This past decade has raised the curtain on a new theater of warfare in which both the actors and the script are entirely different. Near-peer adversaries with sophisticated capabilities have replaced rogue dictators and radical insurgents, and new technologies are multiplying the number of threat vectors and introducing vulnerabilities to traditional modes of warfighting. Unfortunately, the US military has not evolved at the same pace as the battlefield. Traditional strategies, tactics, and methods of procurement are proving obsolete in the face of an increasingly digitized and multi-dimensional threat environment. This realization has sent the Department of Defense scrambling to rethink its entire approach to warfare.
For the first time in thirty years, America is confronting an adversary that is not only numerically superior, but technologically advancing. China’s military and economic ascendancy – accelerated in the last decade under President Xi Jinping – has allowed the country to rapidly grow its army and develop capabilities to hold U.S. forces at risk in multiple domains. China now boasts the world’s largest navy in terms of absolute ship numbers, with a most recent count of 360 ships compared to the U.S. Navy’s 297. The sophistication of these vessels is also pacing that of America’s fleet. This summer, the Chinese military unveiled its newest “super carrier,” a highly-advanced ship that Pentagon officials have deemed “a major milestone” for the People’s Liberation Army. China’s air force, meanwhile, has also grown, and its expanding arsenal of stealth fighters, bombers and unmanned aerial vehicles have raised alarms that any future air conflict between China and America could be catastrophic for the latter. This assessment was further reinforced by a “sobering” wargame conducted by the Air Force last spring, which saw American forces suffer significant losses in a simulated conflict with the Chinese over Taiwan. A similar round of wargames this past spring further underscored China’s military advancements while also exposing glaring logistical weaknesses among U.S. forces. In May’s simulation, the Chinese and American teams were so evenly matched, in fact, that it prompted retired Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula to conclude that “the U.S. military lacks enough systems and equipment ‘to execute and sustain its own contribution to a successful defense of Taiwan, much less adequately supply Taiwan’ with the weapons it needs.” If wargames are meant to be realistic reflections of relative capabilities, these simulations should indicate that a real Indo-Pacific conflict is not only conceivable, but potentially disastrous.
Not only does the Chinese military pose a quantitative threat to American superiority, but its military technology is quickly approaching qualitative parity with that of America. Rapid technological advancements have allowed China to enhance its A2/AD (anti-access/area denial) capabilities, preventing or severely constraining American maneuvering in airspace and waters increasingly far from the Chinese mainland. China’s deterrence measures include long-range, anti-ship ballistic missiles, hypersonic missiles, and sophisticated air defense The PLA’s kinetic capabilities are compounded by its increasingly advanced arsenal of non-kinetic weapons. The country is developing its electronic and cyber warfare capabilities as well as its space-based operations, managed under the Strategic Support Force. Rendering all these systems more lethal is the PLA’s incorporation of artificial intelligence and quantum computing technologies. This is particularly unsettling, as AI and advanced computing offer China the ability to detect and engage targets with more precision and speed than ever before. Taken together, these capabilities create significant risk for American forces approaching China.
The PLA’s rapid modernization has made it a formidable peer adversary capable of challenging American forces through various mediums, over longer distances, and across a range of domains. Most significantly, Beijing’s technological advances and A2/AD measures prevent American forces from building up the combat mass required to deter and defeat Chinese aggression in the Pacific and around Taiwan.
Russia, meanwhile, is proving itself to be a credible – and highly unpredictable – threat. Seeking to restore its great power status, Moscow, too, has modernized its armed forces over the past two decades. While Russia’s military may not enjoy the numerical advantage that the Chinese have, its technology is more advanced and makes it a more closely-matched competitor to the United States. Last summer, Russian President Vladimir Putin triumphantly announced the successful test of Russia’s first hypersonic missile (dubbed the “Zircon”), which it plans to integrate into its submarines and surface vessels. Another round of tests conducted by the Russian Navy in May demonstrated that the Zircon could strike targets as far as 1,000 kilometers (540 nautical miles) away. These ultra-fast weapons, which can evade radars and overwhelm traditional air defense systems, are joined by a class of advanced cruise missiles capable of striking American targets all the way from Russia. Platforms themselves are getting more advanced, as well; both China and Russia are developing increasingly stealthy submarines, quickly eroding the advantage that America has held for so long undersea. Indeed, Russian submarines have advanced so rapidly that they are now considered “on par” with America’s by some U.S. military leaders. Further compounding the threat is that both these states are nuclear armed, exponentially raising the stakes of any confrontation.
Russia, like China, has also invested heavily in its cyber and space capabilities, which it has brazenly displayed in Ukraine. On the eve of the invasion, Russia is believed to have launched a broad cyber-attack inside Ukraine, targeting government, media, university, and financial networks with the intention of sowing confusion and disorder. On the heels of this network hack was a crippling attack on satellite infrastructure owned by the American telecom company, Viasat. The U.S. government anticipates that more attacks inside American borders are imminent, with the Justice Department reporting that it is preparing for the possibility of increased cyber hostilities from the Kremlin. No matter the outcome of the conflict in Ukraine, the war has reaffirmed the military efficacy of cyber operations. Ukraine may well become a proving ground for Russia to test out tactics that could be used against its rival across the Atlantic.
In sum, the military technologies being fielded by China and Russia make it increasingly difficult for American forces to maneuver far forward and project power on their own terms. Simultaneously, the specter of cyber warfare undermines American security at home. The U.S. military is, for the first time in decades, unable to maintain superiority in any given domain at any given time. China and Russia’s A2/AD capabilities increase the cost of maneuvering, while their sophisticated and stealthy portfolio of effects raises the cost of confrontation. Their advancement signals the resurgence of great power competition, and with it, a new threat landscape.
China and Russia’s military modernization does more than challenge the prevailing geopolitical order; it upends America’s entire military playbook. Not since World War II has the U.S. been forced to fight a peer opponent on multiple fronts simultaneously, nor has it ever had to contend with the additional fronts of cyber and space. For most of U.S. military history, wars have been a sheer numbers game, a matter of overwhelming the enemy with firepower. When it came to insurgents armed with IEDs and rouge states with rusty arsenals, this tactic worked in America’s favor. In the face of equally-matched adversaries, however, ensuring this numerical advantage will not always be possible. Similarly, America’s platform-centric approach to fighting – relying on capital assets like ships, aircraft, and tanks – is also incompatible with the advanced technologies of the modern battlefield. Russia and China’s development of longer-range, stealthier missiles and their use of anti-access/area-denial measures makes it more difficult as well as riskier for these large, “exquisite” assets to maneuver.
There is also the cultural challenge. U.S. forces are used to operating within strictly delineated borders, with each of the services responsible for the assets in their own physical area. Similarly, command-and-control structures are largely bounded by domain; it is rare for a naval commander to give directives to a Marine squadron or for a submarine and a bomber to share targeting data to coordinate a joint land attack. In other words, the services are not accustomed – nor equipped – to working together in a multi-dimensional environment. They lack both the procedures and the technology to share data and coordinate assets at speed and scale. After all, up until now, they haven’t had any reason to do so.
They do now. Tomorrow’s war will not be limited to one domain; rather, it is almost certain that threats will come from every direction. A hypersonic missile launched from Moscow could reach American shores just as a cyberattack wipes out the power across half the East Coast. An ultra-stealthy Chinese submarine, slipping beneath the sonar of a passing American ship, could relay targeting information to space-based sensors, paving the way for a lethal strike by a long-range cruise missile. With today’s pace of information transfer and ultra-fast weapons, this scenario can now unfold in mere minutes.
Such a dynamic, multi-dimensional threat requires a dynamic, multi-dimensional response, and this realization has sparked a transformation within the Department of Defense. The Joint Warfighting Concept, introduced in 2021, acknowledges the need for All-Domain Operations, including space and cyber, as well as distributed operations. Its main goal is to achieve “expanded maneuver,” the ability for U.S. and allied forces to operate across domains and in areas denied to them by the adversary. As noted by Gen. John Hyten, former vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expanded maneuver includes space as well as time. Given the quickening pace and scale of future conflicts, U.S. forces must be able to quickly generate the combat mass required to strike decisively. At the same time, however, the speed and sophistication of Russian and Chinese long-range fires means that these same forces must also be able to disperse rapidly to avoid a counterattack.
Operationally, this kind of “expanded maneuver” cannot be done at the service or domain level. Instead, it inherently requires a total-force approach. As reflected by the word “Joint,” the JWC centers around coordination, integration, and inter-operability between the services. It also puts data – not platforms – at the forefront. The domains of cyber and space must not only be protected, but exploited to the fullest, to ensure that commanders across the Joint force have access to the data they need to coordinate logistics, assess the full battlefield, efficiently direct their forces, and integrate their strikes.
The Joint Warfighting Concept is a clear indication that the U.S. military appreciates the evolving threats facing it and understands the capabilities required to stay ahead. Critically missing, however, is the “how.” How does a sprawling, bureaucratic organization like the Department of Defense transform into an agile, networked, data-savvy fighting force? Despite all of its talk about Joint Warfighting, expanded maneuver, and network-centric operations, the DoD is falling short on all fronts. Weapons and platforms are still procured at the service level, capability development is highly programmized, and data remains siloed within separate branches and agencies.
Overcoming these challenges requires significant changes to strategy, procurement, and training, and the DoD finds itself today at a critical juncture where many of these decisions are still to be made. The Department’s initial approach has been twofold: aggressive experimentation combined with alternative procurement channels to enable the rapid prototyping and introduction of new capabilities. This is reflected in service-wide experiments such as the Navy’s Project Overmatch and the Army’s Project Convergence, which seek to test and integrate innovative technologies across platforms. Meanwhile, OTAs (Other Transaction Authorities) are emerging as a way for the services to circumvent cumbersome acquisition procedures and deliver new technologies into the hands of operators, faster.
This has significant implications for the defense industry. The shifting threat landscape necessitates a break from traditional acquisition models, and established industry participants are struggling to derive value from this new system. At the same time, the DoD’s changing mindset offers industry a chance to play a much more prominent role than it has in the past. Traditional contractors should not sit back and wait for their customer to chart a path forward; they can and should be a partner in the effort. Industry’s ability to innovate and adapt – both in their technology and their business models – will determine the speed at which America can prepare for the future fight.
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