Six technologies that the U.S. military is betting on

At a time when budgetary resources at the Pentagon are being squeezed, the U.S. military is in search of force multipliers. From the nuclear enterprise to command and control to robotics and beyond, emerging technologies offer ways to modernize forces in innovative—and often efficient—ways.

On January 21, Michael O’Hanlon sat down with General Paul J. Selva of the United States Air Force and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to discuss the future of military technology innovation. Selva explained that “We are going to place multiple small bets on places where we think we can make a difference, where we think the leverage of the technology exists to actually move the enterprise forward, and look at the potential for a third offset.” Particularly, technologies in the commercial sector could provide the force multiplier effects the military is looking for. By changing the way forces organize around available technologies, “we might be able to change the pace and scope of the fight on the battlespace,” Selva said.

In with the new 

O’Hanlon and Selva spoke about a number of these emerging technologies, as well as the need to modernize existing platforms and weapons for the future:

  1. The nuclear enterprise. To maintain a credible and reliable deterrent—and also underpin conventional deterrence capabilities—Selva noted: “I don’t think you can exaggerate the importance of the nuclear enterprise in any measure.” He discussed three major lines of modernization efforts: 1) the safety, security, and reliability of the weapons (absent the ability to test them); 2) replacement or upgrade of platforms—submarines, bombers, and missile systems; and 3) the command and control network.
  2. Command and control. “You don’t have to harden every part of the network,” Selva observed, and instead encouraged resilience and redundancy. Satellite communications, atmosphere radiofrequency, and digital communications through fiber all contribute to “how one executes command and control,” and “helps you have variation in how you protect your cyber network.” And given available resources, “adequate” physical resilience outside of the nuclear mission’s network is appropriate.
  3. Robotics. Asked whether future counterinsurgency scenarios or other contingencies could see a larger robotic presence—aerial, wheeled, and undersea (for instance, unmanned convoys to reduce exposure to casualties)—Selva pointed out that the military can already build and field remotely piloted vehicles for various mission sets. Even without giving the machines agency or removing an operator from the decisionmaking process, which has momentous ethical implications, there is still an opportunity to increase reconnaissance and collection capabilities still further across various domains.
  4. Artificial intelligence. Selva pointed to the need for a national discussion on the use of artificial intelligence on the battlefield, referring to the “terminator conundrum.” “We haven’t gotten to the point where we have built artificial intelligence that will make the decision to inflict harm. At the very extreme of the conversation we’re having, that’s a debate we need to have…nationally and internationally, and answer whether as humans we want to cross that line.” For now, however, he indicated that the decision to prosecute a target remains a human responsibility.
  5. Missile defense. With the United States on the wrong end of missile defense cost imposition, Selva played down the importance of building “the most elegant interceptors that exist to go after individual warheads” and instead advocated developing technologies have the potential to be the “10 cent solution for the $10 problem.” Directed energy weapons and hypervelocity rounds—“where you can mass a defense against an incoming threat,” such as a cruise or ballistic missile—are one set of solutions.
  6. Deep learning. Intelligence databases and other sources of digitized information about the planet have grown so large that it has the potential to bury analysts in data. But, Selva said, “If we can build a set of algorithms that allows a machine to learn what’s normal in that space, then highlight for analysts what’s different, it could…change detection in a lethal battlespace.” Ultimately, teaching coherent machines to advise humans has the potential to produce better and more reliable decision making.

But integrating these technologies into useful platforms and weapons is a complicated process. Selva stressed that throughout the acquisitions cycle it’s critical to incorporate the enemy’s thoughts on how our capabilities will be applied, in addition to actual service requirements. When designing new systems, it’s also essential to ensure that they that will operate jointly. 

Finally, Selva emphasized that tolerance for risk has to be higher throughout development, testing, and evaluation; but once committed to a piece of technology, the outcome has to be assured. “In this cycle of rapid innovation, in civilian and military technology, we have to able to accept failure, not in the battlespace, in the development phase.”