A CRITICAL REASON for the success of Russia’s and China’s grey-zone strategies is that they have invested heavily in long-range sensor and precision-strike networks as well as cyber and space capabilities that can impose unacceptable costs on America projecting power in their regions. While America and its allies have spent much of the past 15 years fighting wars against irregular forces in the Middle East and Afghanistan, its adversaries have been studying the vulnerabilities in the Western way of warfare and exploiting technologies that have become cheaper and more readily available. They have also benefited from research and development passing from military institutions to the civil and commercial sectors.

Although at the strategic level American military power is still uncontested, its major adversaries’ anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) investment has blunted its technology edge to such an extent that it can no longer count on local dominance in the early stages of a conflict. This means that America’s adversaries are able to shelter low-intensity and paramilitary operations by carrying out small-scale but highly accurate attacks against American forces should they attempt to intervene on behalf of an ally.

It is doubtful that American commanders would recommend such a hazardous mission unless they were given the go-ahead to disable their opponents’ A2/AD network (revealingly, the Chinese name for A2/AD is “counter-intervention”). That would require a major commitment of forces to strike targets inside Russian or Chinese territory, such as ground-to-air missile batteries and command, control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C2ISR) nodes, which would probably result in heavy losses for the Americans. Even more important, such an operation would carry a risk so large as to make it infeasible. Even faced with the much less onerous task of suppressing Syrian air defences in 2012, Barack Obama was advised that 200-300 aircraft would be needed for an indefinite period.

Russia’s growing A2/AD capability has received less attention than China’s, but poses similar problems to America and its allies. NATO commanders fear that in the event of a crisis, missile systems in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and in western Russia itself could make the Baltic Sea a no-go area for its naval vessels. Similarly, albeit on a lesser scale, Iran can threaten shipping in the Gulf, including American carriers, and American air bases across the water.

Salami tactics

China’s efforts are aimed mainly at degrading America’s sea- and land-based air power and thus limiting the kind of war it can wage. The first step is to achieve what the Chinese call “information dominance”. That means targeting America’s data and communications networks, especially in space. Physical attacks on satellites, including “blinding” them with lasers, would be combined with cyber attacks on computer systems.

To prevent America from operating close to China’s shore, a bristling arsenal of land-based air-defence and anti-ship missiles, along with fast missile boats, missile submarines and maritime strike aircraft, would attack US Navy vessels, as well as at US bases in Guam and Japan. In particular, China intends to push American carriers well beyond the unrefuelled range of their strike aircraft, such as the new F-35 stealth fighter, or risk catastrophic damage from anti-ship ballistic missiles.

China is building a strong blue-water navy with aircraft-carriers, to which it is now adding heavily armed artificial islands in the South China Sea

The DF-21D, known as the “carrier killer”, is a ballistic missile that can travel by road. It has a range of over 1,000 miles and may carry manoeuvrable conventional warheads. It might or might not work as planned, but there is enough uncertainty to make it a powerful deterrent. At the same time China is building a strong blue-water navy with aircraft-carriers of its own, to which it is now adding heavily armed artificial islands in the South China Sea.

In response, the Pentagon in 2014 announced its “Third Offset Strategy”, concluding that if it could deter and defeat the “pacing threat” from China, it would be able to advance America’s interests and defend its allies not only in the Asia-Pacific region but anywhere in the world. The strategy focuses on areas such as autonomous learning systems, human-machine collaborative decision-making, assisted human operations, advanced manned-unmanned systems operations, networked autonomous weapons and high-speed projectiles, all of which are certain to have a major impact on the future of warfare.

The name could have been better chosen (and indeed, has been quietly dropped by the Trump administration). The first offset, in the 1950s, was America’s advantage in nuclear weapons as a way of repelling the Soviet Union’s much larger conventional forces if they were to attack Europe. The second, when the Soviets achieved nuclear parity, was the “look deep, strike deep” precision-guidance revolution of the 1980s, designed to achieve the same result without using nuclear weapons.

The third offset, like the second, aims to harness emerging technologies to restore America’s “overmatch” against near-peer adversaries, and thus its ability to project power even in highly contested environments. But whereas previous offsets secured a period of lasting technological advantage, even its most enthusiastic advocates (such as Bob Work, the deputy secretary of defence until 2017, who drove the effort for three years; or Michael O’Hanlon, a defence expert at the Brookings Institution) concede that this time America’s lead may be more fleeting.

One reason for caution is that the pace of innovation in many of the key enabling technologies, such as artificial intelligence, deep machine learning, robotics and autonomy, has accelerated. Another is that investment in research and development is being driven by the civil sector, which is looking for quick commercial rewards.

Russia, and particularly China, are both making AI a national priority, and have far fewer qualms than the West in how they go about it. According to Jim Lewis, an expert on the impact of technology on warfare at CSIS, “when it comes to government data, the US doesn’t match what China collects on its citizens at all. They have a big sandbox to play in and a lot of toys and good people.” In China, where big data are bigger than anywhere else, privacy is not an issue, and there is no division between commercial research and military needs. By contrast, Google’s London-based DeepMind subsidiary, whose machine beat a grandmaster at the game of Go, refuses to work with the armed forces.

This is not to say that the effort to restore America’s technology edge will fail. It still spends nearly three times as much on defence as China does, and indeed more than all eight runners-up combined. Its forces have far more combat experience than any of their counterparts, and it has strengths in systems engineering that no other country can match. It continues to dominate commercial AI funding and has more firms working in the field than any other country.

More bang for the buck

But according to Bryan Clark of the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, America’s chosen method of making a wide variety of investments and waiting to see what comes up fails to bring the most promising technologies to bear directly on the A2/AD challenge. In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on the future of warfare, Mr Clark argued that America should apply new technologies to four main areas of warfare: undersea, strike, air and electromagnetic.

Quiet Chinese submarines and new active sonar systems are making it increasingly risky for American submarines to operate in Chinese coastal waters. Small, hard-to-detect unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs) could be used to clear mines, hunt enemy submarines in shallow waters and gather intelligence. Larger ones could deploy seabed payloads such as long-endurance sensors, power packs for other UUVs and extra missiles for manned submarines.

In the air, America may try to degrade an adversary’s integrated air-defence systems (IADs) by interfering with their sensors and control systems, then send out networked swarms of small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to inflict further damage before deploying penetrating long-range stealth bombers such as the B2 and the new B21. But air supremacy of the kind it has enjoyed since the end of the cold war may be passing. To achieve even local dominance, it will need longer-range sensors and lasers to detect enemy aircraft. Manned aircraft will increasingly be platforms for sensors, data-gathering and stand-off missiles.

Dominance of the electromagnetic spectrum will become more and more important. New ways of achieving it will include stealth technologies to conceal the radar signature of ships and planes; protecting space-based communications networks from attack; launching decoys; and defences against incoming missile salvoes. For example, miniaturised electromagnetic weapons (EMW) mounted on swarms of expendable UAVs launched close to shore from a large UUV could jam an opponent’s targeting sensors and communications. Electromagnetic rail guns mounted on ships, which can fire projectiles at 4,500 miles an hour to the edge of space, could counter ballistic-missile warheads.

The Pentagon’s lumbering acquisition system will find it hard to accommodate any of this. To get even close to keeping up with the pace of innovation, says Mr Work, it will have to move to rapid prototyping and adopt a different attitude to testing, emulating Silicon Valley’s readiness to “fail fast”. It will also have to find less bureaucratic ways of doing business with firms developing key technologies. To that end, the Pentagon has established DIUx (Defence Innovation Unit Experimental) to team up with companies that would not previously have worked with it.

Finding the money will be another problem. And whereas the second offset was underwritten by the commitment of successive administrations, the third offset is no longer considered a strategy, merely a helpful way to tackle wider defence modernisation. Above all, it needs a compelling operational concept, tested in war games, that service chiefs feel able to support. The Chinese and the Russians will be watching with interest.