“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool” is a useful axiom from Nobel Laureate in Physics Richard P. Feynman. So, too, is Carl von Clausewitz’s dictum that it is important to “accurately comprehend what kind of war you are embarking upon.” Strategy begins with understanding the environment. In broad terms, the strategic environment today is different from what it was five years ago. Today, and for the foreseeable future, the primary security concern of the United States is Information Age inter-state strategic competition with Russia and China.
There is a natural tendency when considering the threat from Russia and China to focus on the hard power of military might. Physical items and actions are easily understood and quantitatively measurable. U.S. intelligence agencies observe Russia’s hypersonic missile tests, its operations in Ukraine, and make sense of Moscow’s “escalate to deescalate” nuclear strategy. They see Beijing building island fortresses in the South China Sea, quantify the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s shipbuilding progress, and track the Chinese air force’s integration of more advanced systems.
U.S. investments today in aircraft, ships, and missiles are vital to national security, but they reflect the experience, expertise, and self-interest of decision-makers. Inevitability, in the high-risk stakes of war and the personal priorities of politics, proven weapon systems, and established programs of record are tied to previous combat operations and Congressional districts. Nonetheless, strategic reality—the nature of foes and technology alike—demands the United States expand its conception of investment in national security.
When one thinks of war, he or she is drawn to heroic figures: infantry soldiers, pilots, and ship captains. They imagine conflict taking place on a battlefield, in blue skies, or on the open seas. And they plan for such conflicts, such as how to defend the Suwalki Gap or Taiwan Strait. The terrible reality is that full-scale war with Russia or China would be catastrophic. The slaughter and carnage should not be underestimated, nor should the unintended and unknown consequences. U.S. adversaries recognize this and have alternative means and approach to achieve their desired ends.
Information and Political Warfare
U.S. policy makers misread the threat if they narrowly focus on hardware, hard power, and traditional military might. Russian and Chinese Information Age operations conducted below the threshold of military force have and will continue to cause exceptionally grave damage to U.S. national security. The Russians and Chinese well understand the utility of attacking the U.S. political system and economy—after all, they well know the survival of their regimes is contingent far more on the resilience of their political systems and economies than it is on their nuclear and conventional armed forces.
The most effective Russian weapon is not the Avangard hypersonic boost-glide missile, but the digital tools of manipulation they have used repeatedly to exponential effect. As Thomas Rid details in his book Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare, Russian military intelligence (GRU) in Moscow and the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg executed a nearly perfect strategic manipulation operation directly against the American people in 2016. Five years later, Americans’ trust in institutions is at historical lows, the citizenry has grown skeptical, hardened, and dangerously cynical, and the U.S. Capitol has been stormed by U.S. citizens. That Rid chose the term “warfare” in his title is important.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s information strategy and technology instruments are clear and present. With cyber operations, disinformation tactics, and influence campaigns, he seeks to sow destructive discord among U.S. citizens and foment their distrust in institutions to fracture U.S. society. Russia has done the same to several NATO allies, conducting cyber operations as well as manipulating their democracies to elect leaders who splinter both the alliance and their own nations with nativism.
Likewise, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s economic strategy and technology instruments are not a mystery. China has gone out of its way to steal American intellectual property and to use U.S. technology, software, and data to permanently leap ahead of the United States economically. China’s technology bid to be the dominant force in the global economy envisions burying U.S. businesses. The politburo in Beijing also is aggressively pursuing economic coercion, “debt-trap diplomacy,” to hold leverage over U.S. treaty allies and trading partners, including countries in the western hemisphere. Equally, like Russia, China has militarized cyber, artificial intelligence, and information, with the United States as the target.
The U.S. Response
U.S. national security depends on seeing things for what they are and effectively navigating reality. Recognizing the character of the war that U.S. adversaries are waging is essential. So, too, is adroitly responding to the challenge. Just as Information Age technology is core to the national interest, developing and expanding cyber, artificial intelligence, electromagnetic spectrum dominance, and information platform expertise is vital. Making the most of this technical talent to defend national security must be a deliberate, concerted, comprehensive investment of leadership and money.
To begin, the United States must secure public and private networks to prevent another SolarWinds-like hack. That event showed how important the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) is to U.S. national defense, and how much the government needs to grow its talent and invest in its capabilities. Defense of the U.S. government (.gov) information technology domain is just as essential as that of military and intelligence community networks and databases. Digital and technical talent capabilities are core to governance in the 21st century, just as they are across the whole of society.
The U.S. military and society function in a complex electromagnetic environment that is contested, congested, and constrained. Relying on GPS, cell phone networks, and satellite communications depends on the uninterrupted use of the electromagnetic spectrum. Adversaries have studied U.S. use of the spectrum and are developing and fielding advanced technology that targets U.S. electromagnetic capabilities. The recently published Electromagnetic Spectrum Superiority Strategy is a first step toward ensuring freedom of action in the spectrum.
The final National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence Report provides useful recommendations for reorganizing the government and reprioritizing national security investments. One recommendation that stands out is the need to scale up digital talent in government, especially in creating talent pipelines for technologists. Human resource hiring practices do not provide the agility needed to hire, train, and retain a government technical workforce competent at using data and innovating in the digital realm. The process through the USAJOBS website is insufficient. There is a desperate need for workforce-development reforms, specifically in the technical workforce.
One promising example is the National Security Innovation Network National Service Portfolio, which connects military, academic, and venture communities and provides flexible pathways to official service in the Department of Defense. Another is the requirement in Section 244 of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, which mandates that the Pentagon establish multi-institution consortia with academic institutions to access technical talent and expertise. The best technical minds should want to work on projects key to the nation’s defense.
Again, strategic reality—U.S. adversaries and the state of technology—demands the United States expand its conception of national security. This means the government can no longer prioritize investment in things easy to count—soldiers, airframes, ships, etc.. U.S. foes operate in ways U.S. leaders often do not expect or desire; and invariably they can neglect or not understand what could defeat the nation. Deterring conventional or nuclear war with traditional weapons is no longer sufficient to preserve the American way of life in the Information Age. The U.S. national security establishment must invest appropriately in cyber, artificial intelligence, electromagnetic spectrum, and information platform talent.