The US, in the opinion of its military commanders and grand strategists, is at greater risk of losing a war today than it has been at any time in decades.
Trade has allowed China to grow its economy larger than the US, and the technological advances that have driven American prosperity in recent decades have also given rivals their own new tools and domains to attack and subvert American power.
Russia, China, and India have finally begun to catch up with America’s traditional advantage in space, leading the US military to create a new Space Force whose changes will be far more profound than jokes about Starfleet suggest. The same technology trends that make space power possible—cheap, powerful electronics and software chief among them—are also empowering a new arms race on Earth, with states and even non-state actors amassing an arsenal of hypersonic missiles, ballistic missiles, battle drones, and booby traps.
Information warfare on social media networks is employed by violent extremists in the Middle East to recruit soldiers and supporters around the world, and by Russian intelligence services to subvert US democracy. The digitization of the basic infrastructure of everyday life, from electrical grids to communications networks, opens up new areas of vulnerability for tech-savvy adversaries. Even the environment is becoming an enemy, with climate change driving resource scarcity and creating new front lines.
What do you call an era when conflict seems to be rising, but escalation seems like the end of the world? Welcome to the age of the gray zone, where states use “intimidation and coercion in the space between war and peace,” as the US National Defense Strategy Commission defines it. Think Russia’s “little green men” in Crimea, or US soldiers battling militias in Africa under the legal rationale that they are responding to the 9/11 attacks committed 18 years before.
One symptom of the age of gray-zone conflict is fewer states are facing off in the kind of industrial wars that defined the 21st century. As a result, deaths from armed conflict were for a time falling around the world. But the rise of gray-zone aggression—in places like Syria, Iraq, and Yemen—driven by the complex interaction of global power politics and local ideologies, have led to the bloodiest years since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
Geopolitically, the US is caught in a squeeze: As it has pivoted to battle terror groups and insurgents in occupied territories, state rivals have begun to gain ground by investing in the missiles and artillery needed to dominate more conventional international conflicts. There is little reason to believe that the US could stop China from seizing Taiwan, prevent North Korea from destroying Seoul, or deter a Russian invasion of the Baltic states.
Hanging above all this is the threat of nuclear war, the big terror that has filled nightmares since 1945. Consider the annual Doomsday Clock reading issued by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists: They believe that we are closer to disaster in 2019 than we were in 1984. The US, Russia, and China all have substantial nuclear arsenals on alert, whose very existence drive the terms of all their interactions. But a new arms race to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons will re-create the dynamics of paranoia—and the fear of an apocalyptic mistake—that dominated then. Nuclear proliferation is as large a threat as ever.
These trends are all converging on the bloodiest battlefields of the current age: The brutal civil wars in the Middle East. Right now, Russia and the United States face off in undeclared conflict through proxies, dispersing technologically empowered special forces troops and modern-day mercenaries into an ambiguous battlefield populated with Islamist extremists, nationalist militias, and even a cult-like Marxist paramilitary group.
The two great powers, however, are restrained by their desire not to start a war with one another: A deconfliction hotline exists to ensure that the countries don’t wind up battling each other directly, and American airpower has been dialed back because the US is reluctant to escalate into a direct—and potentially nuclear—confrontation. Meanwhile, cell phone video and satellite imagery vie to offer insights into the chaos, which plays out online as armed groups raise money by selling antiquities on Facebook and strive to keep their communications secret on WhatsApp. Rockets and homemade drones strike at the drilling and refining infrastructure driving the world’s energy use. And some scholars believe the civil war in Syria was exacerbated by climate change thanks to a major drought in 2007, which caused food shortages and internal migration.
That the future is characterized by simmering conflicts and humanitarian disasters that seem to exist beyond the realm of political resolution is more than just a problem for Americans. Like it or not, US military hegemony is as important to the functioning of the world economy as the dollar. Systems of trade, capital flows, and entire industries are sustained by US national security spending. It’s all built on a foundation of American coercive power. And what if that foundation is crumbling?
A chilly day on the White Sea became very hot in a flash in September. Russian military researchers were testing a new doomsday device: A cruise missile that could deliver not just an atomic weapon, but that was also powered by a nuclear reactor. Theoretically, such a weapon could fly around the planet for months or even years, lurking until it struck without warning.
But something went wrong, killing five of the weapon’s designers and setting off radioactivity sensors around the world. The explosion was a warning, but interpreted different ways. Some in the US saw it as a call to arms, a time to reinvest in atomic weapons and the vehicles that deliver them. Others saw it as a warning of what could happen if the world embarked on another nuclear arms race.
“We are on a path to make really stupid choices,” says Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Affairs. “All these people cheering on a return to the arms race—the arms race was not a good time. Yes, we survived it without having a nuclear war, but there were terrible human and environmental consequences.”
It does not look like Lewis’ views are winning out. Nuclear powers like Russia and China are investing in missiles to counter the US, while smaller states like Iran and North Korea see nuclear weapons as the key to protecting their sovereignty from world powers. The lesson for world leaders, driven home recently by the hawkish former US defense official John Bolton, is that it is better to be Kim Jong Un in a nuclear-armed North Korea, courted by an obsequious US president, than Muammar Gadaffi in Libya, overthrown by a foreign-backed rebellion after giving up his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.
In the face of these developments, US president Donald Trump has approved billions of dollars in new spending on nuclear weapons and missiles, and pulled the US out of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, a Cold War agreement that restricted the development of ground-launched ballistic missiles. Arms control watchers say that doesn’t bode well for the extension of a more important treaty called New START. A deal crafted under the Obama administration, New START limits the nuclear systems maintained by both Russia and the US. If it is not extended, experts fear that both sides will start deploying more weapons of mass destruction.
“Despite the fact that the treaty has unanimous support in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the intelligence community, and the broad foreign policy and security community … it is very likely the Trump administration will find a way to withdraw from the New START treaty before its term in office expires,” says Jon Wolfsthal, an Obama administration national security staffer.
The grim logic of great power competition has its participants always looking to escape from the dynamics of mutually assured destruction. The US has attempted this in the past through its missile defense systems, but they are not numerous enough to prevent an all-out attack from China or Russia, nor accurate enough to prevent attacks by fledgling nuclear states. The latest paradigm in guaranteed nuclear supremacy are weapons known as “hypersonics.”
The name is disingenuous; missile-launched nuclear weapons already move at many times the speed of sound. What’s new and scary is the hypersonic glider—a design for a missile-launched nuclear weapon that could maneuver at many times the speed of sound. Now, missile interceptors used to hunting for a target on a predictable ballistic trajectory would be confronted with a weapon that can twist and turn. “It’s really not the speed, it’s building a glider that you can control at the speed,” Lewis explained.
The US developed hypersonic glider technology in the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, the aerodynamics at play are similar to those once used by the Space Shuttle to return to Earth from space. But the technology was never made operational, in part because of fears that an arms race might ensue. Now, Russia and China say they are nearly ready to bring these weapons to bear, perhaps as soon as 2020, and the US wants to respond in kind.
“We want to hold others hostage,” undersecretary of defense Michael Griffin, the top US official focused on military technology, said in August. “We want bad behavior to be something with which we can deal, and hypersonic capability is a key to that.”
Beyond the technical challenges of designing and operating these weapons, one key challenge is cost: The US wants to spend $2.6 billion developing them in 2020 alone. Griffin began his career as a leading member of the Strategic Defense Initiative, a Reagan-era project that tried to use space technology to prevent a nuclear war. It dreamed of putting a fleet of satellites into space armed with sensors and interceptors to blow ICBMs out of the sky well before they reached the US.
While the vision of the Star Wars program was never truly achieved, its backers argue that it led the Soviet Union to overspend on security, laying the groundwork for its eventual economic collapse. The next “Star Wars” might be the broad, and expensive, new proposal from Trey Obering, a retired Air Force general who now works for Booz Allen Hamilton, to develop lasers to defend against hypersonic weapons.
“The United States has to be prepared to destroy anything that a country like Iran or North Korea can throw at us from a missile perspective,” he told Quartz. “We have to have the ability to kill anything they can throw at us, including hypersonic weapons, and we have to have enough capacity to make sure we maintain a strong strategic deterrent.”
“Without space, we really can’t do anything,” Griffin says of American power.
The US has 800 military bases around the world operating in almost half of the world’s countries. It has the world’s largest navy churning the seas, and a world-spanning air force. All of that needs to be plugged into a communications network, and that network is in space. Those ships and planes, plus the autonomous aircraft, a massive supply chain, and so-called precision munitions are also tracked and guided from space by the global positioning system. And masterminding all this requires an elevated sense of situational awareness, so the US maintains a constellation of spacecraft scanning the Earth with all kinds of sensors.
All of this has allowed the US to become the dominant power it is today. But every advantage has a way of becoming a weakness, too. Satellites are expensive and delicate, and their principal defense is that they are far away from enemies. Now, though, China, Russia, and even India have demonstrated they have the technology to blow a satellite out of the sky. Russia and China have tested satellites that experts suspect are actually weapons in disguise. Suddenly, the US advantage looks surprisingly vulnerable.
“The risk of a space Pearl Harbor is growing every day,” warns Rep. Jim Cooper (pdf), who works on strategic defense issues in Congress, referring to the surprise Japanese attack on the US in 1941.
Luckily, there is a deterrent factor: Any destructive action in orbit will leave a trail of space junk that poses a threat to all other satellites. Enough of that will render the space around Earth useless for most purposes. That gives everyone a good reason to play nice in orbit. But so far, China and Russia are nowhere near as reliant on space as the US, so experts fear they could justify launching orbital strikes in a real conflict.
It’s these fears that have led the US to re-think its approach to orbital defense, and begin re-organizing its space activities, mostly performed by the Air Force, into a new service that will focus on space as a “warfighting domain.” The exact shape and role of this service is still up for debate. It could be a wholesale revamping of US space strategy, or simply put new names on the same old thing.
Indeed, the configuration of the Space Force may depend on what you see happening in a future war. Within the military, some believe that the first step is to prepare for attacks by creating more defensible spacecraft, while others prioritize building swarms of cheap satellites so that losing one—or 25—wouldn’t stop the spacecraft from doing their job. The intelligence agencies prioritize surveillance satellites, while Griffin’s office in the Pentagon wants to prepare for a world where missiles become the dominant form of warfare, and only space sensors can guide them to their targets. The traditional armed services would prefer a world where the space guys keep the plumbing running so the servicemembers on the ground can continue doing the real work.
But what would a Pearl Harbor in space look like? And how would we respond to it? Brian Weeden, an expert at the Secure World Foundation, points to the satellites the US uses to detect the early launch of missiles, called the Space-Based Infrared System, or SBIRS.
China has spent recent decades building up an arsenal of conventional rockets to defend its long coastline and its controversial territorial claims in the South China Sea, whether that is Taiwan or the smaller islands within the “nine-dash line” Beijing has drawn to demarcate its sovereignty. China was not a signatory to the INF treaty that banned the development of such ground-based arsenals, which is one reason that the Trump administration scrapped the agreement—the treaty did nothing to prevent Beijing from amassing a world-beating rocket arsenal. Of most concern to the US are so-called ship-killing missiles, which could be launched from the mainland against US carriers hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
“We know that China has the most advanced ballistic missile force in the world,” James Fanell, a retired US Navy intelligence officer, told Reuters. “They have the capacity to overwhelm the defensive systems we are pursuing.”
A key to those defensive systems is SBIRS, which from space spot incoming missiles so that interceptors can be launched against them. “Without those, the US can’t defend against China’s anti-ship ballistic missiles,” Weeden said, describing a scenario where “China takes one or two of those satellites out as a warning to deter the US from getting involved in a Taiwan straits scenario or a Senaku scenario or something else.”
China might see such a strike as coming within the rules of gray-zone aggression, if only because its own approach to nuclear defense is not a hair-trigger response. Yet because the SBIRS spacecraft are part of the US nuclear deterrent, any attack on those satellites would be seen as an act of war in Washington, and could result in the US preemptively launching atomic weapons.
If that seems like an insane overreaction, keep in mind that if a missile-warning satellite were destroyed, US strategic forces would only have minutes to decide if it represented the opening shots of World War III or China seeking to improve its regional defense posture.
“Looking back at the Cold War, there were plenty of examples where the US or the Soviets completely misunderstood the motivations, perceptions, and implications of the other side and their activities,” Weeden warned. “We spent a hell of a lot longer studying the Soviets than we have the Chinese, and culturally the Soviets were closer to us than the Chinese are.”
In the world of gray-zone aggression, fears of nuclear misunderstandings dominate. Still, those same fears mean that conventional weapons promise to kill or maim the most humans during conflicts of the future. The hypersonic glider will raise blood pressure in Washington, Moscow and Beijing, but a variant of the AK-47 or an artillery shell triggered by a mobile phone will spill blood.
Wars between states are relatively rare. Most of the conflicts happening around the world today are classified as civil wars or, increasingly, civil wars with foreign intervention. Few domestic conflicts will play out without one of the great powers picking a side to back, and another not wanting to lose influence.
The baroque conflict in Syria is just one example of how that plays out, but so was Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea, where Moscow used propaganda to exploit historic ethnic splits in the Ukrainian population, invaded the country with troops out of uniform, and declared it Russian territory without ever declaring a conflict. The US was unwilling to escalate, and so now Russia owns Crimea.
Consider China’s activities in the South China sea, where it is building military bases on islands that are claimed as territory by multiple nations. Such activities are difficult to stop without escalation; while the US sends convoys of naval ships or formations of B-2 bombers through the South China Sea to demonstrate that it remains international territory, that hasn’t stopped China from changing the facts on the ground.
Iran, too, is a master of gray-zone aggression, conducting much of its coercive activity through non-state military groups. Despite its lack of atomic weaponry and an army that most believe could not go toe-to-toe with the United States, it’s clear that Iran understands how to deter the US. Tehran has bled US occupying forces in the Middle East by backing various militias, has partnered with Russia to prop up Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad despite international consensus against him, and backed Yemeni rebels in a proxy war against Saudi Arabia. Now, it is shooting down US drones over the Hormuz Strait and lobbing ballistic missiles into Saudi oil fields.
It’s been easier for states to execute these strategies over the past two decades because the US military has been stretched thin in its whack-a-mole battle against violent extremist organizations. The US would likely have had a stronger response to Russia’s Crimean adventure if American forces weren’t fighting against the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other related and unrelated groups across some 80 countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Within the Pentagon, some say the focus on strategies and tools to combat insurgency in occupied territory distracted the US from keeping up with major rivals—and certainly has drained resources from an over-stretched fighting force. At least the dynamics work both ways: Though NATO is vulnerable to a Russian attack in Europe, analysts believe Russia’s commitments in the Crimea and Syria have stretched it too thin for such an endeavor.
It’s worth noting that these dynamics aren’t new; they played out in similar ways and for similar reasons during the Cold War. But they may feel new to the generation that came of age after 1989 but before the economic transformation of China and Russia’s re-emergence as a global power in the first part of the 21st century. The US will need to remember the lessons learned during the 20th century—the importance of a long-term strategic plan, a global network of allies, the soft power of culture and prosperity—to win in the 21st century.
US rivals in gray-zone conflicts understand better than many Americans that disunity and confusion can be as large a threat to a society as an atomic bomb.
The still-unfolding story of Russia’s information warfare during the 2016 election shows how Moscow was able to harness internal divisions and disrupt American society. An investment in social media advertising, the timely leak of stolen documents, even the wholesale corruption of the National Rifle Association divide Americans to this day.
Whether or not Trump actively participated in Russia’s activities, he is aware of them and apparently grateful. The discord that Trump has sewed in the NATO alliance, the economic and reputational costs of his trade war, even the weapons he withheld from Ukraine in an effort to gain information about a political rival all speak to the benefits of information warfare. It’s not clear that 2020 and beyond will be any different. Trump apparently withheld military aid from Ukraine to pressure its government to launch an investigation of a political rival, former vice president Joe Biden, and Iranian hackers have already been outed by Microsoft for targeting the email accounts of an unidentified 2020 presidential candidate. (Reuters reported that it was Trump’s.)
It’s not a unique situation: Australia’s intelligence services believe that China was behind a breach in its legislative computer system ahead of 2019 elections. The move is part of broader attempts to gain influence in Australia, a close US ally and member of the “five eyes” consortium of nations who share secret intelligence among themselves. In 2015, Chinese hackers broke into the White House Office of Personnel Management’s database of every federal employee, a virtual goldmine for any intelligence agency hunting for potential informants.
Information isn’t the only thing available online. North Korean hackers are widely suspected of having pulled off an audacious digital heist of Bangladesh’s central bank, stealing almost $81 million—valuable funds for a nation cut off from the international economic system. The country’s cyber operatives are also suspected of launching the WannaCry extortion malware, and of breaking into Sony’s email system to release a trove of embarrassing missives to the world.
Similar methods are exploited by non-state actors too. ISIS and other extremist groups rely on online propaganda to win over supporters far from the Middle East who can support them financially or with lone-wolf attacks, and use online forums to sell goods and ransom hostages. The rapid reaction to this threat, with the US taking action to censor and block digital forums where wannabe terrorists shared execution videos and complained about the West, puts the slow-walked response to Russia’s election meddling in disappointing context.
As the ability to deliver punishing blows with ones and zeroes continues to rise, with defenders apparently one step behind attackers, some tech visionaries predict the dawn of “Splinternet”—when the internet, still a global protocol, becomes split into national entities. It may make for a safer network, but in the eyes of many digital visionaries, betrays the universal and even utopian vision of internet culture. China’s so-called Great Firewall is a symptom of this trend, but as countries increasingly worry about the vulnerability of their data and their control over the digital economy, cyberbalkanization could on the horizon.
Even as Americans struggle to understand how their new digital society makes democracy vulnerable, the pace of change continues to accelerate. Technologists are now looking to artificial intelligence and quantum computing as the next leap forward in military science. Autonomous flying robots have already changed warfare, but true artificial intelligence—capable of controlling weapons systems and out-thinking human adversaries—could change the game. Quantum computing could enable such advances, and also new kinds of communication relays that would be extraordinarily different for cryptographers to decipher. China is the first country to launch a quantum satellite to demonstrate such a tool, which at least one analyst says should be a “Sputnik moment” for the 21st century.
Consider the weapons paraded across Tiananmen Square for the recent 70th anniversary of the Chinese communist party. Among them was a hypersonic surveillance drone that could provide immediate battlefield intelligence for the People’s Liberation Army, allowing them to avoid reliance on satellite imagery in an age when spacecraft are increasingly vulnerable to jamming and ballistic attacks. There were also three new varieties of nuclear missile, including a hypersonic glider; an autonomous submarine that might allow China to hunt down American submersibles more easily; and, of course, so-called “ship killer” missiles that threaten US aircraft carriers from thousands of miles away. All of it is a reminder that economic power often equals military strength.
China is throwing huge amounts of resources at these problems through its centrally planned economy. The US can no longer rely on simply out-spending. It must now out-innovate. Some wonder if the US can keep up without adopting the kind of rules and centralization that China has used to drive new technology. Traditionally, the US has adopted a “run faster” strategy, depending on its open economy to produce innovation faster than it could be stolen by adversaries, according to Andrew Hunter, who studies defense technology at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
This has included opening US borders and universities to immigrants and foreigners to attract talent from all over the world, trading broadly to find the cheapest resources and bolstering a high-tech economy with investments in research and education. Under the Trump administration, many of these ideas have been rejected under the banner of nationalism.
The US, however, still has some avenues to respond to these advances, at least in the context of gray-zone conflict. The CIA used malware to sabotage an Iranian facility for enriching Uranium during the Obama administration, and reportedly has deployed similar tactics to try and stop Iranian and North Korean rocket launches. The US demonstrated that China is highly reliant on certain American tech imports when a ban on exporting chips almost put a major Chinese tech company, ZTE, out of business. But these techniques seem likely to delay the inevitable rather than solve the problem.
Globalists or patriots?
If it seems like this story is all bad news for the future of the United States, take some heart: What’s being threatened is the ability of the fading superpower to dominate the globe and bolster its allies, not prevail if it is attacked. The privileged borders of the US—two oceans and two friendly nations—still serve it in good stead. (For now: As the arctic ice melts during climate change, the US will face a new potential Russian threat from the top of the globe.)
Yet what is at risk of being lost in a gray-zone conflict is what the US preserves with its privilege: sea lanes that support free trade, liberal democracies flourishing in the orbit of authoritarian states, a flawed but extant commitment to human rights. American hypocrisy is a powerful force, but so is the soft power of its culture and economic system. China’s Belt-and-Road international investment project is presenting many of its neighbors with a comparison that flatters the US, as they realize that it represents a greater benefit to China than to their own economies. Indeed, given continued prosperity in the US, some argue that any appearance of weakness is deceiving.
But signs abound of the US undermining itself. Consider one subset of the global arms race, the sale of weapons to allied states. The US is considered the global protector of Taiwan, and the island nation is a major buyer of American arms. Yet it is not buying weapons that would allow it to fend off a Chinese invasion. A small nation looking to push off a larger power should follow Iran’s playbook, as the China analyst Tanner Greer notes: “A navy composed of missile patrol boats, mine-laying ships, small semi-submersibles, and underwater drones; an air defense component reliant on mobile surface-to-air missile batteries; ground forces armed to the teeth with aerial drones, land mines, and anti-ship and anti-armor guided missiles.” Instead, Taiwan buys stealth fighters, tanks and submarines that line the pockets of US defense contractors, and would be destroyed in the opening hours of a Chinese invasion.
There’s political logic for Taiwanese leaders to win over influential American politicians and firms, but likely not at the expense of its own security. The same self-defeating logic is at play in the US decision to withhold military aid from Ukraine until it investigated the president’s domestic political rivals.
The US has also depended on partnering with like-minded nations to share the burdens of defense and the gains of victory, and on soft power that promoted the US as a land of opportunity and defender of free culture. Those traditional advantages are now under fire from a presidency apparently intent on breaking with America’s post-war international order.
“The future does not belong to globalists,” Trump proclaimed at this year’s meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. “The future belongs to patriots.”
The blustery speech was intended for a domestic audience, but international listeners might have noted, as the president proclaimed the US the world’s military superiority, that the truth was somewhat different. Under Trump, the US has been pulling back from its global role. The future of warfare may be heading for a gray zone of ambiguity, but it still belongs to the nation that can gather and project power around the globe, not reject it.