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The Kill Chain
Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare
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From a former senior advisor to Senator John McCain comes an urgent wake-up call about how new technologies are threatening America's military might.
For generations of Americans, our country has been the world's dominant military power. How the US military fights, and the systems and weapons that it fights with, have been uncontested. That old reality, however, is rapidly deteriorating. America's traditional sources of power are eroding amid the emergence of new technologies and the growing military threat posed by rivals such as China. America is at grave risk of losing a future war.
PLAYING A LOSING GAME
One of the last conversations I ever had with John McCain in person was in the winter of 2017, shortly before he left Washington for the last time. We talked about how the United States could lose a war with China—not in the distant future, but now.
For most of the prior decade, I had been McCain’s principal advisor on national security and military issues. During the last four years of his life, when he was chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I was his staff director. That meant I led a team of defense policy experts who supported McCain and his colleagues in authorizing and overseeing the entire US defense program—every policy and activity of the Department of Defense, every weapon it developed and bought, every dollar of the roughly $700 billion that it spent each year. McCain and I had access to the Pentagon’s most highly classified secrets and programs, and we regularly met with our nation’s top defense officials and highest-ranking military officers.
That is what we had just finished doing on that winter day in 2017. McCain had directed me to set up a briefing for all one hundred US senators about the problem that had haunted us and motivated our work together for the past several years: the accelerating erosion of the US military’s technological advantage over other great powers, primarily China, which was rapidly building up arsenals of advanced weapons with the explicit purpose of being able to fight and win a war against the United States. McCain wanted his fellow senators to know that America was falling behind and at risk of losing a race that most of them did not even know was being run.
For years, McCain and I had been pleading with Pentagon leaders to be clearer and more forthcoming with Congress and the American people about how bad things really were. They did not want to encourage our competitors by sounding defeatist, which was an apt concern. But it was a concern we had to overcome because it is impossible to solve a problem that no one knows exists. As it stood, the Chinese Communist Party knew far more about the US military and its vulnerabilities than the American people and their elected representatives did.
That year, things seemed like they were starting to change. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, had testified to McCain’s committee in June. “In just a few years,” he said, “if we do not change our trajectory, we will lose our qualitative and quantitative competitive advantage.”1 In other words, the US military would no longer be the best.
A few months later, the RAND Corporation, a renowned nonpartisan research institute whose military analysis McCain and I consumed regularly, concluded in a major report that “U.S. forces could, under plausible assumptions, lose the next war they are called upon to fight.”2
That assessment was echoed by a bipartisan commission of military experts that McCain had established through legislation that year to provide an independent examination of US defense strategy. They rendered their judgment to Congress shortly after McCain’s death in 2018. “America’s military superiority… has eroded to a dangerous degree,” they wrote. “The U.S. military could suffer unacceptably high casualties and loss of major capital assets in its next conflict. It might struggle to win, or perhaps lose, a war against China or Russia.”3
McCain wanted the briefing that day to be a wake-up call to his colleagues—to provide many of the details behind these startling public pronouncements and to build greater support for the new technologies, ideas, reforms, and resources that McCain and I had been trying for years to champion. All ninety-nine of McCain’s Senate colleagues were invited. About a dozen showed up.
For those senators who were there, it was a depressing dose of reality. The person who provided the briefing that day was a former Pentagon official in the Obama administration named David Ochmanek. A year later, he spoke publicly about the many war games—what are essentially simulations of future wars—that he has conducted for the Department of Defense upon leaving government. The US military uses them to model actual campaigns against rival powers in which each side fights with the military forces that it realistically expects to have in the near future. The opponent is always the red team, and the US military is always the blue team, and this is how Ochmanek described what has happened in those war games for years now:
When we fight China or Russia, blue gets its ass handed to it. We lose a lot of people. We lose a lot of equipment. We usually fail to achieve our objective of preventing aggression by the adversary.… Everyone assumes based on 25 years of experience that we have a dominant military establishment—that when we go to war, we always win, we win big, and there isn’t any question about this. And when you say to people, “not so fast,” they are shocked, because they have not had this experience.4
The truth is even worse than Ochmanek describes. Over the past decade, in US war games against China, the United States has a nearly perfect record: we have lost almost every single time. The American people do not know this. Most members of Congress do not know this—even though they should. But in the Department of Defense, this is a well-known fact.
As McCain and I sat together at the end of the day, a pale winter twilight fading through the tall windows of his office in the Russell Building, he was clearly dejected. He slumped in his favorite antique chair and stared at the floor, his hands clasped together in front of his mouth.
“How do you think it would go?” McCain asked. “A war against China, I mean.”
“Badly,” I said.
“No, really, how would it actually unfold?”
What John McCain and I then proceeded to do deep into that darkening evening was imagine what would happen if the US military was called upon to fight China in the next few years. We agreed that the United States would not start the war unprovoked, but that a war could start, nonetheless, for any number of reasons. It might start with an incident at sea between Chinese and American warships that kills sailors on both sides and then quickly escalates. It could start with a Chinese attack on a US ally to which Washington feels obligated to respond. But no matter why a war might start, McCain and I saw it unfolding from there in much the same way.
Many of the US ships, submarines, fighter jets, bomber aircraft, additional munitions, and other systems that are needed to fight would not be near the war when it started but would be thousands of miles away in the United States. They would come under immediate attack once they began their multiweek mobilization across the planet. Cyberattacks would grind down the logistical movement of US forces into combat. The defenseless cargo ships and aircraft that would ferry much of that force across the Pacific would be attacked every step of the way. Satellites on which US forces depend for intelligence, communications, and global positioning would be blinded by lasers, shut down by high-energy jammers, or shot out of orbit altogether by antisatellite missiles. The command and control networks that manage the flow of critical information to US forces in combat would be broken apart and shattered by electronic attacks, cyberattacks, and missiles. Many US forces would be rendered deaf, dumb, and blind.
While these attacks were under way, America’s forward bases in places like Japan and Guam would be inundated with waves of precise ballistic and cruise missiles. The few defenses those bases have would quickly be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of weapons coming at them, with many leaking through. Those bases would have no defense against China’s hypersonic weapons, which can maneuver unpredictably, fly at five times the speed of sound, and strike their targets within minutes of being launched. As all of these missiles slammed into US bases, they would destroy fighter jets and other aircraft on the ground before US pilots could even get them airborne. They would crater runways, blow up operations centers and fuel storage tanks, and render those US forward bases inoperable. If any aircraft did manage to escape the Chinese missiles, it would be forced to relocate to another base in the region, which itself would come under attack. It would look like a US evacuation.
In the early days of a war with China, many of the forces located at these forward bases would not even be in the fight. Older, non-stealthy fighter jets, such as F-15s and F-16s, would not play an offensive role, because they could not survive against China’s advanced fighters and surface-to-air missile systems. The same is true of the Navy’s F-18s. The limited numbers of stealthy, fifth-generation fighter jets that could be brought to bear, such as F-22s and F-35s, can fly only several hundred miles on a single tank of fuel, so they would depend heavily on aerial refueling tankers to be able to reach their targets. But because those tankers are neither stealthy nor equipped with any self-defense capabilities, they would be shot down in large numbers. With those aircraft lost—which the Air Force never assumed could happen when they were developed—there would be no backups to keep America’s short-range fighter jets in the fight.
A similar dynamic would play out with America’s sea bases. Once the war started, US aircraft carriers in the region would immediately turn east and sail away from China, intent on getting more than a thousand miles away from the opponent’s long-range anti-ship missiles. But from that far away, none of the aircraft on the flight deck would be capable of reaching their targets without aerial refueling, so the Navy would find itself on the horns of the same dilemma the Air Force faced: its stealthy fighter jets would be pushed so far back that they could only get to their targets with the help of non-stealthy, defenseless refueling aircraft that would be shot down in large numbers.
All the while, Chinese satellites and radars would be hunting for those aircraft carriers as well as additional carriers meant to provide reinforcement that would begin their long journey across the Pacific Ocean from wherever they were in the continental United States. If found, those ships would face large salvos of Chinese missiles, especially the DF-21 and DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missiles, better known in US defense circles as “carrier killers.” The carriers and their escort ships might shoot down some of the missiles, but there would be so many that some could get through and knock the carriers out of the fight by cratering their flight decks, damaging their control towers, or destroying their aircraft before they even got airborne. It is also possible that a hit could be fatal, sending five thousand Americans and a $13 billion ship to the bottom of the ocean—all at the cost to China of around $10 million per missile.
The Marine Corps would struggle even more than the Navy but for the same reasons. Billions of dollars’ worth of amphibious assault capability, built to deliver US troops onto enemy beaches as they had done for the D-Day landings in 1944 or the forced entry at Inchon at the start of the Korean War, would play no such role. No US commander would order a multi-billion-dollar amphibious ship a few miles off the coast of Chinese-defended territory to begin an assault while US aircraft carriers were steaming in the opposite direction to get out of range of China’s missiles. Marine forces would instead aim to disperse around the Pacific and fight an expeditionary war, but they would lack many of the weapons and logistical forces to do so.
Many of the most effective forces the US military would rely on to do the heavy lifting—submarines, long-range bombers, and ground-launched missiles—would not be in the Pacific when the war started. They would need to get there first, which could take days or weeks. But even when they arrived, there would be fewer of these systems than were needed, a result of years of underinvestment and acquisition delays. And for the same reason, the systems that did join the fight would quickly run out of the most important weapons they need to be effective.
McCain and I paused and considered the potential scale of this disaster. Thousands of Americans lost in action. American ships sunk. Bases reduced to smoking holes in the ground. Aircraft and satellites shot out of the sky. A war that could be lost in a matter of hours or days even as the United States planned to spend weeks and months moving into position to fight.
After a long silence I spoke up. Imagine how that meeting in the Situation Room would go, I said, if a future president, whose name could well be Donald Trump, came to realize that the only available options are surrender and lose or fight and lose. The bigger question at that point would be whether that future president would even be willing to go to war at all. After all, that has been China’s goal all along—as Sun Tzu counseled in The Art of War, to “win without fighting.”
McCain looked as solemn and dispirited as I had ever seen him—not just physically frail from his illness and its treatments but also as if something larger were weighing on him. I could not myself help thinking about how much we had done over all of those years together to try to address this problem—all of the additional resources we had helped to secure for the military, all of the investments in new technologies and capabilities we had made, the many times we had tried (and often failed) to divest of old military systems to make room for new ones, all of the reforms we had shepherded through Congress to try to get better technology into the hands of America’s troops faster. And yet, all of it seemed so unequal to the scale of the problem.
“I just don’t understand,” McCain murmured into his hands. “I remember when the Chief of Staff of the Army testified to Congress in 1980 that we had a ‘hollow’ force. It was shocking. It was front-page news.” McCain paused. “What is happening now is just as bad,” he continued. “It is actually much worse. And no one seems to care. They don’t even seem to want to know.”
McCain looked away from me and stared at the floor, and I will never forget what he said next. “Future generations of Americans are going to look back at us,” he lamented, “and they’re going ask how we let this happen, and why we didn’t do more about it when we had the chance.”
I know what you are probably thinking—there is no way this can be true. The United States spends close to three-quarters of one trillion dollars on national defense each year. That is more than the next eight countries spend put together. That money buys a lot of military capability—fighter jets, submarines, aircraft carriers, battle tanks, attack helicopters, nuclear weapons, and hundreds of thousands of incredibly well-armed people. Most of these military systems are capable of remarkable technological feats. They have enabled the United States of America, when necessary, to go anywhere, at any time, and do anything to any opponent in the world. The thought that this military, our military, could not win in the future—that just seems impossible.
But it is possible. And it is about to get much, much worse. The question that many Americans are right to ask is, Why? And how can we change course before it is too late?
For the past decade, I have worked within America’s defense establishment—the iron triangle of the Department of Defense, Congress, and defense industry that McCain, modifying President Dwight Eisenhower, used to call the “military-industrial-congressional complex.” In this time, I have come to believe there is a systemic failure in our defense establishment, a world I still inhabit. It is a failure to understand what is really happening in the construction and exercise of military power, and this failure leads us to misjudge and mismanage our defense enterprise.
All too often in defense, we think the measure of our strength is our platforms—individual vehicles and specific advanced military equipment and systems. We generate our requirements for military power in terms of platforms. We build our budgets and spend our money on the basis of platforms. We define our goals for military capability in relation to platforms. We aspire, for example, to a 355-ship Navy or a 386-squadron Air Force. We are drawn to platforms, in large part, because they are tangible. We can count them, touch them, and employ people to build them. They look good in parades. Indeed, platforms often rise to the level of defining the very identities of our military institutions and the men and women who comprise them, who see themselves as fighter jocks, ship drivers, and tankers. In short, we mistake inputs for outcomes.
Leaders too often seem to lose sight of the larger objective—the reason why we would want any platform in the first place. For the goal of a military should not be to buy platforms. The goal is to buy deterrence, the prevention of war. And the only way to deter wars is to be so clearly capable of winning them that no rival power ever seeks to get its way through violence.
What enables victory in war? Platforms may be useful tools, but they are not ultimately the answer. Rather, the ability to prevail in war, and thereby prevent it, comes down to one thing: the kill chain.
The kill chain is a term that nearly everyone in the US military knows but few outside the military have ever heard of. It is, at the deepest level, what militaries do and have always done throughout the history of warfare. The kill chain is a process that occurs on the battlefield or wherever militaries compete. It involves three steps: The first is gaining understanding about what is happening. The second is making a decision about what to do. And the third is taking action that creates an effect to achieve an objective. And though that effect may involve killing, more often the result is all kinds of non-violent and non-lethal actions that are essential to prevailing in war or military contests short of war. Indeed, better understanding, decisions, and actions are what enable militaries to prevent unnecessary loss of life—both their own people and innocent civilians.
Each of these steps is indispensable. Militaries cannot make good decisions or take relevant actions if they do not understand what is happening. The ability to understand and act is fruitless without the ability to make and communicate decisions. And without the ability to act, nothing else really matters. The process is also inherently sequential: acting in advance of understanding and deciding, or making decisions prior to knowing what is going on, is how mistakes get made, and for militaries, those mistakes can be fatal. When members of the US military complete that process of understanding, deciding, and acting, they refer to it as “closing the kill chain.” And when they thwart the ability of a rival military to do so itself, they call that “breaking the kill chain.” How fast, how often, and how effectively militaries can do both of these things is what determines whether they win or lose.
Some may find the reference to killing disturbing and indicative of something wrong with US military culture. I disagree. The kill chain is actually one idea that can make the essence of what Americans in uniform really do more intelligible and relatable. Our military can seem opaque, confusing, and incomprehensible, especially to the many Americans who have little to no meaningful contact with it. And yet, understanding, deciding, and acting is what billions of civilians do every day in their own jobs and lives. Businesses have to understand their market, decide how to compete, and then act on their plans. Sports teams must understand their competitors, decide how best to play against them, and then pull it all together on gameday. In this way, the core tasks that Americans in uniform must perform every day are no different from those of anyone else.
And yet, our military is fundamentally different from any other institution in America, and the kill chain also helps to explain that too. Killing is something that few members of our military are actually called upon to do. The vast majority do jobs focused on generating understanding, facilitating decisions, and implementing a multitude of different actions, most of which have nothing to do with killing. All of these tasks, however, are fundamentally focused on succeeding in a deadly business that is unlike any other in America. No one understands that unique burden and the sense of otherness it entails more viscerally or takes it more seriously than the men and women whom the rest of the nation asks to do its killing and dying. The kill chain is a helpful reminder, both for Americans in uniform and for all of us, that the stakes of our military’s ability to understand, decide, and act are often life and death.
Though the challenge of understanding, deciding, and acting in warfare is timeless, kill chain is a relatively new term that is linked to the information revolution, which began in the 1980s. Prior to the information revolution, the kill chain was largely concentrated in single military platforms. For example, the process of understanding where an enemy aircraft was, deciding what to do about it, and then acting against it all occurred within one fighter jet or air defense system. Platforms collaborated, to be sure, but for the most part, an individual platform had to be its own self-contained kill chain.
The information revolution created the prospect of what became known in the 1990s as networked warfare. New technologies transformed the collection, processing, and distribution of information, making it possible to disaggregate the kill chain. One military system might facilitate understanding, another might enable decision making, and yet another might take the intended action. Instead of concentrating all of these functions in one platform, militaries could distribute them across a “battle network” of many different military systems. Kill chain, then, more accurately described the overall process and goal, because it was an actual chain of events—information led to understanding, which led to decision making, which led to action.
The information revolution gave rise to a belief that the world was on the cusp of a “revolution in military affairs,” a rare period of sweeping technological change that overturns existing military concepts and capabilities and requires a rethinking of how, with what, and by whom war is waged. A classic example of such a revolution is the emergence of automatic rifles, modern explosives, steamships, aircraft, and other industrial-era technologies that transformed warfare in the late nineteenth century in the run-up to World War I. Many believed in the late twentieth century that information technologies would lead to a similar military revolution—something like an internet of warfare waged with battle networks, and at the center of it all would be the kill chain.
The problem is that, for many years, often while preaching the language of kill chains and military revolutions, America’s defense establishment never really changed its thinking. We remained focused on building and buying platforms rather than kill chains. Even at the peak of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States was spending hundreds of billions of dollars trying to modernize our military in many of the wrong ways. We often tried to use unproven technologies to produce better versions of the same kinds of platforms that the US military had relied upon for decades. Many of these programs turned into multi-billion-dollar procurement debacles. Some produced highly capable platforms, but these platforms rarely cohere into one battle network that can share information effectively. “The main problem,” one military officer put it to me last year, “is that none of my things can talk to each other.”
The result is that the US military is far slower and less effective at closing the kill chain than it can and must be. The process is heavily manual, linear, undynamic, and impervious to change. Specific military systems may be able to work together to facilitate understanding, decisions, and actions for one specific purpose, but they cannot be recomposed in different ways for other unforeseen purposes. Put simply, the means by which the US military generates understanding, translates that knowledge into decisions, and then takes actions in war have not been built to adapt.
The tragic irony is that many in America’s defense establishment seem to have learned the wrong lessons from this experience. They got so badly burned by their attempts to change the wrong ways that it has made them skeptical about the utter necessity of changing the right ways. Talk of a “revolution in military affairs” has been banished. Transformation has become a dirty word. And two decades of war in the Middle East have only exacerbated this overreaction by putting a legitimate but all-consuming focus on present conflicts at the expense of future threats.
This situation is especially dangerous because the information revolution did not end in the 2000s. It went into overdrive, propelled by commercial technology companies that usually have little to no connection to national security. Technologies such as ubiquitous sensors, “edge” computing, artificial intelligence, robotics, advanced manufacturing practices, biotechnology, new space capabilities, hypersonic propulsion, and quantum information technologies will have sweeping economic and social implications, but they will also have profound military applications that go far beyond platforms and weapons, which is traditionally how military power is conceived. What will be so consequential about these technologies, taken together, is that they will transform the entire kill chain—not just how militaries act but also the character of their understanding and decision making.
This is not science fiction. Many of these technologies exist now. Indeed, the men and women of America’s military use many of them every day in their private lives. They rely upon networks of increasingly intelligent machines to buy and receive the things they need, to order rides in minutes and move around at will, to protect their homes and control many of the processes that go on inside of them, to have all of their most important data right at their fingertips, and to receive informed recommendations from machines all day about information they may need to know and things they may want to do—in short, to improve their understanding of the world around them, help them make better and faster decisions, and assist them with more relevant actions that save them time and improve their lives.
And yet, when members of our military put on their uniforms and report for duty, hardly any of this technology is available to them. Instead, they consistently have to do dangerous and important jobs with technology that might be many years behind what they use in their daily lives. This was reinforced again for me at a major Air Force conference last year, where I spoke on a panel about how new technology could help build better networks of military systems. An airman in the audience asked the panel how this would be possible when most servicemembers currently deal regularly with long network outages that leave them disconnected from email and the internet. Nearly everyone in the audience, more than one thousand people, erupted in applause.
The problems facing the US military are now taking on a fundamentally different and greater sense of urgency, and it goes beyond emerging technologies. The reason is China.
For the past three decades, the Chinese Communist Party has gone to school on the US military and its entire way of war. It has raced to catch up. From 1990 to 2017, the Chinese military budget increased by 900 percent.5
- "The Kill Chain is a tour-de-force. Few people are as knowledgeable and experienced as Christian Brose in thinking about the intersection of emerging technology and national defense. He pulls it all together in this compelling, unsettling, and outstanding book."—Eric Schmidt, former Chairman of Alphabet and CEO and Chairman of Google
- "Provocative, jolting, superb, and on target! The Kill Chain is all of those things and more. If you read only one book to better understand the challenges facing the US military and the promise of emerging technologies, this should be it."—Admiral James Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander at NATO and author of Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character
- "Christian Brose has done the country a great service by writing this important and timely book. The Kill Chain is a powerful and thoughtful challenge to much of the conventional wisdom about national defense. It also offers a compelling vision for how the US military can get beyond business as usual to compete and win in this new era of great power competition. Brose's book should be read by every American."—Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR), author of Sacred Duty: A Soldier's Tour at Arlington National Cemetery
- "The Kill Chain is an exceptional--and an exceptionally stimulating--guide to thinking about the military and technological revolutions that will produce a fundamental change to the character of war."—General David Petraeus (US Army, Ret.), former Commander of the Surge in Iraq, US Central Command, and Coalition Forces in Afghanistan, as well as former Director of the CIA
- "Christian Brose understands like few others the serious challenges the U.S. military faces, especially in relation to China. He delivers a powerful wake-up call to the American people and our leadership--warning aptly that America's military superiority is at grave risk unless we reimagine defense. Thankfully, Brose issues a thoughtful and compelling plan for America to adapt effectively in this gripping, must-read book."—Susan E. Rice, former US National Security Advisor and Ambassador to the United Nations
- On Sale
- Mar 15, 2022
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Hachette Books