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

The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare. Christian Brose. New York, NY: Hachette Books, 2020.

Christian Brose’s The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare is a book about death. It is a book about Senator John McCain’s legacy after pursuing defense reform as Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. It is a book that makes a case for the death of the current tradition of American power projection. Correspondingly it is a book about the desired death of a defense acquisitions ecosystem that has, according to Brose, contributed to building a military ill-equipped for the 21st century. This book was further inspired by the apparent death of United States military dominance during a 2017 series of war games in which the United States lost against both Russia and China. The results alarmed many including McCain and, by extension, his chief of staff, Brose. It is a book about the future deaths of human beings by semi-autonomous machines and about the technological potential for that reality. In its entirety, this book is a consequence of the death of America’s so-called unipolar moment following the Cold War and the death of imagination in preparing for it. In fact, should one rescue the book from a dusty corner of an airport book shop someday, it will certainly call to mind the glittering years of navel-gazing from which the acquisitions process may never wake up.


Now that we have had the eulogy, let us address the audience. If you are a national security specialist, a budget and policy wonk, or an ethicist interested in warfare waged by unmanned machines, then Brose did not actually write this book for you. He states clearly that it is for an educated public whose family members may have skin-in-the-game in a future war.[1] The book may trigger the former’s confirmation biases, but that is beside the point. In spite of the book’s propagandistic language, its curious contradictions, and the blithe failure to address cyber security or defense, there are still reasons to read it and understand what is not mentioned as well for what Brose has been praised for addressing.[2] [3] [4]

The problem Brose presents is this: the defense acquisition ecosystem is no longer fit for its purpose. The approval and appropriation of defense procurement is sustained by the mix of legacy political and legal infrastructure from the Cold War and hasty innovations from the post-9/11 security environment.[5] America is challenged, militarily and economically, by asymmetric, high-technology threats coming from Eurasia and China. According to Brose, America should fight fire with fire.[6]

In Brose’s view, the high-technology, low-quantity expeditionary approach informing the development of the F-22, F-35, and Ford-class aircraft carrier is poorly suited to an era when America’s foremost rivals are investing heavily in low-intensity, localized capabilities. These capabilities are designed to break the American expeditionary kill chain.[7] Brose’s error is that he sets up this straw man so that he can pitch Silicon Valley’s start-up gospel of iteration and persistent communication as the solution, but fails to hitch that gospel to the logistical realities of wide oceans extending off both of America’s coasts.[8]


Brose’s analysis of American acquisitions failure is built primarily on anecdotes about lost opportunities and bureaucratic inertia during the first three chapters. The book shines during these portions and in the other portions on bureaucratic malaise: he is laser-focused on the problem and highlights clear, painful examples that should motivate discussions on reform. However, Brose never builds a bridge between the problem and the conceptual near- and distant-future solutions he squints at during chapters four through nine.

From the history of American defense reform, the problem is this: defense reform is a political challenge, not just a bureaucratic one.[9] When political change is required, stakeholders need a clear, sticky idea to walk them from the problem to a menu of solutions.[10] That idea has to keep stakeholders on track through a gauntlet of resistance. Defense Without Dominance is the kind of chapter title that teases that big idea. Even the logic of putting the words defense without dominance together is an unexpected twist. However, this is the chapter where it becomes clear that Brose either has not finished, or cannot finish, the thought about how America should actually process a new form of high-tech warfare.

The chapter has a clear enough theme: “To deny China military dominance, Americans must recognize that this is not just another defense priority among others -- it must be the defense priority to which all others are subordinated.”[11] After spending the nine previous chapters defending the transformative power of networked warfare, Brose states that new technology cannot save America if it remains attached to its existing mode of warfare.[12] Later, he contradicts this statement: “To deter this kind of conflict, the United States must have nearly all of the military forces required to defend against great power aggression right where war might occur.”[13] That is the definition of a Desert Storm-style military buildup, which requires either a pre-positioned presence in the region or rapid deployment via highly defendable, long range transport.


Brose continues: “This necessitates positioning large numbers of new military forces, especially autonomous systems, advanced missiles, and electronic attack systems, in Europe and Asia. It will also require the eventual forward deployment of advanced manufacturing and other means of production that could rapidly generate vast quantities of replacement forces in the event of conflict (emphasis mine).”[14] That is the definition of expeditionary warfare and the method of deployment is begging for a discussion of cyber security that never materializes. Moreover, protecting forward-deployed stationary platforms, and certainly manufacturing bases, require offensive dominance of the land, airspace, and cyber domains supporting them. There is no chapter dedicated to how this will be accomplished beyond America’s borders, in partnership with America’s allies, and is a tacit acceptance that the best defense is a good offense.


Warbot Refelct.png

Brose not only fails to provide a consistent concept for what defense without dominance is militarily, he fails to address the political implications. In the most dangerous course of events, remote warfare at scale may occur long before politics can catch up. Brose illuminates this possibility clearly but spares a few paragraphs only for reframing remote warfare as more ethical than the current approach.[15] Dr. Jack McDonald of King’s College recently provided a framework on the political legitimacy of remote warfare from both an international norms and domestic governance perspective.[16] In addition to McDonald’s article, there is a large body of scholarship from which Brose could have gleaned to inform the Defense Without Dominance argument, including from The Strategy Bridge’s #WarBots series.[17] If readers are interested in a more detailed analysis of recent conflicts, and especially the organizational challenges of integrating unmanned systems into command and control, they might consider “Beware the Hype”, which addresses the concept of War-as-a-Service (WaaS).[18] Brose’s decision not to address this deeper conversation toward a more general readership is disappointing. The result is this: Brose’s narrative simply substitutes one defense procurement menu for another, and the only narrative tool he uses is the fear of technological overmatch to inform and motivate the change.

Brose makes a clear point that fighting differently requires thinking, and procuring, differently. A clear point can still be moot. A rational call to do things differently implies not only a clear impetus for change but also the provision of a relevant, coherent substitute for current behavior. Brose fails to close the kill chain on the current behavior. He puts the cart before the horse and demands the death of an old system without stimulating the discussion of a new one. At what political cost has America flailed fearfully at weakly understood threats in the last twenty years?[19]

Mitchell D. White is a former U.S. Army officer. The views expressed are the author's own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


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