Dec. 20, 2017

The Waverider hypersonic Scramjet just before its second test flight, in June 2011. Photo: Boeing

Dec. 15, 2017—


A new era of “great power competition” is underway, and the US will have to come to terms with the fact that it’s no longer the world’s sole superpower, but one of several. Accommodating that reality—and the likelihood of only modest increases in defense spending—means the US should fully train and equip the military it has and focus tightly on being able to “win our nation’s wars” without any warning time.

This assessment, delivered by former Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work at the US Naval Institute in December, may be as close as the public gets to a glimpse of the new National Military Strategy, reportedly in its final stages of coordination in December. Work served as the No. 2 man at the Pentagon from April 2014 to July 2017, under both the Obama and Trump administrations. He directed all the Pentagon’s strategy reviews and weapons programs and was privy to the most classified assessments of US and adversary capabilities. More than perhaps anyone else, he knows how the US stacks up against its competition.

Work said the US will have to “unlearn the lessons” of the last 26 years when the post-Cold War world offered no existential military challenges to the US. This was a “period so strategically favorable to the US,” which had “uncontested … supremacy” in all things military, leading to complacency in many areas.That era ended in 2014 when China felt confident enough in its power—both “soft” economic and diplomatic power and “hard” military power—to embark on its South China Sea island-building campaign, directly challenging the US. Russia, in the same year, invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea, apparently unconcerned about a US response. These events were a clear sign of great powers trying to “secure their near-abroads” and challenge the US for power and influence, Work observed. The era might even have ended sooner, in 2008, when Russia threatened military consequences if NATO continued expanding, he allowed.Today, US “hard power is declining … with a vengeance” relative to its challengers, Work asserted.

“Don’t rule out the ideological component, either,” he added. While the US has not been as aggressive recently in its campaign to spread democracy, its challengers are vigorously trying to “make the world safe for authoritarianism.” Accompanying that is a “general intensification of world disorder,” with political and technological disruptions and a “pronounced uncertainty about the willingness and staying power of Western democracy.” For at least the next 25 years, the world will be in a “very, very chaotic period,” Work assessed.During this era, the most important technologies will be in automation and artificial intelligence (AI), he predicted. These will enable militaries to function much faster, from the strategic and operational levels down to the tactical, and that will be the key to victory. For example, great strides are being made in “cognitive” electronic warfare, in which machine intelligence figures out what the enemy is doing, second by second, and counters it.


In recent defense white papers, China has boldly declared that it will pull even with the West in automation and AI by 2020, be better than anyone else in those disciplines by 2025, and be dominant in such technologies by 2030. China’s rapid rise in other technology pursuits suggests these aren’t idle boasts, Work added.China is pursuing asymmetric strategies to counter US advantages and one of those is to exploit “near-space,” by taking a lead in hypersonics.“China has said, ‘We’re going to compete and dominate in hypersonics,’?” Work pointed out—flatly acknowledging that China is already the world leader in this area. “Our geo-strategic rivals … are competing with us, hard.”Work offered a checklist of challenges that must be addressed if the US is to remain militarily competitive in the coming decades; a period in which technological advantage will again seesaw between the great powers and in which there will be more of them.

First, the US must somehow both “compete with the other great powers while avoiding great power war,” he said. Second, this will require the ability to deter and respond to “old and new means of strategic attack,” including nuclear as well as cyber warfare. The latter can be practically as devastating as a nuclear attack if an enemy chose, for example, to crash the US electrical grid.The third challenge will be to manage the “destabilization, disintegration, and re-integration” of various alliances, nations, and regions of the world, Work said, specifically urging a focus on the potential rearrangement of alliances in the Middle East.Fourth, the US needs to develop a new and credible concept for deterring and dealing with “nuclear-armed minor powers” such as North Korea and potentially Iran.Fifth will be a push to “restore conventional overmatch” with competitors. Work said the US no longer enjoys a lopsided conventional advantage. “We are at parity now,” he warned.Rather than try to build more Air Force fighter squadrons, Army brigades, or Navy ships, Work said it will be more effective to “hone the force we have” and make sure the existing force structure is thoroughly manned, trained, and equipped. The US is, and will remain, “very, very good” militarily, and if it is well prepared—Work specifically urged that forces be “over-provisioned” and weapons inventories more than fully stocked—it will present a formidable deterrent to any adversary.Organizationally, Work said the US has overindulged in training deployments. American power has been dissipated by sending an endless stream of ships, aircraft, and troops to war games around the world, pulling them away from other missions. Better to send “training teams” that can observe and offer guidance, Work said, because these deployments actually degrade readiness.Work also urged a reorientation of assets toward more existential conflicts and competitions. He related that former NSA chief, USAF Gen. Michael V. Hayden, complained that when Russia invaded Ukraine, the US was practically blind in that area because “everything was tuned to … low-frequency radio” transmissions in Afghanistan.

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Work pushed the “Third Offset” initiative he championed while in office, insisting the US must press hard to achieve leap-ahead technology advances just to keep up with its competition. As part of this, the US must move deliberately to be able to fight in space and have the resilience to “fight through” losses of satellite systems.The Budget Control Act will persist until 2021, and he sees little sign of it being repealed, meaning a probable series of continuing resolutions or two-year budget deals. What the military urgently needs is a five-year assured plan to function properly, he asserted.

One option—and the one which Congress has resorted to for several years—is to fund essential needs with the Overseas Contingency Operations [OCO] account. One of Work’s slides listed this option as “OCO the s#!t out of it.”Under the defense budget proposed a year ago, Work said it’s likely the services will wind up, practically, with about $30 billion more in usable funds. That’s far from what’s needed, but, “You can do a lot—a lot—with $30 billion” to fix readiness problems.Rather than attempt to grow the military, the Pentagon should fill empty billets and “empty missile holes,” Work said. Any adversary must look at well-stocked, well-trained US forces and conclude that “if they go after [us], it will be the worst day of their lives.” US forces will be far more credible if they are viewed as having the capability to fight all-out without notice. Work said it’s unfortunate the entire nuclear enterprise has atrophied so much that every element of it must be modernized all at once, but it must be done.“We are way, way behind on recapitalization,” he said, adding “all the margin is gone.” Every new nuclear program—from the Ohio-class ballistic submarine, to new B-21 bombers and missiles for the Air Force, to land-based ICBMs—has to be replaced, he insisted.

“About three percent” of the defense budget goes to nuclear forces, Work said, and modernization will double that figure to six percent. It’s unlikely there will be “any extra money to do it,” so that additional three percent will be “a decrement to the conventional forces;” another reason to resist trying to build a larger military.


Once touted as the Air Force’s fourth-highest modernization priority—after the F-35 strike fighter, the KC-46 tanker, and B-21 bomber—a replacement of the E-8 JSTARS ground moving target radar platform seemed headed toward cancellation in December.

Senior Air Force leaders acknowledged in September they were reconsidering the JSTARS Recap program, worried that a big intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platform would be too lucrative a target for enemies in a future war. USAF Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein and Secretary Heather Wilson told reporters at AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference they were thinking instead about a disaggregated network of sensors on platforms already in the battlespace, which would be hard to knock out.Air Combat Command chief Gen. James “Mike” Holmes told an AFA Mitchell Institute gathering in late November that, as envisioned, JSTARS Recap can’t do the job originally anticipated.“We don’t think that a JSTARS Recap will give us the capability we need” in contested airspace, he said. At the time, the Air Force had not yet decided whether to simply dump the program—on the eve of selecting a contractor to build it—or go ahead, but with the proviso that it would only be used in more benign environments. In either case, USAF will need “a global capability that could do that [mission] on any battlefield,” Holmes said. The service is reviewing with sister services and allies other ways it could do the less-demanding mission. Two alternatives might be the RQ-4 Global Hawk remotely piloted aircraft or the Navy’s P-8 Poseidon patrol aircraft, Holmes said.As originally envisioned, JSTARS reveals large enemy vehicle formations and their movements, but there are other ways of defining that information now, Holmes said. In recent years, JSTARS has been used increasingly to watch individual vehicles and “dismounted” people and is “frankly … too expensive” to be used in such a way, he asserted.In late November, the Air Force picked Northrop Grumman over Raytheon to develop the large radar that would be the core JSTARS sensor; a contract separate from that of outfitting and integrating a small fleet of airplanes for the mission. Raytheon, in a brief statement, said it believed “the evaluation process had significant flaws, and we have filed a protest accordingly.” The Air Force said the Government Accountability Office has 100 days from the date of the protest to render a decision.Three companies were in the running for the JSTARS contract, expected to be awarded in the spring of 2018: Boeing, with a version of its 737, in a configuration similar to that of the P-8; Lockheed Martin, with a solution hosted on a Global Express business jet; and Northrop Grumman, offering a system mounted on a Gulfstream G550 business jet. The new aircraft was to be in service by 2024.