“The Kill Chain” Notes

This week I finished reading “The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare” a book by Christian Brose (current Chief Strategy Officer at Anduril, former policy advisor to John McCain & Staff Director for the Senate Armed Services Committee). I highly recommend reading this if you’re interested in understanding the current state of the US military-industrial complex and want a glimpse into the future of warfare and the role that technology will play in defending America.

Book’s main argument:

Over the last few years, the US military’s technological advantage over other great powers has eroded. In US war games against China, the US has a nearly perfect record of losing every single time. The problem is that we measure our strength by “platforms”, which are big items like ships, planes, and tanks. Most of these will be ineffective if used in an open conflict far from home. Instead, we must adapt and better leverage new technologies like edge computing, artificial intelligence, robotics, and autonomy, so our ability to understand, decide, and act in the face of combat will be more effective, faster, flexible, adaptable, and resilient.

Big Ideas:

💡 Idea #1: America’s military strategy is not to fight open wars, it’s to be so strong & capable that no rival wants to fight in the first place. If US military superiority erodes, it actually increases the likelihood there will be conflict. As Sun Tzu argued years ago, the greatest skill in warfare is to defeat the enemy without having to fight.

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.

💡 Idea #2: The ability to prevail in war comes down to “the kill chain”. This is a three step process that consists of: 1) understanding what’s happening; 2) deciding what to do about it; and 3) acting to achieve that objective. If any step in that process breaks, it limits how effectively a military can operate & execute. Emerging technology since the 1990s has remade major global industries, yet the kill chain has still not adapted for this modern world.

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.

💡 Idea #3: Post WWII, America was deeply concerned about falling behind in the development of military technology. President Eisenhower created a military-industrial system that encouraged taking big bets & risks to develop ambitious new technologies that might help us win. But this gradually eroded after the 60s as bureaucracy set in and people started to care more about reducing waste, fraud, and abuse vs. moving fast & getting things done.

Early in the Cold War, the US military acquired different new aircraft every few years. But after the Cold War, the cycle times to develop new aircraft and vehicles were frequently drawn out to more than a decade. In the case of the F-35, it has taken nearly two. More and more of America’s defense spending shifted from developing new things to operating and maintaining old things.

💡 Idea #4: The US military must take advantage of new technologies to modernize. Though some technology has made its way into the system, areas like GPUs, 5G, sensors, machine learning, artificial intelligence, low-cost space launches, advanced manufacturing, biotech, quantum computing, hypersonic & directed energy weapons, and autonomous systems are still early in the DoD’s adoption curve. We need to get these tools into the hands of military operators so they can try them, learn from their failures & mistakes, and iterate further.

“There are common causes for military disasters, and at the heart of them lie dangerous smugness, institutional constraints on innovation, and the tendency to avoid questioning conventional wisdom. The result is that the side that is the most smug, the most convinced that its interpretation of the past is the best guide for the future, often turns out to be the loser in the next war.” - Admiral William Owens

💡 Idea #5: “Non-kinetic” tactics like electronic warfare, communication & computer network disruptions, supply chain & logistic network interference, misinformation, political subversion, and communications jamming / information denial are growing in importance. We need better systems that can function securely, recover quickly, and operate when under attack.

The ability to corrupt the artificial intelligence at the core of a rival military or thoroughly disrupt the internal functioning of an opponent’s government and society could cripple its ability and will to fight before it ever deploys forces.

💡 Idea #6: In order to effectively defend against potential threats, America needs to shift its focus from offensive strategies to a more defensive approach. As we face new challenges from other nations with similar capabilities, we must prioritize denying access and influence in the areas that matter most to us, rather than trying to offensively engage on every front.

Forces that are entrenched in defensive positions could stand a decent chance of surviving… but the moment they step off from their points of departure and try to advance against their opponents, they would likely enter a new “no man’s land” that is teeming with ubiquitous sensors, intelligent machines, and advanced weapons, operating from the ocean floor to outer space, that are capable of closing the kill chain at scales and speeds that attacking forces would struggle to survive.

My Takeaways:

The basis in which our military understands events, makes decisions, and takes action does not seem to align with the future of warfare. Our systems are too inflexible, manual, slow, and brittle, which makes them easy to disrupt. Today’s situation should compel our government, military, and private sector to adapt and work together to compete more urgently in this race.