Displaying (Real) Military Strength

Seventy-nine years ago, the cover of Life Magazine showcased state-of-the-art U.S. military power. A handsome, thirty-four-year-old captain named Clayton Mansfield was shown standing in the turret of an army tank, peering confidently off into the distance. This “combat car” photo was taken just weeks before FDR was re-re-elected, months before the raid on Pearl Harbor, and just a few short years before the current U.S. President was born.

I mention this, because, as I type these words, tanks are being positioned near the Lincoln Memorial, presumably to reassure the public of our military might. Referenced by the current President as “brand new Sherman tanks” (maybe he meant Bradley Fighting Vehicles), and then as “Abram tanks” (he meant Abrams tanks), the vehicle weapons being showcased on the Mall were first deployed in 1980 – months before the IBM PC.

Now, don’t get me wrong: Abrams tanks are impressive vehicles of war, with the ability to clobber six targets per minute at up to two and half miles distance. If you’ve been trained to operate an M1A2, then you understand it’s raw power. We should be proud that our military has such continued awesome capability, and I’m all for maintaining conventional weapons (my Dad served the U.S. Army at Fort Monmouth for three decades).

But a tank today seems like a horse in 1940: It’s necessary, but by no means our most lethal weapon. The M1A2, for example, still requires that someone climb down onto a reclining chair in a tiny space to take verbal driving instructions from a human navigator. Now, I understand that tanks can obliterate buildings instantaneously, but they just seem so . . . well, they seem so Eisenhower (our current President was a teen when Ike quit).

Let’s take a moment to illustrate the problem: Suppose that our military decided to deploy a battalion of Abrams tanks across some middle Eastern desert as part of a larger campaign. Most Americans would envision a vicious shooting battle to ensue under conventional conditions (and probably live on CNN). If yes – if we have the most and best tanks and planes and helicopters, then we win. That’s why we stockpile tanks: More is more.

But suppose that, unlike during the Kuwait conflict under George H.W. Bush, our adversary responded with a cyber offensive. Imagine, for example, that as we guide our M1A2s across the desert, our adversary responds by hacking Bank of America’s ATMs, and crashing New York’s emergency services, and blinking the lights in Seattle. Do our tanks have a button to fix these types of problems? Welcome to modern warfare – Internet-style.

What this means is that stockpiling tangible, physical weapons is no longer a reasonable sole strategy for the future. Yes – we must maintain and even grow our conventional arsenal. But to win future wars, we’ll need the best cyber offense and defense. And we’ll need this to reside across all aspects of our society. In the past, the U.S. military handled warfare. But in the future, it will be our citizens, businesses, agencies, and yes – our military, as well.

So, if the current President had really wanted to display U.S. military power on this holiday, then he would have spent the day awarding medals to the best-performing math students in our high schools. And he would have visited our national research labs at MITRE and APL/JHU to see demos of advanced AI-controlled battlefield protections. And he would have caucused with DHS CISA to brainstorm ideas for intelligent, automated cyber defense.

Yes, if we want to display real military superiority, then I believe it must be done in front of glowing displays connected to data networks. If we want our adversaries to see that the U.S. is properly prepared, then our visual symbols should center on the education of our youth. If we want citizens to be assured that our military is ready for the future, then I believe we must improve and showcase our world-class cyber security capability.

Let me know what you think – but I must request a favor: Please do not share here your thoughts on whether the current President was correct to run a military pageant on a holiday. That is a question for a much different forum. Rather, I want to know what you think about the military symbolism of tanks versus cyber. That is, which causes a U.S. adversary more concern: Abrams tanks on the Mall, or U.S. students doing better at math?

Happy Fourth of July.