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Physics, Power and Defense in the 21st Century

by G. A. Keyworth, II

Progress On Point
Periodic Commentaries on the Policy Debate
Release 8.3 n Feburary 2001

Although I was asked to comment upon "Physics, Energy and Defense in the 21st Century, it seemed more appropriate to replace the concept of "energy" with that of "power." The reason is that, in this new digital age we live in, it is no longer merely the ability to do work that matters, which is what energy defines, but, rather, how fast you do it. And that is what power is all about – how fast you perform work. The industrial economy depended upon energy; the new era we're in will depend far more upon power. And the same logic will shape how we think about defense.

In just a decade or two, the world has changed: Different dynamics, different rules, and different challenges. And, right here at the outset, let me state what, in an overarching sense, is most different. It is the reduction of the many barriers to new entrants that so uniquely characterizes the industrial era.

Those barriers stem, largely, from the very factors that define the industrial economy, especially from economies of scale and regulations designed, above all, to ensure capital stability. With those barriers now falling, look at the changes around us, even though the transition from an industrial economy to a digital economy has just begun.

There is no finer example of America's post World War II preeminence than IBM. Yet, the speed with which Microsoft, Oracle, and Intel left IBM in the dust, in the very first chapter of the digital economy, offers us a glimpse of just how fast moving and renewing is this new economy. And the Internet which is, in fact, but the first step in the conversion of the analog infrastructure of the industrial age to the digital infrastructure needed in the digital age, is increasing the pace. Look at how rapidly Cisco, a communications company but one born digital, surpassed each and every one of the great telephone equipment companies. And, in a different sense, look at how tiny Finland has, by embracing everything digital, been reborn as one of the world's more sophisticated and successful economies.

With the barriers of the industrial economy in remission, resulting in revitalized global competition, one can get a glimpse of what Charles Darwin documented in Origins of the Species. Perhaps we have simply returned to what is more natural, and the industrial age was less so.

In nature, nothing is more important for survival than a species' ability to adapt. And that is what, time and time again, is defining the survivors in the digital economy. The trio of companies I referred to earlier, Microsoft, Oracle and Intel, learned how to adapt and, in fact, it was a major factor in their success. Each has been threatened, time and time again, and each responded in a manner that made it stronger.

For an even more dramatic example, look at Yahoo. Yahoo started as a search engine but realized quickly that business on the web wasn't validating traditional value propositions. They found themselves redefining their basic business so often that they configured Yahoo as a learning machine. Try something, look at the market's response, get smarter and try again. In short, Yahoo is a model for an adaptive enterprise.

The industrial age saw military forces structured in much the same way as the economy – and similarly resistant to change. And that shouldn't be surprising. Inevitably, both a nation's defense and economy are driven by largely the same factors, and by the same technologies. Then what is before us in defense?

It took a decade or more before we accepted the fact that our economy was in a condition of discontinuous, irreversible change. And we now generally accept the fact that it is not simply the post cold-war or the global economy that has caused the change, although those factors do contribute. Instead it is technology – digital technology – that is driving that change.

So, if we know enough about the digital economy to recognize its basic features, and its general direction, then what can we say about what a digital defense might look like. To attempt to answer that question, I suggest we break the response into two parts: the first is the evolutionary part, the component that has clear roots in the past; the second is the discontinuous part, which is much more difficult to define and which, at least from past history, is probably the more important.

As one might expect, we know a lot about the evolutionary component. Electronics will play a big part here, just as it has in shaping what we mean today when we speak of the modern military. One particular dividend electronics will yield is in precision targeting, that elusive partner to precision delivery. This is possible now, on a full-time, global-coverage scale, using distributed satellites and multi-spectral sensors.

Space-based surveillance systems have comprised the backbone of America's military intelligence for decades. Like mainframe computers, though, their application was limited. Now, with distributed surveillance -- highly redundant, mutually supporting sensing platforms -- space-based surveillance will, inevitably, expand to provide tactical support and, most important of all, to provide the means for better decision-making at all levels of operation.

There is enormous technological potential here that can be exploited. In sensors, for example, combining computing with transducers continues to yield performance breakthroughs, like the high-resolution Synthetic Aperture Radar that General Atomics flew recently on its Predator unmanned aircraft. And there is tremendous potential to use the massive computing power of a distributed surveillance network to process complex algorithms for image enhancement, recognition, or data synthesis for decision support, and even simulation.

Another area of electronics that will be important is electronic countermeasures. With radar, stealth technology changed the name of the game, reducing the reflected signal levels to a level where canceling them actively became feasible. Such computing-intensive approaches can be extended beyond radar, even to passive sensing systems such as infrared. And active cancellation is but one example of a rich area of technological opportunity in ECM.

What I have, so far, been describing is extrapolation. The trend toward increasing precision will continue; the trend toward more and better real-time information will continue; delivery systems will get faster and more complex to detect; and, in missions, rapid strikes will continue to displace fixed engagements. None of these observations is new, nor in any way visionary.

Although the debate about information warfare is relatively new, the topic is hardly new. Just as wireless communication opened up tremendous opportunities for interception in World War II, the new digital infrastructure is opening up new opportunities for exploitation. Nevertheless, information warfare is not a discontinuity.

The last real discontinuity in defense was the nuclear weapon. Remember that, earlier, I suggested we break up looking at next-generation defense into two parts: that derived in evolutionary fashion and that derived discontinuously. Well, I suggest to you that the second of these, the discontinuously-derived and the more important, will result from displacing the nuclear weapon. This is not, by any means, to imply that nuclear weapons can, or will, go away. What I do mean is that the overarching role that nuclear weapons played in the cold war is diminishing. That role has, in fact, been changing for a long time.

One way it began to change was with the introduction of independently guided warheads on a trendline of increasing precision. Together, they led to a fundamental change in nuclear deterrence, and especially in the way we viewed stability. Stability, in nuclear deterrence, is as fundamental as the likelihood of a nuclear attack being initiated. The less the incentive to initiate a first strike, the more stable the deterrence.

At the outset of the cold war, and for three decades thereafter, the condition known as MAD, or mutual assured destruction, resulted in a rather stable form of deterrence, referred to as counter-value deterrence. However, with the introduction of precision-guided, multiple warhead missiles in the mid-1970s, another form of deterrence emerged, known as counter-force deterrence.

In the former, high-value targets such as cities would bear the brunt of a nuclear attack; in the latter version, missiles targeted missiles. Superficially, one might view this as progress. But, this newer form of counter-force deterrence was less stable in that there was, conceivably, more rationale for preemption. And, by the late 1970s, it became obvious that the Soviet Union was exploiting this potential instability with a nuclear force structure designed for preemption.

Today all this, doubtless, sounds pretty arcane, or perhaps irrelevant, to most of you. But, history will reveal that the cold war was, in fact, a time of enormous hazard, and one that challenged the comprehension of a democratic society. No one has described this dilemma better than Freeman Dyson, one of the truly great mathematical physicists of our time, in his book Weapons and Hope. He describes two kinds of citizens, soldiers and civilians, and he describes how differently they will, inevitably, view the conditions for peace. Totalitarian systems are led by soldiers, while democracies are led by civilians.

In 1981, and as result of a massive Soviet buildup of offensive-capable nuclear capability, the U.S. responded with the Reagan administration's strategic modernization program. In parallel, it undertook a dramatic new approach to arms control, one that focused upon reducing the specific kinds of missiles that were most destabilizing, the Soviet SS-18s.

As his Science Advisor, I became aware, early on, of two of President Reagan's priorities, one well understood and the other less so. One was, of course, his commitment to strengthening our military, relative to the Soviet Union, in order to strengthen our bargaining position and to reduce their global influence. The second, and to this day still not well understood, was his commitment to reduce, in the longer term, our reliance upon nuclear weapons.

With strategic modernization well underway, and halfway through his first term as President, he made a startling pronouncement. In the now-famous speech he delivered on March 23, 1983, President Reagan took a bold step to both challenge the Soviets further, and to launch us on a path to, eventually, reduce our reliance upon nuclear weapons. He began what became the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI – Star Wars by its critics. He called upon the scientific community, who had given us nuclear weapons, to now give us the technical means to make them obsolete.

In many discussions with him, both before and after that speech, the reasons for why he undertook what was, politically, a high-payoff but also a high-risk step, became clear. He viewed our continued reliance upon nuclear weapons, as a long-term basis for our defense, as flawed in two ways.

First, and something that he had concluded prior to assuming the presidency, it was simply wrong. He viewed a strategy of deterrence that placed civilians at risk, indistinguishably from soldiers, as morally flawed, founded on principles that were inconsistent with our heritage. He could never take seriously Robert McNamara's often quoted cliché that "deterrence is a condition, not a strategy."

Second, what he learned from the many issues that confronted him in strategic modernization, especially the conditions for stability, convinced him that deterrence had become too fragile to endure. He revealed this in different ways. One day, after a briefing on his role in command and control, he quietly commented to me "…and I am expected to make what might well be the most awesome decision any man ever undertook, based upon what you refer to as ‘bits?'" And, mind you, Ronald Reagan was a most decisive individual. Later, and repeatedly, he queried me, often in odd moments, once after a particularly boring cabinet meeting on a domestic matter, on the likely endurance of a submarine's survivability. Another time, out of the blue, he turned to discuss for just how long our investment in Stealth technology would work for us. Finally, he began to ask whether the steps we were taking in strategic modernization had much likelihood of ensuring stability for as long as those taken by Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. The only answer I could give was that such was not likely.

My reason for dwelling on this is to try to put in proper, historical context just how difficult it is to achieve major, discontinuous change in the way we think about defense, and the way we develop defense strategy. President Reagan received little support from those around him. Every suggestion was made to water his SDI down, to "treat it as but an extension of deterrence," or to "build SDI as a bargaining chip in arms control negotiations," or to "portray SDI as something that would conform to the ABM Treaty." Fortunately for us all, he ignored those pleas, for much of the remarkable and productive relationship he developed with Mikhael Gorbachev was built on respect for his commitment to bringing about real, discontinuous change through his SDI.

But, while SDI accomplished what President Reagan wanted, helping to bring about the end of the "Evil Empire" and in making us rethink our reliance upon nuclear weapons, missile defense, taken alone, is no longer particularly relevant. In fact, the continuing debate over BMD falls, most certainly, in the extrapolative camp, and is unlikely, in my opinion, to have much impact in reshaping our national security.

While the SDI was effective in restoring counter-force deterrence to its more stable alternative, counter-value deterrence, the basic problem remains. And that is that, morally, nuclear deterrence is a wrong basis for security and, practically, it fails to draw upon the strengths of a democracy.

Paul Nitze has stated recently that the very successful role that nuclear deterrence has played for half a century is, simply, finished. He argues that he cannot conceive of any circumstance in which the use of nuclear weapons can serve our national interests. And he is right.

Look for a moment at some of the other realities. One is that deterrence is based upon a more than half-century old technology, at the top of its S-curve, where we have made only marginal improvements in the last thirty years. Third-world economies, from Pakistan to India and, especially, China, are catching up. The adjuncts of deterrence, arms modernization on the right and arms control on the left, can no longer prove effective in preventing the use of nuclear weapons. In fact, in the light of recent nuclear sword-rattling by India and Pakistan, and in spite of non-proliferation efforts, the use of nuclear weapons is more probable now than at any time since World War II.

Moreover, we seem to have a defense policy that assumes that, perhaps 20-50 years from now, China will have a nuclear deterrent that will, inevitably, challenge our own. Reminiscent of a deer in one's headlights, one can only wonder why steps aren't taken to avoid such a predictable circumstance. And, similarly, we seem to assume today that a defeated Soviet Union, no longer even in existence and with the residue of its military machine in collapse and chaos, should serve as the validating basis for arms control treaties that precede modern China, the end of the Cold war and even the PC.

What could, today, meet the objective Ronald Reagan had in embarking on a path to reduce reliance upon nuclear weapons? What can affect the likelihood that nuclear weapons may be used in Kashmir, or by terrorists against us? Or, in a more overarching sense, what can replace nuclear weapons in the force structure that will ensure our security in the new digital age that we have embarked upon?

The answer, I suggest, is both radical, arcane and, in the end, obvious. Our next-generation defense will depend upon two primary technologies. One can be extrapolated from current experience and is, of course, the kind of continuous, global surveillance that can be achieved with a distributed satellite network. The other, and the more embryonic, is the technology of short-pulse, high-power lasers that can replace today's speed-of-sound armaments with speed-of-light equivalents. The destructive mechanism here is impulse, rather than thermal, and the effect is both extraordinarily effective and difficult to counteract.

Combined with the precision targeting and overall intelligence capabilities of a distributed surveillance system, a radically new and effective military capability can result. With the ability to respond and adapt to a wide variety of threats, with a highly-leveraged technology, one can begin to think realistically of a defense that goes beyond nuclear weapons.

Nearly twenty years ago, it was these same two technologies of surveillance and high-power lasers that justified a new look at ballistic missile defense. In spite of the passage of time, and with so much progress in other areas, only marginal attention has been paid to these two key areas of defense technology, especially with impulse lasers. But, just as we did a generation ago, it is time to once again take an inventive approach to how we rebuild our decaying military.

G.A. Keyworth, II is Chairman of The Progress & Freedom Foundation. Based on remarks to the 2000 Industrial Physics Forum, American Institute of Physics, San Diego, California November 6, 2000. The views expressed here are the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The Progress & Freedom Foundation, its Board, Officers or Staff.



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