Reviewed in the United States on September 19, 2021
A new book making the rounds inside the Beltway is entitled, “The Kill Chain, Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare”. Written by Christian Brose, a former speech writer for Condoleezza Rice, a defense policy advisor to Senator McCain. Brose creates a rally cry to reform the military industrial complex into something that resembles Silicon Valley. Specifically, Brose believes that our military has atrophied over the past two decades and if we fight a war with China, for example, we would lose. The only way to reestablish our global dominance and prevail over China is to fix our Department of Defense (DoD) through the adaptation of the high-tech innovation and the speed of product delivery demonstrated by many successful commercial companies in Northern California. Brose spent a good deal of time with Senator McCain and shared conversations with him in this book. Those discussions reflect McCain’s love of country and desire for the US not to fall behind our near peer adversaries. Beyond that, as a beltway insider myself, I’ve spent many of the same years inside the halls of the Pentagon and see things a bit differently. I’ll describe some of that in this review.
While perhaps unknown to many Americans, the colorful phrase used by David Ockmanek to describe to Brose what happens if we engage in a war with China was a common phrase used inside the Pentagon. That phrase, “We get our ‘a**’ handed to us”, never gets old. The outcome of a direct engagement with the Chinese has been dubious for some time despite what Brose has reported. The scenarios Ockmanek refers to, those in which we lose, are purposefully designed to do analysis of force structure. Not develop a plan to actually fight a war with China. The question is one of how big a military force should we procure? Balancing dollars vs quasi-realistic scenarios is at the heart of the force structure analysis business. If we are considering a direct assault on China, something beyond deterring their aggression in the South China Sea, or deflecting an attack by them on Taiwan, I have not read any of that in any current, or past, National Defense Strategy. Thus, Brose believes independently that either 1) our force must be large enough to provide a winning hit on the Chinese to deter their aggression or 2) our force must change with advanced technology to provide the same deterrence value.
Brose reports that if we are not doing either of those two things we are in a losing proposition against China. Brose completely misses that fact that deterrence against a near peer will never emerge though a conventional engagement alone. Rather, deterrence comes from all levers of National power including military, diplomatic, and economic. Specifically related to defense, Brose misses, for example, the role of a nuclear deterrent strategy--similar to the one we engaged in for 50 years to defeat the USSR during the Cold War—as a deterrent of near peer aggression. You can’t have a defensive strategy for the US without consideration of all levels of power. Since his book is absent any mention of nuclear policy, I’ll suspend reality and pretend that that option doesn’t exist in our world and address what he is really after. And that is technological change in our defense department to win with high tech weapons connected to a network, or Military Internet of Things (MIOT) since what he is really after is modeling the DoD after the tech companies in Silicon Valley that has brought us the real, Internet of Things (IOT). He envisions a construct that enables us to fight our next war from our iPhones.
This is a similar argument that networks can deliver combat power which is an incorrect notion first put forth at the advent of the internet. Brose talks about Andy Marshal and the Office of Net Assessment. Marshall bought us the term Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). A true RMA comes along every few generations and it’s important to see them when they are upon us. However, the true architect of fighting wars in the information age were the visionaries behind the term Network Centric Warfare (NCW) and specifically the Navy’s foray into their Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC). Those architects, although noble in pursuit of their goals, fell short well short of their vision…Adm Cembroski network warfare’s chief proponent specifically failed in delivering his vision, 20 years and many billions of dollars later. specifically, the Navy’s pursuit of a kill chain, known as Joint Integrated Fire Control, (JIFC). This kill chain lies at heart of the Navy CEC capability. Brose only talks about this kill chain in a general sense. He never actually defines a single kill chain in this book. Yet there are so many kill chains in the DoD. To not describe a single kill chain is a major flaw in his work. You learn kill chains as a part of your warfighter 101 when you enter the military. And you train to whatever part of the kill chain to which you happen to be a member.
Here’s a kill chain. An anti-ship cruise missile is launched from a Chinese vessel at a US Navy ship. The E-2D Hawkeye flying in the skies above the fleet is the first to detect the missile skimming across the ocean. The Spy-1 radar on the Aegis Cruiser cannot see the missile yet because it is too far off and too low over the horizon. If defensive F-18 are in the air and close to the area in question they can be vectored by the Hawkeye to take a look and perhaps engage. As the missile breaks the horizon, the Aegis could fire a fast missile to shoot it down. As the missile closes on the ship for its final impact, the Navy vessel targeted can try to shoot it down with its Phalanx CWIS system. (CWIS stand for Close in Weapons System). Three chances to shoot the missile down in a layered defense. Moving beyond the Navy both the Air Force and the Army have their own kill chain to deal with incoming missile threats. Everyone involved in these kill chains train for these engagements over and over again. The idea to integrate (network) them at a weapons control level might seem like a good idea on the surface, but it is a distraction and a pure red herring. At the detail level, it’s not the way to conduct these engagements. Three things make this an impossible endeavor. 1) Physically the systems are constrained by physics from cooperating during these engagements. 2) Tactically the defense is layered for increased kill effectiveness and 3) the engagement zones are constrained to prevent fratricide. Sharing situational awareness between systems is a good goal but sharing fire control quality data is unnecessary and is the unobtainium of which Brose speaks broadly but never truly defines in this way.
There are many kill chains depending on the mission. Integrating kill chains is thought to be the nirvana of warfighting, but it’s not that easy. Why, because of a thing called physics. Physics in the kinetic realm and physics in the non-kinetic realm. Newton’s laws (along with Bernoulli and Naiver-Stokes) govern the conservation of energy for kinetic kill chains on the surface and in the air of our planet. Kepler’s laws govern what we can do from orbit. And Shannon’s Information Theory, along with the math of Nyquist, rule the realm of information. Why? Because at the heart of our digital world, believed to be comprised of ones and zeros, is a physical world made up entirely of energy and conductors of energy (metals and silicon metalloids). The ones and zeroes are an imaginary construct for humans to understand in order to communicate with the physics of our hardware-based overlords. Everyone knows about Newton and Kepler, most have not heard of Shannon and/or Nyquist. But to understand how networks can be used to fight within a kill chain, one must also be a student of them all first…and then write the software. The science and technology must be bent into form by engineers and tested by the way we will fight wars. The services organize, train, and equip to fight and present these forces to the combatant commanders who exercise the operational art of war with the best people (trained), kill chains (organized), and weapons systems (equipped) we can afford. It takes time and it cost’s money. There is no free lunch.
There are so many more kill chains, I’ll describe one more, a very simple one. Dropping a bomb on a target. First the bunker has to be targeted. It has to be on a map, there has to be an image of it with measured coordinately inside some type of reference system. In the old days a bombardier would look through a Norton bomb scope with the instrument correcting for speed and heading of the aircraft. Today, with Global Position System (GPS) guided munitions, the bomb does all the work. With a set of guidance fins on the back, flying the falling bomb down to it’s target by receiving it’s position, of all things, from the GPS, while closing on it’s targeted coordinates. That app you are using to drive your car is part of the military targeting kill chain. A military system built to kill people and break things with uncanny effectiveness. GPS ushered in smart weapons and was indeed a Revolution in Military Affairs. Imagery, coordinates, and a constellation of GPS satellites seemingly is all you need. Oh, it’s important that the bomb be within it’s kinematic limits, which means it actually has to be released on it’s target, somewhere in the kinematic vicinity of it’s target. Something has to bring it there. We call all of the material necessary to get that bomb into the vicinity of the target, force structure. It’s not a network. It’s not software. It’s hardware. And a lot of it. The earth is a big place.
Brose’s vision of an MIOT is simply not based in reality. It has nothing to do with big prime defense contractors not being able to evolve, innovate, or code software in an agile fashion. Fighting wars on this planet must be a function of distance and mass first and then information and the speed of that information (and it’s ability to be changed). They are both important but we haven’t solved the mass and distance problem yet. During the Cold War we would have lost a conventional fight in Russia not because we didn’t have information or speed, but because 50,000 Russian main battle tanks would have been streaming through the Fulda Gap. They would have outnumbered our forces combined with the forces of our NATO allies in Europe, 5 to 1. We are not going to attack 50,000 main battle tanks with swarms of battery charged quadcopters all equipped with megapixel cameras anytime soon. Nor will those quadcopters make it across the South China Sea. In the end we beat Russia economically while we held them at bay with an ever-evolving strategic nuclear policy. We will lose against China, not because we can’t close a kill chain. We are a long way from our adversary, those kill chains are extremely hard to close without huge investment in weapons and infrastructure we simply can’t afford and don’t need to buy regardless. We will lose to China and Russia period if we can’t keep up with them politically and economically…as it turns out these are definitely better places the information age, and Silicon Valley can help. Can somebody get me a chip for a GPU for heaven’s sake?
Another pet peeve of mine, comes early in his book. That is this tired and inane notion that because the F-22 and the F-35 can’t communicate with each other, that’s a failure of technology, and a failure of our country's ability to field systems through the huge bureaucracy of an acquisition process known as JCIDS or the Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System. Brose has written a book called “The Kill Chain”. Clearly, he knows that the F-22 is our premier Air-to-Air Fighter designed to fight in the Air-to-Air kill chain. Big radar, big missiles, and the best flying machine ever conceived and flown. The F-35 was designed for a different mission entirely. The F-35 was designed to fight principally as an Air-to-Ground fighter first. It drops bombs to take out IADS and kill tanks. And, oh by the way, the two aircraft can indeed communicate when necessary. Through a thing called radio, or more specifically, JTIDS or Link-16. The two aircraft are being maligned for not being able to communicate through their shared data link. Something designed very specifically for a coordinated multi-ship attack of F-35’s to work together during a specific mission, without revealing themselves, but still be able to coordinate lethal effects, locally. Not globally. Why would a kinetic attack, happening 1000’s of miles away, need to report (or share) engagement level data back home? They were not designed to fight together in this way. Also, they were designed 20 years apart...the data link on the F-35 is far superior to the data link on the F-22 in most ways.
By far, the best Chapter is Brose’s book, is his chapter on the politics within Congress and the decisions being made within the DoD. He’s experience at this level of government shines through. Brose is right, we do have a problem in figuring out what to do…the service MAJCOMs along with the COCOMS figure out what we need. Sure they fight among themselves and OSD straightens them out. But then the politics get involved and decisions are made based on everything but the military strategy. It’s the politics. It’s not the cost, the lack of vision or the ability to invent new warfighting technology…that happens on a daily basis…much of it cannot be shared. As we know our adversaries are looking through every window they can to see into and steal what they can carry out…that way they don’t have to invent it themselves. That bleeding of information has to stop. It’s not adopting the concepts of Silicon Valley that will save us. It’s getting our politicians too corporate on a strategy for what’s best for our nation. Granted, we took two decades off to fight a different war, the Global War on Terrorism, and we did take our eye off the great threats from Russia and China. But we are not losing. We just are not winning. But conventional force structure alone, with better networks, and faster software, does not help us win either. It only distracts us.
The DoD has not lost its pace on innovation and technology...we still excel in materials science, energy, propulsion, aircraft & spacecraft design, stealth, electronic warfare, and a few other things. We are also pretty good in cyber. Our issue isn’t smarts or lack of technology or the greedy primes, it’s simply the number of people we have. We are exceeded by China in pure numbers alone. To combat their numbers, we need more engineers. Yes software programmers should be among them…but we need good, solid, motivated engineers, scientists, mathematics, analysts, and researchers. We need American’s committed to the defense of our country to turn away from the glitter and high pay of Silicon Valley in favor of the hard stuff. You didn’t learn calculus in college to write a computer application that delivers pizza. You learned calculus to become a physicist, a mathematician, or a mechanical, electrical, or aerospace engineer. These are the fine American’s in our Military Industrial Complex. And yes we are losing them to high paying software jobs in Silicon Valley. But that’s not why we should change our military strategy.
Since Brose is a good writer and tells compelling stories, and he was on the front line in the State Department and the Senate, I’ll start with the idea that he should get 4 stars for this effort. Add one star because I love John McCain. But I'll deduct one star for the F-35/F-22 flaw. I’ll deduct another star because Brose does not define a single Kill Chain in a book called “The Kill Chain”. Three stars only--and that is generous--for this book from deep inside the beltway despite its glowing reviews from some people who should know better (Stavridis and Petraeus).