The defining images of the opening stages of the 2001 Afghanistan invasion were of bearded U.S. Special Operations forces on horseback talking with invisible air assets high overhead. Ancient transportation technology melded with cutting-edge communication protocols created an odd but appropriate scenario in the midst of a wholly unanticipated conflict. The synergy of high- and low-capability technologies likely will define 21st century conflicts, especially with foes we cannot currently imagine.
As our official defense posture pivots to the Pacific, this strategic imperative calls for specific procurement decisions and military kit. Yet, what if we are wrong? Does the greatest threat to our national security truly come from Asia? What if in preparing for a low-probability, high-cost conflict, we end up facing an enemy who intentionally and subtly maneuvers around our complex systems?
It seems more than coincidental that our perceived threats also mesh with status quo, high-cost technological solutions. Intentionally or not, we are preparing to fight only the types of wars we currently are best suited to fight. Our military is built on emphasizing the physical aspect of warfare, especially when it comes to fielding advanced technology.
However, pouring precious time and scarce resources into incredibly complex, expensive technology, inhibits our ability to buy capabilities more suited to higher-probability, low-intensity, prolonged conflicts. These more difficult challenges, like rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan, are not going away, even if we hope they will.
The argument for high-cost, high-complexity weapons systems in all circumstances claims that by countering the most capable threat, these systems necessarily will be suitable for every contingency. They can be “degraded” with equal effectiveness for a lower-intensity conflict. This, however, is simply not always the case.