Game-Changers: Two Views on CNAS Disruptive Tech Report

By Scott Cheney Peters and Przemyslaw Krajewski

Game ChangersLast month, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a Washington, DC, think tank, released the intriguing report “Game Changers: Disruptive Technology and U.S. Defense Strategy.” The analysis contained within is a result of a series of wargames done in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Defense. What follows are two views on the value, highlights, and weaknesses in the work.


For regular visitors to this site, a good part of Game Changers serves as a familiar retread covering technologies through to hold the most promise of upsetting the current way of war. Additive manufacturing, autonomous drones, directed energy, cyber capabilities, and human performance modification (HPM) are all evaluated for their potential to drastically affect how future militaries function and wars are fought. Admittedly we have not talked much about HPM beyond human-machine interaction, such as augmented reality devices.* If you have not had a chance to read up on these topics, the report serves as a nice primer.

As for the purpose of the work, the key argument is that the U.S. should not rest on its laurels in science and technology (S&T) investments because it has, post-WWII, relied on a qualitative over quantitative military. If the qualitative edge slips, the thinking goes, the military’s edge over potential adversaries slips. The take-away is that “technological dominance is a strategic choice.” Unfortunately, having had this dominance for some time there is an inertia-inducing temptation to believe that it will always be so, necessitating that the U.S. actively guard against a desire to rest on its laurels. The report intriguingly argues that this complacency is compounded by the fact that a technologically dominant power has less incentive to develop revolutionary tech because it would be relatively less useful than for a weaker power.

The authors sound two additional warnings. First, thanks to globalization they note it has never been easier for competitors and even non-state actors to access disruptive technology and nip at the heels of American technological dominance. It is certainly true that information-sharing advances have enabled technology diffusion. Yet some tech, even when accessible, requires a high-degree of expertise and training to be used, or requires specialized components and rare material. Nuclear weapons come to mind. Even in these cases info-sharing lowers the barriers, but it does not completely remove them.

The second point is more of a double-edged sword, and that’s how the commercial sector will drive the development of much of the innovation in these technologies. On one hand, this leaves the same tech more accessible to groups of varied motives, as noted above. On the other, it means that private investments will advance the tech that the military wants. But not all the way. In many instances the larger commercial market will prove more lucrative, leaving a gap in specifications between the commercial supply and military demand, so the authors are correct to note that the military must retain the capability to “translate key technologies from the commercial world and apply them to tomor¬row’s military challenges.” Unstated, but also important, is the ability to identify early on what those key gaps will be (certainly no easy task) so that the military can continue to exploit the latest advances. As the report later notes, the potential for a new tech to be game-changing falls within is short time-frame.

My biggest disappointment with the report was that the analytical framework for explaining what makes a new technology a game-changer was somewhat muddled. There’s a disconnect between figures, introduced-but-unexplained terms, and the text of the report. I assume that these were explained in more detail during the series of wargames, but for those without access to that background the result is a little bit confusing. It does raise some interesting points about cultural factors that can act as hindrances to tech adoption, and the broader point comes through, that even with the emergence of a revolutionary technology a series of other factors must converge to make it useful and utilized to game-changing effect in the military. But it would be interesting to learn more about the thinking behind particularly the “perspectives” and “congruence” factors.

LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

*Full disclosure, Andrew Herr, whose work on HPM is cited is a former classmate of mine and friend, while fellow CIMSECian Matt Hipple and I had the honor of having our Proceedings article on naval applications of 3d-printing cited.


The title of CNAS’ new report might more appropriately be called “Looking Beyond Technology.” Faith in technology is so strong in this document that the authors make technology the central theme of American dominance? in spite of the fact that the otherwise-excellent arguments presented show something different. The authors admit that technology by itself is not a game-changer—it needs to be applied under specific circumstances:

“The framework includes four primary areas that all must converge for a technology to be truly game changing: congruence, perspectives, societal values and organizational culture and time. The core elements of a game-changing technology are the technology itself, a concept for its use and a relevant problem.”

This raises a series of questions: Why the stress on technology and not on the concept, relevant problem, or other conditions described so well? Does a technology itself possess inherent attributes making it a game changer? If not, is it possible that ANY technology could become a game changer given the right circumstances? Or maybe the best model to use would be Aristotle’s golden mean and the interaction of a technology and a concept? To better understand the subject the authors offer some examples. One of them is Blitzkrieg:

“Blitzkrieg is a clear example of how such congruence works: integrating fast tanks, aircraft and two-way radios into an operational concept of advanced maneuver warfare obviated the largely defensive technologies of Germany’s opponents (most famously, France’s Maginot Line).”

Blitzkreig: Looking Back, Looking Forward
Blitzkreig: Looking Back, Looking Forward

There is no need here to search for the game-changing technology. Tanks, airplanes, and radio were not only well known to Germany’s opponents but were invented by them. Blitzkrieg is, in fact a tactical concept and the one which wasn’t successful from the beginning so needed refinement in many exercises. Williamson Murray in his essay, “May 1940: Contingency and Fragility of the German RMA,” offers an interesting comment on this military innovation:

“For French and British officers in summer 1940, the Germans had clearly developed a revolutionary style of war. But to some German officers the secret of German success was the careful evolutionary development of concepts that had their origins in the battles of the First World War.”

Downplaying the role of concept is visible in another example in the report, that of aircraft carriers:

“The adoption of these platforms by new actors may be disruptive, or may increase competition in terms of power projection, but is not fundamentally game changing.”

I agree. It was Germany’s adoption of tanks, planes, and radio in the case of Blitzkrieg, but how they used them. But what will happen if U.S. adversaries would merge carriers with an innovative concept of operations? Would the aircraft carrier become a game changer again?

There are many technical innovations that offer U.S. qualitative advantage. During the Cold War cruise missiles, MLRS, IDF Tornado strike fighters among others offered possibility to counterbalance quantitative superiority of Warsaw Pact armies. But these were also blended together with a deep-strike concept allowing the U.S. to isolate first echelons from reinforcements, thus avoiding immediate overwhelming numbers of defenders.

Paradoxically, the report offers remedy to its own concentration on technology. In the very beginning there is a phrase, “Whether a stone or a drone, it simply becomes a tool we apply to a task.” We should never forget that technology, however useful and important, it is just a tool in the hands of a man. As the military thinks about the future, my recommendation is to empower tactics-oriented naval officers who possess a basic understanding of the implications technology brings to tactical situations. Such officers, willing to think through the tactical advantages emerging technologies could bring, offer the best chance to keep a technical advantage, if that is a pillar of strategy.

Przemek Krajewski, alias Viribus Unitis, is a blogger in Poland.  His area of interest is the broad context of purpose and structure for navies and promoting discussions on these subjects in his country.

One thought on “Game-Changers: Two Views on CNAS Disruptive Tech Report”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.