The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare

Image of The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare
Release Date: 
April 21, 2020
Hachette Books
Reviewed by: 

“disturbing and more than a little alarming . . .”

As American foreign and defense policy gradually deemphasizes the 20-year focus on the Middle East and Central Asia, a renewed debate centers on the return of “great power competition.” What this term exactly means and its downstream implications for future national security strategy will likely be the most important debate for America’s foreign and security policy since the end of the Cold War.

In this timely new book, Christian Brose, the former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee, raises the alarm that not only is America’s assumed military superiority becoming a thing of the past, but there is the very real possibility that future conflicts could be won by our advisories before America and its allies can even react.

His argument is composed of three main themes, all of which are well supported by an impressive collection of endnotes. First, the US military has long had a focus on high-tech, manned platforms that are expensive to build, expensive to maintain, and often not able to work together as a team to create the “kill chain” he defines as the events that allow observation, decision, and action faster than an adversary.

Second, the reason they do not work together well is the inability of most US military systems to truly network together to share large quantities of information in real time. Finally, even with the large amounts of information generated by weapons and sensors, too much of that information is unused because of the need for large numbers of military personnel to manually find, collate, and interpret that information.

Brose develops these themes looking through the lens of a rising and increasingly belligerent China as America’s main adversary of the 21st century.  While so much of the media and political focus has been on Russia, he makes the terse point that although Russia has great power aspirations and has certainly reemerged as an international power broker, only China actually has the economic and technical potential to create a military force able to challenge American influence globally, and particularly in East Asia.

After highlighting the current situation and discussing the disturbing trends he foresees, Brose then transitions to the equally important back story, as it were, of the American “industrial-military-political” complex, offering some telling stories of how innovative new weapons and concepts that could greatly assist the U.S. in closing an increasing capability gap with new Chinese weapons systems have been stymied because they are not large expensive systems built across multiple congressional districts nor do they fit into the current military service culture. This is especially true in the resistance toward smaller, cheaper unmanned combat aircraft by the pilot dominated military aviation communities. Using his experience as a senior Senate staff member, he offers some unique insights into the bureaucratic and cultural minefields that any significant change to military policy or procurement must navigate.

Finally, Brose offers some seemingly obvious but important insights.  First, the U.S. military has maintained a strategic mindset of the offensive as it has spent the last 20 years seeking and destroying terrorist and insurgent threats. However, in the new paradigm of great power competition, the U.S. should strongly consider the benefits of a strategic defensive mindset, seeking to prevent our adversaries from achieving their military goals in a future conflict as a measure of military and strategic success.

Building on this point, he makes a strong argument that the U.S. will likely not have the freedom to maneuver and buildup military forces in the event of a conflict but will have to defend our interests and allies with forces already in theater when a conflict begins. This is historically familiar territory for the U.S. military as nearly all Cold War military plans were created to stop a massive Soviet invasion of Western Europe, with the U.S. and its allies always on the defensive at the start of a conflict.

Finally, his most important, and controversial insight, is that for the U.S. military to remain able to fight and win wars, an unprecedented cultural change must occur within the entire U.S. defense establishment to accept the need for the  integration of autonomous unmanned systems, artificial intelligence, and a true interconnected network of military systems. More importantly, these unmanned systems must become low cost and expendable as the return of attritional warfare between unmanned systems is likely to be the future of warfare.

Disturbing and more than a little alarming, this book should be an important part of the ongoing discussion of where the U.S. military should be focusing its strategic and procurement attention in the post 9/11 global security environment and is an important wakeup call that the weapons and strategies to hunt down terrorist networks will not be sufficient against modern supersonic weapons, sophisticated electronic warfare systems, and intelligently networked unmanned combat vehicles.