The Best Defense

The Future of War: An interim roundup of CNAS, Horowitz, and Allenby, plus some questions and an update on the contest

Dunno why, but it seems like everyone suddenly is talking about the future of war.

My FoW/FP teammate Rosa Brooks is thinking of bravely challenging the Clauswitizian doctrinaire view that the nature of war is never-changing. Sooner or later she will post it.

Meanwhile, my old homies at CNAS are strongly, pragmatically, and principledly thinking about "Preparing for War in the Robotic Age." They worry that "the preeminence enjoyed by the United States ... is starting to erode." Unlike Cold War technology advances, they warn, the great leaps forward of the robotic age are going to come from the commercial sector, not the old "military-industrial complex."

As for me, I found the CNAS study a bit too in awe of the work of Andrew Marshall's Office of Net Assessment. I am as much a fan of Marshall and the ONA as the next wonk -- I wrote a nice page one profile of him for the Wall Street Journal about 20 years ago -- but I don't think Marshall has as high a betting average as the CNAS co-authors, Robert O. Work and Shawn Brimley, seem to believe. For example, I think Marshall badly missed the centrifugal weaknesses of the Soviet Union back when they were evident to others, such as Murray Feshbach. (I remember editing a piece by Murray in 1979, when I was a junior editor at the Wilson Quarterly, that predicted the Soviet Union would collapse. Sorry, no link! This was before the Internet, kids.) I also suspect he is overestimating China's future strength.

That said, the CNAS study is especially significant because the lead author, Mr. Work, is in the chute to be the next deputy secretary of defense. Given that the current sec def appears rather weak and detached, Work is likely to be unusually influential.

Next up, Michael Horowitz, whose Diffusion of Military Power was recently and enthusiastically reviewed in the blog, has a similar piece, "Coming next in military tech," in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. This is a bit of dueling Pentagon offices: Just as the CNAS guys are in thrall of Andy Marshall, Horowitz seems to be relying in part on work done by the Pentagon's acquisition office and its many allies. He emphasizes that the race is not to the swift, that "the global winners when it comes to these new technologies will not be those who prototype the first new gadget, but those who figure out how to use it best to generate military power." Like the CNAS guys, he worries more that the United States will lose its current technological lead. He seems especially concerned by the lack of work done on autonomous weapons systems.

In the same issue, Braden Allenby, a name new to me, asks, "Are new technologies undermining the laws of war?" As it happens, I have on hand an entry in the Future of War essay contest that addresses that question, and intend to run it soon. In the meantime, Professor Allenby's answer is "yes" but he is not sure how. Aside from that, the article provides a good overview for the newcomer, but it is not in the same league as the papers by Horowitz or Work & Brimley.

As I read all this, I find myself wondering about two things:

  • Is the current debate over whether drone pilots deserve combat decorations, as covered by the distinguished Gordon Lubold, really a discussion of the future of war? I think so, because it turns on two questions: What is war today? What is a combatant? 
  • And what will we do the first time an autonomous weapon violates the laws of war? Do we discipline its programmer?

Finally, keep those Future of War blog submissions coming. I already have about 15 publishable ones on hand, from everyone from a retired Army major general to a retired Marine master sergeant, from NASA to the Naval Academy, from California to Alabama. I already see a kind of consensus on some points emerging, though also some sharp disagreements. I also am surprised how many Navy entries there are -- more than from the Army and Air Force combined. One request: Please, no more footnotes! They screw up the formatting process.

Robyn Jay/Flickr

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