How to Stop the Next World War

A strategy to restore America’s military deterrence

An illustration of a green toy soldier standing atop a victory podium with a draped American flag
The Atlantic

Our efforts to help restore the technological prowess of the U.S. military started six years ago in a Pentagon conference room. One of us, a former executive and tech innovator in Silicon Valley, was then serving as the head of the Defense Innovation Board, created to match the needs of the Department of Defense with America’s most advanced technologies. The other was the deputy secretary of defense, reworking the U.S. military’s strategy for the growing competition among the world’s great powers. Though we’d never met before, we quickly realized we had reached the same conclusion: In failing to adapt to the changing character of warfare and great-power competition, America risked setting itself up for a catastrophic defeat.

Our subsequent work together, including at the Special Competitive Studies Project, has confirmed our initial fears. Thanks to a new generation of disruptive technologies and intensifying global rivalries, the likelihood of war between the world’s great powers—and the devastation such a war could wreak—will increase significantly this decade. The best way to deter such a war is for the U.S. military to restore its technological superiority over potential adversaries. We’ve spent the past year designing a strategy that we believe will enable us to do just that. Our window of opportunity is quickly closing.

Most Americans alive today have known only a world in which the U.S. military is dominant. For generations, it has been capable of both protecting our homeland against invasion and underwriting an international order that has fostered peace and prosperity on a scale that humanity had never previously experienced.

Our military primacy allowed us to shape the global economy—unlocking trillions of dollars for U.S. companies and citizens—and secure the free flow of commerce that enabled supply chains to function and globalization to flourish. It also allowed us to establish the global data network that powers the digital economy and international communication. Most important, our hegemony has helped protect democracy worldwide against challenges from authoritarianism.

Losing our military edge could threaten these gains and trigger irreversible consequences. The rival best positioned to overtake us is the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Its military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), has closely studied the American way of war for the past three decades and invested in new capabilities specifically designed to defeat us. As the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, recently warned Congress, the PRC is “working every day to close the technology gap with the United States and our allies.” Milley’s predecessor General Joe Dunford issued a similar warning in 2017: The U.S. military’s technological edge against China is eroding. Just weeks ago, the Biden administration noted in its National Security Strategy that China is gaining the capacity “to reshape the international order” and tilt “the global playing field to its benefit.”

Since our first meeting at the Pentagon, the character of conflict has changed dramatically. In 2016, North Korean hackers nearly succeeded in stealing all $1 billion that Bangladesh held at that time in the Federal Reserve Bank in New York. In 2020, Azerbaijani forces used advanced Turkish-made drones to destroy Armenian tanks, overturning a decades-long stalemate in the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region, and demonstrating the limits of relying on armored vehicles in the 21st century. In 2021, a drone seems to have autonomously attacked fighters for the first time. And this year, Ukrainian armed forces and civilians used internet service provided by the U.S.-based Starlink and a secure messaging app developed in Switzerland to report on Russian military movements.

These changes are just the beginning. As emerging technologies mature, particularly artificial intelligence, and as the geopolitical rivalry between the United States and China intensifies, changes in warfare will only accelerate. The next great-power war—should we be so unfortunate as to experience one—will be unlike any in history.

One key change is that militaries will have great difficulty hiding from or surprising one another. Sensors will be ubiquitous, and once-impenetrable intelligence will be vulnerable to quantum advances in decryption. Highly adaptable and mobile weapons systems—including drones, loitering munitions, and hypersonic missiles—will largely inhibit militaries from amassing forces to invade (though these systems may also enable surprise attacks of their own).

This development might sound stabilizing, but it is more likely to be the opposite. When one side knows what the other is about to do, it will be more inclined to attack preemptively, or risk significant losses. Similarly, the other side will feel an ever more urgent need to attack first. Such a dynamic encourages rapid escalation, especially in the space and cyber domains, where technological advances happen quickly and where international norms and red lines are largely lacking.

Meanwhile, analytic tools that help war fighters make sense of the battlefield will be fundamentally transformed by AI. Applying AI-powered software to incoming data will allow war fighters to process exponentially more information and share key findings instantaneously. AI will also enable militaries to search for patterns that humans alone cannot detect, leading to novel insights and early warnings about adversaries’ actions and intentions.

While many emerging technologies will make conflict more transparent, others will make it dangerously opaque. Deepfakes will give our adversaries the power to disseminate sophisticated falsehoods and even jeopardize military operations. The scale and speed of cyberattacks will increase, allowing our opponents to hamper our communication networks and contaminate or manipulate data. Even if we were able to detect an attack as it happened—a big if—we might not have time to effectively respond. Manipulation and deception have always been part of warfare, but new technologies will supercharge them.

These changes will have enormous strategic implications, many of which we still don’t fully understand or appreciate. But some are already clear. The most significant is that the competition between the United States and China, as well as Russia, is entering a phase of persistent conflict below the level of armed combat, marked by cyberattacks, intellectual-property theft, and disinformation campaigns aimed at our democratic institutions. This type of conflict may not incur mass casualties, but it threatens our ability to grow economically, function as a community, and govern as a democracy.

It also heightens the risks of a hot war. At the dawn of the 20th century, some believed that great-power wars were a thing of the past. In 1909, Norman Angell argued in his book The Great Illusion that the dominant nations at the time were so economically connected that none would start a war. Five years later, one of history’s most destructive wars began anyway.

The belief that economic entanglement prevents war reappeared in the aftermath of the Cold War but rings hollow now. Russia’s territorial ambitions have overtaken any concerns it may have had about economic prosperity. China, which insists on reunifying with Taiwan—by force if necessary—is exhibiting similar tendencies. As China’s leader, Xi Jinping, said at the recent Communist Party Congress, “Complete reunification must be realized and it can without a doubt be achieved … We will continue to strive for peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and utmost effort, but we will never promise to renounce the use of force.”

The growing ambitions of foreign powers, the blurring of the line between war and peace, and the emergence of disruptive technologies are all increasing the risk of a major war. Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state, has warned that the current period reminds him of the years leading up to World War I, except that the world “is infinitely more dangerous now than it was back then.”

Not only is the likelihood of great-power war growing; so, too, is its potential impact on everyday Americans. For most of us, war happens elsewhere, in distant countries, fought by volunteer forces that can expect relatively few casualties. Today’s technologies overturn each of those assumptions. America’s adversaries can now more easily reach our homeland, whether by cyberattack, disinformation, or hypersonic missile. And they can individually target nearly every American by collecting data about our shopping habits, dating preferences, social networks, career links, and DNA profile. This has a variety of frightening applications, including tailored disinformation, psychological pressure, biological warfare, and targeted killings.

Perhaps worst of all, a great-power war in the 21st century, particularly between the United States and China, is likely to devolve into a grinding, years-long contest. Wars are sustained by will, resources, and innovation; great powers enjoy plenty of each. Moreover, the military technologies we have described can rapidly erode existing battlefield advantages, setting the stage for drawn-out conflicts in which neither side can sustain an advantage for long. With vital national interests and global preeminence on the line, such a war won’t end easily.

Our adversaries are already preparing. After decades of closely studying our military, China has invested in a plan tailored to defeat it. Its aim is to identify and attack crucial nodes in the U.S. military’s operational systems, rendering our forces unable to observe, communicate, attack, defend, and resupply.

This is not just a theory. China has demonstrated its ability to compromise digital infrastructure in the U.S. through repeated cyberattacks. To protect itself from an American offensive, the PLA has built a dense web of integrated aerial-denial and air-defense systems to challenge U.S. forces approaching Chinese shores. In 2021, more alarmingly, China tested a hypersonic missile capable of reaching any location in the United States. Given the missile’s technological sophistication, even detecting it, let alone neutralizing it, would be a challenge.

These advances are just the beginning. The PLA is also developing plans to leapfrog U.S. military capabilities by aggressively investing in cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence, big data, advanced computing, and 5G.

If China achieves technological primacy and goes to war with the U.S., it would be able to paralyze our body politic, freeze our economy, and immobilize our military. In such a scenario, we would have little option but to concede.

Today is by no means the first time warfare has rapidly changed at the same time that disruptive technologies have emerged and global rivalries have intensified. In the 20th century, the U.S. successfully navigated such periods by turning to what are called “offset strategies,” wide-ranging military innovations that create a qualitative advantage to make up for a quantitative disadvantage.

The first time the U.S. pursued such a strategy was in the 1950s and ’60s, when it expanded its atomic capabilities to counter the Soviets’ conventional military superiority in Europe. In the 1970s, the second offset strategy was designed by the Department of Defense to prevent Soviet forces from overrunning Western Europe without resorting to tactical nuclear weapons. The capabilities that evolved out of this strategy—sensor networks, precision strikes, and stealth aircraft—were put on display in the First Gulf War.

The third offset strategy, which one of us designed, began around 2014. Its focus was investing in AI and autonomy to use human-machine collaboration and combat teaming—that is, employing machines to aid human decision making and execute military operations—to overcome China’s growing defenses and offensive-strike capabilities in the Western Pacific. Though this strategy helped the U.S. military better understand the threat posed by the PLA, it has yet to result in major operational and organizational changes.

Today’s challenges require a new offset strategy—what we call Offset-X. It is not a war plan, nor is it comprehensive or definitive. But we believe that, if pursued as a competitive strategy, Offset-X will lay the groundwork for the U.S. to restore the technological superiority of its military over all potential adversaries. The strategy has three goals, each of which can help deter war in the future. First, to invalidate the investments that China has made to defeat the U.S. military. Second, to generate new capabilities that will increase the political and economic cost of war for China while reducing the cost of war for the United States and our allies. And third, to inject uncertainty into the PLA’s planning by giving the U.S. military a range of options for how to respond to a potential conflict.

Offset-X includes 10 specific initiatives, three of which deserve priority. First, the U.S. military must embrace fighting as a distributed, network-based force. These forces are geographically spread out, and their decision making and operations are decentralized. Compared with more conventional, hierarchical forces, they can defend broader areas, respond with greater speed and resilience, and attack from multiple directions, including at once. One of us saw firsthand the clear battlefield advantages that Ukraine enjoys from employing distributed, networked forces against Russia’s sluggish, hierarchical military. Deploying such forces in the Western Pacific would allow us to restrict the PLA’s maneuvering space and continue fighting even if we suffer losses or our communication systems are destroyed.

Second, we recommend that the U.S. military fully integrate human-machine collaboration and combat teaming into all of its operations, be they planning and decision making or battlefield combat. When humans and machines form interdependent teams, they can outperform both the best humans and the best machines, capitalizing on their respective strengths and compensating for one another’s weaknesses. Employing them will help U.S. forces penetrate dangerous environments, such as the heavily guarded East and South China Seas, with less risk to human life. Machines can also serve as the “eyes and ears” of their human teammates, particularly in urban environments.

Third, the U.S. military should prioritize the embedding and use of innovative software in all future decision aids, combat systems, and operations. Software is now integral to every component of military decision making, whether sensing a target, selecting a weapon, conducting a strike, or assessing damage inflicted or incurred in battle. Successfully deploying and updating software will determine whether the U.S. military can outthink, outperform, and outgun the PLA.

For the past 75 years, U.S. military power has helped stabilize the world, creating unprecedented opportunities for economic growth and freeing people from the constant fear that another great-power war might devastate their lives. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has given us a glimpse of what the return of industrial-scale warfare would mean. If China invades Taiwan, the global cost could well be far higher.

As the character of warfare changes and geopolitical rivalries intensify, Americans face a choice. We can assume that the ideas, processes, and technologies that formed the basis of American military primacy in the 20th century will continue to preserve peace and prosperity. That choice is hubris. It will only bring us closer to war.

Fortunately, there is another option. The U.S. military can instead embrace the strategies and technologies that will define warfare in the coming decades. Not only will these make us more resilient; they will increase the cost of war for our rivals beyond what they’ll be willing to pay.

It is time to get on with it.