Eyeing the growing military technology challenge from great power competitors, four members of the Senate Armed Services Committee sent a letter Feb. 24 to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, urging him to stand up a U.S.-Israel Operations-Technology Working Group, or OTWG. The working group authorized in the annual defense bill is necessary to ensure U.S. troops have the most advanced capabilities and can outmatch any potential adversary.
The good news is that Austin appears to recognize the problem with business as usual. During his Senate confirmation process, he expressed a belief that the Pentagon needs to be “more agile and more responsive” in fielding cutting-edge technology to deployed forces.
He is not alone in that belief. In the letter, Sens. Gary Peters, D-Mich., Tom Cotton, R-Ark., Jacky Rosen D-Nev., and Mike Rounds R-S.D., noted that the “speed and severity of the technology competition with China and Russia requires the department to do better when it comes to getting necessary capabilities to our troops quickly.” The senators believe doing so will require the United States to “cooperate more systematically and effectively with tech-savvy democratic allies.”
While that improved cooperation can and should include a number of America’s allies, the senators said an OTWG with Israel offers some unique advantages. “Israel punches well above its weight in many of the technologies vital to U.S. military modernization efforts,” the senators wrote. “Moreover, Jerusalem consistently demonstrates an agility in fielding vital military capabilities that can benefit our warfighters.”
Consider that the Pentagon did not acquire until 2019 active protection systems for U.S. tanks that had been operational in Israel since 2011. Consequently, U.S. soldiers operated for years around the world lacking the cutting-edge protection Washington could have provided against missiles and rockets. That put U.S. soldiers in unnecessary risk.
Rather than belatedly trying to address such capability gaps, the U.S. and Israel should work together more systematically up front to prevent the gaps from emerging in the first place.
Other potential candidates for such research and development cooperation include, for example, artificial intelligence, robotics, autonomous vehicles and cybersecurity technology.
Accordingly, the senators urged Austin to use his authority under Section 1299M of the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act to “stand up the U.S.-Israel Operations-Technology Working Group without delay.”
That section of the law not only authorizes Austin to create the working group but also elucidates Congress’ expectations. As the senators noted, Section 1299M makes clear that Congress wants the Pentagon to systematically evaluate and share “options to develop and acquire intelligence-informed military requirements that directly support warfighting capabilities of both the Department of Defense and the Ministry of Defense of Israel.” The OTWG could then establish “plans to research, develop, procure, and field weapon systems and military capabilities as quickly and economically as possible to meet common capability requirements.”
While some might be inclined to defend the status quo as sufficient, Austin seems to intuitively understand the urgent need to do better.
“I believe the department faces a significant challenge in accelerating our adoption of new technology in ensuring that new capabilities make their way quickly from the lab into the hands of warfighters,” Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee in advance of his Jan. 19 hearing.
To drive the point home during the hearing, Austin emphasized the need to “get the capability down to the people who need it, the people who are going to use it, as quickly as possible.”
Those “people” are America’s war fighters, and the success of such efforts will determine whether they can deter and defeat authoritarian aggressors in the years to come.
In a report to Congress last year, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command assessed that the military balance of power with China continues to become “more unfavorable.” The command warned that the United States is accumulating “additional risk that may embolden our adversaries to attempt to unilaterally change the status quo before the U.S. could muster an effective response.”
While there are a number of reasons for this eroding security situation in the Indo-Pacific region, the failure to field advanced, new capabilities to American troops in an expeditious manner is one of them.
Reversing these troubling trends in the Indo-Pacific and elsewhere will require the Pentagon to, as the senators noted, “no longer conduct business as usual when it comes to defense science and technology (S&T), as well as research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) efforts.”
That is exactly what the OTWG is designed to help do.
In the effort to stand up the working group and ensure America’s troops have the capabilities they urgently require, the bipartisan group of senators invited Austin in their letter to “please consider us as partners.”
The senators won’t have to wait long to see if Austin is ready to team up with them: The OTWG section in the defense bill requires him to submit a report to Congress by March 15 detailing the Pentagon’s actions related to military technology cooperation with Israel.
If that report does not include a clear decision to use the congressional authorization to stand up the OTWG, the senators will likely conclude that more directive legislation may be required.
Bradley Bowman is the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies..