The fu­ture of war­fare

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - da­vidig­natius@wash­post.com

Alight-bulb moment for me last year was hear­ing a Chi­nese de­fense ex­pert named Dingli Shen in Shang­hai talk about the fu­ture of war­fare.

No, he wasn’t ex­press­ing a pipe dream about build­ing a blue-wa­ter navy to chal­lenge U.S. dom­i­nance in the Pa­cific. In­stead, he was talk­ing about the ir­rel­e­vance of tra­di­tional land and sea power in the dawn­ing age of com­bat — when weapons will in­clude cy­ber­at­tacks, space weapons, lasers, pulses and other di­rected-en­ergy beams.

Shen, who teaches at Fu­dan Uni­ver­sity, was coun­ter­ing the view of some Chi­nese an­a­lysts that Bei­jing should em­brace the gospel of Al­fred Thayer Ma­han, the 19th-cen­tury Amer­i­can mis­sion­ary for sea power. Ma­han is out­dated, he said: With a laser weapon fired from space, “any ship will be burned.” China’s fu­ture isn’t in com­pet­ing to build air­craft-car­rier bat­tle groups, ar­gues Shen, but in ad­vanced weapons “ to make other com­mand sys­tems fail to work.”

The Chi­nese the­o­rist’s com­ments sug­gest a trend that you might not ap­pre­ci­ate watch­ing the news footage of U.S. sol­diers in Afghanistan. The na­ture of war­fare is near­ing an­other “ hinge point” at­trib­ut­able to the ad­vance of technology. Just as gun­pow­der, can­nons, air­planes, rock­ets and nu­clear power changed the face of com­bat, so, too, will a new gen­er­a­tion of weapons on the draw­ing boards — not just in Amer­ica but also in China, In­dia and other ad­vanced tech­no­log­i­cal na­tions.

Here’s a hint of the com­ing com­pe­ti­tion: In 2010, China matched theUnited States in the num­ber of rocket launches into space (15), the first time any nation has equaled the United States, ac­cord­ing to Wired mag­a­zine’s “Dan­ger Room” blog. Mean­while, ac­cord­ing to Avi­a­tion Week, peace­ful Ja­pan is plan­ning to put a di­rected-en­ergy weapon on its nextgen­er­a­tion fighter.

The re­al­ity that war­fare is chang­ing has half-dawned on the Pen­tagon. The Navy and Air Force in par­tic­u­lar are de­vel­op­ing ex­otic weapons sys­tems that use ev­ery trick of sci­ence. Here are a few ex­am­ples I pulled from de­fense pub­li­ca­tions.

The Air Force, for ex­am­ple, has a “Di­rected En­ergy Di­rec­torate.” If you think “ray guns” are just for Buck Rogers, con­sider this pitch from one of the di­rec­torate’s pub­li­ca­tions about us­ing gamma rays, lasers, mi­crowaves and other parts of the elec­tro­mag­netic spec­trum: “In­ten­si­fy­ing and fo­cus­ing these waves can pro­duce a va­ri­ety of di­rected en­ergy con­cepts ca­pa­ble of be­ing de­vel­oped into a highly ef­fec­tive weapons class arse­nal.”

The Navy has a “Mar­itime Laser Demon­stra­tion” project that seeks to build a ship­board laser can­non by 2014. Its first sea test was halted in Novem­ber be­cause of a mal­func­tion, but it will be back. So will the Air Force, whose test of an air­borne, megawatt-class chem­i­cal laser failed in Oc­to­ber.

And while we’re dis­cussing tests of spooky sys­tems, how about an Air Force con­tract awarded last month to bom­bard com­put­ers with high-pow­ered elec­tro­mag­netic ra­di­a­tion, to see when they fail. The ob­jec­tive, says Wired’s Spencer Ack­er­man, is to “ learn how to fry the other guy’s elec­tron­ics while pro­tect­ing your own.”

What wor­ries me is that even as the mil­i­tary looks for­ward, the brass is still clam­or­ing to build the legacy sys­tems— think air­craft-car­rier bat­tle groups — that will soon be vul­ner­a­ble to the new weapons. It’s as if the Pen­tagon were try­ing to be the old IBM, run­ning big, clunky main­frames while try­ing to be an Ap­ple-like in­no­va­tor. We can’t af­ford to do both.

The puz­zle to pon­der in 2011 and be­yond is how the United States can re­tain the “ legacy power” ben­e­fits that come from con­ven­tional fleets and bases around the world while tran­si­tion­ing to the new re­al­i­ties of mil­i­tary power. We don’t want to be the na­tional equiv­a­lent of a train com­pany at the ad­vent of air travel, or a ra­dio net­work try­ing to pro­tect its old pro­gram­ming in the age of tele­vi­sion.

I come back to Shen, the Chi­nese an­a­lyst. He says that he’s grate­ful that the United States is will­ing to spend so many bil­lions of dol­lars to pro­tect the sea lanes on which China de­pends for its global com­merce. But in­stead of com­pet­ing to build ships and tanks, he says, China will fo­cus on the weapons that can crip­ple them. Some­how, we need to stop be­ing the suck­ers when it comes to de­fense.

We can’t stop “fight­ing the last war” when we’re in the mid­dle of it. But it’s time to think more about the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of ex­ist­ing sys­tems and whether there are ways to cut sharply the Pen­tagon’s “ legacy” bud­get, even as we spend more for the new age.

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