On June 14, the 21st Century Defense Initiative at Brookings hosted the second session of its national security industrial base working group. The focus of the session was on the future national security environment and the “demands” from the “customer side” of the equation. Speakers included Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and Peter W. Singer, senior fellow at Brookings.
The focus of the session was on the future national security environment and, hence, the “demands” from the “customer side” of the equation of the defense industrial base. A key trend affecting the potential security environment of 2025 – 2035 will be technologic. Certainly the trends in computers have already been remarkable and if “Moore’s Law” continues to hold, there could be another billionfold increase in computing power within roughly 25 years. There may be comparable trends underway in areas such as microbiology and nanotechnology. These trends are providing the basis for the existing growth in systems like robotics to new ones like directed energy or nanotechnology.
The implications of this technologic trend are that the domains in which conflict will take place, and for which the military will be looking to buy solutions, will extend into new areas such as cyber, space, and changed global environs. This will connect to huge demographic trends to lead to another key domain where conflict will increasingly take place, and the customer will be looking for solutions, the urban hot zone. Urbanization trends will continue in general, with a strong majority of the world’s future populations in major urban areas and some 50 new megacities (with populations of 10 million or more) around the world within a quarter century. Violence and national security threats are likely to be found emanating from such places, where hundreds of millions of individuals, many poorly educated and underemployed yet aware of all that the world offers that they cannot easily access, will represent potential recruits for various militant movements.
All of these technological developments have major implications for people. Operating these kinds of systems effectively, a traditional American strength, will require attracting technology-literate people even more than in the past. The United States armed forces also must think hard about how to attract and retain, and thus the nation’s universities and industry must figure out how to supply, individuals with a “Google mindset” who expect access to information as well as modern devices without all the bureaucratic encumbrances and hierarchical structures that traditionally afflict military organizations.
Another key aspect of this change is that the US will have no monopoly on power and some of these sophisticated technologies. The future period holds a greater spread of access-denial technology, cyberthreats and “GRAM” technologies (guided rockets, artillery, and mortars). Such a “democratization of destruction” will continue with small groups having greater access to lethal technologies. Even more, a “proliferated world” of WMD in the hands of a greater number of states seems a strong possibility. Nuclear campaign planning could become more important, as the likelihood that one or more nuclear weapons will be used somewhere probably grows. Finally, while non-state actors, globalization’s ills, and problematic states like Iran will likely continue to grow, another major force shaping the demand side in future years may be the return of great-power rivalry in East Asia.
Cyberwar was discussed in detail. The United States may be relying too much on deterrence as a strategy, and the military may be too focused on just protecting its own networks. Another key computer challenge is integration—not only within individual systems but across systems, and with flexibility to allow for modernization, adaptation and innovation. This, though, stands in contrast to another key demand, which is to build resilient networks that can resist and recover from attacks. This same growing DoD concern over cyber-assurance will likely grow on the hardware vendor side, as more and more investment and production moves from traditional US partners and suppliers to suppliers in Asia.
Not all is foreboding. Historically, the United States remains quite secure as a major power. In addition, with China the only plausible rising rival, we may not face major challenges anywhere except the Western Pacific—and some would debate the degree to which all of that region must concern us as a truly vital area of national security importance. Moreover, for all of China’s strengths in manufacturing, the United States still enjoys advantages of leadership in innovation. The ability to integrate across systems and technologies has been and will be a key strength, and we can use methods such as data mining to improve intelligence collection and the forecasting and tracking of threats. We have a history in the “black world” of remarkable game-changing inventions.
But the challenges are great. We do not have a national security strategy with clear priorities. The main customer, DoD, is often unsure of its clear wants and needs and thus companies should likely not expect clear demand signals. On the Congressional side, the main tendency loosely seems to be towards major platforms and towards minimizing the role for US ground forces, but again, it is unclear whether this links to the defined needs in a future environment. Few recognize that the national security industrial base is not Walmart, with immediate and easy ability to generate whatever is needed. Thus, the firms most likely to succeed will be those that can most accurately predict and/or most rapidly respond to changing customer demands.
As a final interpretive note, it appears difficult in a group of this size and sophistication to come away with a simple list of dominant future threats, but the confluence of trends discussed was notable. The discussion tended to emphasize the need for greater attention to new technologies and domains, most especially cyber issues, the proliferation and democratization of threats, the importance of human capital questions, and the need for innovation and experimentation. Flexibility, resilience, and rapidity of response were the factors that seemed most needed by the US military to succeed in this environment, and, in turn, most likely to be demanded of the future national security industrial base.
ModeratorMichael E. O’Hanlon Director of Research - Foreign Policy, Director - Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology, Co-Director - Africa Security Initiative, Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology, Philip H. Knight Chair in Defense and Strategy