by Austin Bay
November 17, 2020
To adapt former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's famous 2002 press statement, the world's next big shooting war will be a consequential event masked by known unknowns.
The human historical record tells us a major armed (kinetic) conflict involving powerful nations will eventually erupt. Given contemporary economic interdependence and the lethality of modern weaponry, the conflict will have disruptive global consequences, many of them grim.
However, what geopolitical issues shape and misshape The Next Big War; who wages the hostility and for what reasons; how the combatants prepare to wage it; where and how the combatants engage; and how the struggle ends are known to be determinative questions. Their now-unknown answers are what Rumsfeld would say we know we do not know.
So, government national security policies worldwide -- great powers and small powers -- must rely on speculations and guesses, some guesswork more thoughtful than others, but even the most astute surmises uncertain.
For the record, Rumsfeld's "known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns" statement referenced classic questions sensible planners at any level, time and place must consider. The SecDef was acknowledging that uncertainty meant accepting risk, for either action or inaction. His quip wasn't a word game; it was deep background for a war game or business plan.
Now confront this known known: Governments worldwide are spending or budgeting trillions of dollars with guesswork for guidance, and the U.S. congressional budgeteers lead the way.
Which is why I found a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, or the CRS, particularly interesting. The report, titled "Emerging Military Technologies: Background and Issues for Congress," examines six different weapons-technology categories, with a specific focus on the U.S., China and Russia.
Is that country list speculative or predictive? Be honest, dear readers: Did you think my first three paragraphs set up a U.S.-communist China war?
The three nations the CRS chose are major military powers that possess the technological capacities to design, develop and produce advanced weapons systems. They also have military and security organizations capable of testing them, capable of training to use them (with YouTube video to astound viewers) and just maybe perhaps capable of successfully employing the weapons in The Next Big War.
Note the "maybe perhaps." Whether new weapons can be tactical, operational or strategic successes in any war is a Known Unknown, until the so-called after-action reports are analyzed without political interference. But YouTube videos have information-warfare utility -- maybe.
Here are the six weapons categories the CRS examined: artificial Intelligence (AI); lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS); hypersonic weapons; directed-energy (DE) weapons (think Buck Rogers death rays); biotechnology (COVID-19/the Wuhan virus may not be a bio weapon, but it is an indicator of a pandemic's disruptive effects); and quantum technology (beyond Buck Rogers and Einstein -- a topic for a future column).
Are these truly the weapon categories that determine the outcome of The Next Big War? Or perhaps this non-kinetic alternative: An AI (cyber war), biotech (super COVID-19), quantum-tech-threat cocktail concocted by Great Emperor Xi Jinping and his Great Power Communist China scares the world into kowtowing appeasement.
Hitler demanded Czechoslovakia. Xi Jinping demands Taiwan. Does Xi's power cocktail guarantee a win without explosions? Answer: known unknown. But Taiwan gets a say, so don't bet on it. My bet: If Xi tries this, there will be no peace in our time.
Reports like this one mix science and military planning with science fiction and speculative war-gaming. Scenarios in war games range from "is occurring right now" to "high on technology warrior wish lists."
Some weapons mentioned are wishes. However, hypersonic missiles are already in advanced development by America, Russia and China. They have speeds exceeding five times the speed of sound. The CRS notes hypersonic weapons "can maneuver en route to their destination, making defense against them difficult." This is a known.
The CRS report ends with a bureaucratese postscript. Congress "may be challenged in its ability to independently evaluate and assess complex, disparate technical disciplines." No kidding. Consequential decisions, however, must be made. The national security risks the decisions entail, known and unknown, must be but acknowledged.