The U.S. military has enjoyed technological superiority over its adversaries for decades, but as the battlefield continues to evolve and adversaries continue to learn, the Army is worried that advantage may not last.
The Army’s Training and Doctrine command recently published a report projecting threats U.S. forces may face in wars from 2025 to 2040. Of those threats, information warfare and the rapid advances of technology were consistent themes throughout the document.
“We’re seeing that countries like Russia and China have been paying attention to what the United States can do, to the way it operates, and have been invested in very specific military capabilities to try to blunt and counter what the United States can do,” Paul Scharre, the director of the Technology and National Security program at the Center for a New American Security, told me in an interview.
Scharre, a former Army Ranger and Department of Defense policymaker, explained that since around the time of the Gulf War, the U.S. has demonstrated a signficant technological superiority. U.S. forces using new a new generation of weapons, communications and technical systems were able to annihilate what was considered a capable Iraqi army at the time. The Pentagon saw the that success, and continued to rely on technological superiority to keep its edge.
That led to investments in some strange projects that didn’t always pan out, said Scharre. Meanwhile, so-called “near peer” adversaries like Russia and China saw what the U.S. was capable of and immediately began to adapt their forces. Neither country has necessarily attempted to match the U.S. one-for-one, instead, they are focusing on things like advanced artillery systems, ship-killing missiles and cyberwarfare to find chinks in the U.S. armor.
While some may assume that technological advancement leads to lower casualties in war, the Army report warned that battlefields will likely become more deadly as adversaries become able to better track U.S. movements. The report noted that “unmanaged signatures” could be a major problem going forward.
Scharre noted that these signatures can vary, from a soldier’s cell phone putting out an electronic signal to Facebook posts which might tip off future deployments. Both could aid a future enemy.
Fake news and information warfare could also be a huge factor. Scharre noted there is a physical aspect to war which the U.S. is very good at, but there is also a social aspect which it struggles with. He noted this “contest for legitimacy” is important in all types of conflicts.
“And that’s a place in which this information environment matters a great deal,” said Scharre. “Real events that are twisted and manipulated in some war, or it might be totally fake news that’s spread.”
He added that there are situations in which the U.S. might be in control physically, but not necessarily socially.
Proxies may also pose a problem in the battle over information, as adversaries might use terrorists, criminal organizations or other proxy groups to do their fighting for them. Scharre pointed to Russia’s use of “Little Green Men” in Ukraine, as an example.
While the report may sound ominous, it also puts forward several suggestions for how the U.S. military can be more lean and agile. That said, Scharre believes a new mentality may be required.
He noted that the U.S. may have a “giant sledgehammer” when it comes to raw force, but that it might not always be appropriate for certain situations.
“I think we watch too many World War II movies, we have this very narrow vision of what war is,” said Scharre. “We put on a uniform, and they put on a uniform, and we declare war and they declare war. And then we fight it out on the battlefield like civilized people and somebody loses and they surrender. And that’s very ahistorical actually … that’s a very narrow western way of thinking about war.”