The wars of the 21st century will be dominated by three overlapping types of conflict: Wars of Silicon, Wars of Iron, and Wars in the Shadows. The United States must design a new readiness and investment strategy in order to effectively deal with all three. Yet today it continues to pour scarce resources chiefly into its sphere of long-held dominance -- Wars of Iron. This is a potentially disastrous mistake, but one that can be corrected if we act now.
Wars of Silicon represent the most demanding scenarios that the United States could face in the coming decades. These wars represent the "high bar" -- a potential U.S. faceoff against a deadly trifecta of cutting-edge technology, advanced military capabilities, and substantial financial resources. While these wars will be built around cyber-technology, they may well include highly-sophisticated weapons and other evolving forms of mayhem -- from malevolent biological agents to disruptions of critical infrastructure.
Several states loom as possible Silicon War opponents, the most obvious being China. But the circle of potential enemies grows each year as more adversaries gain access to technology that enables them to strike and harm the United States, even without conventional power projection capabilities. Non-state actors will pose a threat too, as even the smallest group of skilled malcontents can deliver Silicon War effects from their home computers. Immediately attributing certain attacks may prove difficult, complicating both deterrence and counterattack.
At scale, Silicon Wars may enable powerful state actors to unbalance and unhinge U.S. regional or global objectives by undercutting both its civil and military capabilities. A high-end, economically powerful adversary could deploy sophisticated cyberthreats in combination with large numbers of highly-equipped conventional forces. Combinations of these capabilities could deny U.S. forces access to critical airspace and waterways. Although the United States does not seek such confrontations -- nor see them as inevitable -- it must be prepared for a world in which a new standard is being set for advanced military competition. Unquestionably, some substantial portion of the U.S. military must be designed to counter this growing and most demanding threat.
Investment Implications: Wars of Silicon require a different balance of U.S. security capabilities than exists now. These wars present new challenges that cannot be addressed solely with the forces and systems that the Pentagon plans to bring online in the next 10 years. With the increased possibility of a high-end, economically powerful actor with regional ambitions -- think China in 2030 -- it's time for the United States to substantially alter its current investment portfolio. Arguably, the United States remains most deeply exposed to foreign-directed mayhem in the cyber-domain, so it should increase spending on both defensive and offensive cyber-capabilities.
In anti-access conflicts, maritime and airpower will remain high-value capabilities, but only if adapted to this new threat. Forces that today are most effective when operating close to enemy shores will be particularly vulnerable in a Silicon War because of growing numbers of advanced long-range missiles, so striking from greater distances with unmanned platforms will be essential. The vulnerability of many of today's short-range manned aircraft and low-end ships makes them largely unsuitable for this type of war. It also argues against buying lots more of the same, particularly at exorbitant cost. Much better for the United States to increase its ability to operate from long distances with more survivable precision-strike capabilities. Moreover, standoff air and naval forces -- partnered with missile defense and ground forces -- will most effectively reassure U.S. allies and therefore sustain the global credibility of American power as rising regional actors put military pressure on their neighbors.
Wars of Iron will continue to represent the bulk of potential conflicts around the world over the next several decades, but they will look different from conventional wars in the past. These wars will originate primarily from nation-states, triggered by instability and competing interests. Wars of this variety could involve a host of recognizable and as-yet emerging actors: Iran, North Korea, Russia, or other autocratic regimes or rogue aggressors. A disruptive change of government may be all that divides today's benign state from tomorrow's deadly regional threat. Late-20th-century weaponry will predominate on these battlefields. And yet these wars will not simply replicate the conventional military symmetry of the Cold War -- tank armies battling tank armies or air-to-air engagements. Each will entail a unique blend of conventional and unconventional capabilities, often described as "hybrid" warfare. The United States will have to be prepared to fight and win in this domain as well, reinforcing the need for highly capable and versatile (if smaller) U.S. ground forces.
Most nation-states will continue to build military power through conventional weaponry, while also seeking new advantages in both cyber- and irregular-warfare capabilities. Others will deploy large militaries well-equipped with late-20th century capabilities, but leavened by selective new technologies. For example, the largely conventional million-man North Korean military could deploy GPS jammers to divert guided munitions, employ hackers to disrupt adversary command and control, and employ its 100,000 commandos for widespread disruption behind enemy lines. This mix-and-match of capabilities will be common among threats for the remainder of the 21st century, differentiated only by degree.