Directed Energy


I was recently honored by the Surface Navy Association with their Literary Award for my U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings article, “A Potent One-Two Punch.” It’s always an honor to receive an award such as this one, but I believe what contributed to the award had less to do with fabulous writing than it did to do with the importance of the issue, that is, what kind of ships should the U.S. Navy build in the future. I argued that we will be most successful against our adversaries if we build more ships like the Zumwalt-class destroyer, that is, electric drive ships with directed-energy weapons. Here is part of what I said:

The promise of directed-energy weapons has captured the imagination for more than a century. By the eve of the last century, the understanding of physics had progressed to a point where directed-energy weapons had become a staple of popular fiction, perhaps most famously captured in the Martian “heat rays” of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds in 1898.

For more than 50 years, the Department of Defense has pursued the goal of using directed-energy for military purposes. Today, these weapons represent some of the most innovative technologies under development by the U.S. military. Research and analysis suggest that the services in general, and the Navy in particular, can leverage these weapons to field transformational capabilities in the near-, mid-, and far-terms.

Directed energy–based systems are already contributing to the emerging capabilities that enable a new American way of war. Laser range finders and targeting systems are deployed on tanks, helicopters, and tactical fighters. These laser systems provide both swifter engagements and greatly enhanced precision. The role of directed-energy systems in support of military operations will continue to grow.

Directed-energy weapons are a natural next step in the transformation of the U.S. military. While the past decade was marked by the shortening of the sensor-to-shooter cycle, this decade is likely to demonstrate a marked reduction in the shooter-to-target cycle. Directed-energy weapons provide a means for instantaneous target engagement, with extremely high accuracy and, in many instances, at very long ranges.

Three primary types of devices are currently being weaponized for naval use: high-energy lasers; radio-frequency weapons, commonly referred to as high-power microwaves or ultra-wideband weapons; and electromagnetic railguns. Lasers excite atoms to release photons in powerful bursts of coherent light that can be focused and aimed by mirrors. With sufficient power, lasers can quickly pierce or overheat a wide range of targets, including aircraft and missiles. Radio-frequency weapons operate in the lower-frequency, longer-wavelength portion of the electromagnetic spectrum to generate bursts or beams capable of disabling electronic systems. Electromagnetic railguns––while not a directed-energy weapon per se––represent the third major weapon category.

A recent Congressional Research Service report on directed-energy weapons highlighted the potential of these technologies to revolutionize naval warfare, noting:

The Navy is currently developing three potential new weapons that could improve the ability of its surface ships to defend themselves against enemy missiles—solid state lasers, the electromagnetic railgun, and the hypervelocity projectile. Any one of these new weapon technologies might be regarded as a “game changer” for defending Navy surface ships against enemy missiles. If two or three of them are successfully developed and deployed, the result might be considered not just a game changer, but a revolution.


You can read the entire article here.

All Levers of U.S. Power


Many who watched President Trump’s speech on July 22, as he commissioned the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, took his remarks as a flexing of American military muscle. Speaking of the Gerald R. Ford, President Trump said, “American steel and American hands have constructed a 100,000-ton message to the world: American might is second to none…We will win, win, win. We will never lose.”

A former U.S. Marine, Jake Cusack, had a sobering assessment of this speech. Cusack, who served multiple tours in Iraq as a platoon commander, pointed out the dangers of relying too heavily on military power while ignoring all the other levers of U.S. national power. Here is part of what he said:

Mr. Trump’s speech reflected his administration’s emphasis on the military as the primary instrument of U.S. foreign policy. He has delegated broad powers to his military commanders while sidelining the State Department and proposing deep cuts to foreign aid. As a former Marine, I loved seeing a new aircraft carrier commissioned. But as I listened to Mr. Trump, I recalled a lesson from my service in Iraq a decade ago: Feeling strong and being strong are often two very different things.

I vividly remember one particular mission in which we searched four compounds for “high-value” insurgents. It was the heady stuff of recruiting commercials—heavily armed Marines riding helicopters into lawless terrain in the dead of night. The raid was a success, and when we landed back on base at 5 a.m., we felt great, high on testosterone and adrenaline.

But I soon began to wonder if this was the best we could do with our superior technology and troops. More than 60 Marines, backed by assault helicopters and fighter planes, just to capture a few Iraqi farmers who had taken potshots at other Marines a few weeks earlier?

Later in my deployment, I joined a small group of Marines to talk to some sheikhs who lived along a U.S. resupply route that was riddled with explosive devices. We tried to map the road out in one- or two-kilometer segments, identifying which local leaders held their communities’ respect. With various rewards and punishments as our tools, we worked with them to reduce the number of roadside bombs.

The second mission lacked the action-movie excitement of helicopters whisking away bad guys under cover of darkness. But what feels effective is often different from what is effective. Winning the support of local leaders was a key part of the counterinsurgency strategies forged by such commanders as David Petraeus and H.R. McMaster (now Mr. Trump’s national security adviser). These low-key efforts buttressed the pulse-pounding raids—and made Iraq a safer place for several years before the U.S. troop pullout that ended in 2011.

Want more? You can read the full article here.

America and Asia


Over five years ago, in his speech delivered to the Australian Parliament on November 17, 2011, then-U.S. President Barack Obama made the first official announcement of a change in U.S. security policy. He said:

Our new focus on this region reflects a fundamental truth–the United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation …Here, we see the future. With most of the world’s nuclear power and some half of humanity, Asia will largely define whether the century ahead will be marked by conflict or cooperation, needless suffering or human progress.

Since then, as I’ve reported on this website several times (see, for example)…

…and have written about in various national and international publications (here):

Few would argue that the point President Obama made in his speech, “The United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation,” is true, but it wasn’t until I read a book review by Gordon Chang, “Bibles and Ginseng,” in the New York Times that I understand not just why this is true, but also how it happened.

Read this short – and clarifying – review here.

Existential Threat


Few national security issues have dominated the news this year than the threat of ballistic missiles armed with weapons of mass destruction.

Opposition to missile defense has persisted since the 1980s, but the politics may be changing with technological progress and the rising threat from North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons. Congress has an opportunity this summer to notch a rare bipartisan deal that enhances U.S. security.

Kim has already overseen more nuclear and missile tests than his father and grandfather combined, and the Defense Intelligence Agency warns that “if left on its current trajectory” Pyongyang will develop a capacity to hit Japan, Alaska, Hawaii or even the U.S. West Coast. The Trump Administration is pleading with China to stop the North, but Chinese leaders never seem to act and they’re even trying to block regional missile defenses in South Korea.

Opponents say missile defenses are too expensive given that interception might fail, so better to trust arms control and the deterrence of mutual-assured destruction. But arms talks with North Korea have been a fool’s errand since negotiator Robert Gallucci and Bill Clinton bought its promises in 1994.

Even a 50% chance of interception might increase deterrence by making the success of an enemy first strike more doubtful. North Koreans or other rogues also may not be rational actors who fear their own annihilation. U.S. leaders have a moral obligation to do more than let Kim Jong Un hold American cities hostage, and without defenses a pre-emptive military strike might be the only alternative.

To read more on this subject, see this link from the U.S. Naval Institute.

West to East


Few topics are more timely than the relationship between the United States and China and that relationship is likely to dominate geopolitics throughout the 21st Century.

Perhaps because it is “topical,” a sea of commentators hold forth with theories about this relationship and there is often more heat than light on this subject.

That is why I found Thomas Christensen’s review of “Easterniation” so fascinating: it put the power balance between not just between the United States and China, but west and east into refreshing perspective. Here is part of what he had to say:

“Easternization” navigates the recent migration of economic, military and political power from the Western Hemisphere to the Eastern. Rachman repeatedly returns to that migration’s main engine — the rise of China — but his thesis is broader. He considers the rise of Asia as a whole, including the growing clout of India and the continuing importance of Japan, a nation that is not currently rising but remains wealthy, technologically sophisticated and economically linked to all continents. Rachman also explores the decreasing ability of Americans and Europeans to shape to their liking outcomes around the world. Relentlessly fair, he resists blaming Asia’s successes for Western problems and recognizes the West’s self-inflicted wounds.

Rachman’s wisdom about global history precludes cartoonish characterizations of “East” versus “West.” Western nations spent more blood and treasure fighting one another, especially in two massive world wars, than they did colluding to dominate others. Similarly, mistrust among Asian states today outstrips mistrust among them and the United States or Europe. Nor do political ideas provide a clear border between East and West. Europe has had more than its share of authoritarian regimes, so it is a stretch to consider the recent rise of illiberal nationalism in Europe as somehow a move “eastward.” Mainland Chinese propagandists rail against the “Western values” of multiparty democracy, a free press and independent courts, but some of the nation’s largest and most successful Asian neighbors — South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia and India — are no less Eastern for enjoying all of those institutions. No one, including Rachman, really knows how to categorize Russia. Moscow has tried with limited success to cobble together a Eurasian union with former Soviet republics in Central Asia, but it sees itself as the European part of such a union. Russia’s recent diplomatic lean toward China has more to do with energy markets and the two authoritarian regimes’ shared aversion to American support for color revolutions and regime change than it does with either realpolitik alliance formation or Sino-Russian cultural affinity.

You can read the entire article here

Life Imitates Art

AFCEA Singer1-1

I recently participated in a military-industry professional conference focused on future threats to national security. As part of that event, I was asked to be on a panel that explored how “life imitates art” and how the military and industry can (and do!) mine fiction to explore how warfighting will evolve in the future.

Fellow panelists included Mr. Peter Singer and Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Kirchner. Our goal was to help the conference delegates think outside the box.

Mr. Peter Singer is the author of many books about the military and technology (for example, Wired for War), and more recently, with August Cole, wrote the enormously popular novel Ghost Fleet.

Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Kirchner works for the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab in Quantico, Virginia. The Marine Corps Warfighting Lab sponsors a Science Fiction Writing Contest and publishes these works in a compendium. Why – to stimulate military men and women to have a view of the future they won’t get anywhere else.

Life DOES imitate art, and today we are using it to help ensure our warfighters – and those who support them – are never in a fair fight – but one they will always win.

Missile Defense

SFTM-01 Flight Test

Earlier this month, we posted a blog about the only existential threat to the United States – ballistic missiles armed with weapons of mass destruction. Few national security issues have dominated the headlines as much as the threat of North Korean ballistic missiles armed with weapons of mass destruction.

Americans have the right to ask – what are we doing to address that threat? Few know of the responsibility for defense against these weapons rests with the United States Missile Defense Agency. The Missile Defense Agency’s (MDA) mission is to develop, test, and field an integrated, layered, ballistic missile defense system (BMDS) to defend the United States, its deployed forces, allies, and friends against all ranges of enemy ballistic missiles in all phases of flight.

Recently, the professional journal, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, posted an excellent article with an interview with MDA’s leader, Vice Admiral James Syring. Here is part of what he said:

“We must assume that North Korea can reach us with a ballistic missile,” and must do everything possible to meet that threat.”

Ballistic missile defense (BMD) remains one of the most important missions for the United States’ military – and especially for the U.S. Navy – and it is one that is growing in importance – with rouge nations such as North Korea and Iran possessing ballistic missiles armed with weapons of mass destruction.

You can read the entire U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings article here.

The Existential Threat


Few national security issues have dominated the headlines as much as the threat of North Korean ballistic missiles armed with weapons of mass destruction.

The reason why is compelling: Ballistic missiles armed with WMD represent the primary existential threat to the United States as well as other nations.

This is what the New York Times Helene Cooper and David Sanger had to say in a recent article about the American response to the threat of ballistic missiles armed with WMD:

A re-engineered American interceptor rocket collided with a mock intercontinental ballistic missile on Tuesday afternoon in the skies over the Pacific Ocean, the Pentagon said, in the first successful test of whether it could shoot down a warhead from North Korea racing toward the continental United States at speeds approaching true battle conditions.

At a time when tensions with North Korea are running high, a successful test was vital for the Defense Department’s beleaguered missile defense program. It enabled the Pentagon to argue that it is making strides in protecting the United States from a North Korean nuclear warhead.

Not long ago, in an article in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, we addressed the U.S. Navy’s contribution to the nation’s missile defense capability. This is part of what we said:

Ballistic missile defense (BMD) is one of the most important missions for the United States’ military – and it is one that is growing in importance – with rouge nations such as North Korea and Iran possessing ballistic missiles armed with weapons of mass destruction.

The U.S. Navy’s contribution to U.S. BMD is based on the Aegis weapon system and has been on patrol in guided-missile cruisers and destroyers since 2004. Aegis BMD has grown in importance based on its proven performance as well as its long-term potential.

For years, the U.S. Navy’s contribution to U.S. BMD was secondary to many other systems. Today, the U.S. Navy is “in the van” as we describe in our article in the US Naval Institute Proceedings.

Want more? Read the full New York Times article by Helene Cooper and David Sanger here.

And here is our article talking about ballistic missile defense in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings.


The Battle of Midway


Seventy-five years ago this month, the course of World War II changed forever. The Battle of Midway represented the turning point of the war.

Volumes have been written about this epic battle, so it is difficult to write a pithy summary. This anniversary spurred an avalanche of articles and new books.

One article stood out for me, that by historian Victor Davis Hanson. Here is how he began his short piece:

Seventy-five years ago (June 4-7, 1942), the astonishing American victory at the Battle of Midway changed the course of the Pacific War.

Just six months after the catastrophic Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. crushed the Imperial Japanese Navy off Midway Island (about 1,300 miles northwest of Honolulu), sinking four of its aircraft carriers.

“Midway” referred to the small atoll roughly halfway between North America and Asia. But to Americans, “Midway” became a barometer of military progress. Just half a year after being surprised at Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy had already destroyed almost half of Japan’s existing carrier strength (after achieving a standoff at the Battle of the Coral Sea a month earlier).

The odds at the June 1942 battle favored the Japanese. The imperial fleet had four carriers to the Americans’ three, backed up by scores of battleships, cruisers and light carriers as part of the largest armada that had ever steamed from Japan.

No military had ever won more territory in six months than had Japan. Its Pacific Empire ranged from the Indian Ocean to the coast of the Aleutian Islands, and from the Russian-Manchurian border to Wake Island in the Pacific.

Yet the Japanese Navy was roundly defeated by an outnumbered and inexperienced American fleet at Midway. Why and how?

You can read the entire article here.

Forging Coalitions


The decline in the size of the United States Navy (now under 280 ships – a dramatic decrease of the Reagan-era U.S. Navy of almost 600 ships has given the United States more impetus to partner with other navies to secure the global commons. But while the intent is there, many wonder just how this can occur.

In my article in the May 2017 issue of the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, “Can We Make the Global Network of Navies Work?” I address this issue head on, and suggest that the United States would be well served to, as the article’s subtitle suggests: Start at the “High End” with Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense.” Here is part of what I shared:

“More than a decade has passed since then-Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Michael Mullen unveiled the concept of a 1,000-ship navy at the International Seapower Symposium in Newport, Rhode Island. In introducing his idea, Admiral Mullen stated, “As we combine our advantages, I envision a 1,000-ship navy—a fleet-in-being, if you will—made up of the best capabilities of all freedom-loving navies of the world.” 2 Later renamed the Global Maritime Partnership, the concept caught on as other nations also came to realize that no single state had the assets to ensure security on the seas or even to respond adequately to lesser threats, from piracy, to criminal activities at sea, to natural disasters.”

“While globalization has had extensive beneficial effects, one of its most serious downsides has been the worldwide proliferation of ballistic missile technology, and the concomitant spread of the means to produce weapons of mass destruction (WMD). More than 30 countries deploy ballistic missiles today, compared with only nine just a few decades ago. Potential enemies possess both ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction, and today’s rogue leaders view WMD as weapons of choice, not of last resort.”

“There is no more propitious time for the U.S. Navy to lead the way in stitching together a robust Aegis BMD global enterprise to protect our nation, our forces forward, and our allies and partners from the threat of ballistic missiles armed with weapons of mass destruction. With U.S. Navy leadership, this opportunity to shape a “high-end” partnership under the auspices of a global network of navies may well be the sine qua non of international defense cooperation to address the challenges brought on by globalization.”

Want more? Read the full article here.