Peering into America’s Military Blind Spots: High-Impact Long Shots

Enduring Freedom

The national security establishment is currently facing criticism for a perceived failure to anticipate Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the capture of a swathe of Iraqi territory by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, and the political upheaval of the Arab Spring. The American public expects its leaders to be prepared for such contingencies while also addressing familiar challenges, like terrorism or China’s increasing assertiveness.

The breadth and rising tempo of potential crises, coupled with fiscal constraints, means that national security leaders can’t hope to be fully prepared for all contingencies. But continually focusing on the problem of the day creates blind spots when it comes to low likelihood but extremely disruptive factors. It is one thing to be caught off guard by the anticipatable actions of a nation or even a non-state actor; it is far more serious to be surprised by a new method of warfare.

If there was ever a time to be on guard against disruptions that can upend America’s strategic position, it is now. Taking stock of long-shot, high-impact surprises does not mean waiting until the consensus wisdom, or the events at hand, catch up. The national security community should not shy away from constantly challenging the assumptions that it relies on to build everything from budgets covering hundreds of billions of dollars to operation plans for the armed forces.

The Center for a New American Security’s Creative Disruption Task Force surveyed defense experts on the most disruptive elements for the future of America’s defense industry and strategic position. The surveys on the the Future Defense Environment, Technology Trends and Security Implications, and Implications of Emerging Technologies for the Future of Warfare, covered a sweep of time and technology through 2030, and in some cases beyond.

One of the most valuable insights was how respondents revealed potential blind spots for the United States in the factors or outcomes believed to be the least likely to be disruptive. The surveys also showed how the national security community’s own preferences can influence its ability to anticipate the future.

Only 4% of survey respondents believed that emerging technologies would disrupt hardware production by 2030. The disruptive potential of software capabilities, whether cyber security or social media, is clear today. However, the emerging “maker” movement that melds 3D printing, robotics and grassroots engineering (among other disciplines), Google’s acquisition of Boston Dynamics and other robotics firms and the creative weapons development in Libya and Syria show an increasing potential for hardware to be similarly disruptive.

Only 1% of respondents thought Iran would be a top arms exporter in the year 2030. However, Iran’s exports, largely focused on support to violent non-state actors, are already proving highly disruptive and surprising to other states in the region. These exports already include domestically produced rocket-propelled grenade launchers, anti-tank missiles, rockets and UAVs. These weapons have made their way to Lebanon, Syria, Sudan and Somalia. As their technological ability continues to rise, what impact might this small percentage of global arms sales have on the regional security environment?

48% of survey respondents believed that emerging technologies would be disruptive to non-state actors’ concepts of operation and doctrine. This means that those groups will either come up with new ways of operating or face defeat. Prior innovations in these areas led to the attacks of 9/11, the bombing of the USS Cole and an amphibious terrorist raid on Mumbai. What will be next?

The majority of survey respondents believed that it is unlikely that non-state actors would develop autonomous weapons systems. Autonomy is still in its infancy and remains largely in the control of developed nations. But the rate of diffusion of new technologies continues to increase. The world’s first outdoor flock of autonomous systems was built in Hungary, not the United States, and much of the development is commercial. Non-state actors with access to inexpensive swarms of autonomous, even semi-autonomous, systems could prove hugely disruptive to U.S. forces.

One point the survey did not address was the likelihood of an adversary totally denying U.S. forces network and communications access before or during military operations. While it can be hard to prove a negative, any smart adversary is working on finding ways to fight on its terms. For the asymmetric-minded, that means targeting the electronic networks and satellite assets so crucial to the American way of war. China’s investment in anti-satellite technology showcases an example of a capability that could leave the U.S. military in the dark.

The Department of Defense has an agency dedicated to creating and preventing strategic shocks, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It remains at the forefront of innovation and addresses many of the scenarios described here. However, DARPA operates on an annual budget that is less than a third of Samsung’s research and development budget. More troubling, the inability of the broader military industrial complex to apply its considerable capabilities to known, emerging problems means that DARPA is increasingly relied on to mitigate more straightforward risks as well as head off tomorrow’s catastrophes, all with limited resources.

Though the United States does not face an immediate existential foe like in the Cold War, the advance of technology leaves no time to waste. Solitary actors have access to increasingly destructive power once reserved for nation states while our international rivals develop new tools to work around our nation’s best defenses. It is imperative we invest in mitigating low-likelihood, high-impact threats.

The United States must focus on preventing strategic surprise in the 21st century even while dealing with daily geopolitical tumult. This means rallying the research and development and defense acquisition communities to rise to this long-range challenge with new strategies, better funding, regulatory reform and, crucially, encouragement from senior leaders and politicians. Most importantly, it means being better at the basics so we have the capacity to deal with the truly unexpected.


August Cole is a writer-in-residence at Avascent, an aerospace and defense consulting firm, and an adjunct fellow at the American Security Project.

Ben FitzGerald is the director of the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.


Photo credit: The U.S Army