Winning the national security long game takes technology innovation

Winning the national security long game takes technology innovation
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I was recently at a meeting with a former senior colleague who bemoaned the growing number of security threats facing the United States and the West in 2018. He said, “It feels as if the West is on a losing streak to the forces of chaos, and if this were a soccer match, the coach would need to adjust our game plan for the second half.” He cited North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, the growing threat of war on the Korean Peninsula, international terrorism, and the challenges posed by major peer states such as China and Russia.

My friend’s litany of national security woes is familiar to most security experts, but it does gloss over several positive trends and inherent advantages that the United States still enjoys. For example, the U.S. economy is booming, and we continue to enjoy significant advantages in our military and intelligence capabilities compared to our nearest competitors. It’s not as if our primary enemies and competitors are without their own challenges, from the Islamic State’s loss of its physical caliphate to Russia’s lagging economic growth, and from China’s enormous debt burden to Iran’s recent spate of internal protests.

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But what about our longer-term security picture, say over the next five to 10 years? Are we likely to enjoy the same advantages if we stay on our current trajectory, or is there an emerging issue that policymakers will need to address soon to safeguard America’s longer-term security? I believe the answer to the latter question is yes, and it’s the steady erosion of our technological preeminence, particularly in areas with defense and weapons development applications.

For the past several decades, the United States has enjoyed a tremendous lead in scientific innovation over the rest of the world, which has fueled America’s economic growth and provided enormous battlefield advantages, especially in information awareness, communications, and precision weaponry. When was the last time the U.S. military was at a technological disadvantage in a major battle? Perhaps in the early stages of the North Africa campaign in World War II?

It’s quite clear, though, that China is determined to erase our technological advantage, and is committing hundreds of billions of dollars to this effort. In particular, China is determined to be a world leader in such areas as artificial intelligence, high performance computing, and synthetic biology. These are the industries that will shape life on the planet and the military balance of power for the next several decades.

To scale this problem in budget terms, the United States last year spent $496 billion, the most of any country on research and development, but China spent $408 billion and has been increasing its spending on this sector by 18 percent annually since 2000, a much faster spending growth rate than the United States. China’s tightly integrated public-private partnership in support of Xi Jinping’s objective also stands in sharp contrast to the current U.S. approach, which is less centrally focused and driven predominantly by the private sector.

However, since competition in this domain has clear national security implications, ranging from the future of encryption and the protection of critical infrastructure to the development of unmanned weapons and counter-drone technology, can we really rely on the private sector to independently incorporate national security considerations into their market calculations? I think not.

Lest we think we have plenty of time to grapple with this issue, we should recognize that China isn’t our only looming challenge. In fact, more than a dozen countries are actively researching the technologies required to develop advanced robotics with military applications, including autonomous weapons, and even non-state actors are adapting technology in frightening ways. Just last month, the Islamic State used drones to attack Russian air bases in Syria, a tactic the group has refined from its first use more than a year ago against Iraqi forces advancing on Mosul.

A decade ago, the United States was the only country operating armed drones over Iraq and Syria. Today, more than a dozen countries in the region employ this technology, as well as both the Islamic State and Hezbollah. Sadly, it’s probably only a matter of time before terrorist groups, or even hostile state actors, attempt to use armed drones against U.S. military bases, civilian infrastructure, or commercial aviation targets.

So, what can be done? The federal government was a major player in fueling the development of both the space program and the internet, and I believe it’s time to expand its role once again in driving innovation in emerging defense-related industries. Here are a few practical proposals to make that happen. First, the White House could deputize one key official within the government to coordinate and prioritize our now disparate public and private sector technological development efforts, a portfolio perfectly suited to the White House science adviser, a position that is currently vacant.

Second, the federal government could, in partnership with the private sector, increase and target government spending on selected high tech industries, with quantum computing and counter-drone technology ranking high on the list of priorities. If there are cost concerns with this idea, it’s worth considering whether America’s long-term security is better served by spending nearly $1 trillion over the next few decades to modernize our nuclear weapons inventory, as well more than $40 billion a year in Afghanistan, or by funneling some of that money into investments in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and semiconductor manufacturing?

Third, the State Department could work to galvanize international support for a new arms control regime to govern the development of the next generation of advanced conventional and asymmetric weapons. In my view, this is an area of potential cooperation with China and Russia, as well as our key allies, because preventing the proliferation of revolutionary new weapons across the globe, especially those that are unmanned and autonomous, is certainly in all of our interests.

Michael Dempsey is the national intelligence fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a fellowship sponsored by the U.S. government. He is the former acting director of national intelligence. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely the views of the author.