DAVID IGNATIUS: A new generation of weapons equals gunpowder’s impact

By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON – 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, who teaches at Fudan University, 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 Mahan is outdated, he said: With a laser weapon fired from space, “any ship will be burned.”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 isn’t in competing to build aircraft-carrier battle groups, argues Shen, but in advanced weapons “to make other command systems fail to work.”
The Chinese theorist’s comments suggest a trend you might not appreciate watching the news footage of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
The nature of warfare is nearing another “hinge point,” due to the advance of technology. Just as gunpowder, cannons, airplanes, rockets and nuclear power changed the face of combat, so too will a new generation of weapons that are on the drawing boards – not just in America, but in China, India and other advanced technological nations.
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.
And while we’re discussing tests of spooky systems, how about an Air Force contract 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 still 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 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.
I come back to Shen, the Chinese analyst. He says he’s grateful that the U.S. 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.
We can’t stop “fighting the last war” when we’re in the middle of it. But it’s time to think more about the vulnerability of existing systems, and whether there are ways to cut sharply the Pentagon’s “legacy” budget, even as we spend more for the new age.

David Ignatius’ e-mail address is davidignatius(at)washpost.com. He writes for The Washington Post Writers Group.