Technology Enables 21st Century Global Stability

Technology Enables 21st Century Global Stability
The cost-benefit case for the United States performing this role is rapidly becoming untenable. With few exceptions, North America is uniquely self-sufficient.
Technology Briefing


Since World War II the world has experienced a period of relative peace and soaring prosperity. And that’s been especially true since the end of the Cold War in 1991. As explained in Trends’ May 2022 issue, this extraordinary era was made possible only because the United States played a pivotal role as facilitator and guarantor of the unprecedented global trading system. Anyone unfamiliar with those facts should take a few minutes to examine that trend.

In the 2020s the world faces a stark reality: the cost-benefit case for the United States performing this role is rapidly becoming untenable. With few exceptions, North America is uniquely self-sufficient in terms of minerals, food, energy, human capital, consumer markets, and financial resources; and from a national security perspective, it’s defended on all sides by vast oceans or dependent allies. Meanwhile, the U.S. still plays a crucial role in protecting global commerce, promoting free trade and providing a universally accepted common currency.

Therefore, in the 21st century, the world needs the United States more than the United States needs the world. Furthermore, as we’ve previously explained, there is no other nation or foreseeable alliance which has the ability to assume America’s role as the linchpin of a genuinely global economy. There are many reasons for this but the most obvious is America’s ability to project military power anywhere, at any time. That means America’s leadership depends vitally on its unique military superiority.

While China and Russia can claim regional advantages, only the United States, with the help of its allies can project overwhelming power, anywhere & anytime. Unfortunately, maintaining that capability requires the United States to spend more than the world’s next ten largest military budgets, combined. When the United States needed to thwart an expansionary Soviet Union, it was willing to “pay any price to ensure freedom.” And even after the “evil empire” retired to “the dustbin of history,” ensuring access to foreign markets, foreign energy and cheap foreign manufacturing seemed worth the investment.

But that all began to unravel with the rise of fracking and the supply-chain crises associated with the pandemic. Today, maintaining military bases around the globe and filling them with thousands of ships and planes as well as related personnel, is being questioned by more and more Americans. But what if technology could revolutionize defense in such a way as to make the burden more affordable and shareable? Right now, breakthroughs in AI, sensors, and directed energy technology are converging to potentially make global security more cost-effective.

Consider the facts. Throughout history, innovation and geopolitical success have been intertwined. This relationship has been clear at least since the introduction of horses and chariots in the bronze age. And it continued with the introduction of iron weapons, stirrups, gunpowder, radar and nuclear weapons, to name just a few game-changers. In each case, the nation which most effectively deployed the new technology, gained a decisive advantage for decades, if not centuries, to come.

In today’s world, where available information is estimated to double every seven years, technological advantage is larger and more fleeting than in prior eras. The United States faces a demographic crisis that is adversely affecting the availability of military-age personnel. And the same is true of the other OECD countries, as well as Latin America, China, Russia, Korea, Japan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. India and sub-Saharan Africa are the only major exceptions.

Given limited traditional resources the world faces two possible futures. In one future scenario, the United States chooses to “turn inward,” focusing on the medium-term needs of its voters and taxpayers. That would mean elimination of military bases and troop deployments around the world. Doing so would reduce costs and potential casualties, while the opportunity cost to American consumers would be hard to quantify. The downside for the rest of the world could be enormous as global trade plummets and shortages abound.

We’re getting a taste of what that might look like in 2022. And this is the easiest scenario to imagine. A second scenario involves the United States leveraging its advantages with respect to technology and alliances to dramatically lower the capital and human costs of maintaining the postwar global system which has brought so much health, happiness and affluence to the world.

While this future is more difficult to imagine, it’s certainly more appealing for managers, investors and long-term national security. As we’ve recently learned from the war in Ukraine, superb intelligence, superior logistics and tactical precision can render overwhelming manpower and firepower meaningless. Notably, competitive advantages in intelligence, logistics, and precision depend on technologies which, in turn, benefit from Moore’s Law, Network Effects and the Learning Curve.

As explained in the Trends September 2022 cover story, by shifting the competitive terrain from areas which play to Chinese and Russian strengths to those dependent on Western strengths, America and its allies are creating an advantage that’s difficult to overcome in the timeframe of decades, and it gives the West time to let demographics and market pressures take their toll on our opponents. This sort of strategic judo should come as no surprise to the Russians. Just as the World War II Soviets could afford to “back up” across the enormous Russian steppes, letting the Germans waste their resources, America can let its 21st century antagonists frantically build semiconductor fabs and try to gain indispensable parity in AI, networks and robotics, while it moves forward to new heights.

America’s strategic dilemma rest on the high costrelative-to-GDP of maintaining its global defense network. So, the key is to grow GDP at a much faster rate than defense spending. And this depends on using technology to improve cost-effectiveness related to intelligence, logistics, and precision, while limiting our adversaries’ access to state-of-the-art capabilities.

What does this mean? America’s $800+ billion annual Defense budget involves routine personnel costs, consumables, capital spending and R&D. Reducing personnel costs and casualties depends on taking as many people as possible out of the equation and placing those who remain, “out of harm’s way.” Fortunately, artificial intelligence is uniquely well-suited to achieving this objective.

Why? Because AI can help make almost every task, from the mundane to the lethal, more efficient. It’s already useful in tasks ranging from screening résumés to recognizing patterns in data to help soldiers make quicker decisions on the battlefield. Image recognition software can help with identifying targets. AI-based autonomous drones also can be used for surveillance as well as attacks on land, air, or water. And AI can help deliver supplies more safely, via land, sea, and air.

In assessing the implications for enhanced performance and reduced cost in the defense sector, it’s important to realize that AI is just part of a broader technology ecosystem which creates heretofore unimaginable capabilities. Ubiquitous computing, robotics, and quantum computing all play key roles in creating seamless solutions which almost always depend on AI. And that’s particularly true as joint air, sea and ground operations become indispensable.

What’s the bottom line? The biggest question of the 2020s is whether the post-war global system created for the Cold War era can be preserved and continue to support globalized affluence and security. The answer depends on whether the United States continues to underwrite the system. That will only happen if Americans see that doing so will benefit them as a nation and as individuals. This is possible if we harness leading-edge technologies including ubiquitous computer networked Air, Sea, Land and Space Resources, AI, robotics and quantum computing to build a highly cost-effective defense mechanism enabling high-performance intelligence, flexible logistics and precision firepower.

Such an eco-system will integrate air, sea, space and ground capabilities to provide better value. And by using fewer people and flexible platforms, costs, casualties and mistakes will be reduced. If this fails, the United States is likely to relinquish its central role in global affairs and simply settle for being “first among equals.” Under that scenario, countries which benefited so much from globalization will suffer. And the developing world may never have a chance to flourish.

Given this trend, we offer the following forecasts for your consideration. First, through at least 2030, U.S. spending on military artificial intelligence will grow rapidly in order to address threats from China and Russia, while compensating for a recruitment shortfall. The U.S. National Security Commission on AI (or NSCAI) chaired by Google’s former CEO Eric Schmidt, said in a 2021 report that the U.S. military needs to invest $8 billion a year into these technologies through 2025 or risk falling behind China. Similarly, Palantir’s CEO insisted that the DoD needs to aggressively embrace AI.

Compared to 2014, this represents a sea-change within Silicon Valley; back then, Google employees forced the company to pull out of Project Maven, a program focused on using AI to improve targeting of terrorists with military drones. Second, despite American impediments, China will try to pursue military artificial intelligence applications over the coming decade and beyond.

An October 2021 report from the Center for Security and Emerging Technology indicated that China’s PLA has been spending at least $1.6 billion a year on military AI. One area involves development of autonomous vehicles and surveillance systems in the undersea domain. Another involves adaptive radar systems designed to jam and blind U.S. sensors and information networks.

Notably, Chinese military leaders expect AI to fundamentally change warfare and transform the PLA by 2050. New initiatives which limit China’s access to Western hardware and software will play a major role in stymieing this effort. Third, networked squadrons of air, sea, and land vehicles will multiply their capabilities minimizing casualties, reducing costs, and maximizing effectiveness. For example, including autonomous surface ships, submarines and aerial drones in “carrier task groups” will dramatically increase their data collection capabilities and electronic countermeasures resources, as well as offensive and defensive firepower.

Combined with the latest air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles as well as directed energy weapons, this AI-based networked fleet will be nearly invulnerable, except to strategic nuclear weapons. Army ground units with autonomous fighting and logistical vehicles will have similar capabilities involving swarms of aerial drones and vehicle mounted directed energy weapons. In this same way, manned aircraft will be surrounded by a squadron of autonomous aircraft that may lack the pricy stealth features of the manned aircraft but will have data collection, electronic countermeasures and firepower needed to support the manned mission.

Fourth, drone ships will make up at least 25% of the U.S. Navy by 2045. The U.S. Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations’ Navigation Plan 2022 calls for 373 manned ships and 150 unmanned ships for a total of 523 ships by 2045. These unmanned ships will include deep-diving submarines as well as surface vessels. This will go a long way toward enabling the United States and its allies to support global trade, while spending substantially less money as a percent of GDP.

Fifth, the navy’s ORCA autonomous submarine project will set the stage for exciting breakthroughs in cost-effective AI based defense systems. To date, the Navy has purchased five diesel-electric ORCAs from Boeing for testing. Several Orcas could be controlled by a single shore-based crew, with the autonomous submarines operating independently for days or even weeks at a time. The modular payload system and open architecture software ensure Orca could be rapidly configured based on need. For missions such as anti-submarine warfare, dozens of comparatively inexpensive Orcas could saturate an area, for the cost of a single surface ship or manned submarine.

Unlike manned subs, they are able to operate in dangerous waters without risking human lives. As such, an Orca could pretend to be a full-size submarine, waiting for an enemy submarine to take a shot while a real Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarine sits back, waiting to ambush it. Furthermore, Orcas could take on the most dangerous missions, such as laying mines in heavily defended waters.

U.S. Naval Institute News reports that Orcas will be capable of mine countermeasures, anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, and strike missions. For instance, Orcas could be configured with sonar payloads that would detect enemy submarines, and send location data to friendly helicopters and surface ships. Orcas could even carry MK-46 lightweight torpedoes or MK-48 heavyweight torpedoes to attack submarines and surface ships. They could also carry anti-ship missiles. And, they could be used to drop off cargoes on the seabed or to lay mines to impede shipping. Inexpensive underwater vessels like Orca could go a long way towards reversing the out-of-control costs of today’s weapons systems.

Sixth, smart systems will enable direct energy weapons to transform combat at the tactical level. Reliable and cost-effective directed energy weapons with sufficient power to destroy missiles and drones are already being tested. Because they are not limited by available ammunition or the speed of a projectile, they are ideal for defending ships, aircraft and troops on the ground. However, instantaneous target identification and firing is critical. That’s why networked data acquisition and decision-making capabilities are crucial.

Seventh, the new reality will combine autonomous systems with jam-proof, “unhackable” networks based on quantum technology. In a world dominated by networks and sensors, electronic countermeasures are the “great leveler.” Disabling or hacking into signals are both cost-effective ways to imperil an adversary’s ability to execute. That’s why autonomous ground, sea and air vehicles will need embedded AI capabilities as well as secure networks which are not hackable. For that reason, China, as well as the United States, Israel and NATO are working to develop unhackable quantum networks.

While this solution will not prevent sensor jamming, it will make communications far more secure than in previous eras. Eighth, within this vision, the U.S. and its allies will prioritize protection of space-based defensive resources. All of the major military powers utilize both civilian and military satellites for communication and reconnaissance. And all the major powers have invested in antisatellite capabilities. However, in the era of microsatellite constellations, this antisatellite capability will become less effective because satellite killers are expensive when targeting thousands of targets.

Furthermore, using any ground-based directed energy weapon large enough to destroy low earth orbit satellites would be easy targets for attacks by cruise missile and other stealthy weapons. Ninth, as in the two World Wars, America’s military strength in the 21st century will flow from its innovative private sector. Because of its entrepreneurial culture, freedom of expression and relative safety, the United States will remain a talent magnet attracting the best and the brightest from around the world. And the American military will be able to harness that private sector power to resolve almost any production or logistics problems.

The war in Ukraine has shown the importance of dual-purpose civilian resources. Early on, top Russian commanders talking on conventional smartphones were targeted for drone attacks using the cellular network, and after the Ukrainian civilian network was knocked out, Elon Musk filled the gaps with his Starlink satellite network. China, Russia and their potential allies lack the diverse private innovation ecosystem needed to avoid traps and come back from disaster.

And, Tenth, if its traditional allies do their parts, the United States will still be playing the role it has since 1945, in 2050, by using highly cost-effective and flexible solutions. American allies in NATO, the Anglosphere and Japan will recognize that they must shoulder more of the burden in ensuring that global stability is maintained, even as the U.S. defense structure becomes “lean and mean.” To achieve this, contractors will have to deal with a more discerning defense procurement process, which will be opened up to include innovative startups in addition to traditional defense contractors.

The general trend toward deglobalization will continue and the biggest winner will be America’s middle class and the businesses which most effectively serve the needs of people in North America. However, the people of Mexico and Canada as well as legal immigrants to the United States will also be big winners. The big losers will be countries, likely including China, Russia & Iran, which refuse to recognize these geopolitical realities.


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