Ambitious ideas for countering China in the name of U.S. national security and economic prosperity abound: Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., recently led a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the introduction of a bill that would establish a State Department Office to work on technology standards with allies, and Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, last week reintroduced a bill that would establish a comprehensive framework for competition with China, including on the technology forefront.
And the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence released a mammoth report March 1 recommending how the U.S. can bolster AI leadership, talent, hardware and innovation investment to compete with China in the AI sphere.
But the Center for New American Security and assorted experts who gathered for a Tuesday webinar to discuss what a plan that may sit at a level above the rest—a national technology strategy—should look like. In a report released Jan 13, CNAS researchers explained the case for a strategy by contrasting China’s national approach with the relatively disjointed tack taken by the U.S. when it comes to emerging technologies.
“The stakes are very, very high,” former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy, who is chair of the CNAS board, said during the webinar. “And I think we’ve seen that without a clear national-level effort and strategy, we are taking a risk that we won’t keep the edge and key areas where we really do need to do that.”
Information and understanding how to create advantages with information is an orienting focus for ensuring long-term U.S. competitiveness, Sue Gordon, the former principal deputy director of national intelligence, suggested.
“You can’t just say here’s the level I needed the technology,” Gordon said. “In order to really sing, what we have to imagine is what we want to be able to do with information and what we want to be able to assure. Set that mark, and then achieve that with the development.”
But changes to acquisitions, how government works with industry and allies, and even how plans get implemented may be required in order to meet that mark.
Both Flournoy and Secretary James “Hondo” Geurts, who is performing the duties of undersecretary of the Navy, said finding innovative technology is not the problem. Instead, acquisition issues holding U.S. technology stem from the much-maligned valley of death and the need to figure out how to avoid solving the same problems over and over again.
“We’ve gotten pretty good at tech scouting—kind of going out and scouring the landscape and finding innovative technologies and prototyping them—but we have not done a great job of getting them from prototype into production at scale,” Flournoy said.
Flournoy called for a “Green Beret” corps of acquisition officials specializing in emerging technologies who understand agile development and are empowered to take more risks. Geurts highlighted the same issue; useful tech gets discovered but it doesn’t make it to end-users, he said.
“I think if you can go from that constantly visioning the future, build scalable platforms that you can adapt as the future unfolds, and then constantly get it out there in the fleet, get it in the hands of the end-user, that strategy I think allows you to operationalize and get a pipeline that we can actually then feed, “ Geurts said.
Geurts also said the Navy is working to disaggregate the development of technology from individual platforms so that innovation can from anywhere—startups, allies, etc.—and be scaled rapidly.
While a renewed focus on working with allies has featured prominently in the nascent Biden administration, experts suggested other types of partnerships need attention, too: those among the different branches of government, among various government agencies, and between government and the private sector.
While Flournoy said she believes the “post-[Edward] Snowden” period that saw a Silicon Valley hesitant to work on national security missions is over. But working with the government is still too challenging for industry, she said.
“One of the things they can do is to signal to the investor community, there’s real money here, so you should let this AI company actually develop a defense vertical that’s trying to help the Defense Department because over the next five years, there’s a market here,” Flournoy said.
The recent SolarWinds intrusion demonstrated the need for better partnerships between the public and private sectors particularly in the cyber realm, according to Gordon.
“It is absolutely unfair for a nation-state to be attacking a company, and we blame the company for having been attacked,” Gordon said. “It’s just an imbalance, and so part of what we have to do here is we have to get the government more involved in this and reduce some of the boundaries to doing it.”
When it comes to working with allies, Loren DeJonge Schulman, vice president, for research and evaluation at the Partnership for Public Service and former senior adviser to National Security Advisor Susan Rice, emphasized the need for relationship management. Technology is a gray area crossing many different policy realms, she said.
“When you’re talking about our economic collaboration, our technology collaboration, and our values as associated with democracy and technology, you don’t really find those on an org chart,” she said. “They’re spread necessarily across the U.S. government, and as a result, I think we dilute a lot of our potential in terms of working with our allies on some of the topics that we’re discussing right now.”
It’s critical to figure out who is in charge of what so that we can work with allies and partners effectively, Schulman said.
Schulman also talked about the importance of bureaucratic activities required to simply get the ball rolling. A baseline vision for where the U.S. wants to go with technology is needed at the outset, she said.
“That takes time, which is not always something that presidential administrations like to invest a lot in,” Schulman said. “But it’s absolutely necessary in order to make progress and I think an area that the Biden administration seems to be open to pursuing.”
Flournoy said leadership on implementation has to come from the White House. She advocated for something that operates similarly to the National Security Council process but focused on science and technology that includes clear objectives, division of labor, and accountabilities for the various components of the government.