The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare

by Christian Brose

The United States will lose the next large scale conflict because the most advanced systems it has will be immediately destroyed, or more likely, won’t even make it to the battlefield. China and Russia have focused their efforts on developing relatively low cost systems and networks that are exceptionally flexible, fast, dynamic and aimed at defeating the United States’ ability to project military forces into theater. In The Kill Chain, Christian Brose argues that in order to remain competitive, the nation must invest in closing the “kill chain” – the process of gaining understanding, making decisions, and taking actions to achieve an objective. The U.S. military is currently hampered by expensive platforms that don’t talk to each other, cannot quickly acquire or destroy dynamic targets and are products of a slow and inflexible budget process. To make matters worse, the American commercial sector which leads the world in edge computing, AI, and machine learning does not want to work with the military to develop or improve these capabilities for fear of reputational and moral harm.

Brose’s solutions include:

  1. Invest in larger number of smaller, intelligent, and expendable systems operated by a smaller number of people
  2. Create highly decentralized networks that can move limited amounts of pre-sorted/prioritized data
  3. Train, test, and trust AI to do the tasks that don’t require human cognition or moral decisions – human command and machine control
  4. Invest more in software than hardware
  5. Provide incentives for military “mavericks,” civil leaders, and the commercial sector to work together to develop and fund fast, flexible, and adaptable systems
  6. Since the entire world will soon be under 24/7 surveillance from space, deception and methods to corrupt enemy AI will be critical
  7. Do more to improve our allies’ capabilities and maintain our partnerships

Russia is operating in accordance with the Gerasimov Doctrine which emphasizes non-military means of achieving political and strategic goals – disinformation, political subversion, assassination, cyberattacks, and active measures on social media to tear the fabric of American society. In terms of military systems, Russia has focused on electronic warfare, communications jamming, air defense, and long rage precision artillery. The example Brose cites is chilling: a Ukrainian commander’s mother received a phone call from someone claiming her son was wounded; she immediately called his cell phone – which he rarely used for fear of being targeted. As soon as he dialed her number to return her call, the Russians geolocated his position and killed him with precision artillery.

China outlines its strategy in the Defense White paper of 2019 which includes investing in integrated air defense, mass quantities of missiles to saturate regional U.S. bases, jammers, and aircraft carrier killers like the DF-21 to counter U.S force projection and render forces already in theater deaf, dumb, and blind. China aims to dominate AI by 2030 and has turned the entire country into a test and training laboratory for this capability.

Although Brose makes many excellent points about the need for the U.S. to invest in smarter capabilities, he predicates his recommendations on the assumption that the only way to deter war is to appear to be the strongest militarily. However, he also states that military competition “will have less to do with arms than with cognition. It will be a race over information.” This is the most important point in the book and a reason to re-think the “kill chain” and probably not call it a kill chain at all. The ability to distill information into intelligence, know the adversary’s intent, and disrupt his plans across the spectrum of national power is far more valuable (and cost effective) than a thousand dispensable submersibles. Russia has not been deterred from social and cyberattacks by our vast military power – neither was Osama bin Laden. Brose acknowledges that even if we are able to deter conflict, the competition will just devolve to the “gray zone.” Our enemies are already competing with us in the gray zone on a daily basis and we’re barely on the field. This is where we should focus our efforts now with a whole-of-nation effort that truly leverages military, diplomatic, economic, and information capabilities to achieve political ends.  


  1. If Silicon Valley doesn’t want to work with the military for moral, ethical reasons, what can we do to improve the reputation of our armed forces?
  2. Is Futures Command sufficiently tied in to commercial and congressional leadership to achieve any real advances?
  3. How can we leverage the creativity taking place at the lower levels (certainly was in the 82nd) to export across the joint force?
  4. How do we overcome the parochialism of each service – why is everyone inventing their own AI systems, drones, etc? Who is in charge of networking these systems across the Joint force?

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