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Opinion | The U.S. Military: Like the French at Agincourt?

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The problem is that they no longer do. On the one hand, we are burning through billions of dollars by deploying state-of-the-art resources against technologically primitive enemies in the Middle East and Africa. Why? Because, for example, an Air Force obsessed with acquiring fifth-generation stealth fighters still can’t bring itself to purchase a squadron of cheap turboprop planes to patrol, say, the skies of northern Iraq.

On the other hand, we are burning through trillions in order to build a relatively small number of ultra-sophisticated platforms that are increasingly vulnerable to detection and destruction by near-peer adversaries like China and Russia. “Put simply,” Brose writes, “U.S. rivals are fielding large quantities of multimillion-dollar weapons to destroy the United States’ multibillion-dollar military systems.”

That’s a recipe for strategic failure on budgetary grounds alone. The coming of technologies like hypersonic propulsion, space-based weapons and quantum sensors (able to detect minute disruptions of air or water) makes it a recipe for rapid military defeat as well — at least if nothing changes.

The answer, Brose argues, is to radically increase the numbers of military platforms, lower their costs, and — within ethical limits — enhance their autonomy. This puts fewer war fighters in harm’s way, creates more (and more difficult) targets for an enemy to track, and makes the loss of any one of them far easier to bear. Right now the Navy is straining to reach a target of 355 ships. It should be aiming for a significantly higher number, much of it unmanned.

So what stops it? The answer is what Brose’s old boss, the late John McCain, called the military-industrial-congressional complex.

“Military pilots and ship drivers are no more eager to lose their jobs to intelligent machines than factory workers are,” Brose writes. “Defense companies that make billions selling traditional systems are as welcoming of disruptions to their business model as the taxi cab industry has been of Uber and Lyft. And as all this resistance inevitably translates into disgruntled constituents, members of Congress will have enormous incentives to stymie change.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. A Pentagon with a visionary and independent leader, a Congress ruled by a non-parochial and bipartisan spirit, and a serious president capable of long-term thinking could change the way America prepares for the next war — to prevent it if possible, to win it if necessary.

For that, we’ll have to wait for a future administration. In the meantime, the risk of being on the losing side of our own Agincourt grows.

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