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What Really Mattered In 2017 (Our Top 10 List)

Posted by Colin Clark on

This is a list of the most important stories and opinion pieces we ran at Breaking Defense in 2017. It’s a bit like our coverage: freewheeling, often unexpected and, hopefully, poking at the spots where policymakers in the US, NATO, Australia, Japan, South Korea and our other treaty allies and partners need to look. We encourage you, Dear Reader, to provide alternative lists and tear our choices to pieces! Happy New Year! The Editor.

At Nr. 10, this story illustrates the truth that the Air Force, Navy and Army know they must change how they decide what weapons to buy, do it well and do it much more quickly than they have for most of the last two decades. This exclusive revealed an enterprise-wide change to how the Air Force grapples with key capability gaps and how to fill them. If its Multi-Domain Command and Control (MDC2) and Electronic (Cyber?) Warfare efforts successfully identify what we should build and lead to speedy acquisitions of effective weapons this could point the way ahead in acquisition and requirements for the Navy and Army.

Nr. 9. There was much gnashing of teeth when North Korea launched this missile. Our contributor Ralph Savelsberg, an associate professor at the Netherlands Defense Academy, dug deep into the publicly available data and concluded that the missile, while a clear improvement to North Korea’s efforts to build true ICBMs, wasn’t nearly as threatening as most news reports cast it. Savelsberg provided a rational backstop to the drumbeat of what really seemed like fear-based reporting.

Nr. 8 Lasers have been the weapons of tomorrow since Buck Rogers and Ming the Merciless started zapping each other. The Navy put one on a ship and industry talks excitedly about lasers on the F-35 and whatever the next-generation fighter ends up looking like. But, as this story shows, it’s the usually stodgy, slow-moving Army that’s really putting some meat on the bones of the “battlefield of tomorrow.” 

Nr. 7. Sen. John McCain either creates policy or is a pivot point for a huge amount of America’s defense strategy, politics and politics. He is stricken with the same brain cancer, glioblastoma, that killed my sister in August, so this one feels more personal than the illnesses of most public figures. Because McCain looms so large in Congress and affects so much of what the military does in so many ways, the question of who will replace McCain as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee looms large. We dealt with this issue as carefully as we could and heard from folks close to the committee that we did it well and accurately. We wish John McCain a fine and vigorous 2018.

Nr. 6 The Army — big sigh — has just bungled and botched so much of its acquisition since rolling out the redoubtable Big Five. And it’s usually stayed silent about its failures and tried desperately to avoid taking the blame for Comanche, Crusader, Future Combat Systems and on and on. So when the Army Futures Study Group approached us about running an op-ed admitting the service’s goofs and beginning to chart a way ahead to build the weapons for Multi-Domain warfare, we shouted and whooped. If the Army really does do what this piece outlines, this could be one of the most significant pieces we’ve run. But that’s a BIG if, so we’re putting this one in the middle of the pack. 

Nr. 5. Say OODA Loop. Say it with me. It’s been one of the central concepts of US military operations from aerial dogfights to the enterprise of global war since it was coined by Air Force Col. John Boyd. So when a senior Lockheed Martin engineer and an Air Force Research Lab scientist approached us with the first public paper on a new theory for how to achieve fighter dominance, we were mighty excited. Still are. Read on! 

Nr. 4. Space is the final frontier for the military in the sense that we rarely thought or planned for battle extending to space and now we are. The biggest shift is the increasingly public discussion of offensive weapons in space. This story notes that and mentions National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster’s push for new interagency guidance for the full range of US and allied space assets — civil, commercial, military and intelligence. Should the Space Council prove effective at gathering the reins of American space policy and provide useful goals for this set of crucial warfighting capabilities this could transform the US military.

Nr. 3 Those of us who covered the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) and transformation in depth know how frustratingly vague and unformed such ideas can be, even if they contain really important ideas and may shape the future. Artificial Intelligence is one of the specific capabilities that seems to incite real hope for a fundamental leap ahead among military strategists, futurists and decision makers. This story illustrates clearly what might be possible and how far we are from really understanding what AI may make possible or the risks involved.

In at Nr. 2 is a bit of conceptual legerdemain, a bit of shameless self-promotion but, most important, a story about something that may make AI and a whole lot of other capabilities and doctrine really useful. We call it the War Algorithm and the story really speaks for itself.

Drumroll, please! The top story for 2017, Nr. 1, is one we don’t like touting, but we must. For several years, evidence has been mounting that the Budget Control Act, Congress’s abandonment of its primary responsibility to pass bills funding the nation’s defense, the persistent refusal of the Bush and Obama administrations to demand money to pay for both operations and modernization are whittling away at the ability of the US military to serve as the bedrock global power underpinning the liberal world order. Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress the clock is ticking. We’ve got four years before we lose the fundamental ability to project power, the attribute that underpins America’s military.

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