Physics, Power and Defense in the 21st Century

Ranjit Nair, President of the Centre for the George A. Keyworth II
George A. Keyworth II

By George A. Keyworth II

In this new digital age we live in, it is no longer the ability to do work that matters but, rather, how fast you do it. And the same logic will shape how we think about defense in this new era.

In just a decade or two, the world has changed: Different dynamics, different rules, and different challenges. It is the reduction of the many barriers to new entrants that so uniquely characterizes the industrial era.

Those barriers stem, largely, from the very factors that define the industrial economy, especially from economies of scale and regulations designed, above all, to ensure capital stability. With those barriers now falling, look at the changes around us, even though the transition from an industrial economy to a digital economy has just begun.

There is no finer example of America's post World War II preeminence than IBM. Yet the speed with which Microsoft, Oracle, and Intel left IBM in the dust offers us a glimpse of just how fast moving and renewing is this new economy. And the Internet, which is but the first step in the conversion of the analog infrastructure of the industrial age to the digital infrastructure needed in the digital age, is increasing the pace. Look at how rapidly Cisco, a communications company but one born digital, surpassed each and every one of the great telephone equipment companies. And look at how tiny Finland, by embracing everything digital, has been reborn as one of the world's more sophisticated and successful economies.

With the barriers of the industrial economy in remission, resulting in revitalized global competition, one can get a glimpse of what Charles Darwin documented in Origins of the Species. Perhaps we have simply returned to what is more natural, and the industrial age was less so.

In nature, nothing is more important for survival than a species' ability to adapt. And time and time again, that is what is defining the survivors in the digital economy. Microsoft, Oracle and Intel learned how to adapt and it was a major factor in their success. Each has been threatened, time and again, and each responded in a manner that made the company stronger.

The industrial age saw military forces structured in much the same way as the economy-and similarly resistant to change. That shouldn't be surprising. Inevitably, both a nation's defense and economy are driven by largely the same factors, and by the same technologies. Then what is before us in defense?

It took a decade or more before we accepted the fact that our economy was in a condition of discontinuous, irreversible change. And we now generally accept the fact that it is not simply the post cold-war or the global economy that has caused the change, although those factors do contribute. Instead it is technology-digital technology-that is driving that change.

What might a digital defense look like? First, electronics will play a big part, just as it has in shaping what we mean today when we speak of the modern military. One particular dividend electronics will yield is in precision targeting, that elusive partner to precision delivery. This is possible now, on a full-time, global-coverage scale, using distributed satellites and multi-spectral sensors.

Space-based surveillance systems have comprised the backbone of America's military intelligence for decades. Like mainframe computers, though, their application was limited. Now, with distributed surveillance-highly redundant, mutually supporting sensing platforms-space-based surveillance will inevitably expand to provide tactical support, and the means for better decision-making at all levels of operation.

There is enormous technological potential here that can be exploited. In sensors, for example, combining computing with transducers continues to yield performance breakthroughs, like the high-resolution Synthetic Aperture Radar that General Atomics flew recently on its Predator unmanned aircraft. And there is tremendous potential to use the massive computing power of a distributed surveillance network to process complex algorithms for image enhancement, recognition, or data synthesis for decision support, and even simulation.

Another area that will be important is electronic countermeasures (ECM). With radar, stealth technology changed the name of the game, reducing the reflected signal levels to a level where canceling them actively became feasible. Such computing-intensive approaches can be extended beyond radar, even to passive sensing systems such as infrared. And active cancellation is but one example of a rich area of technological opportunity in ECM.

The trend toward increasing precision will continue; the trend toward more and better real-time information will continue; delivery systems will get faster and more complex to detect; and, in missions, rapid strikes will continue to displace fixed engagements.

Just as wireless communication opened up tremendous opportunities for interception in World War II, the new digital infrastructure is opening up new opportunities for exploitation. Nevertheless, information warfare is not a discontinuity.

The last real discontinuity in defense was the nuclear weapon. I suggest to you that the discontinuously-derived digital defense will result from displacing the nuclear weapon. This is not, by any means, to imply that nuclear weapons can, or will, go away. What I do mean is that the overarching role that nuclear weapons played in the cold war is diminishing. That role has been changing for a long time.

One way it began to change was with the introduction of independently guided warheads on a trendline of increasing precision. Together, they led to a fundamental change in nuclear deterrence, and especially in the way we viewed stability. Stability, in nuclear deterrence, is as fundamental as the likelihood of a nuclear attack being initiated. The less the incentive to initiate a first strike, the more stable the deterrence.

At the outset of the cold war, and for three decades thereafter, the condition known as MAD, or mutual assured destruction, resulted in a rather stable form of deterrence, referred to as counter-value deterrence. However, with the introduction of precision-guided, multiple warhead missiles in the mid-1970's, another form of deterrence emerged, known as counter-force deterrence.

In the former, high-value targets such as cities would bear the brunt of a nuclear attack; in the latter version, missiles targeted missiles. Superficially, one might view this as progress. But this newer form of counter-force deterrence was less stable in that there was, conceivably, more rationale for preemption. And by the late 1970's, it became obvious that the Soviet Union was exploiting this potential instability with a nuclear force structure designed for preemption.

Today all this sounds pretty arcane, or perhaps irrelevant, to most of you. But history will reveal that the cold war was a time of enormous hazard, and one that challenged the comprehension of a democratic society. No one has described this dilemma better than Freeman Dyson, one of the truly great mathematical physicists of our time, in his book Weapons and Hope. He describes two kinds of citizens, soldiers and civilians, and he describes how differently they will, inevitably, view the conditions for peace. Totalitarian systems are led by soldiers, while democracies are led by civilians.

In 1981, and as result of a massive Soviet buildup of offensive-capable nuclear capability, the US responded with the Reagan administration's strategic modernization program. In parallel, it undertook a dramatic new approach to arms control, one that focused upon reducing the specific kinds of missiles that were most destabilizing, the Soviet SS-18s.

In the now-famous speech he delivered on March 23, 1983, President Reagan took a bold step to both challenge the Soviets further, and to launch us on a path to eventually reduce our reliance upon nuclear weapons. He began what became the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI-Star Wars by its critics. He called upon the scientific community, who had given us nuclear weapons, to now give us the technical means to make them obsolete.

He viewed our continued reliance upon nuclear weapons, as a long-term basis for our defense, as flawed. He viewed a strategy of deterrence that placed civilians at risk, indistinguishably from soldiers, as morally flawed, founded on principles that were inconsistent with our heritage. He could never take seriously Robert McNamara's often quoted clich that "deterrence is a condition, not a strategy." What he learned from the many issues that confronted him in strategic modernization, especially the conditions for stability, convinced him that deterrence had become too fragile to endure.

While the SDI was effective in restoring counter-force deterrence to its more stable alternative, counter-value deterrence, the basic problem remains: that morally, nuclear deterrence is a wrong basis for security and, practically, it fails to draw upon the strengths of a democracy.

Paul Nitze has stated recently that the very successful role that nuclear deterrence has played for half a century is simply finished. He argues that he cannot conceive of any circumstance in which the use of nuclear weapons can serve our national interests. And he is right.

Look for a moment at some of the other realities. One is that deterrence is based upon a more than half-century old technology, at the top of its S-curve, where we have made only marginal improvements in the last 30 years. Third-world economies, from Pakistan to India and especially China, are catching up. The adjuncts of deterrence, arms modernization on the right and arms control on the left, can no longer prove effective in preventing the use of nuclear weapons. In fact, in the light of recent nuclear sword-rattling by India and Pakistan, and in spite of non-proliferation efforts, the use of nuclear weapons is more probable now than at any time since World War II.

Moreover, we seem to have a defense policy that assumes that, perhaps 20-50 years from now, China will have a nuclear deterrent that will inevitably challenge our own. Reminiscent of a deer in one's headlights, one can only wonder why steps aren't taken to avoid such a predictable circumstance. Similarly, we seem to assume today that a defeated Soviet Union, no longer even in existence and with the residue of its military machine in collapse and chaos, should serve as the validating basis for arms control treaties that precede modern China, the end of the cold war and even the PC.

What could, today, meet the objective Ronald Reagan had in embarking on a path to reduce reliance upon nuclear weapons? What can affect the likelihood that nuclear weapons may be used in Kashmir, or by terrorists against us? What can replace nuclear weapons in the force structure that will ensure our security in the new digital age that we have embarked upon?

I suggest that our next-generation defense will depend upon two primary technologies. One can be extrapolated from current experience and is the kind of continuous, global surveillance that can be achieved with a distributed satellite network. The other, more embryonic, is the technology of short-pulse, high-power lasers that can replace today's speed-of-sound armaments with speed-of-light equivalents. The destructive mechanism here is impulse, rather than thermal, and the effect is both extraordinarily effective and difficult to counteract.

Combined with the precision targeting and overall intelligence capabilities of a distributed surveillance system, a radically new and effective military capability can result. With the ability to respond and adapt to a wide variety of threats, with a highly-leveraged technology, one can begin to think realistically of a defense that goes beyond nuclear weapons.

Nearly 20 years ago, it was these same two technologies that justified a new look at ballistic missile defense. In spite of the passage of time, and with so much progress in other areas, only marginal attention has been paid to these two key areas of defense technology, especially with impulse lasers. But it is time to once again take an inventive approach to how we rebuild our decaying military.

George A. Keyworth is former presidential science advisor to Ronald Reagan, and chairman of the Progress and Freedom Foundation. Adapted from a talk given at the 2000 Industrial Physics Forum in San Diego last November.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette

February 2001 (Volume 10, Number 2)

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Council Approves Education Statement
New APS Prize Targets Under-30 Physicists
Members in the Media
This Month in Physics History
Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science
Internal and External Reviews Address Problems at Department of Energy
International Desk
APS Creates Email Alias System
The Back Page
Bridging the Gap Between Science and the Media
Ehlers to Reintroduce Controversial Science Education Bill
TIMSS Report Provides International Comparisons in 8th Grade Science and Math
Fall DNP Meeting Features Third Annual Outreach Program for Undergrads
Taking Physics onto the Putting Green
How Much are Those Old Phys Revs Worth, Anyway?
APS Reps Attend Third World Congress of Physical Societies