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  • Position : Program Director, Emerging Technologies and Global Security Program
  • Affiliation : PIR Center
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The U.S. on the Way to Strategic Invulnerability

Vadim Kozyulin

Russian International Affairs Council

July 1, 2020


For Russia, the military developments and strategies of the United States recreate those challenges and threats that the USSR associated with President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Adopted in 1984, the SDI programme involved deploying several echelons of space strike weapons that would intercept and destroy ballistic missiles and their re-entry vehicles in all flight segments. The purpose of the SDI was to ensure that the whole of North America was protected by an anti-missile shield.

American developments today are aimed at ensuring the global military dominance and strategic invulnerability of the United States and include strategic non-nuclear weapons, missile defence, high-precision weapons, SM-6 universal anti-air and strike missiles, space strike systems (space interceptors), laser weapons, autonomous air, surface and undersea vehicles and means of conducting cyber warfare.

Essentially, the United States is systematically moving towards re-creating the state of affairs of 1945, when it was the only country that had nuclear weapons, could impose its will on the entire world, and remained beyond the reach of the armed forces of other countries. The processes that are taking place today, which could be termed a revolution in warfare, give the U.S. administration grounds to believe that cutting-edge weapons can neutralize or devalue Russia’s nuclear weapons.

The structure of U.S. military spending shows that the country is stepping up its investment in military R&D. Military spending increased by 3 per cent in 2020 to USD 750 billion. Meanwhile, the military R&D budget grew by nearly 10 per cent to USD 104.3 billion.

The SDI programme was scrapped in 1993. There were several reasons for this, including political and financial motivations. However, the programme was mostly abandoned because the projects were not technically feasible. Back in 1987, the American Physical Society published a paper concluding it would take at least 10 years to understand which of the technologies being developed could have a future [1]. Even though the SDI was officially closed, some projects were continued as part of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, which was renamed the Missile Defense Agency in 2002, and led to the creation of anti-missile systems such as Patriot PAC-3, Aegis BMD, THAAD and the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system.

Work continues on a number of projects that use active weapons based on new physical principles such as beam, electromagnetic, kinetic and super-high-frequency weapons, chemical lasers, railguns and neutral particle beams, and traditional missile weapons such as new-generation surface-to-space and air-to-space missiles, kinetic energy missiles and kinetic energy interceptors.

Current U.S. views of the prospects of the national defence rest on several fundamental doctrines that are being adjusted or detailed in new concepts as new technologies emerge.

The concept of a weapons “system of systems” was first put forward in an article written by Admiral William Owens and published by the Institute for National Security Studies in 1996. In 1998, the idea was transformed into a separate concept of “network-centric warfare” in a paper by Vice Admiral Arthur K. Cebrowski and John J. Garstka. The concept envisaged integrating intelligence systems, command and control systems, and high-precision weapons systems in order to ensure rapid situational awareness, identify targets and assign combat missions. The concept was intended to free military leaders of the famous “fog of war” problem, when commanding officers have to make decisions based on incomplete or unreliable data.

The development of information technologies and computer networks in the 1990s provided the tools for increasing combat capabilities by achieving information and communication superiority, combining combatants into a single network. In addition to information systems, the “network-centric warfare” concept also came to rely on developing cutting-edge reconnaissance systems, military command and control systems and high-precision weapons. By effectively connecting units and detachments in a battlespace, the system translated information superiority into combat power. In 2019, the United States Army held war games demonstrating that the combat power of an infantry platoon enhanced with artificial intelligence capabilities increases tenfold. That is, AI renders the old formula that claims the attacking side can only achieve victory if it outguns the opponent by at least three times obsolete.

It would appear that the network-centric warfare strategy performed poorly in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, where the military methods failed to produce the expected results. However, we should keep in mind that this strategy is not intended to fight guerrilla units but was rather conceived as a way to achieve a quick victory over a relatively equal military opponent. Additionally, some important components of the newly created architecture — such as the military internet of things and military cloud storage — are only now being created.

The internet of things is closely tied to 5G data transmission technology. The American version of 5G is currently being tested on four military bases. 5G technology has been the subject of a major dispute between the United States and its NATO allies, who decided to use available technology from China’s Huawei.

New technologies allow frontline units to track and identify a far larger number of targets on a larger territory within shorter periods of time and to strike these targets with previously impossible precision.

A number of military operations in the 1990s — the 1991 Gulf War, Operation Desert Strike in Iraq in 1996, Operation Infinite Reach in 1998 that delivered strikes against targets in Sudan and Afghanistan, and NATO’s 1999 operation in Yugoslavia — demonstrated that the United States and its allies were right to turn their attention to the development of remote (non-contact) warfare tactics.

Non-contact warfare is a trend that will last for decades. It is the path that all the resource-rich militaries around the world are following. However, the United States is virtually the only country that has the necessary funds, research base and scientific potential (including that of private companies) to pull it off.

In 1996, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff used the idea of “network-centric warfare” to develop and publish the Joint Vision 2010 concept, which introduced the military Full-Spectrum Dominance strategy. Once again, the strategy envisaged achieving combat superiority in everything from peace-making operations to the direct use of military force through information superiority.

The same objectives are reflected in the Joint Vision 2020 concept published in 2000, which subsequently formed the basis of the U.S. military doctrine: full-range dominance; information superiority; innovations; interoperability; multinational operations; interagency operations; dominant manoeuvre; precision engagement; focused logistics; full dimensional protection; information operations; joint command and control.

For a decade, U.S. experts debated the future military information architecture. One key issue was where to store and process the information obtained: on-board a combat platform, in a command centre, or in cloud storage. In recent years, the architecture has begun to take a definite shape. In October 2019, Microsoft signed a contract with the U.S. Department of Defense to develop cloud technologies worth USD 10 billion.

Various U.S. military branches are testing pilot projects that connect platforms into a single command and control network. For instance, in October 2018, the U.S. Navy established the Information Warfare Research Project to develop technologies for cyber warfare, cloud computing and reconnaissance.

In 2019, the U.S. Navy experimented with transferring the Navy’s Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), which had previously been stored in governmental data processing centres, to cloud storage. The flexible command and information architecture produced three positive effects: it ensured reliable command, increased battlespace awareness, and allowed various units to conduct integrated fire. Sixty-four per cent of U.S. Navy ships are equipped with this tool. The Consolidated Afloat Networks and Enterprise Services (CANES) is being installed on ships to protect the system from cyber threats.



The U.S. Air Force is developing similar software called Kessel Run to provide information exchange and data analysis. In particular, software for refuelling aerial tankers was developed as part of the project. The software is being constantly improved and features new platforms and functions.

The U.S. Air Force actively uses Link 16 terminals to provide communication between U.S. fighter jets and a number of of allied countries as part of the MIDS programme that is being jointly developed by the United States, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. By using Link 16, military aircraft, ships, and ground forces can exchange tactical images almost in real time.

As part of Project Missouri, the U.S. Air Force has set up an information link between fifth-generation F-22 and F-35 fighters. The additional Project Iguana, made it possible to input data from U2 reconnaissance aircraft and space satellites into the system. In 2019, the Air Force experimented with connecting military transport aircraft and maritime and ground military equipment to the project. Currently, the Valkyrie unmanned combat aerial vehicle is being integrated in the network.

Another NATO states are implementing similar information integration projects for their militaries; Germany, in particular, finances the “Glass Battlefield” (gläsernes Gefechtsfeld) project.

Network-centric warfare rests on several basic principles: distribution, connectedness, separation of functions, remote command, use of artificial intelligence and use of high-precision weapons.

The information component of the network-centric warfare includes the following tools:

  • The military internet of things
  • Cloud storage and cloud computing
  • Autonomous systems
  • Space communications echelon

The network-centric warfare concept pays particular attention to reconnaissance and collecting and analysing information by using autonomous systems. To deliver high-precision long-distance strikes, the Pentagon considers it necessary to have reconnaissance capabilities for a range of up to 1000 miles.

For that purpose, the United States is currently developing three sets of reconnaissance systems that make it possible to discover, identify and locate the adversary’s radars and communication systems. These systems can be installed on the MQ-1C Gray Eagle drone. Optical and radio intelligence data is supported by cyber space reconnaissance capabilities.

In April 2017, Lieutenant General John N.T. “Jack” Shanahan, Director of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, developed the “algorithmic warfare” strategy that envisaged using artificial intelligence to analyse the information collected. Google was involved in implementing the project, codenamed MAVEN. As part of the project, AI-based algorithms process gigantic arrays of photographic and video information collected by drones in Iraq and Afghanistan. The project’s impressive results led to dozens of new projects being established. In 2018, under public pressure, Google withdrew from Project MAVEN, but the Pentagon contracted Booz Allen for the job, after which the project’s budget grew almost tenfold.

For 50 years, American military strategists have been searching for a solution to the A2/AD (anti-access/area-denial) problem. By “area,” the Pentagon means the territory where the U.S. military is within reach of the adversary’s weapons and cannot operate in full force. The A2/AD problem forced the Pentagon to conduct remote warfare from areas beyond the reach of the adversary’s air defence systems, tactical ballistic missile systems and anti-ship ballistic missile systems. For decades, high-precision weapons were used to handle the A2/AD problem.

In 2014, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel approved the Defense Innovation Initiative (also called the “Third Offset Strategy”) developed by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA). The strategy included creating a new long-term R&D planning programme that emphasized robotics, autonomous systems, miniaturization, big data and cutting-edge manufacturing, including 3D printing. The programme focused on drone operations, which entailed the development low-observable forward-looking long-range unmanned aerial vehicles (including sea-based UAVs), and a family of various unmanned combat aerial systems.

The current U.S. military strategy envisages increasing the significance of operations involving strike drones and surface and undersea drones.

Autonomous refuelling aircraft make it possible to double the safe distance for U.S. aircraft carriers to deliver strikes against enemy territory. According to the U.S. Naval Air Force’s MQ-25 Stingray programme, by the mid-2020s, unmanned refuelling aircraft will have assumed the functions of aerial refuelling for the aircraft carrier’s air wing.

Another area for developing unmanned aerial vehicles is “wingman” drones. As part of the Low Cost Attritable Aviation Technologies (LCAAT) project, a U.S. Air Force laboratory is developing the XQ-58 Valkyrie drone as a “wingman” for F-22 or F-35 fighter jets. In combat, the drone will carry the surveillance, electronic warfare (EW) and communications systems, as well as weapons. “Partner drones” are intended to become the “expendables” in warfare, taking on some of the functions of the pilots and, if necessary, bearing the brunt of an attack.

Another projected, called Gremlins, developed under the auspices of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), focuses on developing the technology for using a transport aircraft to deliver a drone swarm to an area where they will perform a series of strike, reconnaissance or other missions. Upon completion of the mission in question, the drones will be brought back aboard the aircraft and prepared for another mission within 24 hours. A fighter, bomber or even an unmanned mother aircraft can be used to deliver Gremlins to the combat area. Like many other unmanned aerial vehicles, Gremlins will be deployed as part of a unit or swarm and will independently distribute functions for optimal mission performance.

However, the most significant reforms have been saved for the U.S. Navy. In 2017, the Ghost Fleet concept, a continuation of the “network-centric warfare” concept, was adopted. Under this concept, ground, aerial and underwater unmanned vehicles will interact simultaneously and perform a wide range of combat missions without risking the lives of ship crews and marines. To further develop the concept, the U.S. Navy has ordered a group of experts to submit the Concept for “the organization, manning, training, equipping, sustaining, and the introduction and operational integration of the Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicle and Large Unmanned Surface Vessel with individual afloat units as well as with Carrier Strike Groups, Expeditionary Strike Groups, and Surface Action Groups” to Congress by September 2020.

The adoption of this concept will signify major changes in the plans for building the fleet and in its operational strategies, where autonomous underwater and surface vehicles will be integrated with carrier and expeditionary strike groups.

According to preliminary reports, the U.S. Navy will receive robotic surface ships of four different classes: large unmanned surface vehicles that can distribute large sensors and fires; medium-sized unmanned surface vehicles with smaller sensors and electronic warfare equipment; small unmanned surface vehicles that can tow mine-hunting equipment and work to relay communications; and even smaller unmanned surface vehicles.

Over the next decade or two, the U.S. Navy may change its architecture in favour of unmanned vessels spread over a larger area and combined into a global network operated from remote and mobile control centres. According to the report on the Navy’s large unmanned surface and underwater vehicles that has been submitted to Congress, the wartime tactic of using large unmanned vehicles may include spreading the fleet, letting the unmanned vehicles bear the brunt of the attack, and then delivering rapid retaliatory strikes.

The first component of the system is the Sea Hunter, an autonomous unmanned surface vessel that has already entered service. The ship was built as part of the DARPA Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel programme. The unmanned vessel is designed to operate as part of a swarm searching for and hunting submarines. Testing has showed the vessel’s high efficiency: travelling at a speed of 12 knots, the ship can cover 19,000 kilometres in 70 days of autonomous sailing.

The Navy is also developing another project for secret undersea operations, called CLAWS. According to the U.S. Navy’s recently adopted R&D budget, the Orca XLUUV, a 50-tonne, 25-metre-long undersea vehicle developed by the Boeing Corporation, will carry 12 torpedoes and have both strike and anti-surface warfare capabilities. The autonomous submarine with AI and weapons is designed to operate partially without human control. The Orca XLUUV will enter service in 2023 and, together with the Sea Hunter, will pose a threat to the naval component of Russia’s nuclear triad since it puts a question mark over its principal advantage: stealth.

To communicate with unmanned vessels and command autonomous missions, the U.S. Navy created the CARACaS (Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing) command architecture that allows drones to analyse dynamic operational situations when on a search mission, or when protecting harbours, carrying out surveillance, conducting EW or landing missions, and even when attacking as a swarm.

The most significant manifestations of the revolution in warfare may take place in the U.S. space sector. On February 20, 2019, President of the United States Donald Trump signed a law establishing the U.S. Space Force, with approximately USD 72 million earmarked for the purpose. The objectives of the Space Force include protecting U.S. interests in space, deterring aggression and protecting the country, as well as projecting military power in space, from space and into space.

A total of USD 11.9 billion was allocated in 2020 for R&D in space systems, which is USD 2.6 billion more than in 2019.

The Missile Defense Agency will receive USD 10.4 billion, including USD 108 million for the creation of a space sensor system to track hypersonic and ballistic missiles and the development of a “sensor array” to counteract the hypersonic missile systems of Russia and China.

The spending on militarized space will total USD 14.1 billion, which is 15 per cent more than in 2019. The Pentagon’s space programmes are classified, which creates additional risks for strategic stability. It is known that projects are under way in the United States to develop reusable space hypersonic systems and micro spacecraft, intercept spacecraft with “inspector” satellites, and carry out kinetic and non-kinetic attacks on satellites. Projects for directed-energy impact on nuclear weapons command systems are particularly dangerous. There is a trend for ensuring the interoperability of anti-missile and anti-satellite weapons. American assets in space are becoming more integrated and more interoperable.

One of the ways that the United States plans on winning the arms race is by involving its allies in joint projects to pool resources and technologies. Aligning weapons and combining data feeds should save funds. For example, in addition to the so-called Five Eyes states, Japan’s operations centre is also joining the space projects.

In the foreseeable future, space-, air- and ground-based lasers are seen as the most promising means of neutralizing ballistic and hypersonic missiles. The Pentagon and American industry are working on a technology that could reach the necessary level in a few years. The Pentagon is considering deploying combat lasers in orbit, as well as on UAVs patrolling the upper boundaries of the atmosphere, on ships and on anti-missile defence platforms. The Indirect Fires Protection Capability-High Energy Laser (IFPC-HEL) which can reach up to 300 kilowatts in power, will presumably have entered the Pentagon’s service by 2024. It will be powerful enough to intercept not only UAVs, but also incoming cruise missiles.

Other NATO states are conducting similar R&D. For instance, France has officially admitted it is making laser-armed satellites that it intends to use against enemy satellites that threaten the country’s space forces.

Forward-looking American military technologies are intended to devalue Russia’s nuclear weapons:

  • Maritime unmanned hunters can compromise the stealth of Russia’s strategic undersea cruisers. Unmanned vessels and undersea drones can autonomously track SSBNs for protracted periods of time and neutralize them in case of danger.
  • Space tracking and targeting systems will make mobile ground-based missile systems vulnerable.
  • In a few years, laser weapons and neutral particle beams will become powerful enough to plan the interception of ballistic and hypersonic missiles.
  • Today, the United States is withdrawing from arms control agreements that might tie its hands and undermine its technological leadership. This confirms that Washington hopes to ride the wave of the revolution in warfare to ensure its global military dominance and protect its national security from virtually any threat.

1. APS Study Group Participants; Bloembergen, N.; Patel, C. K. N.; Avizonis, P.; Clem, R. G.; Hertzberg, A.; Johnson, T. H.; Marshall, T.; Miller, R. B.; Morrow, W. E.; Salpeter, E. E.; Sessler, A. M.; Sullivan, J. D.; Wyant, J. C.; Yariv, A.; Zare, R. N.; Glass, A. J.; Hebel, L. C.; APS Council Review Committee; Pake, G. E.; May, M. M.; Panofsky, W. K.; Schawlow, A. L.; Townes, C. H.; York, H. (July 1, 1987). “Report to The American Physical Society of the Study Group on Science and Technology of Directed Energy Weapons.” Reviews of Modern Physics. 59 (3): S1–S201. Bibcode:1987RvMP...59....1B. doi:10.1103/RevModPhys.59.S1.


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