Review: The Kill Chain by Christian Brose

I guess we do book reviews now

Chris Brose spent almost a decade working for Sen. John McCain as a national security advisor. In 2017, he reviewed a litany of studies showing a scenario where the United States loses a war against China or Russia in the present or near future.

After almost 30 years of American hegemony, McCain and top military brass viewed that scenario as nothing short of apocalyptic. The studies showed America as a complacent superpower too distracted by Middle East insurgencies to notice that it had been leapfrogged by adversaries developing new technologies designed specifically to exploit American weaknesses.

Shortly after McCain’s death, Brose joined Anduril, the country’s most (in)famous defense startup, as its Chief Strategy Officer. He described the move as a continuation of his goal to have the military adopt new technologies pioneered by Silicon Valley companies. His new book, The Kill Chain, is his latest attempt to further that goal.

Ultimately, this book is probably viewed best as less of a list of suggestions but rather as a list of plans. Three weeks ago, Anduril was valued at $1.9 billion after a fresh infusion of $200 million of capital from Peter Thiel and others. One week ago, Thiel’s 33 year-old former chief of staff Michael Kratsios took over as the Pentagon’s acting undersecretary for research and engineering. In an industry where government access is a prerequisite to harnessing technical prowess, Chris Brose is very clearly in a position to make his defense dreams a reality.

Like many policy tomes, The Kill Chain begins by asking “how did we get here?”. After a short summary of post-Cold War development in the Chinese and Russian militaries, he presents a longer history of the American military-industrial complex where he argues that a focus on cost cutting produced an acquisition bureaucracy that suffocated new ideas and raised barriers to outsiders. That process is perhaps best summarized by this nigh-incomprehensible flowchart.

Ultimately, this bureaucracy led to a gradual cultural split between the military and modern Silicon Valley, which despite recent employee activism, traces its roots to military R&D projects.

When Brose starts contrasting military technology with that available to the modern consumer, the book starts to pick up steam. In great detail, he demonstrates how the military still largely struggles to share information between different platforms, greatly reducing effectiveness. These problems persisted as the public became accustomed to sharing data effortlessly via Google, Facebook, and the hundreds of other technology companies developed in the past 20 years. For military outsiders such as myself, the differences were very surprising. Especially the anecdote where soldiers literally directed air strikes by dropping pins in Google Maps.

Throughout the book, Brose succeeds in framing the hypothetical defense technologies of the near future, including autonomous drone swarms and other “killer robots” as part of a century-long trend of the increasing modernization of war that started with World War 2 bombers and later gave way to ICBMs. This is a refreshing contrast to most commentary, which treats these new technologies as totally novel, akin to the sudden emergence of Skynet.

There is also an overarching narrative of the United States as a complacent incumbent holding onto the past, not out of ignorance but because its identity were tied to weapons platforms that are now in danger of obsolescence. For the many Navy members who joined after watching Top Gun as children, deemphasizing aircraft carriers and manned aviation in favor of autonomous drones is a tough sell.

Northrop Grumman’s X-47B drone landing on an aircraft carrier

The high point of The Kill Chain comes in its seventh chapter, where Brose discusses the controversy around”killer robots”, autonomous weapons that can strike and kill without a human in the loop. He convincingly fits these new technologies into modern legal frameworks around the use of force and commanders’ responsibility for the actions of their (human) subordinates. The book presents a balanced proposals without leaning too heavily on the standard argument of “This is inevitable; if we don’t do it, China will.”

The book’s main shortcoming is that it doesn’t do a great job of differentiating between current, pressing issues and ones that will play out in the more distant future. Quickly shifting between discussing “carrier killer” anti-ship missiles, an issue that has been at the forefront of naval planning for almost half a decade, and more hypothetical issues such as genetically altered babies and the fine points of deploying troops from space onto earth does require the reader to do some homework on each topic.

True to form, The Kill Chain ends with a list of suggestions. The most prominent is a call for a Military Internet of Things, an oft-repeated phrase that is just begging to enter the lexicon of policymakers. In consumer technology contexts, IoT is an overused, eyeroll-inducing buzzword. But for the military, Brose pitches it as a framework to transition from the current strategy of few large, manned weapons platforms to a larger number of inexpensive, autonomous platforms under the ultimate commands of human operators. It would be the next step in the expanding automation of war: by replacing more expensive, manned combat platforms with inexpensive smart devices, the efficacy of each individual human soldier will be increased. For the first time, military machines will outnumber military personnel.

His other proposal for a strategy of “defense without dominance” is refreshingly realistic, and reminiscent of Graham Allison’s Destined for War. It calls for the US to adopt a more focused strategy in which it accepts a loss of hegemony, yet strategically builds weapons platforms to raise the cost of adversaries’ aggression to unacceptable levels. Basically, copying the Chinese strategy of the last 30 years.

Brose isn’t alone in his quest to re-marry Silicon Valley and the Pentagon. Eric Schmidt, writer one of this book’s many A-List endorsements, has a long history of liaising with the military. With rising geopolitical tensions and a new Tiktok-induced Red Scare beginning to consume tech elites, it seems inevitable that many more will ultimately join Brose & Schmidt. For all newcomers, The Kill Chain is required reading.