It likely comes as no surprise that the United States ranks first in the world in terms of global military spending, and even as China and Russia have increased their military budgets, the Pentagon shows no sign of being overtaken anytime soon.

The Pentagon’s $740.5 billion budget proposal for fiscal year 2021 (FY21), which was released early this year, includes funds to build up the military’s newest service, the U.S. Space Force. This sixth branch of the military, which was officially created a year ago to protect the interests of the United State in space, deter aggression in the “final frontier” and conduct prompt and sustained space operations.

The Department of Defense (DoD) budget is also the money on which the Pentagon pays for its dozens of aircraft, ships and land vehicles that will be procured in FY21. Additionally, the budget called for a proposed 3% boost in troop pay.

Smaller and Leaner

One notable point about the FY21 budget is that it predicted a smaller troop presence worldwide, and presumed a reduction of as many as 8,000 troops in operations around the globe. However, this shouldn’t be seen as the U.S. military doing more with less.

It is true that the United States Marine Corps is undergoing a transformation that has seen it shutter its tank battalions, while it is refocused on operations in maritime and littoral environments. The budget has called for cutting the active-duty Marines Corps down from 186,200 to 184,100 by the end of next year. Future cuts could even make the Corps smaller than the Obama-era service when there were just 183,604 active duty Marines in 2016.

However, this doesn’t mean that the U.S. military is an incredibly shrinking force. Earlier this year, it was forecasted that the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy would each grow in 2021. The FY21 budget targets include 489,900 regular Army personnel, 336,500 National Guard, and 189,800 Army Reserve.

Technology Investment

From the Pentagon’s budget, $106.6 billion was directed towards research, development, testing, and evaluation of the modern weapons systems, and this would include the platforms necessary to fight a war with a near-peer adversary such as China or Russia.

This included $3.2 billion meant to hasten the development of hypersonic weapons, $1.5 billion for the development of 5G communications technology that Pentagon officials have said is critical to ensuring systems and troops can share information rapidly, $1.7 billion was earmarked for automation research, and another $800 million for Pentagon organizations developing artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities.

Other “new” technologies that the Pentagon is eyeing have included advanced computing, “big data” analytics, robotics, directed energy, and biotechnology. These are the technologies that can help ensure that the United States military will be able to fight and win the wars of the future.

The Key Emerging Technologies

According to a Congressional Research Service report from November, titled “Emerging Military Technologies: Background and Issues for Congress,” the key areas of focus were laid out. The report also warned that the development of these technologies, especially in specific weapons platforms could erode the United States’ traditional sources of military advantage. The CRS report called for the DoD to continue to undertake the initiatives necessary to arrest this trend.

The report provided an overview of selected emerging military technologies in the United States, China, and Russia including:

  1. artificial intelligence
  2. lethal autonomous weapons
  3. hypersonic weapons
  4. directed energy weapons
  5. biotechnology
  6. quantum technology

Each of these technologies presents serious challenges, and the report suggested the “implication of emerging technologies for warfighting and strategic stability are difficult—if not impossible—to predict, as they will be a function of many factors, including the rate oftechnological advancement in both the United States and competitor nations.”

However, technological innovation doesn’t require that every military platform requires a “moon shot” or a Manhattan Project sized effort. Some low-cost options, such as drones, could help shift the balance between quality – on which the CRS noted the United States military has traditionally relied – to quantity. Drone swarms of small unmanned systems could be a force multiplier that could provide an offensive advantage.

Additionally, directed-energy weapons could also offer a low-cost means to neutralize such an attack directed by an enemy. Emerging technologies could therefore shift the offense-defense balance multiple times in the coming decades, while the development of AI, use of big data analytics, along with autonomous weapons (lethal) could also diminish the need for a human operator.

In that way the U.S. military could truly do a bit more with less – but clearly it is going to take a big investment to get the Pentagon there.

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at petersuciu@gmail.com.