LONDON – When America goes to war, its soldiers, sailors and pilots typically have long been used to having a spectacular technological edge. Those days are ending fast.
From the South China Sea to Eastern Europe — and even the Korean Peninsula — U.S. commanders are now considering the prospect of war against enemies who may be capable of deploying overwhelming firepower and sophisticated new technology. Confrontations with Russia and China in particular are escalating far faster than predicted — with the realistic prospect either nation could outgun U.S. forces in their immediate neighborhood in the early stages of any conflict.
The Pentagon is increasingly worried about rapid proliferation of Chinese and Russian anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, putting U.S. military planners in an unfamiliar position. The last time U.S. forces went to war without an overwhelming advantage was against Nazi German troops in North Africa in 1943.
Meanwhile, hybrid and information warfare are themselves reshaping the rules of international confrontation in ways the West has yet to truly tackle — and which emerging technology is continually making more complex.
In 2014, the Pentagon announced its “third offset strategy,” predicting it could use America’s technological superiority to maintain its military edge. Increasingly, however, commanders and analysts suspect new advancements in areas such as cyber warfare, drones and artificial intelligence may at least equally benefit America’s foes — not least because they are proving much more willing to test them in action.
Almost every week brings new developments. Earlier this month, German officials blamed Russia for what they said were a series of cyber attacks aimed at penetrating the country’s power grid, echoing similar U.S. allegations. CNN quoted a U.S. military source as saying the Chinese were suspected to be behind a series of lasers used to target U.S. aircraft flying over disputed areas of the East China Sea. As is increasingly the norm, Moscow and Beijing denied involvement in either set of incidents.
Technologies that until recently were only found in the hands of the United States and its closest allies are now much more widespread. At the time of its 2008 war with Georgia, Russia lacked any significant military unmanned drone program, but now uses them routinely in both Syria and Ukraine. Using suspected hacked and stolen plans, China has built its own stealth fighters as well as its own bespoke new systems such as ballistic missiles specifically designed to target U.S. aircraft carriers.
It’s difficult to say how well that weaponry would function against the U.S. military in any war. What is clearer, however, is that the U.S. faces a specific problem in most of its confrontations. While the U.S. military remains more powerful than any other, it is spread across the globe. Its enemies, meanwhile — whether Russia, China or smaller states like Iran and North Korea — have dedicated almost all their forces to fighting in their own backyards. If war should come, that would put nearby U.S. and allied forces at a significant disadvantage, quite possibly outgunned entirely.
Upcoming breakthroughs may make that even worse. Increasingly, military experts talk of an arms race between major nations on artificial intelligence that could be as crucial to this century as the race for atomic weapons during World War II. Some U.S. officials openly worry Washington may be falling behind in this contest, particularly with some major Silicon Valley firms such as Google reluctant to work with the Pentagon on military contracts.
Speaking at a major military conference in London earlier this month, one senior military officer said that the first nation to deploy an electromagnetic pulse weapon on the battlefield to disable enemy systems would reshape the face of warfare. Once again, it is far from obvious that is a race the U.S. will win.
Most major nations, such as Britain, believe recent investment in major weapons platforms such as aircraft carriers and F-35 jets should still give them the edge. Even there, though, experts worry whether the next generation of technology — such as robotic vehicles — will prove functional in a major conflict where a sophisticated enemy might be able to shut them down. More seriously, Western analysts worry critical national infrastructure may already have been penetrated by cyber attackers who could turn off essential systems on the first day of any conflict.
That sheer level of uncertainty may itself make conflict more likely, with nations more likely to strike first to gain a tactical advantage while struggling to realistically assess what their enemies can and wish to do. The U.S. and its potential foes can ill afford to ignore these accelerating trends, and unless they can find some common ground to at least discuss them the consequences could be disastrous.
Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist.