When looking at the security environment, we are reminded of President Reagan’s approach to dealing with a complex and dangerous world. The first order of business was to be realistic about the world around you. Then you had to be strong in all senses of the term—military, economically, politically, and in national spirit. Finally, as you went out into the world, you had to set your objectives—know what you want—and focus on that agenda. It was a wise, and ultimately successful approach.
Today we see great challenges arising in the security arena but also great opportunities to create a safer, more secure world. We see the emergence of new technologies and the development of new ways of using them for military means. China is adopting these new tools particularly well and devising effective concepts and strategies for their use; Russia is employing internet and communications technologies while also developing certain high-end capabilities; and non-state actors are gaining access to new, increasingly lethal weapons.
More broadly, we recognize that the emergence of new economic centers leads to new technological centers, as in China. And we see the globalization of technology: new and emerging technologies are being developed across borders and across disciplines. The nature of these technologies contributes to their globalization. Some, such as additive manufacturing, democratize production, while effective and creative applications of artificial intelligence (AI) are being developed openly and internationally. We need to understand how these phenomena are changing the face of international security and what they mean for the United States.
At the same time, we can make sure that the United States continues to operate from a position of strength. Fortunately, we have a good foundation. The United States has led the modern world in science, technology, and innovation, and that leadership underpins American economic and military supremacy. U.S. scientists, mathematicians, and engineers excel at fundamental research but also at transforming that research into usable technology, realizing new military capabilities. Our nation owes that advantage to any number of factors, among them an entrepreneurial spirit and culture of innovation, centers of scientific excellence at universities, a conducive business environment, and a productive relationship between the public and private sectors. And the United States also enjoys an expansive network of partners and allies that excel in this arena.
Although challenges to U.S. preeminence have appeared and are chipping away at our technological edge, the emergence of new technologies offers great opportunities for the United States. Revitalizing our national tradition of excellence in the development of critical technologies and their practical applications will contribute to both our national security objectives and our economic prosperity—and to our ability to lead international security efforts.
The emergence of new technologies will not, in itself alone, invariably shape the future. If we recognize the challenges and opportunities before us, we can develop sound strategies to strengthen our own innovation base, we can work with our allies and partners, but also with Russia, China, and other nations, to shape a more stable future.
China and the Indo-Pacific
The United States and China share extensive ties in trade, investment, science, and diplomacy, and citizens of the two countries maintain historically deep personal connections. Overall, this is a relationship with strong mutual benefit. At the same time, the United States engages in competition with China on economic, technological, military, and even ideological fronts. The PRC's integrated information technology strategy, in particular, makes it uniquely capable of disrupting the liberal order championed by the United States and its allies.
Importantly, the nature of these field of competitions is new. Kinetic engagements—what we generally think of when we think of war—are of course central to any military conflict, but, as Admiral Gary Roughead (USN, ret.), Emilia Spencer Probasco, and Ralph Semmel write, information is transforming both the nature of competition and what it means to win in war. U.S. technological innovation and cultural attractiveness has in recent years allowed it to enjoy information dominance, and now the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has made a national commitment to achieve that same objective.
It is easy to speak about the opportunities presented by technology but another thing to realize them. In the military sphere, China has taken that latter step and embarked on a national effort to take advantage of information technology and control. It is building institutions to coordinate fielding and use of high-tech capabilities, such as the Strategic Support Force, which integrates cyber, space, and electronic warfare operations. It has taken advantage of its status as an emergent and expanding power to invest in leap-over technologies. And the party state mandates civil-military cooperation, forcing a whole-of-nation approach and benefiting from its innovative and entrepreneurial society.
The latter point deserves some attention. As addressed in our October 2018 volume on China in an Emerging World, Chinese innovation is not solely state-directed but organic and extensive. China has significant risk tolerance, encouraging rapid and widespread adoption of new technologies. Moreover, U.S. corporations—consider Alphabet/Google—seek to reach global markets, while their Chinese counterparts may have a different set of incentives or trade-offs. The CCP has established legal authority to demand cooperation from private entities.
The CCP and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have succeeded in the “gray zone.” Where U.S. policymakers often view gray zone competition as geographic—the South China Sea, to pick a common example—Chinese authorities understand it as a broader, cross-functional competition. They employ “below-the-line” approaches to competition widely, overlaying physical infrastructure investments with information campaigns, legal maneuvering, coercion, and other applications of influence and power. The fruits of their labors can be seen in the aforementioned South China Sea, where some believe China has created a fait accompli.
New information infrastructure and applications 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). China’s 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. Its efforts to establish a global foothold in this respect have met some resistance, as can be seen in the ongoing disputes over whether the Chinese telecommunications company, Huawei, should or should not be allowed to supply new 5G networks in the United Kingdom and other U.S. allies.
All told, China employs a comprehensive, national approach to developing, fielding, and employing information technologies, many of which are dual-use—valuable for both civilian and military enterprises. At the same time, it faces some significant structural problems of its own, which may hinder its ability to meet its own expectations: a poor demographic outlook; a slowing economy that is weaker than advertised; and an overly authoritarian government. Moreover, U.S. private organizations still lead in high-tech development, though Chinese firms are close behind and getting closer. What distinguishes the Chinese approach to new technologies—and what deserves further discussion—is the way the PLA is integrating them across all domains of warfare, from undersea to space.
In their paper, Roughead, Probasco, and Semmel consider what might happen if President Xi tried to realize the long-standing CCP goal of reunifying Taiwan. China’s investments in information technologies and PLA capabilities, coupled with sophisticated operational concepts, would give it a wealth of tools for forcing the issue. It could put on an impressive show of force, deploying submarines and other naval assets into the Taiwan Strait while test-firing missiles—two well-funded and developed capabilities. At the same time, it could activate an undersea sensor network using unmanned undersea vehicles; disrupt the U.S. GPS system without interrupting the parallel Chinese BeiDou system; conduct a social-media-based information campaign to undermine political will and confidence in the United States; interrupt power supplies in Taiwan and neighboring islands; control global shipping in an out of ports it owns; and so on. The Taiwan scenario is a compelling one, and one that shows the potential of well-integrated technologies and creative strategy and operational plans. And it highlights the importance of specific, high-end technologies to the future of conflict in the Indo-Pacific region:
Artificial Intelligence: For both sides, an important political precondition for conflict is that it would be “quick, decisive, and ultimately deflating to the adversary.” Roughead, Probasco, and Semmel write that AI and the autonomous systems it enables, “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.” Artificial intelligence has potential for speeding up the pace of conflicts, both forcing and enabling quicker decision-making and responses. At the same time, it can facilitate coordinated, multidomain operations—both offensive and defensive—and allow control and manipulation of intelligence and information, as in deep fake videos. And AI also enables drone swarms and other advanced autonomous systems.
The history of AI development shows intermittent “AI Springs,” during which researchers make meaningful advances for a short period of time before progress plateaus yet again. What we are seeing today may be a fundamentally different scenario, the development of new applications of AI for civil and military purposes. China excels at AI research and applications, generating the most AI-related patents—a crude measure to be sure, but a telling one—and has set up legal and political mechanisms to ensure the PLA and government entities have access to privately-developed technologies.
Cyber: Although not an “emerging” technology, cyber is fundamental to information warfare. It is ubiquitous but vulnerable, so, to quote the Defense Science Board, “defense is a necessary foundation for offense.” That means defending military platforms and networks during operations but also protecting intellectual property, supply chains, military networks generally, and personnel information. This takes personnel trained in computing disciplines, and China has an impressive supply of experts coming through the university pipeline. Good defense will become harder for everyone with the arrival of 5G networks, which will create high-visibility targets for the collection, manipulation, and sharing of information. As referenced above, China aspires to develop and define the standards for 5G and to own the infrastructure. If it succeeds, it could wield decisive influence across Eurasia; the feasibility of auditing the security of a communications supply chain is unclear.
Space: Both the U.S. and Chinese militaries rely on space-based assets for information transfer and positioning, navigation, and timing information. Space is central to military operations, to the effective use of precision weapons, and greater still to the functioning of the global economy.
Our space assets were designed for an uncontested environment, which we no longer have. Launch capabilities through competitive public-private partnerships, including for military assets, are an emerging bright spot in U.S. technological capabilities. Nonetheless, last year, China surpassed all other nations in orbital launches, and it has demonstrated significant anti-satellite capabilities. The U.S. government remains unnecessarily tight-lipped about the challenge in this domain. It ought to share more information about it, be more vocal about the challenge, and advocate for what must be done to assure access to such a vital domain.
Others: Other key issues include quantum technologies and electronic warfare (EW) and directed energy. The former qualifies as a true emerging technology—one still in the preliminary stage of development. Though it seems perpetually “20 years away,” as the authors note, quantum computing and sensing would accelerate AI, revolutionize sensors, and render public key encryption obsolete, while also introducing incredible opportunities for positive technological advances. EW and directed energy are more narrowly confined to military use than other high-tech tools listed here, but they fall alongside cyber in the continuum of information technologies. Directed energy weapons, for example, may be key to defense against autonomous systems. Both the United States and China are working hard in each of these areas, with China arguably leading the way in EW.
China has undertaken a long-term military modernization and reform program designed to prepare it for an information-based competition. Its navy outnumbers ours and our allies’ in the Western Pacific, and the PLA has planned carefully for a potential conflict with us. We would, as the National Defense Strategy Commission warned, struggle to win or maybe even lose a war with the PRC.
But, again, China has significant internal demographic, economic, and political challenges of its own, and this competition is a national one, not merely a military or technological race. Chinese leadership will have to answer some difficult questions about whether they can sustain the current rate of military spending growth and continue to bring new opportunities to their people. From that perspective, the United States is well-positioned. It remains the preeminent power—economically, militarily, and technologically—and our liberal system opens us to vast amounts of human potential. The challenge will be to muster our great national power and competence.
If we narrow our gaze to new technologies, as we have here, we can identify specific steps to take here at home to do just that. To begin with, we should focus more on the speed of practical applications than on revolutionary technologies. That is, think about how best to get new technologies out of the laboratory and into the field quickly and then use them most effectively.
Productive civil-military integration will be key to that effort. As discussed above, the Chinese system mandates effective exchange of technologies and concepts, but the U.S. relationship among government, academia, and industry, which has traditionally powered American innovation, could be stronger still. The national security and defense strategies label this ecosystem as “the national security innovation base” and call for the strengthening and protection of that base; we concur. More broadly, we should focus on bringing public leaders and technologists together, at all ages.
From a strategic perspective, we can support the development of even more intellectual capital. American students now comprise a surprisingly small portion of U.S. STEM graduate programs, and the government struggles to train and retain high-quality civilian talent. Our immigration system should be improved to attract and keep talented people in the United States, and the government can do more to encourage the intellectual development of young experts. Beyond our shores, our allies and partners possess great intellectual capital of their own, multiplying our collective capacity. It will be important to maintain and strengthen them instead and to build public support for them both at home and abroad.
Of course, China’s population outnumbers America’s, and China enjoys great human, intellectual capital of its own. It is incumbent upon us to recognize reality, to educate the public about this new reality, and to be clearer and more analytical about our national strategies—for example, reconsidering our approach to gray-zone competition. As technologies increase the speed of decision-making and warfare, we should also remain mindful that speed may help on the battlefield, but in strategy it can lead to instability.
The United States enjoys important advantages across the spectrum of technologies and high-end military capabilities and from its network of allies and partners, and its strong, open economy and society. We should strengthen and sustain those pillars of national power, while moving our relationship with China beyond a zero-sum competition. Operating from a position of strength and confidence, the United States can work with the Chinese to build a healthier, more productive relationship.
The European Theater
Turning our eyes across Eurasia, we see a revisionist Russia and a NATO alliance in need of greater political unity. Russia, faced with significant strategic disadvantages of its own—among them poor demographics and a weak economy—knows it cannot match the United States and its European allies across the board. Instead it looks for those areas in which it can compete; in the words of one participant, it seeks “multiple levers against the West.” General Philip Breedlove (USAF, ret.) and Margaret Kosal write that Russian development of high-end technologies should not be our primary concern, and our project's earlier assessment of Russia, in Russia in an Emerging World (October 2018), concurred. For all of President Putin’s rhetoric about the importance of AI, his government has done little to foster a true innovation base.
Russia’s “levers against the West” do include some emerging technologies, such as hypersonics and autonomous systems, and we should not lose sight of its development of those capabilities. But for the most part, it focuses on information warfare, certain asymmetric capabilities—such as integrated air defenses and long-range artillery—and nuclear weapons. Arguably, Russia has done the most damage to the West through the former: its cyber-enabled political and information warfare campaigns.
Russia seeks coercive power through information manipulation and control. It exploits political divisions in Europe and the United States to weaken NATO and undermine confidence in Western, democratic systems. The 2016 presidential election may be the most obvious example, but Russia interferes in elections and political processes across Europe as well. Though President Putin’s efforts seem opportunistic—targeting divisions or weaknesses as he sees them—the objective is clear: Russia seeks to sow discord and confusion, thereby imposing long-term, significant costs on the West, especially the United States.
To achieve that end, the Kremlin has closed the gap between the military and the rest of government, integrating non-military capabilities into military operations to conduct full-spectrum competition—what we might call a “whole-of-government” approach. It also leverages relevant technologies to support that effort: realizing the discordant potential of social media on the low-end and the value of autonomous systems at the high-end, for example. And its operational concepts are innovative and deadly. Its proxies have used drones to coordinate and target artillery barrages rapidly and to great effect, proving that the ability to employ technology to generate strikes can sometimes trump the size of battalions.
The contrast between the Russian “whole-of-government” approach and the limited U.S. response is striking. It may be derivative to say the United States can do a better job of mobilizing all aspects of national power to the challenge, but it is true. Despite our economic, military, and political advantages—and our close allies in Europe—we have not put up a good stop sign for President Putin. We have relied on economic measures to punish Russia, ignoring the array of other tools at our disposal.
How can the United States bring its vast capacities to bear in the European theater? To begin with, we should maintain our technological lead. Though Russia is not a technological powerhouse, we can achieve more asymmetries through high-tech capabilities. That effort need not be undertaken alone; we should encourage technology transfer and cross-border development with our allies and partners. Sweden’s cooperation with NATO in this arena is a good example of broad-scope tech development. Of course, as we have seen before, we must be careful to protect technologies as we go. Bad actors will often target smaller contractors and weaker governments—the weak links in the supply chain—so careful civil-military integration throughout the NATO alliance and its partners will be crucial. But we know that can be done; we can look to Estonia to see how a nation can harden its infrastructure and institutions and master its own destiny.
Taking a broader view, we return to the oft-referenced idea of a more balanced, “whole-of-nation” approach. It bears repeating that the West can do a better job in the information arena and telling the story of U.S. and NATO values and how we operate. We can truthfully promote our ideas and call out bad actors, and we can be less linear in our behavior, employing information operations, but also diplomatic efforts, to get off the defensive.
Of course, such a united effort requires political will and coordination, both at home and throughout the alliance. NATO members have, for four years running, increased their defense spending. They have, as mentioned, bolstered their efforts to cooperate on cyber issues and elements of information warfare. And they have shown firm resolve against Russian aggression, as in the deployments of battlegroups to the Baltic states and Poland. However, the political cohesion of the alliance is not as strong as it could be. If NATO members come closer together again, the alliance will be in even better shape to take on these challenges. As one participant noted: if we cannot build a political narrative of our own, shame on us.
In the 1980s, the leaders of the United States and NATO came together and agreed to deploy Pershing II nuclear missiles in Europe as a response to the Soviet Union’s own nuclear deployments and saber-rattling. It required a massive diplomatic effort and a healthy, united alliance, but it turned the tide of the Cold War. It was a non-linear response to the Soviets, a stop sign. We need another stop sign today. A new Pershing moment will likely not be based around nuclear weapons, but it will require renewed American leadership and a revived NATO.
Finally, let us turn our attention to non-state actors. Though discussions of how the United States should deal with non-state actors often fall to the tactical or operational levels, T.X. Hammes argues that we ought to look at better strategies. Insurgents, terrorists, and criminals are adopting new, but not cutting-edge, technologies and employing them in innovative ways, including AI-enabled autonomous systems. As those technologies become more accessible, they will give non-state actors the kind of affordable, long-range weapons major powers have generally had to themselves. Counterinsurgency and counterterror operations will become increasingly challenging. U.S. planners will have to change how they think about intervening abroad.
Insurgents generally prefer to employ available and widely used technologies. During the Iraq War, they used such commonplace items as garage openers and then cell phones as detonators for improvised explosive devices. Now, in Syria, we see increasing use of unmanned aircraft—commercial drones. Autonomous aircraft are quickly becoming cheaper and more capable, while task-specific artificial intelligence improves their operations and multiplies their uses. A drone equipped with a camera, for example, can employ high-quality facial or target recognition software—consumer technologies already available to hobbyists—to become a targeted weapon. At the same time, additive manufacturing (3D printing) makes them easier to build or repair in the absence of a dedicated supply chain and may, in the near future, allow inclined parties to mass produce them.
Hammes reviews the various ways in which insurgents or terrorists might use autonomous systems. Coupled with explosively formed penetrators (EFPs), they could target vehicles, disabling or even destroying them. A simple thermite grenade dropped onto fuel or ammunition dumps could ignite a conflagration, as has happened in Ukraine. Drone attacks on a civilian airfield could disrupt air travel, while one on a military airstrip—or resupply depot or convoy—could interrupt logistics.
In sum, these new technologies will allow insurgents and terrorists to target and hunt specific targets. At the most basic level, troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have spent the past decade and a half staring at their feet for hidden IEDs; now the IED can come to them.
Other advantages accrue to insurgents. Drones are no longer dependent on GPS, instead relying on inertial and visual navigation, and non-state actors can locate targets through cheap space access—namely Google Maps and Google Earth. The ability to attack specific targets makes physical infrastructure and public figures more vulnerable, favoring the disaggregated insurgent force and working against the established power.
These technologies exacerbate existing obstacles to effective counterinsurgency operations, but the effectiveness of those efforts have always depended on strategy. As Hammes puts it, nations lose strategically not tactically. When we commit to nation building, we commit to a long-term conflict and a heavy footprint. But as insurgents arm themselves with these new capabilities, they can further exploit that large footprint, targeting U.S. bases, political infrastructure, and the like; it becomes even more challenging and costly to maintain presence and establish general security.
The logical response to an enemy holding static or large formations at risk is to disperse and minimize your footprint. It would seem, then, the best response to a newly-capable insurgency would be first to avoid large, direct interventions in the first place and to harden facilities—overhead protection, for example—as needed. Of course, the former decision is a fundamentally strategic one. At minimum, policymakers and strategists must be attuned to technological changes and adapt their understanding of counterinsurgencies accordingly; we must avoid faulty assumptions in a rapidly changing dynamic.
We return to President Reagan’s approach to a changing, complex world. What does the emergence of new technologies mean for international security? How can the United States keep itself in a position of strength? And how can it help stabilize the international order and set the conditions for a more peaceful world?
We recognize that Russia, China, and non-state actors present fundamentally different challenges to the United States, but for each we must deal with the emergence of new capabilities from a strategic perspective. As non-state actors gain access to increasingly capable drones, for example, U.S. military strategists will have to rethink our approach to fighting them and engaging with broken states. Russia, meanwhile, presents a challenge in specific areas, including nuclear weapons, high-end offensive cyber capabilities, and in the low-end technologies of information warfare. The United States and its allies enjoy a much stronger position than Russia, but they ought to develop new, non-linear responses to Russian revanchism and put up a stop sign for Putin. Finally, the most pressing concern is China’s military build-up, adversarial behavior, and pursuit of military and commercial applications of AI and other new technologies and standards. The key in the Pacific will be information dominance; from undersea to space, information is transforming the definition of winning.
Emerging technologies give America’s competitors new capabilities and transform the character of competition, but they are no less available to us than to others. The key issue is not so much access to these new technologies but their practical application to military capabilities. They are predominantly dual-use technologies, blurring the lines between civilian and military tech development, and are increasingly developed across borders. The key for the United States will be to leverage its vast supply of resources—human, financial, and capital—and continue its long tradition of excellence in technology development and practical innovation.
One area of focus should be the rapid development and fielding of “bleeding-edge” technologies, including AI, hypersonics, metamaterials, and directed energy. We should also improve how we incorporate and employ emerged technologies, such as some task-specific AI, cyber, and electronic warfare. Technologies alone do not mean much for anyone, innovative concepts for how best to use them do. Transforming scientific progress into real capabilities, though, requires both process and cultural adaptation.
As the discussion of China and Indo-Pacific addressed, we should strengthen our education system and better integrate government, academia, and industry. American citizens represent a relatively small portion of the qualified and well-trained technical experts coming out of American schools, and they are the only students allowed to work in classified environments, such as the Pentagon and the defense industry. The military, and the Department of Defense writ large, can do a better job of attracting, training, and retaining talent. The civilian side, for example, should encourage continuing education in its technical experts and strategists, just as the military does. The military, for its part, would be wise to encourage ingenuity in the ranks and allow more creative, bottom-up solutions—put the already innovative minds of the troops to use—though we recognize the attendant security risks and organizational challenges. It could also consider additional ways to allow specialized personnel—software engineers or other tech experts, for example—to rotate into the force as needed.
As the same time, better integrating the public sector with academia and industry will help us those graduates make full use of their talents and renew the system of research, development, and innovation. From our perspective here at Stanford, the gap between Silicon Valley and the Pentagon looks increasingly like a chasm; we can narrow it.
Similarly, we enjoy a unique system of allies and partners. Our European allies lead the world in publication of papers on AI, and our allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific are numerous and capable. We would be wise to remember the value of that system and work more closely on technology development with our allies. The United States too often views military sales and cross-border data exchange through a purely business lens; they are security issues too.
A key aspect of the emerging technologies discussed herein is speed, including the speed of development, yet the government’s approach to acquisitions is notoriously slow. The time it takes to develop and field a new capability is crucial and ought to be considered alongside cost and performance metrics. Congress and the administration have expanded the Pentagon’s rapid acquisition authorities for the better; flexible acquisition models will help the government reach into non-defense sectors and build better civil-military relationships with industries. Software development, for example, is iterative, which makes it fit poorly within the Pentagon’s requirements-driven model. As a note of caution, though, speed is not always a good thing. In matters of national security, sober-minded strategic thinking can trump action. Rapid deployment of a new technology for its own sake will get us nowhere.
Increasing the speed of acquisitions and scope of military capabilities requires more funding, both for the military and other agencies. High-tech research and development come with risks and require significant human and physical capital. Failure is unavoidable but a good thing. And while we pursue these emerging technologies, we recommend also addressing the very real, immediate defense challenges that confront us: significant military readiness shortfall, a shifting conventional balance of power, rogue states, and an assertive China.
Fortunately, new technologies may be disruptive, but they can benefit the U.S. military in meaningful, if mundane, ways, as U.S. Army captain and Stanford PhD candidate Katie Hedgecock explained in her public remarks. They can simplify and reduce the costs of logistics, the lifeblood of operations: AI-enabled predictive maintenance coupled with 3D printing, for example, may soon reduce the logistical tail needed for forward operations. They will likely aid battlefield decision-making, easing the transition towards more dispersed, survivable command and control nodes. And AI may well improve personnel and talent management, reducing administrative burdens and freeing resources for warfighting.
The future of our relationship with China, Russia, and other actors is not foreordained; it will depend on what we do. We can strengthen ourselves at home and recommit to American leadership. But we must also engage with those countries and work with them to build productive relationships. Effective diplomacy can secure our interests, helping, among other things, to prevent military accidents, protect international trade, and support democratic efforts around the globe. Indeed, diplomacy and military strength are inextricably linked and necessary, complementary tools of national power. We have advocated for a "whole-of-country" approach to addressing changing military technologies and capabilities. But it is important to remember that those efforts are carried out in the interests of our diplomatic goals. The best thing we can do for our military is to meet our strategic objectives without having to use it. Diplomacy without strength is weakness, but so too is strength without diplomacy.
George P. Shultz is the Thomas W. and Susan B. Ford distinguished fellow at the Hoover Institution and former secretary of state, treasury, and labor and director of the Office of Management and Budget. Admiral James O. Ellis, Jr. (USN, ret.) is an Annenberg distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He served in the U.S. Navy for 39 years, retiring as commander of U.S. Strategic Command.