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20200816 – The Kill Chain



The main idea of this book is to use author’s experience as military adviser to late senator McCain to bring to light issues that in author’s opinion put future American security in jeopardy due to continuing support of outdated systems and failure to develop and stand up new systems mainly because of political and bureaucratic processes in which people are more concerned with well-being of their constituencies that US military power. This situation was developed over decades after fall of USSR when USA had no military peer and was absolutely dominant everywhere in the world. Now rise of China and somewhat revival of Russian military made these attitudes not sustainable and USA had to change or it will fall behind.


Author starts by presenting his credentials as close adviser to senator McCain and notes how much McCain was disturbed by military growth of China and its emerging ability to win conventional war against USA. Then author explains notion of kill chain and states that America needs in order to avoid defeat: ”It requires a sweeping redesign of the American military: from a military built around small numbers of large, expensive, exquisite, heavily manned, and hard-to-replace platforms to a military built around large numbers of smaller, lower-cost, expendable, and highly autonomous machines. Put simply, it should be a military defined less by the strength and quantities of its platforms than by the efficacy, speed, flexibility, adaptability, and overall dynamism of its kill chains”.

1. What Happened to Yoda’s Revolution
In this chapter author refer to former director of Office of Net Assessment Andrew Marshall, nicknamed Yoda, who argued that technological revolution makes existing American military based on large expensive platforms outdated and vulnerable. Yoda proposed massive change in approach to the new equipment, but he was not successful and was defeated by two forces – political preference for massive platform and war on terror that completely distracted military away from preparing to fight peers, not low grate rebels and terrorists.

2. Little Green Men and Assassin’s Mace
In this chapter author discusses wakeup call that occurred on February 27, 2014 when Russian military invaded Ukraine demonstrating the great improvement in its equipment, training, and tactical ability. American military leaders were impressed and realized that the new Russian military could be a difficult adversary and that American technological superiority was greatly diminished. Similar discovery occurred with another much more powerful adversary – China, which developed a number of effective weapons designated as Assassin Mace that would provide for ability successfully win regional war against USA.  Author briefly describes these weapons and stresses that they based on the latest achievements of information technology.

3. A Tale of Two Cities
Author starts this chapter with reference to American development of intercontinental missiles and politico-bureaucratic straggle around it with air force leadership resisting. The result was successful implementation of the newest technology. Author admires what happened then, but express fear that now it is different America that is not capable for such feats of ingenuity and industry. Current leadership both political and military cares more about getting more dollars for their constituency and themselves producing expensive, but not effective systems that could fail against Russian and Chinese forces.

4. Information Revolution 2.0
In this chapter author discusses Information revolution that occurred in private sector and produced very powerful technology that could be used in military. However contemporary military procurement system and interplay of multitude of special interests made it all but impossible, so military technology is a lot less powerful than regular civil technology available over the counter. Author also describes attitude changes that make it difficult for Silicon Value companies cooperate with American military.

5. Something Worse Than Change  
Here author starts with claim that the problem of loosing technological superiority did not occur because people’s failure or technological deficiencies, but rather because of incorrect strategic approach of investing in large, expensive, and eventually vulnerable platforms rather then in multitude of smaller and less expensive platforms that would be difficult to trace and destroy. Author correctly notes that it is just about impossible to keep military effectively upgraded because only actual war would demonstrate what works and what not. However, author provide examples such as Assault Breaker that were developed during Cold War and eventually proved to be effective. Author suggests that it should be done now again and stresses how important it is:” The stakes of this emerging strategic competition with the Chinese Communist Party are nothing less than what kind of future world we want to live in. This competition will require the full mobilization of our society, our economy, our diplomacy, our values, and our allies who share them. But the foundation for all of this is America’s hard power, because the only way to ensure that this competition stays peaceful is by clearly being capable of defending what is most precious to us if the Chinese Communist Party—or anyone else, for that matter—chooses to confront us through aggression or violence. And that is what most concerns me: The entire basis by which the US military understands events, makes decisions, and takes actions—how it closes the kill chain—will not withstand the future of warfare. It is too linear and inflexible, too manual and slow, too brittle and unresponsive to dynamic threats, and too incapable of scaling to confront multiple dilemmas at once. That is why there is a growing concern within our defense establishment that America could lose a future war against a great power such as China. This, to me, is something worse than change. Most Americans have lived blissfully free from the many kinds of privation, injustice, aggression, and depredation that countries through history have suffered at the hands of more powerful rivals that realized they could prevail in war if push came to shove. I have no desire to see how dangerous the future could become for Americans if we lose the ability to deter conventional war against the Chinese Communist Party or any other competitor. This situation should compel us to build different kinds of military forces that can defend Americans and our core interests in the absence of military dominance. This is possible, but it requires us to reimagine the kill chain and compete more urgently in the new strategic race over emerging technologies that is now under way.”

6. A Different Kind of Arms Race
This chapter is about new types of weapons – specifically AI controlled autonomous drones. The author’s concern is that while Western military are restricted by ethical norms, their adversaries Chinese and Russians have no moral or ethical restrictions whatsoever. Author discusses in some details shift information warfare and advances made by China. At the end of chapter author suggest that the new arms race is not possible for USA to win and the best one can hope is achievement of some sort of parity.

7. Human Command Machine Control
Author starts this chapter with discussion of aerial bombing and then moves to ethics of killing and possibility of decision-making transfer to AI. He states that in near future the only feasible use is for narrow AI and analyses how the decision breakdown between human and AI could work out in the future.  

8. A Military Internet of Things
This is mainly about drones and how they would interact with each other with minimal if any human intervention via battlefield network – Internet of things. Author especially concerned that current version of it is slow, not very reliable and overall is behind of commercial development.

9. Move Shoot Communicate
Author starts this chapter with the story of Jan Bloch – the railroad magnate of early XX century who without any military experience was able to predict correctly nature of future wars. Then author discusses each component and notes that with current saturation of the world with sensors and communications both military and civilian it is nearly impossible to hide movement of big assets. Similarly, the second part also demonstrate vulnerability of such assets because they could be more readily attacked by swarm of small and relatively cheap weapons of high lethality. The same applies to communication – it is easier to find and suppress communications of big valuable target such as air career than multitude of cheap self-controlling distributed in space.

10. Defense Without Dominance
This chapter is about American loss of military dominance, which is per author reality that has to be accepted. The consequence should be change in assumptions and the new strategy: “a strategy of defense without dominance.”. Author proposes a number of various measures, but the main change is strategic objectives: instead of traditional American search for dominance the objective should be prevention of China dominance: “The United States is headed into a future that will be as unsettling as it is unfamiliar, but we do not need to fear it. We can still manage to defend the people, places, and things we care about most. Even amid the erosion of our military dominance, America can avoid a future in which a peer competitor is able to consolidate its own position of military dominance. Achieving this more limited, defensive goal requires a wide-ranging reimagination of America’s defense strategy, which is possible, but not optional. The main question is not whether the US military should change but whether we can change—and change fast enough.”

11. Bureaucracy Does Its Thing
This chapter is about workings of American military and political system with its huge bureaucracy, special interests, and stakeholders all of which makes system highly conservative, keeping investment flowing into outdated technologies that have political support and starving emerging technologies with no established special interests supporting them. Author provides a nice example for selection of the new pistol for Army, which took many years and millions of dollars to decide.

12. How the Future Can Win
Here author discusses how to overcome bureaucratic resistance and provides an example of change in old JSTARS being successfully retired despite multiple constituencies fighting against it. The key to success per author was a very sophisticated political plan of developing new constituency for the change inside existing system. At the end author expresses his optimism:” National defense will always be fundamentally different from everything else we do in the civilian and commercial worlds. But does it have to be this different? Do the men and women of America’s military really have to struggle this hard to do their jobs and get faster access to better technologies, many of which they use in their daily lives? Can’t things be better?

Yes, things can be better. There is no structural or cultural reason why not. We have the money, the technological base, and the human talent. And our leaders have all of the flexibility and authorities they need, both in law and policy, to carry off the transition from the military we have to the military we need. As I have said, it ultimately comes down to incentives. If we want different and better outcomes, we have to create different and better incentives to get them. This is hardly beyond our reach. It involves doing a lot more of the commonsense things that many within our defense establishment struggle to do every day: define problems correctly and clearly, compete over the best solutions, pick winners, and spend real money on what is most important and can make our military most effective.”

In conclusion author once again expresses his loyalty to McCain and believe in his greatness and ability to direct things to correct objectives. The final thought is that even without McCain not everything lost.


I think that author pretty much correct about both of his main statements: deadly bureaucracy and need to change from building military around few high value assets to expanding multitude of much cheaper assets that would make swarm attacks practically impossible and allow rapid expansion if and when needed, especially if they are based on AI, Internet of things, new materials, and designed consequently remove requirement to have massive human involvement. I am more optimistic than author, probably because I believe that massive changes are coming that will completely reshuffle existing politico-bureaucratic structures in all areas, making military change just one of many changes, albeit with extremely high price of failure, that I hope would never happen.

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