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‘The Kill Chain’: Why America Might Lose Its Next Big War

Christian Brose's defense-nerd position paper, The Kill Chain, inadvertently reveals that the Pentagon's problems (complacency, inertia, arrogance) reflect those of the country at large.

The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare
Christian Brose
April 2020

As the embers smolder in many American neighborhoods and many of its peoples’ hearts remain broken after the senseless police killing of George Floyd (and Breonna Taylor and too many other African American), it may not seem like the right time to launch into a discussion of American defense policy. So many urgent priorities demand immediate attention. A top-down review of law enforcement policies (particularly the militarized shoot-first training that leads to so many deaths). Reallocating corporation-first government fiscal policies towards smaller community and minority businesses. Overhauling the prison-industrial complex to replace punishment and profiteering with rehabilitation. But sometimes insight about state of the nation can come from an unexpected source.

On its face,
Christian Brose‘s The Kill Chain is the kind of call-to-action that chartered members of the D.C. think tank orbit regularly put out to encourage government movement in one direction or another. Like many such books, it has a strong central thesis and could well be imagined packaged in a three-ring binder and stacked unread in the corner of a Congressional office.

Unlike many books of that ilk, which often seem like senior-staffer white papers with better typography, Brose has one advantage: he can write. Take this eye-grabbing section in which he visualizes what a shooting war in the Pacific between the US and China would look like:

Cyberattacks would grind down the logistical movement of US forces into combat. The defenseless cargo ships and aircraft that would ferry much of that force across the Pacific would be attacked every step of the way. Satellites on which US forces depend for intelligence, communications, and global positioning would be blinded by lasers, shut down by high-energy jammers, or shot out of orbit altogether by antisatellite missiles…. [As] China’s hypersonic weapons [reaching five times the speed of sound] slammed into US bases, they would destroy fighter jets and other aircraft on the ground before US pilots could even get them airborne.

A lot of this American military nightmare scenario is based on a series of war games that the Pentagon has used to imagine a major future war between America (blue) and China or Russia (red). Brose writes that in 2018 a senior Obama military staffer briefed the Senate about the results in unvarnished terms: “Blue gets its ass handed to it.” The staffer noted that this often shocks people who assume that because America has been the world’s unbeatable military force for decades, its might will still overpower its enemies today.

The Kill Chain spends much of its relatively short length explaining the reasons behind the fast-approaching end of the nation’s military dominance. Not infrequently, they mirror the ways in which other major institutional crises from racism to income inequality have been identified, loudly pontificated about, and yet continually ignored. In the same way that conservatives have long used “American exceptionalism” as a way to look past the need to reform, the defense establishment has allowed victories such as the lightning-fast demolition of Saddam Hussein’s forces in 1991 to create a sense of complacency about adapting for the next war. Brose jabs holes in the lazy assumptions made by Pentagon planners that seem to take for granted total perpetual American air and sea supremacy and a future in which every adversary was as hapless as Iraq.

That level of strategic comfort calls to mind the officer in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961), who is sarcastically praised by a general for being “a wizard at directing a pincer movement in good weather on level terrain against an enemy that has already committed his reserves.” It calls to mind every pundit or politician who has assured its citizens for decades of America’s greatness and dominance without providing a scintilla of proof. The assumption must have been that after a lifetime of “greatest country in the world” cant, the people would take them at their word. Never mind that Europe passed America in factors like social mobility and happiness, while developed nations looked in horror at the country’s patchwork healthcare system and sclerotic, underfunded public universities.

While the American ruling class strip-mined the assets that could have been invested in the country’s future, the population mostly drifted through a dreamworld in which it still reigned supreme. The rest of the world was not standing still. The speed with which China and Russia leapfrogged America in their adoption of unmanned systems and technological disruption veers from frightening to comical in Brose’s telling.

On the frightening end of things, he describes how when Russia’s shock troops of “Little Green Men” blitzkrieged into Ukraine in 2014, their precision was otherworldly: When a Ukrainian commander called his mother back, Russian forces (which already had his mobile number) geolocated his position and killed him in seconds with a barrage of precision rocket artillery. Reflecting the sad-but-comedic angle, Brose relates how an American military veteran friend of his told him that often the best way for his unit to get a good fix on locating a target was by using Google Maps. While the Pentagon and Congress funded expensive, outdated, legacy weapons platforms that made lobbyists, contractors, and bureaucrats happy, other powers were investing in cheap unmanned systems and disruptive tech that could win battles.

Brose explains that “the kill chain” is a term familiar to only a few non-military people, though its application is far more basic. It’s essentially a three-step decision-making process: First, understand what is happening; Second, decide what to do about it; Third, take an action that helps achieve the objective (which, if you’re in the military, often but not always involves killing). People, groups, and institutions that can quickly and efficiently complete the kill chain tend to succeed. More and more, the Pentagon has been letting weeds grow in the space between those steps, while world-power rivals like Russia and China have been aggressively tightening them up.

Brose is clear about his intentions. As Senator John McCain’s longtime principal national security and military adviser, he does not question the assumption that America needs to exert a global military presence and spend ungodly amounts of money in supporting that mission. Given that he proposes massive new Pentagon investments in bleeding-edge technology while being an executive at a national defense technology start-up, though, he is not a neutral observer here.

However, one need not be a defense hawk to appreciate Brose’s warning. The problem he identifies is related to a far deeper one. In explaining how the US government fails to properly incentivize innovators, like Silicon Valley (essentially created by the Pentagon) to create new technology for maintaining battlespace superiority, he notes that the best and brightest minds don’t want anything to do with defense:

A generation of America’s best engineers, backed by a fortune of private investment, went to work building the technologies of the future, kicking the information revolution into overdrive … to improve internet searches, optimize online advertising, and post cat videos on social media.

Given one’s ideological direction, one could replace the direction in which Brose would point all that brain power and funding (“maintaining the US military’s technological edge”) with a host of other more worthy causes and still concede the point. The Pentagon’s DARPA agency created the Internet roughly a half-century ago. Today it exists primarily as a tool of convenience, leisure, revenue generation, and surveillance. The internet has become a glittering digital promise that supercharges complacency and illusion while distracting from the nation’s systemic injustices, impoverishment, and ever-more-limited imaginations.

On the battlefield, it remains to be seen whether the US would lose to another great power. On the home front, victory feels ever further away.