This analyst says the Pentagon is so forward-thinking that it forgets the here and now

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The US military establishment is so focused on future technology that it is putting national security at risk right now. That is the thesis of my next guest. She argues that an obsession with the future and futuristic technology can throw planners off course. Brookings foreign policy officer Amy Nelson joins Federal Drive.

Tom Temin: Ms. Nelson, nice to have you with us.

Amy Nelson: Hi, thank you for having me.

Tom Temin: And being in the studio, it’s kind of exciting for us these days. So what are you saying, we have this future command, we have all this OTA effort to buy new technology? What is the problem?

Amy Nelson: For sure. And that’s not a trifle that’s a long time coming. It is good that we are implementing all of these plans to improve procurement and work with the private sector and stay abreast of technologies in general and those with military applications in particular. I think the problem is broader. It’s a bit of a national obsession right now, a distraction to feed on what’s bright and shiny and coming over the horizon instead of focusing on the planning that needs to be done for imminent threats.

Tom Temin: Because in military planning circles they talk about competitive advantage or balance. And they relate to some of the developed technologies that were revolutionary in the 70’s. Stealth seems like old hat now but it was really something hot and really precision guided missiles and all those things that everybody has now. So how are they supposed to say what, in terms of strategic balancing, could really work in reality and what is just pie in the sky?

Amy Nelson: Yes, that’s a good question Tom. And one of the concerns I’ve linked to this futuristic obsession is the word offset, because we seem to be moving into a space of perpetual offset, which basically means it’s about technology-driven arms races. So who knows where that edge is? It’s difficult to say.

Tom Temin: But you still need a balance if you want to win.

Amy Nelson: In theory, but there are so many more variables to warfare now. So the fastest? Is it the deadliest? Is it the weapon that can fly the furthest? It depends on the scenario. And that depends on countless factors.

Tom Temin: Because they are developing a new bomber, for example. And who knows when that will actually fly or be producible. Because I’m thinking of adapting an old airframe into a tanker. And that’s about 10 years too late. And that should just be sticking a gas tank in a nozzle and you’re good to go. So is it also because these things may never have come about? Is that part of the problem?

Amy Nelson: Look, technological innovation is tough. It’s a difficult problem. And schedules are particularly hard to pin down. Discuss difficulties in predicting the future. We’re notoriously bad at estimating timelines to implementation. And there’s a lot of information out there about future technology timelines, but they’re essentially all estimates.

Tom Temin: And when you say the military to influence international affairs, maybe right now you’re looking at Russia, which many people think has its weight as a country in terms of its economy and its people, its defense industrial base and most of what it does in the Ukraine or going next to Ukraine we don’t know at this point if they are going to Ukraine, it’s old platforms just updated with technology. Sometimes it’s not even that innovative, but it seems to be innovative and it adds up to something that gets the world going.

Amy Nelson: Yes. And does it even matter? Or is it just Russia’s willingness to use force relative to everyone else’s willingness to use force? An interesting aspect of this is that we actually have an arms control treaty that is specifically designed to prevent these types of platforms and systems from being brought into border regions to create military surprises. So things don’t always go the way we want them to.

Tom Temin: All right, how should the Department of Defense think about the future? What is a reasonable way to do this that maintains deterrence? And, frankly, the ability, as they say, to fight and win the nation’s wars?

Amy Nelson: Yes, that’s a great question. I think it has a lot to do with understanding what threats are imminent and what threats are likely, as well as various combinations of these factors. So shouldn’t we be preparing now for the next pandemic? I don’t think we are. How about the next wave of this pandemic? What does this preparation look like? And it’s about tough choices and trade-offs and pushing policymakers to really respond to pressing and imminent issues, even our nuclear posture. Are we only holding on because the future is uncertain? Or does that warrant more rigorous thinking about how we might use our nuclear weapons in conflict today, not in the Cold War and not in the future?

Tom Temin: So that’s really your first problem that you listed in your essay on what you call future obsession, which is not preparing for what’s about to happen.

Amy Nelson: Exactly. And it’s an ever-present feeling, we felt. It’s in the Department of Defense, it’s in Defense Planning. It’s coming from Madison Avenue and it’s all over social media and all other forms of media that we consume. And so the question really was: is there an element of escapism here? Are we trying to escape from a miserable present by disappearing into a bright and flashy future?

Tom Temin: We’re speaking to Amy Nelson. She is a Fellow in the Foreign Policy Program at the Center for Strategy and Security and Technology at Brookings. And what would you change about the whole process here? I mean, how do you do it, again, it’s a balance, you can’t ignore the future?

Amy Nelson: Sure, absolutely. And there’s a lot we say about bias in decision-making. And I think the first step is to really be aware of the bias imposed by this kind of future obsession and really trade probable scenarios for conspicuous ones.

Tom Temin: And you mentioned drunk searches, where a drunk trying to find his keys looks under the lamppost because that’s where the light is. They compare that to the nuclear war scenarios assumed in the post-WWII era, the Cold War era, that there would be this massive, sudden, and unexpected attack that never materialized.

Amy Nelson: Yes. And yet these assumptions remained undisputed for years. So what is it now? Is this the Terminator scenario we’ve all been fixated on for a while, where there are good and bad robots and the battlefield plays out, or perhaps to a lesser extent, where automation plays a bigger role? We need to make sure that science fiction doesn’t influence our thinking as we plan for the future.

Tom Temin: And I also think to understand what is likely in the world. I asked a planner a few years ago, I said well if China has a 5 million person army or something, I don’t know what they have. And they wanted to invade the United States. Shouldn’t we be prepared? I was kind of a question that I didn’t really take seriously myself. He said well it would probably take them five years to build the capability to do that. So we would see that before it happens.

Amy Nelson: Absolutely, we really need to be on the alert for all of these indicators, especially when it comes to artificial intelligence where there are so many unknowns about what our adversaries are actually innovating, how they are incorporating that into their military, and how they are planning to deploy it to use on the battlefield. Therefore, finding the right indicators to efficiently track this progress will be crucial.

Tom Temin: Because this type of doctrine is really crucial because the doctrine that starts at the top expands into different programs for the different armed forces and for the fourth estate of defense. And that in turn leads to procurement programs and dollar allocations. And if you’re down 1% at the Doctrine level, then by the time you get to the Spending level, you could be losing billions of dollars.

Amy Nelson: Yes, and myths are powerful, and fear is motivating. So if we fear being compensated by another nation’s military, we’re likely to make a whole bunch of choices that really skew those calculations.

Tom Temin: So how are planners supposed to think differently than they do today?

Amy Nelson: We need to think about a measured response and weigh current scenarios, realistic scenarios, closer scenarios with the kind of future scenarios, long-term future scenarios. Should we track how artificial intelligence is likely to affect operational conflict levels on the battlefield in the future? Absolutely. But we really should focus on more immediate threats and concerns. What have we seen before that is likely to be repeated? And we don’t want to miss that. This is the stuff where there’s no excuse to miss out.

Tom Temin: Because the most likely thing that seems unlikely is that atomic bombs will fall from the sky, but rather a cyber attack.

Amy Nelson: Exactly.

Tom Temin: And you have to give them credit for trying to be prepared for it. You talk about it enough.

Amy Nelson: For sure. And you know, there are cyber attacks all day, every day, it’s already here. So that’s an absolutely more urgent concern, a more urgent concern, and let’s compromise, you know, against nuclear weapons, our planning and our stance, and let’s think deeply about what the realities are.

Tom Temin: Finally, it sounds like you’re arguing that beyond purely military threats from other nations, we should consider them dangerous to our national security. Some people think climate is one of those threats because it could harm facilities and cities and so on. Is that a fair way to put it?

Amy Nelson: Yes, definitely. Threats come in all forms. And we need to think more broadly about our most pressing threats. I know that with the pandemic and climate change, there are explicit implications for the Department of Defense of these threats, but they reach beyond the Department of Defense, they affect civilians. And one could argue that these are the most pressing threats.

Tom Temin: So a more resilient society might need a less all-encompassing military. I saw recently that a school district called in the National Guard to replace classroom instruction.

Amy Nelson: Impressive.

Tom Temin: I thought we were going really far down a path that we probably don’t want to be.

Amy Nelson: Yes, that’s a great point and devastating. How do we make our society more resilient, but in such a way that not everyone has to go it alone?

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