Is America’s Search for Energy Independence Futile?

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American prosperity has been built to a large extent by reliable access to cheap energy, both domestic and foreign. So it came as a great shock to the economic system in October 1973 when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries cut off shipments of crude oil to the U.S. and other countries that supported Israel during the Yom Kippur War.

Suddenly, Americans had to adapt to long lines and odd- and even-numbered license plate days at the pumps, as well as an unfamiliar and unsettling sense of vulnerability.

The oil crisis launched the search for a new grail: energy independence — a concept President Richard Nixon latched onto early in the embargo. Six years later, when the Shah of Iran fell and prices skyrocketed in the second “oil shock,” President Jimmy Carter announced an import cap to reduce American reliance on foreign producers. Presidential candidate Barack Obama promised in 2008 to “eliminate the need for oil from the Middle East and Venezuela” within 10 years. 

So, how do things look nearly half a century since Nixon’s clarion call for a fortress America of energy and 20-odd years into the fracking era? The advanced recovery technique of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling in shale formations has been transformational, revitalizing old oil fields, creating new ones and nearly doubling production from 2.5 billion barrels per year in 2005 to 4.8 billion barrels in 2017, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA). 

And yet EIA figures show that:

Despite fracking’s promise to create U.S. energy independence, the gap between U.S. petroleum production and consumption is 5.6 million barrels per day. 

That’s an improvement over the gap in 2005, when it stood at 13.9 million barrels per day, but will there ever come a time when the U.S. is both producing and using 100 percent of its own energy? Some experts say no owing to a number of factors, including the global nature of the oil industry and existing domestic infrastructure, says Brian Anderson, director of the West Virginia University Energy Institute. For example, Anderson notes American companies have invested billions in oil refineries that rely on heavier crude found only in other countries.

Plus, the U.S. lacks pipeline capacity for transporting independence-level volumes of oil and gas throughout the country, says Wayne Beninger, chief operating officer at Crudefunders LLC, a Texas-based online investing platform for the oil patch.

 

As a country, we’d love to be energy independent, but from a commercial point of view, it may not be practical, Beninger notes. Even if the U.S. produced enough for its own needs, it still can be economically beneficial to import out of one hand and export out of the other. “For example,” notes the EIA, “refiners in the U.S. Gulf Coast region frequently find that it makes economic sense to export some of their gasoline to Mexico rather than shipping it to the East Coast of the United States, because lower cost gasoline imports from Europe may be available to the East Coast.” As Beninger notes, “If you want to be a net exporter, or net zero, and call that energy independence, then, yes, it’s possible — just not as we currently sit here.”

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Pump jacks in an oil field over the Monterey Shale formation near Lost Hills, California, where gas and oil are extracted using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Source David McNew/Getty

But could that change, given the way the oil industry is trending? U.S. imports of crude oil and petroleum products have been decreasing since 2005, and Anderson says if that continues, paired with record-breaking oil exports since the export ban was lifted in 2015, the U.S. could be a net exporter by the early 2020s. That still may not mean energy independence, though — it may only mean the U.S. ships out more oil than it ships in.

U.S. imports of petroleum accounted for about 19 percent of domestic consumption in 2017, and even though that adds up to the 5.6 million barrels per day cited above, it’s still the lowest amount in 50 years, according to the EIA. Forty percent of those imports came from Canada, followed by Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Venezuela and Iraq, all of which contributed 6 to 9 percent. 

You look at who we’re importing from — I don’t expect an invasion from the north soon.

Brian Anderson, director, West Virginia University Energy Institute

A 2009 Rand report identified concerns stemming from U.S. dependence on foreign oil, such as economic disruptions from a fall in global oil supply, rogue states using oil revenues to pursue their interests and a 12 to 15 percent in defense budget savings if “all concerns for securing oil from the Persian Gulf were to disappear.”

“There are national security concerns that people will cite,” Anderson says, “but then you look at who we’re importing from — I don’t expect an invasion from the north soon.”

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A Halliburton oil well fielder works on a wellhead at a fracking rig site near Stillwater, Oklahoma.

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At the same time, Anderson recognizes the advantages of sourcing oil either domestically or from friends. “The more we produce within our borders and [import from] our close allies, it means there’s less reliance on the global market, and that global market has some good actors and bad actors.”

As far as overall energy consumption, oil accounts for about 37 percent — the lion’s share of all sources (natural gas, coal, nuclear, hydro and other renewables). Beninger says if the U.S. truly wants to be a net exporter, the oil industry would need another technological boost to increase oil field recovery rates higher than today’s 65 percent.

Reduced consumption may play an even bigger role in getting to net exporter status than expanding production. The coming electrification of the transportation sector — cars, trucks and buses — presents a prime opportunity to reduce demand for petroleum products, domestic and imported. U.S. electricity consumption hasn’t grown for decades, and normalizing electric vehicles, in tandem with retiring existing coal- and oil-fired power plants, could create the demand needed to boost the role of renewables in the electric grid, Anderson says.

From national security to home printers, the path toward energy independence touches almost every aspect of society. Maybe, as the U.S. moves toward producing more of its own electricity, America’s energy mix will look a little more red, white and blue — and green.

An Epidemic of Loneliness — Among Lawyers and Doctors

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Katie Davis spends her afternoons and evenings in therapy sessions with kids. As a clinical psychologist in private practice on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Davis helps young patients through severe anxiety, mood disorders and other mental health challenges in order to improve their educational attainment. 

She says she’s “taking on all of their struggles,” and she’s doing so without an outlet for her own stress. “I’m not allowed to talk about my patients. Everything that happens at work stays just with me,” Davis says. “Which is obviously necessary … but at the same time it’s pretty isolating, and it can be overwhelming.”

Loneliness has been called an epidemic in the United States, and it affects certain professions more severely than others. According to a recent survey by the digital workplace coaching company BetterUp:

Lawyers and doctors are the loneliest professionals — “by far.”

The research surveyed 1,624 full-time employees about their loneliness, or the “perception of being alone and isolated.” Salary didn’t seem to matter much when it came to this particular state of being: Those making $80,000 a year showed only about a 10 percent improvement in battling loneliness and finding social support over folks making half that much.

Instead, the key factors seem to be type of profession and level of education. In a breakdown of loneliness and social support rates by profession, legal practice was the loneliest kind of work, followed by engineering and science. Occupations involving high degrees of social interaction such as social work, marketing and sales were at the opposite end of the spectrum.

It really has to do with how much of a culture of social support is in the workplace.

Andrew Reece, behavioral data scientist, BetterUp

Those with graduate degrees also experienced higher levels of loneliness and less workplace support than respondents with less education. Those lonesome lawyers and doctors? They turned out to be 25 percent lonelier than respondents with bachelor’s degrees and 20 percent lonelier than Ph.D.s. “We found that it really has to do with how much of a culture of social support is in the workplace,” says Andrew Reece, a behavioral data scientist at BetterUp.

 

Another part of the connection between education and loneliness could be the nature of graduate school, which is best suited for introverts, according to Andrew Selepak, a telecommunications professor at the University of Florida. In his case, most of his work was done alone in front of a computer or in a library, which didn’t sit easily with his extroverted personality. “To get to the point where you become a college professor, a doctor, a lawyer, one of the occupations that might take more education,” Selepak says, “you’ve spent literally years doing work that is relatively solitary.” 

As for Davis the psychologist, she anticipated the isolation of running a business. Since she works with child patients, she doesn’t have a social circle of colleagues the way she would in, say, a clinic setting. “I knew that it would be a really overwhelming and lonely experience,” she says.

At the same time, Davis likes having the power and autonomy to handle her cases and her practice as she sees fit. Those factors outweigh the negatives, and over time she has developed ways of managing her loneliness. She has a supervisor she meets about once a month for guidance, and she has joined Listserv and professional groups that organize events. Davis also landed a part-time research job so she could interact and collaborate with others in her field. This kind of workplace culture, she thinks, is powerful for increasing the sense of social connectivity among colleagues.

Like Davis, Selepak saw a solitary work environment as a given part of his career choice. He’d been prepared for it, but he knew he needed to find more ways to interact with people. He made friends with folks outside his area of expertise so he could talk with them about sports and pop culture, and he became a regular at his gym, which provided him with another, more casual social setting. 

Still, BetterUp Chief Innovation Officer Gabriella Rosen Kellerman says questions continue to revolve around why loneliness is prevalent in certain careers. Now, though, employers understand that its presence in a workplace can lead to lower productivity and negatively affect a business, so they are shifting their focus to improve workplace culture, which can be difficult. Creating “shared meaning” and emphasizing why an employee’s work matters can make a big difference, Kellerman says.

“[Cultures] are historically the hardest changes to make in a workplace, and part of that is we’ve been approaching it wrong,” Kellerman says. “Each person whose behavior or thinking you want to change has to be dealt with as an individual.”

Ohio’s Supersmart Immigrants

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When Nadia Kasvin came to the U.S. as a refugee from Ukraine 24 years ago, she brought along a husband, a 6-year-old son and a master’s in linguistics. Back home, Kasvin had been a teacher, but when she and her family settled in Portland, Oregon, Kasvin said she, like many immigrants, had to figure out what she wanted her career to be.

“Do I want to stay in my profession, and how do I go about it?” Kasvin says. “Because it’s not automatic that credentials from a foreign country will be accepted [in the U.S.], regardless of whether the education you received was excellent.”

Despite her teaching experience, Kasvin decided to go to business school. When her husband was offered a job in Columbus, Ohio, they relocated to that state, where some of the most educated immigrants in the country live, according to a report published in March by Cleveland State University:

In Ohio, 42 percent of immigrants have at least a four-year college degree compared to 27 percent of native-born residents — the largest such educational gap in the country.

But there’s a twist to that 15-point spread between immigrants’ and native Ohioans’ sheepskin attainment. When considered with respective poverty rates — 18.7 percent for immigrants and 14.4 percent for native Ohioans — the numbers show that even when foreign-born individuals are more educated than locals, they are 30 percent poorer than native-born Ohioans.

 

The financial disparity can be attributed to a few factors. In general, immigrant and refugee communities see larger income inequality than the average population, with immigrants tending to have very high or very low wages, according to a 2009 study.

[Immigrants] teach our children and they take care of us, and that’s a big deal.

Richey Piiparinen, director at the Center for Population Dynamics at Cleveland State University

That’s especially true in Ohio. Highly educated immigrants fill a demand in the state for skilled workers the U.S. does not produce domestically, and they keep Ohio’s population steady, says Richey Piiparinen, director of the Center for Population Dynamics at Cleveland State and author of the report. But outside of those folks earning more than $75,000 a year, an immigrant or refugee is more likely to make less than $25,000, according to census data, thus boosting the poverty figures for newcomers.

“The largest concentration of occupations that immigrants are employed in are education and health care,” Piiparinen says. “They teach our children and they take care of us, and that’s a big deal because there’s going to be a huge shortage of health care workers in places like Ohio that are aging.”

Intellectual and skill waste is also a contributing factor, especially for professions that require licensing, which can take time and money for a newcomer to obtain, Piiparinen says. This and a reluctance to start at the bottom of a career ladder midlife can push immigrants and refugees to start their own businesses instead of continuing in a profession. Kasvin says her family is a microcosm of this shift: Kasvin co-founded US Together, an immigrant and refugee services organization in Ohio; her husband started an IT company; and her brother owns his own business.

“That career pathway is an alternative to a professional career that [immigrants] could have chosen, but maybe there were too many barriers,” Kasvin says. “Somehow, they want to apply their intellectual power or knowledge, and so they might choose to start their own business.”

One of the biggest barriers facing immigrants and refugees is English literacy, especially for the 58 percent of immigrants in Ohio without a college degree. However, Piiparinen noted that prospects improve for foreign-born residents as they become acclimated to their new environment, and although their poverty rates are higher when they arrive in the country, they drop substantially the longer they reside in the U.S.

Language programs, perhaps the most important social service when it comes to boosting an immigrant’s chances for financial success, are concentrated in Ohio’s large metropolitan areas, and Kasvin says more are needed throughout the state. Additionally, improving education and health services could help both native and foreign-born Ohioans, particularly those who’ve been dislocated from manufacturing, Piiparinen says.

“The [dislocated locals] haven’t gone back to school, and so they’re struggling, and so you have this sense of resentment for not being prepared in the economy,” Piiparinen says. “It’s not just supporting immigrants. You need to support native-born residents when it comes to education and health.” 

Deploying Big Data to Defend the US

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Data from intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) technologies stream in every second of every day from nearly every corner of the globe, fed by a vast and varied network of data-gathering devices and systems controlled by the United States, including a constellation of satellites, squadrons of drones and other surveillance tools.

These platforms generate massive amounts of information; the Navy alone creates a Library of Congress’ worth of ISR data every day, but the vast majority of that goes unanalyzed. In fact, according to a 2014 Rand report:

As little as 5 percent of the Navy’s intel reaches the right analyst.

Other experts cite even more modest figures. “We analyze 0.5 percent or less than 0.5 percent of all the data that’s available to us,” says Michael Moskal, manager of research programs at Modus Operandi, a company that contracts with the Department of Defense on big-data analysis. “What are we going to do with the other 99.5 percent of the data? What intelligence is lost?”

Now, however, the DOD is trying to narrow the gap between information and analysis by deploying artificial intelligence to enhance that crucial military state — situational awareness. The program at the forefront of this effort is Project Maven. Launched in 2017, the initiative established an Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team to “accelerate DOD’s integration of big data and machine learning … [turning] the enormous volume of data available … into actionable intelligence and insights at speed,” claims an April 2017 Department of Defense memorandum.

 

Project leaders first focused Maven on drone video, which was inundating analysts with daily terabytes of footage. Before the military turned to AI, “it took a team of analysts working 24 hours a day to exploit only a fraction of one drone’s sensor data,” Gregory Allen, an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security, writes in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

The Maven team initially aimed to create an algorithm by the end of 2017 to help fight ISIS. That ambitious goal bore fruit in December, when the team deployed an algorithm that could identify objects of interest, like cars. “Eventually, we hope that one analyst will be able to do twice as much work, potentially three times as much, as they’re doing now. That’s our goal,” Marine Corps Col. Drew Cukor, chief of the algorithmic cross-functional warfare team, noted at the 2017 Defense One Tech Summit.

Whoever becomes the leader in [artificial intelligence] will become the ruler of the world.

Vladimir Putin, Russian president

To be sure, some experts cite the challenges of long-term planning for AI research and development when it comes to the military. One example: The brass has difficulty defining what role it wants AI to play in the country’s security. “The way they dictate their needs to us may not be their true problem, and we have to translate that to the AI world,” says Moskal. 

And not everyone is enthusiastic about AI finding its way into military operations. Stephen Rodriguez, a senior fellow with New America’s International Security program, is worried that it will lower the barriers to lethal uses in warfare, which may become destabilizing. Other experts are concerned about giving automated weapons the authority to harm people, although military officials say that kind of autonomy won’t happen anytime soon.

But the concerns reflect the public’s general distrust of artificial intelligence. Moskal says this wariness will decrease as the technology matures and becomes more reliable. Still, even Col. Cukor noted at the tech summit that combining machine and human knowledge is the best way to use AI. Perhaps a machine’s computational capability paired with a human’s ethics and intuition could create the most effective eyes in the sky the military has ever seen.

At least that’s the dream. Meanwhile, the U.S. sprints full speed ahead on what’s being called an “AI arms race.” China has rapidly growing AI sectors in Beijing and Shenzhen, already strong tech ecosystems, according to a 2017 McKinsey report. In November, South Korea announced plans to invest $940 million in a public-private AI research center, with the goal of incorporating AI into its military operations by 2025. As for Russia, President Vladimir Putin said in an “open lesson” to Russian students in September, “Whoever becomes the leader in [artificial intelligence] will become the ruler of the world.”

Can the U.S. Navy Brave the Waves of Autonomous Warfare?

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It was January 1945, and the Nazis knew the end was near. The German ocean liner Wilhelm Gustloff, designed to accommodate 1,900, was packed with more than 10,000 soldiers and refugees when it ventured into the freezing Baltic Sea, part of efforts to evacuate two million Germans out of eastern Prussia and away from an advancing Soviet army. But a Soviet submarine spotted the ship and fired three torpedoes into it, killing more than 9,000, including 5,000 children.

More than seven decades later, the United States Navy is trying to reduce some of the risks of maritime warfare highlighted by the Gustloff’s end, which remains the deadliest maritime disaster in history — at a time when Secretary of Defense James Mattis has signaled a return of America’s security focus on “great power competition.” Traditional ships are expensive to build and carry enough personnel to turn any midsea mishap into a potential financial and human disaster. So the U.S. Navy, which has sought automated solutions to technical and operational challenges for decades, is increasingly turning to autonomous vehicles with the hope they can improve the efficiency and range of naval capabilities while decreasing their cost.

Potential adversaries have better weapons than they’ve had in the past.

Steven Wills, naval analyst

The Navy’s plans span surface, air and undersea platforms. In early February, the Office of Naval Research took over a prototype of the Sea Hunter, a surface-level submarine-hunting drone ship, from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. In December 2017, the ONR successfully demonstrated an autonomous helicopter flight that is part of an autonomous aerial cargo/utility system (AACUS) program in collaboration with American technology firm Aurora Flight Sciences. Apart from dozens of disclosed autonomous underwater vehicles already in operation, the Navy established its first underwater drone squadron in September 2017. In December, President Trump signed a bill authorizing almost $8 billion to submarine programs. And defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing are developing fully automated submarines called extra-large unmanned underwater vehicles (XLUUVs).  

 

The shift toward autonomous vehicles is sparking ethical questions for the Navy. How much can you trust a machine loaded with other machines to always function properly, and how much power should they have? But autonomous vehicles could prove cheaper to run, and because the lives of sailors wouldn’t be at stake, they could assume a greater level of risk than a manned ship at a time when the U.S. is particularly vulnerable at sea. AUVs will help “improve and expand undersea superiority,” the Navy said in 2016 testimony to Congress. The Navy’s new focus on these technologically advanced weapons systems comes at a time the Department of Defense has unveiled the Trump administration’s first National Defense Strategy, summarized by Mattis in a January speech, where he said that “great power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of U.S. national security.”

“We’re in a period now where war at sea is dangerous,” says Steven Wills, strategy and policy analyst at CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization located in Arlington, Virginia. “Potential adversaries have better weapons than they’ve had in the past, and these weapons have proliferated to more places.”

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Countries such as China, Russia, North Korea and Iran have large arsenals of cruise missiles, which are relatively cheap but can cause a significant amount of damage. Other groups, like Yemen’s Houthi rebels, have also been able to acquire them — and tend to use them indiscriminately. Autonomous vehicles, in response to these threats, are more expendable. They can augment a fleet and do search and reconnaissance, says Dan McLeod, Lockheed Martin’s program manager for the Orca, an XLUUV the company is designing for the Navy. 

In the air, an unmanned helicopter armed with AACUS sensors and software can take supplies from a base, select the optimal route and best landing site closest to fighters on the front lines, land, resupply and return to base — all with a finger tap on a hand-held tablet. The Seahunter drones are designed to autonomously carry out 70 daylong sea surface patrols at a time, as far out from base as 10,000 nautical miles. And the XLUUVs that Boeing and Lockheed Martin are building for the Navy would have an extended range, the ability to deliver a variety of payload and the capability of operating independently of manned ships. In July, the DARPA also contracted BAE Systems to build a small unmanned underwater vehicle that would help detect enemy submarines.

This concerted rush marks a departure from the isolated use of underwater unmanned vehicles in the past. The Navy sent UUVs to search for an Argentine submarine that disappeared in South Atlantic waters in November, and had used them as far back as 2003 to clear an Iraqi port of mines. But many of its AUVs are working on sea-sensing and mine-countermeasure tasks “with human-in-the-loop supervision,” the Navy said in the 2016 report to Congress. By 2025, it expects AUVs to support undersea warfare by going into denied waters that are too deep or too shallow for manned platforms — and the military, some experts anticipate, will lead the development of these technologies rather than the commercial sector. AUVs that can comprehend “purpose,” are able to execute missions and can make decisions are already on the way; they will present their own ethical dilemmas, apart from questions of trust and responsibility. 

The extent to which warfare functions will become automated is a moral issue for much of the military, says naval historian and strategist Norman Friedman. “If you actually kill somebody, in theory, anyway, you’d prefer to have someone responsible for doing it,” Friedman says, adding that increasingly, that’s already becoming difficult to do. Putting human lives at the mercy of a machine also relies on trust that the system is going to do what it’s supposed to do while simultaneously balancing that with the level of risk one is willing to accept. To McLeod, the question is, “Trust under what risk profile?” 

Still, the debate over the specifics of what autonomy will — and should — look like isn’t challenging the fundamental argument for such technology: that it could help the U.S. maintain its dominance at sea. The conundrum? The technology could simultaneously end up posing as many questions as the answers it provides. 

How the U.S. Army and Marines Are Preparing for Future Urban Wars

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For Iraqis returning to Mosul, the homes missing roofs and walls, filled with rubble, are a reminder of what existed before ISIS took control of the city in 2014. To the U.S. Army that helped liberate the city — originally designed as a fortress — after a nine-month campaign, the ruins and a lingering threat are pointers to the future. Massive piles of tangled debris and burned cars line the streets, framing gutted houses. But though the main roads have mostly been cleared, side streets throughout the city remain blocked by tangled debris and riddled with explosives, left behind by ISIS in places that are too narrow for coalition vehicles to access.

Mosul is the latest pointer to the urban nature of theaters in which many future conflicts may be set. Experts view situations the U.S. has found itself in over the past 15 years as foreshadowing a part of what the Army and the Marines may face with increasing regularity in the years ahead. It’s a future they are preparing for. 

A new program announced by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) last summer aims to develop software capable of running on personal electronics that Marines can use to simulate and test situations they might encounter in coastal, urban settings. The Marines also run urban combat training programs like the Raid-Leaders course, in which Marines raid a part of a city — in 2014 it was Los Angeles — as a training exercise. The U.S. Army is trying to increase the density at some urban training sites to replicate what fighting in crammed cities would be like. And West Point’s Modern War Institute, through its Urban Warfare Project, is collecting research on the subject, says John Spencer, deputy director of the institute and strategic planner for the Department of Military Instruction. 

[In the year 2000], very few people would’ve thought we would’ve been in an urban [military] environment.

Gian Gentile, military historian, RAND

For sure, urban warfare will likely remain only one part of America’s overall national security strategy. The 2018 National Defense Strategy unveiled by the Trump administration in January highlights great power competition — more than terrorism in urban settings — as the country’s biggest security challenge. But experts are unanimous that urban warfare will continue to grow in importance, whatever space it occupies in the larger national security emphasis of the government. The recognition that battles like those in Aleppo, Fallujah and Mosul are not anomalies but previews of increasingly what’s to come is at the heart of this emphasis on urban warfare preparedness. Those urban battles of the last decade displayed the impacts of modern urban combat, scenarios that RAND senior historian Gian Gentile says many Army personnel didn’t expect before America launched the Iraq War in 2003.

 

“[In the year 2000], very few people would’ve thought we would’ve been in an urban environment,” says Gentile. “And that’s exactly where we were once the United States moved into Iraq and we operated in places like Baghdad and Mosul.”

That many future war theaters may be urban isn’t surprising, suggested Mark Milley, chief of staff at the U.S. Army at New America’s 2017 Future of War conference in March 2017. More than half the global population lives in urban areas, and the world is currently home to 31 megacities. That could increase to 50 by 2050, according to a University of Ontario population projection. “I think we’re on the cusp of a fundamental change in the character of war,” Milley said at the conference. “If war is really about politics, it’s going to be fought, in general, where people are.”

Beyond demographic shifts, cities are also becoming less stable and create an asymmetric advantage for actors defending such an area, says Spencer. Every building can be fortified, while defenders can tunnel within and between buildings to avoid being exposed in the street. Communication is difficult when spread across city blocks and removing civilians is harder, the larger a city. Overall, urban environments are several orders of magnitude more complicated than the rolling hills of boot camp, says Zachary Griffiths, special forces officer and American politics instructor in the Department of Social Sciences at West Point. The DARPA program for the Marines aims at enabling soldiers to adapt faster than adversaries in such complex environments. 

Urban warfare

Previous experiences in urban combat situations have also taught the Army lessons; machine-oriented changes, like making sure tanks can shoot at a high enough angle to target high-rises and working with units that combine light and mechanized infantry with the right protection and weapons, could help make the Army more effective, Gentile says. Though, he cautioned that technological advancement can only take the Army so far.

“Technology and improvement in technology are important, but it’s not going, in the end, to make this something like a cakewalk,” Gentile says. “If we do send military forces into a city to do combat operations, you can do your best to reduce the level of destruction, but ultimately that’s what war is about — it’s about death and destruction.”

Although the shift is being discussed at a high level, Griffiths says training throughout Army units should be more focused on urban combat, particularly in the long-term efforts needed to succeed in those confrontations. And, developing a better understanding of how cities work, becoming more “environment-centric,” as Spencer says, can also create a military advantage for one side over another.

Fifteen years ago, the U.S. Army started to appreciate the importance of cities, Gentile says. Now, into the next decade, it will see how the landscape of urban combat will be fleshed out. And if it looks anything like previous battles that have been fought in cities, that future could be ugly.

The Military Planes Struggling to Get Off the Ground

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The F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter represents the cutting edge of combat aviation technology, and it comes packed with weaponry and superlatives. It’s the only multirole stealth fighter in operation anywhere in the world, an aircraft with “unsurpassed situational awareness” and a plane with more data-sharing capability than any other fighter in history, according to the U.S. Air Force and contractor Lockheed Martin.

Too bad so many of the 270 currently operational wonder planes, each of which costs about $120 million, are sitting in hangars. According to a January report published by the director of operational testing at the Department of Defense: 

Only half of the F-35 fleet is fit to fly, which means military hardware worth $16.2 billion — nearly triple the amount that Congress spends annually on the opioid epidemic — is grounded.

And if that money in parked planes went into education? It could pay for four years of tuition, room and board and other expenses at private, non-profit universities for some 86,262 financially disadvantaged but high-achieving high school students, according to cost estimates from the College Board.

 

Granted, newer planes rolling off production lines are more reliable than earlier jets — 70 to 75 percent versus 40 to 50 percent, according to an October Government Accountability Office report that found the F-35 program hit none of its sustainment performance targets in 2017. The January DOD report was blunter. It noted that “the operational suitability of the F-35 fleet remains at a level below service expectations and is dependent on workarounds that would not be acceptable in combat situations.”

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A Lockheed Martin F-35.  

Source Mark Hobbs/OZY

F-35 variants eventually will serve three U.S. military branches — the conventional takeoff and landing F-35A for the Air Force, the short takeoff and vertical landing F-35B for the Marine Corps and the Navy’s F-35C, which can take off and land on aircraft carriers. Not surprisingly, all those models and all that high-tech hardware come with a hefty price tag — more than $1.1 trillion over the life cycle of the program (2006–70). “It’s the most expensive weapons system in the history of the Defense Department,” says Cary Russell, director of defense capabilities and management at the GAO.

The plane’s lack of readiness is due to two main factors: parts supply, which is at 22 percent of its target, and depot repair capacity, which is six years behind schedule, Russell notes. A centralized ordering system that tracks all available working and spare parts globally was intended to boost efficiency and slash costs. Instead of stocking each F-35 base with most of the nuts and bolts needed to keep planes flying, the program requires maintenance crews to place orders with parts central. Alas, there’s no guaranteed overnight or two-day delivery, per Amazon or FedEx. Instead, think weeks or, in some cases, much, much longer. The GAO report noted that “19 percent of F-35 parts have a lead time of more than two years.”

If we were having those kind of [airworthiness] levels with a legacy aircraft, there would be a really big concern.

Cary Russell, director of defense capabilities and management, GAO

Six centralized repair depots were also supposed to save money and increase efficiency, but delays in completing the facilities, in part due to miscommunication in the planning and funding stages, have hamstrung their ability to keep plans flying.

The brass are now putting more priority on the back end — maintenance and repairs — rather than focusing primarily on getting a fighter into the hands of pilots. “We kept the emphasis on production, and we made sure that sustainment was looked at,” said Vice Adm. Mathias W. Winter, program executive officer for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program Office, during his March testimony to a congressional subcommittee, “but we didn’t give it the … scrutiny that it needed … and we are giving that scrutiny now.”

Overall, the Air Force has seen a steady decline in readiness since 2003, Chief of Staff Mark Welsh and former Air Force Secretary Michael Donley wrote in the Fiscal Year 2014 Air Force Posture Statement. Declining numbers of airworthy planes can be attributed to aging fleets — 27 years on average in the Air Force, although some warhorses, such as the B-52 bomber, have a higher readiness percentage than their younger counterparts, Air Force data show. 

F-35 availability rates are below average among Air Force fleets. Some of that poor performance can be attributed to a complex plane that’s being deployed while still being developed. The F-35C, for example, won’t ship out on an aircraft carrier until 2021, according to Navy officials.

So far, Joint Strike Fighters have logged only about 100,000 flight hours — half of what a fleet needs to be considered mature. Russell says that makes it difficult to set performance benchmarks for maintenance and operations, given that hardware and software updates are added to new planes in production as well as ones that are in service while the Department of Defense works to improve the efficiency of its F-35 operations.

Still, when it comes to projecting U.S. air power globally, expectations remain high for a plane “designed to achieve unprecedented levels of reliability and maintainability,” as the U.S. Air Force noted on its website in 2014. And so improving readiness remains a priority. “If you look at the [Marine Corps’] F-35B, they’re at about a 15 percent fully mission-capable rate. That’s pretty low considering that their goal is 60 percent,” Russell says. “If we were having those kind of levels with a legacy aircraft, there would be a really big concern.”

We Can’t Reach the Final Frontier by Running in Circles

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The starry evening sky above Los Angeles on December 22 looked ordinary until a strange white figure emerged from the city skyline. It looked like two small objects shrouded in a bright cloud. Millions were stunned by the sight — some thought it was a comet or even a UFO. But others knew SpaceX had scheduled its 18th and final launch of the year that day, and they recognized the thing barreling into space as the Falcon 9 rocket.

Half a century ago, such a rocket would have been part of the initial exploratory missions into space that only the U.S. and the Soviet Union could muster. Now, SpaceX is one of a crowd of actors eyeing the skies, rather than the sea, for economic, security and scientific gains, armed with different stages of technology. The growth of a wide range of commercial and state entities in space has created an opportunity for international cooperation, but politics closer to the ground are threatening efforts to produce a peaceful, stable and secure outer space environment.  

It’s the commercial sector — more than governments — leading the development of space technology, says Victoria Samson, the Secure World Foundation’s Washington office director. Businesses are “now the driver of most space applications,” and miniature satellites “are being deployed in orbit on behalf of universities, high schools and even middle schools,” resulting in what some have called the “democratization” of space, a Mitchell Institute policy paper published in December says. At the same time, more than 80 countries currently either own or operate a satellite, and because “the politics of space don’t occur in a vacuum,” as Samson says, tensions on Earth will be reflected in the skies above and beyond. Countries are recognizing the vulnerability and advantages of operating in space. 

[China and Russia] are building those capabilities to challenge the United States of America, to challenge our allies and to change the balance of power in the world.

U.S. Air Force Gen. John Hyten

The U.S. is currently trying to navigate these challenges with Russia and China, says Henry Hertzfeld, research professor of space policy and international affairs at George Washington University. Russia and the U.S. have a history of cooperative space exploration that continues today. But because of America’s tensions on Earth with Russia and China — a more recent space power — the U.S. is convinced their emerging capabilities pose a threat. “[China and Russia] are building those capabilities to challenge the United States of America, to challenge our allies and to change the balance of power in the world,” U.S. Air Force Gen. John Hyten said at the 2017 Reagan National Defense Forum.

 

India and China are battling to try and sell low-cost space technology and satellite launch facilities to smaller developing nations, recognizing the economic benefits — and geopolitical clout — that this brings. India has launched 164 foreign satellites since July 2015 after launching just 45 over the previous 16 years. China is sweeping up contracts to launch satellites for South American and African nations, says Dublin-based space analyst and author Brian Harvey. And because the technology involved in launching satellites is also useful in shooting long-range missiles, the growing space programs of North Korea and Iran worry neighbors who may be more advanced in space technology — like South Korea and Israel.  

“We believe Iran is refining its missile-launch capabilities under the garb of a space program, and that is something we are watching carefully,” says Isaac Ben-Israel, chairman of the Israel Space Agency.  

Ironically, it was during the Cold War that the U.S. and the erstwhile Soviet Union signed up for what remains the marquee symbol of space cooperation, even as they each tried to edge ahead of the other — the USSR sending the first man into space, the U.S. the first man on the moon. The International Space Station (ISS), which NASA spokesperson Stephanie Schierholz calls the “crown jewel” of international cooperation, helps the two countries to maintain working research and personal relations. But, in the last few years, “the Russians are sometimes taking a hard line, almost a reflection of attitudes during the Cold War,” Hertzfeld says. “It’s not an open environment of close cooperation at the moment.”

China is more of an obstacle. Federal U.S. law prohibits NASA from working with the Chinese government on space issues, and China is largely excluded from the ISS. But that hasn’t stopped the country from carving out its own place in orbit. It created its own satellite navigation system called Beidou, landed for the first time on the moon in 2013 and demonstrated its anti-sat capability in 2007 by shooting down one of its own satellites. 

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The U.S. isn’t sitting idle. Last summer, President Donald Trump revived the National Space Council, which announced in a directive in December that NASA’s efforts will focus on sending an astronaut to the moon. It’s a stepping stone for eventually getting to Mars that the council hopes will create more options for international collaboration

NASA’s Schierholz also says international efforts will be “absolutely essential” for more ambitious space efforts. “The acting NASA administrator, Robert Lightfoot, has actively said journeys to Mars will not be accomplished without everyone working together,” she says. Other groups, like the Second World Foundation and the U.N.’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, work to encourage peaceful uses of outer space. Even the U.S. and China moved toward collaboration when a SpaceX cargo craft carried a Chinese experiment to the ISS in June.

Hertzfeld says the nonviolent history of space exploration thus far, paired with the thought that making a mess in space hurts everyone, may allow mutual interests to rise above disagreements that could lead to conflict. But for much of that history, space was mostly just that — space. Now it’s crowded like never before, with no traffic cops to regulate.

The Turning Tides of New England Fisheries

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Andrew Applegate’s family has been in the fishing business since his ancestors moved from Cranbury, New Jersey, to the Sandy Hook area around 100 years ago. Along with some commercial fishing, Applegate’s father ran a couple of large party fishing boats out of Atlantic City, and through the decades the family caught whatever was available. But now, Applegate is part of a New England fishing community forced to depend on fast-changing marine species they’ve never seen in the region before, and give up on others that are dying out.

The Gulf of Maine has witnessed its cod stocks collapse but its lobster population explode. To the south, in contrast to their current success north of Cape Cod, lobsters have suffered shell-wasting disease and poor productivity down into the Mid-Atlantic. And black sea bass is being found in northern New England when 20 years ago that would’ve been unheard of, says Michael Pentony, regional head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Greater Atlantic fisheries division. In the face of such changes, those involved in fisheries management are trying to prepare for a murky future. Reliable and more timely data paired with flexible regulations could, they hope, allow those in the business to adapt as fisheries change in the coming years. 

Every year is completely different from the year before.

Ben Martens, Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association

These changes are forcing some to disregard historical knowledge gathered in logbooks by generations of fishermen who recorded where to catch certain fish at certain times of the year, says Ben Martens, the executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association. 

“Now you just have to throw those out. They don’t work anymore. And every year is completely different from the year before,” Martens says. “Sometimes we have water that’s too warm; this year we had cooler water. We’re seeing a lot more turbulence in what’s happening in our planning and in our business stability.”

 

In addition to the cultural significance fishing has among New England communities, it’s also a valuable industry. In 2015, New England commercial fishery landings were valued at $1.2 billion, and fisheries supported almost 160,000 jobs in 2012, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. That industry is now grappling with a sense of flux.

Though some species variations are caused by other factors, warming waters is central to many fluctuating fish behaviors. The Gulf of Maine has seen surface temperatures rise faster than 99 percent of the rest of the ocean over the past decade, a 2015 report from the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and the NOAA found. The warming is partly because of regular climate shifts and partly because of global climate change, the report said.

In response, Applegate says, some fish populations are moving to deeper, colder water to the northeast. Others, like some off Massachusetts’ coast, move to shallower areas that retain cold water longer in the springtime. “The key ingredient there is they’re moving or becoming more productive in areas where the water temperatures are favorable to them,” Applegate says.

Warming ocean temperatures are changing the compositions of fish available to fishermen, but allocations of what fishermen can catch are hardwired, Pentony says. So, to protect the well-being of both fishermen’s businesses and fish stocks, those involved with fisheries management in the area are looking to revamp how the industry is regulated.

At the federal level, Congress is in the process of reauthorizing the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which is the primary law governing federal marine fisheries. Its last reauthorization in 2007 was focused on preventing overfishing and rebuilding resources, Applegate says. “Now the tide seems to be turning a bit in terms of providing managers with more flexibility to manage our resources.”

One potential option is a shift to allocating catch limits based on fish surveys that monitor where species are abundant, Pentony says. The U.S. and Canada already have a system based on this to manage groundfish stocks the two countries share. So, if 75 percent of the stock is located on the Canada side, then Canadians would be allocated 75 percent of the catch.

Understanding how fisheries are evolving and figuring out how to manage them will require more reliable and immediate data, Martens says. Currently, the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association is working to outfit fishing vessels with cameras to record catches and discards, which could help incorporate the data fishermen are already collecting into the scientific process. Martens also says increasing the accountability of reporting will be essential for creating effective regulations.

Still, the process for establishing new fisheries management practices is democratic — everyone, from fishermen to government officials, has a seat at the table — potentially making coming to a consensus difficult, since some stakeholders will lose allocation and revenue, Applegate says.

At the same time, Martens hopes involving all stakeholders from throughout New England and the Mid-Atlantic coast will expose each other to alternate perspectives and the broader picture. “We’re all in the same proverbial boat, and we need to be rowing in the same direction if we want to find success as a region,” Martens says.

To Applegate, the solution, especially at an individual level, is straightforward, and rooted in his family’s success over generations. Being adaptive, Applegate says, was key, and even now, for him, it’s the joy of being out on the boat that draws him to fishing.

“I just like being out on the ocean, seeing different things and having some freedom,” says Applegate.

You’re Not Addicted to Your Smartphone — You Just Really Like People

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The seductive infinity scroll of smartphones has families across America and around the world gathering in their living rooms — not to converse or even to watch TV together, but instead to stare down at their smartphones’ glowing screens and allow themselves to be sucked into the digital abyss.

At a glance, the addiction that people have to their mobile technology seems antisocial. How could turning away from those in your same physical space in favor of a digital world be anything else? But one researcher, Samuel Veissière, an assistant professor in the Culture, Mind and Brain Program at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, is making the opposite claim: 

People aren’t addicted to mobile tech; they’re addicted to the social interaction that mobile tech enables.

Veissière’s analysis of existing research on the dysfunctional use of mobile technology through an evolutionary lens was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology in February. It recognizes that the conventional wisdom — people are addicted to smartphones — does not explain why people are so drawn to that platform.

“If there is addiction to smartphones, it is first and foremost a behavioral addiction rather than an addiction to the devices themselves,” Veissière says. “It is rooted in human evolution and, in particular, in the need to connect with others, to compare ourselves to others, to compete with others and to learn from others.”

He found that the human desire to connect with other people was underlying the most addictive behaviors, a trend he attributed to the evolutionary tendency of the brain to search for the easiest path for accomplishing goals. In this case, that means satisfying a need for social interaction through texting over talking. Even seemingly solitary activities on mobile devices, like gaming or using scheduling apps, resemble social behaviors, Veissière says.

Common Sense Media’s survey of children up to age 8 found a tenfold increase in mobile-device screen time, from about 5 minutes in 2011 to 48 minutes in 2017.

But easy does not always equal best. “We lose quality, and we gain in quantity,” Veissière says. “This is exactly what we’re seeing with smartphones. There’s the possibility of hyperconnecting, keeping in touch with more people all the time, but we’re losing the face-to-face interaction. The youngest generation is the loneliest ever and the most depressed ever, probably because they’re seeking avenues for socializing online as opposed to in-person.”

Veissière notes that other researchers disagree with his social interpretation of solo smartphone functions and look for other explanations to understand these aspects of mobile tech. Some experts, such as Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist, attribute the allure of smartphones to aspects of their tech design that are purposefully made to keep audiences engaged for as long and as often as possible. Though still rooted in a person’s desire for social interaction, a smartphone’s features tap into the human reward system, leaving people craving another push notification.

Responsible and constructive media use is possible, says Michael Robb, Common Sense Media’s director of research. The key, as young users turn more toward smartphones for their screen times, is to create an environment that promotes healthy media habits.

Co-viewing and sharing appropriate media, establishing device-free times, like dinner, and modeling the desired behavior in front of children are all strategies that can help support what Robb calls a “good media balance.”

Smartphone use has skyrocketed over the past 10 years. Since 2011, the percentage of Americans who own such a device grew from 35 percent to 77 percent, according to a 2018 PEW Research report. Common Sense Media conducted its own survey of children up to age 8 who use mobile devices. Robb says they found a tenfold increase in mobile device screen time, from about 5 minutes in 2011 to 48 minutes in 2017.

To better understand why smartphones are so appealing, Veissière plans to produce a more fine-grain analysis of various cellphone functions and their effects on wellbeing, including mood and cognitive performance, by putting people on a low-tech diet without access to the internet. The first step to addiction recovery is recognizing there is a problem. Perhaps new insights into our attraction to mobile phones could eventually push us to look up and put down our devices and maybe even discuss with the people around us the great new Netflix series we just finished viewing.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the former Google design ethicist.