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Military modernization

By David Hutchins, Industry Analyst

On October 27, 2022, the Department of Defense (DoD) publicly released the latest National Defense Strategy (NDS). Released every four years, the NDS is subsequent to the President’s National Security Strategy and sets the DoD’s strategic direction and priorities for the next four years. The NDS serves as an important declaration of focus that both US allies and adversaries will closely examine. With an ongoing war in Ukraine, the threat of a new nuclear-armed adversary in the Middle East, and a rising adversary in the Indo-Pacific, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III rightly refers to this decade as “turbulent times.” This article unpacks the implications the NDS will have on the defense industry and what this industry can expect in the next four years. 

The 2022 NDS lists four top-level defense priorities that the DoD must pursue in order to strengthen deterrence:

  1. Defending the homeland.
  2. Deterring strategic attacks against the United States, Allies, and partners.
  3. Deterring aggression, while being prepared to prevail in conflict when necessary — prioritizing the PRC challenge in the Indo-Pacific region, then the Russia challenge in Europe.
  4. Building a resilient Joint Force and defense ecosystem.

In addition, the NDS lists three approaches to carrying out the priorities listed above:

  1. Integrated Deterrence
  2. Campaigning
  3. Building Enduring Advantages

Geopolitical Implications:

The previous National Defense Strategy already identified China and Russia as primary adversaries to US National Security, and the 2022 NDS reaffirms that strategic competition with these countries is a top priority. China in particular is viewed as the greatest threat to global order, even as Russia is actively engaged in a war with Ukraine. This means that any entity with an active or planned partnership with either China or Russia will face increased scrutiny in the coming years. Any involvement from Chinese or Russian companies in supply chains may become increasingly difficult or outright illegal. The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) already penalizes entities for buying or selling military equipment with Russia. If China were to invade Taiwan, these same measures could be extended to any cooperation with China. Moreover, the defense industries of allied countries that choose to partner with Russia or China may find the US to be less tolerant of these actions. 

Increased cooperation with existing allies and the formation of a resilient defense ecosystem are also common themes throughout the NDS. The NDS places emphasis on working closely with NATO allies and allies in the Indo-Pacific region, specifically Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and Taiwan. It’s likely that multi-national production efforts, like the Joint Strike Fighter program, will become more commonplace as the US looks to solidify strategic partnerships while strengthening defense capabilities. 

The 2022 NDS also references a need for increased activity in the Arctic region. Warming temperatures have created new corridors of strategic interaction through the arctic that have both created new opportunities and increased competition in the area. For companies with supply lines through the arctic, developments in this region should be closely monitored. In addition, the arctic represents a potential new battleground that would require military equipment and tools that are specially tailored to operate in the extreme cold. 

New Arms Race for Emerging Technologies

Of the three approaches outlined in the NDS, the most pertinent to the defense industry is Building Enduring Advantages. This approach can be viewed as somewhat of a new arms race with a focus on emerging technologies that could prove decisively advantageous in a future conflict. The United States and its allies are competing with potential adversaries, such as Russia and China, to develop and refine the latest military technologies and the software that supports them. The NDS points out that these technologies are front of mind for the DoD, stating that the department will “modernize the systems that design and build the Joint Force, with a focus on innovation and rapid adjustment to new strategic demands.” The DoD plans to build enduring advantages by leveraging a “culture of ingenuity” across the defense industrial base, including the many private sector and academic enterprises that work to modernize the Joint Force. 

The DoD will seek to acquire technologies that help achieve its five future force priorities — lethality, sustainability, resiliency, survivability, and agility & responsiveness. More specifically, the defense industry can expect increased, or at least continued, investment from the DoD in technologies such as counter-space weapons, directed energy, hypersonics, integrated sensing, drone/UAV technology, robotics, autonomous systems, artificial intelligence, microelectronics, biotechnology, quantum science, and clean energy. The enduring partnership between the DoD, the private sector, and research institutions is vital to developing the latest innovations and ensuring that the United States does not fall behind its adversaries and diminish its technological edge. 

Climate Change & Clean Energy

In recent years, the DoD has recognized climate change as a considerable threat that increasingly strains the Joint Force. With this in mind, the NDS places greater emphasis on reducing energy demand, developing clean energy technologies, and building a Joint Force that’s more resilient to climate change. 

The concept of a fuel-efficient military using renewable energy sources may have seemed preposterous in past years, yet the concern around climate change has made it a very appealing aspiration. Acknowledging that national security, the defense industry, and the energy industry are all tightly interwoven, the DoD is seeking help from private industry to make advancements in clean energy technology and develop systems that can operate using them. As stated in the NDS, the DoD will “make reducing energy demand a priority, and seek to adopt more efficient and clean-energy technologies that reduce logistics requirements in contested or austere environments.”

The DoD is also partnering with private industry to strengthen the Department’s ability to withstand and recover quickly from climate events. From infrastructure on forward operating bases to the weapons that protect them, all aspects of military operations will need to consider climate resilience as part of the defense ecosystem. According to the NDS, the DoD will integrate climate change into threat assessments, increase the climate resilience of military installations, analyze climate change impacts on the Joint Force, and take climate extremes into account in decisions related to training and equipping the force. 

Conclusive Thoughts

The NDS illustrates that US national security faces no shortage of threats. Regardless of whether the next challenge is brought by China, Russia, or a more transboundary threat like a pandemic or climate change, what’s most essential is ensuring that the Department of Defense has the tools needed to respond to those threats. The DoD has long relied on its partnership with the defense industry to develop the innovations that maintain our technological advantage on the battlefield. Although the battlefield may be changing, this concept has not changed. The DoD will continue to count on innovations from private industry to prepare our warfighters for whatever comes next. 

By David Hutchins, Industry Analyst

Overview

In a previous article, I outlined the most crucial innovations for the Defense Department over the next 10 years. This article takes a deeper dive into the importance of robotics and autonomous systems for the future of the US military. No longer a concept of science fiction, robotics and autonomous systems are already changing military operations. Recent examples of conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and Ukraine have demonstrated just how pivotal these advanced systems can be. In contemporary conflict, drone swarms gather battlefield intelligence and overwhelm an enemy en masse with deadly speed and precision, loitering munitions target enemies beyond the line of sight, and autonomous systems patrol designated routes in place of manned systems or personnel.

Photo: iStock – gorodenkoff

These systems are also advancing military capabilities outside of conflict zones. The US military is using robotics to reduce physical workload and risk for military personnel and using the advanced speed and precision of autonomous systems to replace human operators for a variety of mission sets from analyzing data to piloting vessels. Below are just some examples of how different branches of the US military are using, or plan to use, robotics and autonomous systems to enhance capabilities. 

Army

The Army is equipping soldiers with new Black Hornet drones that will simultaneously enhance reconnaissance capabilities and stealth. These palm-sized personal reconnaissance drones are used by dismounted soldiers to boost situational awareness on the battlefield. The pocket-sized UAV weighs roughly 1.16 oz (33g), has a flight endurance of 25 minutes, and has a range of 1.24 miles (2 kilometers). The Black Hornet can be launched in under 2 minutes and generates minimal noise making it ideal for stealth operations. Operated by a lightweight, body-mounted control system, the Black Hornet can hover or fly designated routes while capturing still images and live videos. 

Air Force 

Photo: iStock – Aapsky

The Air Force is partnering with defense firms to develop next-generation unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The AI-enabled UAVs would serve as “autonomous wingmen” that can be equipped with missiles, radars, sensors, or other tools depending on the mission need. More recently referred to as collaborative combat aircraft (CCA), these AI-enabled UAVs could act as decoys or scouts, jam enemy signals, or even conduct their own strikes. Skyborg — the Air Force Research Laboratory’s artificial intelligence wingman program — has already developed several prototypes, including the XQ-58A Valkyrie.

Navy

The Navy is testing an autonomous submarine that could soon patrol waters in place of manned ships. The Orca Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (XLUUV) measures 51 feet in length, can dive 11,000 feet, has a range of 6,500 nautical miles, and can operate autonomously for months at a time The Orca’s modular payload system allows it to take on different payloads to support different missions. If equipped with sonar payloads, for example, the Orca could detect enemy submarines and send location data to allied ships or aircraft. U.S. Naval Institute News reports that Orca will be capable of mine countermeasures, anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, and strike missions. 

USMC


Photo: Marine Corps Warfighting Lab – National Defense Magazine

The Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory is leveraging AI and automation to provide Marines with next-generation technology. For example, the Expeditionary Modular Autonomous Vehicle (EMAV) will enhance the mobility of Marines on and off the battlefield. The EMAV is a tracked unmanned ground platform with a flat top that can carry over 7,000 pounds and can be outfitted with sensors, communications equipment, or weapons. The EMAV can autonomously carry heavy equipment or transport casualties and also provide cover during combat. Historically, it would several Marines to carry an injured squadmate to safety, but the EMAV can autonomously transport the wounded Marine to an aid station. The platforms are designed to operate in complex, congested terrain, navigating around debris. If equipped with a weapons system, the EMAV can also be used to engage the enemy. 

Conclusion:

There are many more examples of robotics or autonomous systems that are changing how the US military operates. Far too many to list in this here. These examples simply highlight the possibilities on the horizon. While the time it will take to realize some of these advancements is yet to be determined, I can confidently assert that autonomous systems and robotics represent the future of warfare. 

Questions? Please reach out to David on LinkedIn, or e-mail at dhutchins@govexec.com