Stephen Biddle, along with Eric Min of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Eli Berman of the University of California San Diego, have a new project, Empirical Analysis for Meeting Great Power Challenges. The United States is now emerging from over a decade of active, large-scale counterinsurgency warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq. These conflicts demanded great sacrifices in dollars and lives, and their salience in the U.S. national security debate led to a generation of intense attention to the challenges posed by nonstate actors, civil warfare, terrorism, violent extremism, and insurgency.

These issues remain important and will continue to warrant careful study. But they were never the only important issues. And as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wind down, attention is naturally turning back to the kinds of great-power threats of interstate conflict that dominated the U.S. defense debate before 2001.

In fact, the new National Defense Strategy of 2018 makes it the explicit policy of the United States government to refocus attention on great power challenges: “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” (NDS, 2018, p. 1) The NDS identifies China and Russia as particular concerns and argues that new technology and new strategies could make them increasingly dangerous adversaries in the future.

The primary objective of this research is to support this new strategic focus by identifying factors that will shape the ability of great powers such as China or Russia to use new technology and new strategies effectively. We will do this by exploiting new data sources and novel research methodologies to build stronger theories of combat outcomes in modern great power warfare. From these findings, we will draw implications for U.S. policies to deter such rivals, and to project power successfully if deterrence fails.

Successful deterrence and power projection in conflicts involving such opponents raise important questions of causation and prediction. Real military power has never been a simple matter of cumulative resources (Biddle 2004), but in today’s environment there is an especially complex relationship between gross material assets and likely combat outcomes. The United States faces both new technologies – especially anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) systems and cyber warfare capabilities – and rapidly changing organizations to wield them in the new Russian and Chinese militaries. The intersection of these simultaneous material and non-material changes will require new assessment approaches to evaluate properly.

In particular, these technologies put a premium on understanding the social science of military organizational performance in the face of extreme complexity. A2/AD and cyber both involve very complex systems-of-systems in which capability can be very high if used to maximum technical potential, but very low if the organizations wielding them fail to master the exceptionally difficult coordination challenges involved. A central finding from the last generation of scholarship on military effectiveness has been the wide variation in real militaries’ ability to use their technology to its full potential (Biddle 2004, Talmadge 2015, Brooks 2007, Castillo 2014, Reiter and Stam 2002, Pollack 2002); if A2/AD, cyber, and other new technologies display similar variation in national capacity to employ them, the result could be radical differences in the real military consequences of their use. This makes it a critical priority to understand how actors such as China and Russia will fare in managing military complexity – both for assessing the scale and nature of the threat they pose, and for designing effective responses that might exploit any weaknesses we should expect.

These are intrinsically social science issues. Missile, radar, and software performance are questions of physics and engineering, but organizational capacity to master complexity turns on the “soft” non-material features of the militaries involved and how these interact with new hardware. The physical sciences are necessary, but insufficient, to understand this interaction. Minerva’s mission of harnessing rigorous, cutting-edge social science to problems of national security thus offers a uniquely important means of advancing the defense policy goals laid out in the NDS by shedding light on the causes of organizational capacity to cope with military complexity in these increasingly important technology domains.