What America must do to remain the world’s high-tech leader

What America must do to remain the world’s high-tech leader
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Artificial intelligence (AI) often is erroneously identified as an emerging technology. That is not the case, either in the civilian or military worlds. The Aegis radar system, developed in the 1970s, could shoot down multiple aerial targets without a “man in the loop.” That it did not operate autonomously was a result of policy, not a shortcoming of technology.

More recent developments, notably the proliferation and increasing sophistication of military and civilian drones, as well as China’s determination to become the leader in AI and quantum sciences, however, have prompted an upsurge in ethical and national security concerns.


American think tanks, universities and analysts of all stripes generate an ever-greater volume of studies and reports addressing the issues from a host of angles. These range from the ethical conundrums arising from AI, to the gap between government and the commercial sector that has been at the cutting edge of the development and fielding of these technologies, to their exploitation by hostile governments such as Russia, to the future of warfare and America’s ability to prevail over a technologically advanced peer such as China.


The last of these is, of course, of special concern to the Department of Defense (DoD) and the national-security community. This month, Congress passed the Fiscal Year 2019 Defense Authorization Act that included provisions addressing the need to preserve America’s technological dominance over all potential comers. To that end, and with an eye on China, Congress emphasized artificial intelligence, machine learning and quantum sciences, and created a commission to review advances in AI and related technologies.

The House also passed the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act (FIRRMA), expanding the scope of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). For the first time, it linked control of foreign investments to restrictions on sensitive high-technology systems and capabilities. Again, the focus was the Chinese challenge.

As an example of growing non-government concern, during the past week the Aspen Strategy Group, an annual gathering of current and former top government officials, business and university leaders, addressed the question of “Technology and National Security: Maintaining America’s Edge.” Once more, the focus was China. Indeed, China’s potential to overtake American leadership in AI and related technologies dominated the four-day conclave.    

The executive branch and Congress have every reason to control Chinese purloining of American intellectual capital by investing in American firms, especially startups; drawing upon the skills of hundreds of thousands of Chinese students trained at American universities; pressuring companies doing business in China, or perpetrating outright theft of American intellectual property (IP).

Yet, there are limits to how far we can restrain or retard Chinese advances in high-tech. China may continue to steal American IP but it has a large, growing high-tech base that will continue to push the frontiers of AI and related fields.

First and foremost, therefore, the U.S. government generally (and the DoD in particular) must focus on exploiting these new technologies to maintain America’s lead, regardless of the successes that China or any country might achieve.

There is much the DoD can do, with the support of Congress, or even without it, to absorb and incorporate cutting-edge technologies into its force posture and structure. The DoD must build upon its recent but thus far only partially successful efforts to reform its antiquated, unwieldy acquisition system. In what essentially is a self-inflicted wound, the DoD creates unnecessary barriers to cooperation with the civilian high-tech sector. In the name of competition, it far too frequently demands that industry surrender its intellectual property rights; in the name of financial stringency, it imposes on industry a unique accounting system, even as its own auditors are years behind in validating industry’s costs. Many firms simply are deterred from seeking any degree of cooperation with the government.

True, procurement regulations provide for waivers and other means of working around the DoD’s formal acquisition system. Former Defense Secretary Ash Carter staunchly supported such workarounds; he created the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx). More is needed, however. The entire, decades-old acquisition system must be replaced with a commercial-friendly process.  

In addition, too many civilian and military officials are not “educated consumers” when it comes to understanding and fostering cutting-edge technologies. Our system of military education does not encourage what should be a required year of study at the nation’s leading science and technology centers, such as MIT, RPI, CalTech and Georgia Tech. Nor does DoD require its technical managers to spend any time in the high-tech industries it seeks to cultivate. The situation is even worse with respect to civilians, for whom continuing education is voluntary, not necessary. In both cases, and with rare exceptions, program managers cannot keep up with technological change whose rapidity outpaces Moore’s Law.

What is needed is a system that creates incentives for education and, indeed, for risk taking. Only by mandating that promotions to general and flag officer, and to their civilian equivalent ranks, require continuing technical education — including time in industry — will the DoD truly foster better ties with Silicon Valley and its equivalents elsewhere in the United States, and thereby preserve American technological leadership.

Finally, the national security leadership should open some of its most closely held high-tech advances to trusted allies, notably Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, who, with the United States, constitute the “Five Eyes” of intelligence. It is a longstanding American fallacy that all technological advances originate here. Many, perhaps most, do — but not all. By sharing some of its most sensitive programs with these allies in particular, Washington can reinforce relationships that are beginning to wear thin, preserving the atmosphere of mutual trust that has stood the test of decades since World War II.

There are many other steps the federal government can take to ensure America’s technological lead withstands all challenges. It could issue block grants to states that, in many cases, have taken the lead in attracting and supporting high-tech incubators, often by means of tax credits. It could build upon the DoD’s halting efforts to attract young technologists into the reserves, without burdening them with dress and fitness requirements. Finally, it could allocate far more resources, to the DoD and elsewhere in government, to support basic research and the earliest stages of development that, in tandem with industry, will be the catalyst for future technological breakthroughs.

American ingenuity, entrepreneurship and unparalleled university and governmental research centers have been the keys to our high-tech leadership that no other country, China included, has matched. It is the government’s responsibility to foster all activities that contribute to maintaining that leadership. It can only do so, however, if — like the technologies it so desperately needs to exploit — it leaves 20th century structures behind and throws itself wholeheartedly into reforms that power it into the next decades of the 21st century.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.