Uncle Sam Wants You … to Fight Alongside a Killer Robot

A Q&A with newly departed Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work on Kim’s nukes, Putin’s paranoia and bigger problems over the horizon.


Running for president last year, Republican Senator Ted Cruz was widely ridiculed for telling a young girl that “the world’s on fire.” That may not have been the most politically astute way to talk to a three-year-old, but you have to admit Cruz has a few facts on his side: North Korea’s nuclear bombast; a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan; last-gasper Islamic State forces hanging on in Syria and Iraq; Iran arming to the teeth its proxy forces in Lebanon and Yemen; China’s fake-island building; Russia’s positioning hundreds of thousands of troops on the borders of NATO allies; and increasing terrorist activity in north and sub-Saharan Africa.

You’d think the U.S. military would have its hands full just managing these crises. But as perilous as they may be, the Defense Department has an equal responsibility to look far, far ahead — defining long-term threats, developing strategies to counter them, and buying the best new weaponry to deter enemies’ and rivals’ aggressive tendencies. And from 2014 to this year, the man with the burden of the future on his shoulders was Robert O. Work, who served as the deputy secretary of defense to three different bosses, Chuck Hagel, Ashton Carter and James Mattis.

In some ways, Work had a typical background for the job: Twenty-seven years in the Marines during which he reached the rank of full colonel, front-line roles including commanding an artillery battery, management experience as undersecretary of the Navy. But his resume is also quirky for a career Leatherneck: He studied biology as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois and has three master’s degrees — in systems management from the University of Southern California, in space-systems operations from the Naval Postgraduate School, and in international public policy from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. This week he returned as a senior fellow to the Center for a New American Security, an influential centrist think tank in Washington where he served as chief executive in 2013 and 2014.

Work put his stamp on the Pentagon in many ways, most prominently with his efforts to adapt the military to the age of modern technological marvels, a long-term project known as “the third offset,” which is discussed in more detail below. He and I had a conversation this week about the challenges the Pentagon faces, both immediate and well over the horizon. Here is a lightly edited transcript:

Tobin Harshaw: Amid all the debate over how to handle North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, one point seems to be universally accepted: A military strike isn’t feasible, at least not now. Do you agree? If so, what can be done to rein in Kim and reassure South Korea and Japan?

Robert Work: I agree absolutely. North Korea is an established nuclear power. This is totally different than Libya, where we convinced Muammar Qaddafi not to go after a nuclear arsenal, and Iran, which we have now persuaded to set aside its programs. Kim Jong Un has demonstrated capability on both the warhead and missile sides. There is no way you could confidently say that a U.S. military strike would reduce the nuclear risk to zero.

Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the other day that Kim is “begging for war.” I couldn’t disagree more. He is looking for the survival of his regime. He thinks nuclear weapons are the surest way to guarantee his survival. Thinking about war with a nuclear power should give even the strongest military pause, so we have to watch out that our overheated rhetoric might actually increase the likelihood he uses his weapons.

Ultimately where we will wind up is relying on our strength to deter Kim’s use of nuclear weapons. You want to make sure he understands that if he uses them, he is done, his regime is history. In the meantime, the combination of diplomatic pressure, military pressure and trying to get China to assist us are the right things to do. I believe that Kim’s reckless actions are really starting to give China second thoughts on their calculations about his leadership.

TH: While North Korea may the terror du jour, most military analysts think Putin’s resurgent Russia is still America’s most serious long-term threat. Do you agree? And do you feel the U.S. and NATO are doing enough to counter Putin’s aggressiveness in Eastern Europe and elsewhere?

RW: For the last 25 years or so, the U.S. hasn’t had to worry about great-power competition — which is a large state that can take on the dominant power conventionally (that would be us), and has a survival nuclear deterrent force. As a result, America has enjoyed extraordinary strategic freedom of action, doing things in all regions of the world with no worry about what another great power would do in response. Now, Russia is a resurgent great power — although some believe it is declining over time in terms of geopolitical influence. And there is a true rising great power in China.

I like to think of these two great powers as geostrategic rivals, not adversaries. They are acting as great powers act: extremely touchy in their near-abroads, and wanting to establish a sphere of influence. Totally understandable.

As NATO has expanded eastward, the Russians really think that the U.S. and NATO are serious threats. They have ramped up their response in a serious way, essentially pushing back against further expansion into their near abroad, especially in Belarus, Ukraine and Georgia. As paranoid as the Russians are, and as reckless as Putin seems, I am firmly in the school that discussion and dialogue among great powers is the best way to avoid confrontation. Of course, discussion must be backed up by credible power, and what we are doing — enhancing NATO and stepping up military commitments in Eastern Europe — are the right things to do. But there remain opportunities even as we push back and forth. We could be working with Russia, as we are cooperating in Syria, in more ways: in terms of counterproliferation and counterterrorism. Bottom line: Russia is a power we must take seriously. Whether they become a long-term military threat depends on whether we can get past this low point in our relationship and get more constructive in the long term.

TH: President Barack Obama went into office promising a great “pivot” to Asia. Eight years later, many commentators still don’t know what that means, at least in terms of specifics. What did you accomplish in terms of maintaining America’s dominance of the Pacific and countering Chinese ambitions?

RW: “Pivot” was a bad word. It is really a “rebalance to Asia.” We needed to shift our attention from constant warfighting in the Middle East and toward Asia to continue the peace in the region

China’s a rising power, and the 21st century is likely to revolve around the relationship between it and the U.S. And the rebalance has had many successes. One is the revitalization of our alliances — our relationship with Japan is as strong as or stronger than ever; that with South Korea is quite strong; also with Australia and New Zealand. We have started reaching out to India. The one thing that set us back was the Philippines; we now have a rocky relationship that was not expected.

We also wanted to make our military posture more capable, operationally resilient and politically sustainable. We are doing that. Moving the preponderance of our military power to Asia is ongoing. We’ll have 60 percent of naval and air power in Pacific by 2020. Most of our advanced military capabilities go to that region first. We are dispersing our forces, such as moving Marines from Okinawa to Guam, Australia and Hawaii. These moves will make us more resilient in the face of attacks and more likely to retain the goodwill of our host countries.

However, where it went off the rails was the Donald Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. That was a strategic blunder of enormous proportions, a grievous mistake. Overall, I would grade the rebalance as a C-plus or B-minus — with the withdrawal from TPP bringing the grade down more than otherwise expected.

TH: This will be a long one: Perhaps the biggest legacy of your tenure as deputy defense secretary was the initiation of the so-called “third offset.” Can you explain briefly what the first two offsets of the Cold War were; why we have reached the point where our entire military strategy needs such dramatic switch; and what the third offset really is (i.e., not just a bunch of sci-fi fantasies about killer robots).

RW: Up until World War II, you could describe warfare broadly as unguided munitions warfare. Almost every spear or arrow or bullet or bomb or torpedo missed its target. This led to an inherent bias toward massing your forces to ensure you achieved target hits or target effects. During the war, two alternatives arose: atomic weapons and guided conventional weapons. Atomic weapons made miss distances less of a problem; guided munitions reliably hit their targets regardless of range. What linked them is an attacker no longer necessarily had to mass forces to achieve effects.

After the war, America’s first “offset” took advantage of U.S. nuclear superiority by using battlefield nukes to offset the numerical conventional advantage of the Soviet army; we elected not to match them tank for tank or soldier for soldier. We instead adopted battlefield, or tactical, atomic weapons to deter a Soviet conventional invasion of Western Europe.

The second offset came when the Soviets achieved strategic nuclear parity. The threat of tactical nuclear weapons was no longer credible because no side would risk going up the escalatory ladder. So we turned to guided munitions and sophisticated, integrated defensive “battle networks” to employ them. This allowed us to “look deep and shoot deep.” If you came up against such capabilities and couldn’t match them, your army became nothing more than a collection of targets, as the Iraqis found out in Desert Storm.

Now our great-power competitors are achieving parity in guided munitions-battle network warfare. We talk about this as anti-access/area-denial techniques, or A2/AD: an adversary’s ability to “look deep and shoot deep” challenges our ability to get close enough to use our superior weaponry. And once in range, combat is so much more lethal. The question became, how could we restore our conventional overmatch so deterrence is strengthened? We want our rivals to still think that they cannot take us on … that they would surely lose a conventional fight. The third offset is finding a way to rebuild our overmatch and maintain that advantage

Of all recent technological gains, the things that would improve our operations most in the near term are aggressive use of big data, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. This combination will allow a whole bunch of things to happen. First, human-machine collaboration — that is, machines allowing humans to make better and faster decisions, combining our intuitive abilities with a machine’s ability to process massive amounts of data. Then, with machine learning, we will have new kinds of unmanned systems. Consider network-enabled missiles: You fire a missile at a target 1,000 miles away, but by the time the missile is within 500 miles, the target is no longer there. You give the missile that information and change its mission.

Then there are assisted-human operations: broadly speaking, providing every individual with the power of the whole battle network, so that they can all pull down the information they need to accomplish their missions. This includes things like carrying around sensors on bodies, using batteries re-powered by human movement, and new combat “apps” to call in needed support.

But an important difference with the third offset is it assumes we can generate an advantage only in the relatively near term. Remember, we had the first offset from the 1950s to mid-’70s, a significant period of time. During the second offset, because the Soviets went away, we had a 25-year advantage, and only now are Russia and China starting to catch up. But all the third offset technologies are being driven by the Amazons and Googles, and are commercially available. As a result, we can’t think the third offset will give us another 25 years ahead of the competition. We need to be thinking in terms of a time-based competition, a rolling offset, in which we are always looking for a new advantage –right now.

TH: Donald Trump came into office promising a vast military buildup, with a 350-ship navy and a reversal of the Army’s big troop drawdown. Yet the mild spending increases in his first budget weren’t much different than what we might have expected from the Obama administration. Was that disheartening for the Pentagon? What do the generals really want?

RW: Right now, the Pentagon is going through a major defense-strategy review led by Secretary James Mattis. I firmly believe that one of the questions that needs to be asked is, do you have a bias toward capability or toward capacity? Right now there is a bias toward capacity — toward a 350-ship navy, an active Army of 540,000, and an Air Force with 1,200 combat aircraft. But I would argue very, very strongly that we need a bias toward capability — modernizing the force and focusing on readiness.

Right now what has happened is you look at the ground modernization programs of Army and see we don’t have a new tank in development. All those systems are from the Ronald Reagan buildup or the ’90s, and we are just extending their lives or upgrading them slightly. Meanwhile, China is spending a lot on things like hypersonic weapons, something we are not giving much money to. When you are talking about needing a tech overmatch to keep up our deterrent, the most important thing is improving capability.

TH: Trump also said on the campaign trail that he would resolve the war in Afghanistan. Yet his latest plan to add a few thousand more special-ops and training troops is a minor tweak. Is there any resolution visible for America’s longest war? What would “victory” look like?

RW: What we need is a platform in South Asia, because there are an awful lot of very bad terrorist groups in the region. And Pakistan has a lot of nuclear weapons, which we do not want falling into the hands of these very bad people. Our vital interest is to have a position in South Asia where we can keep an eye on these groups and on Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

Victory, in my view, looks like an Afghanistan that is stable enough so that our platform there can be sustained at a reasonable strategic price, we are able to keep disrupting the terrorist groups in that area, and we keep Pakistani nukes out of their hands. Ultimately, if you could get a deal between the Taliban and the government in Kabul that would be outstanding, it would make it more likely to have a stable Afghanistan that would be a good partner for the U.S. in the area. But we have to have modest expectations. We are not, as Trump said, going to establish a Jeffersonian democracy.

TH: The proposed merger this week between United Technologies and Rockwell Collins is the latest example of consolidation in the so-called defense industrial base. Many people feel the shrinking number of major contractors is dangerous, both in terms of contracting costs and broader national security. Do you agree? Also, Congress re-shaped the Pentagon’s acquisitions process in the last policy and funding round, even eliminating the top weapon-buyer job held by Frank Kendall. Do you think that the massive cost overruns and delays we’ve seen with projects like the F-35?

RW: Secretary Mattis has brought in a pretty extraordinary team, and there is a lot of experience from outside, from industry. His choice for deputy secretary, Patrick Shanahan, is from Boeing; Ellen Lord, who will be the equivalent of the next Frank Kendall, is from Textron Systems; Jay Gibson, who will be in charge of management, is from industry. Mattis will have a team that has a good fingertip feel for industrial base, and I will look to them to answer that question.

Right now I am not alarmed by UTX-Rockwell deal, but I am concerned about the viability of the industrial base, which is vital to third-offset thinking. It’s fair to say we have less bench depth. I can’t speak for Secretary Mattis, but I think his plan was to get people from the base into the Pentagon to help us think through this.

TH: Last, the exit-interview question: What do you think was the greatest accomplishment of the department during your time there? What successes did you have that slipped under the radar of the public and press?

RW: I don’t think in terms of greatest accomplishments. But I am proud of the steady progress of the department in an enormously chaotic environment. Since the Budget Control Act of 2011, reduced defense resources and congressional budget chaos has been the norm. What slipped under the radar is that very few businesses would have been able to survive under the conditions the Pentagon has operated under for the last six years. The fact that we still have the best forces and are building equipment, and can sustain such a high pace of global operations, is a testament to the very high quality of our people — which is our military’s best secret weapon. I don’t think the public understands what a trying time it has been, how hard it is to plan a military program and figure out how you will buy, organize and train it — with constantly changing budgets and rules and constraints — yet the Pentagon has continued to do this, and it isn’t reported on.

People say the department isn’t efficient, which sometimes is true, but we are biggest business on the planet, with 3 million people. We have our own FedEx, our own Wal-Mart, our own health care agency — the broadest portfolio of any business on planet. Remember that since 2009, we’ve spent 30 percent of the time working under continuing budget resolutions from Congress, which keep you from planning ahead; we’ve had successive two-year budget horizons when we like to plan five years ahead; the department’s annual authorization bill from Congress is now 1,600 pages long. Under these conditions, any corporation would be hard-pressed to do its fundamental business, and yet the Pentagon has consistently done its fundamental business, and done it well. I’m extremely proud of that.

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