CNAS’ Work on China’s Strategy to Offset US Military Advantages

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Bob Work, former deputy defense secretary who is now defense counselor at the Center for a New American Security, discusses China’s three-pronged strategy to offset US military advantages that includes espionage to shrink the time needed to develop new systems, employing a “system-destruction” approach to warfare, and attacking first to overwhelm defenses, Beijing’s capabilities and ways Washington can respond during a wide-ranging, June 22, 2018, interview with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian in Washington. The interview was conducted on the sidelines of CNAS’ annual conference, this year titled, “Strategic Competition: Maintaining the Edge.”

Read a full transcript of the interview below:

Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense & Aerospace Report, I’m Vago Muradian here in Washington D.C., where we’re covering the Center for a New American Security’s annual conference, this year titled “Strategic Competition: Maintaining the Edge,” and we’ve got somebody with us who has been working on maintaining that strategic edge, former [US] Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work, who is a senior counselor at CNAS. You formerly led the organization before you went back to become Deputy Defense Secretary during the Obama administration. 

Sir, you’ve focused on this issue for a long time on strategic competition with the Chinese going back, you know, [a] decade or more, decades I could say. You gave a very thought-provoking presentation that was a reprise of some of the messages you were delivering when you were the deputy. 

What’s changed, what’s the nuanced message you are delivering now and what’s the hope, you know, what was the target audience you were trying to get to with the message?

Bob Work: Well first of all, it’s great to be here Vago. 

Look, what I generally talk about under the 3rd Offset Strategy was a look at the anti-access area denial [or A2AD] networks. We are power projection power, they provide us, I mean, a lot of different challenges, and so we need to start thinking about offsetting Chinese capabilities. But the presentation I gave today kind of flipped the script. I said, “look, what if the Chinese our offsetting us?”

And I tried to make the case, as I see all of the Chinese investments, and all of the doctrinal things that they’re doing and all of the new units that they’re standing up, what happens if we are being the victim of a deliberate offset program by the Chinese? And my conclusion is there is a coherent offset strategy. You can kind of see it. The Chinese don’t refer to it that way, but you can certainly see in their investments, and how they train and the capabilities that they are fielding, and so I wanted to flip it around and say, “maybe I was wrong by saying, ‘hey, we need to think about a third offset,’” because, as I made the case today, it kind of leaves the impression that we have the kind of time to up this offset and that we can be ahead of the game, and what I wanted to say was, “what happened if our technological advantage is shrinking, shrinking, shrinking, shrinking, and what happens if we’re being offset?” 

Maybe we should be more alarmist about what we’re doing. I was trying to think of a way to do it so, just, the old political adage, “run like you’re losing.” That’s the way I think we have to do this. I don’t think we are behind — yet. We’re behind in  certain areas, but the trend lines are not good. And I think the chairman of the joint chiefs [of staff], I think the vice chairman of the joint chiefs, I think [Defense] Secretary [James] Mattis has said, “look, we are concerned about the erosion of our military, technical superiority and what that might mean in the mid 20’s.”So really it was really more a call to, “hey, what happens if we’re looking at this differently? What happens if the offset strategy is well, well ahead of what we’re thinking and they’re closing on us faster than we are responding?” So that’s what I was trying to get to today.

Vago Muradian: It was a, I have to say, I thought it was a great briefing, having heard your past briefings and discussed this with you … over the years and, you know, it’s very much to this sense that senior leadership have, that it’s not a near-peer competitor, but China is actually a peer competitor in a lot of ways. Give us sort of, reprise for us the high notes of that presentation, because you covered it in a lot of detail and … with a lot of thought provocation that if you look and you start to dissect their strategy, it is a complete offset strategy to everything that we’ve been working on, as you put it, you know, sort of out-stiffing, outsticking us to really out-thinking us. 

Two-part question: are they a peer competitor in this, at this point, and should we stop using the term “near-peer?” And what are the things that …. should be most concerning to us about what it is the Chinese are doing?

Bob Work: Well, to answer your first question, I think the Chinese are …. approaching technological parity with the United States in guided munitions and battle network warfare — what the Chinese call “operation systems.” I think they’re very, very close to technological parity. 

I, and you say, ‘well, what does that mean?’ And I’ll say, ‘look to the first kind of battle in the western pacific with guided munitions.’ It was the Battle of Okinawa, 1945. The Japanese fired 2,800 guided missiles, kamikazes. Fourteen percent of them got through the best defense on the planet in terms of naval defenses — sank 34 ships and, you know, damaged another 368, and killed or wounded 10,000 sailors. And what the Chinese present to an American Navy coming into the Western Pacific is much, much, much more formidable. So just the mere fact that there are technological parities should give us all pause and cause us to say, “we need to think of new ways of operations.” 

Then, the Chinese believe very strongly that they want to operate from … a position of technological superiority, and the way they think they will do that is through a massive infusion of artificial intelligence, machine learning, autonomous vehicles, robotic vehicles [and] swarms. They think that they can actually bound over the United States. 

And so, what I’m trying to get across is, look, this is a technological challenge that we have never faced before. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union surprised us. They had very, very capable systems; the Alpha submarine, you know, 40 knots, 3,000 feet depth. They were always … bringing in systems. But their overall technological capability … was far behind ours. And that was the whole purpose of the 2nd Offset [Strategy]; we knew we could beat the Soviet Union in that. 

Well, this is a technological competitor that’s every bit as good as us. And the five points that I made, is one: it all starts with industrial and technological espionage. This is the most broad-based, state-sponsored program to steal secrets from the West, to try to level the technological playing field, and, as I mentioned, we just heard recently that they were able to get into a contractor, and spill a whole lot of data on unmanned underwater vehicles and other things, unmanned, I mean underwater capabilities — they are just going after it. And when you look at the way the Chinese develop systems, if they’re going to develop an airplane, it takes them as long to develop an airplane once they get the prototype, but what this industrial and technological espionage does is it shortens the development cycle, and that’s how they are catching up faster than otherwise would expect. [The] second thing is their theory of victory is very simple. They view “high technology warfare” — that’s their word — as a collision between two “operational systems” that’s the way they call it. We call them battle networks. 

Vago Muradian: But it’s a very Soviet mindset, right? The operational systems — 

Bob Work: — Right, it’s strike complex. So, the Soviets, the Chinese and the Americans call it differently. We call it a battle network. The Chinese call it an operation system. The Soviet Union called it reconnaissance strike complexes. 

But the whole theory of Chinese victory is what they call “system-destruction warfare.” They say, “look, I’m not really worried about sinking 30 ships or shooting down 500 airplanes. If I can break apart the US battle network, then I will win.” I mean, that is the theory of victory. And they call it system-destruction warfare, and I just mentioned all of the things that they’re doing. They think about it every day. 

In my view, we have to assume that every single link, every single communications program is compromised in some way. It’s either covered by an electronic warfare system, or there’s an implant or there’s something that’s going to knock this stuff down. Then the third part of their offset is [to] attack effectively first. That’s the first rule of guided munitions warfare, and they do it in a lot of different ways. First, system-destruction warfare — if I can knock down the battle network, I can look deep and I can shoot deep before you can. Then, they concentrate on concentrated strikes — they like to shoot many missiles at a target to overwhelm the defense. Third, they want to outstick the opponent. In other words, they have missiles and effects that are longer range than the Americans and — 

Vago Muradian: — By the way, that was a great chart you had, and if there was anyone in that room that was missing the message, there was no way they were missing the message by the end of that briefing.

Bob Work:  — and then they made the decision to go with ballistic missiles and as their primary affector, kinetic affector. And it just makes a lot of sense from their perspective. It’s cheaper to build a ballistic missile force than it is to build a high quality air force. It’s harder to shoot down a ballistic missile than it is an airplane or a cruise missile. You can marshal these forces and shoot a concentrated strike without all of the tankers getting in the air and the EW aircraft getting in the air — electronic warfare aircraft, you know — so you can do surprise strikes. They know we’re a signatory of the INF treaty, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which … limits us to a 499-kilometer, land-based missile. They’re not a signatory, so they can build missiles … with as great a range as they want. And in a range competition, where you’re always trying to outstick your opponent, it’s always easier to add range to a ballistic missile than it is to add range to a manned aircraft. It’s a lot tougher. So all of these things — and then they go after hypersonic weapons, which is an area, as you know, Mike Griffin says, “man, this is my highest priority. We don’t have a lot of defenses against these things.” So when you have the combination of system destruction warfare with attacking effectively first, operationally, you gain a huge advantage. Meanwhile, you’re trying to catch up technologically through your espionage program. 

Then the Chinese say, “well, look: I’m going to get the technological parity. I think we’re going to get there by 2020.” I think that’s what their judgment is. The reason why I say that is [Chinese] President Xi [Jinping] said you have to be able to take time on militarily by 2020, and I don’t think that he would give that order if he thought that they were technologically inferior. There’s just too much risk. 

Well, now they say AI — artificial intelligence — will allow us to bound over the Americans. Artificial intelligence is going to lead to a new military technical revolution, and the Americans were the first mover in guided munitions warfare, so they had this huge advantage that they rode for 20 years. We want to do the same thing in AI. We want to be the aggressive, fiercest mover and leave the United States in the dust. And they have a goal to try to lead the world in AI by 2030. 

And then the final aspect of this is, let’s see, so it’s industrial espionage — is their assassins’ mace capabilities. So just like us, the 2nd Offset Strategy was all about convention [sic] guided munitions and battle networks and stealth, that’s really not quite accurate. If you rewind the tape to the early 80s, we revealed to the Soviets, the conventional-guided munitions and the battle networks in a demonstration called “Assault Breaker.” We didn’t say anything about stealth. Now everyone was thinking about it, “oh, what’s happening over there.” But that was a capability that we wanted to protect because, on the first day of the war, it would give us a warfighting advantage. 

So offset strategies, there’s a term you say you reveal for deterrence and you conceal for warfighting effectiveness. The assassin’s mace capabilities are the Chinese words for their kind of black, super secret programs. And we have to be prepared to be totally surprised. 

Somebody asked me, “hey, what would be the worst thing that you can think of — what happens if the Chinese have an anti-torpedo defense that was 80 percent effective?” 

They know that we have underwater superiority, but if they could stop 80 percent of every torpedo that was shot at one of their ships, how would that turn out? Well, that would turn out very well; we wouldn’t like that. The reason why I think of that is because of the long-lanced torpedo, which was a Japanese torpedo with an extraordinarily long range in World War II, and [that] totally surprised the US Navy and it gave the US Navy fits for two years in the South Pacific.

Vago Muradian: And a gigantic warhead so that when it hit, it was a big problem.

Bob Work: Big problem. So you have all of these things, and, you know, when I look at these five things I say, “this looks like a very coherent strategy” — first, to compete from a level of technological inferiority, get to technological parity as soon as possible because that will make it more difficult for US power projection operations, and as soon as you can, get to technological superiority. And, so, my point this morning was men, what happens if we misread this risk? What happens if we broke from the gate and we thought we had a 32-length Secretariat-style lead and, meanwhile, you have these two horses that were letting you either just drafting off your lead and biding their time and they’re waiting, and they have momentum. And, so, I was just trying to say, “look, we have to think. We can’t take for granted that we’re way far ahead. We have to assume that we might be falling behind, and we have to get ahead of it.”

Vago Muradian: You’ve been looking at all of these problems, right, artificial intelligence is something you were talking about for a very, very long time. [former US Defense Secretary] Ash Carter started the Strategic Capabilities Office that has hatched a whole series of capabilities that are highly classified. I know that we reporters were a little bit critical of the last administration because you didn’t want to even discuss the B-21 or even B-21 contractors. Did we get enough of a good start, from your perspective, that this administration, you know, as somebody who was on the front row of this in the last administration … that has given this administration a head start in at least some of those counter capabilities? You know, to put it in another way, did the things that we started, are they sufficient to offset all of the advantages that you just enumerated?

Bob Work: Well again, … I don’t want to give anybody the impression that I think we’re so far behind that we’re in a bad situation. I’m saying the margin of our lead is shrinking, and the question now is, you’re asking, this is the way I interpreted your question, is who has the momentum? You know, in the last sixteenth of a mile, are the Chinese and the Russians pulling up with us, or are we starting to pull away from them? And I’d say it’s definitely shrinking, in my view. And a lot of the decisions that were made in the 2010 QDR [Quadrennial Defense Review] like the B-21, et cetera, there are a whole bunch of other capabilities that we can’t really talk about, but there was a lot of investment and classified capabilities, we started to put a lot of money into, you know, demonstrations, hypersonics, tactical boost glide, high-altitude weapons concepts. But when you look at it, it’s a $3 trillion —  this is the way I look at it. I say, in [20]16 and [20]17, we were able to get $20 billion shifted out of the program into these advanced capabilities that we thought would start to redress some of these trends. It sounds like a lot of money and it is a lot of money, but it’s a $3 trillion defense program. But is it enough? No, I don’t think so. So I was really happy to see, what was most heartening was the National Defense Strategy I think really captures the problem. We’re in a competition with great powers. They, one of them is extraordinarily technologically clever and hard. The other is more revisionist, a spoiler, really cause strategic problems. But in [20]18 and [20]19, you saw a big increase in RD which was good, so that’s, I was very, very happy about that. But you haven’t started to see any major changes in the program where you would say, “oh my gosh, now we are really changing the way we think about operational problems, and we’re having new units and we’re doing this” — haven’t seen that yet. Now, the department has … the 2020 program will reveal the masterpiece, that the 2020 program will reflect the National Defense Strategy in whole from top to bottom. So … I’m looking forward to seeing the 2020 program as I’m sure you are, and at that point I’ll say, “okay, I’m feeling pretty good now,” or I’ll say, “wow, we might have missed it.” So, the jury’s out. We’re all waiting for this.

Vago Muradian: You mentioned that there was that $20 billion shift, one of the programs that bore your specific hallmarks, that I know some of your co-conspirators on this one was the Sea Dragon program, that the [Washington] Post did write about. 

I don’t want to put you on the spot specifically on anything there, but ask you that that breach —  whether it was for underwater systems, that specific system in which a lot of money has been invested — if we can take the Washington Post reporter — terrific reporter who did that story — and that he’s been working on it for a while, so there was a lot of methodical work, and for folks who, you know, always like to criticize the news media, I think the Washington Post deserves credit for, by agreement, deciding there were certain things they weren’t going to publish regarding that story. 

But also, there was the compromising of electronic-warfare files, for example, the submarine force was going to use, which is that something integral to the enemy now having an understanding of what we understood about their systems, which is, in some ways, worse than the breach on the weapon itself. This came from a contractor that was involved in the program. The name of the contractor has not been disclosed, and senior Navy officials have said there is a comprehensive investigation underway to figure out what happened. 

What does this highlight, and what is the danger of this? How, what does the [Defense] Department and the nation need to do about this? Because this was part of our assassin’s mace capability that a lot of people thought very carefully on to complicate the problem for our adversary. How many more such breeches exist? I mean, is it possible the Chinese have greater visibility into some of our counter-capabilities, and what does that mean? How do we get our arms around this at this point?

Bob Work: Well, first of all, what I know about the breach, you know about it. I read about it in the Washington Post. So I don’t really know what was taken. I know it was undersea-warfare capabilities, and, so, it’s not appropriate for me to comment on it because I’d just be spitballing. But it’s just another indication of the Chinese state-sponsored industrial- and technical-espionage program. 

They’re after our stuff every day. They’re trying to find every vulnerability in our systems, and here’s what worries me the most: right now, most of the exfils have happened through vulnerabilities in our networks and where we stored data. We are extremely vulnerable in the DoD Internet of Things. 

The thing that was so, well, it was so alarming to me is there was a recent case in a casino where a hacker went in through the thermometer in the aquarium in the lobby of the casino, got into the system and exfiltrated … the high-roller database. Well, if you think of the attack surface with all of the DoD Internet of Things, you have to be thinking, “just how vulnerable are we?” And the Chinese are very clever competitors, and they’re looking for every single, you know, vulnerability that they can find. 

So, in my view, we have to assume that our battle networks, that all of our links, like Link 16 and all of our major communication pipelines, [that] the Chinese have a theory on how they’re going to attack each and every one of them if we ever got into a fight. 

They may not succeed, but … it might be covered by an electronic-warfare system, and might have a computer implant ready to trigger, it might have, you know, a deception operation, it might have an affector like the PL-17, which is this huge air-to-air missile with an enormous range — maybe 200 miles — and it’s designed to [Airborne Warning and Control System], our Airbourne Warning And Command and Control aircrafts, or our tankers. All of these things … are counter-space weapons. 

You know, they think about taking down our network every day. That is their theory of victory, and I just don’t think we take that threat seriously enough.

Vago Muradian: And, again, the last question, even though I’d love to talk to you for about another hour, I think there are other people who are going to be waiting, or are waiting for you. So, what are some of the basic steps we need to take, whether it’s tactical or doctrinal, every single military leader I’m talking to is talking about how we move off the grid, go back to mission command. That’s not new but, hey, let’s get the battle force out there and exercise as if it doesn’t have that degree of connectivity. You mentioned the Sunburn missile, good old-timey Soviet weapon that was designed to counter AEGIS, and the Chinese have refined it to a degree that makes it significantly better — the SSN-22 — 

Bob Work: — SSN-26.

Vago Muradian: — SSN-26, excuse me. Tell us, what do you think, what are the top three things we’ve got to start doing now and the big focus vectors to try to figure out, because the guy’s raised a lot of capabilities, stockpiled a lot of missiles. He has precision with masse at distance, which is very problematic. You talked about the network infiltrations and penetrations, now to the submarine force — a group that has tended to shield its capabilities very, very preciously, particularly signature files and things like that. The next question people ask is, “okay, are sound-pressure levels files also been compromised … in this breach, not just the electronic, but the sound-pressure files, or the acoustic signatures that we look for, for opposition submarines, for example.” You know, if you were doing this, what are the top focus priorities, be it strategic priorities, acquisition priorities, cyber priorities, to change this vector because … I could blame you actually for China’s AI investment plan because you were talking about it and, from a Chinese perspective, “hey, their Deputy Defense Secretary’s talking about it, Xi announces it as a national initiative,” so it’s all your fault.

Bob Work:  [laughs]

Vago Muradian: [laughs] I’m joking. Right, how, how do you think — if you were advising Jim Mattis, and [Deputy US Defense Secretary] Pat Shanahan because I know you guys do have conversations. You know, what would be your guidance on that?

Bob Work: Well, again, I want to make sure everyone understands we have a lot of capabilities and we have a lot of advantages, so this isn’t like we’ve lost the race. Again, this is a question of the degree of technological superiority we have. We’ve always enjoyed a pretty big technological advantage, and it is shrinking, so we have to do something about that. So, first, we have to admit we have a problem, that, I think we talk about it, but it’s like, we’ve got to be talking about it every day. I mean, I think back in the Cold War, everybody knew Soviet doctrine. Everybody knew it. We said, “hey, we know what their advance party looks like.” You would go to, the Marines would go to the CACs [Combined Action Companies]. The Army would go to the National Training Center. We would know exactly what their doctrine is. We would know how we would try to go about it. 

I don’t think our military really understands Chinese doctrine. I don’t think they really understand Russian doctrine. We have to understand our potential adversaries. I don’t call them enemies, our potential adversaries. We have to understand how they think, how they’re going to attack us and what we need to do to flip the script on them. So to me, this is really more about thinking. 

Now, the whole idea of the 3rd Offset [Strategy] is, if your system is starting to deconstruct, that if you have a lot of machine learning and autonomy in your battle network, you might be able to fight through it, and it was a hypothesis. We didn’t know. But I believe that hypothesis is pretty sound. So, one of the ways to fight back is to go after machine learning, inject machine learning into all of our battle network systems, to have more autonomy between machine-to-machine communications, go to thin-line communications because you know your big pipes are going to go away. There’s all sorts of different ways. But we have to practice this. 

We have to go out, you know, we have to have Ops force [sic] that are trying to jam us every single day. You know, the National Training Center was the kind of, that and Red Flag and Top Gun, all these kind of ops force stuff in the [19]80s — that was our training revolution. 

Right now, we ought to have the best counter-network force on the planet, and every time we go out for a naval exercise or an air exercise or an army exercise or an amphibious landing, we ought to be going up against these guys who are trying every day to knock down our network. Because that’s their theory of victory and we have to be able to prove we can fight through it, which would really strengthen deterrence, or we have to say, “we have to think of a different way to do business.” 

But again, you know, people came up to me today and said, “oh my god, it’s so bad,” and I said, “it’s not that I don’t have great faith in the joint force and our capabilities, and I agree with the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff that today, we have a competitive advantage over any potential adversary. But the trend lines are scary.” And so I’m hoping to see much more urgency in the [Defense] Department’s response to these worrisome trends. 

Vago Muradian: That’s right, because if you sleep like a baby, you wake up every two hours hysterically screaming, which is one of the best lines ever. 

Do you think though, on AI — last question which I have to ask you is — so, from an AI perspective, though that’s a nation of 1.3,1.4 billion people, no personal freedom issues. So when they get up on this Alphabet, HI, AI —  and you and I have talked about this over the years a lot — what’s the danger there when you have a great power with a lot of financial reserves saying 20 percent of the R&D is going to this, we will be leaders of it in [20]30, you know, in the AI field by 3030 (2030). If you look at drones, China went from nowhere to like a leading maker whether through Digi or a whole bunch of other companies. You know … what is the national approach the United States needs for an AI strategy when the other guy is putting this as a national premium to become a world leader?

Bob Work: Well the first thing is, you’ve hit the nail on the head. This is going to be a competition between authoritarian regimes and democratic regimes and they’re going to use AI differently. The Chinese spy on their own population. They use facial recognition on all their own citizens, they have data that you would not believe that they can train their algorithms on. 

The United States is not going to use AI in that way. We will use it in different ways. It’s important, and this is going to be very, very important for us, to debate the ethical and the moral and the legal boundaries that we’re willing to go [to]. But, as your point is, this is a big competition. I mean, this is a Sputnik moment to me. China has thrown down the gauntlet and said, “this is the single technology that we believe will be despositive in economic and military competitiveness in the 21st century, and we’re going to bury the Americans.” That scares me. 

So, to me, it warrants a national response. It requires an executive-branch something. I don’t know if it’s an agency, I don’t know if it’s like the Office of OSTP — Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House. 

We need a national commission on the AI in the Congress to debate these very important issues. We need the joint AI Center and Department of Defense going after applications. It’s going to require a major effort on our part to make sure even if we don’t lead substantially, we’re at least a real fast follower. So [as] soon as we see something, we say, “okay, we get this, we can, we can do it.” So it’s a very, very, very important technological competition.

Vago Muradian: Former Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work, who is a senior councilor at the Center for a New American Security. Sir, thanks very much. It’s always such a pleasure talking to you.

Bob Work: It’s great to see you Vago. Okay, take care.

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