It would be unpopular to say that the U.S. should emulate China; but when it comes to our investments in artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies, government leaders are taking note.
Last fall, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) released a Hollywood-style propaganda video demonstrating it bombing Guam. Whether it was intended as an adrenaline boost for military service members or as a hubristic provocation to Western viewers on the vulnerability of the territory, it served as a wake-up call on China’s quest for dominance.
Recognizing the devastating impact and advanced technical scope of this threat, Pentagon officials and leaders in Congress have doubled down on the Indo-Pacific Deterrence Initiative, an effort to bolster the U.S. military presence and to align closely with allies in the region. With Guam squarely in China’s crosshairs, NPR reports that other U.S. military officials worry Taiwan could be the next target.
To stay ahead of its international adversaries, two important things that need to happen are an acceleration of the adoption of artificial intelligence innovations into defense programs, as well as support from Congress to enable these technologies beyond just preserving jobs at antiquated factories making the big iron used to fight our fathers’ wars.
In another show of military vanity, the Xi’an-based Zhongtian Feilong Intelligent Technology Co. displayed an airborne swarm carrier, a large unmanned aerial vehicle that acts as a mothership to carry multiple smaller drones. Zhongtian Feilong said the Feilong-2, or Flying Dragon-2, has similar speed, attack range, payload and stealth capabilities as Northrop Grumman’s B-21 Raider, which is expected to launch this summer. The South China Morning Post reported: “The drone is designed for surgical strikes on key assets such as enemy command centers, military airstrips, and aircraft carriers. The Feilong-2 could also be used with a swarm of drones to carry out reconnaissance and surveillance, a saturation attack, or damage assessment.”
Year over year China continues to increase its defense budget, this year by 6.8 percent to 1.35 trillion yuan ($209 billion). By comparison, the FY 2021 U.S. defense budget was requested at $740.5 billion for national security, with $705.4 billion marked for the Department of Defense. Despite the fact that the U.S. dwarfs its budget, China continues to make more rapid technological advancements. It has initiated a “military-civil fusion,” an aggressive strategy to enable the PRC to develop the most technically advanced military in the world. The approach removes barriers between private sector development and the defense sector, enabling key innovation in areas such as AI, autonomy and quantum computing, and accelerating rapid adoption within the military. For the past decade, China has consistently beat the U.S. in war games. According to Defense News, war games over the past two years “ended in catastrophic losses” and illustrate China’s ability to iterate quickly. The issue is not so much about budget — rather our willingness and ability to accept and make change. Lt. Gen. Clint Hinote, the U.S. Air Force deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements, echoed: “If we can change, we can win.”
The Pentagon has welcomed innovation from tech startups and civil businesses, admitting that without faster advancement in AI and autonomy, our national security is at risk. It routinely awards contracts around the $1 million mark to companies for R&D but fails to bring them into a critical “program of record.” Instead, the U.S. military establishment operates on historic convention, with the majority of funding spent with the “primes” to build anachronistic war machines that no longer serve our current needs.
The Endless Frontier Act, a bipartisan bill designed to put more money into research, development and critical manufacturing of technology, is a big step in the right direction. The act went to the Senate recently and is intended to dramatically increase U.S. investment and leadership in science and technology innovation, to strengthen economic and national security, and to keep the U.S. strategically competitive with China and other countries. We continue to see, on both sides of the aisle, a more progressive and rapid approach toward approving the use of key technologies, training and budgets that will help our armed services stay ahead of our adversaries.
Leaders in government, the technology sector and education must push for rapid and open advancement of technologies and innovation for our youth and in our universities to preserve the defense of our nation. And we must continue to work across the aisle to advocate for radical shifts in the way that our defense base prioritizes spending on key innovations that matter to our war fighters right now. Only then can we be agile enough to face these emerging threats. If we have the courage to accept the imperative of both a mental shift and willingness to implement real changes to the process by which our defense programs are funded and executed, we stand a chance at preserving our cherished freedoms and national security.
Timothy Bean is the chief executive officer of Fortem Technologies airspace security and defense to detect and defeat dangerous drones.