The Best Defense

To boldly read what no service chief has recommended before: Thoughts on sci-fi

By Michael Clauser
Best Defense guest literary critic

Want to think about the future? Try science fiction. The scientists, engineers, and mathematicians only come after to solve the inevitable technological challenges posed first by the writers.

After all, it was Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) that envisioned the submarine and his From the Earth to the Moon (1865) that articulated a coherent vision for space travel. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) suggested the interoperability and regeneration of body parts (BTW: Are you an organ donor?). What are the iPhone or Android smartphones other than early attempts at the "tricorder" from Gene Rodenberry's Star Trek (1966)? Speaking of androids, Karel Capuk's R.U.R. (1920) introduced the very word "robot" into the English lexicon -- though today we call the type that flies over certain countries "drones" and the type that sweeps your floors Roombas. H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds (1897) featured a "heat ray" weapon, well before Boeing's YAL-1 Airborne Laser or Raytheon's Active Denial System. The recent controversy over the NSA's bulk collection of telephone metadata has engendered comparisons to George Orwell's dystopian 1984 (1949). Big data makes the Nest thermostat self-learning, though not self-aware -- yet -- but when the glowing red circle does, it might rename itself "HAL" from Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

If science fiction literature is so vital to pushing the envelope on "what could be" in future technological advances, why does the genre feature so dismally in the myriad military reading lists published by Pentagon brass? In fact, the number of science-fiction books -- if they appear -- barely number more than the number of Harlequin romances. Look for yourself:

When science fiction does appear on service chiefs' reading lists, it's usually Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers (1959) or Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game (1985), two volumes that present stark, stylized, and idealized notions of leadership, statesmanship, strategy, or virtue useful for leadership development. Both are stellar works -- as are Frank Herbert's Dune (1965) and Isaac Asimov's Foundation (1942) -- two of my favorites. But the technological speculation in these books, like their futuristic settings, is secondary to their narratives on leadership and strategy.

This leaves the question: Which works of contemporary science fiction should young military officers read for a glimpse into the future of military technology? If drones, cyber, biotech, nukes, lasers, subs, and commercial space travel are all now -- then what's next? Invisibility? Nanite warfare? Cyborgs? Teleportation? Telekinetics? Time travel? Cryogenics? What science-fiction predictions of today would make even DARPA giggle?

One colleague suggested titles like Jon Scalzi's Old Man's War (2007), Joe Haldeman's The Forever War (2012), Charles Stross's Accelerando (2005), Ian MacDonald's The Dervish House (2010), and Mark Jacobsen's Lords of Harambee (2012). Another suggested Alas, Babylon (2013) by Pat Frank, Nevil Shute's On the Beach (2010), A Canticle for Liebowitz (1984) by Walter M. Miller, and The Sten Series (2010) by Allan Cole and Chris Bunch.

Unable to vouch for many of these myself, I leave it up to readers of the Best Defense to suggest today's science fiction titles for tomorrow's military technology. What do you think?

Michael Clauser works in tech, but sure didn't major in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics at Penn State. He served in the administration of George W. Bush in the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill, and is an officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He thanks his Dad for introducing him to science fiction at a young age. The views and opinions of the author expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Government, or Starfleet Command.

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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.

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