paris and the president of the Johns Hopkins University, whose Applied Physics Laboratory produced breakthrough innovations during World War II and the Cold War (and today), Bowman understood international challenges and appreciated the role of technology in defining national power. He also understood that it is not one sector or particular endeavor that underpins national security—it is the collective responsibility of society.
There is a special and increasingly intoxicating allure in the promise of new technologies for national security. The appeal is natural given that technology has always shaped the nature of war—whether the longbow, the airplane, radar, or nuclear weapons. In that context, it is easy and common today to focus on particular technologies that may change the nature of future conflicts; however, developing, refining, employing, and mastering those technologies are far more complex and serious challenges than just opining on their potential. This paper addresses the appeal of new technology for military applications, but with a healthy dose of technical reality through a Chinese frame that must be acknowledged and considered.
Technical reality matters because the inspiration of emerging technologies can tempt skipping over the challenge and hard work required to transform research from concept to use. As realities of past conflicts with peer adversaries fade from national consciousness, so too has an awareness of the physical and intellectual endeavors and investments that placed the United States in a unique position of wealth and power. We have also forgotten just how closely run those competitions were. Moreover, the intricacies and complexity of modern technologies demand more nuanced technical understanding by senior leaders, policymakers, and operators who will contemplate their use, fully employ their unique capabilities, and fold them into national strategies.
The Chinese frame we adopt matters for two reasons: first, we are competing with China economically, politically, technologically, and militarily; and second, and more pointedly, we believe China’s ability to disrupt the world order we favor is enabled by the highly integrated information technology strategy they are doggedly pursuing.
The United States, once again, faces peer competitors, and the National Security and Defense Strategies of the current administration are explicit in this regard. The bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission appointed by Congress agreed with that assessment but found the National Defense Strategy short on innovative concepts and analysis. It can be inferred from the strategic documents that Russia and China are both on par as competitors, but the rise of China presents the greatest challenge to the United States and the nature of the global order. China, following the pattern of past rising powers, is in an expansionist stage as it reemerges as a Eurasian land power with the desire, policies, and associated investments to also extend its influence on the oceans of the world. Its strategic approach melds the thinking of the geostrategist Halford Mackinder and the navalist Alfred Thayer Mahan, flavored with the timeless influence of the Chinese military strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu, who opined that “strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory, tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”
China’s approach encompasses both strategy and tactics. It is at once simple and complex, a blend of geo-economic moves with geopolitical consequences. It is facilitated by a generally benign security environment and norms created and upheld by the United States and its network of alliances. China has benefited from two decades of the United States suppressing terrorism—avoiding expending blood and treasure in that protracted conflict—and has shaped its military to exploit perceived gaps and vulnerabilities in United States and regional allies’ capabilities. China thrives in the “gray zone”—the continuum between peace and war where power is asserted and influence is gained or lost without resorting to overt military force. This is a challenge for the United States as our view of conflict is binary: hot or cold. China sees conflict as fluid and hews to Sun Tzu’s adage to subdue the enemy without fighting.
Importantly, China’s rise has been enabled and accelerated by extraordinary advances in technology that have allowed it to skip fortuitously over generations of dated technologies and models upon which the United States continues to depend. This has facilitated a broad national agenda that recognizes the power of technological primacy, particularly information technology. New information infrastructure and applications, overlaid on its Belt and Road Initiative, put China in a position to extend its influence in telecommunications, information systems, and e-commerce in developing countries and strategically significant locations (including space) on a consequential scale.
A frequent trope is that China’s technological advancement is primarily the result of stealing intellectual property. China has benefited greatly from that theft and coercive business practices, and that execrable behavior must be stopped. However, we must accept the reality of China’s prowess in technological innovation and, importantly, the application of their legitimate efforts. China’s current investments and innovation in artificial intelligence (AI), microprocessors, 5G, quantum science, and space technology are significant, genuine, and strategic and are poised to become preferred solutions for other countries to adopt. Their innovations could end up serving as the infrastructure of the future information society and position China for technological and political advantage should its standards, systems, and policies be adopted widely by others.
The Information Imperative
Our last peer competition, the Cold War with the Soviet Union, turned on nuclear and ideological strategies. Today we compete where the outcome will be dependent upon information—how it is generated, obtained, transported, integrated, and used. While we acknowledge the importance of technical advancements in kinetic weapons, and China’s accomplishments in that portfolio are impressive and lethal (e.g., hypersonics, undersea systems, and missile defense), technologies that define the information environment are the coin of the realm, especially in the gray zone. The information technology competition will change the nature of conflict and the definition of winning and will have profound economic, political, and military consequences. If we do not approach information in warfare as an imperative and keep our defense preparations in motion, if there is not a broad appreciation of what those preparations demand, the future way of war will be a shock to the American people.
Fueling the Strategic-Technical Competition
The Cold War challenged the United States, but strategic consensus, coherent policy, pragmatic investment, and scientific and technical leadership prevailed. Competition with the Soviet Union inspired, indeed required, military and nonmilitary technical innovation. It stimulated agreeable and productive cooperation among government, academia, and industry. Unfortunately, these premises no longer hold true.1
More so than in the past, U.S. private research and development organizations are leading technology development, and there is an expectation, perhaps more a hope, that the U.S.-born technology giants will contribute to our nation’s military edge. The investments and productivity of the research arms of Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, IBM, and others are indeed impressive but so too are the investments of Baidu, Tencent, Alibaba, and Huawei, among others. Moreover, the world-class talent that drives discoveries and developments globally has demonstrated a willingness to join the company with the most exciting research, regardless of national affiliation.2
Although Chinese and U.S. companies are both making considerable investments in R&D, the application of that R&D for national security differs in important ways. China is overt in its approach of state-directed military–civilian cooperation. President Xi Jinping has bluntly stated, “implementing the strategy of military–civilian integration is a prerequisite for building integrated national strategies and strategic capabilities and for realizing the Party’s goal of building a strong military in a new era.”3 While China is forcing shared technology, our alternative of cooperation of the willing in combining commercial and military technology, as was done in the years after World War II and the Cold War, seems outdated. American companies are, at times, unwilling to even entertain contracting with the Department of Defense or share new technical capabilities or information. The impediments of an onerous military procurement model certainly contribute to this predicament. Incentives for U.S. corporations to reach global markets also drive them to different decisions than their Chinese counterparts, who are given more compelling national incentives.
The United States benefited from significant investments in higher-level and technical vocational education after WWII. That boost, fueled by a generous GI Bill, accelerated innovation and the capacity and competence to lead globally in highly technical areas. China is emphasizing and spending heavily on education today and has turned to Western universities for much of that intellectual stimulus. In the United States from academic year 2007–2008 to 2017–2018, the number of Chinese students in the United States rose from 81,127 to 363,341.4 Beyond numbers, it matters what is being studied. China surpassed the United States in natural sciences and engineering doctoral degrees attained in 2007 and remains ahead today.5 More worrisome is the decline in the number of U.S. citizens majoring in academic disciplines that underpin information technology. In 2017, U.S. graduates in computer science and electrical engineering comprised 21% and 19% of graduating students, respectively; all other students were foreign.6 How China and the United States build intellectual capital will drive innovation. An indication of that drive can be seen with the 1.34 million patent applications in China in 2017, compared to 605,000 in the United States.7 Beyond patents, a more technically literate public will be more comfortable, productive, and cyber-secure in the “internet of things” environment, where information will be more central to the new way of life and of war.
Taiwan—20XX. What if?
The allure of the promise of new technology in war often results in speculation regarding how a particular technology could be used offensively or defensively. In turn, that enables advocates to give their favored technology the aura of a “silver bullet.” It is easy to give cyber, autonomy, or AI an outsized role. The future way of war will be complex and must be envisioned or imagined through a new lens that combines multiple information technologies with kinetic weapons in new ways.
In a conflict with China, no scenario is more stressing or will be harder fought than that of the forcible reunification of Taiwan with mainland China. A glimpse of the old version of such a move previewed in 1996 when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) displayed its displeasure over Taiwan’s drift from the One-China policy and fired missiles into areas near Taiwan. The United States responded easily and confidently by positioning naval forces near the island, giving PRC leadership pause.
That was two decades ago. What if, within two decades from now…
President Xi chose to realize the long-held belief that Taiwan be reunited with the mainland?
Social media, e-commerce sites, and the social credit score system have been used to sharpen Chinese public opinion regarding the imperative to reunify Taiwan, to develop unwavering belief in the efficacy of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to be able to do so, and to emphasize that the time is now to use civil–military information capabilities and protracted investments in PLA kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities to finally bring Taiwan into the PRC?
Internet and social media policies and practices prevent and stifle views counter to forced reunification?
What if, in the decision to retake Taiwan, China…
Hosted an open demonstration of a coordinated hypersonic missile/DF-21 strike on a distant at-sea target?
Deployed double the normal number of PLA Navy submarines in the area while simultaneously increasing patrols in the vicinity of Guam?
Activated a fixed and mobile undersea sensor wall that would track the movement of U.S. naval forces into the area?
Targeted the families of U.S. sailors at sea in the region in ways that caused bank, credit union, and credit card accounts to be frozen?
Used targeted social media posts with harmful content that eroded U.S. and allied confidence in deployed military capability?
Promulgated precisely targeted adverse information across multiple platforms about U.S. leaders in the midst of a contentious election?
Interrupted electrical power on Taiwan, Guam, Hawaii, and the U.S. West Coast—affecting important naval and air bases and corporate headquarters?
Caused a flash crash of the S&P 500?
Disrupted U.S. GPS (but not the BeiDou system) by inserting inaccuracies that disrupt U.S. and allied military forces, commercial aviation and shipping, and regional military and commercial autonomous vehicles?
Caused loss of control and un-commanded shutdowns of U.S. unmanned systems resulting in crashes of numerous vehicles, some in populated areas?
Slowed or redirected specific containers in the ports China operated, disrupting U.S. military logistics and U.S. and other manufacturing supply chains?
Flooded the area around Taiwan, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea with PRC Coast Guard and Maritime Militia ships in coordination with People’s Liberation Army Navy ships?
Genetically altered the algae bloom in the East China Sea to change colors to indicate when a non-Chinese warship is passing?
Deployed autonomous swarms of unmanned aerial vehicles in the Strait of Taiwan and the Strait of Malacca?
Employed soldiers genetically altered to be more resilient to normal battlefield conditions?
Repositioned space assets in the western Pacific and western approaches to the Strait of Malacca, some extremely close to critical U.S. space sensors?
Conducted coordinated cyber and electronic warfare jamming of U.S. sensors and networks supporting operations in the western Pacific?
Disabled and destroyed key components in machinery control systems of U.S. ships operating near Chinese Maritime Militia units?
Hypothetical, yes; feasible in the 20XX timeframe, yes. Each move is at least provocative, and collectively they are daunting and require a broad national strategy that transcends purely military considerations.
Strategy and Technology
The [Chinese] Strategic Support Force consists of space, counter-space, cyber, offensive cyber, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, all in a single command. Why did they do that? Because they understand the need to integrate information.
— General John Hyten, United States Air Force8
So, what is the technology strategy needed to engage in a competition, likely a gray-zone competition, with a near-peer focused on “information power”? The preferred outcome, especially should the United States be forced into a kinetic engagement, would be a quick, decisive, and public rebuke of Chinese military capability and leadership. While we do not presume to offer the strategy needed for this outcome, we do seek to inform a conversation that must happen among strategists, operators, and technologists regarding the role of information.
The technologies we examine play across the life cycle of information: how we collect it, secure it, manipulate it, defend it, share it, process it, integrate it, and act with it. The technologies generally fall into three categories: technologies for kinetic use in the theater of military operations, technologies relevant to homeland protection, and technologies relevant to a global influence campaign. Furthermore, in a conflict with China we assume that engagements or encounters will lack boundaries—geographic, military or civilian, diplomatic, economic, or demographic.
Complicating the situation, the competition to dominate in emerging technologies has a feature specific to our time: speed. The pace is driven in part by worldwide commercial investments and the intersection of changes in disparate fields through the global exchange of research. These investments are mentioned throughout because they are important to understanding the resources that might lead to breakthroughs. However, we should keep in mind that while U.S.-based companies are incentivized to pursue global markets, Chinese companies are incentivized to ensure China’s national interests are met.
AI and Autonomous Systems
Why These Technology Developments Matter
AI and autonomous systems could be the differentiating factor in a conflict. They could affect the entirety of the information life cycle—how we collect it, secure it, manipulate it, defend it, share it, process it, integrate it, and act with it.
Expanding and collapsing the decision space. AI can speed up everything from jamming modalities, to mine identification and defeat, to intelligence analysis, or, more broadly, to financial transactions. In a kinetic engagement, the ability to act within our adversary’s timeline (referred to as the OODA [observe–orient–decide–act] loop) confers great advantage. Conversely, AI and autonomy could help exploit short timelines by rapidly synthesizing information to predict next moves. For example, recent work has focused on machine learning (a subset of AI) for real-world event prediction. Bringing together data from local news, social media, press releases, and sensors could help intelligence officers anticipate gray-zone operations or combat preparations, just as they have been used to predict civil unrest.9 Early analysis suggests that new elements of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative can be understood and predicted using specialized algorithms on large datasets.
Raids. Large-scale, rapid-fire command and control for multi-domain systems over multiple fronts is hard to achieve, but would be incredibly useful in overwhelming an opponent. The size of the Chinese arsenal in theater makes raids an appealing tactic for China—one that can be made more lethal by autonomy. Autonomy is also key to future missile defense capabilities that must coordinate a rapid reaction by sensors, weapons, and platforms. These sorts of capabilities are being worked in laboratories and in test exercises today.10
It is also interesting to consider how AI-enabled influence operations could combine AI’s advantage in speed and widespread coordination. AI and machine learning are demonstrating significant potential in scaling or defending against influence campaigns. Marketing and political campaigns have already demonstrated uses of AI in shaping public opinions in real time and with bespoke content. More than that, deep fakes—videos that leverage AI to create believable but fictional videos, for example, about the president—could become a powerful weapon in an information campaign.11 Similarly, just as AI can help to exploit information, it can also be used to exploit weaknesses in other AI systems. This is a newer area of research but one holding great promise.12
Looking farther ahead, there is the potential for merging AI breakthroughs with breakthroughs in bioengineering, such as CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing. While this may seem futuristic, given the tools being developed today, it may not be too distant a step. For example, instead of relying on generating wet lab mutations to create new biological capabilities (e.g., bioengineered sensors to detect ship movements), we might instead capture physical space biological details in the information space. Then, with an assist from AI, the information space representations could be deeply modeled, manipulated, and explored. When a satisfactory result was achieved, we could then transition back from the information space to the physical space, with an assist from CRISPR-Cas9, to create the desired biological capability. In fact, the potential to rapidly create a variety of new biological capabilities would be immense.
Together, these and other uses of AI in a kinetic fight, in defending the homeland, or in global influence operations would help to satisfy a political precondition of a fight for either side: that it be quick, decisive, and ultimately deflating to the adversary.
The Technical Race
The United States once had a clear and growing advantage in the realm of AI, but that advantage has been whittled away. There is still good reason to believe that the United States could maintain an edge, although it would be admittedly small. It is now important to consider the repercussions of China attaining its stated goal to lead the world in AI by 2030.
The intellectual capital of the United States, one of our core strengths as a nation, may be the greatest reason for hope. Our academic papers are still the most respected, and our universities are still leaders in the field. While we should be justifiably worried about the state of higher education for achieving an AI-enabled and highly autonomous future, we still operate from a position of strength, and we can maintain an edge if we put forth the effort.
Other strengths that should not be overlooked are our alliances and the intellectual capital of our allies. Europe is the largest publisher of AI papers, and 12 of the top 20 companies filing AI-related patents are based in Japan (three are from the United States, and two are from China). Lest we get too comfortable, however, Chinese universities make up 17 of the top 20 academic institutions filing for AI-related patents.13
Finally, that China has more access to data to train their AI algorithms is not a reason to believe that the United States will lose this race. There are ways to develop this technology without sacrificing our nation’s foundational principles.14 In particular, transfer learning techniques (transferring machine-learning algorithms from one application to another) and techniques to create synthetic and proxy data are demonstrating that large quantities of data is not the resource it was once feared to be. Some of the most exciting work in machine learning today—and the most applicable to military needs—is being done with what has been referred to as “enormously small data.”
Questions to Ask
AI advances are tangible, but there is still a gulf separating the research and development of AI from military operations. While it is good sport to blame the U.S. defense acquisition process for this gap, there are practical, technical, and ethical factors that must also be considered.
How will AI integrate into the systems we have? And when should new AI systems replace legacy systems? Billions of dollars have been invested by American taxpayers to create current capabilities and platforms. Those platforms are complex, and dropping in the newest piece of code or hardware is no simple task. It can generate a cascade of system changes and time-consuming validation tests. There is, however, promise in the example of past designs for modularity and upgrades, such as the Submarine Acoustic Rapid Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) Insertion program, but the applications are few.
How will our operators use it? Will our commanders trust it? Research on the challenges of human–machine interactions and human–machine integration is progressing, but leadership must carefully consider how operational commanders will or should delegate decision-making to an autonomous system. Current policies regarding control of lethal force and the military’s culture of accountability and responsibility make trusting an autonomous system to make life-or-death decisions difficult.
How do we know it will work as intended? How should it be verified and validated for use? Despite progress in laboratories, real-world applications continue to demonstrate the fragility of current autonomy. We are still at a point where autonomous systems fail to perform as expected under novel conditions, and it is hard to predict when a situation will become novel to an autonomous system. This may be acceptable for a robotic vacuum cleaner, but it is not for an advanced unmanned fighter. While technologists are working to overcome these challenges, they still remain. In addition, current test and evaluation methodologies must be updated because current approaches may no longer be effective.
What does it mean to have “meaningful control” over an autonomous system? No technology should be fully developed or deployed without due consideration for how it might be used or misused. Ethical, legal, and policy guidance for “meaningful human control” of U.S. autonomous systems is nascent. That guidance can and should influence technological developments. However, we must be aware of the artificial asymmetry that might be introduced if we overly constrain our use of autonomy and China does not. This is an area where policymakers and technologists, together, must rigorously examine assumptions and likely consequences.
Why the Technology Matters
Space-based assets underpin much information power by providing infrastructure for transferring information and the essential positioning, navigation, and timing information needed for U.S. and Chinese forces to operate effectively and employ precision weapons. As the commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, General John Hyten, put it, “access to space underpins our ability to project power globally, strike targets precisely, and discern and respond to threats before they endanger the homeland or U.S. global interests.”15 Beyond military applications, American reliance on space assets has been compared to our reliance on electricity: relevant to so many aspects of life—financial networks, weather monitoring, navigation, and more—but only noticed when it is absent.16
Despite the importance of our space assets, Hyten will admit: “we didn’t build our systems for a contested environment.”17 And in a conflict with China, where our forces will operate far from the homeland and be especially reliant on satellites to fight effectively, space could be a highly contested domain.
The Technical Race
While the United States remains dominant in space, there are many examples of a vigorous challenge to that dominance. According to a May 2018 report of the Xinhua News Agency, more than 60 Chinese commercial space companies have entered the market in the past three years.18 China launched 35 rockets into Earth orbit last year—more than any other nation.19 In early 2019, China completed the first-ever landing of a lander-rover on the far side of the moon, a source of great national pride and international prestige. The Chinese space agency is now preparing for the launch of the first module of the Chinese Space Station as well as the first independent Chinese mission to Mars.
Approximately half of the satellites recently launched are part of the Chinese-developed BeiDou positioning system. An independent global positioning and navigation system has obvious security advantages for China and grants it independence from the U.S. GPS. BeiDou also has considerable economic implications as a piece of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Closer to home, BeiDou is useful for Chinese internal stability and surveillance efforts. With these advantages, however, come vulnerabilities to China’s space-based assets.20
Chinese investments go ominously beyond satellite development. Chinese anti-satellite (ASAT) development is a known and growing challenge to U.S. reliance on space-based assets. Some of the details about their development have not been kept a secret, as the 2007 Chinese satellite intercept and 2014 ASAT test visibly demonstrated.21
Regardless of the U.S.–China dynamic, space technologies and investments worldwide are moving quickly. The number of satellites in space increased 50% over the five-year period from 2013 to 2017.22 This complicates situational awareness and freedom of action in space.
Questions to Ask
Is a new system or architecture defensible and resilient? The U.S. reliance on space is a known strength and vulnerability. Debates and analyses have been focused on evaluating the relative merits of varying degrees of resilience and defense options for space-based assets. Before deploying space-based information assets, we must question to what degree they must be defended. We must also declassify and more broadly share information regarding the space-based capabilities of others, so the American public can appreciate how contested space has become and what we must do to win in that vital domain.
Why It Matters
While autonomy and AI may be viewed as the ability to process and act upon data, cyber can be viewed as the network that contains and enables the sharing of data. As such, it is vital to the information lifecycle. Competition in the cyber domain is not new, but the technology continues to evolve in important ways. Those developments have significant implications in potential kinetic engagements and broad-reaching consequences for homeland defense and influence operations.
As a recent Defense Science Board study succinctly put it, “defense is a necessary foundation for offense.”23 The need for good cyber defense applies far beyond military platforms, classified networks, supply chains, intellectual property, and the personal information of government personnel. Good cyber defense enables every military purchase and operation.
Cyber operations are not limited by traditional notions of the battlefield, or by military and civilian combatants. If China wished to create a domestic distraction immediately prior to an operation in the Pacific theater, a cyber operation that was not attributable to a government entity would be a good way to do it. Moreover, as the connection between bio and information grows stronger, the mass of genetic and healthcare data could be an enticing target that could be disclosed or manipulated to create targeted or widespread harm.
Cyberattacks could also change in important ways with the advent of 5G networks, which China is focusing on as a key technology. These networks are far more than 4G. The speed 5G enables positions it as the critical infrastructure for the internet of things and for civilian and military uses. As a core element of the future autonomous world, 5G networks are an especially attractive target for the collection, manipulation, and sharing of data.
The Technology Race
Both China and the United States are pursuing offensive and defensive cyber capabilities for military applications, and it is apparent both countries are competent and continually developing new capabilities. While directly comparing advances being made in the offensive area is difficult, cyber defense can be more readily assessed.
Advances in autonomy for cyber defense offer hope of improving system defenses. Efforts to automatically discover and share vulnerability information across the private sector and with government are helping to alleviate more mundane and nuisance issues in industry, which faces a morass of security software offerings that require complicated integration to work effectively.24
Research is also emerging that suggests that monolithic software systems—dangerous because one attack vector can affect or access so much—might also be reasonably diversified to confound far-reaching attacks. Many attacks can be mitigated by diverse code generation techniques or by using different hardware and software offerings to achieve the same functionality, which introduces a higher degree of resilience but is often hard to achieve at a reasonable cost (both in creating and maintaining the diverse systems).
In comparing the technology race for cyber in the United States and China, we must also consider education in cyber-related fields. For example, a 5G environment demands more than just basic computer literacy to maximize the use of that technology, improve self-defense, and create a more cyber-competent military force. We must be mindful that while U.S. universities still dominate international rankings boards for computer science, there has been incredible progress by top Chinese universities.25
Questions to Ask
When cyber offense and defense are in a zero-sum game, what is the right balance between them? While improving cyber defense is a strategic issue on the battlefield and at home, cyber has an inherent challenge regarding “equities.” In certain instances, disclosing a vulnerability in a commercial system can strengthen security at home but disadvantage offensive cyber operations against an adversary. This is an important challenge and one for which various processes have been developed.26 Beyond individual cases, however, how should we balance system-wide resilience and military options in conflict?
Who has the authority to decide? Who, or what entity, has the authority to coordinate a whole-of-government response? Authorization and organization for a national cyber response are unclear. The speed of action and reaction require preplanned and carefully assessed actions. Such plans transcend any one department or agency and must be developed with urgency. Similarly, at operational and tactical levels, clearly designating who has the authority to act and be accountable is a challenge. Moreover, creating seamless and coherent integrated cyber and kinetic response schemes and protocols remains an important issue.
How much defense is enough? The challenges of cybersecurity are so pervasive that the idea of returning to the old world of paper, pen, and in-person meetings is sometimes tempting. But short of that extreme, it is difficult to know how much defense is enough. One point for leaders to consider is not how much but rather where should we invest in defense. As the Office of Personnel Management hack demonstrated, the need for defense goes beyond Department of Defense systems. And as the Sony Pictures hack and subsequent threats demonstrated, the national security need goes beyond the government.
Another question in cyber relates to our discussion of autonomy: what qualifies as “meaningful human control” of an autonomous cyber defense system? Autonomy will be necessary to identify threats and respond at computer speeds to counter attacks and protect data. In the instance of a flash crash, a system reset may be acceptable, but it is unlikely that many situations will be so straightforward. Moreover, even when a system reset is possible, the large amount of time often required for resets in legacy systems may cause planned responses to be overcome by events.
Why the Technology Matters
If autonomous systems and AI are atop the list of consequential technologies today, quantum computing is often cited as the next big thing, and perennially has been 20 years away (although not all are so pessimistic). That quantum technology often tops technology wish lists, despite the challenges and uncertain timing, is an indication of its revolutionary potential for information power in terms of capacity, sensitivity, and speed.27 In addition to quantum computing, there are other quantum technologies, such as quantum key distribution for quantum encryption and quantum sensing, that have been developed and have the potential to impact operations in the nearer term.
Quantum computing could revolutionize our ability to process data for different types of modeling, simulations, and optimization. This would have a considerable effect for research and development on everything from pharmaceuticals to materials to weapons systems. The applications would also stretch to the equally important issue of optimizing supply chains, something that could enable resilient, disaggregated logistics, which would be especially useful for long logistics lines in the Pacific.28
Quantum computing, when it comes to fruition, will undermine modern public-key encryption systems. With this, there could be a significant first-mover advantage: whoever gets this technology first will have access to public-key encrypted information around the world, unless a “post-quantum” infrastructure is put in place beforehand.
Conversely, quantum encryption could enable secure communications. China has made progress on this, having demonstrated intercontinental quantum-enabled communication in early 2018.29 Recent research suggests, however, that there may be vulnerabilities in many quantum cryptography systems that could diminish their advantage over more traditional, mathematical cryptography approaches.30
The quantum capability most likely to be realized in the near term is quantum sensing. This is of significant interest because of the centrality of sensors to the Chinese anti-access/area-denial strategy. These sensors have already proven themselves by enabling exquisitely accurate atomic clocks. Forecasts suggest that accuracy limits have not been reached, and one laboratory has demonstrated an atomic clock with a timing error of less than one second in five billion years.31 With these clocks and new quantum sensors sensitive enough, for example, to detect the Earth’s magnetic field at a given point, researchers are imagining replacements to vulnerable space-based GPS assets.32 Moreover, quantum sensors could enable sensitivity and resolution that could detect underground tunnels and bunkers, as well as enable commercial uses for mineral deposits or health diagnostics.33
The Technical Race
There are significant interlocking technical advances that must be made to realize the full potential of quantum computing, which makes it difficult to predict when future quantum capabilities will be realized. However, the literature on quantum information sciences (QIS), global investments, and public pronouncements indicate increasing momentum.34
China and the United States have committed publicly to quantum research and are investing significantly in it.35 The United States recently passed the National Quantum Initiative Act, and China recently opened a $10 billion quantum research supercenter. Similarly, the European Union has its own “Quantum Manifesto” and is making considerable investments.36 Commercial activity also indicates a growing market for quantum technologies, and Alibaba, one of China’s largest companies, has invested significantly in the technology.
Questions to Ask
How should we prepare for a post-quantum world? It would be wise to begin preparing encrypted systems for a post-quantum world. The “should” in the question, however, speaks to the timeline issue associated with quantum technologies. As Jim Clarke, the director of quantum hardware at Intel Labs, put it:
The first transistor was introduced in 1947. The first integrated circuit followed in 1958. Intel’s first microprocessor—which had only about 2,500 transistors—didn’t arrive until 1971. Each of those milestones was more than a decade apart. People think quantum computers are just around the corner, but history shows these advances take time.37
Other Technologies Relevant to the Information Competition
Electronic Warfare and Directed Energy
While the technologies we have discussed are important to an information competition with China, our list is by no means exhaustive. There are many other information-relevant technologies that also have merit. For instance, it would be nearly impossible to move, communicate, coordinate, or strike against a capable adversary without assured access to reliable electromagnetic capabilities. As an example, the electronic warfare (EW) capabilities developed by China are a formidable obstacle that could significantly degrade the U.S. military’s ability to respond to Chinese offensive operations.
Conversely, EW that is aggressively developed and employed strategically by the United States could enable dominance by disrupting Chinese sensor and weapon networks and degrading the PLA’s ability to conduct precision operations and strikes. If subject to jamming, deception, and other EW attacks, the PLA would be forced to use more forces and expend more munitions in an effort to achieve the same military result.
On a related note, directed energy (DE) must also be considered for its potential to disrupt information. The research, development, test, and evaluation funding for DE weapons in the United States in 2018 “increased 23 percent relative to 2017.” China’s investments have also had observable effects.38 The potential of the technology is currently limited by its inability to maintain beam intensity beyond relatively short ranges and its restriction to line-of-sight targets.
Weapon/Domain-Specific Technologies and Information
Any conversation about competition with near-peer adversaries today is incomplete without mentioning hypersonic weapons and undersea warfare. In both, the acquisition, processing, and communication of information is essential to success. Defense against hypersonic weapons requires information capabilities that can predict, acquire, target, and enable an engagement decision at speeds that challenge our current capabilities.
Maintaining the edge undersea will also require the development and deployment of technologies needed for information dominance—AI and autonomy, space, cyber, quantum, and EW—to protect our assets and detect and track our adversaries. While not explicitly called out in the top-10 list of technology and research priorities of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, undersea requires focused attention. While the United States clearly maintains a significant lead undersea, China recognizes this and is working aggressively to shrink and neutralize our lead. If we do not continue pursuing disruptive development in all facets of undersea operations, we will give up significant strategic, operational, and tactical advantages.
What Lies Between Good Ideas and Good Outcomes
This paper has highlighted the increasing centrality of information in modern warfare and how innovation in that area will change the nature of conflict, taking the contest beyond the boundaries and norms of the past. As a nation with global interests, obligations, and responsibilities, we will confront different challenges and threats in the Pacific and beyond, singly and in concert with others. While the technologies we bring to bear in each circumstance will vary, information will be more central to both offense and defense than ever before.
Our hypothetical scenario implies a new kind of conflict, one that is global in nature with greater non-kinetic means to influence and compel on a global scale in multiple domains. The technologies we discussed are equally pressing and global. Yet, sadly, our scenario and the technology needs are additive to the protracted conflict in the Middle East and security challenges sure to arise elsewhere. In parallel, leaders must understand the complexities of global strategies and global technologies and how they interplay.
National security leaders will face louder calls to think anew and cast off legacy systems, to be revolutionary rather than evolutionary, and to bet on the promise of new technology and, by doing so, greatly reduce the cost of defense. But warfare has never been purely revolutionary. Regardless of how information will change the nature of conflict, the military capability we and our adversaries have today will not all be jettisoned and replaced en masse with the technologies we described. The key will be how quickly we evolve and how prepared national security leaders and operators are—intellectually and culturally—to effectively employ innovation for information dominance. Our challenge is to be proactive in capitalizing on technology trends and not simply reactive to adversary developments, and to focus as much, if not more, on rapid adoption and integration as we do on the breakthrough technology itself. We must alter incentives so that speed in discovery and its transition to application are valued above adherence to a highly refined but risk-averse acquisition process.
The changed pattern of technical innovation with significant developments originating in the nondefense sector must be acknowledged and leveraged more effectively. The period of civil—military cooperation that produced noteworthy breakthroughs and that is accelerating the application of defense technology in China must become a priority of our government and the U.S. private sector.
Academia must examine its responsibility and obligation to national security, including how it develops relevant intellectual capital in future generations in technical and policy areas, how it inspires and prepares U.S. students to pursue technically rigorous courses of study, how it supports research and policy in areas vital to national defense, and how it deals with students and financial support from potential adversary nations. The current absence of academia in the national security equation is filled by think tanks, which are not well-equipped to cultivate the number of future practitioners needed to ensure our interests in the years ahead. At a time when we are being economically, politically, technically, and militarily challenged in ways not seen for decades, we need stronger voices in university leadership who explicitly call for keeping defense preparations in motion.
The imperative of allied and coalition interoperability and research collaboration will be more important in future information environments and networked operations. Our policy and processes do not adequately incent collaboration among relevant Pacific allies. Speed of cooperation, ease of disclosure, and fewer restrictions on the originators’ intellectual property must be at the top of the policy list. This will not be easy, but without realizing full and seamless interoperability in the information domain, attempts at combined operations in the future may diminish effectiveness.
Finally, strategy and technology wear dollar signs for friend and foe alike. Our all-volunteer force wears one much greater than the competitors and adversaries we face in multiple regions. We will not find it easy nor in our national interest to be away from key regions, despite the expense. Allied capability and capacity in regions of import are helpful but do not appreciably change the military balance nor are they robust enough to swing to other regions especially if competitors cooperate. Streamlined procurement and infrastructure will relieve some pressure on our national security budget but will not be a panacea. In time, if we are efficient and more collaborative at a national level in accelerating the technologies we discussed, we can evolve the design and nature of our force, but we must also recognize that the new battlespace will require investments to be made in military and nonmilitary information infrastructure and human capital. This brings us back to where we began: this is indeed a national challenge that requires a national strategy that is the collective responsibility of our society.
Admiral Gary Roughead (USN, ret.) is the Robert and Marion Oster Distinguished Military Fellow at the Hoover Institution and co-chair of the National Defense Strategy Commission. He served as chief on naval operations and before that commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and Fleet Forces Command. Dr. Ralph Semmel is the director of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, the nation’s largest university affiliated research center, and Emelia Spencer Probasco is the chief communications officer for the laboratory.