Christian Brose, The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare (Hachette Books, 2020)
If monarchy and oligarchy are rule by the few, and aristocracy and democracy are rule by the best and the many, then bureaucracy, Hannah Arendt tells us, is rule by Nobody. It is often easier—and often more accurate—to blame a bureaucratic system than it is to blame the individuals in it for its failures, and even for its nature. Because of that inability to hold individuals accountable, Arendt tells us that “rule by Nobody is clearly the most tyrannical of all.”
Arendt, writing in the 1970s, believed rule by Nobody was a leading contributor to social unrest and violence in her time. Today that tyranny is on full display within the Department of Defense, where it instead produces inaction and inertia. The Army’s most senior leader went on publicly decried the slowness of the Army’s process to pick a new pistol, only to have his spokesperson release a statement about how the Army would continue to follow the process without prejudice. The military has fought in Afghanistan for nearly twenty years, regularly making questionable claims of progress as each senior leader switched out with the next, and few in any part of government were held accountable for the actual lack of results. This system can inspire a sense of helplessness, a sense that failure can, and possibly should, be blamed on constraints created by DoD’s bureaucracy that even its most senior leaders seem powerless to change.
These failures include DoD’s seeming inability to adopt modern information technology. Soviet military theorists, recognizing the potential impact of the United States’ growing deep-strike capabilities, predicted a revolution in military affairs in the 1970s. An industry was born in the United States. Despite the abundance of literature about revolutions, transformation, and offsets, however, the Department of Defense has struggled to take meaningful steps to make the future predicted in the 1970s become a reality. Instead, sensors and weapon systems remain in silos rather than highly connected networks, continuous delivery of software is more of a talking point than a reality, and data-driven decision making in tactical environments still seems like science fiction. Frustrated reformers often blame these struggles on lethargic acquisition and personnel systems, personified by the frozen middle that neither enthusiastic senior leaders nor innovative junior leaders can ever seem to thaw.
DoD’s failure to capitalize on information technology contrasts strikingly with much of the rest of American society, including DoD employees when they are not at work. Unburdened by cumbersome regulatory regimes and byzantine processes, Silicon Valley created an internet of things able to pull information from networked sensors to decentralized processors, assisting decision making by both corporate leaders and millions of users. The painful reality is that DoD employees use decision-making support tools to organize their days, shop, and commute, then leave most of those capabilities behind when they arrive at work.
It is equally striking and far more alarming to consider the steps taken by America’s potential adversaries. America’s victory during the First Gulf War served as a warning to Russia and China. Both states realized they needed to develop their own battle networks to defeat the United States’ conventional military advantages. The products of Russia’s investments have been on display during the war in Ukraine. The Chinese government, which views the United States as the largest obstacle to the advancement of its authoritarian values, is arguably even better prepared to defeat the United States.
DoD’s failure to adopt information technology and its struggle to overcome bureaucratic inertia are themes that run throughout Christian Brose’s The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare. Brose argues that the United States military finds itself falling behind the rest of American society and unprepared to defeat China and Russia because of a lack of focus on developing effective, Information-Age kill chains. Kill chains, or battle networks, are systems that enable users to gain understanding, make decisions, and take action to create intended effects.
Ideally, kill chains would be efficient, highly connected networks. Thousands of automated sensors would feed information to decision-making agents, both human and machine, which would quickly relay instructions to shooters. This would empower one person to control many machines instead of many people controlling one machine, and would allow leaders to command machines that in turn guide the actions of lower-ranking humans, much like Uber uses a machine to direct drivers. All three of these dynamics would combine to create a constant threat of real-time precision strike for anyone fighting the United States. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Today, our battle networks are siloed, creating kill chains that often do not connect, and are slow when they do.
A system that has firmly established the rule by Nobody makes its presence felt throughout the book. Even powerful leaders often feel or act like they are helpless to change a system they know is flawed. The book begins with stories of Sen. John McCain, one of the most powerful politicians of his generation, failing to fix a defense system he believed to be broken. Brose describes Gen. Mark Milley’s seeming helplessness to accelerate the process for choosing a new pistol even as he publicly lambasted its inefficiency. The case of Brose himself contributes to this perception. The book is unquestionably written by a very well-informed person that sat near centers of power, and as Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) staff director, he wielded considerable influence. But it also reads like the commentary of a passive observer unable to change either the system he was in or its outputs. These powerful people feel unable to fix the system, which is made up of everyone and accountable to everyone, and therefore accountable to no one.
Brose has several suggestions for how to fix DoD. He recommends working within the system rather than trying to change it. While this is hardly appealing after reading descriptions of long-term, systemic failures, there is wisdom in his advice. Typically, reformers can either fight an organization’s bureaucracy, or get it to produce something. It is unfortunately rare to succeed at both, and most who try wind up accomplishing nothing instead.
He also advocates focusing on results rather than process, holding up the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration’s decision to pick exceptional but not necessarily nice leaders for major acquisition programs like the first intercontinental ballistic missiles, then to empower them to aggressively pick industry partners and solve clearly defined problems. This contrasts with today’s defense enterprise, where fairness, the avoidance of waste and fraud, and ensuring that mistakes are not repeated have become more important than preparing to deter or defeat our competitors.
Brose also notes the futility of improving innovation by focusing on culture problems, another insightful recommendation that goes against today’s popular wisdom. Culture is important, but it is difficult to measure and even more difficult to directly change. While that is frustrating, it is also what makes culture, deliberately or not, an ideal relief valve for those who want to acknowledge a problem, but not make any changes that significantly alter the way their organization functions. Interestingly, he does not advocate significant changes to the personnel system.
Brose also takes pains to avoid blaming government employees, politicians, and the defense industry. On several occasions, he goes out of his way to describe them as “hardworking, mission-oriented Americans who are doing their best to do the right thing as they understand it.” He instead blames the complexity of the problem sets they work on, and the bureaucracy that is the primary tool used to solve them. In short, he describes a system in which large groups of well-intended, good, hardworking people often produce bad results, and Nobody is truly at fault. In many ways, this is worse than hearing the defense enterprise is filled with the lazy or corrupt. If that were the case, improving our national security would be as simple as recruiting and hiring better people, or perhaps even just better leaders. If Brose’s diagnosis is correct, that would only produce the same results.
It is also difficult, however, to understand how Brose’s recommendations will produce significantly different results. He argues convincingly that the defense enterprise has failed for decades and is in the process of surrendering any advantage we once enjoyed through a combination of complacency and misjudgment. Somehow, readers are expected to neither blame military, congressional, or defense industry leaders, or to significantly change the system they work in. No group is held accountable, not out of neglect, but out of an inability to find someone who is truly to blame.
At points, Brose notes where leaders have “every authority they need to get our military the best technologies more rapidly,” but do not use it, either because they are unaware of the problems in their organizations or because they are uncomfortable taking risks. Brose is sympathetic, insisting to the end that the defense enterprise has good leaders. But the idea that the most powerful leaders in our defense system feel they are helpless to fix its flaws is damning, either to the system, the leaders that have failed to fix it, or both.
Another of the book’s consistent themes is that kill chains are the sole factor that determines military success or failure. This, unfortunately, taps into a perennial fault in American military thinking. Colin Gray argues that the American military leaders “with their much-trumpeted transformation . . . have committed three cardinal sins against the eternal law of war,” including confusing combat with war. He warns that “there is more to war than firepower: the enemy is not just a target set.” While definitions of victory vary, most seem to agree there is a difference between quickly detecting and destroying targets and the accomplishment of political objectives, a nuance that is absent from The Kill Chain. This absence is felt throughout the defense enterprise, and is one of the reasons the United States struggled in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. If we had built the military Brose describes in the 1990s, we might have defeated Saddam’s army even more quickly and effectively in 2003, then made the exact same political and policy mistakes.
The Kill Chain is worth reading. It makes complex issues more accessible. Brose accurately diagnoses some of the defense enterprise’s biggest problems, their causes, and the severity of the consequences, and does so in a remarkably well-written, cogent manner. He also provides the benefits of his diverse experiences in the executive and legislative branches and the defense industry to show how the many components of our defense enterprise work together, and in some cases do not work together. His remarks about Congress are especially helpful given his perspective as the former SASC staff director. While he has found most members of Congress to be smart, patriotic, and hardworking, Brose also believes that a lack of military experience and knowledge has led many members to either defer too much to DoD, or to attack it rather than using their considerable power in a helpful way.
Brose’s most valuable contribution, though, is much more simple. He argues that we should not accept the current state of affairs. Decades of acclimation have convinced many leaders to consider outdated technology and poor performance normal, and even worse, acceptable. But soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines should have access to better and more advanced technology in their weapon systems than in their cars. If that is too high a bar, we might even settle for almost as good. Brose shows that accepting these circumstances will have consequences, especially in our competition with China. We can only hope that America’s military and political leaders are listening.
Justin Lynch served as an active-duty army officer before transitioning to the Army National Guard. As a civilian, he has served in multiple roles in the national security enterprise, and is currently a Director of Research and Analysis at the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence. He would like to thank his colleague, Rob Nelson, for his insightful comments.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or any organization with which he is associated.
Image credit: Steve Petrucelli