While history can teach some lessons illuminating how America should shape its military for current and future threats, the new security landscape requires fresh thinking and a willingness to be disruptive, asymmetric and deploy constant innovation, defense experts told the House Armed Services Committee. And, urgent work is needed to reconstitute the “Arsenal of Democracy,” given the likelihood that there will be little warning of the next great war.
In a hearing titled “Back to the Future,” meant to plumb historical lessons learned to inform today’s defense priorities, witnesses said the U.S. military needs to be willing to discard old doctrines—even if they worked before—and embrace new ones, as history shows that militaries that don’t do this lose.
The witnesses were Andrew Krepinevich, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and Center for a New American Security; Arthur Herman, also a senior fellow at Hudson, and Mark Gunzinger, director of future concept and capability assessments at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
Krepinevich noted that the British Royal Navy in the early 20th century succeeded by introducing dreadnought ships and submarines; the German army developed Blitzkrieg; the American Navy shifted from battleships to aircraft carriers to win World War II, and the U.S. Air Force transformed “between the Vietnam War and the first Gulf War, where they introduced what the Russians call the ‘reconnaissance-strike complex.’”
It’s not clear what will characterize the next great revolution in military affairs, although uncrewed aircraft, artificial intelligence, and technologies like additive manufacturing could be key, witnesses said.
New operational concepts have to recognize and confront new challenges, Krepinevich said. What worked before “we may not value as much” in the next conflict, he warned.
“If we ever go to war with China, how quickly can we adapt in order to be able to sustain not only the operations but also adapt” flawed concepts and less-useful hardware, Krepinevich said.
He also urged keeping in place some leaders who are involved in developing new concepts and technologies for up to 10 years, since “typically, disruptive innovation takes a decade or more.”
Transformation usually does not happen quickly and needs a knowledgeable hand guiding it. The military can’t assign an officer “for two years to do a 10-year job,” he said.
Herman argued flatly that “our defense industrial base is in crisis.” Quoting from the recent National Defense Industrial Strategy Report, he contended the DIB “‘does not possess the capacity, capability, responsiveness, or resilience required to satisfy the full range of military production needs at speed and scale.” The war in the Ukraine has made the DIB’s deficiencies “obvious and urgent,” he added.
The Pentagon must figure out how to “incorporate innovation” in fields like hypersonics, drones, and cybersecurity,” Herman said, as part of an overall national security strategy.
Key to that development will be incorporating innovation as “an integral part of the production and productivity process,” rather than “a standalone category,” Herman argued, noting that the most productive companies tend to be the most innovative.
That was why Washington turned to commercial automobile and electronics companies to build the “Arsenal of Democracy” in WWII, he said: “They had the most engineers and therefore could be counted on to do things and make things better, even if they had never made them before.”
That “Arsenal” was also driven by the knowledge that Germany and Japan had technological advantage in some areas, whereas today there is complacency that the U.S. is mostly ahead, with the exception of a few areas, like hypersonics.
“By focusing on the threat first and foremost, we make for a better and more innovative industrial base,” Herman said.
Reconstituting the “Arsenal” and bolstering the DIB will require building be reconstituted “a global industrial network with trusted allies: the U.K. and the Five Eyes, NATO members, Japan and South Korea, especially in the advanced technologies like AI, quantum and space, but also in the traditional conventional technologies like shipbuilding and … energetics. In other words, the next generation munitions, in which the Chinese are already surging ahead,” Herman said.
Of the top 20 most technologically advanced countries, 18 are democracies, he noted.
“China, by contrast, ranks 32nd on the list, while Russia and Iran don’t even score. All this indicates that if the U.S. and democracies band together, they can overpower China and the new Axis with a kind of high tech focus. That’s the core of a winning and innovative Arsenal of Democracies,” he said.
Lessons from the Past
Gunzinger warned that “action is needed to ensure our armed forces will have the technological advantage over the pacing threat,” and he agreed that “history should inform this effort.” He offered six lessons to maintaining a technology edge over China and other potential adversaries.
- First, holding a technology advantage “is a marathon, not a destination.” History, Gunzinger said, shows that it is a mistake to think that “technological breakthroughs will give our military an enduring advantage. … Technological inferiority is a very real possibility, if our military does not continuously modernize, and we cannot treat innovation as episodic and driven by crisis,” he argued.
- Second, the U.S. needs asymmetric advantages “rather than parity.” In a war over Taiwan, China will have advantages in “time, distance, and combat mass,” so the U.S. needs to find “breakthrough technologies that will finally change the rules of the game.” The U.S. shouldn’t try to match China ship for ship and plane for plane, he said.
- Third, no matter how good new technologies are, they need operational concepts that will make the most of them. The U.S. military needs to exploit Collaborative Combat Aircraft “in ways that will disrupt and degrade the operations of opposing forces, instead of simply improving how we plan to operate today.”
- For his fourth and fifth point, Gunzinger asserted that “capacity matters,” and innovative technologies will only make a difference if they are built at scale. As U.S. aircraft became capable of hitting multiple targets per sortie in the 1990s—instead of requiring multiple aircraft per target—defense leaders saw that as an excuse to “slash force structure,” Gunzinger said. That’s why “our forces are now too small to meet the global requirement.” The solution is to buy new technologies at scale, which will require “sustained, predictable budget growth.”
- Sixth, having enough “highly experienced and well-trained” troops will make the difference. “History has taught us that when two opposing forces have relatively equal technologies, the side with the best trained personnel often has the advantage,” Gunzinger said.