Brains, not brawn, matter most in the next war — and we're not being smart about it

Brains, not brawn, matter most in the next war — and we're not being smart about it
© Photo illustration/Nicole Vas

Throughout the millennia, war was essentially defined by muscular prowess on the battlefield. Advances in technology, from the longbow to gunpowder, to the tank and even the airplane, did not change the fundamental calculus involving the ability of troops on the ground to seize and hold territory.

To some extent that calculus remains unchanged, but it is ever-diminishing in light of technological breakthroughs that have been taking place at accelerating speed.

Moore’s Law, which in essence postulates that computing power doubles every two years, has had a huge impact on the very nature of military weaponry — and may already have been overtaken by the development of ever more powerful computer systems. The creation of the U.S. Space Force is an indication of the degree to which space has become an additional battlefield domain, alongside land, sea and air, and to a significant degree is a result of advances in software development. 

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Even more striking is the increasingly central role of cyber warfare, a realm that was nonexistent only decades ago. 

These developments have begun to change regional balances of power, and promise to do so to an even greater extent in the years to come. Just as a gun in the hand of a small person, even a child, can more than offset the advantage of a physically endowed bully, so too the brains and skill empowered by education already have begun to alter regional and perhaps international power balances.  

Perhaps the most striking example of the degree to which the cyber realm empowers those who master it is the emergence of Israel as the superpower of the Middle East. Israel long has been an acknowledged regional power. But, in the past 15 years, it has emerged as a world leader in the realm of cyber warfare

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Unit 8200 handpicks the best and brightest graduating high schoolers who demonstrate the greatest aptitude for software development and converts them into cyber warriors. In fact, having recognized that youngsters become computer literate at an early age, Unit 8200 will begin recruiting 13-year-olds. 

Those who have served in that unit either remain in the military or move to Israel’s private sector, which has transformed the country into the preeminent “startup nation.” Israeli startups often migrate to Silicon Valley, as do some Unit 8200 graduates. In any event, both the nature of Israel’s reserve system and the close bond between the Ministry of Defense and Israel’s tech sector ensure that the IDF will continue to benefit from its investment in Unit 8200 recruits long after they have left the military. 

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Although the United States currently is the world’s leader in the realm of cyber warfare, that lead is in jeopardy — in no small part because it has nothing like the Israeli system, and because China is determined to overtake it within decades. Indeed, China has invested so heavily in Israeli startups that it is poised to become Israel’s leading foreign investor, a position that America currently holds. Moreover, whereas the United States carefully monitors foreign investment by means of the CFIUS (Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States) process, Israel has no analogous regulatory regime, making it an especially attractive target for Chinese firms linked to the People’s Liberation Army. 

America is not helped by the fact that, apart from perhaps 30 universities, most others are not uniformly producing students to power its future high-tech activities. Indeed, many top students at these universities are Chinese, who will go home gto support their nation’s security sector. Many might have stayed in the U.S. but, with Washington ratcheting back on its immigration policies, they have no incentive to do so.  

The hostility of the defense bureaucracy toward anything that smacks of profit also undermines future prospects for continuing American high-tech leadership. It guarantees that Silicon Valley and its analogues around the country simply will avoid doing business with the Department of Defense (DOD), further hamstringing government efforts to maintain its lead in the most cutting-edge of military technologies.  

The DOD urgently needs to rethink its entire approach to the civilian technology sector. It should fund high school students with an aptitude for STEM, provide scholarships for them to truly benefit from a college education, and condition that funding on four years of DOD service. In other words, DOD should have ROTC and JROTC-like programs specifically dedicated to the computer sciences. 

In addition, DOD should revamp its approach toward the commercial sector. The new Defense Innovation Unit is a start, but only a minimal one. Tech startups should not be subject to the same limitations on profits that long have governed the way in which DOD does business with its traditional industrial base. 

Finally, DOD should lobby for immigration reform that welcomes rather than scares away those who wish to make the United States their home. First- and second-generation Americans tend to be overwhelmingly patriotic — and those are exactly the people America needs to sustain its technological leadership in a world where brains, not brawn, will determine the margin of victory on the battlefield.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.