Since the stone, bronze, and iron ages, humans have found new means to protect themselves and kill one another. Weapons like iron swords, tanks, and nuclear weapons transformed the globe, while others only merit mention on a Gizmodo listicle. At the same time, peaceful technologies like the printing press, the power loom, and computers disrupted economies, societies, and even governments. Today, a whole host of technologies from fifth-generation wireless communication to artificial intelligence and quantum computing all have broad implications for society, economies, and warfare.
Technological change is not new. Nor does a focus on technology at this particular moment make one a blinkered “futurist.” Technology is an instrument of national power that feeds and in turn is fed by other elements of national power. With so many technologies with potentially transformative applications emerging at once, focusing on understanding, developing, and leveraging these technologies is well justified, even if it seems myopic at times.
These technologies are emerging at the same time as between China and the United States. In War on the Rocks, John Speed Meyers and David Jackson argue that a divide exists between those who believe these technologies are critical to that conflict (“futurists”) and those who do not (“traditionalists”). While the authors offer some excellent recommendations and their essay is worth a read, they present a false choice. Meyers and Jackson would certainly classify me as a futurist — I write, speak, and am quoted in news media frequently on drones, drone swarms, and artificial intelligence and frequently cite scientific literature in my analysis. However, I certainly do not believe technology is the only aspect of the U.S.-Chinese competition. Sure, I and other researchers may focus on technology to the exclusion of other elements of national power, but so too may other researchers emphasize diplomacy, trade, or military organization above other elements of national power. It just so happens that right now, the technological face of national power is changing drastically.
Technology as an Element of National Power
Technology is clearly at the core of most military power. Technology enables the acquisition, improvement, and sustainment of military capabilities. A dirigible fleet might have made some sense in 1921, but states have fighter aircraft, bombers, and helicopters now. These capabilities matter for hard power-based strategies too. Deterrence requires a state to have the capability to follow through with a threat. Nuclear deterrence is the ultimate expression of how technology shapes military power and strategy because it revolves around the possession of nuclear weapons enabled by submarines, missiles, bombers, and other supporting systems. Whether a particular technology actually matters is an important question, but technology is still central.
Better technology also means more demand for and impact in foreign military assistance. States benefit more when they are provided with cutting-edge weapons. Military assistance can also help the United States and others improve and build relationships with weapon recipients and exercise influence. After the success of the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drone in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, Ukraine bought the system from Turkey too. Providing drones and other weapons to a state creates a level of dependency for future maintenance, parts, and upgrades.
Technology also enables diplomatic power in other ways. In 2010, I lived in a poor neighborhood in Damascus, Syria, and yet I could easily buy the latest Hollywood blockbusters from a shop down the street. The film was bootlegged, to be sure, but computers, the internet, and DVDs made possible its presence in a Damascus slum. More broadly, American and Soviet Union battles over propaganda, news, and culture during the Cold War were only possible because of the radio. The voice of America needs a megaphone to be heard across the globe.
Technology also helps build and transform economies. Computers and the internet are a particularly extreme example. In 2018, Apple became the first publicly traded company worth $1 trillion and crossed $2 trillion in market value in 2020. Microsoft hit the $1 trillion mark in April 2019 and Alphabet, Google’s parent company, followed in January 2020. That wealth helps enable specific levers of influence like economic sanctions.
Other Elements of National Power Support Technology
As technology supports military, diplomatic, and economic power, so too do those elements of power support technology.
The quest for military superiority has long driven innovation. The Global Positioning System (GPS) used throughout the civilian world is fundamentally a U.S. military system — the U.S. Space Force designs, develops, and sustains the 24 satellites that comprise the GPS constellation. Military funding made possible a host of other transformative inventions from the internet to the walkie-talkie. Although the private sector now drives the current explosion of artificial intelligence, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funding over the past decades helped make that explosion possible. In fact, a lack of military funding was an important contributor to the so-called AI “winter” where progress stalled considerably during the mid-1980s.
Diplomacy helps technology too. The United States funds scientific research around collective global problems like climate change and disease, hosts scientific exchanges, and embarks on joint ventures like the International Space Station, none of which would be possible without American diplomatic resources. The United States also inks research and development agreements to pool resources, access specialized expertise, and generally respond to shared threats. Technology-specific opportunities exist too, such as trading datasets to create larger, more diverse datasets to train AI algorithms.
A wealthy, free country draws innovation. Innovation requires the resource commitment to experiment, quickly decide if the experiment is worthwhile, and if it is, transition the innovation to operations, organization, and strategy. Researchers also must have the flexibility and freedom to explore new ideas, even ones that may upend the status quo. People need resources and freedom too. A prosperous, free state draws the best and brightest from around the world, especially when talent for major technology like artificial intelligence comes from abroad.
Today’s Technology Focus
Focusing on technology is appropriate because it is changing in major ways, with significant implications for broader national power. Artificial intelligence has broad applications across warfare, from improving financial management and payroll systems to streamlining logistics, building sophisticated autonomous drone swarms, and identifying nuclear submarines. 3-D printers are producing COVID-19 masks, mobile trailers, drones, and parts for the International Space Station. Technology evangelists claim 3-D printing could revolutionize manufacturing. At the same time, CRISPR-CAS9 (short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) enables easier genetic engineering to improve agricultural research and develop better cancer medications, and it may enable the acquisition of current and novel biological weapons agents, enhance the capabilities of those agents, and potentially create genetically engineered super soldiers. Regardless of whether these technologies are about to turn Star Trek from science fiction into reality, there are clearly opportunities and risks that the United States should identify, exploit, and counter as appropriate.
A bit of innovation hype is a good thing. With any emerging technology, the actual importance is difficult (if not impossible) to know a priori. A great example is French versus German use of tanks in World War II, during which French commanders saw tanks as an adjunct to infantry while Germany made the tank central to its strategy. Had France realized how the tank could be used, perhaps it would have not been soundly defeated. Hype builds the excitement to ask: Well, what could a tank or any other emerging technology do? Hype promises the potential for promotion, wealth, and advancing national security by finding a great answer. Perhaps dreams of a city of gold manifest as a small chest of silver, a simple technological application that makes real but not transformative change. But that chest would never have been found without the motivation to seek it in the first place. As long as expectations adapt to subsequent evidence about the most effective and realistic applications of a given technology, the risk of wasting money, time, and people on a fruitless or overhyped technology can be effectively managed.
With the advent of AI and robotics, hypersonic missiles, quantum computing, synthetic biology, genetic engineering, and other novelties, technology is changing rapidly. The United States needs to ensure this element of national power is well integrated with military, diplomatic, and economic power. Specifically, the United States should undertake the following steps.
Search for Synergies
The United States should search for opportunities to connect technology and other instruments of national power. With the increasing focus on China, the United States could seek out new research collaboration with regional allies. For example, Taiwan’s investment in a new AI business park shows the country desires a more robust AI capability. Encouraging U.S. companies, universities, and agencies to find opportunities for joint AI development could generate wealth for both the United States and Taiwan, lead to military-relevant innovations, support U.S.-Taiwanese relations, and strengthen overall an important partner. Likewise, the United States could aim to encourage friends and allies to create and expand similar types of efforts, such as India and Japan’s cooperation on unmanned ground vehicles. Bilateralism could be extended to multilateralism to create a regional technology forum for friends and allies to share their work and identify new opportunities for collaboration.
Align Technology to Objectives
If technology is a core component of national power, investment, research, acquisition, policy, and strategy around technology should be aligned to support national objectives. Various thinkers have proposed some form of U.S. national technology strategy. I agree. Such a strategy should emphasize not only which technologies matter, but how best to integrate the national security bureaucracy to serve broader objectives. In the last few years, the United States has established the Department of Defense Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, the Army Futures Command, the State Department Bureau for Cybersecurity and Emerging Technologies, and the new post of deputy national security advisor for cyber and emerging technology. An effective strategy should answer several questions How best can these organizations work together and with existing technology-related organizations? And how best can the bureaucracy accelerate the technology pipeline, moving from an initial concept to working prototype to testing and verification to operations across the military, national security complex, and society as a whole?
Technology is just one element of national power. The American government must consider how technology best serves its objectives in conjunction with other capabilities. That means the government needs folks to think about the implications of emerging technology, just as it needs folks to think about global changes in trade regimes, international organizations, and military strategy. Creating an artificial divide between emerging technology and everything else is a mistake.
Zachary Kallenborn is a research affiliate with the Unconventional Weapons and Technology Division of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), a policy fellow at the Schar School of Policy and Government, a U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command “Mad Scientist,” and national security consultant. His work has been published in a wide range of peer-reviewed, trade, and popular outlets, including Foreign Policy, Slate, War on the Rocks, and the Nonproliferation Review. Journalists have written about and shared that research in Forbes, Popular Mechanics, Wired, The Federalist, Yahoo News!, the National Interest, and MSN.
The views expressed above do not necessarily represent the views of any current or former funder, employer, or affiliate.