Book Review – The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare, by Christian Brose

Reading Time: 4 minutes

In the US Army, it is a common refrain to say we are always busy training to fight the last war. To the detriment of our own security, we are often too busy looking toward the past to recognise the signs of what is to come. Luckily for us and any nations willing to learn from our situation, there is no shortage of mavericks in the military and defence sphere to get us back on track. One such figure is Christian Brose, a defence analyst, former senior policy advisor to US Senator John McCain, and the author of The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare. Brose uses his experience as the youngest Staff Director of the Senate Armed Services Committee in history and a long-time defence insider to lay out exactly how the American Military has fallen behind peers like China in the race to modernise the force in an age of high-technology and interconnectivity.

The Kill Chain serves as a primer for how the US Military has fallen behind in the ways we think, act, and innovate, and as a stark warning for any force who may be doing the same. In just 12 compact chapters totaling 250 pages, the book covers everything from the hubris that came with the US’s becoming the sole superpower following the Soviet Union’s collapse to the ways in which military and political bureaucracies inhibit change. While much of its subject matter has been discussed elsewhere, what sets The Kill Chain apart is the way it connects the stagnation in development which the US military is experiencing to an equal stagnation in the way we think. This concept highlights the namesake of the book (the kill chain); the process by which forces receive data, turn it into information, make a decision, and convert it to military action. This process is at the heart of any military operation and the speed and efficiency with which it takes place can ultimately decide the outcome of any conflict.

While the book discusses how decades of asymmetric conflicts have left the US without the sort of existential threat that motivates change, its focus on the modern factors keeping the US from progressing are where it shines the most. Service members from most Western nations will recognize the following inhibitors of change: promotion systems that favour “team players” over creative thinkers; emphasis on the comfort of tradition over the risk of adaption; and placation of special interest groups by decision makers. Add to this list a general distaste for any concept that shifts the focus away from human involvement, and you begin to see how major militaries like that of the US are stuck in the past when compared to nations like China. All of this should rightly scare any reader from a nation that lacks the imagination to see there are things much worse than change, but Brose is far from a modern-day Cassandra. While his work effectively contextualises the current deficit in technological and cognitive innovation in the US, it just as effectively proscribes digestible solutions to this deficit. 

The practical arguments are necessarily made: unmanned platforms and an internet of things (IOT) approach must lighten the strain on human operators, cyber and space capabilities must be pursued aggressively, and machines that can close the kill chain must be incorporated into defense planning. Brose takes it one step further by listing ways in which these goals can realistically be reached. Innovative thinkers must be rewarded for pushing winning ideas within the ranks and the defense industry, politicians and their constituents must be incentivized to replace outdated platforms, and lobbyists and high-ranking officers must work to explain the necessity and benefit of future technologies. While the onus for pursuing such changes is clearly shared by those currently in power, those who might learn the most from this book are the junior military leaders and political players set to make the biggest impacts in the decades to come.

I myself am currently serving as a junior officer in the United States Army, where I have already seen the resistance to change Brose describes in his book on numerous occasions. For example, while my unit is exceptional in its general focus on innovation, my attempts to acquire space-related training opportunities for sub-units that are already engaging in space capabilities have most often been met with derision. This reaction is especially detrimental when it comes to competition with nations like China, as the sort of developments being inhibited no longer represent the future or even the present; they are already a part of the past. For this reason and more, I would add the following lessons aimed specifically at junior leaders to those included in Brose’s book.

Lessons for Junior Leaders from The Kill Chain:

  1. Identify the systems underlying the big issues in your unit and beyond; change can often flow like water and the best solution is to locate and remove the dams.
  2. Don’t get stuck in the day-to-day; continue to study and discuss ways to improve your organisation and encourage your peers to do the same.
  3. Avoid complacency and question processes and decisions; be open to the same curiosity from others and never accept “we’ve always done it this way”.
  4. Stay motivated in the face of opposition. Challenging norms is not without its risks, but revolutionary change can only come when enough young leaders prioritise national security over their own career and comfort.

For the reasons listed in this article (and the countless others readers will have to discover for themselves), The Kill Chain is a must read for anyone interested in the future of warfare; especially those junior leaders who can help make it possible.

About the author: Dylan Nigh is a United States Army Officer who enjoys reading, volunteering, and backpacking through the Pacific Northwest. His research interests include irregular warfare, Southeast Asia, technological innovation, and leadership development.