A light-bulb moment for me last year was hearing a Chinese defense expert named Dingli Shen in Shanghai talk about the future of warfare.
No, he wasn't expressing a pipe dream about building a blue-water navy to challenge U.S. dominance in the Pacific. Instead, he was talking about the irrelevance of traditional land and sea power in the dawning age of combat -- where weapons will include cyberattacks, space weapons, lasers, pulses and other directed-energy beams.
Shen was countering the view of some Chinese analysts that Beijing should embrace the gospel of Alfred Thayer Mahan, the 19th-century American missionary for sea power. Mahan is outdated, he said: With a laser weapon fired from space, "any ship will be burned." China's future, argues Shen, is in advanced weapons "to make other command systems fail to work."
Here's a hint of the coming competition: In 2010, China matched the United States in the number of rocket launches into space (15), the first time any nation has equaled the U.S, according to Wired magazine's "Danger Room" blog. Meanwhile, according to Aviation Week, peaceful Japan is planning to put a directed-energy weapon on its next-generation fighter.
The reality that warfare is changing has half-dawned on the Pentagon. The Navy and Air Force, in particular, are developing exotic weapons systems that use every trick of science. Here are a few examples I pulled from defense publications.
The Air Force, for example, has a "Directed Energy Directorate." If you think "ray guns" are just for Buck Rogers, consider this pitch from one of the directorate's publications about using gamma rays, lasers, microwaves and other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum: "Intensifying and focusing these waves can produce a variety of directed energy concepts capable of being developed into a highly effective weapons-class arsenal."
The Navy has a "Maritime Laser Demonstration" project that seeks to build a shipboard laser cannon by 2014. Its first sea test was halted in November because of a malfunction, but it will be back. So will the Air Force, whose test of an airborne, megawatt-class chemical laser failed in October. An Air Force contract was awarded last month to bombard computers with high-powered electromagnetic radiation, to see when they fail. The objective, says Wired's Spencer Ackerman, is to "learn how to fry the other guy's electronics while protecting your own."
What worries me is that even as the military looks forward, the brass are clamoring to build the legacy systems -- think aircraft-carrier battle groups -- that will soon be vulnerable to the new weapons. It's as if the Pentagon were trying to be the old IBM, running big, clunky mainframes, at the same time it's trying to be an Apple-like innovator. We can't afford to do both.
The puzzle to ponder in 2011 and beyond is how the United States can retain the "legacy power" benefits that come from conventional fleets and bases around the world while transitioning to the new realities of military power. We don't want to be the national equivalent of a train company at the advent of air travel, or a radio network trying to protect its old programming in the age of television.
Shen says he's grateful that the United States is willing to spend so many billions of dollars to protect the sea lanes on which China depends for its global commerce. But instead of competing to build ships and tanks, he says, China will focus on the weapons that can cripple them. Somehow, we need to stop being the suckers when it comes to defense.