We must improve our defense technology on a constant and daily basis
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Since the inception of the digital age, the United States has been the unchallenged global leader in computing technology, but with little public attention, our advantage has been eclipsed. Most of us may have missed the news, but we are now embarked on a computing technology race that is as portentous as any military conflict we have ever faced before. 

Top500, the organization that monitors and ranks the world’s supercomputers reported this summer that China has developed two different computer systems that are now the two fastest on the planet. 

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Just 15 years ago, China had none of the top 500 supercomputers in the world, but today, it has more than any other nation, including the United States. Its new Sunway TaihuLight achieves speeds that are five times faster than the fastest supercomputer in the United States — and it achieves those speeds with Chinese-made chips.

Supercomputers are used to simulate and study everything from the paths of hurricanes to the genetic origins of man and are critical to future advances in health care, the development alternative energy resources and national security.  While China’s latest advance does not yet fundamentally change the balance of power, the impacts are clearly visible on the horizon and should be a wake-up call to policymakers.  

It is no longer science fiction to imagine an adversary’s use of the world’s most advanced quantum computer to generate unbreakable encryption keys that would blind us to enemy military movements while our own would be entirely visible to the enemy. While a practical quantum computer does not exist today, China is investing billions in their development. The race is on.

We can no longer rely on decades of military superiority or the so-called technology “offsets” like nuclear weapons, and stealth technology and global positioning satellites.  While we may hold a technological lead, it is tenuous: the other runners are advancing on us, clearly visible in our peripheral vision.

The challenge before us is clear. If we are to stay ahead of the ever-growing wave of global technological innovation, we must out-invent, out-discover and out-innovate our adversaries — and we must do so on a constant, daily basis.  

There is no third offset. There is only a continuous offset, the keys to which are speed and effectiveness in translating basic research, discoveries and technological advances into affordable operational products and systems that move quickly into actual, practical use.  Our singular mission can be described in three words: rapid, affordable innovation.

It requires us to rethink our approach to the defense innovation ecosystem, one whose roots — and attitudes – are firmly planted in yesterday’s era of virtually unchallenged technological superiority.

Our finest scientific and engineering minds do not often envision the critical importance of defense innovation. A lifetime of work at the nation’s defense laboratories, regrettably, is no longer seen as a top career option.

Government defense laboratories must be infused with the most effective innovation and compensation practices of the private sector, with a singular focus on rapid innovation and transfer of theoretical technology into practical application.

The laboratories must more effectively tap into the synergies that develop through partnerships with universities and the private sector. Congress must consider transforming the defense laboratories into a system of government-owned, contractor-operated organizations that will be managed by universities for the Department of Defense, augmented by private industrial defense technology and manufacturing companies and venture capital entrepreneurs.

Our research universities are cradles of discovery and we must leverage them to ensure the constant development of new technologies whose transition into practical use will provide the continuous offsets that will keep the United States safe and at the forefront of scientific discovery.  

America’s research universities have already developed highly effective cultures of technology translation in which basic research and discoveries are now driving new technologies into the market. Building upon this infrastructure is critical to sustaining affordable military superiority for decades to come.   

In the race for development of advanced computing technology and in so many other areas, policymakers must recognize that government laboratories, universities, private sector corporations and venture capital firms each have a critical role to fill. 

At Purdue, we’ve blazed the trail, translating exciting theoretical discoveries into new defense technology startup companies such as Adranos Technologies, launched by a team of faculty and students to commercialize new, high efficiency rocket fuels and propellants for defense missions that may hold the key to deep space exploration in the years to come.  

Purdue has also teamed with Lockheed Martin and two New Mexico Universities on a bid to manage operations at the Sandia National Laboratory, a Department of Energy National Security Laboratory that is government-owned but contractor-operated. 

Our new Institute for Global Security and Defense Innovation, moreover, will converge all of the relevant academic disciplines, including the social and behavioral science, to ensure the university’s focus and commitment to the national security and defense innovation mission.

With sustained support from the government, the private sector and venture capital, universities like Purdue that embrace this commitment will help ensure our continued lead in defense technology — and the security of our nation.

Tomas Diaz de la Rubia, Ph.D., is the chief scientist and Executive Director of Discovery Park at Purdue University. He is the former Deputy Director for Science and Technology at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a nuclear weapons GOCO laboratory. 


General Charles (Chuck) Wald is a retired four star Air Force General and former Deputy Commander of European Command.