Can the US combat its enemies in the digital age?
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The Cold War was the longest and most heavily invested conflict in the last century, fomenting intense military build-up along with unprecedented paranoia. So much so that many have derided the U.S. military-industrial complex's posture as still geared toward that singular communist-era threat.


Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, many in the intelligence community struggled to adapt to the new geopolitical landscape. As Richard Helms, CIA director from 1966 to 1973 told Tim Weiner in Weiner's book, "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA," "In World War Two, in the [Office of Strategic Services], we knew what our motivation was: to beat the goddamn Nazis. In the Cold War, we knew what our motivation was: to beat the goddamn Russians. Suddenly, the Cold War is over, and what is the motivation? What would compel someone to spend their lives doing this kind of thing?"

Between 1990 and 2000, the threat of a terrorist attack was underestimated by the U.S. As a result of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. put its full focus on what eventually became termed the Global War on Terror. Today, the U.S. faces an amalgam of threats ranging from nuclear-armed states to terrorist-insurgent armies. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has identified the five evolving strategic challenges facing the United States as Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and terrorism.

One of the ways the U.S. is trying to maintain its technological and military superiority as well as its agility against a vast array of threats is through the "Third Offset" strategy spearheaded by Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work. This Third Offset, as described by Work, focuses on "offset[ting] advantages or advances ... that we see proliferating around the world." Some of the technological solutions the Department of Defense is looking to leverage as part of the offset will concentrate on cutting-edge concepts such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and man-machine teaming (the intelligence community is also investing in similar platforms to better integrate and share analysis in the information age).

This Third Offset strategy "is truly a competitive strategy, I mean this is a much more dynamic strategy than we had in the Cold War [where we] had one single opponent," Work said at an event hosted by The Washington Post on March 30. "[The Cold War] was a very stable competition; we kind of understood the way [the Soviets] were going, we knew the areas where we could pick where we would dominate the competition, like in information technologies and precision guided munitions."

The U.S. has been mired in a counterterrorism and counterinsurgency fight for the last 15 years against a technologically inferior enemy, which has led to the decline in aptitude of higher-end capabilities terrorists do not possess, such as electronic warfare (EW). "We did not put enough emphasis on it [EW] for a period of time because it really was, in the air domain, it was less of a factor in Iraq and Afghanistan," Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, commander of Air Force Air Combat Command, said. "We didn't need to. If you look at the potential adversaries out there who are in environments we may be in, it [EW] is increasingly a challenge and it is the same thing with cyber."

The cyber and electronic capabilities of nation-states are far more advanced than those of terrorists and emerging quasi-states such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), with only Russia and China possessing real capabilities for destructive attacks. Russia has become extremely proficient in electromagnetic spectrum operations, as evidenced in recent activity in Ukraine, leading some to warn that the U.S. capabilities are inferior, which causes concern in the event of a conflict.

With advancements and resurgent military activities from near-peer adversaries such as Russia and China, the U.S. must now balance capabilities to combat higher-end nation-states with lower-end enemies such as terrorist groups.

For example, despite the success against terrorist entities in what the military calls "permissive environments," slow-moving drones are no match for the modern advanced radar and anti-aircraft capability possessed by nations such as Russia and China, which could sideline expensive long-term investments like the MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 Global Hawk — the latter of which which is set to take over the duties of the famed but soon to be phased-out U-2.

The Defense Department is still examining how it can translate the successes and dominance of these larger drone platforms from the permissive counterterrorism environment to a much more contested one. "I think we're still sort of learning how you take the advantages that you've achieved in this network in the permissive and sort of be able to take it into the non-permissive," Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Newell, director of strategy, concepts and assessments and deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements at U.S. Air Force headquarters, told this author. "I think you're going to see that us trying to exploit the advantages of a persistent [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] network and apply it to an [anti-access area denial] environment will be a challenge for us that will continue."

There is also the concern that expensive weapon systems such as the F-22 and F-35 fighter jets are unnecessary to fight a technologically inferior adversary. "I am very concerned that we are pricing ourselves out of small wars. ... using high end, very expensive weapon systems to fight small wars," Navy Capt. Robert A. Newson, who formerly led strategy and concept development for the Naval Special Warfare Command and commanded the Special Operations Command (Forward) in Yemen, told the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, exemplifying the balancing act of combating adversaries with varying degrees of capabilities. Newson added that tactical drones could suffice in this role and are less expensive.

The Defense Department specializes in operationalizing infrastructures, networks and capabilities. One of many challenges facing the department presently will be how to better operationalize emerging technologies that exist in the commercial world, and available to all, than potential adversaries can. "We're trying to conceive of how this will unfold," Deputy Secretary Work said at the Atlantic Council in May, speaking of the Third Offset. "That's very important. We don't have an endpoint in this. This is very much a walk, crawl, run: see what we can do, how we train our people, how our people react."

Pomerleau is a freelance journalist based in Washington covering politics and policy. Follow him @MpoM24.