A defense expert last week presented a highly critical picture of America’s approach to national security.

He argued that frequent military interventions overseas are counterproductive and that relying on large, expensive military platforms like aircraft carriers makes the nation more vulnerable. He further stated the U.S. needs to shift its national security focus toward newer topics like cyberwar, the development of smart weapons using artificial intelligence and response to pandemics.

That expert is John Arquilla, Distinguished Professor of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. His talk, which was live-streamed, was presented by Livermore’s Rae Dorough Speaker Series.

The talk replaced one originally planned for a live audience in Livermore’s Bankhead Theater in March, just as California shut down mass gatherings. Arquilla learned that his talk was postponed only after arriving in Livermore from Monterey.

His general view is that the U.S. spends enormous amounts of money – “$2 billion per day” – on military systems that are not likely to achieve their desired results.

“Just because we’re spending $2 billion a day doesn’t mean we’re spending it well,” he said. “What should we be investing in? What is national security about?”

He pointed out it is necessary to think “expansively” about national security, meaning that security encompasses much more than military battles.

“We’re in an age of mass disruption, whether from microbes or computer viruses or other threats,” he said. “Remember that on 9/11, it took just 19 individuals to disrupt our world economically, socially and in terms of our foreign policy as well.”

As for pandemics, he noted that there is “no excuse for the effects of the (COVID-19) pandemic as we have experienced them.” Diseases have jumped from animals to humans repeatedly in recent decades, and we have had “lots of opportunities” to learn how to deal with them. As examples, he cited AIDS, MERS (Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome,) SARS (severe acquired respiratory syndrome) and Ebola.

“Our response to the Ebola crisis was quite effective,” he said, suggesting that we could have handled today’s crisis better by adapting lessons from the previous experience.

Regarding the current political season and elections, he said, “Our security has to be very much improved at the cyber level, lest we fall victim to political warfare activities of hostile powers.”

Industrially, we are already “hemorrhaging our economic competitiveness out to hackers,” he said, referring to widely publicized theft of an estimated $500 billion in American intellectual property by Chinese and other computer intruders.

He believes the computer security problem is “getting worse … Now that your refrigerator and toaster can become part of the internet, they can be mobilized into large robot armies of computer hackers, and their power can be used.” Many modern appliances can be connected to the internet for programming and remote operation from a computer tablet or smart phone.

Arquilla thinks the U.S. took a step in the right direction last week when it closed the Chinese consulate in Houston, allegedly a center for cyber espionage. But he stated that much more needs to be done, such as adopting strong encryption practices to make data difficult or impossible to exploit.

He noted this to be true for private home computers as well.

“You don’t want someone to park outside your home and use a $20 wand to get into your system,” he said.

He believes that data would be more secure if cloud computing were more widely used. Cloud computing means storing and accessing information on the internet instead of retaining it on a computer’s hard drive.

“Data at rest are data at risk,” he said.

Even the military is moving too slowly in protecting its computers, he said, further adding, “It’s extremely unhealthy for the national security.”

In more traditional areas of military effort, he questioned the expenditure of “vast sums of money on a few large things.” Nearly all U.S. naval power is “vested in less than a dozen super aircraft carriers,” he said.

These are big, slow targets for modern anti-ship weapons ranging from hypersonic missiles to “smart” mines that pop up from the sea bottom when a hostile ship passes overhead.

“When it comes to aircraft carriers, we should paint over the number on the side and just replace it with a bullseye,” he said.

He described a recent Iranian naval exercise in which swarms of small missile boats attacked a mock U.S. aircraft carrier “and absolutely destroyed it. Real advances of naval power are in these small vessels armed with smart, swift weapons.”

China and Russia have also been “quite innovative” in their approaches to achieving modern military goals, he added.

On the ocean, China is “building a new form of sea power without a traditional navy.” It has “between 500 and 600 missile torpedo boats, very small, very swift, heavily armed, with all kinds of smart advanced weapons.”

Thousands of miles away, to help insurgents in eastern Ukraine after taking over Crimea, Russia sent in “little green men” – special forces instead of heavy tanks. Arquilla believes the Russians have shown that “they get it – that the future of war belongs to nimbler and more networked forces.”

Regarding nuclear weapons, he agrees with Ronald Reagan’s 1984 State of the Union message that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” He hopes to see a formal U.S. declaration that it will not be the first to use nuclear weapons.

He considers it “very dangerous” that all previous administrations worked on nuclear arms control but this administration is not doing so.

He doubts that the U.S. needs more nuclear weapons, but would like to see the present ones modernized since all have aged well beyond their designed life spans.

In his opinion, the time is past when the U.S. needed a so-called “nuclear triad,” in which nuclear weapons are dispersed for security on land, in the air and underwater – that is, in silos, on aircraft and on submarines. Missile-carrying submarines alone offer an invulnerable deterrent, he believes.

Beyond modernizing its military tactics and platforms, he thinks the U.S. needs to focus on its own problems, rather than trying to correct other nations.

“We have to stop threatening regime change,” he said. “The planet may be unlivable by the end of this century (because of climate change), so we need to prioritize things (at home) … rather than trying the reroute currents of culture and history by forcing others to become more democratic and putting sanctions on them if they’re not doing things that we want.”

Generally speaking, he hopes the U.S. will return to diplomacy and arms control, indicating that we should “turn our backs on this notion that somehow American foreign policy can and should be driven by the threat of military force.”

In some of its recent interventions, invading Iraq and Afghanistan and allying ourselves with Saudi Arabia doing battle in Yemen, he said, “We’ve gone down a rabbit hole, and it has cost us tremendously.”

“The results have been poor, and we have sparked a new age of military competition in the process,” Arquilla concluded. “All this is really a boomerang coming back to hit us.”