Congress must modernize defense with innovation and intelligence

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The United States and its allies are facing an era of unprecedented uncertainty and change. Across the globe, we are seeing the development and proliferation of advanced military technologies and disruptive warfare techniques that mean we can no longer take our military superiority and effectiveness for granted.

Congress faces the imperative to foster and protect innovative approaches to high-end challenges — but challenges such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Ukraine and the Horn of Africa demonstrate that we need to have options at the other end of the intensity spectrum as well.


This forces tough decisions. The fiscal 2015 budget includes reductions in end strength and force structure in order to protect investments in research and development, special operations, cyber and other capabilities. Despite the trade-offs they require, these investments are necessary; in fact, I’m concerned that even the current level of research and development investment is too low — which is why I’ve asked for a comprehensive review of the Department of Defense-wide research and development enterprise to make sure that we understand the long-term impacts of these funding levels.

The efforts of today become the capabilities of tomorrow, and we simply cannot afford to have anything less than the most capable military in the world when we send our men and women in uniform into harm’s way, particularly in the increasingly high-tech operating environments of tomorrow.

Emerging technologies such as high-energy weapons — electromagnetic railguns, high-energy lasers and high-powered microwave emitters — in addition to advanced electronic warfare techniques, promise to open up significant new war fighting capabilities and complement existing capabilities. 

Advanced undersea technologies could greatly increase the capability of our submarine fleet, even as we face a worrying reduction in overall fleet size. Unmanned systems, both in the air and at sea, show great promise. Cybersecurity will also be a critical facet of every aspect of our operations going forward — and indeed it already is.

Similarly, intelligence capabilities, special operations and information operations will become even more crucial, especially preconflict. Reliable intelligence enables us to act preemptively when security is threatened, or prepare preemptively to counter or adapt to a threat. Particularly when resources are scarcer, intelligence is an incredible force multiplier. There’s no substitute. Conflict prediction, as well as knowing adversary capabilities, tactics, positioning and vulnerabilities serves to increase the value of military effort and improves our ability to apply minimum means to achieve maximum ends, particularly when we’re playing the away game and the adversary has advantages in basing, distance and resupply.

In the longer term, we must focus on fostering innovation and building a workforce that can maintain technological dominance. We need to get back to iterative development cycles that continually push the boundaries of the possible. We need capabilities that are adaptive, disruptive, and above all break current cost paradigms. We can’t keep spending $10 million on an interceptor to defend against salvos of missiles costing a tenth of that. We need to be able to impose greater costs on our adversaries than they can to us.

But as we design and deploy systems, we must keep an eye on the missions we are trying to accomplish. While some chase a fundamental desire to make a platform be all things to all people, such requirement creep is unsustainable. What is the actual effect we need? Do we get that from a better platform, or smarter munitions? Or even from better intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or an international partnership, or economic measures?  Or is it achievable through cyber or electronic warfare — and if so, can we measure the result and have confidence in the effect?

What we need from our military, and from the industrial base, is a capable and adaptable force, with advanced capabilities, able to operate across the full range of conflict — high, low or hybrid. We will need partnerships, and allies equipped like we are, able to operate with us, and most importantly that we trust and that trust us.  We’ll need things like advanced submarines, next-generation ship-based radars and airborne jammers, and cutting-edge unmanned systems. And yes, we will have to accept tradeoffs in order to operate within today’s fiscal environment. Congress can smooth that path, and that’s what we’re going to keep working to do.

Langevin has represented Rhode Island’s 2nd Congressional District since 2001. He sits on the Armed Services and Intelligence committees.