What If NATO Countries Called Trump’s Military Spending Bluff With AI?
The United States military may be the best in the world, but it’s fighting 21st-century wars with 20th-century ideas. NATO has an opportunity to master the wars of the future.
American military spending has been the stuff of legend for decades. We spend more on defense than the next seven largest military spenders combined and are slowly but surely inching towards the trillion dollar a year mark even while deficits are poised to explode. Such massive investments over the last 70 years have created truly globe-spanning force projection capabilities, a massive nuclear arsenal, countless sophisticated weapons systems, and multi-generational doctrines on how to use all of these assets to unleash incredible firepower at a moment’s notice. Today, it stands virtually unmatched, and considering the investments other nations would need to make to catch up, it seems safe to take its supremacy for granted, not just by us, but by our allies as well.
This is why President Trump’s barrage of verbal attacks on NATO and its member states, and demands they pay Americans back for their defense of Europe — which is not how the alliance works — as well as raise their defense spending to 4% of their GDP was so shocking. Europe, it seems, can no longer rely on the support of American logistics and firepower to fend off threats and enforce order. Some pundits are advising European politicians to keep a stiff upper lip and take on Trump’s challenge to take more responsibility for their own defense only to establish more independence from the United States. But how could countries who underinvested in their own militaries for decades thanks to American help possibly catch up?
Well, there’s a catch with having such a massive defense organization with intricate doctrines for just about everything. The bigger the group, the more prone to bureaucracy it is and the U.S. military is no exception to this trend. In fact, a report by the Department of Defense found that even moderate changes to streamline basic operations could save $125 billion over five years. Likewise, the Pentagon’s inability to produce weapons on budget and on schedule, turning new systems into wildly over-engineered Rube Goldberg machines, resulted in a whole library worth of investigative reports.
A classic example is the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the development of which was summarized and satirized by the movie The Pentagon Wars. A more recent example is Littoral Combat Ships, which may never see deployment after many years of complex and costly redesigns. And the $1.4 trillion F-35 program to replace numerous aging airframes with just three designs at a low cost has become a case study in how a politically unkillable weapons program spins out of control and results in a weapon designed to be a jack of all trades and ends up being a master of none. Meanwhile, something as simple as deploying a light attack aircraft to support routine counterinsurgency operations seemed impossible for the American war machine, and after a decade of trying, the brass threw in the towel.
In short, the American military has become the bedrock of the West’s martial prowess, but much like bedrock, its evolution seems borderline glacial from a big picture perspective. It invested very heavily in advanced gadgets that make its troops, planes, tanks, and warships deadlier, more efficient, and harder to catch by surprise, but it’s still training to take down superpowers and their proxies with overwhelming force, and using and developing platforms meant to fight the type of wars that ended a generation ago. It’s an immovable object that can crush almost anything in sight. The only way to achieve parity with it without a time machine and trillions of dollars or euros is to become an unstoppable force. And that’s exactly what other NATO countries would have an opportunity to do by focusing on robotics, AI, and cyber warfare.
Right now, no one knows how to fight truly autonomous drones that can make a decision far faster than any human and handle speeds and stresses that could kill human pilots. No one knows how to properly respond to massive hacking campaigns, just how to make them more difficult to execute. And few militaries are developing for future wars, they’re either making the best of their budget right now or updating their forces in response to the last conflict in which they participated. This is not a sustainable trajectory for military superiority in an age when AI is a real thing with which we have to contend. Unshackled from reliance on massive and very well funded conventional forces, the EU and Canada can plan for a conflict in 2035 instead of 2019 as they ramp up their military development.
Of course, this will not come cheap, but Europe’s military budget is nearly $250 billion, and Canada’s is just over $21 billion. More than a quarter trillion dollars invested wisely into the weapons of the future, built to be upgradable and network with each other rather than wildly over-designed to do everything in one platform, can quickly build a formidable deterrent to almost any other military power on Earth. All the expertise to create them already exists and two very effective demonstrations of their capabilities were already built four years ago: BAE Systems’ Taranis and Dassault’s nEUROn. In case those names sound familiar, both companies also build weapons for the U.S. Air Force. The expertise is there, the priority and vision are the only real ingredients missing.
This may very well be what foreign generals of allied states are considering when they envision a future in which Americans aren’t the friends you call when you need help but the powerful, curmudgeonly relative who might pitch in under the right circumstances. A smarter bet for the U.S. would be to reroute the tens of billions being spent on overly ambitious platforms and blaze the trail in those future weapon systems, abandoning doctrines that teach fear and distrust of technology, and shunning designs that promise to do everything for everyone, then spread the new networked, upgradeable, specialized weapons to allies and friends.
Embracing disruptive technologies and the cost-savings they can bring, as well as the soldiers’ lives they can spare, is the only way forward. The nation or group of nations which will militarily dominate the 21st century would understand this concept, internalize it, and use these new and currently alien weapons to change how wars are fought. Their battlefields will focus not on how many troops, tanks, and bombers they can buy and deploy, but on how quickly they can strike with expendable force multipliers built to do a few key things and do them extremely well at a fairly low cost, with minimal risk to actual humans. And if the rest of NATO chooses to work in this direction to fill the vacuum left by American isolationism, they could do it a lot faster than many of today’s tech-illiterate politicians might assume.