At the end of the Cold War, China did not appear poised to threaten America’s unipolar moment. The country was a nuclear power but largely impoverished. It had a large military; its forces were ill-equipped and not prepared for a major war. The People’s Liberation Army’s main battle tank was a first-generation T-55, first produced in 1949, and the army possessed almost no mechanized forces. Even as late as 2000, the entire Chinese helicopter force consisted of a mere 24 Mi-17s amid a mix of light- to medium-duty transport aircraft.
Fast-forward to present day. Beijing is a force to be reckoned with. Its anti-access and area-denial capabilities, operations in cyberspace, and its missile force keep defense leaders from Tokyo to Washington up at night. And as China’s military becomes ever more powerful, it looks as if the United States has made poor choices in how it has equipped its own military.
But 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
In the second half of the 19th century, Great Britain was still the master of the seas. This was crucial, as Britain was an island nation that needed to maintain a global empire and its powerful navy was key to its security. Maintaining a lead in naval mastery was a tricky business, however, in the decades preceding World War I. In the span of roughly 50 years, ships had gone from wooden-hulled sailing vessels with muzzle-loading, smooth-bored cannons that fired solid shot for a few hundred yards to massive turbine-driven hulks with steel, compartmentalized hulls, armed with breech-loading rifled guns that could hurl explosive shells for miles.
Britain was a leader in researching and understanding the technologies surrounding submarines, mines, and torpedoes throughout the 19th century, but given the fact that the diffusion of such technologies would allow other nations to cheaply counter the Brits’ own surface fleet (and specifically its ability to conduct naval blockades) they conducted a decades-long strategy to discourage the implementation and diffusion of such technologies. Navy Controller Sir Arthur Wilson revealed the essence of a comprehensive technology management strategy in a 1901 internal memorandum, and it is worth quoting at length:
We cannot stop invention in this direction [submarine warfare], but we can avoid doing anything to encourage it. [We successfully] delayed the introduction of submarine mines for half a century … [and the] question of submarine boats is taking a very similar course. A very well thought design for a submarine boat was brought to my notice … about 1879.… Experiments were carried out which proved the
In other words, 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
I concur with the Naval Lords that the Controllers policy [of stifling submarine technology] was certainly the right one.… [But] that is no longer possible … [and we should] abandon our policy of discouragement and … adopt one of unostentatious progress.
In fact, by the beginning of World War I, Britain had a larger submarine fleet than Germany. This fact is surprising to many, given the central role that submarines played in Germany’s strategy during the war, but it shows that Britain was not inherently opposed to submarine technologies. Rather, the British hindered or accelerated the development of such technologies with strategic acumen. Given their leadership role in driving naval technology, it is not unreasonable to assume that they faced cruder German subs in 1914 than they would have if they had not slow-rolled submarine technology for decades.
We can compare the British case of carefully considered technology deployment to the case of current fifth-generation U.S. aircraft: the F-22 Raptor and the
What the United States has done, however, is allow rivals to quickly achieve near-peer status in fifth-generation aircraft. The Chinese J-31, for example, is likely based on stolen F-22 and F-35 technology, and while the Chinese plane is marginally inferior, the prototypes are capable enough to offer a serious counter to American air power in East Asia. Further, the Chinese have shown the capacity to acquire emerging technologies and get them into the field faster. Once again, this does not bode well for the technology leader that pays the painful research and development costs. In the private sector, this practice is well studied. Business courses now use the term “fast follower” for someone who benefits from others’ technology investments; Thorstein Veblen was writing about it as far back as 1915. Despite this, American military planners seem to be oblivious to how one should leverage such a technological lead.
Can this pathology be remedied? It will be challenging for several reasons. First, in contrast to the “easy” questions such as air-superiority aircraft, other emerging technologies are threatening to create strategic impacts that are very poorly understood. Artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and additive manufacturing represent only a handful of vibrant technology fields that may have unforeseen impacts on the national security environment of tomorrow. Second, the cutting edge of such technology fields
The third and most serious challenge
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
Finally, the Pentagon needs to rethink the “valley of death”—the gap between technology innovation and implementation. Many
This article first appeared on Foreign Policy.
Image Courtesy of