Pentagon chief: Russia, China trying to close the technology gap

Pentagon chief: Russia, China trying to close the technology gap
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Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Wednesday warned that other nations were closing in on the U.S.'s technological edge, and urged attendees of a technology forum in Missouri to help the Pentagon stay ahead.  

"Nations like Russia and China are modernizing their militaries to try to close the technology gap and erode our superiority in every domain – air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace," Carter said in St. Louis. 

"And at the same time, our reliance on things like satellites and the Internet has led to real vulnerabilities that our adversaries are eager to exploit," he said. "So to stay ahead of those challenges, and stay the best, we’re investing aggressively in innovation." 

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Carter's visit to the technology forum, hosted by the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is part of his push to make technology and innovation once again a strong part of the Defense Department — which at one time helped invent the Internet.

Forum attendees included around 1,200 physicists, chemists, geneticists, nanotechnologists, molecular biologists, data scientists, computer scientists, neuroscientists, and experts in manufacturing, cyber, satellites, and space.

Carter has also been trying to break down barriers between the Pentagon and the commercial sector on technology, and has visited Silicon Valley twice since becoming defense secretary.

"We live in a changing world, and our military’s excellence is not a birthright. It’s not a guarantee. We have to earn it again and again," he said.

Carter said that technological advances, in some areas, is happening most quickly in commercial start-ups and non-defense companies. 

"DOD has to tap into that stream of innovation and emerging technology, and it has to do so much more quickly – that’s why a conference like this one is so important to the Defense Department," he said. 

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Carter later told reporters during that he would protect money for innovation in the Pentagon's 2017 defense budget.

"We're going to be protecting innovation in key areas. Not just [research and development], but some of the key applications that we've singled out, where we feel we need to move faster, like space and cyber-defense and electronic warfare, and so forth," he said. 

He said he also wanted to provide incentives to industry partners for defense innovations, and invest in people. 

"Some of that doesn't take money," he said, adding that the Pentagon could bring in people through summer internships. 

But Carter cautioned during his speech that the Pentagon's ability to invest in new technologies and build new partnerships will depend on whether it will have a "robust budget and long-term budget certainty." 

Congress is on the cusp of passing a short-term funding measure, in the absence of a 2016 appropriations bill by the beginning of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1. 

The measure, referred to as a continuing resolution, or CR, would prevent the Pentagon from starting any new projects or programs, or from spending more money than what was allocated last year, in the exact accounts. 

The funding bill has been caught in the middle of a larger funding debate. The administration is urging Congress to reverse 2011 budget caps known as sequestration, and boost defense and non-defense spending.  

The GOP-proposed budget would leave those caps in place, but only boost defense spending. The White House and Democrats oppose that plan, and have refused to move on the budget until Republicans begin talks begin to lift those caps. 

"Indiscriminate cuts from sequestration – not to mention a continuing resolution – are wasteful for taxpayers… dangerous for our strategy… unfair for our people… and frankly, embarrassing in front of the world," Carter said.

"We need to come together behind a multi-year approach to our budgeting, and we must start immediately," he said. 

Carter said he's been concerned about other countries closing the technological gap with the U.S. for "some years now." 

"I think anybody who is technologically aware in defense has to be concerned,” he said.

“It's part of the requirement for those whose mission it is to protect people to stay ahead of those who will threaten people, and since the march of technology carries even the evil and the nefarious forward, also, we need to stay well out in front of anybody who could harm our people and harm international security," he said.