Creating a New Paradigm for U.S. Force Overmatch

By Wahid Nawabi

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Since the end of World War II, the United States has achieved force overmatch by deploying a range of very large, highly complex and extremely expensive assets that ranged from fighter jets and aircraft carriers to satellites and submarines.

And while this overmatch did not always translate into victory on the battlefield, it was undeniably effective in containing the Soviet threat and bringing the Cold War to an end.

Today, this overmatch is no longer absolute, thanks to the rise of peer and near-peer adversaries. If the United States is to continue to dominate the battle space, the military must think creatively about new ways of achieving overmatch, reducing its reliance on large, expensive and vulnerable military assets, and prioritizing resiliency, flexibility and interoperability.

In the conflicts of the 21st century, victory is as likely to come from smaller and more distributed fighting units unleashing swarms of lethal drones with extremely high levels of precision as it is from a stealth bomber or aircraft carrier a thousand miles away.

For the last 30 years, the United States has been the world’s only superpower. However, its ability to sustain this status is an open question.

China and Russia have emerged as much more capable rivals, developing their own major weapon systems, finding ways to exploit weaknesses in U.S. platforms, and projecting their power aggressively in areas such as the Taiwan Strait and Ukraine. China has modernized its navy and developed highly capable fighter aircraft while Russia has streamlined and reorganized its armed forces.

And while the conventional military capabilities of second-tier powers like Iran and North Korea have stagnated, each of these countries has cultivated niche capabilities to offset U.S. overmatch.

While the United States remains the strongest military power in the world, its ability to maintain supremacy — especially against these formidable competitors — has eroded. The challenge it faces today is to find new, more effective and affordable ways to achieve force overmatch.

The way forward depends on the ability to understand the drawbacks of the extensive reliance on large, centralized platforms and adjust accordingly. The vulnerabilities of our current strategy have been well-documented in such publications as the National Defense Strategy and the Congressional Future of Defense Task Force report.

As these reports have stated, large assets have always been inviting targets, but more capable adversaries are much more likely to defeat or disable them, dramatically degrading our overall capabilities.

Large assets distort the force structure. They absorb large numbers of personnel and require higher echelon units for protection, operation, supply and maintenance.

They have historically been siloed in the different services, making it difficult to achieve true multi-domain operations and collaborative command and control.

They tend to be blunt instruments, making them inappropriate for the nuanced responses required for gray zone conflicts.

They absorb a disproportionate amount of financial resources, undermining the nation’s ability to field a more comprehensive suite of capabilities. Funding for these assets, driven by the confluence of powerful prime contractors and politicians, tends to become self-perpetuating.

They require long development cycles that can extend over decades. As a result, by the time they are deployed, their technology is no longer on the cutting edge. Furthermore, the ability to upgrade and improve these systems is constrained by decisions made early in their development cycle.

Initiatives like joint all-domain command and control, or JADC2, and reports such as “Distributed Operations in a Contested Environment,” by the RAND Corp., suggest guiding strategies that the United States should adopt to retain force overmatch.

A key element is multi-domain operations, resting on a foundation of interoperability. The 2018 National Defense Strategy states that to “compete in this complex and contested security environment, the U.S. must be prepared to operate across a full spectrum of conflict, across multiple domains at once.”

Distributed operations are a second, essential element in any effort to extend force overmatch. The RAND report focuses on the Air Force and is motivated by the increasing vulnerability of large, centralized bases to air and missile threats from peer and near-peer adversaries. However, its lessons can readily be applied to all services. It recommends a system of distributed basing and a realignment of the Air Force presentation model to implement this new structure. This would entail the service delegating more authority and providing planning capability at lower echelons.

Such a change is not unprecedented in other organizations. Forty years ago, computational power depended on expensive and powerful mainframe computers, but they were so prohibitively expensive that few industries could afford them.

In the 1990s and 2000s, there was a shift in the computing industry from centralized mainframe computers to massive banks of distributed servers connected by local and wide area networks. This new architecture provided organizations massive resiliency, flexibility and cost savings while paving the way for cloud computing.

From both practical and cost-effectiveness points of view, this new era of computational architecture also makes it much easier to keep pace with Moore’s law: as new hardware comes along, subsystems can be swapped out. An analogous shift is absolutely vital to reenergizing U.S. military forces.

Trying to create an intelligent, multi-domain, distributed joint force while relying exclusively on large assets is impractical if not impossible.

If we are to outperform our peer and near-peer competitors, we must turn to smaller, more agile weapons — especially unmanned aerial vehicles and robotic ground systems — that lend themselves more readily to distributed, multi-domain operations.

As with the evolution of information technology, the concentration of computational power in an ever-smaller footprint and advances in networking will drive the development of these small systems. But in this case, the rise of artificial intelligence and the ability to conduct autonomous operations regardless of GPS availability, will also play a decisive role.

The advantages of these smaller systems are straightforward. They are more resilient because they are distributed.
They are also more attritable because they are less costly and more numerous than larger assets. Adversaries can destroy multiple units without significantly degrading force capacity.

They can accommodate a more distributed force structure by virtue of their small size and agility. Thanks to embedded AI, they can also act as a force multiplier, compensating for the additional personnel required as the force structure migrates from a highly centralized model to a distributed one.

The systems lend themselves to multi-domain operations, and they can be more easily adapted across the military services. They can be networked together to operate in swarms while providing multi-domain interoperability, including among allies.

They are appropriate for situations that require a more nuanced, commensurate force projection because they offer a greater array of flexible, tactical options.

The systems are relatively inexpensive to produce — even in the aggregate — and they can be designed from the start to be upgradeable, with swappable modular subsystems.

Making this change will require a fundamental shift in thinking and strategy — a shift not natural or easy for military leaders accustomed to thinking about large centralized assets.

The Defense Department has attempted to promote this migration before, launching the Future Combat Systems initiative in 2003. This Army program envisioned brigades equipped with new manned and unmanned vehicles linked by an unprecedented fast and flexible battlefield network. After an expenditure of $32 billion and very little to show for it, the department canceled the program in 2009.

A key reason for its failure is that large defense contractors, with large legacy systems and a large-system mindset, are at a disadvantage when it comes to designing small, agile systems. The large primes also lack the financial motivation to switch focus from big, lucrative projects.

There will always be a place for large assets developed by the primes, but if the objective is to produce a nimbler force, a more suitable choice is nimbler suppliers.

For unmanned aerial systems, there are a number of dynamic mid-sized tech companies that have already made great strides in disruptive innovation and multi-domain interoperability.

There are companies that have invested heavily in AI for decision-making and wayfaring in GPS-denied environments and whose groundbreaking, modular, low-cost systems are already widely adopted for distributed applications.
The nation’s future will depend on companies of this size and competence that have already made significant progress in pioneering a new, more powerful route to force overmatch.

Wahid Nawabi is chairman, president and CEO of AeroVironment Inc. (

Topics: Defense Department

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