A Pacifist-General’s Plan to Win America’s Next War
I’m not an absolute pacifist in the true sense of the word, but I’m about as close as you can get. I firmly believe in using military force only as a last resort. My view is shaped by my experience as both a soldier and lawyer. Most soldiers who have been in combat understand the horrors of war and are eager to avoid it when possible. As a lawyer, I believe in the rule of law, and international law is clear that military force should be used only as a last resort.
Let me cut to the chase. I hope to “win” America’s next war by not fighting it. I want to avoid war through deterrence, and I believe in deterrence through strength. This strength will require leveraging superior technology and innovation to supplement and support America’s exceptionally professional military personnel. I will explore these concepts in greater detail below and provide some thoughts and practical tips for responsibly adopting artificial intelligence (AI) and other emerging technologies to achieve these goals.
Deterrence in the Modern World
We are in the midst of an emerging great power competition, where countries like China and Russia are challenging the status quo and American dominance through gray zone conflicts. General Joseph Votel described gray zone conflicts as the “area between … healthy economic, political competition between states, and open warfare.” Near-peer adversaries employ lawfare, cyber strikes, psychological operations, and misinformation campaigns to achieve their objectives. Ukraine, the South China Sea, and Hong Kong are just a few places where Russia and China have employed these tactics. In this multi-polar world, where challengers attempt to undercut and erode their rivals to build their relative strength and dispute the balance of power, it becomes imperative that the United States maintain military supremacy and repel gray-zone assaults.
In this age of great-power challenges where confrontations over territory, sovereignty, and economic interests are fought in the intermediacy of war and peace, traditional military arsenals based on conventional tools will not be enough to prevail. Instead, new technologies—particularly AI—must be leveraged to defend against new threats like deepfakes, cyberattacks, and social media bots. We must not only see technology as a war-fighting function, but also a gray-zone instrument to deter, defend, and even contest in this new era of national security threats. To “win” here is to win the next war by never fighting it. Dominance in this technological race can keep our tenuous peace from devolving into war. New technologies like AI are not just the future of warfare—they also reflect the current capability of many developed nations.
I believe in responsibly leveraging technology to develop warfighting capabilities, to include Autonomous Weapons Systems (AWS), and to create administrative efficiencies. AWS—which have been characterized by some as “Killer Robots”—have become mainstream in many militaries and have received a lot of attention from both strategists and critics. I believe that AWS play a vital role in the U.S. military’s strategy. However, I also believe in leveraging AI to dramatically improve the efficiency of behind-the-scenes support functions across our military, such as military administration and logistics. These often overlooked areas represent a tremendous opportunity to streamline processes, improve efficiency, and outpace the competition through the use of AI. For example, transformative technologies such as AI-powered SmartMaintenance programs could be used to optimize the maintenance schedules of the Pentagon’s vast arsenal of ships, aircraft, and ground vehicles, saving the Pentagon billions of dollars in maintenance costs. Similar initiatives are particularly important in a large bureaucracy like the Pentagon with its three million employees.
I offer three practical tips for organizations adopting AI and other emerging technologies. These tips are designed to help adopt these technologies responsibly, legally, and effectively.
1. Building interdisciplinary AI Teams
Successful deployment of AI requires a coordinated strategy led from the top, with support of the organization’s executive leadership or management team. These leaders should build multi-disciplinary AI teams that, at a minimum, include technical experts such as coders and data scientists, as well as lawyers and AI ethicists, to effectively integrate AI into their organizations. These teams would enable all parties to provide input from their respective perspectives at all stages in the adoption process.
We’ve successfully employed this model with the Army’s AI Task Force, and we’ve also seen it employed by some of the technology giants. The Pentagon also developed and published AI ethics principles to guide the use of AI and address concerns from industry and the public. In short, building multi-disciplinary AI teams and developing AI principles is a proven formula to successfully and responsibly adopt AI.
2. Leveraging Human-Machine Teaming
Organizations adopting AI should also leverage “Human-Machine Teaming.” Humans outperform computers and machines on some tasks such as judgment, common sense, and leadership. However, machines outperform humans on other tasks such as digesting large quantities of data, rapid computation, and completing boring repetitive tasks. The key to successfully adopting AI is to combine humans and machines in a way that leverages the respective strengths of each. Some people approach AI with an “either-or” mentality, as if you have to choose either the humans or machines. That’s a false dichotomy. You can have both, and you can have the best of both. As technology improves, the ratio between human and machine roles will shift, but it is up to us humans to strike the right balance as we leverage this technology.
3. Building Cybersecurity Capabilities
A winning strategy needs a strong offense and defense. Many organizations are leveraging AI to improve efficiency, reduce costs, and get ahead of the competition. That’s their offense. The corresponding defense must include a strong cybersecurity plan to protect against increased cyber vulnerabilities caused by a reliance on AI. These vulnerabilities include risks of cyber intrusion, data theft, and system disruption. Although often treated as a mere afterthought, cybersecurity should instead be an integral part of any organization’s AI-adoption strategy.
My goal is for America to leverage emerging technology to maintain the world’s greatest fighting force, and effectively deter all prospective adversaries. This requires that we leverage AI responsibly in both AWS and military support systems. We should also build interdisciplinary AI teams, leverage human-machine-teaming, and integrate cybersecurity capabilities to ensure success and maintain world peace. The best way to “win” America’s next war will be to not have to fight it. The smart use of emerging technologies will help make this possible.
Brigadier General R. Patrick Huston is the Assistant Judge Advocate General of the U.S. Army, stationed at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this article are his personal views and do not represent the official policy of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. The author is grateful for the assistance of Lt. Col. Dave Lai, Office of the Judge Advocate General, U.S. Army, in the preparation of this article.