They don’t know I’m listening, but I catch their hushed conversations—consonants clipped, and vowels drawn taught by fatigue.
“She needs to sleep. Another hour, at least.”
“Sir, SecDef’s profile indicates otherwise. She has a go/no-go decision to make with JSOC. She can sleep when she’s—”
“Don’t say it. You’re getting punchy.”
“I just go by the data.”
“But I’m the duty physician. You’re the chief of staff. This is the first time she’s slept in three days. Another hour.”
That’s the moment I sit up and reach for the bottle of water that’s cradled in the crook of my left arm. It’s always hot back here and smells faintly of burning plastic. The hardened Defense Information Systems Agency–operated bus, nicknamed Moby, sways on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, its suspension groaning under the weight of tons of armor and servers. Then it settles back into its smooth, relentless drive forward into the night. We are a land-based armada, snaking through the Poconos like fugitives, scurrying to yet another secure location from which I can lead the Department of Defense and manage the campaign in the Pacific.
I motion to my chief of staff with one hand, and wipe sleep out of my eyes with my other. “Get my rig online,” I say. “How long until we’re at Site Romeo?”
“Another 30 minutes to the gates, but we go dark in . . . 14 minutes.”
“OK. What time is it in Guam? General Lapham ready for me now?”
“Yes, ma’am. You’ll have three minutes with the General. Also, the President left a viz message.”
I put the bottle down and swing my legs off the bed.
“He said to proceed. Informing Congress will come after.”
All I can respond with is, “Good.” Now is not the time to betray my frustration, nor to count the cost of the Commander-in-Chief’s chronic indecision, a toll measured in thousands of dead and maimed American service members throughout the Asia Pacific . . .
Leadership in the Hyperwar Era
The U.S. Secretary of Defense has an almost incomprehensibly difficult job today.
As the Pentagon faces a changeover in leadership this week, it is worth stepping back to look at what the job requires of its occupant not only today but in the crucial coming years that will see an evolution of warfare toward what Amir Husain and retired Marine General John Allen call “Hyperwar.” Future conflicts are certain to be overwhelmingly influenced by artificial intelligence and robotic autonomous systems that will revolutionize warfare at speeds human cognition simply cannot keep up with.
This line of thinking frequently leads to conversations about how super soldiers will be augmented with things like direct human-machine interface and nanomachine infused blood.
But what about the SecDef?
In a conflict scenario like the one described above, superhuman soldiers may not actually get a frontline role if swarms and other drones take their place. But the Department of Defense (DoD) will indeed need someone with superhuman-like abilities as its top civilian. A “Secretary of Hyperwar” will need to reorganize and reprioritize the Defense Department in real time, becoming immersed in data while using technology to never lose sight of leadership’s human dimensions and maintaining DoD’s digital speed operational tempo.
Should a Hyperwar-type conflict arise in the 2020s, AI-powered automation will define the operational environment and put enormous pressure on organizations—and individuals—unprepared for high levels of operational and cognitive agility. Supercomputing will be a baseline capability predicated on staggering amounts of data. Intel forecasts 200 billion connected devices by 2020, and a 2014 estimate from EMC predicts: “The data we create and copy annually – will reach 44 zettabytes, or 44 trillion gigabytes” by then. Fueled by limitless data, automation will define intelligence collection and analysis, as well as decentralized command and control. Decision-making and warfighting will revolve around networks, perhaps with both occurring on the same ones. Moreover, while nearly clairvoyant AI-enabled predictive models will be able to help leaders “see” these future scenarios ahead of time, decision-makers will need to be adept at intuitive or recognition-primed decision-making.
The Only Ordinary Day Was Yesterday
The Defense Secretary’s wartime role will be familiar in some ways—maintaining Congressional relationships, for example—but dramatically different in four significant areas, managing: DoD organizational structure, operational tempo, communications and network integrity, and force employment.
The Navy SEAL maxim “The only easy day was yesterday” in hyperwar might become for the SecDef, “The only ordinary day was yesterday.” Emergent technologies—and the novel ways in which the United States, allies, and adversaries employ them—will produce surprise after surprise.
In turn, this will force DoD to move from its anachronistic post–Cold War organization, either incrementally during peacetime or suddenly in a wartime shock. Either way, it will fall to the Secretary to take steps as far-reaching as major reorganizations of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, and the geographic combatant and functional commands of today’s military. For the sake of speed, staff sizes may rapidly shrink, for example, giving fewer people more responsibility but deeper human-machine ties. Streamlined command and control in a contested environment also will bypass entire bureaucratic layers. Military leaders in the field may even report directly back to the SecDef, who, like deployed U.S forces, will be constantly on the move due to cyber- and electronic-warfare risks. This also applies to the relationship with the defense-relevant private sector. As a result of the interconnected digital nature of the current and future threat environments, the public and the private are no longer mutually exclusive environments. Google and the Navy will operationally cohabitate in the hyperwar era, whether they like it or not. The decisive elements of future combat will be data and networks, which are contested in peacetime for commercial reasons but will be strategic prizes during hyperwar.
This also ties in to the present—and future—speed of modernization. The government entities tasked with taking systems from concept to fielding, as well as modernization, require a profound overhaul ahead of a conflict. The pace of modernization will have existential implications, should an enemy out-innovate the United States at speeds that render each successive U.S. innovation decreasingly relevant.
Consider military aircraft, for example. Current procurement cycles are so long, a pilot’s children or grandchildren may fly the same plane years from now as they do today. Hyperwar acquisition speeds mean moving at software-industry pace, turning around new aircraft and updating existing ones as quickly as video game companies launch new games.
While it will take a network to win in the hyperwar era, ensuring war plans emphasize critical decision timelines will be a real-time responsibility for the SecDef. Given the speed with which a crisis may unfold, decisive leadership during the early moments or hours may mean the difference between victory and a defeat or stalemate. Software-assisted or -driven decision-making creates opportunities to immobilize an adversary by delivering psychological, if not technological, blows to their confidence in civilian and military leaders’ ability to cope with this new era of conflict.
Yet load sharing is about more than machines. Just as the Secretary of Defense will exert more operational influence, the Deputy SecDef will take on new wartime responsibilities that are more concept- and policy-oriented than today’s, developing and implementing new concepts of operation. In hyperwar scenarios, flash modernization efforts that break boundaries and hierarchies, and even rules, will need a bureaucratic advocate to ensure they don’t stall. Entire concepts of service life are going to be overtaken by events, as adversaries seek to weaponize obsolescence to impose insurmountable costs on the U.S. defense ecosystem.
Hyperwar is a machine-speed endeavor, but from the Defense Secretary’s perspective, successfully managing a conflict still will require human connection not only within the Department but—crucially—outside of it, too, for discussion and data sharing with the President, Congress, and industry, to say nothing of the state and non-state actors aligned around a U.S. war effort. The challenge, of course, will be to ensure consistent and secure command and control does not come at the expense of speed. The SecDef will not be able to live and work sequestered inside one of the nation’s deepest bunkers wired into a closely managed communications and data network. The necessity to build coalitions within Bay Area global technology and Northern Virginia defense industries, manage political relationships in Washington and abroad, and maintain connection with frontline forces all mean the SecDef necessarily will be constantly on the move. Accordingly, the SecDef will operate within a virtual and mobile communications bubble that depends on a sprawling grid consisting of terrestrial, undersea, aerial, and space networks.
Much as today, no matter where or when, the SecDef will have to be capable of accessing a highly distributed and secure command-and-control network. But the SecDef and other principals may be augmented through biotechnical means permitting the chain of command to “think” communications in real time. Voice communication may even become too slow in some cases, such as a cyber campaign that rapidly shifts between defensive and offensive operations. Means of communication therefore must evolve with the speed of hyperwar. The SecDef might wear a personal “wearable communications” ensemble, which could feature a next-generation human-machine neurological interface or surgically implanted cognitive bioenhancements.
A day in the life of the Secretary of Hyperwar would see the kinds of true life-and-death decisions that are unique to the office—and that not even Hollywood hyperbole can exaggerate. As operations Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom, and Inherent Resolve have shown, the clock is always ticking on a crisis or urgent need for the civilian officials in charge. Yet, not all the past two decades’ crises have been pulled from thriller novels; rapid shipment of blastproof trucks from South Carolina to the Middle East or scouring Pakistan for concrete require decisive action, too. Meanwhile, at home, budgets must be defended in the laborious negotiations that go with funding the largest slice of discretionary government spending.
It will be the same during the next two decades, but the speed with which such dilemmas arrive and require resolution—as well as their technological complexity—will be unprecedented. But it need not come as a surprise if Defense Department leaders can begin to imagine and prepare for a day in the life of the SecDef in the hyperwar era.
In particular, it will be dangerously easy to focus attention on crises-of-the-moment and overlook ensuring that military recruiting identifies individuals of integrity, character, and moral courage. Recruiting Americans to the all-volunteer force who have the capacity to decide, communicate, and act in the hyperwar environment will be perhaps more important than any investment in machines. After accession, the entire process of training and education will need to move at machine-speed as well, with a focus on learning and performing through AI-supported, individualized augmented- and virtual-reality training and education regimens. Recruits also are likely to train in virtual environments because in real life they may be highly distributed, out of strategic necessity or by design to create a force with experiences, backgrounds, and cognitive diversity suited to the hyperwar era.
. . . My physician leans in with a hand on my shoulder. He can read my bio-stats from anywhere on the bus, so this is a vestige of old-world doctor-patient connection as he remotely adjusts the phone-sized pump at my waist.
My chief of staff looks at his forearm screen. “The Chairman is secure at Romeo.” The General gets to fly; I ride the bus.
The bus’s aft cabin brightens measurably as the pump pulses. I sit upright, and smooth out my hair and touch a tender patch of scalp where the follicles have been worn away by my holo-rig. I have been wearing the helmet every waking hour during the past 18 days of war. What nobody knows, though, is that I have it muted much of the time. I keep the sound off and have, depending on the day, a rolling array of alpine meadows and New England fall foliage. There’s too much data for a human to make a sound decision quickly, so I let the battle management nets work their magic. The President has not yet figured this out; he’s unable to act with the speed that this conflict requires because he is chronically plugged in. Perhaps when I speak with him in person next, I’ll fill him in on how I do it. That is, if I ever do get to see him again. That’s not something I can entertain now, however. There’s work to do. And General Lapham is awaiting orders.