Editor’s Note: The following article is adapted from Striking Power: How Cyber, Robots, and Space Weapons Change the Rules for War, by Jeremy Rabkin and John Yoo (Encounter, 2017). Reprinted with permission.
In his 2017 inaugural address, President Trump protested that for decades the American people “subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military . . . spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.” No longer would the United States waste its blood and treasure fighting abroad for the interests of others. “From this moment on,” Trump declared, “it’s going to be America first.” During the campaign, Trump had launched even sharper critiques of U.S. foreign policy. Paying attention to the interests of foreigners had led the United States into disastrous wars, most lamentably in Iraq. “We shouldn’t have been there, we shouldn’t have destroyed the country, and Saddam Hussein was a bad guy but he was good at one thing: killing terrorists,” Trump said during the campaign.
Despite such rhetoric, the administration did not pursue a foreign policy of isolationism or even non-interventionism. In the Middle East, the United States has not only continued fighting foes from its recent wars but gone beyond them. In April 2017, the Trump administration set aside the passivity of its predecessor and launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against a Syrian air base in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. It expanded the American deployment of ground troops in the Syrian civil war, provided arms to Kurdish militias, and lent air and tactical support for Iraqi forces fighting the Islamic State terrorist group. U.S. troops continued to fight in Afghanistan against a resurgent Taliban, even going so far as to use a massive ordnance bomb against insurgent tunnels. Promising to “bomb the hell out of ISIS” during the campaign, Trump has authorized a significant increase in drone strikes and special operations by both the CIA and the U.S. armed forces.
In Asia, the Trump administration did not send U.S. forces into direct combat, but it resorted to the threat of force to support its foreign policy. To pressure the North Korean regime to halt its nuclear-weapons program, Trump dispatched the USS Vinson aircraft-carrier strike group and a nuclear submarine to the area. “There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea,” he said. “Absolutely.” His administration proposed a more aggressive response to China’s building of artificial islands in the South China Sea. “Building islands and then putting military assets on those islands is akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea. It’s taking of territory that others lay claim to,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in his confirmation hearing. “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.” To enforce such demands would require more frequent freedom-of-navigation patrols and could even call for naval blockades.
For all that, President Trump shows little sign of reversing the Obama administration’s caution on risking American lives. He continues to criticize the U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan as “costly” — by which he seems to mean costly in American lives but also in budget allocations. The Trump administration faces a quandary. Restoring a muscular American foreign policy will demand a higher rate of operations and deployments, increasing costs and risking greater casualties. Though the administration has proposed increases in military spending, it remains cautious about costly foreign commitments.
Technology can help resolve this looming impasse. Robotics, the Internet, and space-based communications have increased productivity across the economy. These same advances may have a comparably transformative impact on military affairs. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) allow pilots to strike targets more precisely at reduced cost, with less harm to bystanders and less threat to themselves. Cyber weapons permit nations to impose disruptions on an adversary in more precisely targeted attacks and without physical destruction. Space-based networks enable militaries to locate their forces exactly, lead their troops more effectively, and target their enemies more precisely.
These new advances are turning military development away from the 20th century’s reliance on draft armies equipped with simple, yet lethal, mass-produced weapons. As nations use force that becomes more precise and discrete, they can consider changing rules developed in the era of mass armies and attrition warfare. The laws of war need not fuss over the line between targetable military and immune civilian assets when nations can rely on UAVs to deliver precision-guided munitions on particular targets.
As nations use force that becomes more precise and discrete, they can consider changing rules developed in the era of mass armies and attrition warfare.
As it is, reluctance to use force has led western nations to rely on economic sanctions, which punish entire populations. Drones and cyber attacks might achieve comparable results to economic sanctions by inflicting harm on the target state’s economy, but in a more precise manner. Such an approach may avoid unintended effects of sanctions and operate much more quickly and reliably, leaving adversaries less time to adapt to (or circumvent) sanctions. To make the most of those new capacities, we should rethink current legal formulas purporting to regulate when “military force” is lawful, and against what targets.
New weapons technologies could help the United States and its allies protect international stability. WMD proliferation, international terrorism, human-rights catastrophes, and rising regional powers are threatening the liberal international order constructed by the U.S. and its allies after World War II. Nations will be discouraged from confronting these problems with conventional force. But if new technology reduces the costs of war while improving its effectiveness, nations may turn to force more often to promote desirable ends. Promoting international stability remains a global public good, in that peace benefits all nations regardless of who pays for it. This gives nations a strong incentive to free-ride off the efforts of others to maintain international peace and security. If using force becomes less expensive and more effective, nations may turn to force more readily when the times require it. New weapons may be particularly helpful in situations where a large-scale military response would seem excessive but mere words seem insufficient.
In fact, new weapons technologies may produce the welcome benefit of reducing the harms of individual disputes. While the United States, among others, is rapidly developing new means of fighting, these innovations may limit war. Robotics can reduce harm to combatants and civilians by making attacks more precise and deadly. Cyber can more effectively target enemy military and civilian resources without risking direct injury to human beings or the destruction of physical structures. Space satellites will provide the sensors and communications that make possible the rapid, real-time marriage of intelligence and force, and future orbital weapons may create a viable defense to nuclear missiles.
— Jeremy Rabkin is a professor of law at George Mason University. John Yoo is the Emanuel S. Heller Professor of Law at the University of California at Berkeley, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and a former Justice Department official during the George W. Bush administration.