Steering in the Right Direction in the Military-Technical Revolution

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A couple of years ago at the Beijing Xiangshan Forum, a senior executive at one of China’s largest defense companies claimed that “mechanized equipment is just like the hand of the human body.” He continued, “In future intelligent wars, AI systems will be just like the brain of the human body.” More recently, the People’s Liberation Army sought broad participation from young technology-savvy inventors in an AI challenge-style competition to develop the best algorithms to direct joint military forces in a realistic fight over a disputed island territory — in other words, Taiwan.

We should not be surprised. China believes that AI-enabled “intelligentized combat operations” will be central to surpassing the United States in the emerging military-technical revolution. It is developing new warfighting concepts to harness big data, swarm intelligence, automated decision-making, and autonomous unmanned systems and robotics in ways that could give it a decisive military advantage on the battlefield. China is also investing heavily in supporting technologies like quantum computing and 5G, and is leveraging its approach to military-civil fusion to focus its brainpower and resources on bringing these concepts to life. We assess that, in the big picture, the military-civilian fusion is generally working for China as a successful stratagem.



The United States requires a similar whole-of-nation effort that coordinates the entire U.S. national security enterprise with heavy involvement and attention from leaders at the highest level. For their part, the Department of Defense and the intelligence community ought to be focused on developing new strategic concepts that rely less on unquestioned military overmatch, in the traditional sense, and more on the rapid adoption of emerging technologies. In order to realize this vision, they should take the unsexy but important first step of creating a Steering Committee on Emerging Technology. This body, which represents a key recommendation of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, would oversee technological strategies and adoption across the national security enterprise, providing a level of coordination and planning that is absent today. And if it remains absent, it could cost the United States and its allies dearly.

This steering committee was inspired by our experience with the Advanced Capabilities and Deterrence Panel, a high-level Department of Defense forum we all co-chaired beginning in 2014 as the deputy secretary of defense, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the principal deputy director of national intelligence. Between 2012 and 2014, the Department of Defense and the intelligence community started to worry that America’s armed forces were losing their military-technical advantage over strategic competitors. For two decades while the United States fought counter-insurgencies in the Middle East, China and Russia invested heavily in developing counters to the conventional capabilities that underpinned our concepts for power projection. They also developed asymmetric capabilities, such as counter-space, counter-ship, counter-cyber, and sophisticated information operations, to target key advantages held by the United States. In our respective roles, we saw the possibility that America’s conventional deterrent, which has helped prevent a global war since the end of World War II, was eroding.

We were determined to reverse the situation, but discovered that the Department of Defense and the intelligence community were not organized to do so. The industrial-age processes that helped America win the Cold War — from budgeting to acquisition — were holding the country back in identifying, investing in, and adopting emerging technologies that will be critical to the future of U.S. power and prosperity. We struggled individually and had almost no way to effectively coordinate our visions, strategies, and investments across the Department of Defense and the intelligence community.

In response, we used the Advanced Capabilities and Deterrence Panel to convene key leaders from the Defense Department’s components, services, and combatant commands as well as elements from the intelligence community. We got them to operate quickly and in sync, empowering them with authority to help adapt and employ new ideas outside the usual bureaucratic boundaries. That process was instrumental to the department’s pursuit of the Defense Innovation Initiative — an effort established by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in November 2014. This initiative aimed to generate a focused, deliberate institutional response to the changed strategic environment and the erosion of our conventional deterrent, including our “third offset strategy.” It took our sustained focus and leadership to shepherd pathfinder initiatives such as Project Maven, one of the first uses of computer vision and machine learning for intelligence, as well as programs to counter the challenge of North Korean ballistic missiles and threats to our national security space constellation.

As an ad hoc forum, the Advanced Capabilities and Deterrence Panel did not survive changes in leadership at the Department of Defense, but the United States needs that level of senior leader focus today more than ever. America’s competitors are now only a step or two away from technological parity and the likelihood of unexpected technological surprise has increased dramatically. The accelerated pace of technology adaptation means that any “first mover” advantage in new capabilities will likely prove fleeting because the speed of technology diffusion will limit the durability and longevity of any advantage. In a time when the “refresh cycle” of advanced capabilities is so fast, the American national security enterprise needs to move rapidly to stay ahead of competitors and adversaries. This means moving at the speed of the commercial world and devising new means of pulling commercial technology into public sector systems.

This presents an altogether different challenge than that of the Cold War era, when most advances in military capabilities were the product of military laboratories. The Department of Defense finds itself on unfamiliar ground with an eroding technological advantage at a time when the commercial sector is at least as important as the defense industrial base in driving technological innovation. In this regard, today’s competitive environment is less like the Cold War and more like the 1920s and 1930s inter-war period when significant advances were made in a range of new technologies and weapons, including aircraft, mechanization, radio, and radar. Every military had access to these same tools, but not every nation was able to harness those new technologies and develop effective new ways of fighting as Nazi Germany did with Blitzkrieg, the U.S. Navy did with carrier warfare, or the United Kingdom did with an integrated air-defense system. Battlefield advantage is no longer assured for whoever develops disruptive technologies first — rather, the advantage will be with the side that better integrates them and adapts their way of fighting to them.

We are at the beginning of a new administration. A new National Defense Strategy and National Intelligence Strategy will be issued within the next year. As conceived by the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, the Steering Committee on Emerging Technology should oversee the development and implementation of technology annexes to these strategies. These annexes should chart a clear course for identifying, buying or building, fielding, and sustaining critical emerging and enabling technologies. They should focus on giving servicemembers and intelligence professionals the best possible tools to fight and win today, as well as supporting the new strategic concepts that we must develop to remain competitive in the future. To be effective, these annexes should include investments in the infrastructure that these new technologies will require, such as secure data, computation, storage, and network needs. They should include plans for the testing, evaluation, verification, and validation requirements needed to ensure confidence in the systems we field. They should consider how our operators will work with the systems and develop novel human-centric approaches to user interface, human-machine teaming, and workflow integration. Finally, they should consider interoperability with allies and partners, including areas for sharing of data, tools, and operational concepts.

During implementation, the Department of Defense should stress rapid and interactive development that transitions from lab to field as quickly as possible for real time experimentation with operators. It should also focus on integrating proven commercial AI applications into business areas ripe for time, labor, and cost savings — such as human resources, budget and finance, acquisition, and logistics. The intelligence community ought to improve its understanding of how China intends to use technology against the United States, its allies, and its partners while integrating AI-enabled tools throughout its intelligence processes and across the intelligence domains.

These efforts cannot be achieved by the state and its agencies alone. The Department of Defense and the intelligence community ought to continue taking steps to build and expand the national security innovation base. Based on the technology annexes, both enterprises should communicate technology priorities more clearly to the private sector and make significant and consistent investments in those areas. They should also improve the ability of successful prototypes to scale by creating more flexible funding mechanisms, facilitating access to end-users and customer discovery.

These imperatives will allow the Department of Defense and the intelligence community to connect strategic vision to priority investments and help ensure that technological advances are synchronized with future concept development. We have seen such leadership work in the past and urge the executive and legislative branches to act immediately on the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence’s recommendation for a Steering Committee on Emerging Technology. There is no time to waste. The AI competition is here, and the Department of Defense and intelligence community must reorganize now to stay competitive.



Robert O. Work served as the 32nd deputy secretary of defense from 2014 to 2017.

Adm. (ret.) James A. Winnefeld, Jr. served as the ninth vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Stephanie O’Sullivan served as the principal deputy, director of national intelligence in the administration of President Barack Obama.

Image: U.S. Army (Photo by Spc. Carlos Cuebas Fantauzzi)