Silicon, Iron, and Shadow
Three wars that will define America's future.
The wars of the 21st century will be dominated by three overlapping types of conflict: Wars of Silicon, Wars of Iron, and Wars in the Shadows. The United States must design a new readiness and investment strategy in order to effectively deal with all three. Yet today it continues to pour scarce resources chiefly into its sphere of long-held dominance — Wars of Iron. This is a potentially disastrous mistake, but one that can be corrected if we act now.
Wars of Silicon represent the most demanding scenarios that the United States could face in the coming decades. These wars represent the "high bar" — a potential U.S. faceoff against a deadly trifecta of cutting-edge technology, advanced military capabilities, and substantial financial resources. While these wars will be built around cyber-technology, they may well include highly-sophisticated weapons and other evolving forms of mayhem — from malevolent biological agents to disruptions of critical infrastructure.
Several states loom as possible Silicon War opponents, the most obvious being China. But the circle of potential enemies grows each year as more adversaries gain access to technology that enables them to strike and harm the United States, even without conventional power projection capabilities. Non-state actors will pose a threat too, as even the smallest group of skilled malcontents can deliver Silicon War effects from their home computers. Immediately attributing certain attacks may prove difficult, complicating both deterrence and counterattack.
At scale, Silicon Wars may enable powerful state actors to unbalance and unhinge U.S. regional or global objectives by undercutting both its civil and military capabilities. A high-end, economically powerful adversary could deploy sophisticated cyberthreats in combination with large numbers of highly-equipped conventional forces. Combinations of these capabilities could deny U.S. forces access to critical airspace and waterways. Although the United States does not seek such confrontations — nor see them as inevitable — it must be prepared for a world in which a new standard is being set for advanced military competition. Unquestionably, some substantial portion of the U.S. military must be designed to counter this growing and most demanding threat.
Investment Implications: Wars of Silicon require a different balance of U.S. security capabilities than exists now. These wars present new challenges that cannot be addressed solely with the forces and systems that the Pentagon plans to bring online in the next 10 years. With the increased possibility of a high-end, economically powerful actor with regional ambitions — think China in 2030 — it’s time for the United States to substantially alter its current investment portfolio. Arguably, the United States remains most deeply exposed to foreign-directed mayhem in the cyber-domain, so it should increase spending on both defensive and offensive cyber-capabilities.
In anti-access conflicts, maritime and airpower will remain high-value capabilities, but only if adapted to this new threat. Forces that today are most effective when operating close to enemy shores will be particularly vulnerable in a Silicon War because of growing numbers of advanced long-range missiles, so striking from greater distances with unmanned platforms will be essential. The vulnerability of many of today’s short-range manned aircraft and low-end ships makes them largely unsuitable for this type of war. It also argues against buying lots more of the same, particularly at exorbitant cost. Much better for the United States to increase its ability to operate from long distances with more survivable precision-strike capabilities. Moreover, standoff air and naval forces — partnered with missile defense and ground forces — will most effectively reassure U.S. allies and therefore sustain the global credibility of American power as rising regional actors put military pressure on their neighbors.
Wars of Iron will continue to represent the bulk of potential conflicts around the world over the next several decades, but they will look different from conventional wars in the past. These wars will originate primarily from nation-states, triggered by instability and competing interests. Wars of this variety could involve a host of recognizable and as-yet emerging actors: Iran, North Korea, Russia, or other autocratic regimes or rogue aggressors. A disruptive change of government may be all that divides today’s benign state from tomorrow’s deadly regional threat. Late-20th-century weaponry will predominate on these battlefields. And yet these wars will not simply replicate the conventional military symmetry of the Cold War — tank armies battling tank armies or air-to-air engagements. Each will entail a unique blend of conventional and unconventional capabilities, often described as "hybrid" warfare. The United States will have to be prepared to fight and win in this domain as well, reinforcing the need for highly capable and versatile (if smaller) U.S. ground forces.
Most nation-states will continue to build military power through conventional weaponry, while also seeking new advantages in both cyber- and irregular-warfare capabilities. Others will deploy large militaries well-equipped with late-20th century capabilities, but leavened by selective new technologies. For example, the largely conventional million-man North Korean military could deploy GPS jammers to divert guided munitions, employ hackers to disrupt adversary command and control, and employ its 100,000 commandos for widespread disruption behind enemy lines. This mix-and-match of capabilities will be common among threats for the remainder of the 21st century, differentiated only by degree.
Investment Implications: The United States is immensely well-prepared to deal with Wars of Iron and is poised to buy more conventional "iron" weaponry at massive expense — arguably to face a world of limited threats, none existential. In the face of growing fiscal pressure, the United States is in effect pouring immense resources into perfecting yesterday’s capabilities, robbing scarce capital from investments required to address the growth of emerging technologies and high-end competitors. More short-range strike fighters and low-end surface ships mirroring today’s ways of fighting are not the answer. These "legacy-plus" systems come at the cost of essential research in science and technology. Put simply, over-investment in Wars of Iron is robbing the U.S. military and the nation of the resources it will need to develop and field dominant military capabilities for the world of 2030.
Wars in the Shadows are the third type of potential conflict. A decade of irregular conflict in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 has left the United States well-prepared to fight in this domain. It arguably has the most capable low-level intelligence and special forces capabilities in its history, honed by years of war against insurgents and terrorists. And it is increasingly apparent that these irregular wars will persist in the aftermath of the U.S. military drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps for decades to come. Ongoing special forces and intelligence operations in Yemen, the Philippines, Colombia, Mali, Niger, and the Horn of Africa all speak to the pervasiveness of unconventional extremist threats in remote corners of the world. In the last decade, al Qaeda has metastasized across a broad range of countries and regions, committing the United States to an increasingly global fight aimed at preventing further attacks on the U.S. homeland or its allies. As a result, the United States has directed substantial resources into capabilities optimized for fighting Shadow Wars. Drones, special operators, intelligence activities, and other tools of unconventional warfare will continue to be in high demand.
Investment Implications: The United States unquestionably needs to sustain its decade-long investment in irregular-warfare capabilities. In particular, its ability to collect actionable intelligence from around the globe provides an irreplaceable bulwark against surprise attacks by al Qaeda-like groups. This worldwide early-warning network has become indispensible to the defense of the nation. That same network enables special operators to both pre-empt threats and rapidly retaliate. The American people have come to expect this level of protection, putting down an enduring marker for the defense and intelligence communities.
Fast-growing technologies have advanced the capabilities of this community dramatically in the last decade — and these new tools have in turn become adjuncts to all three types of wars. Drones for surveillance and strike have become the iconic weapon of this era. They are increasingly long-range, high-endurance, and capable of precision strike. They deserve sustained investment to push the envelope of new capabilities. The ability to rapidly process intelligence from these diverse sources and "turn" it back into immediate battlefield results is also ground-breaking if less visible.
Finally, highly-trained special operators are becoming a pre-eminent American military capability, providing a scalable, multi-role tool in an uncertain security environment. Offering skills ranging from partnership-building and advisory capabilities to strike operations, special operations forces will continue to be the weapon of choice for many complex scenarios. Sustaining recent investments in this community and its enablers — not only drones, but also helicopters and airplanes — should remain a top priority. But they remain an adjunct to, not a replacement for, conventional forces, which are still necessary to prevail in the bigger Wars of Iron.
The coming defense drawdown and budgetary belt-tightening offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape the U.S. military and defense industry toward the three wars of the future. The political climate in Washington in the aftermath of sequestration suggests the time is here for bolder moves. Current procurement plans are feeding vast resources into programs designed to achieve even more dominance in Wars of Iron, while doing far too little to prepare for the coming Wars of Silicon. It’s time to seize the moment and re-balance the U.S. investment portfolio with a bias toward future capabilities, rather than doubling down on costly replacements for today’s still highly-capable weapons systems. Failure to make this shift now will leave the nation at risk when the truly high-end wars of the future arrive.