Book review: The Kill Chain: How Emerging Technologies Threaten America’s Military Dominance

I picked up this book after reading about it briefly on one of the news outlets. At first, I had a suspicion that it was a partisan book as everything was politicized nowadays in the US, but I still decided to give it a try. I am sure glad I did. The book was written by a senior advisor to John McCain, the former GOP chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The author’s tone and viewpoint throughout the book, in my opinion, were fair and made sense. He talked briefly about what he considered mistakes by both President Obama and Trump, in their failure to modernize the military and foreign relations policies. He tackled several aspects of the changing landscape that makes the US’s once insurmountable dominance on the verge of being completely eliminated, especially by China. He painstakingly explained why Russia and particularly China would present a peer and a threat that the US has never had before.

He used his insider knowledge and experience working under McCain to explain why even though the US spends billions of dollars a year on military and defense, it’s more about “how you spend money” than “how much money you spend”. A great deal of money is wasted every year by the bureaucracy, the corruption and the self-serving parties involved in the national defense business. While new technologies are already here, the US still plows an incredible amount of money into equipment, technologies and processes that belong to the past. Overall, this book is a wake-up call on how the US’s military is being left behind by arch rivals. It’s an informative read by someone who knew what he was talking about.

Threat from Russia and China with their technological advances

“As it stood, the Chinese Communist Party knew far more about the US military and its vulnerabilities than the American people and their elected representatives did.”

Excerpt From: Christian Brose. “The Kill Chain.” Apple Books.

“That assessment was echoed by a bipartisan commission of military experts that McCain had established through legislation that year to provide an independent examination of US defense strategy. They rendered their judgment to Congress shortly after McCain’s death in 2018. “America’s military superiority… has eroded to a dangerous degree,” they wrote. “The U.S. military could suffer unacceptably high casualties and loss of major capital assets in its next conflict. It might struggle to win, or perhaps lose, a war against China or Russia.”

Excerpt From: Christian Brose. “The Kill Chain.” Apple Books.

“One story from a Ukrainian officer stuck with me. His fellow commander was known to the Little Green Men as a highly effective fighter. One day during the conflict, the man’s mother received a call from someone claiming to be the Ukrainian authorities, who informed her that her son had been badly wounded in action in eastern Ukraine. She immediately did what any mother would do: she called her son’s mobile phone. Little did she know that the call she had received was from Russian operatives who had gotten a hold of her son’s cell phone number but knew that he rarely used the phone for operational security reasons. This Ukrainian commander, being a good son, quickly called his mother back, which enabled the Little Green Men to geolocate his position. Seconds later, while still on the phone, he was killed in a barrage of precision rocket artillery.”

Excerpt From: Christian Brose. “The Kill Chain.” Apple Books.

“Cyberattacks would grind down the logistical movement of US forces into combat. The defenseless cargo ships and aircraft that would ferry much of that force across the Pacific would be attacked every step of the way. Satellites on which US forces depend for intelligence, communications, and global positioning would be blinded by lasers, shut down by high-energy jammers, or shot out of orbit altogether by antisatellite missiles. The command and control networks that manage the flow of critical information to US forces in combat would be broken apart and shattered by electronic attacks, cyberattacks, and missiles. Many US forces would be rendered deaf, dumb, and blind.”

Excerpt From: Christian Brose. “The Kill Chain.” Apple Books.

How outdated US’s military is

“And yet, when members of our military put on their uniforms and report for duty, hardly any of this technology is available to them. Instead, they consistently have to do dangerous and important jobs with technology that might be many years behind what they use in their daily lives. This was reinforced again for me at a major Air Force conference last year, where I spoke on a panel about how new technology could help build better networks of military systems. An airman in the audience asked the panel how this would be possible when most servicemembers currently deal regularly with long network outages that leave them disconnected from email and the internet. Nearly everyone in the audience, more than one thousand people, erupted in applause.

Excerpt From: Christian Brose. “The Kill Chain.” Apple Books.

“It is a story of how the worlds of national defense and high technology in America increasingly grew apart. At a deeper level, it is also a story of how the United States was spoiled by its own dominance—a cautionary tale of how a prolonged period without real geopolitical competition bred a false sense of invincibility. In short, it is a story of how the United States got ambushed by the future.”

Excerpt From: Christian Brose. “The Kill Chain.” Apple Books.

“The bigger issue is that most of these allegedly information age military systems struggle to share information and communicate directly with one another to a degree that would shock most Americans. For example, the F-22 and F-35A fighter jets cannot directly share basic airborne positioning and targeting data despite the fact that they are both Air Force programs and built by the same company. They were architected with different means of processing and transmitting information that are not compatible. It is as if one speaks Greek, and the other speaks Latin.”

Excerpt From: Christian Brose. “The Kill Chain.” Apple Books.

“Unlike some leading American technology companies, Nvidia is open to doing business with the Department of Defense. I asked how many of its graphics processing units were operating on fielded US military systems. I was not surprised by the answer: none.

As the answer suggests, most US military systems are many years behind the state-of-the-art technology that commercial companies such as Nvidia are developing. The most capable computer onboard a US military system is the core processor in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which has earned it the nickname “the flying supercomputer.” The processor can perform 400 billion operations per second.1 By comparison, the Nvidia DRIVE AGX Pegasus can conduct 320 trillion operations per second right onboard a commercial car or truck.2 That is eight hundred times more processing power.”

Excerpt From: Christian Brose. “The Kill Chain.” Apple Books.

“The information that most US military machines collect is not actually processed onboard the machine itself. It is either stored on the system and then processed hours or even days later when the machine returns from its mission. Or it is streamed back to an operations center in real time, terabyte by terabyte, which places a huge burden on military communications networks. Either way, it is the job of humans, not machines, to comb through most of that data and find the relevant bits of information. In 2020, that is the full-time job of literally tens of thousands of members of the US military. When they are off-duty, they may use Nvidia’s technology to play video games or even assist them on their drive home. But in uniform, they are essentially doing the same jobs that their grandparents did in World War II.”

Excerpt From: Christian Brose. “The Kill Chain.” Apple Books.

“A friend of mine who recently did targeting in the US military told me that the best way his unit could get on one page in identifying a target was with Google Maps. They had to gather up all of their different streams of information about the target from their assorted sensor platforms, come to a time-consuming decision on where the target actually was located, and literally drop a pin in Google Maps to direct their shooters where on earth to fire their weapons. This was around the time that the Google employees wrote their open letter to their leadership demanding that the company cut ties with the Department of Defense lest their technology contribute to lethal military operations. “If those folks only knew how many bombs the US military has dropped using Google Maps,” my friend told me, “their heads would explode.”

Excerpt From: Christian Brose. “The Kill Chain.” Apple Books.

How a great deal of money is wasted every year on military spending and how much bureaucracy there is in Washington

“Over the past two decades, during the peaks of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, multiple new weapons programs were started and ultimately canceled with nothing to show for them. The Center for Strategic and International Studies stopped counting the different programs at eighteen, acknowledging that the real number is far higher. All told, the Pentagon and Congress spent more than $59 billion on these programs during the 2000s and got no usable capability by the time the programs were canceled.”

Excerpt From: Christian Brose. “The Kill Chain.” Apple Books.

Many companies resented making these changes, which they felt forced into. But change they did, and they often used their influence in Washington’s byzantine acquisition system to their own advantage: They underbid on contracts to develop technology and then overran on the actual costs and time to produce it. They promised things they could not deliver. And they used their political clout in the Pentagon and Congress to make it harder for new companies and new technologies to displace their programs of record. Put simply, the US government created incentives for defense companies to do the wrong things, and that is often what happened.”

Excerpt From: Christian Brose. “The Kill Chain.” Apple Books.

“That simply does not happen with US military systems, where hardware has always been king and software largely an afterthought. For most military systems, the schedule for hardware updates determines the schedule for software updates. After all, most of the companies building these systems are hardware companies, not software companies. This has created multiyear software development cycles that are doomed to failure. Think of how well your mobile device would work if its software and apps were updated only every several years. That’s how it is for military systems. I cannot tell you the number of defense programs I came across during my time in the Senate—on which the US government had spent billions of dollars over many years—that were failing for the simple reason that their builders were not proficient in how to develop suitable, scalable, adaptable, and constantly improving software. And the result, time and time again, is that members of the US military are handed equipment whose functionality is inferior to what they use in their everyday lives.”

Excerpt From: Christian Brose. “The Kill Chain.” Apple Books.

“A good example of how defense acquisition can go wrong is the Army’s attempt to buy a new pistol a few years ago. It issued a request for proposals that ran over 350 pages of cumbersome details and envisioned years of costly development and testing before soldiers would ever get a new sidearm. Even Army leaders were surprised. They learned about it when McCain and I told them, and then they were as outraged as we were. “We’re not figuring out the next lunar landing,” said an outraged General Mark Milley at the time, when he was chief of staff of the Army. “This is a pistol. Two years to test? At $17 million?” he vented. “You give me $17 million on a credit card, and I’ll call Cabela’s tonight, and I’ll outfit every soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine with a pistol for $17 million. And I’ll get a discount on a bulk buy.”

Excerpt From: Christian Brose. “The Kill Chain.” Apple Books.

“Even basic tasks that used to be routine bodily functions in Congress, such as passing a federal budget, have become nearly impossible. Indeed, over the past ten years, Congress has managed only once to pass spending legislation for the Department of Defense by the start of the fiscal year. When Congress fails to do its job in this way, it passes a “continuing resolution,” which requires the military to spend money on only the things it spent money on the prior year. Not only does this waste billions of dollars in misallocated resources, it literally locks the military into the past and prevents it from implementing its plans for the future. This is how the Department of Defense has spent nearly one thousand days of the past decade. The US military now plans to start each fiscal year without an appropriation of funding. Pentagon planners painstakingly negotiate contracts and structure programs to avoid critical payments in the first quarter of each fiscal year so they do not end up in breach of contract when they inevitably get stuck on a continuing resolution. Even then, problems arise. When Congress failed to pass a budget for six months at the start of the fiscal year, for example, the Navy had to renegotiate roughly ten thousand contracts, which senior Navy leaders estimated cost them roughly $5.8 billion in wasted buying power. That could have bought three destroyers.”

Excerpt From: Christian Brose. “The Kill Chain.” Apple Books.

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