From the changes the Biden administration could bring to U.S. national security and defense contractors to the prospect of rising tensions with China and Iran and more grey zone conflicts, here are the issues that Forbes defense contributors expect to shape 2021.
Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute
THE BIG TREND: Great-power competition with China becomes a bipartisan cause. The era of Sino-American engagement is over. Security experts in both parties now agree China is a threat to America’s future, and must be the main focus of U.S. military preparations.
THE UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM: Biden barely cuts weapons spending. That’s what usually goes first when the budget tightens, especially under Democratic presidents, but there are no obvious program kills this time around and the joint force is overdue for a refresh.
THE MISPLACED ASSUMPTION: Biden is as opposed to foreign military intervention as Trump was. Actually, he supported intervening in the Balkans in 1999, in Afghanistan in 2001, in Iraq in 2002 and in Libya and Syria during the Obama years.
THE BOLD PREDICTION: Taiwan becomes a flashpoint as Beijing increases military pressure on the island. China’s effort to gain control of Taiwan the way it seized control in Hong Kong forces Washington to decide whether it is willing to confront a nuclear-armed state close to its home turf.
WHAT TO WATCH: Who Biden appoints to Pentagon technology jobs. Will they press the search for non-traditional sources of innovation and disruptive technologies, or be content to just tighten terms and conditions on the existing community of military suppliers?
David Hambling, defense technology journalist
THE BIG TREND: AI is now reaching a tipping point and we are going to see a profusion of AI-enabled weapon systems and unmanned vehicles, on air, sea and land, underwater and in space. These will have profound implications for the ways wars are fought — not just the fast-moving tactical battlespace but in larger fields like warfighting strategy. No one has any idea how this is going to pan out.
WHAT TO WATCH: A surge in armed drone exports from Turkey on the back of Azerbaijan’s success using Turkish drones against Armenia, with parallel expansions in Chinese and Israeli exports. The U.S., newly unfettered by international rules and keen to find exports for the MQ-9 Reaper also stokes the market. Expect new drones, new weapons and new customers — and quite possibly new conflicts by those emboldened by their purchases.
THE UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM: Winning in the grey zone — situations short of outright war — will become ever more important. Whether it’s cyberattacks, unattributable drone strikes, non-lethal targeting of government personnel or disabling vessels without shooting, those with the best means to win a conflict without escalating to a shooting match will come out on top.
THE MISPLACED ASSUMPTION: The Azeris won the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict simply because they used drones. Any states that simply throw drones at the opposition are likely to be disappointed: success is the result of a well-constructed ‘system of systems’ to target and exploit enemy weaknesses.
THE BOLD PREDICTION: After 60 years, directed energy weapons finally make their first kill in a real conflict. Press releases and video are put out, the media go crazy, while analysts trying to point out that the weapon did not make any difference are drowned out in the clamor.
David Deptula, retired USAF lieutenant general and dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies
THE BIG TREND: Russia and China will escalate very quickly expecting an easy time with a Biden administration, which will be under immense internal pressure in the Democratic Party to spend more on social entitlements, with the progressive wing aiming to take that additional funding out of the defense budget.
WHAT TO WATCH: Weapons programs that could be significantly negatively impacted by pressure from the left wing of the Democratic Party include the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, B-21 bomber, Advanced Battle Management System, Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2), Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD), KC-46 and F-35, as well as shipbuilding programs.
THE UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM: North Korea resumes nuclear weapons and ICBM testing.
THE MISPLACED ASSUMPTION: The notion that a return to the JCPOA by the Biden administration would ameliorate the situation with Iran seeking to develop nuclear weapons. Iran will no doubt escalate as well with the expectation that a Biden administration will forgive all of their sins. The Obama-Biden administration’s dealings with Iran were unimpressive—they were poorly conceived, strategically short sighted, and predicated on the notion that a regime with an unbroken 40 years running track record of murder, treachery, terrorism and deceit would somehow reform itself magically. There are no historical precedents for such magical outcomes.
THE BOLD PREDICTION: There will be major trouble next year as pandemic economic impacts bite in Russia, China and Iran. All three regimes will see an opportunity with a new administration amid political discord across the U.S., deep cuts to the U.S. defense budget and as a huge need balloons for all three regimes to distract their population from their own woes. It is an open question as to which of these three regimes is the least stable. The less stable the regime, the bigger risks it will take as it has more to win and less to lose by taking risks. China makes a move on Taiwan—not necessarily a conventional invasion, but an unconventional set of actions to solidify their sovereign claim on Taiwan.
Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the consultancy Teal Group
THE BIG TREND: Big is better in aerospace at large. Bigger companies, for the most part, are better positioned to survive this crisis. With just one or two exceptions, when we look at risks to the aerospace supply chain, it’s almost always in the third or fourth tier. There, companies are simply more vulnerable, in part due to a lack of portfolio diversity, but also due to inadequate scale or limited access to capital.
Meanwhile defense is defensive. The pandemic has had absolutely no impact on defense budgets or markets, and in some cases there has been an upside as a result of stimulus spending. Defense primes like Northrop Grumman
Vikram Mittal, assistant professor of systems engineering at the U.S. Military Academy
The BOLD PREDICTION: Defense acquisition is going to break away from traditional acquisition which moves at a snail’s pace — new processes will be created to move at the speed of technology. The Pentagon will keep the traditional processes for vehicles and larger items, but smaller items will have a new sequence.
THE MISPLACED ASSUMPTION: That defense technology has been overly focused on counterinsurgency. It’s becoming more and more apparent through the lessons learned that technology was not the issue in Iraq and Afghanistan.
WHAT TO WATCH: We’re on the cusp of an arm’s race in hypersonic weapons.
Bryan Clark, director of the Center for Defense Concepts and Technology at the Hudson Institute
THE BIG TREND: An information-centric U.S. military. Information has always been important in warfare, but will accelerate in the coming year as initiatives like Joint All-Domain Command and Control and Advanced Battle Management System gain steam and the services intensify their data-sharing demonstrations in the Army’s Project Convergence and Navy’s Project Overmatch. The renewed emphasis on command, control and communications and improved information flow is only partly about high-end warfighting. The focus of adversaries such as China, Russia and Iran on gray-zone operations below the level of war places a premium on U.S. forces understanding an opponent’s patterns of life and conducting precise effects that avoid escalation. With a new administration likely to constrain defense spending and interested in new ways to compete, improving information may be a more cost-effective investment than traditional manned combatant ships and aircraft.
WHAT TO WATCH: The DoD’s emphasis on ownership costs. The U.S. military services’ plans, and the recent NDAA and appropriations bill from Congress, continue to favor large, multimission ships, aircraft and troop formations. Although these units are easier to manage and support than more disaggregated forces, they incur operations and sustainment expenses that are rising much faster than inflation and are already crowding out procurement spending. Look for DoD to begin emphasizing affordability in some of its force design changes to try to arrest this trend.
THE UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM: Adaptability will be more important than speed-to-fielding for new weapons systems. Delivering a new cutting-edge weapon, electromagnetic system, or platform rapidly to an operational commander isn’t very useful if it only talks to a small number of other systems or can’t easily be carried or supported in theater. Prioritizing adaptability and interoperability may mean accepting a less-exquisite technology, but one that can afford commanders a wider range of options in an environment where decision superiority will be more important to success than attrition. The pace and quality of US decision-making will be a greater contributor to success than lethality in confrontations short of large-scale, high-intensity war–such as today’s gray-zone operations.
THE BOLD PREDICTION: The U.S. military services will accelerate early or delayed retirement of older platforms and systems – sometimes in the face of Congressional objections – because of the need to control sustainment costs and transform in response to China’s military modernization. Maintenance costs for aircraft begin to increase rapidly after about 15 years of service; ship maintenance costs increase as well at 15 years, but at a lower rate. DoD will retire high-cost platforms to free up funds to develop and procure next generation platforms and sustain the rest of the force.
Eric Tegler, freelance aerospace and defense journalist
THE BIG TREND: Look for digital engineering, prototyping and production processes to receive more investment and attention. DoD’s high-profile efforts to elevate digital engineering — including acknowledgement of building/flying its Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) prototype — are meshing with the pandemic-related pressure on aerospace companies to innovate faster and more cheaply with fewer people.
WHAT TO WATCH: Propulsion technology advancements will be watched closely and sought after in the defense and commercial aerospace realms. Hypersonic propulsion research and experimentation is seeing technical progress matched by recognition among scientists, researchers and government that current information sharing, cross pollination efforts and follow-through need big improvement. On the commercial side continued development of hybrid electric propulsion will attract further investment but may be diluted by new developments in hydrogen combustion among others.
THE UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM: Despite frequent commentary on the changing patterns of public behavior arising from the pandemic, aerospace and defense companies will seek to return their employees to on-site work routines to compensate for lost productivity, fractured company culture and increasing risk from underreported security breaches (national security and commercial intelligence) that have come with remote work.
THE MISPLACED ASSUMPTION: Aerospace and defense firms will not see an uptick in international business demand or desire for increased cooperation in cross-national projects due to the arrival of a new presidential administration. In addition to an uneven global economic recovery, a slate of new and retrograde executive policy priorities will increase the complexity of doing business with American firms and slow the pace of innovation.
THE BOLD PREDICTION: The need to reprogram funding in a flat defense budget environment will lead to expanded congressional briefings on advanced U.S. weapons and space systems to court support. Subsequent public revelations about these programs will emerge – from the Air Force’s NGAD to currently on-orbit offensive space assets (controlled by the new established Space Force) to a variety of novel area-denial systems and technologies designed to keep humans and adversaries’ platforms at standoff distances. Under-sea and electromagnetic spectrum capabilities will see some daylight as well.