This article originally appeared in FP Insider Access on April 6, 2020.
The coronavirus pandemic is only the most recent crisis to lay bare the fragility of America’s sprawling national security edifice. It has revealed a hollow, sclerotic structure three-quarters of a century old, one designed for a bygone era of rotary telephones and carbon copies. Its structure is remarkably unsuited for the challenges of the 21st century and long overdue for an update.
Organizational structures, like a computer’s operating system (OS), are built to facilitate the flow of information. An OS manages resources and provides common services, processes information, and disseminates commands. If optimized, the OS should be invisible to the user. When the volume of information surpasses that which an OS can comfortably process, decision-making slows to a sluggish crawl.
The U.S. national security OS was completely unprepared for the size of the coronavirus challenge, even with timely warning. Younger, more energetic democracies that responded more quickly and more effectively ultimately flattened the curve of the virus’s spread and potentially saved thousands of lives. The American bureaucracy’s prevarication and confusion, by contrast, has left states fending for themselves and a population on the brink of nervous breakdown. Take heed of this warning: This is certainly not the last pandemic the nation will face in the 21st century.
But overhauling U.S. national security architecture isn’t just about upgrading the government’s information and communications technologies so civil servants can more easily telework (only two months ago, recall, the administration was discouraging the practice altogether). The best network architecture in the world won’t solve the problem by itself, because the system simply isn’t designed to take advantage of the benefits modern technology offers.
The United States has struggled to achieve its foreign-policy aims for decades, in large part due to the inadequacy of its aging—or “vintage,” as one author diplomatically described it—OS. In the span of a single generation, Americans have witnessed repeated failures that have sapped the nation’s capacity, resolve, and credibility. Allies, partners, and, increasingly, Americans themselves now perceive the United States as a declining power unable to govern itself, much less lead the world.
And though aspirant presidents and wistful institutionalists believe the right kind of leadership can make this old-fashioned engine hum again, the truth is that the system itself is obsolete, regardless of who occupies the Oval Office.
States are tools forged by communities to protect and advance their shared interests. They are systems superimposed over nations to facilitate the flow of information. All states are locked in competitive co-evolution with other states in what is now a global metasystem. Those states whose structures—or operating systems—delay the delivery of information, dilute it, or misinterpret it, will make suboptimal decisions and may even be eradicated.
Lulled by several happy decades of first-among-equals primacy, Americans have confused that anomalous condition with normalcy and thus grown complacent. The United States is now a comfortably status quo power in an age when nothing is constant but change itself. When America’s current national security OS was “installed,” America’s privileged geography granted it a degree of security and autonomy that other states simply didn’t have. The U.S. economy then accounted for half of the world’s total, and its unquestioned conventional military superiority underwrote a global network of alliances that advantaged American companies and made a U.S. passport one of the most powerful symbols on earth.
When the United States was an uncontested superpower, to “muddle along” was usually good enough. But the United States’ global hegemony won’t last forever. Indeed, it appears to be ending before our eyes. This isn’t defeatism, just reality—and a call to action.
Successive crises have demonstrated that distance no longer equals security, and oceans are not the protective firewalls they once were. The United States’ economy today is just under 15 percent of the world’s total and will shrink to even less shortly. The U.S. military, for its part, is increasingly challenged in every domain, with serious studies suggesting it may lose the next war. Most concerning of all, the United States itself is no longer seen as the shining city on a hill.
There is no turning back the clock. A simple reboot won’t cut it. The 20th century may have been an American one, but the 21st is up for grabs. Unless Americans are prepared to live in a world in which the United States has been demoted to a second-rate power and falls increasingly under the thumb of a Chinese-dominated world order, it’s time for an update.
The National Security Act of 1947 put into place the system the United States uses today. After a bitter political battle at the end of World War II, American leaders begrudgingly implemented a massive overhaul of the nation’s security architecture in light of a drastically altered competitive environment.
As the product of this political slugfest, the current OS was, as the national security expert Amy Zegart put it, flawed by design. The National Security Act established a complicated machinery of government across a multidivisional hierarchy, atop which sat a processing unit that eventually became a decision-making body called the National Security Council. The council would—in theory, at least—coordinate the actions of a suite of what we might think of as new software applications, such as the Department of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the CIA.
When major bugs revealed themselves, Congress enacted hotfixes, akin to adding more memory or installing new programs within an OS. It created the National Security Agency in 1952, the National Reconnaissance Office in 1960, and the Defense Intelligence Agency in 1961. The Department of Defense itself was reorganized once in 1958, and once again, more substantially, in 1986. Dozens of federal entities were shuffled, combined, or split by the Homeland Security Act of 2002, and a new one—the Office of the Director of National Intelligence—was established by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004.
In every hierarchy, information is filtered, lost, or distorted as it climbs to the top, where a decision is made. It is again filtered, lost, or distorted as it runs the gauntlet the other direction back down to those who will implement that decision. The current OS pits a series of competing hierarchies with their own perspectives—and often their own agendas—against one another. Every day.
Each has a high—and increasing—degree of asset co-specialization, meaning the value of one agency’s work hinges, at least partially, on that of another. With collegial leadership, this arrangement works well enough and is mutually beneficial. But more often it leads to holdup problems—situations where one party self-interestedly imposes demands that adversely affect the performance of another. Addressing this structural problem over the years has resulted in numerous overly complicated governance processes, excessive redundancies, and entrenched bureaucratic knife-fighting over a $1.2 trillion budgetary pie every year.
This system was just about good enough for the relatively favorable environment of the Cold War. It cannot stand today, in a decidedly more wicked, more interwoven, and more quickly changing world. Wicked problems like those posed by the coronavirus are problems without obvious solutions—indeed, there may not an optimal solution at all. The virus’s rapid spread is only the most dramatic example of the kind of emergent crisis that doesn’t respect principals’ meetings, geographic commands, or priority lists, let alone budgetary cycles.
Simply put, the scale, scope, and speed of national security have eclipsed what the extant OS was designed to compensate for. As long as it remains rigidly inflexible, the aggregate weight of interrelated global problems will so drag upon it that it might soon just crash altogether.
Because renascent great-power competition is less a confrontation between powers themselves and more one between the operating systems they use to shape and influence international order, the most salient step the United States can take to advance its national security agenda is to enact the political and societal reforms necessary to make its operating system more competitive.
American rivals recognize this. China’s doctrine of system confrontation and destruction warfare makes it explicit. Chinese President Xi Jinping instituted a massive program to remake the People’s Liberation Army from the top down in 2015 and more recently revamped the administrative structure itself. Russia’s constitutional amendment to essentially make Vladimir Putin president for life (if he wants it) is only the latest example of extensive economic, administrative, and military reforms it has made in the last 20 years. The United States is behind, and time is running out.
That’s the bad news. Now for the good.
Americans remain one of the most adaptive and innovative people on earth. America’s companies and universities are still the most dynamic; America’s network of collaborative alliances is still the most robust. Through these public, private, and international partnerships, Americans can access vastly more knowledge and experience of organizational design, talent management, and decision-making science than Americans’ forebears could in 1947. The United States should leverage of these enormous advantages and implement best practices from wherever they originate.
The existing OS, even with all its constraints, has still managed to generate a growing constellation of self-styled hackers, disruptors, and national security innovators who intuitively recognize its flaws and nonetheless have implemented real, practical changes within their organizations.
These efforts, as uncoordinated as they often are, should be lauded, protected, and encouraged—they are essential. But they are also insufficient. The United States must do much more, because its innovators are structurally limited by built-in path dependencies. It’s time to build something better.
Creating a national security OS suitable for great-power competition under digital, globalized conditions means posing difficult questions about just what it is we mean by national security in the first place, and what is to be done with the system that governs it. It means challenging inherited assumptions, like the one about the demarcation between foreign and domestic, for example. It means differentiating between mission and tradition and rethinking national security from the ground up, emphasizing adaptability leavened with resilience and transparency driven by accountability. Lastly, it means enabling the frictionless exchange of information at every level.
Adaptability is the capacity to respond quickly to emergent needs and just as quickly recall and reallocate when those needs subside. Resilience denotes the degree of shock or change that a system can tolerate while maintaining its structure and basic functioning. It is the ability to absorb or even benefit from disturbances. Transparency means national security decision-making processes should be clear, participatory, and communicated to all. Transparency is driven by accountability: By making the enterprise aware of how its resources are allocated, it becomes better able to measure their effective use through simple metrics understood by all.
If the United States were to begin again, tabula rasa, what would its national security architecture look like? I don’t pretend to have the answer. There is no perfect organizational chart, operating concept, or budget cycle that will solve the structural problems.
An example of reform the United States should pursue immediately is a restructuring of its industrial-era resource allocation process, and that begins with the Department of Defense. A streamlined, integrated national security budget would foster adaptability and resilience as well as transparency and accountability.
Reform will be incredibly difficult, and not just because of institutional inertia. The existing national security OS accounts for the vast majority of discretionary spending, and its processes are thoroughly woven into every segment of the government across every state and congressional district in the nation. The challenge is therefore enormous, and there is probably not yet sufficient political will to enact major reforms—but that may soon change.
America’s founders initiated the boldest experiment in history by establishing a state that would be governed by its citizens, one that was made purposefully malleable and open to outside influences. The Constitution is a living, breathing document that permits the people to remake the apparatus of the state itself as circumstances change over time.
And though the United States has grown lazy from the assumption of dominance in national security issues, Americans can all work to rekindle the competitive dynamism that animated the country when it was younger, less powerful, and much nimbler.
The only thing preventing Americans from doing so once again is political will.
The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense, the intelligence community, or the U.S. government
Zachery Tyson Brown is a security fellow at the Truman National Security Project and a board member of the Military Writers Guild. He is a graduate of the U.S. National Intelligence University.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES