This is not just about missiles and ships. Over the past 10 years, Chinese government investment has included everything from Alibaba to Uber. This strategy has helped it test military-grade capabilities in the commercial market. As a result, Chinese military technologies often exhibit shorter times to market than comparable American defense programs. Beijing also capitalizes on these investments in ways that are missed opportunities for the American defense industrial base.
It is time for the United States to consider the creation of a “comprehensive technology deployment strategy” because — quite frankly — it doesn’t have one. This strategy considers the opportunities of and threats to American research technology, weighs the context of the strategic threat environment, and evaluates whether it is prudent to develop or delay official release of a technology in the face of adversaries eager to incorporate these advances into their own defense systems.
As the world’s leader in technologies that shape the security environment, Americans need to think hard about what they can do to maintain their increasingly fragile lead in technology. What would such a strategy look like? It sounds counterintuitive, but in an era of rapid technological advances, sometimes it pays big dividends to actually slow the pace of development.
Take the example of 19th-century British naval technology. Could the United States take a page from the Victorian navy’s playbook and gain by shielding its technology advances until a time of its choosing?
The British were aware that they could achieve short-term gains out of developing and fielding new technologies but in doing so would also shorten the time in which such technologies would diffuse to rivals. The key takeaway of the British case is that it makes sense to “push the envelope” in technology when competition is intense, but it also makes sense to withhold or discourage the development of technology when such conditions are lacking. Britain’s policy matched such logic.
So what can be done? First, the United States can start by adopting strategic pragmatism in picking its areas of technology deployment. Military acquisition authorities need to think harder about second- and third-order diffusion effects (like armed Islamic State drones in Mosul). Of course, technology will inexorably evolve, and no one is going to be able to stop bad guys from buying a drone on Amazon or something worse, but the degree to which the national security apparatus can shape such evolution, it should do so with purpose. The days of dreaming about “full-spectrum dominance” (overmatching opponents across the board in all operational settings) are long over — today’s American national security apparatus needs to be smarter than that. The United States can’t and shouldn’t stop advancing technology, but it must do so with a plan in mind and stop doing all the heavy lifting on R&D for rivals and enemies. Put simply: Invest in mission-critical technology but implement it in a way that imposes fixed research costs on rivals that they cannot recover.
Second, the United States should partner with industry to better understand a fast-changing global supply chain and the industrial base that supports it. Bolstering coordination between private-sector investment and defense-industrial base objectives is especially important. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States is a good starting point to level the playing field by focusing on its review process for acquisitions of U.S. firms by foreign ones. However, this committee can only examine national security issues involved in an acquisition. While the vast majority of the more than 100 transactions reviewed annually proceed, the new administration will have to take a serious look at the committee process and the enabling legislation and consider what combination of carrots and sticks would accelerate the opening of China’s markets. One example would be to include an amendment to foreign-investment legislation that limits acquisitions by state enterprises from countries with which the United States does not have a bilateral investment treaty. This could force countries like China to alter their investment practices and increase the openness of their markets out of fear for their access elsewhere. Getting China to open up its protected markets is high on the policy agenda of the United States and other major economies. The United States has been negotiating with China over a bilateral investment treaty that would be based on a small negative list; that is, there would be a small number of agreed sectors that remain closed on each side, but otherwise investment would be open in both directions.
Finally, the Pentagon needs to rethink the “valley of death” — the gap between technology innovation and implementation. Many lament this gap, arguing that too many technologies make it through the basic R&D phase but don’t survive the acquisition/integration process. We propose turning this model on its head and advocate more selectively developing cutting-edge research, and then choosing to deploy the results strategically, versus simply being driven by inertia or the vagaries of bureaucracy. Just as the British mapped emerging technology to maintaining control of strategic sea lanes for the purpose of managing a global empire, Washington needs to take a minute (or two) to finally plot a grand strategy. After doing so, the shape and tenor of a comprehensive technology deployment strategy should become apparent. By simply taking into consideration what the United States wants to achieve, what the threat environment looks like, and what technologies would be needed to succeed in such a scenario — recognizing that today’s American “widget” will end up in rivals’ hands tomorrow — will go a long way in taming the technological revolutions we face.
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