National Defense Magazine: Taking on China Requires a Strengthened Workforce

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Washington, January 8, 2020 | comments

The following op-ed appeared in the January 8th edition of National Defense.

During my time in the Navy Reserves I saw the impressive capabilities the Defense Department could deliver to our men and women at the frontlines. It has seen enormous successes during the past several years: the fifth-generation capabilities of the F-35, the elaborate network of our satellite communication systems and advanced undersea detection capabilities. I am proud of our military and want to ensure that it is prepared for the future fight.

However, I’ve also seen some of the department’s weaknesses during my time in the Navy and now in Congress. Many of these weaknesses revolve around thick government bureaucracies and inefficiencies.

For example, according to the department’s own 2019 Digital Modernization Strategy, it maintains 10,000 information technology systems at a staggering cost of more than $46.4 billion annually, as requested for fiscal year 2019. Several of these systems are outdated and ill-managed, creating a self-imposed burden in the task of effective communication security.

The Defense Department also struggles with the fresh and strategic thinking needed to innovate and outpace our adversaries. For instance, we are still fighting our longest war — a war I served in during 2014 and 2015 — that began before the birth of some of our current servicemembers. The Defense Department vulnerabilities that have stalled the progress in Afghanistan continue to concern me, especially as we face growing threats from China.

Beijing is eager to exploit our weaknesses and build up areas in which the United States is vulnerable. The United States now needs to fight to cement its hard-fought place as the leader of the liberal world order. We can no longer ignore threats from revisionist powers. On the House Armed Service Committee, I constantly strive to provide congressional oversight that doesn’t impede the Defense Department’s efforts, but provides accountability and ensures our armed forces are equipped with the resources they need to operate at their level best.

To face our long-term strategic competitors, the department must focus time and resources to meet our greatest challenges and fully align to the needs addressed in the National Defense Strategy.

The Ronald Reagan Institute’s Task Force on 21st Century National Security Technology and Workforce — which included several distinguished government and private sector thought-leaders — sought to shed light on the systematic and underlying challenges our military faces, and create a blueprint to adapt to challenges posed by revisionist powers like China. The result is the report, “The Contest for Innovation: Strengthening America’s National Security Innovation Base in an Era of Strategic Competition.”

The task force was well positioned to strengthen the national security innovation base, or NSIB, to better prepare the workforce for the 21st century by utilizing expertise in academia and incorporating the defense industry. Co-chairs former Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., and former Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work led the bipartisan effort to reform the Defense Department so it can adapt to the 21st century.

In addressing our most pressing needs, the task force brought in several of the brightest minds — from defense trailblazers, leaders of allied nations and academia — to discuss substantial reforms policymakers could implement to make our nation more competitive.

At the current pace, the United States will reach a point of technological deficit from which we will never be able to recover. The task force focused on China’s strengths such as their masterful practice of stealing intellectual property, relocating American jobs, and quickly implementing technological innovations, to shape the policy recommendations to address threats to the U.S. innovation base. A stated national aim of China is to integrate their civilian and military dual-use technologies.

As an authoritarian state, it is well positioned to conduct research at state-owned enterprises or hybrid companies and allocate significant resources into technologies like artificial intelligence, 5G, autonomous capabilities, microchips, semiconductors and other emerging technologies. China also sees our latency in fully investing in military dominated domains, such as space warfare and hypersonic weapons. Without a healthy appreciation of China’s rapidly growing capabilities, policymakers will quickly fall behind without ever realizing that the United States lost its grasp on its position as a global leader.

The Reagan Institute also utilized valuable survey data to understand the public’s perception of current national security threats. According to the 2019 Ronald Reagan Institute National Survey, almost nine in 10 Americans, 89 percent, are concerned about cyberattacks on government computers and the electrical grid. Adversarial governments often look to this low-cost attack to steal critical data from U.S. citizens. From 2013 to 2015, the Chinese government hacked into the Office of Personnel Management’s database, exposing 21 million current and former employees’ private information, such as Social Security numbers and addresses, to the Chinese Communist Party.

Former Navy Secretary Richard Spencer recently stated that the service’s industry partners are “under cyber siege” by Chinese hackers and others who have stolen national security secrets in recent years, exploiting critical weaknesses that threaten the United States’ standing as the world’s top military power. While the Defense Department has made significant strides in addressing the threats, the workforce, infrastructures and platforms must continue to fortify against these covert tactics. While this is just one example of how China exerts asymmetrical warfare, it demonstrates the long neglect of a critical infrastructure need.

To address such fears, the Reagan Institute provided key findings and recommendations to be able to compete with peer competitors like China. One such recommendation was the idea of a STEM Corps. As a member of the House Committee on Education and Labor and the Armed Services Committee, I am keenly aware of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics challenges facing the nation today. STEM majors at U.S. universities are often dominated by international students from countries like China, India and South Korea, whose students are eager to take on the challenge associated with advanced mathematics and science backgrounds.

Rather than shy away from the technologically complex problems of the 21st century, the United States needs its students to embrace the great challenges of our time in service of our national defense. To address this need, the STEM Corps would incentivize students to major in a STEM degree, ushering in a new era of U.S. technological supremacy.

In exchange for accepting critical employment opportunities at government agencies, program participants will have a significant portion of their college education paid for by a new public/private partnership. By exposing the brightest minds early to the rewards of government service, they will be able to serve their country and incur less student debt in the process.

Additionally, the task force found that the Defense Department needs a much higher risk tolerance when it comes to innovation. As Talent stated, the task of policymakers is to “focus the ecosystem on national security priorities, create a more comprehensive security consciousness among the private actors, and coordinate the segments enough to get the necessary synergies — all without straightjacketing the creativity of the ecosystem or sacrificing the freedom, openness and risk-positive culture that is one of the NSIB’s greatest strengths.”

Under great pressure, the U.S. government is able to innovate. When challenged to succeed, the U.S. space program was able to overcome early setbacks en route to one of mankind’s greatest successes when Americans first set foot on the moon. China’s challenge in cyberspace is this generation’s Sputnik moment and we need to respond in kind.

But we’ve lost our way. Under financial constraints and looming deadlines, the Defense Department is forced to be as cautious as possible to demonstrate constant progress for their congressional funders. However, policymakers should be continually searching to remove red tape and encourage program officials to fail fast.

The private sector is naturally incentivized to innovate, whereas the Pentagon is not. Dramatic changes away from platforms and toward systems upsets the balance and slows innovation. The department needs to work closely with the private sector to monitor the supply chain, field emerging technologies at a much faster rate and learn from private sector contributions.

In addition to challenges like these, I have made China the focal point of my time in Congress. The National Defense Strategy states, “As China continues its economic and military ascendance, asserting power through an all-of-nation long-term strategy, it will continue to pursue a military modernization program that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future.”

The United States must prepare a similar all-of-nation response. In March, I introduced the “Protect Our Universities Act” to create an inter-agency task force addressing the threat of espionage on our college campuses. The lack of coordination between the Department of Education, the Defense Department and the intelligence community is an example of the slow-moving bureaucracy that reduces government efficiencies and makes us more vulnerable.

In Congress, I co-chair the Future of Defense Task Force with Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., where, like the Reagan Institute, we like to think ahead and tackle problems laid out in its report. As co-chairs, we continue to examine U.S. vulnerabilities and congressional responses to the China threat. The task force seeks to improve the Defense Department’s agility as we examine its strategic thinking, the capabilities of autonomous systems, the capabilities of hypersonic weapons and several other challenges of the decade to come.

The important work of the Reagan Institute and the Future of Defense Task Force must be applied with a whole-of-government approach and a steadfast commitment to innovation. China will not allow bureaucracy to limit their innovation, and neither should we. To prepare for the future, the Defense Department and the national security innovation base must closely read recommendations from the Reagan Institute report and champion the next Sputnik moment. 

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