A 21st-Century Arms Race: Battling Red Tape to Keep the U.S. on Top

Smart prioritization within the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) is perhaps more crucial today than ever before. Although the United States has consistently outspent China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, France, United Kingdom, and Japan combined on national defense, our country faces an imminent threat from China and Russia with regards to the development of cybersecurity and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies. Only last year, Aaron Gregg’s Washington Post report revealed that a Government Accountability Office audit of US defense technologies in the Army, Navy, and Air Force found that there were “mission critical cyber vulnerabilities in nearly all weapons systems that were under development,” likely as a result of “military agencies [rushing] to computerize new weapons systems without prioritizing cybersecurity”. This new brand of technological warfare marks the evolution of a new heavy artillery much different than those seen in the world wars.

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Given that China and Russia have made it clear that they are hungry to exploit any sort of weakness in the US’ digital infrastructure, it is of paramount importance for current Department of Defense spending and innovation to concentrate on cybersecurity and AI. Russian and Chinese AI developments already pose a grave threat to American military dominance, something which—if the U.S. does not act—will only increase with time. According to a Belfer Center Study performed in 2014, the Russian Military Industrial Committee approved a plan that would have 30% of Russian combat power consist of entirely remote-controlled and autonomous robotic platforms by 2030. Moreover, a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies highlighted not only details of China’s advanced AI Development plan originally released in July of 2017, but also the unique technological ecosystem in the world’s most populous country. The AI Development plan promises that “China will be the world’s primary AI innovation center” by 2030, and seeks to cultivate a domestic AI industry valued at $150 billion. Given the Chinese government’s oversized—and growing—influence in the Chinese private sector, new technologies are often developed in close coordination with government goals and objectives, allowing the government to direct the prioritization of AI through its influence on companies and research facilities. China’s unique political landscape and the commitments both Russia and China have made mean that it is high time the U.S. makes a similar investment to keep competitive.

The United States hasn’t completely neglected AI, however. According to the Jackie Snow of the MIT Technology Review, American “spending on AI, big data, and cloud services reached $7.4 billion in the 2017 fiscal year,” a marked increase since 2012. While spending is indeed rising, many studies still project that the US will fall behind competing countries in AI. To this end, during an Armed Services Committee hearing in 2017, the late Senator John McCain warned that “the DoD’s relationship with Silicon Valley,” which he considered to be lacking, would ‘be one of these disgraceful chapters that will be written about. [Silicon Valley is] where the innovators are, sir”. In underscoring the problems of the DoD, McCain also makes explicit one of the greatest assets unique to the innovation ecosystem in the US: its talented civilian base. This would include research universities, private and commercial businesses, and start-ups.

This isn’t a completely new concept -- in fact, returning emphasis on the contributions that civilians can make perhaps would return the Department of Defense to the roots of its success. Stanford professor and Army veteran Jeff Decker assesses in 2018 War on the Rocks article “Renewing Defense Innovation” that the Department of Defense has historically relied on and sourced innovation from the non-defense world:

“During World War II, when the U.S. government realized it needed an external innovation pipeline … it hired civilian scientists to work on defense-related problems … The establishment of Vannevar Bush’s Office of Scientific Research and Development was the first formalized effort to inject civilian scientist technological know-how into the Defense Department. Civilian scientists were so successful in helping the government achieve its objectives that the Office of Scientific Research and Development became the National Science Foundation in 1950. Later, during the Cold War, the government once again sourced outside innovation by mobilizing commercial industry to develop satellites and precision-guided munitions enabling the United States to see and accurately hit targets beyond the horizon.”
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The historical lessons from Decker’s characterization are clear. The Department of Defense needs to turn to back to the civilian populace, which contains thriving innovative potential and talent. Indeed, there have been early efforts to integrate civilians into national defense advisory boards. Take, for example, the Defense Innovation Board (DIB) that was established in 2016. Its board boasts the membership of Eric Schmidt, former executive Chairman of Alphabet, Adam Grant, a professor at Wharton studying work and innovation, and Walter Isaacson, the former president and CEO of the Aspen Institute. Given the diverse representation of various civilian groups, the DIB functions, according to its website, as “part of the larger, emerging innovation ecosystem at DoD … to bring innovation and entrepreneurship to the Department”.

The DIB is already beginning to recognize some of the systemic challenges to innovation in the defense sector. In a House Armed Services Committee testimony, Schmidt and Michael Griffin, the U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, complained about the red tape imposed by government regulations which was difficult for public-private partnerships to navigate. Under current regulations, money has to be appropriated for narrow and tailored purposes, making it difficult to sponsor research that is needed as new problems and challenges quickly arise. Carten Cordell in a FedScoop article characterizes that, in confronting these issues, the DIB is looking to form “more partnerships with public universities to leverage laboratories and research facilities to foster technology development”.

In recent months, there has been a great deal of movement and restructuring within the Department of Defense. As a result, there are more groups that work specifically to foster defense innovation. For example, the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental team, DIUx, became a permanent group within the Defense Department in August 2018.

Issues of cybersecurity and AI remains at the forefront of challenges for the Department of Defense. Luckily, in recent months we have seen a pivot back to previous successes within the Pentagon, in integrating civilians into the defense work and allowing for greater innovation. While the establishment of groups such as DIUx and DIB are still nascent, the work that they have in front of them is critical to US security now and into the future.