The Illiberal Tide
Why the International Order Is Tilting Toward Autocracy
For almost a decade, U.S. defense officials have deemed the return of great-power competition to be the most consequential challenge to U.S. national security. In 2012, during the Obama administration, the Defense Department announced that “U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations,” such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq, marking a sharp departure from the United States’ post-9/11 defense strategy. In 2016, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter highlighted a “return to great-power of competition.” And in 2018, the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy crystallized this shift: “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security,” it declared, with a particular focus on China as the pacing threat.
Yet despite such a widespread and bipartisan acknowledgment of the challenge, the U.S. military has changed far too little to meet it. Although strategy has shifted at a high level, much about the way the Pentagon operates continues to reflect business as usual, which is inadequate to meet the growing threats posed by a rising China and a revisionist Russia. That disconnect is evident in everything from the military’s ongoing struggle to reorient its concepts of operations (that is, how it would actually fight in the future) to its training, technology acquisition, talent management, and overseas posture. Some important steps have been taken to foster defense innovation, but bureaucratic inertia has prevented new capabilities and practices from being adopted with speed and at scale.
The Biden administration has inherited a U.S. military at an inflection point. The Pentagon’s own war games reportedly show that current force plans would leave the military unable to deter and defeat Chinese aggression in the future. The Defense Department’s leadership, accordingly, must take much bigger and bolder steps to maintain the United States’ military and technological edge over great-power competitors. Otherwise, the U.S. military risks losing that edge within a decade, with profound and unsettling implications for the United States, for its allies and partners, and for the world. At stake is the United States’ ability to deter coercion, aggression, and even war in the coming decades.
Averting such an outcome will require fundamental reforms in how the Pentagon operates. But changing organizational cultures is far harder than revising defense strategy—necessitating not just a clear and compelling vision but also realigned incentive structures and greater accountability. Ultimately, the strategy will fail unless these operational changes succeed.
The imperative is clear: the U.S. military must reimagine how it fights and must make the technological and operational investments necessary to secure its edge. It’s not about spending more money; it’s about spending smarter, prioritizing investments to sharpen the military’s edge. Time is no longer on the United States’ side in this competition, and the stakes could not be higher. The Defense Department’s actions—or inaction—in the next four years will determine whether the United States is able to defend its interests and its allies against great-power threats for the next four decades.
In the months and years after 9/11, the U.S. armed forces prioritized counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda and its affiliates around the globe, especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan. After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, counterinsurgency operations consumed even more U.S. forces and more of the attention of the Defense Department’s leadership. For a decade, the wars being fought in the present left little capacity to prepare for the wars of the future.
By 2012, a small but growing chorus of defense experts began sounding the alarm that greater challenges were looming on the horizon and that the United States needed a new strategy to meet them. The shift was driven in large part by China’s more assertive behavior and new capabilities. Since the Gulf War, the Chinese military has gone to school on the American way of war. It developed an expanding set of asymmetric approaches to undermine U.S. military strengths and exploit U.S. vulnerabilities, including robust “anti-access/area-denial” (A2/AD) capabilities. These new capabilities—cyber and electronic weapons, air defenses, arsenals of precision missiles such as antiship weapons—are designed to disrupt and destroy U.S. command-and-control networks and thwart U.S. power projection into the Indo-Pacific. As a result, the U.S. military can no longer assume that it will have the freedom of action in a conflict that it could have had in the past by gaining early superiority in the air, space, cyberspace, and maritime domains. In any future conflict, U.S. forces will need to fight for advantage across these domains—and then continue fighting to keep it—in the face of continuous Chinese efforts to disrupt and degrade U.S. battle-management networks.
One necessary shift is rethinking where U.S. military forces are deployed—with a reduced focus on the greater Middle East, which, even now, accounts for about one-third of U.S. forces deployed or stationed outside the United States. An ongoing global force posture review, initiated earlier this year at the direction of the president, aims to give greater priority to deterring China, which is likely to mean drawing down forces in the Middle East in order to make more available in the Indo-Pacific. To succeed, however, this change in strategy must be matched by more than a shift in global posture; it will require a wholesale realignment of concepts, culture, service programs, and budgets. Otherwise, there will be a gradual erosion of U.S. military superiority in the face of competition from other great powers. As a consequence, the United States could no longer be confident in its ability to deter Chinese aggression or protect its interests and allies in Asia. And in the event of conflict, it would pay a far higher price in both blood and treasure. The costs of inertia and inaction are unacceptably high.
The imperative is clear: the U.S. military must reimagine how it fights.
Although the Pentagon has made some progress in stimulating innovation, it has not been at the pace or magnitude required. A number of new organizations within the Defense Department have become quite effective at surveying the technology landscape, identifying promising solutions to priority problems, and then rapidly prototyping new capabilities. The Defense Innovation Unit scouts innovation hubs such as Silicon Valley, Austin, and Route 128 in Massachusetts to partner with commercial technology companies. AFWERX and SOFWERX play a similar role for the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Special Operations Command, respectively, acting as early-stage investors to accelerate the adoption of commercial technologies for military missions. In late 2020, Will Roper, then the assistant secretary of the air force for acquisition, technology, and logistics, estimated that over the previous three years, AFWERX brought 2,300 companies into partnership with the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Space Force, most of which had never worked with the U.S. military before. But few of these efforts have been able to cross the “valley of death,” the gap between developing a successful prototype and being able to produce a system and field it at scale.
Similarly, in the last few years, the military services and the Joint Staff have belatedly begun to develop and experiment with new concepts of operations for dealing with great-power rivals. These efforts so far include ways of gaining the information advantage, coordinating long-range strikes, and providing logistical support to geographically distributed forces in a contested battle space. But they remain nascent. The Defense Department has yet to field new concepts and capabilities, rapidly and at scale, that would deter great-power rivals.
When Chinese officials or strategists look at the U.S. military today, they see key systems—those used to detect threats, to communicate and navigate, and to target enemy forces—that are vulnerable to attack. What’s more, U.S. forces will be at a growing disadvantage, both quantitatively and qualitatively, in the face of expanding Chinese military forces and Chinese investments in capabilities designed to prevent the U.S. military from getting within range of China’s shores. If Beijing believes it could thwart an effective U.S. military response, it might be tempted to use force against Taiwan or to seize additional disputed territories in the South China Sea. Such a crisis could quickly escalate into a military conflict between two nuclear-armed powers. Hence the imperative of ensuring that Chinese military action would be unsuccessful and costly—and that Chinese leaders are convinced of that fact.
So why the resistance to change? Driving change in large bureaucratic organizations is notoriously hard. In the Pentagon, it can seem nearly impossible. The prevailing bureaucratic culture remains risk averse: avoid making mistakes, don’t rock the boat, stick to existing ways of doing business. In addition, top officials face a wide variety of urgent challenges, from overseeing current operations (many of them counterterrorism in the greater Middle East and Africa) to dealing with sexual assault in the forces and extremist groups recruiting members of the military. Moreover, the most senior Defense Department leaders generally rotate through every two to three years, making it difficult for them to impel a workforce of more than 730,000 civilians and 1.3 million men and women on active duty to embrace new behaviors and hold them accountable for results. Too often, the Defense Department has also failed to bring Congress along as a partner, leaving a backdoor wide open for those who want to oppose reform (since members of Congress often protect the status quo by funding established priorities that create jobs in their districts, leaving little room in the budget for anything new).
To overcome this inertia, the new Pentagon leadership must do more than make great-power competition a top priority in the Biden administration’s first National Defense Strategy, likely to be released later this year or early next year. Even more important, great-power competition must be a top priority when it comes to the way senior officials and officers spend their time and political capital. Change of the necessary magnitude simply will not happen without senior Defense Department leaders clearing the way and driving it forward every single day.
The first step must be developing new concepts of operations for deterring and defeating great-power aggression in more contested and lethal environments—a task just as important as that of equipping U.S. forces with new capabilities. History shows that new concepts can be even more powerful than new technologies alone. For example, although tanks were introduced during World War I by the British, they did not have a major impact until World War II, when the Germans married this new capability with the concept of blitzkrieg, using tanks with mechanized infantry and close air support to break through Allied lines.
Fundamentally reforming how U.S. forces fight will require a wholesale shift in mindset. The U.S. military is used to having the upper hand in any conventional military situation. It expects to be able to rapidly gain superiority in any domain—in the air, on the land, at sea. In the near future, however, this is unlikely to be the case when the United States is up against another great power. Both Beijing and Moscow have invested in cyber, electronic, and kinetic weapons designed to disrupt the ability of U.S. forces to deploy, navigate, communicate, and strike, as well as layer upon layer of defenses to shoot down U.S. aircraft and sink U.S. ships before they can get within range of their targets.
Time is no longer on the United States’ side in this competition, and the stakes could not be higher.
Given these new capabilities, U.S. planners and commanders must think about how to asymmetrically counter an adversary’s advantages—including the fact that U.S. forces are likely to be outnumbered and under persistent attack in any conflict. Rather than being confident that they can destroy the adversary’s defenses upfront and then operate with relative impunity, U.S. forces must expect to remain under attack throughout their operations. Under such conditions, U.S. warfighting concepts can no longer rely on attrition-based warfare—the notion that the side that can inflict the greater losses in personnel and materiel will prevail, which has long shaped U.S. war planning. Instead, they must shift to more creative approaches to deterring an adversary, by disrupting its ability to see and target U.S. forces while also putting its critical forces at risk. That could mean, for example, using cyberattacks; electronic warfare, such as signals jamming; and swarms of unmanned aerial vehicles to confuse or blind an adversary’s surveillance and targeting systems.
The good news is that all the military services and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have been working to develop new ways of fighting. The bad news is that these concepts are still mostly in a Power-Point stage. Defense Department and military leaders must put considerably more resources—both financial and intellectual—into accelerating the development, testing, and refinement of new concepts for both deterrence and operations.
Conceptual innovation needs four key ingredients: a mandate from the top to break with current doctrine, a genuine competition of ideas, an approach that engages as many of the brightest people with as diverse a range of experiences and perspectives as possible, and a willingness to check rank and position at the door, to allow for the possibility that the best ideas may come from the most junior participants. Both the military services and the Joint Staff must alter their approaches to include these ingredients.
Fundamentally reforming how U.S. forces fight will require a wholesale shift in mindset.
The secretary of defense should also establish a forum of senior leaders to review and debate alternative proposals, in order to identify gaps and to support the development of the most promising concepts. Such support must involve considerably more analysis, war-gaming, and experimentation in the field. Creating a virtuous cycle—from concept development to war-gaming to experimentation—would help turn promising ideas into usable new concepts. It would generate a clear demand signal, build buy-in from senior leaders who must make difficult but necessary tradeoffs, and begin to shift the culture of and approaches to warfighting in the military services themselves.
Investing in training will also be essential. Consider the Navy SEALs, which since 9/11 have been heavily used in land-based counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations. In the future, the SEALs’ role should be very different, centered more on maritime and clandestine operations, which will be critical to deterring China across the Indo-Pacific. Making this shift will require investments not only in equipping the force with new, cutting-edge capabilities but also in giving them the time and space to reorient their training and development. Similar modifications will be necessary across the entire force.
In addition, defense leaders will have to institute a more disciplined approach to force management—that is, where and when U.S. forces are deployed for routine operations around the world. The regional combatant commands all naturally want resources for their respective areas. The secretary of defense must curb their appetite for force deployments in places where a degree of risk can and should be managed. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff should play a key role here, providing concrete recommendations on where the United States should be willing to accept more risk in order to shift more resources to the places that matter most.
This assessment should be accompanied by a review of contingency plans relevant to China and Russia, where new concepts and capabilities are needed especially urgently, as well as an appraisal of how basing arrangements and security-assistance programs can be strengthened. The Strategic Capabilities Office—which tests the use of existing capabilities in novel ways to give commanders new options in the near term—has been underutilized in recent years. It should be empowered to identify new ways of using current U.S. capabilities to strengthen deterrence against China and Russia—be it putting the U.S. Navy’s long-range antiship munitions on U.S. Air Force bombers or enabling U.S. fighters to disperse hundreds of microdrones to conduct surveillance or overwhelm an adversary’s air defenses.
The Pentagon leadership also needs to rethink how it decides what to buy. In the wake of the pandemic, defense budgets are likely to be constrained, which will require hard choices and smarter spending. Today, the Defense Department is investing too much in legacy platforms and weapons systems already enshrined in the budget—such as tactical fighter aircraft and large surface ships—at the expense of the new technologies that will determine whether such platforms can survive and succeed in a more contested future. Too frequently, major acquisition decisions are framed in terms of replacing one aging platform with another more modern version of the same thing (such as replacing fourth-generation fighters with fifth-generation fighters), instead of asking the more fundamental question of how a given mission (such as achieving air superiority) can be performed most effectively and affordably. Consequently, the discussion narrows to focus on platform replacements rather than considering how to use new technologies and capabilities to solve problems in new ways.
The Pentagon must change its basic approach, adopting a portfolio-management strategy: for each mission, it should identify the mix of capabilities that would produce the best outcomes at an acceptable cost and risk. That would allow decision-makers to make informed tradeoffs between competing procurement priorities. Based on these priorities, the Pentagon could send clearer signals to industry, in order to stimulate private-sector investment in the technologies most critical to sharpening the U.S. military’s edge.
In recent years, Defense Department spending in such areas as artificial intelligence (AI), autonomy, unmanned systems, and high-powered computing has been unpredictable and uneven. Spending varies year by year and is spread across multiple, not clearly visible accounts, weakening the signal being sent to industry to invest alongside the government in priority areas. To send a more powerful message to industry, including venture-backed cutting-edge technology companies, and to attract capital to augment public R & D investment, the secretary of defense should announce a set of “big bets”—areas in which the Defense Department intends to invest billions of dollars in emerging technologies over the next five years. Such areas could include developing a secure and resilient “network of networks” for what is known as C4ISR—command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance—which enables U.S. forces to continue to operate effectively even in the face of enemy attacks; using AI to help warfighters make better decisions faster or to deploy fleets of autonomous systems teamed with human operators; developing logistical solutions to support a more distributed force; and strengthening cyber-capabilities to protect legacy weapons in the face of China’s A2/AD capabilities.
One of the biggest obstacles to fielding emerging capabilities quickly is the traditional requirements process—the painstaking procedure the military uses to define the performance specifications for every major weapons system it buys. Designed to ensure that the Defense Department has fully specified its needs when purchasing complex weapons systems, this rigid, sequential, years-long process is antithetical to the agile, iterative development necessary for making progress on new capabilities.
A better acquisition process would be differentiated, distinguishing between major hardware platforms, such as a new bomber or aircraft carrier, and emerging technologies, such as AI, 5G, robotics, biotechnology, quantum computing, and directed-energy weapons (such as lasers and rail guns). Rather than setting requirements in stone upfront, agile development methods allow for iterative design and testing, with ample opportunities for interaction and feedback among engineers, operators, and program managers. This approach has begun to be used in pockets across the services (especially in the air force), Special Operations Command, and the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center. And last year, the Department of Defense published a new “adaptive acquisition framework,” which aims to enable the more rapid and agile procurement of software systems. But much more is required. A good start would be adopting the recommendations of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, an independent federal commission, including its advice on training and educating the defense workforce and investing in digital technologies. Although focused on AI, these recommendations would accelerate the adoption of other new technologies, as well.
The Defense Department also needs a better way of helping promising prototypes cross the so-called valley of death and make it to production—one of the biggest hurdles to fielding emerging capabilities at scale. Part of the problem is the disconnect between the officials sponsoring the prototypes and the officials responsible for acquisition. A technology company may win a prototype competition, only to be told that it must wait 12 to 18 months to compete for a production contract. Unless this valley of death is bridged, many investors will counsel their companies to stay away from the defense market.
That will require new types of funding to help companies transition from a prototype to production. One approach would be to ask Congress to authorize bridge funds, managed and allocated by the Defense Department’s undersecretary for research and engineering, for which each service could compete. More fundamentally, it will require altering the training and incentives of acquisition officials, who must be given the tools and encouragement to use flexible authorities and agile development for emerging technologies. A sub-cadre of officials—Pentagon “product managers,” with tailored training, performance metrics, rewards, and career paths—could focus on integrating best practices for agile development from the commercial sector. Over time, these product managers would become the Green Berets of technology acquisition.
The Defense Department will also need to update its digital infrastructure—everything from cloud computing to AI development tools to data storage and management systems—to support more rapid innovation. There have been ongoing delays in upgrading and investing in software development and digital design, with a corresponding gap in physical science and technology infrastructure spending, impeding the Defense Department’s ability to keep up with testing and development in areas such as AI. According to a 2017 study by the Defense Science Board, a committee of experts who advise the Department of Defense on scientific matters, the average army lab is 50 years old.
The final obstacle is the shortage of technology talent across the Defense Department’s workforce, both civilian and military—a “digital readiness crisis,” in the words of a March 2020 report by the Defense Innovation Board. Existing recruitment programs are both too small and too narrowly focused on cybersecurity, and the existing tools for “nontraditional” hiring are hardly used. The barriers to recruiting technology talent—a security clearance process that can take years and an opaque, antiquated, and painfully slow hiring process that averages 150 days—are considerable. And the relatively limited pay, professional-development opportunities, and career paths for technologists make it difficult to retain the small pool of technology talent that the Defense Department does manage to recruit.
Although most coding and engineering will continue to be done by private industry, the Pentagon needs a skilled technology workforce of its own. It should assess its talent needs across its innovation network and throughout the product lifecycle and start fully using the hiring authorities it has, while also creating new career paths for STEM graduates from the service academies and the Reserve Officer Training Corps. A new Defense Department digital corps would also help, as would partnerships with nonprofits and the private sector to allow highly skilled personnel to do a tour of duty working on national security without making a permanent career change. Technology companies could also do much more to help, by encouraging their own employees to take up such opportunities and by offering public servants more technology training and exposure to the private sector.
Efforts by the new Defense Department leadership team, under Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, to increase diversity and inclusiveness will also enhance the Pentagon’s performance. Developing a military force and a civilian defense cadre that look more like the American people they are sworn to protect is not just a social good; it will lead to teams that are likely to make better decisions and drive progress toward an even higher-performing military.
Strategy can be changed with the stroke of a pen, but changing culture means altering how human beings actually behave, which is considerably more complicated. It requires a clearly communicated vision from the top, sustained leadership engagement, buy-in from managers at multiple levels, revised incentives to realign behavior toward desired outcomes, and a greater emphasis on holding people accountable for results. Consider a simple example. When I served as undersecretary of defense for policy, I sought to prioritize training and professional development in order to improve staff morale and performance. For starters, every employee would receive two weeks of training per year. Supervisors nodded their heads in agreement. But in the weeks that followed, few training requests came in, just excuses about why it couldn’t be done. Only when I clarified that no supervisor could receive the highest performance-evaluation rating unless his or her office met the new requirement did behavior change: I received hundreds of training requests in a matter of weeks. Sharpening the military’s edge requires a whole host of these kinds of behavior changes. They will succeed only if incentives are aligned to reward and promote the changes required for success and people are held accountable for delivering results at all levels.
If the Pentagon maintains its inherited course, the United States’ ability to deter coercion and aggression will atrophy over the coming decade. That is especially dangerous as it relates to China: given Beijing’s persistent assumption that the United States is in decline, Chinese leaders could become increasingly aggressive, using their growing political, economic, and military might to pursue their claims in the East China and South China Seas or with Taiwan. The risk of miscalculation—and conflict—will rise sharply as a result.
A decline in relative military power would also undermine U.S. credibility with allies and partners across the Indo-Pacific, making it difficult to reassure them of the United States’ ability to deliver on commitments to their security. Some smaller countries would likely bend to Chinese coercion and influence in ways that could affect not only regional stability but also trade and economic relationships critical to U.S. economic recovery and future growth. Larger countries might pursue more independent security policies that could range from appeasing Beijing to acquiring their own nuclear weapons as a deterrent, neither of which would be in U.S. interests. Overall, U.S. influence would diminish in the very region on which the future prosperity and security of Americans most depends, lowering perceptions of U.S. power and leadership globally.
Averting this deterioration would not only have security benefits; it would also help reverse the narrative of U.S. decline and bolster American confidence at home. Changing the Pentagon is just one part of a larger effort to reinvest in the domestic drivers of U.S. competitiveness—from innovation and infrastructure to education and immigration. This moment offers a chance to do more than strengthen the military. It is a chance to strengthen the country.
The Erosion of American Deterrence Raises the Risk of Chinese Miscalculation