The United States’ pending exit from its 20-year takeover in Afghanistan marks the end of a deadly chapter in our nation’s history. It also signals our shift into a new era of conflict, where bullets and bombs take a backseat to technology in the fight against our enemies.
Our nation faces a far different range of adversaries today than it has in generations past. Nation-states are no longer sole actors, as terrorist groups and criminal organizations extend their reach across borders via cyber channels. Earlier this month, Russia-linked cybercriminal group REvil breached Kaseya VSA’s IT management software in what Wired described as one of the “most significant ransomware attacks in history.”
This follows months of other severe and costly attacks — from the shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline at the hands of suspected Russian hackers, to ReVil’s ransomware attack on JBS’s U.S. meatpacking plants — all showing the evident breadth and depth of conflict methods that do not involve pulling a trigger.
FBI Director Christopher Wray has gone so far as to draw comparisons between the severity of these attacks and 9/11, prompting President BidenJoe BidenSunday shows preview: Coronavirus dominates as country struggles with delta variant Did President Biden institute a vaccine mandate for only half the nation's teachers? Democrats lean into vaccine mandates ahead of midterms MORE to warn Russia of possible action from the United States. And as Congress debates the bipartisan infrastructure bill, our government and corporate entities wait with bated breath for another hit. Given this state of the modern battlefield, it is time to provide policymakers with a portfolio of “less-than-lethal” military options as an additional arrow in the quiver to disrupt, disorient and disarm our enemies.
This is not a novel concept — in fact, the prioritization of “less-than-lethal” conflict has been argued, and pushed aside, for decades. A 1998 research report from the Air Force Center for Strategy and Technology wrote that militaries have historically sought to increase the lethality of weapons to “better achieve military success,” despite substantial evidence that pointed to the viability of non-lethal technologies. Meanwhile, a 2012 Slate essay recognized an “ongoing revolution in the nature of conflict,” but said that reduced lethality of conflict will require “far more serious attention than it has received to date.”
Our country maintains its long-standing reluctance to non-lethal conflict today, despite our adversaries’ use of these options. But in a world where the costs of kinetically engaging a target may be unacceptably high, we have few options but to overcome that reluctance. Of course, it remains vital that the U.S. military maintains its dominance in the arena of kinetic action, but when a policymaker asks for the menu of options to address a threat, less-than-lethal strategies should be listed as a main course.
President Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan calls for $180 billion in new R&D spending on emerging technologies that can drive military innovation in the less-than-lethal space over the coming decades. This would be a game-changing investment. By tapping into the tools and talents from the realms of engineering, the hard sciences, the social sciences and the legal community, among others, we can build out new non-lethal technologies to address the increasingly blurred boundaries of conflict.
As a professor, I often discuss the future of conflict with college students. This generation naturally appreciates the potential of technology more deeply than my generation can. Young people today grew up in a time of iPhones and Facebook, of hackathons and cyber-espionage, of false missile alerts and 8chan. If the right steps are taken, we can position them as vital contributors to a new era of conflict —one that trades combat boots for coding.
We have an opportunity now to shape the future of our defense ecosystem. As the battlefield becomes increasingly complicated, sophisticated and digital, we must expand the weapons in our arsenal to include less-than-lethal options for the new age of warfare.
Robert H. Bishop, Ph.D., is dean of the College of Engineering and the president of the Institute of Applied Engineering at the University of South Florida.