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The Future of War: Keynote Address at the CSIS Global Security Forum 2011

As Delivered by Deputy Secretary of Defense William J. Lynn, III, The Willard Hotel, Washington, D.C., Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Thank you John.

The past ten years have been filled with enormous changes in national security policies.  Yet throughout this extraordinary decade in international affairs, one thing has remained constant.  And that is the leadership John Hamre has provided at CSIS.  At every turn, John has positioned CSIS to contribute to our most pressing debates.  And the capital campaign he led has now yielded CSIS a new building, which John helped break ground at last month.  Thanks to his leadership, CSIS is poised for another decade of thought leadership. 

Please join me in congratulating John on more than ten years as President of the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

Since 9/11, we have had the ability to address new defense challenges with increased resources.  We will not have that luxury for the foreseeable future.  The deficit crisis requires all government functions to reduce their planned spending levels.  Defense will be no exception.  It is not plausible programmatically or politically to exclude the 20 percent of government spending encompassed by defense from deficit reduction plans.

The challenge we face today is to manage the coming slowdown in defense spending wisely and responsibly.  This requires making judgments about the nature of our future security environment, which is an exceptionally tricky business.  As that great strategist Yogi Berra once said, predictions are difficult – especially about the future. 

In fact, we have a particularly poor track record of projecting when, where, and against who we will fight.  Secretary Gates has described our record in this regard as perfect – we have never gotten it right.

But there is one area where I would argue our predictions have a better record.  This is with regard to the future of war itself -- that is how wars will be fought, what technologies will be transformative, and what tactics will be effective.  Nations that accurately predicted prior trends in warfare emphasized maneuver warfare over fortifications, bought aircraft carriers instead of battleships, and understood the paradigm-shifting significance of nuclear weapons.

In order to sustain the right defense capabilities in the coming spending slowdown, we need a similarly considered understanding of future warfare trends.  For most of human history, we fought our battles on land and at sea.  It was only in the last century that the terrain of war spilled into the air and under the ocean.  Space first figured in conflict three generations ago.  Most recently, we find ourselves operating in and depending on cyberspace.

Warfare, first transformed by the industrial revolution, then by the atomic revolution, is now being revolutionized by the information age.  This is the national security environment in the 21st century—diverse military actors and capabilities, acting simultaneously across multiple domains, with more interdependencies than ever before.  

The full scope of this extraordinary transformation was witnessed by a man we paid tribute to earlier this spring.  Frank Buckles was 110 years old when he passed away in February.  He was the last surviving U.S. veteran of the First World War, of nearly five million who served.  The story of his life, and how warfare changed during it, gives us insight about our future strategic environment.

Born in a barn by lantern light, Buckles bluffed his way into the Army at age 16.  Weeks after enlisting, he set sail on the ocean liner Carpathia—the same ship that rescued Titanic survivors.  In France, Buckles saw the horrors of trench warfare first hand while serving as an ambulance driver on the Western front. 

The tide of history swept over Buckles again in 1941 when the Japanese invaded the Philippines, where he was working as a shipping merchant.  He was held prisoner for 38 months until the Army rescued him and his fellow prisoners in a daring parachute raid.  The very week he was rescued, the design for the atom bomb was finalized, ushering in a new era of warfare that eclipsed industrial might alone. 

Buckles went on to farm cattle in West Virginia.  There, he rode his tractor until over 100 years of age.  Even at that age, he participated in the next great transformative revolution -- the introduction of the information age.  Buckles, his obituary noted, was one of the few Americans born in the McKinley administration to have a Facebook page.

The three revolutions that Buckles’ life encompassed brought an avalanche of military technologies and introduced whole new dimensions to war.  The implications of these past shifts for the military have been profound. 

The issue for us as we consider what capabilities and programs to protect in a defense drawdown is what course future technological trends will take.  In that context, I would identify three strategic trends that could shape our future national security environment: lethality, duration, and asymmetry.  Each of these trends has implications for how we design our defense programs going forward.  Each, if not carefully managed, could weaken our security. 

The first and most prominent trend in the global strategic environment has to do with access to lethality.  Previously, when you looked at the range of threats we faced, the more capable the potential adversary, the higher the level of lethality they possessed.   For centuries, the most economically developed nations wielded the most lethal military power.  Secondary actors on the international stage possessed second rate capabilities.  Developing counties and insurgent groups had little or no access to highly lethal technologies.

Today, this linear relationship between economic and military power no longer holds.  Terrorist groups with few resources can mount devastating attacks.  Insurgents can defeat our most advanced armor with fertilizer bombs.  Rogue states seek nuclear weapons.  Some criminal organizations even possess world class cyber capabilities. 

The three revolutions Buckles lived through have granted low end actors access to high end capabilities.  Lethality at the low end of the spectrum can rival that at the high end.  As a result, both sophisticated and unconventional opponents pose credible challenges to our security. 

The change in lethality has increased the risks we face and diversified the range of threats we must be prepared to confront.  Defense planning must reflect this development.  Our military must be able to confront both high-end and low-end threats.  We must have what Secretary Gates has called “a portfolio of military capabilities with maximum possible versatility across the widest spectrum of conflict.” 

The increase in lethality across the threat spectrum means we cannot prepare exclusively for either a high end conflict with a potential near-peer competitor or a lower-end conflict with a counter-insurgency focus.  Because our ability to project force is challenged by either scenario, we must maintain capabilities to meet both.  We have decisions about how to size our forces for these disparate contingencies, but we must equip for both.  In other words we will need both fifth generation fighters and counter-IED technology.

The increase in lethality also has implications for homeland defense.  For a century before World War II, our oceans insulated us from attack.  Even after the advent of the nuclear age, only a nuclear-armed superpower could truly threaten our homeland.  But now technology allows small groups with focused lethality to wield influence that only nation states could before.  The increase in lethality – whether due to weapons of mass destruction, cyber attacks or IEDs -- has changed forever the relationship between homeland defense and national security.

The second strategic trend is the increasing duration of warfare.  For several decades now we have assumed kinetic engagements would be relatively short.  And that is how we planned: for intense but ultimately short battles that yielded decisive victory.  Desert Storm is the prototype.  A month long aerial bombardment and a 100-hour ground campaign, with clear transitions between conflict and post-conflict phases.

This construct does not fit our current reality.  For most of the past decade we have been fighting two wars.  Each began with an intense combat phase, but then, as the adversary persisted, the transition between conflict and post-conflict become unclear, and the scope of our mission expanded dramatically.   Our deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan have now lasted longer than the U.S. participation in World War I and World War II combined.  The stress this places on our force turns out to be far more challenging to manage than the intensity of the initial kinetic phase. 

A central concern for the Department is managing the burden the duration of conflict places on our troops, their families, and the national treasury.  This trend also has important implications for force planning.  We must plan to sustain long-term commitments for a range of plausible conflicts.  Because duration becomes as important a driver of planning as intensity, we must maintain enough force structure to allow adequate dwell times between deployments.  This is likely to have important implications for how we size, structure and utilize our reserve force components.  We need the ability to scale-up force structure for longer conflicts.  The long-term costs of extended conflicts must be considered in our strategic calculus.

The third trend in war is the increasing prevalence of asymmetric threats.  Battlegrounds used to be a meeting place of like-on-like forces -- cavalry on cavalry, armor on armor, and in the Cold War, nuclear versus nuclear.  We generally faced enemies whose framework for the use of force was similar to our own.  Our challenge was to develop superior capabilities and tactics within that framework.

This like-on-like paradigm is disappearing.  In stature, the American military is dominant by almost every measure.  There are very few militaries that can or will challenge us directly.  Yet we are finding that this very dominance causes our adversaries to become more creative in their approach.

Today, adversaries can defeat us only if they sidestep our construct for the use of force.  Our adversaries depend on asymmetric approaches that target our weaknesses and undercut our advantages.  So insurgents such as the Taliban and al Qaeda in Iraq avoid engaging our military in direct force-on-force engagements.  Instead, they use IEDs and assassination as their weapons, and they hope to use the longer duration of war to wait us out.

Unconventional forces are not the only one to embrace this approach.  Traditional powers also seek asymmetric capabilities.  Anti-access and area denial strategies are perhaps the most vivid example of the asymmetric approach in conventional conflict.  Rather than confront our substantial conventional advantages in power projection, some nations are pursuing ballistic missiles that seek to push our forces further from the battlefield  In this way asymmetric tactics are being built directly into conventional capabilities our forces may face in the future.

The source of the rise in area-denial and anti-access tactics is the proliferation of precision-strike weapons.  From Desert Storm to the present, the U.S. and its allies have had relatively exclusive access to sophisticated precision-strike technologies.  Over the next decade or two, that technology will be increasingly possessed by other nations.  The diffusion of precision-strike technology will have a cumulative effect.  It will enable anti-access and area denial strategies, thereby creating challenges for our ability to project power to distant parts of the globe.

To address these anti-access tactics and defeat area-denial strategies, we need to develop a range of capabilities, particularly missile defense and long range strike.

The ability to strike targets worldwide is an important deterrent against aggression.  So we are making a major investment in a family of long-range strike systems that will allow us to penetrate defenses and deliver munitions worldwide.  This family of systems includes electronic attack capabilities, more advanced intelligence and surveillance platforms, and a new long-range bomber, capable of both manned and unmanned operations.

Asymmetric tactics are also spreading beyond the traditional domains.  Potential attacks in cyberspace perhaps best illustrate growing asymmetry in warfare. 

Internet technology increasingly underpins both our military and economic strength.  But, in turn, this reliance on IT has created new vulnerabilities.  Those wishing to cause us harm no longer need an industrial complex to marshal deadly force.  Advanced weapons systems, like a fifth generation fighter or carrier battle group require major investments in research, development, and production and a significant technological base.  In contrast, cyber capabilities have low barriers to entry.  A small number of highly trained programmers, using off the shelf equipment, can develop toxic tools, and deploy them to great effect.

The cyber threat is further maturing in two dimensions.  First, its absolute effects are moving up a ladder of escalation.  To date, we have primarily seen cyber tools used to exploit information or disrupt networks.  We are only beginning to see cyber tools used to cause physical effects.  But tools that can cause physical destruction are out there.

The cyber threat is also intensifying in a second dimension.  Presently, the highest levels of cyber capabilities reside in nation-states.  But because our military power provides a strong deterrent, most nation-states have no more interest in conducting a destructive cyber attack than they do a conventional military attack.  The risk for them is too great.  So even though nation-states are the most capable actors, they are the least likely to initiate a destructive attack. 

Terrorist groups however have no such hesitation—with few assets to strike back at, they are hard to deter.  If a terrorist group gains a disruptive and destructive capability, we have to assume they will strike with little hesitation.  So in cyber, we have a window of opportunity to act before the most malicious actors acquire the most destructive technologies.  We need to continue moving aggressively to protect our military, government and critical infrastructure networks.  

The bottom line is that the cyber threat and the other asymmetric threats require us not to become complacent with our conventional superiority.  Just as World War I showed the obsolescence of cavalry and World War II the battleship, we may be surprised at how rapidly our current state-of-the art systems are overcome by developments that we cannot foresee today.

Let me conclude by saying that in predicting the future, I proceed cautiously.  I do not have a crystal ball.  I agree with Yogi Berra.  But I also believe we can make informed judgments about the future of war by looking beyond specific scenarios, to the trends of warfare, and the historical forces that drive them.  The three trends I have just described—the increasing access to lethality across the threat spectrum, the longer duration of warfare, and the growing prevalence of asymmetric threats—pose challenges to our projection of power.  They are each, in different ways, the result of our entry into a new era of war, one driven primarily by the overlay of the information age atop the industrial and atomic revolutions.  They can and they must inform our defense planning.

What we need to do at this juncture, in this fiscal environment, is to take the long view about what strategic trends are important.  This brings us back to Frank Buckles.  In his lifetime, he saw first-hand the impact of the industrial age on warfare in World War I.  He witnessed the dawning of the atomic age during and after World War II.  And he lived to be a participant in the information age.

The sixteen year old farm boy who fought in the First World War and survived the Second lived to see the impact of each of these revolutions in warfare.  During this same period, Frank Buckles also witnessed an extraordinary series of U.S. military innovations—from the bi-planes to UAVs, from machine guns to precision-guided munitions, from telegraphs to satellites.  Buckles watched these innovations help our forces maintain and expand their edge over our adversaries.

Now, the challenge for us is to navigate our nation’s fiscal circumstances without disrupting the capabilities of the world's most effective military force.  We need to make the right judgments about the nature of our future security environment.  We need to invest in the right capabilities and force structure that address the trends in warfare I have outlined today.  And we need to relentlessly adapt our technology and our doctrine as threats evolve and mature.  If we do these things, we will ensure our forces are ready for the future of war.  

Thank you.

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